MAXWELL:  Finding the courage to speak of blackness

2/21/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


From time to time, every writer, no matter how successful and famous, no matter the genre, needs the creative company of fellow writers. As a journalist, a member of the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, I am around newswriting and news-hound types nearly every day.

Sometimes, though, I have the good fortune of experiencing quality time with non-journalists, as I did a few days ago when I heard noted black feminist theorist bell hooks (she spells her name in the lowercase for symbolic and substantive reasons) speak at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The highlight of the day, of course, was having dinner with hooks, at the invitation of professor Gary Olson, coordinator of the university’s graduate program of rhetoric and composition.

In addition to motivating me to write more, hooks, 45, has inspired me to think deeper. Most significantly, though, she has helped me to understand better my role as a black male writer. Instead of simply reporting _ which I try to avoid as a columnist _ I should take my observations to the next level: I should be theorizing about blackness, especially black maleness.

What is the essence of being a black male in America, in a nation that has criminalized black male masculinity, that perceives us as exotic outsiders?

Sure, I have wrestled with this issue in some columns, but I have only scratched the surface. I suspect that I have not gone deeper because newspapers as a medium frown on complex ideas expressed in complex language.

Then, again, perhaps I have been too afraid to confront blackness _ my own in particular _ in all of its contours and nuances, too afraid to look inside the recesses where simple truths are more frightening than the vast unknown.

The whole world, especially America, has much to learn from blackness, hooks said. To understand U.S. culture at all, in fact, we need to understand blackness.

A main problem, obviously, is the dearth of black writers, especially males, willing to open their veins and let the ideas, secrets, frustrations and theories flow before a society that has been instinctively hostile to these men’s very existence.

But someone must write about the black male condition that few dare to explore. How can a white man know himself without understanding that his vision of himself and his world depends in large measure on his relations with blacks and his perceptions of who and what blacks are? My job as a black writer, then, is to show white people that their existence is my existence, that their whiteness is what it is because of my blackness.

Affirmative action, for example _ seen by many whites as a program giving pathetic, unqualified blacks, especially black males, a leg up over white males _ is as much of a way to help blacks as it is a painless way for white people to redeem their race for centuries of inhumanity against an entire class of citizens. Seen in this way, affirmative action is not a black or a white program. It is an American program, a buffer, a neutral place where right and wrong intersect for the purpose of moral healing and establishing long-overdue fairness.

Part of my job as a writer is to show that black males are a redacted class crying out for affirmation, and part of my job is to theorize as to why we are shadowy lines, blurred or invisible characters and abbreviated images beneath the pitch-black ink on the page. Our faces have no definition and, therefore, we all look alike. Our voices are barely audible and, therefore, we all sound the same. Society knows that we are there _ or that we have been there. But no one can touch us. We have been driven back, smudged.

Here, I am reminded of a James Baldwin comment that offers a hooks-type vision of the black male in the United States, a vision that addresses both the predicament and the endurance of the black male: “A stranger to this planet might find the fact that there are so many black (men) at all still alive in America something to write home about. I, myself, find it remarkable not that so many black men were forced (and in so many ways) to leave their families, but that so many remained and aided their issue to grow and flourish.”

Such discourse needs to be written, and, thanks to hooks, I shall add my voice more often. A real danger in trying to give voice to blackness is being accused of anger, self-pity, victimhood and, yes, racism. But hooks showed me in her speech that such risks must be taken if the nation is to develop the will and the stomach to understand the scope of its damnable treatment of blacks, especially males, and to find ways of reversing the damage.

I do not know if hooks intended to inspire me or anyone else in that packed auditorium the other day. Nor do I know if I have correctly interpreted the part of her message that I have discussed. The good thing is that she has renewed my courage and determination _ as a black male writer _ to help white America come to terms with its legacy of racism and its need to understand that black maleness is every American’s concern.