As ever: Black Musicians are at the intellectual forefront while prominent Black Writers remain pathetic Third-Stringers, reliant on the condescending Good Will (or lackadaisical ignorance) of Liberal White enablers. Guitarist Tosin Abasi has done more, in the fight against odious Black stereotypes, than all the hand-waving, two-thirds-literate, prize-winning Roxane Gays, Paul Beattys and Claudia Rankines (ad inf) on the plantation. There’s nothing that any of the aforementioned “writers” have done that a precocious 10th-grader couldn’t… but isn’t a celebrated Artist supposed to be able to do, seemingly effortlessly, what the mortals in the audience can only dream of doing?
Which brings us back to Tosin Abasi.
Scoffers might want to claim that what Abasi does is only a function of hand-eye coordination, but so is typing: the point is not merely to touch the device at speed, but, in doing so, to follow a complex pattern, pre-conceptualized rigorously, with Transcendence in mind. The talented Musician transcends the banality of Entertainment and the talented Writer transcends the banality of paper stained with ink (or pixels on screens)… the Artform evolves as a result.
What has evolved, in connection with Roxane Gay’s typing, beyond her bank account? What has Paul Beatty transcended except any reasonable expectation that prizes will be awarded according to merit? Who will Claudia Rankine inspire but SOCs (sophomores of color) who think that selling sob-stories to Whites is a noble (and lucrative) industry? Et al. Listen, let’s be honest: even Percival Everett is no better, in his fiction, than solidly-middlebrow Paul Theroux; Theroux (in his prime) was celebrated for his genre-pioneering travel books. Why is solidly-okay Everett so hyped? Well, we know but we can’t say.
But we know.
Tosin Abasi put in the ten thousand hours of practise. He practised until his fingers bled. At the beginning, he stood at the base of a mountain and glanced only once at its summit (this is a dramatic re-enactment) and he started the patient self-torture and self-denial and self-criticisms of climbing. There are no shortcuts in mountain-climbing the K12 of technique: how is it that Black Musicians seem to know this and Black Writers don’t? Tosin Abis was ruthless in his ambition to improve himself despite himself, standing on the back of his own limitations. There is no evidence that any prominent Black Writer I can think of worked so passionately, so professionally, so heroically at being more-than-average at the Art of it… because no prominent Black Writer I can think of is.
Here’s another wonderful Black Musical Genius, born in 1923, her first record released in ’67: she had a lifetime to develop. She didn’t play for the fame or the money and who cares if she played for a figment-of-her-imagination called God(z)? She made Art of a special kind:
Here’s a paragraph from the first page of Edward P. Jones‘ much-lauded All Aunt Hagar’s Children:
When Aubrey Patterson was three years old, his father took the family to Kansas where some of the father’s people were prospering. The sky goes all the way up to God napping on his throne, the father’s brother had written from Kansas, and you can get much before he wakes up. The father borrowed money from family and friends for train tickets and a few new clothes, thinking, knowing, he would be able to pay them back with Kansas money before a year or so had gone by. Pay them all back, son, Aubrey’s father said moments before he died, some twelve years after the family had boarded the train from Kansas and returned to Virginia with not much more to their names than bile.
… and here’s a paragraph, randomly chosen, from the approximate middle of the same book:
Himself been studyin you,” the Devil said again, now smiling. All the teeth in his head were perfect, exquisite white marvels that were an artwork all their own. A woman could spend all day and part of the next just laying about looking at them. Turn a little bit and lemme see how the light shine on em that way . . . Both her grandmothers had come to know the Devil so well that he, in all his guises, called them always by their childhood nicknames. At various times in her life, Laverne’s grandmothers had tried to tell her how she would know the Devil that first time. It will be, they had explained as best they could, the way you know that you are hungry or that you are thirsty: the body will say it and you will take it as gospel. But they had not told her what to say, what to do, whether to run or go forward and attack him with the fury of an angel doing God’s work.
First cited paragraph: the language is bland and broad and magic-free; the projected settings fail to thrive on the page. Too damn faux-folksy and shopworn… that “prospering” might have prospered in a setting of nutrient details, eh? An evocative list of/ look at some of the “new clothes” might be something an experienced writer, handling material of this nature, would take the trouble to include. Sensual engagement with the text: zero. Enliveningly-unexpected vocabulary, metaphors or allusions: zero.
It’s almost as though “Negro Writin’ ” is nothing but a well-paid, no-frills job performed by union workers who are explicitly cautioned, by union bylaws, not to get too fancy or impressive by the contemporary standards of the Art. De White Boss jus’ want dat Colored story and dat Colored story is all he gon’ git. Is there a Union-enforced Hokum-Quota for Black Lit? But, wait, back up: what is that riff, in the second sentence of the first paragraph, that riff about the sky, supposed to show or tell us? Are we meant to picture, from the mentioned nap, God as a stereotypically lazy, unemployed Negro? Jones’ character may have written that silly line but he can’t take the blame for it because Jones is the one who thought it up; it says nothing about the character (as improbable as it is) and everything about Jones. About whom, I have to say, it’s astonishing that he saw this material published in 2004 and not 1930. Or 1875.
Second cited paragraph: “A woman could spend all day and part of the next just laying about looking at them [the Devil’s teeth] …” : this kind of thing is not as humorously evocative as it pretends to be. It doesn’t connect, because no woman or man or child or dog spends more than a minute, at most, staring at anyone’s teeth for their beauty. It doesn’t count as “fantastical” because it doesn’t qualify as a fantasy because who fantasizes about staring at teeth? It’s just a misbegotten chunk of corn pone filler pretending to be a sensually particularizing point of contact between the reader and the paragraph. But it’s fraudulent, it relies on tone, it sounds like a sentence that would ground the text in lived details, in shared experience, but it can’t. It’s nothing but corn pone filler. It’s the kind of sentence which green young writers resort to when they don’t know what they want to say despite having the rudimentary tools to say it. Jones was 56 when the book was published.
And I’m no believer in the corny “Show/ Don’t Tell” dictum of the workshop, but when entire books, book after book, are “telling,” almost only telling, in the voice of a toothless coot spinning tales in a rocking chair on a porch at noon in Alabammy, something’s wrong. Folk tales tell but they aren’t Lit (if in print, they’re merely quaint and/or psychologically astute transcriptions of the Oral but they aren’t layered enough to be read to oneself, satisfactorily, without moving one’s fucking lips). There is something seriously wrong and fairly depressing about all this telling and retailing of all the same old antebellum Lawdy lawdy skits (at least Claudia Rankine writes like a real estate agent). That dusty heap of Literary Niggerisms. Haven’t we read this book, one hundred or a thousand times, before? Well Edward P. Jones, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer, was kind enough to type it out for us, just one more time, all over again.
More sweet Brilliance:
vs More rank Bullshit:
If Black Music were stunted to the level of Black Lit we’d be stuck listening to generations of Diana Ross and/or Mc Hammer knockoffs and calling it all “jazz”.
When will prominent Black Writers finally catch up to their infinitely superior Black Musician counter-examples? And when will condescending Liberals stop pumping cash prizes into the outrageous effort to postpone that day?
As a Black Human I have to say: Whatever, I guess.
But: Tosin Abasi (and Kelela Mizanekristos) and Robert Glasper and Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (and so many more, going back centuries): we salute you!
DEDICATED TO J. OTIS POWELL, 1956-2017
You couldn’t write your way out of a puff of smoke
but you never let that stop you,