African-American Literature Wrap-Up #1: Native Son, Quicksand, Their Eyes Were Watching God + 13th
I haven’t been blogging too much about books because, well, I confess I haven’t read a book outside of class at all this year quite yet! I have, however, read A LOT of books for class, and so while I haven’t read any yet on my list of Africa-American novels, I HAVE read books for class that fit into that category. And since I’m learning a lot of the historical context surrounding these works, I’ve got quite a bit to say that’s, IMO, more interesting than a standard review (which is why I don’t usually review books I read for school, or classics in general).
Plus, I also watched the documentary 13th, and it only seems appropriate to talk about that here as well.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Recently in development for a film, Richard Wright’s Native Son has been a successful installment in African-American literature since its publication and selection for the Book of the Month Club in 1940. It’s the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American youth who, essentially, accidentally kills a white girl and everything points back to the institutionalized racism that put him in this position. A tense cover-up and hide-out from the police follows, laced with commentary about racist yellow journalism and the communist movement, and then there’s the famous lengthy trial where it’s about something bigger than Bigger. (That’s actually almost a direct quote, I think.)
Native Son can be frustrating in a couple of ways. One, you’d think the institutional problems it discusses wouldn’t be as relevant 70 years later, but sadly they are. As much as the last part of the book turns into an essay sometimes, it’s definitely an in-depth exploration and a worthy perspective to read; I definitely feel like I learned something. Secondly–and I admit this is a lot due to the essay prompt I had to write for it and Wright’s comments on Zora Neale Hurston, which I’ll talk about below–the writing style tends to use the same words over and over again (fear, hot, cold, taut, etc) and leave little question to what these motifs mean. I don’t mind its tendency to hammer its point home; I wonder if white readers (or editors/publishers, for that matter) in the 1940s would have given it much of a chance if it didn’t explain (telling, not showing) exactly what and why Bigger was feeling. For me, it made the reading and analyzing of it a little frustrating, and the pace could be bumpy at times with digressions. Nevertheless, I’m giving historical context the better of the doubt here, and this is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the social realism tradition of African-American literature.
Quicksand by Nella Larson
Nella Larson was a Harlem Renaissance writer who was mixed-race, which led her to feel like she didn’t fit into black or white communities, and the same is true of her protagonist Helga Crane in Quicksand. She’s a teacher in a Booker T. Washington-style school with a lot of pressure to be the best (oh man did I relate to that from my charter high school days, minus the racial elements) who decides she’ll be happier if she leaves, so she does. But visiting her uncle doesn’t quite work out and she struggles to get a job, so she eventually moves to Harlem. It’s fine for a while, but then she feels like she doesn’t quite fit into the black community, so she takes an opportunity to visit her mother’s family in Copenhagen where she thinks there won’t be a constant discussion of the “race problem.” This is okay for a while, but she’s constantly fetishized that she yearns to return back to America. This cycle does end, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s…not particularly fun.
Naturally, Quicksand can be frustrating and disappointing, and that’s entirely the point. She’s trapped in-between and…well, slowly sinking downward like she’s stuck in quicksand. I learned quite a lot about biracial life in this particular time and place–which, let’s be honest, isn’t something we tend to think about with black history. I also liked Larson’s writing–it’s simplistic but gives Helga a strong voice within third-person narrative–and appreciated how Helga was not necessarily “likable.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I never read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, but I know it’s commonly read in high schools across the country. It was surprising to me, then, to learn about its history. Zora Neale Hurston and her work didn’t achieve much acclaim and recognition in her life, and we can more or less credit Alice Walker (The Color Purple) for rediscovering her work in the 1970s. I read this after Quicksand in a different class than I read Native Son in, but Richard Wright came up because he (as well as contemporary Alain Locke) criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God when it came out–comparing it to racist characitures found in minestral shows, comparing her “sentimentality” to African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, and saying “her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Woah, right?
In defense of Wright, he and Locke were part of the movement within African-American literature at the time to “uplift the race,” which focused on writing social realism (which is what it sounds like–realist literature with a social purpose) often focusing on representations of middle and upper-class African-Americans in literature. In other words, they didn’t think Hurston’s focus on the black “folk” (working-class) in America were helpful. The thing is 1) Hurston’s writing very much from her perspective as an anthropologist and folklorist, so she captures very real dialect and lifestyles and also has some uniquely beautiful writing and 2) there is social commentary. It may not be as on-the-nose as Native Son, but the core of this novel as about taking matters into one’s hands to find happiness, which leads Janie to multiple marriages to find fulfilling love and feel like an equal to her partner. I can’t help but feel Wright and Locke missed these feminist themes to claim there was no social commentary, which is just frustrating.
So that’s the context I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in, and I can’t separate that context from the novel and how I retroactively felt about Native Son. Such happens when one is studying literature sometimes. Nevertheless, Hurston’s writing is lovely and Janie’s journey poignant and inspiring. The story leads to this climax that I didn’t expect, and then a slow-burn sad things happens, and then an even bigger climax I really was not expecting.
During this time I read these books, I also watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix on a whim. I don’t voluntarily watch many documentaries and my interest in this came from DuVernay directing the new Wrinkle in Time adaptation (which I am so! excited! for!) and its critical buzz surrounding Oscar season. After hearing what it was about, I knew I’d learn something from it.
Saying this doc is about the prison-industrial complex or the rise of Black Lives Matter doesn’t cover the amazing breadth this 100-minute documentary has, though. Nor is it about the 13th amendment–it focuses instead on a specific, surprising clause and how that has eerily continued throughout history. I’m not going to give much away because I think you should WATCH THIS, but the connections it makes between language and media (topical rap songs provide transitions, for instance, and Birth of a Nation also plays a terrifying role) and the politics of Nixon through Clinton in particular are mind-blowing. As much as I thought I knew about this topic and history, I definitely did not see the full picture, and that’s what this film succeeds in. It made me realize how important the big picture is, and I felt more confident in standing up for that when a conversation gets focused on micro-details that miss the point of a controversy.