Black Writers, White Gaze

by Jinny Webber

Civil Rights March, 1958
National Archives

Yaa Gyasi’s essay in the March 20, 2021 book section of the Guardian throws out a challenge. Author of the new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi describes her book tour for Homegoing in 2018. She discovered “the dissonance of the black spotlight, of being revered in one way and reviled in another, a revulsion that makes clear the hollowness of the reverence.” This was before George Floyd was murdered and the subsequent protests across the country. Murder of unarmed black men and women continues, along with no more than minor changes in the mass incarceration system, and ongoing economic disparity and racism in all its manifestations. Gyasi is saddened at the irony of Homegoing climbing up the best seller list in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. “It is wrenching to know that the occasion for the renewed interest in your work is the murders of black people.”

She says black authors are tired of offering up their books for whites to listen to and learn from, which has done little to remediate the problems. One need only look back to James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, published in The Fire Next Time in 1963: “[White folk] are, in effect, trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it they cannot be released from it.”

In the blistering essay which follows, “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin delineates the issue in religious and artistic terms. In brief, racism is the white person’s problem to deal with. “The truth about the black man as an historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly: the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”

Enter the novelist. In her forward to Beloved, Toni Morrison says that in thinking about what “free” meant to women, she considered the very different meaning it had in black women’s history. Slaves couldn’t easily be wives, couldn’t be the mothers they longed to be when their children would inevitably be taken from them.

In various interviews and in the documentary Pieces I Am, Morrison says she meant her novels to see black experience from the inside, as she does from her first, The Bluest Eye. Before her, writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were aware of their white audience and wrote accordingly to some extent. One of the first writers to switch the angle of vision was Gayl Jones, whose career Morrison supported when at Random House.

The original intent of this essay was to write about the legacy of Beloved on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, and in its way, on Isabel Wilkerson’s superb analysis in Caste. Yaa Gyasi raises new questions.

Gyasi herself was born in Ghana and came to the U.S. at the age of two when her father was hired as a professor, so, like Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, she’s African American but not descended from slaves in the American South. That of course doesn’t disqualify her from writing about the slave experience, though she arrived in this country later and under very different circumstances.

It’s not easy to dismiss her point, that all the efforts by black and other minority writers to get white folk to learn and listen has been going on for generations now, at least since Baldwin and Morrison, and various movements earlier with varying goals and effects, such as the Harlem Renaissance. Armed and uniformed law-enforcers who mow down black people, and those who approve of keeping minorities ‘in their place’–be it in employment limitations, house purchases, or arresting and incarcerating ‘another of them’ as Gyasi’s white driver says seeing a black man being arrested en route to her speaking engagement–aren’t likely readers of black American writers or perhaps much else to shake them out of their prejudice. But those in charge should be reading and learning. So we understand Gyasi’s frustration. More efforts, more pouring out your heart on paper with so little apparent result. 

Still, Beloved and The Water Dancer are moving novels that can deepen compassion and understanding. Instead of wringing one’s hands over how little has changed since 1963 or 1987, and that the stories must be retold and retold, we can applaud Coates’ brilliance in reframing them. Fewer antebellum parties, more realizations that even the seeming ‘casual’ racial slur should be removed from the vocabulary, more young people who see the error of their Confederate-nostalgic elders–all this marks progress. In general, however, we don’t read fiction or attend plays primarily to be educated.

Nonfiction studies like Wilkerson’s Caste offer logical arguments, shocking and edifying, providing information and making imaginative connections worthy of discussion in high places as well as around seminar and dinner tables. Some material is raw, like her examples in “The Eight Pillars of Caste, Pillar Number Seven Terrors of Enforcement: Cruelty as a Means of Enforcement” and elsewhere. And events most of us don’t know about can strike a blow, as in “The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions, Chapter Eight: The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste.” We learn that in 1934, when upper echelons of Nazi leadership met to form the ideology of their party, they looked to the U.S., with our widely accepted research on eugenics and “superior race” theories including sterilization of “inferior stocks” to our ongoing lynching and torture after centuries of slavery while proclaiming ourselves the land of liberty and freedom. Even Hitler admired the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.” Indeed, when Nazi jurists studied Southern law, they found many provisions more extreme than any they envisioned for themselves. Reading this chapter, those who have not seriously questioned the version of the land-of-the free history so many of us were brought up on will find their heads reeling at revelation after revelation from Wilkerson’s careful research and eloquent, balanced style.

On levels other than the polemical, however, literature can be life-changing. Shakespeare’s plays have survived through not only centuries of English speakers but around the world for their dramatization of human emotion and conflicts in all their varieties and voices. Part of what enriches the current literary scene is that novelists of color reimagine primal stories dating back to The Eumenides and Medea—and African and other groups’ folklore—in new contexts with new effects, as well as offering new images of history.

Black writers break generalized concepts about slavery and its aftermath into many individual stories, including representations of a variety of slave owners. Morrison deconstructs ‘good’ owner like the Garners in Beloved (named, ironically, after Margaret Garner, the historical runaway slave who, when captured, killed her children rather than return them to slavery) as well as evil Schoolteacher who succeeds him as owner of the plantation Sweet Home. Or in Coates, the protagonist Hiram, a ‘Tasked,’ as Coates calls slaves, is the son of the Lockless plantation ‘Quality’ owner Howell, by Rosa, a woman of his ‘Tasked.’ Howell allows Hiram to be educated and makes him manservant to the vastly inferior heir Maynard, yet Howell sells Rosa and threatens to sell Hiram. The story takes off from there, but we see how a master who violated the rule of denying education to slaves did so only to the extent it profited himself—and Hiram in the future, as it turns out. So too are Abolitionists shown as complex human beings. It is the slaves and former slaves, however, whose lives touch our hearts. Keep writing, Yaa Gyasi and your fellows.


Books referred to, recommended for book club discussion as well, as are other works by these authors

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time, 1963, now in Vintage paperback.

Ta-Nihesi Coates: The Water Dancer

Yaa Gyasi: [Her novels are Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom]

Gayl Jones: The Healing and others

Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye, Beloved.