Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent. – book reviews
Equally groundbreaking is Keith Boykin’s One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America (Anchor, 1996) – a breathtaking work that challenges how African Americans, people of color, and white homosexuals view the black gay and lesbian community and how black homosexuals view themselves. What makes this book wonderful is that, unlike most books about the gay experience, it does not reduce its arguments to ad hominem, leftist diatribes. It does not create “us versus them” divisions.
Boykin instead examines, in clear and simple language, what the major concerns are, and he defines them in such a way that even the most conservative heterosexual cannot help but be moved by the logic of his arguments. Boykin understands why many African Americans are unconcerned with gay and lesbian rights, and he writes from a perspective of understanding their fears. In doing so, he shows the obvious societal parallels of oppression and prejudice that link blacks and gays – illustrating how self-destructive it is when an oppressed group oppresses another.
Boykin’s main concern is how the black community and the mainstream gay and lesbian community view and treat black gays and lesbians. Boykin knows that the battle for fair treatment must begin with your own people for any real progress to be made. Thus, One More River to Cross does what so few books about race and gay issues do: It educates readers on how to reduce their own sexual fears and insecurities while recognizing their racial hypocrisies.
An anthology that tried to do what Boykin does, but failed, is Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent (Avon, 1996), edited by Bruce Morrow and Charles H. Rowell. Shade is an uneven collection of short stories by gay black male writers – combining established and new voices, while ignoring such stalwarts as E. Lynn Harris altogether.
The trouble with Shade is that most of its contributors earned their reputations for being gifted poets, novelists or playwrights, not for being craftsmen of short fiction – and it shows. Most of the stories simply aren’t good, and including inferior work from such talented writers does them an injustice. Anyone who has suffered through the poetry of Ernest Hemingway or through Norman Mailer’s short stories knows how some of our greatest writers have no command of other writing forms.
There are a few saving graces in Shade – Randall Kenan’s “Wash Me” and Jaime Manrique’s “Twilight at the Equator,” for instance – but the reader does not need this anthology to read them. Had Shade’s editors decided to offer the best writings by its talented contributors, they would have produced a landmark work – a gay Brotherman of sorts. As it stands, Shade merely demonstrates that black gay men can write short stories, and sometimes not very well.
A book that offers important information weighed down by stale academic prose is Jerome G. Miller’s Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Through exacting research, Miller provides indisputable facts to support what many black political activists have been saying for years – that young black men are targeted more by the criminal justice system than young whites and, consequently, are more likely to be destroyed before they reach adulthood.
This is a book that should be required reading for anyone who craves fresh intellectual ammunition after hearing the much-publicized conservative arguments by authors Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza about so-called black inferiority. It is an important book, given the trend that conservative racism now arrives in the guise of academic research to establish an intellectual foundation for future legislation.
But unlike conservative tomes, Miller’s book has received scant media publicity, probably because it relies on facts, not on reactionary controversy. While Miller’s book is not intended to prescribe reforms for the criminal justice system, it inevitably provides answers by exposing the many problems inherent in the system. To understand motives, one must understand the motivator, and Miller’s book provides the answers in black and white.
Darrell Dawsey’s Living, to Tell About It: Young Black Men in America Speak Their Piece (Anchor, 1996) should have provided stirring testimonials to support and complement Miller’s airtight arguments, but the book fails to give the reader any fresh understanding of the black male experience. Though Dawsey’s intentions were noble – to have numerous young black men speak passionately about sexuality, America, race, family, education, careers and the future – the passages lack the key element to make them rise beyond gripe sessions: critical introspection.
The men interviewed often do not understand how they wound up in the situations they are in, which proves for uninteresting reading. In the rare moments when it appears that the men will examine their souls, Dawsey quickly skips ahead to wrap up the scene. While such surface reporting is a staple in hip-hop magazines, it does not make for a compelling book. The stories in Living to Tell About It have been told before, and we don’t need to hear them again.
The same can be said about Don Belton’s anthology, Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream (Beacon Press, 1995). The problem with Belton’s book is in the editing: His selections are not the best, and the book does not provide a historical framework vital for understanding how contemporary African-American masculinity has been formed.
Consequently, the reader is left questioning whether these masculine attitudes are new or merely part of the black male legacy. How much more interesting it would have been to read selections by such authors as Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois contrasted against a better selection of contemporary authors. How Belton could edit an anthology about African-American masculinity and exclude such men as Nathan McCall, Calvin Hernton, Wallace Terry, Louis Farrakhan, Jim Brown and Brent Staples is a mystery.
Another question is: Why did Belton choose not to explore the wide range of black masculinity as defined by such authors as Muhammad Ali (athlete), Eldridge Cleaver (revolutionary), Dick Gregory (comedian), Miles Davis (musician) and Reginald Lewis (businessman), among others? While some of Belton’s selections are enlightening – especially those by Trey Ellis, Randall Kenan, Walter Mosley and Amiri Baraka – most are not.
Belton’s anthology does not live up to its title. It is a book whose editorial intentions, even after a third reading, remain unclear.
Although the levels of clarity and critical introspection vary, all of these books reflect the weight of race in America. Race is something that the black writer cannot escape, because it is the reality he is reminded of when he interacts with society. He may casually see himself as an average human being with ordinary concerns, but the rest of the world insists on placing him in categories that justify their insecurities and their sense of privilege. It is in that realm that the black writer must examine not only himself, but also his people and what that all means in modern society.
Roberto Santiago is the editor of the award-winning anthology Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings (Ballantine/One World, 1995).
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