NEW YORK — Over the years I have read many novels, essays, and memoirs written by black writers, from James Weldon Johnson to James Baldwin, from Zora Neale Hurston to Toni Morrison. Only in the minds of some blinkered, racist white Americans does a uniform black identity exist. Consequently, the works that the writers have produced range over a variety of styles and multiple points of view about the black experience.
For example, Richard Wright's best early works, like the stirring "Native Son," combined a muscular and awkward naturalism with authentic and at times polemical rage against a brutalizing white racism: "I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em..."
Ralph Ellison's great "Invisible Man," on the other hand, was a searing imaginative exploration of racism and identity written in a more expressionist and surrealist style, and moved its readers to look beyond race. Ellison wrote: "Literature is integrated. And I'm not just talking about color. I'm talking about the power of literature to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience."
Two recent works demonstrate how variegated black identity and approaches to the experience of black people are. One of them, "Between the World and Me" (Penguin), was written by Atlantic Magazine correspondent and National Book Award nominee Ta-Nehisi Coates as an impersonally personal letter to his teenage son Samori; the other, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Margo Jefferson's memoir "Negroland," deals with all the painful contradictions involved in growing up in a relatively privileged and affluent black world.
Coates' book was received with greater fanfare and engendered much more controversy than Jefferson's. It appeared at just the right moment when the media was saturated with cases of police acting unprofessionally, destructively, and sometimes murderously in their dealings with young black men. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement had begun to garner headlines "affirming the lives of all black people" and demanding "that the breath in our bodies guarantees our right to life, our right to freedom, our right to love, dignity and respect."
Coates writes less rhetorically and with much greater sophistication than the movement's bald declaration of its general principles. He writes compellingly of his West Baltimore boyhood where he felt "naked before the elements of the world." He sees nakedness as the "predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear."
Those words are an expression of Coates's prime and repeated theme (it can feel like a one-note mantra): "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage." He contrasts it with the images of the American dream he saw on television, where little white boys lived safe, idyllic lives with few real problems (e.g., Mr. Belvedere), producing in him a feeling of "cosmic injustice" in the gap between his oppressive world and the one on television.
What makes growing up in West Baltimore fraught for Coates is the fact that "no one survives unscathed" living there. He explains that the violent crews of young men who inhabit the inner cities turned their fear into nihilistic rage in an attempt to prove "the inviolability of their bodies."
Coates can write vividly about riding through inner city ghettos filled with churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing while feeling "the old fear," but there is something constricted and over-determined about his book. He's right that "the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history."
I am white and cannot know what it is like to be black in America. But reading Coates's book brought up in me, repeatedly, the thought that there must be more to being a black man (factors like class, culture, individual psyche come to mind) than the formidable fact that you have had to live with the degradation and inhumanity of racism.
A "third race"
Margo Jefferson has written a more personal, profoundly self-analytic, less political, and for me more sympathetic book than Coates. In "Negroland" (Pantheon), which is structured around a series of evocative autobiographical fragments, she writes about inhabiting a striving African-American world whose members thought of themselves as "a Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians."
However, though her parents belonged to an elite, trying self-consciously to emulate the refined behavior of the WASP white upper class while simultaneously separating themselves from the behavior of the black poor, Margo Jefferson's mother herself said that "most people would consider us "just more Negroes.'" They were separate and not quite equal. Their behavior was built on the expectation they had to be "impeccable, not arrogant; dignified, not intrusive," an anxiety-ridden path to follow.
For Jefferson it was the Black Power movement that undermined her parents' notion that advancement could be achieved if you would "present yourself as what white people would consider an ideal of whiteness." But if Jefferson embraces her blackness, she always views herself as a more complex personality than one that can be reduced to a racial identity.
She sees herself as a feminist, a writer, a journalist, and as someone who chooses "independent selfhood" rather than "marriage and motherhood." More importantly, she accepts her vulnerability, neurosis (depression), and weekly visits to the therapist, and doesn't need a strong and proud persona to prove that she is sufficiently black.
In Isaiah Berlin's famous division of writers, Coates would be a hedgehog — a man who views the world through the lens of one powerful, defining idea, Jefferson a fox — whose vision is built on a multiplicity of truths. I prefer the writing of the more self-revealing, relaxed writer of penetrating discrete perceptions, Jefferson, than the harsher and more monolithic Coates.