Friday, May 20, 2011

Four Contemporary Black Male Writers & Their Fathers

If you've followed my entries here for longer than a minute, you likely know about my interest in the writings of Colson Whitehead, Aaron McGruder, Kevin Young, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

All 4 of them have been quite successful in their respective fields: Whitehead as novelist, McGruder as comic strip/cartoon creator, Young as poet, and Coates as journalist/blogger. The writers share several qualities, including their use of humor, their focus on black culture and ideas in their works, and their attention to African American history, etc.

All 4 also apparently had strong relationships with their fathers, which becomes clear in their writings.

Whitehead's most autobiographical book Sag Harbor gives special attention to the main character's father throughout the novel. The father is stern, in some ways that could be troubling, but ultimately, he is a complex figure who displays deep connections to his family and black consciousness.

Coates writes about his relationship with his father on his blog and in his essays. He writes beautifully and extensively about his relationship with his father in his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle.

Aaron McGruder rarely if ever mentions what happened to the father of his main characters Huey and Riley in The Boondocks. Apparently, their parents died, and the boys then moved in with their granddad. The prevalent roles played by granddad and their neighbor Tom DuBois in the comic strip and cartoon say something about the strong presence of father-figures.

As someone who has followed Kevin Young's poetry for years now, I've been moved to observe Young mourn the death of his father through poems. He has written powerful tributes and reflections of his father, including "Bereavement," which appeared in The New Yorker.

Young's process of mourning his father was at least partially responsible for leading him to edit the anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (2010).

I'm not sure, but it may not be so odd (statistically speaking) for writers to have close relationships with their fathers. However, the strong presence of fathers in the lives or writings of Whitehead, McGruder, Coates, and Young stand out when placed in the context of conversations about black folks. In the public discourse on African American men, the absence of fathers is discussed far more frequently than their presence.

The presence of librarian, former Black Panther, independent publisher, and engaging parent and race man, Paul Coates is particularly prominent in the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, as counsel and alternative perspective, the voice of Paul Coates regularly serves as a kind of opposite of the "straw man" in TNC's work.

There are times, too, when TNC blogs about his son and then discusses the roles of Paul Coates as both father and grandfather. The observations he provides about his father, his own life, and his son mean that Ta-Nehisi is effectively writing personal, social histories of three generations.

In the 2009 obituary for Arch S. Whitehead, Colson Whitehead's father, the family mentions that although Arch had graduated from an Ivy League university he was denied work because of racial discrimination. The family was quoted as saying that "One personnel officer in a major ad agency told Arch that ‘we don’t hire colored gentlemen.'" That point reminded me about two things from Whitehead's work.

For one, the father of Lila Mae Watson, the protagonist of Whitehead's first novel The Intuitionist, is denied more prominent work opportunities because he is black. Second, the unnamed protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt works in advertising. I suspect those aspects of the books are rooted to Whitehead's knowledge of his father's life experiences.

Beyond the presence of fathers or father-figures in their works, I wonder how African American fathers affect the literary and artistic lives as well as the intellectual development of their sons and daughters prior to their children becoming established writers. So clearly, there's a lot more for me to think about.

No comments: