(credit: still from video by Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
Greenlight Books was packed on Monday for Ayana Mathis’ reading from her new novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. And the crowd was an eclectic, diverse mix. It was certainly a wonderful thing for the writer.
“Wow,” she said as she looked out over the throngs. “I think I might cry.”
I wanted to cry too, but for very different reasons.
Yes, it’s always worth celebrating a young black woman’s success, which is why I was there.
But here’s the sad part: All of us had shown up to hear Mathis tell a familiar story — you know, the one about relentless black female hardship against the backdrop of black male fecklessness & abuse.
It’s not that I think there’s no place for these harsh stories of black life, and it’s not just that I’m tired of them dominating our movie screens and bookshelves and iPods.
It’s the cynicism of it all.
I resent the constant implication that black life is code language for adversity, when we all know better.
We all know that real black life is not a domino effect of misfortunes falling against one another. No one’s life is that reductive. In fact, tragedy and loss have always co-existed with resilience and optimism. It’s human nature to quest, to strive for that better place around the bend, as anyone who’s read Holocaust literature or slave narratives will attest.
Even in a South Side Chicago neighborhood where bullets fell innocent people, young couples go to the prom, block associations thrive, and the barbershop opens its doors each day. The human experience is a complex landscape: Big hope, deep pain, small joys. And the determination to forge community in the face of adversity, as this video shows:
So why the pile-on stories of black pathology? They sell.
Whether it’s in music or literature or film, bleak stories of black life are easy to believe, marinated as they are in stereotype, and so they sell. Maybe just maybe it’s the lure of a payday that prompts folks to tell those stories rather than the complicated ones they know to be true.
That’s my definition of cynicism.
And cynicism leads to a missed opportunity. While certain black artists write stories about, say, a mean woman birthing 11 kids she can’t feed by a useless man she despises — or about an illiterate obese, pregnant teen raped by her father and abused by her mother — other artists create magical, textured stories like the Oscar-nominated Beasts of The Southern Wild. Or: other artists grab the slavery story for themselves and do what they want with it. Roots for the hip-hop generation, anyone?
Cynicism sells, but it comes at a hefty price.