Two summers ago, I read and wrote about Mark Anthony Neal's thoughtful Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013), a book that focuses on, among other things, how we read and misread black men. Neal uses the notion of legibility as a frame for thinking about a range of black men, including Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy from the show Fame), Avery Brooks, Luther Vandross, Stringer Bell from The Wire, Jay Z, and others.
I've had many reasons to return to Neal's book since 2013. Among other things, wasn't illegibility a central feature of the mindsets of the police officers involved in killing black men and black boys like Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police? What did we read and fail to read with "America's favorite dad" Bill Cosby over the years, the decades?
Beyond those issues though, I've been thinking about notions of legibility with respect to writings by Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aaron McGruder, and Kevin Young -- four writers whose works I've been studying and teaching over the last few years. When I began reading them, they weren't that widely known (and legible?). But these days? Well, they've each become outliers or outstanding figures in their respective fields.
The rising popularity of Whitehead and Coates, in particular, over the years suggests that legibility shifts. And here, I do not fully equate legibility with popularity. The kinds of followings and attention that writers develop over time in fact shapes how and whether we read them. With the discontinuation of The Boondocks, McGruder is less known, especially among students at my university, and so McGruder and his protagonist Huey are perhaps less legible or at least legible in different ways now. There are all kinds of issues related to poetry and its reception that shape how we'd comprehend a figure like Kevin Young.
All of that to say, Neal's Looking for Leroy represents a useful, illuminating lens for thinking through those writers and their works.
• Notes on an Illegible book proposal
• Mark Anthony Neal