For the next few weeks, I shall attempt to construct an intellectual history of African Americans in the post-civil rights era. This “post-civil rights era” is one I define as encompassing the cultural and intellectual debates sparked by the fallout of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the federal government’s attempt to enforce both, and also grapple with the fallout of the “long, hot summers” of the mid-1960s. By no means is this “the” intellectual history of the time period. Instead, it’s a way of looking backward—from the present, current Ferguson/post-“Age of Obama” moment to the origins of our present situation, the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are several topics that I want to provide a brief sketch of—while at the same time, looking for plenty of audience feedback (as always!) to add further depth to understanding this time period. What I’m doing is starting with current moments or figures and using them to understand how American society digests the last fifty years of our “conversation on race.” Today I am starting with African American print fiction, and the ways in which it both sends up and reflects our intellectual and cultural moment. In particular I’m looking at two writers: Kiese Laymon and Paul Beatty.
I picked these two for the sake of blog space, but also because they both have some interesting things to say about race and American society. Next week I’ll turn to several women writers who have also made some extraordinary contributions to American literature. But for now I’d like to focus on Laymon and Beatty. They are both contemporary writers whose bodies of work reflect where we’ve come on issues of race, identity, and even regionalism in recent American history.
Kiese Laymon is a writer and professor of English and African American Studies at Vassar College. His non-fiction work has become known for being forthright about both being African American and being a Southerner. Laymon’s first collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America raises some important questions about the continued relevance of the American South and the rural South in African American identity. I have written before on the blog about the importance of place to intellectual history, especially African American intellectual history. In the post-1960s landscape, I argue that place still matters for the development of intellectual frameworks. Laymon being a product of rural Mississippi matters. And the stories he tells, whether of the non-fiction variety in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, or of the fiction variety in Long Division, are both born of a rural, Southern background.
These stories, like any good ones, have universal contexts. That makes them both enjoyable and informative for a wide variety of readers. But Long Division, Laymon’s debut novel, reflects what I believe to be both the confusion and hope for many African Americans in a post-civil rights period. The novel involves time traveling characters from the 1960s, 1980s, and 2013. Reading the book from the point of view as an intellectual historian, Long Division becomes treatise on American life in the last fifty years, with rural Mississippi as the backdrop. As Joseph Crespino argues in his book In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution the state means different things to different groups of activists. In Long Division, however, Mississippi matters because it’s home for characters who are either African American or Jewish, all searching for a sense of belonging.
I remind our readers, here, of the posts we have had the last two weeks about Ray Bradbury, science fiction, and American intellectual history in the twentieth century. The art of fiction is an important part of any intellectual historian’s toolbox in understanding the debates and fears among intellectuals in any era. What Laymon does in his work is point to the sense of both peril and promise most African Americans have felt since the 1960s. Certainly, this has been the case for many African American intellectuals, and more broadly all intellectuals concerned about race since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were signed. The time traveling aspect of the book brings home the confusion of the post-civil rights period. Interactions between characters from the 1960s and 1980s, being read by a character from 2013, illustrate both how far the nation has come on racial justice and, at the same time, how much remains to be changed.
In that sense, Paul Beatty’s recent work The Sellout is also worth considering in regards to contemporary debates about race and American identity. Beatty’s
second third novel (after Tuff and White Boy Shuffle ) has generated plenty of talk, as it lampoons a wide variety of real-life political and social figures.
Nothing connected to the “conversation about race” that American society has attempted in fits and starts over the years is sacred. The narrator, an African American male living in an agrarian section of Los Angeles called “Dickens,” is himself the grand social experiment of his social scientist father. Beatty sends up African American intellectuals, Clarence Thomas, and a variety of other individuals and groups throughout the work. What Beatty’s book represents is, in many ways, Black America’s wrestling with the post-civil rights era. In a novel where the main character re-introduces segregation to a public school, and even takes on a slave (finding out how this happens alone is worth making the novel a read), it’s clear that Beatty is reckoning with decades of uncertain, unclear dialogue about race and the unfulfilled promise of integration.
This post isn’t meant as a review essay by any means. But it is meant as a gentle reminder of the power of novels to explain the current American dilemma of race. Consider, however, that Laymon uses Mississippi and Beatty uses Los Angeles as their backdrops. Or that Laymon uses time travel to tell a story of Black America, while Beatty uses a wild, almost magical realistic portrayal of modern life, to send up our stagnant dialogue on race. The promise, peril, and uncertainty of debates about race and American life in the last fifty years come through loud and clear in both the works of Laymon and Beatty.