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Broadening the Bookshelves: Getting to know Black American literature

In this month’s column, we’re exploring Black American literature.

Monica L. Miller
Monica L. Miller
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Over the past five years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more Black literature. And I’ve noticed that the work I was encouraged to read in college, from writers like Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison, or even the work that I read in my MFA program, from Zadie Smith and Edwidge Danticat, bears little resemblance to the work I’m reading today (Victor LaValle’s The Changeling or Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy).

To help me shed some light on the breadth of Black American literature, I turned to Monica L. Miller, a professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard College. Miller is a scholar of African American culture, art, and literature, and her book, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 2009), inspects the intersection of fashion and culture in Black identity.

“When we think about African American literature, we think of this sort of Southern past that needs to be sort of reckoned with in some way in order for the Black characters and that particular narrative to have another life,” she told me. “But in more contemporary books I teach, [although] there’s some element of this typical narrative, there’s so much more than that.” Miller says the more contemporary novels tackle how subjects like sexuality, gender, and class might fit into or evolve as a result of what she calls “more traditional” narratives that center on Black American history.

Miller teaches a class at Barnard called “Black Literature Now” that focuses exclusively on works that have been published in the last decade so that students can explore the work without being hampered by what she calls “deep literary critical apparatus” surrounding the work. “We can talk a little bit about history and trends,” she says, “but I want…the students in my class to come to those books really open.”

Miller also notes that discussion of the more quotidian aspects of life are valuable in contemporary Black literature, too: “There’s also the novels that are about just sort of, like, getting through the day. The attention is really about being present.”

Miller further notes that the discussion around being present also raises questions around the Black experience that aren’t talked about as much in the more traditional Black narratives, like the many different types of Blackness that exist: “We push hard on the diversity of how we think about Black identity – not just Black American identity; it’s also about (this is an older term) American Africans. There’s an incredible amount of work that’s come out recently by Black writers of African descent who grew up in the U.S. What are the books that are going to be really pushing me to think about Blacknesses? And what are the things that are the experiences, kinds of narratives, even stylistic or formal strategies that some of these contemporary writers are using, right, to really get at those kinds of questions of the kind of multiplicity within? Within African American or sort of Afro-diasporic literature and identity?”

As part of the question of Blackness, Miller has noticed a lack of interest on the part of some contemporary Black writers to produce a likable narrator. She points to Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, in which “the main character wasn’t super likable. Zadie Smith also [is] really into unlikable Black women.” Miller prescribes this character trait to these writers “testing the reader: Can we stick with [the characters]? What do we want, in some ways, out of a book? Or what do we want from Black women characters? I keep thinking about these sort of unlikable Black women and/or women that we don’t feel an emotional attachment to when we’re reading. What does it mean to have those kinds of characters?”

Furthermore, Miller posits that the Black American contemporary writer is pushing the reader to challenge our expectations: “There’s a group of writers who are interested in wanting to put forward a kind of nontypical narrative. They’re not interested in ‘uplift.’ They’re not interested in respectability. They’re not interested in overcoming [the] tragedy or trauma narrative. They’re interested in a couple of aftermaths of that, right? And I think those books…don’t feel like the typical kinds of African American narratives that are family-based and history-based.”

I think about the books I’ve encountered by Black American writers that seem to step firmly away from the territory of the “typical” Black narrative: Young adult works like Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me In a Crown and Kwame Alexander’s Crossover series; fantasy/sci-fi books like Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch or the horror writer LaValle’s Changeling or Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy. I wonder out loud if these writers, some of whom work in genre fiction, might be able to not center the narrative of Black history due to their working with the tropes and conventions of their genres. “There are certain conventions that are part of that kind of writing that really do allow people to see the kind of historical threads and cultural threads,” says Miller. “But these threads do not dominate, or, if they do dominate, they’re being really worked with…The history is really being used as a tool, not as a difficult background to overcome.”

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Miller also points out that in young adult fiction, writers may still be responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, even as young readers are interested in reading about friendship. “[The kids] are really concerned about maintaining connections with each other, cross-racial connections with each other. They’re interested, in particular, in thinking about sexuality and gender identity. Right. So they’re asking, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’”

Miller does note that she sees this work coming, and she’s quick to point out that writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Jason Reynolds have been writing this work for some time. “There’s tons of [other] writers who have been writing things other than racial tension and inner cities and gentrification, but I just don’t feel like they’ve had the same kind of exposure,” she said.

I’m reminded of Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novella about two Black women, friends from childhood, who can pass for being white. One of them has stepped fully into a white life, marrying a racist bigot who thinks she’s white, and the other is living a life equally influenced by Black culture and society. Although the book was published in 1929, it’s gaining new life and acclaim as the source material for a Netflix movie. And, although the book and its film adaptation are clearly about racial tensions, Passing so closely described my own occasional and very contemporary desire to “pass for white,” even if it is impossible, given my East Asian features and clear heritage. Further, I tell Miller, I didn’t feel like Larsen was even trying to, or wanting to, tackle big issues of “being Black.” I feel myself falling into the pit of discussing the universal narrative (aka: does every book have to convey a relatable sentiment for every reader?), but Miller rescues me.

“I think that really has to do with audience,” she says. “When I think of Hurston and Larsen and Morrison [and] the kind of work that they were doing, they were really writing for, I think, other Black people. So some of what they were doing right didn’t have to be epic. It could be everyday, just a smaller lens.” Miller reminds us that Morrison said her work didn’t provide a “lobby” in which readers were introduced to a place, a people, an environment. Her characters and stories just were. “Some books and some writers, depending, on the structure of the narrative, on the story, on the style of the writer, provide a lobby. Meaning that you walk into the book, and you’re told a certain amount about the people, the situation, and the place. And that’s how you get on the train, right? [Morrison] was writing for Black people. Black people don’t need the lobby. And she said, I’m just going to start where I’m starting. You just have to come along. You have to be open and willing, open to the experience, willing for it to be sometimes not understandable. And that’s true even for – I’m just going to speak for myself – that is also true for Black people reading the book. I’m not from a lot of the communities that [Morrison] wrote about. But she is not trying to make it easy.

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“It’s not meant to be easy. It’s American history. It’s African American history. It’s complex, nuanced lives.”

Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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