black boy: images and imaginationPosted: July 15, 2013
“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”
–Richard Wright, Black Boy
I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”
Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.
Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.
I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.
I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.
Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.
I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”
bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”
Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.
- Native Son, Richard Wright: Wright’s novel chronicles the story of Bigger Thomas, who feels his fate has already been determined by his social conditions.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison: This novel, by the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved, follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, just a few generations removed from slavery.
- Fruitvale Station, dir. Ryan Coogler: This film, about the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of an overzealous cop, stars Michael B. Jordan, who played Wallace in The Wire, and just opened to excellent reviews.
- “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmet Till,” Gwendolyn Brooks: These two poems were inspired by the death of Emmett Till.