Friday, January 25, 2019
January 25, 2019: African American Life Writing: Three Recent Works
[For this year’s MLK Day series, I’ll be AmericanStudying African American lives in texts. I’d love to hear your responses, as well as other lives and texts you’d highlight, for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On a trio of recent works that exemplify 21st century African American life writing.
1) Between the World and Me (2015): I’ve written a good bit already about Ta-Nehisi Coates in this space (and other spaces), and would certainly argue that his talents and significance extend well beyond any individual book. Moreover, Between isn’t nearly as straightforward a memoir as Coates’s first book, the story of his childhood and father The Beautiful Struggle (2008). That book is certainly worth your time as well, but I’m not sure there’s a better work of 21st century non-fiction than Between—and it is certainly life writing, if it also puts that life in conversation with another life (that of Coates’s teenage son, to whom it is written) and just about every imaginable context and frame. Seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, do so!
2) Negroland (2015): Published in the same year as Coates’s book, New School Professor Margo Jefferson’s Negroland is a much more traditional memoir, the story of her upbringing among the African American upper middle class in the 1950s and 60s. But like all of the best life writing, Jefferson’s book draws us into a very specific world, in this case one that has been largely absent from American narratives and collective memories. Jefferson is celebratory and critical of that elite African American community in equal measure, and most of all uses it, as all great memoirists do, to tell a story that is at once intensely personal and profoundly representative of American issues and histories.
3) 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014): Putting a rap album on a list of life writing works might seem like an intentionally provocative or contrarian move, but I don’t mean it as such; albums aren’t the same as books, but it’s certainly possible to tell a life story through music, and that’s exactly what J. Cole does in his magisterial 2014 album. As I argued in that hyperlinked post, I’d call Cole’s album a magnus opus for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and movement, one of the first artistic texts in this 2010s era to both represent an individual life within that frame and to grapple with the social and cultural contexts around such a life. It’s quite simply one of the great and vital 21st century African American and American autobiographies.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other African American lives and/or texts you’d highlight?