Monday, January 25, 2016

Darryl Pinckney, a tradition of black male writers & Ta-Nehisi Coates

Books by Amri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin

Scholars Jerry W. Ward, Jr. and William J. Harris made me aware of this article "The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates" by Darryl Pinckney from the New York Review of Books. At this point, I've read way too many reviews, profiles, and interviews focused on Coates's Between the World and Me. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this new one because it offers a different kind of treatment than many of the other reviews. 

In particular, Pinckney situates Coates within a lineage of now canonical black male writers, including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Amiri Baraka. For the most part, none of the other 100-plus reviews of Coates's Between the World and Me do that. The commentators avoid situating Coates among black male writers and African American writers in general. Some of those reviews mention Baldwin, in part because of the letter-format of Coates's book, and also because of a prominent blurb from Toni Morrison.

But Pinckney's article is one of the first to apply a signature feature of African American literary studies over the last 30 years, which is to highlight the relationships between black writers and black writers. You'll hear some of the scholars refer to those envisioned links as "intertextuality." In some sectors of the scholarly community, folks prefer to speak of "a tradition."

You could and perhaps should take issue with the fact that Pinckney privileges only a tradition of black male writers. However, if you read all the coverage on Coates's Between the World and Me, you'd perhaps be more frustrated that reviewers routinely neglect to align Coates with any black literary tradition. There's also the matter that there are some benefits for thinking about Coates's work and career in conversation with a range of black male writers, among others.
The majority of my fellow scholars at SIUE and at universities across the country who teach African American literature are far more likely to teach "Black Women Writers" courses than "Black Men Writers" courses when it comes to specialized classes. That makes sense, given the small numbers of black men English majors and paucity of black men students in their classes. By contrast, for the last 12 years now, I've taught one course each year that enrolls black men students. In that context, I've been inclined to think about readings that black men are drawn to, as well as how they think through intellectual and creative lineages.

Beyond the course, I pay attention to those things with various public black men and writers. Hence, Pinckney's article gave me an opportunity to consider some of his thinking on the matter. I was intrigued that he chose to highlight the apparent personal tensions between Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison, more so than highlight connections and divergences more specifically in their writing. I also noted that he confined Amiri Baraka to the LeRoi Jones phase of his life, which is to say the 1960s, for the most part.

Finally, it also caught my attention that Pinckney highlighted the notion of fathers and father figures--a persistent present and absent subject in the lives and works of black men writers in particular. At one point, Pinckney runs down the relationships of fathers to various prominent black men:

Du Bois never knew his father. He lived from the year the freedmen were enfranchised to the day before the March on Washington, and died a Communist in African exile. Hughes hated his father, an engineer who lived in Mexico in order to get away from Jim Crow. Wright’s sharecropper father abandoned the family. Ellison was two years old when his father died. Baldwin pitied the preacher who was really his stepfather. Baraka’s father was a postal supervisor, middle-class and in New Jersey.
Unlike those figures, Coates has enjoyed an especially close relationship with his father over the last several years, something Coates writes about most often in his blog entries. Some of my favorite contemporary writers, including Kevin Young, Colson Whitehead, and Aaron McGruder, to name a few, had really strong, largely positive relationships with their fathers (Young's and Whitehead's fathers passed away some years ago). How might narratives of literary production by black men shift, I wonder, when come across writers who have had such affirming relationships with their fathers?    

Finally, Pinckney mentioned two points near the close of his article worth consider. For one, he noted in passing that "Coates writes in an intellectual landscape without the communism or Pan-Africanism that once figured in debate as alternatives to what white America seemed to offer." At least when read in relation to the writers such as Hughes, Wright, Ellison, and Baraka, which Pinckney covered, that seems particularly important. Without such alternatives, I wonder if that's how and why some commentators define Coates position as one of hopelessness? (That's a position, I don't buy by the way. In my view, Coates writes way too much for me to ever define him as hopeless).

Pinckney also notes that "Hip-hop nationalism--of Coates’s time, say, KRS-One, Public Enemy, or the Wu-Tang Clan--has none of the provincialism of 1960s black nationalism." I read that and figured that Pinckney may not have listened to enough hip hop. There's considerable provincialism in hip hop from back in the day, as well as now. Sure, there's all kinds of positives here and there too. Given the debts that hip hop nationalism owes to 1960s black nationalism, though, I was confused about the vague critique. Either way, the essay clearly gave me a range of thoughts to consider, things to add my continued thinking on Coates, on black men writers and students, and so forth.

A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates 

No comments: