U.S. Intellectual History Blog

African American Fiction and the Post-Civil Rights Era

For the next few weeks, I shall attempt to construct an intellectual history of African Americans in the post-civil rights era. This “post-civil rights era” is one I define as encompassing the cultural and intellectual debates sparked by the fallout of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the federal government’s attempt to enforce both, and also grapple with the fallout of the “long, hot summers” of the mid-1960s. By no means is this “the” intellectual history of the time period. Instead, it’s a way of looking backward—from the present, current Ferguson/post-“Age of Obama” moment to the origins of our present situation, the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are several topics that I want to provide a brief sketch of—while at the same time, looking for plenty of audience feedback (as always!) to add further depth to understanding this time period. What I’m doing is starting with current moments or figures and using them to understand how American society digests the last fifty years of our “conversation on race.” Today I am starting with African American print fiction, and the ways in which it both sends up and reflects our intellectual and cultural moment. In particular I’m looking at two writers: Kiese Laymon and Paul Beatty.

I picked these two for the sake of blog space, but also because they both have some interesting things to say about race and American society. Next week I’ll turn to several women writers who have also made some extraordinary contributions to American literature. But for now I’d like to focus on Laymon and Beatty. They are both contemporary writers whose bodies of work reflect where we’ve come on issues of race, identity, and even regionalism in recent American history.

Kiese Laymon is a writer and professor of English and African American Studies at Vassar College. His non-fiction work has become known for being forthright about both being African American and being a Southerner. Laymon’s first collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America raises some important questions about the continued relevance of the American South and the rural South in African American identity. I have written before on the blog about the importance of place to intellectual history, especially African American intellectual history. In the post-1960s landscape, I argue that place still matters for the development of intellectual frameworks. Laymon being a product of rural Mississippi matters. And the stories he tells, whether of the non-fiction variety in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, or of the fiction variety in Long Division, are both born of a rural, Southern background.laymon

These stories, like any good ones, have universal contexts. That makes them both enjoyable and informative for a wide variety of readers. But Long Division, Laymon’s debut novel, reflects what I believe to be both the confusion and hope for many African Americans in a post-civil rights period. The novel involves time traveling characters from the 1960s, 1980s, and 2013. Reading the book from the point of view as an intellectual historian, Long Division becomes treatise on American life in the last fifty years, with rural Mississippi as the backdrop. As Joseph Crespino argues in his book In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution the state means different things to different groups of activists. In Long Division, however, Mississippi matters because it’s home for characters who are either African American or Jewish, all searching for a sense of belonging.

I remind our readers, here, of the posts we have had the last two weeks about Ray Bradbury, science fiction, and American intellectual history in the twentieth century. The art of fiction is an important part of any intellectual historian’s toolbox in understanding the debates and fears among intellectuals in any era. What Laymon does in his work is point to the sense of both peril and promise most African Americans have felt since the 1960s. Certainly, this has been the case for many African American intellectuals, and more broadly all intellectuals concerned about race since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were signed. The time traveling aspect of the book brings home the confusion of the post-civil rights period. Interactions between characters from the 1960s and 1980s, being read by a character from 2013, illustrate both how far the nation has come on racial justice and, at the same time, how much remains to be changed.

In that sense, Paul Beatty’s recent work The Sellout is also worth considering in regards to contemporary debates about race and American identity. Beatty’s second third novel (after Tuff and White Boy Shuffle ) has generated plenty of talk, as it lampoons a wide variety of real-life political and social figures.

paulbeattyNothing connected to the “conversation about race” that American society has attempted in fits and starts over the years is sacred. The narrator, an African American male living in an agrarian section of Los Angeles called “Dickens,” is himself the grand social experiment of his social scientist father. Beatty sends up African American intellectuals, Clarence Thomas, and a variety of other individuals and groups throughout the work. What Beatty’s book represents is, in many ways, Black America’s wrestling with the post-civil rights era. In a novel where the main character re-introduces segregation to a public school, and even takes on a slave (finding out how this happens alone is worth making the novel a read), it’s clear that Beatty is reckoning with decades of uncertain, unclear dialogue about race and the unfulfilled promise of integration.

This post isn’t meant as a review essay by any means. But it is meant as a gentle reminder of the power of novels to explain the current American dilemma of race. Consider, however, that Laymon uses Mississippi and Beatty uses Los Angeles as their backdrops. Or that Laymon uses time travel to tell a story of Black America, while Beatty uses a wild, almost magical realistic portrayal of modern life, to send up our stagnant dialogue on race. The promise, peril, and uncertainty of debates about race and American life in the last fifty years come through loud and clear in both the works of Laymon and Beatty.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this, Robert. I’m ashamed to confess that I was unaware of both authors before your post. But I wouldn’t read too much into that because I’m generally very ignorant of the fiction scene for books published before, say, 1990. – TL

    • Trust me, that was my intent! I also want us all to consider how fiction writing is a sign of the times, intellectual history-wise. In coming weeks I’ll look at other fiction writers along with African American film and music.

  2. Robert: this is such a nice piece, and I have been wanting to comment on it but only now have had a minute to get my thoughts together.

    Thinking in particular about Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, which is an extraordinary collection of essays, I feel like it is important to highlight a few themes:

    1) The title of Laymon’s book, and the Fanonian/existential tenor of the whole book is striking.

    Many young writers, these days, write narrative essays, and there is no shortage of excellent reflection on matters of ultimate concern in the non-fiction section.

    What Laymon consistently engages with is the question of survival, and his reflective labors link survival to what Lewis Gordon calls “everyday-ness”; the everyday-ness of racism and the bad faith that takes the form of whiteness and white denialism. At the same time, there is attention to the different forms of this bad faith: from the Yinzer neighbor whose hatred is comically bumbling, to the snarling blackface of white fratboys, to the various police officers who can escape personal responsibility for their motivated violence by identifying with their badges and uniforms.

    Laymon’s meditations on African American survival, and his title refrain, repeated throughout the text, call to mind Ruth Gilmore’s formulation (which has been so important for anti-racist activists in recent years): “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” There is something uniquely Gilmorian about Laymon’s thematization of the temporality and speed or slowness of what Engels called “social murder”–which takes us from the old joke (“it turns out water is deadly, if consumed in small quantities over a very long period of time”) to the stark statistics of environmental racism and the effects of property rights in whiteness on life chances.

    2) I think that your attention to place, then, maps on to a larger theme of the way that “Mississippi” stands in, in African American expressive culture, as a place where the dangers of life and death are heightened: from Robert Johnson’s crossroads to the nomos of “Parchman Farm” to “Mississippi Goddamn” to the rapper David Banner. But Laymon also narrates a series of travels back and forth, in the tradition of Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson…

    I am reminded also of the way that Ohio funk musicians in the late 1960s and 1970s positioned themselves as reclaiming southern culture–the first Parliament and JBs albums; and parallel moves in the careers of Ray Charles and Little Richard (especially the latter’s “Southern Child”). Laymon brings this story up to date with a wonderful essay on Southern hip-hop, which is replete with beautiful little details about the politics of accent and timbre.

    So, I think another key feature of Laymon as representative of new intellectual tendencies has to do with his connection to hip-hop and to hip-hop’s spatial and geographical politics, as well as the way that hip-hop possesses its own internal technologies for defying capture by whiteness and capitalism.

    What do you think?

    • I think you’re right on here–especially with geography. I think a key theme of African American intellectual history–something that much, much more could be written about–is the importance of place. Laymon’s work is effective mainly because he never fails to remind the reader of where he is from. Further, the fact that he is currently at Vassar College but continues to write about race and racism, often comparing the New York and Southern varieties, I think is a link to writers like Baldwin as well. Laymon’s work is, in many ways, a critique of thinking of racism as just a Mississippi, or Southern, problem.

      And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Laymon’s invocation of hip hop in regards to the new directions of Southern culture and its overall impact on American society. Zandria Robinson also discusses that a great deal in her works as well.

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