I've been reading like a mad man in the gap between projects, and catching up and reorganizing. A thoughtful reader added to my Goodreads list reminded me of Chester Himes. And so I wrote:
Chester Himes, now that was something I could barely stand. I read 'If He Hollers' just through a couple dozen pages and could take no more. He so brilliantly made me angry, and brought to mind so much of what I felt that I couldn't take it. There have been books like that - too painful to read. And Himes was the last of his kind that I read in the days before the LA Riots, before I left Los Angeles at the age of 30. One image stands in my mind of the man described by Himes, of the black man so angry that he drank hard liquor alone in his room and only got up for the fresh breeze of the open window in order to throw empty whiskey bottles at the white men in the street. It was the dead end of despair I know I was not born for, and so I left Himes alone.
There is that canon of black American literature I read once upon a time. At the beginning it was so very frustrating. Intensely painful it was as I tried desperately to connect with any black literary scene. It was part of my fête manqué out of technical school and clueless about the higher elements of the humanities. When I decided to be purposeful in reading contemporary black American literature I first found Gloria Naylor's 'Women of Brewster Place'. I purposefully didn't want to read the older authors that I had known - no more Richard Wright, James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones-Amiri Baraka, Alex Haley, Ralph Ellison. Nobody old. Nobody ghetto. It left almost nobody. It took me almost forever to find an author that actually spoke to me in a way I wanted to share in joy and pride. It took a lot of long hard looks inward and outward. I didn't know what to expect - I didn't know how my literacy would serve me. I didn't know what to make of what I learned. After a few years, I became comfortable with exactly that. It took from 1989 to 1993 to make peace with that itch. I didn't give it up finally until 1996.
In the end, I was most satisfied by Ernest J. Gaines, Jean Toomer, Darryl Pinckney, Paul Beatty & Toni Morrison. I can't describe in any small way what they meant. They were each an Emerald City that pointed my home, each a patch of blackness in serious literature I needed to see and experience, each a solid stepping stone in a garden of forking paths.
Himes sat out there like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goins and John Edgar Wideman. Just all blue collar and urban, so unlike my father, the soft-spoken Connecticut Episcopalian photographer, Sierra Club hiker and part-time poet. It was impossible for me to accept stories of the mean streets as real literature, as impossible as it is for a Hebrew to accept Baptist ministry as Gospel. It all may have had the ring of truth, but not of destiny.
I wonder how much literature has served an existential purpose for me, and yet some part of me resists the question. I know who I am and who I must be, but it is ever the case that I am engaged with writers far more than with neighbors. Sooner or later, I find a part of myself waiting for me in the words of strangers. What will I find in Tolstoy? Another part of me.
I reflect on that aspect of my generation immersed in a struggle for self-reflection in the arts and in the mainstream. It seemed so god-awfully important and significant and momentous. Just standing in line for a Spike Lee movie or a play by August Wilson or a book signing by Toni Morrison was portentous. There was a day in the 80s when George C. Wolfe snarked about the world's last 'mama on the couch play', and I think that time has come and gone, then again I've only seen one Tyler Perry.