The black pages

Via GalleyCat I found this interesting call to literary missionary activity: buying books by black authors for white people.

So: Attention, lit-mart shoppers! I would suggest John Edgar Wideman for those ambitious readers who don’t mind tackling somebody whose reputation for demanding modernist writing is well-earned. Wideman goes in for stream-of-consciousness narrations and abrupt shifts in viewpoint that require some athleticism from his readers — think The Sound and the Fury, or the trickier passages in Ulysses — but his work is well worth the effort. His affecting memoir Brothers and Keepers might be a good introduction, followed by Philadelphia Fire, a novel loosely derived from the 1985 confrontation between the Philadelphia police and an eccentric back-to-nature cult called MOVE.

While I’m at it, let me give a shout out to Wesley Brown, who isn’t as prolific as I’d like him to be. I read his first novel, Tragic Magic, after taking his creative writing class at Rutgers University, and he was one of the first people I interviewed for a series of author profiles written for a Central Jersey print. The story follows a young Vietnam-era radical and conscientious objector who has just done a stretch in prison and is back on the street, trying to make sense of his life, women, masculinity and the dangerous cross-currents of life as a black man in the early 1970s. The prose plays in your head like a private performance of the greatest jazz group ever assembled: a Thelonious Monk melody line here, a Charlie Parker solo there, voices orchestrated by Duke Ellington and a stormy Charles Mingus bass line driving the whole thing forward. The more ambitious followup, Darktown Strutters, makes play with the rise of Jim Crow as it blends fictional and historical characters. Brown is sometimes compared with Ishmael Reed, and the comparison flatters both writers.

I would also recommend Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro, a gripping blend of historical fiction and noir that was one of the best things I’ve read this year. Next I’ll want to read Johnson’s The Great Negro Plot: An Urban Historical.

During a recent spate of recreational ricochet reading — funny how books that have been on your shelves for decades suddenly seem to demand you take them down for another look — I also renewed acquaintances with two Seventies-vintage science fiction authors: Samuel R. Delany, whose story collection Aye, And Gomorrah presents this often demanding writer in his most accessible guises, and Octavia Butler, whose celebrated novel Kindred uses SF devices to ring several intriguing, sometimes appalling changes on the nature of racism and the psychological (and physical) wounds it inflicts on everyone it touches.

And no list such as this would be complete without a pitch for friend, colleague and blogbud Charles H. Johnson, whose two poetry collections are more than worth your while. Unlike some of the writers mentioned here, Johnson has some excellent work posted on the Intertubes, so I’ll just  let his words do the talking.

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8 thoughts on “The black pages

  1. geoff says:

    Charles Johnson once marked up a manuscript of mine when he was visiting writer at the Temple U. graduate English program. His novel “Middle Passage” is great fun for everyone.

    Sam Delany changed my life when I found him in my middle teens. Good recommendations here.

  2. Steven Hart says:

    Not THAT Charles Johnson. This Charles Johnson has published two chapbooks of excellent poetry. His site is linked with the other Blogbuds.

  3. […] lit-mart shoppers! Why not pick out some black authors for white people? Take another look at H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Read an interview with the authors […]

  4. Hi, good post. I have a couple of other recommendations from the world of science fiction on the topic of black authors for white people.

    Minister Faust is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. His first two novels, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, and From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain are highly entertaining and full of pop culture references while at the same time working in some thoughtful observations on the state of race relations in our time.

    Steven Barnes has been writing novels for nearly thirty years, but I think his best works are the two alternate history novels, Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart in which Africans were the first to discover North America, and have been colonizing the continent with the help of their European slaves. Among their many good features is the main character, a plantation owner who is slowly coming to the realization that both his prejudices against Europeans and slavery are wrong.

  5. Stephen1947 says:

    Mr. Johnson – do you mean to say that the protag of the last book you mention is realizing that both slavery and his anti-European prejudice is wrong, or that somehow his prejudice against slavery is wrong? You might want to rearrange that sentence…

  6. Oops, thanks for pointing that out.

    It would be the former, he’s realizing that slavery is wrong, and that his prejudices are wrong. The question that remains in the series, so far, is what he’s going to do about it.

  7. Hi, Steve. I saw you listed in the blogroll at Carleen Brice’s White Readers Meet Black Authors and had to stop by to ask, are you the same Steve Hart who’s in the National Association of Science Writers?

    Either way, congratulations on your first book.

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