Brown: The Last Discovery of America (3 page)

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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In the Clunie Public Library in Sacramento, in those last years of a legally segregated America, there was no segregated shelf for Negro writers. Frederick Douglass on the same casement with Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Franklin. Today, when our habit is willfully to confuse literature with sociology, with sorting, with trading in skins, we imagine the point of a “life” is to address some sort of numerical average, common obstacle or persecution. Here is a book “about” teenaged Chinese-American girls. So it is shelved.
I found this advice, the other day, in an essay by Joseph Addison, his first essay for the
the London journal, Thursday, March 1, 1711. “I have observed, that a Reader seldom puruses a Book with Pleasure, ’till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an Author. To gratifie this Curiosity, which is so natural to a Reader. . . .”
It is one thing to know your author—man or woman or gay or black or paraplegic or president. It is another thing to choose only man or woman or et cetera, as the only quality of voice empowered to address you, as the only class of sensibility or experience able to understand you, or that you are able to understand.
How a society orders its bookshelves is as telling as the books a society writes and reads. American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe fractiousness, reduction, hurt. Books are isolated from one another, like gardenias or peaches, lest they bruise or become bruised, or, worse, consort, confuse. If a man in a wheelchair writes his life, his book will be parked in a blue-crossed zone: “Self-Help” or “Health.” There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. The professor of Romance languages at Dresden, a convert to Protestantism, was tortured by the Nazis as a Jew—only that—a Jew. His book, published sixty years after the events it recounts, is shelved in my neighborhood bookstore as “Judaica.” There is no shelf for irony.
Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: “Ports have names they call the sea.” Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use—high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.
It was only from the particular life—a single life, a singular voice named Frederick Douglass, a handsome man, anybody can see that, a tall man, a handsome man, who lived and died in another century, another place, another skin, another light, the light changing every hour, every day, within a room; he did not choose the room or the hour or the skin—that a brown boy in Sacramento could sense the universality of dissimilarity. The offense of slavery (the lure of literature) was that Douglass’s life was precisely different from mine in California, a century later.
Now I am a writer, and now that my writing so often runs close to the boundaries of social science, I must remember it is the reader alone who decides a book’s universality. One cannot arrange a classic. It is the reader’s life that opens a book. I am dead. Only a reader can testify to the ability of literature to open; sometimes this opening causes pain.
I mean to put you in company with the young African-American girl who discovers she is like Jane Austen. How so? In temperament, in sensibility, in some way she recognizes and approves. Then this thrilling recognition brings a cloud of shame to her spontaneity—I write of myself, of course—shame for what she intuits, shame for what she cannot share: that a novel from some unenlightened world is not fit for her. She is discouraged. Why it is unfit she cannot completely account for. (Because the sensibility she reads would be cruelly amused at the spectacle of her interest?) She notices her absence. Another girl her age, or a girl from another age, would not notice; would not need to notice.
The nescience of a book can undermine its clarity, can spoil our pleasure in it. Our age looks for exclusion. And there is a certain gumption missing from our age as a result, and from the literature of our age.
Helen Keller wrote that dust spoiled the feel of things for her. Simone Weil wrote that the music and the pageantry of a Nazi youth parade were viscerally thrilling to her.
Already in grammar school there were rooms in my reading life into which I would have been reluctant to admit Frederick Douglass, for I knew in those rooms he was mocked.
You must wait here, Mr. Douglass.
I made myself the go-between. I must come to the conclusion that the suite of mockery, though refined, though pleasing to me in most ways—a room of Thackeray’s perhaps—retained poisonous vapors of another age, and would not have admitted me. And yet these apartments existed uniquely in my imagination, nowhere else. In books, you say. But books must be reimagined, misunderstood, read. Readers repair to books as men and women to monasteries, none with an identical motive. I was the reader of Thackeray. These rooms, these weathers, these confidences from the dust must burn my ears if they were read out loud. But in my privacy I could regret they could not be revised. I strained to restore them to the conditional. Clouds that might pass. The authors could not know what Frederick Douglass would have taught them. Were they damned? Was the crudeness of their imaginations commensurate with the way they made toast? Were books a sort of limbo, characterized by unchangeability? Books! They were damned, authors, not to know that what they dropped could not be revised.
I did not know until this year that Keats spoke with a cockney accent.
My reading was a thicket, a blind, from which I observed. (Addison: “Thus I live in the world, rather as a spectator of mankind than as one of the species. . . .”)
A scholarship boy, and sexually secretive, I was deaf to the rock-n-roll blaring from the radio. I did not know that the great drama of integration—White with Black—was playing itself out under the guise of the Top 40. I did not realize, as my younger sister did—she watched Dick Clark’s
American Bandstand
each afternoon—that whites were emancipating themselves by dancing to Little Richard. I do remember that song called “The Name Game”—my sister could do it, I never could—in which an African-American voice (
Come on now, you try it . . .
) cheerfully played havoc with the American tongue. I remember laughing, dizzied by the freedom of the voice to play.
The Indian plunges into the thicket. The Negress awaits the white man’s approach.
That part of America where I felt least certain about the meaning of my brown skin was also the part of the country I came to know best in my reading.
While my sister danced, I sat on shellacked benches on the Colored side of the Memphis bus station, felt underneath with my hand for dried gum. I drank from the Colored fountain. The fountain tasted of rust, and rust stained the basin and made it unpleasant. I could see where the White fountain was. There was no one about. I was human. I was thirsty. I was quick. As I bent my head to the fount, a hand grabbed me from behind, pulled back my head by its hair, my arms flaying for a purchase on my tormentor. I felt the knuckle—Oh my Jesus, I felt the gold ring boring into my scalp. I knew the ring from a thousand observations. I had seen it setting down coin, raising a glass, grasping the reins of that red-eyed bay. I had seen it, often enough, raised in anger. I said his name out loud,
Please, mister. . . .
(All I know of life is this: Hair is amazingly strong, and I went with my hair, backward. If I had parted from my hair, I might have saved my life.)
While my sister danced, I watched Malcolm X interviewed on KCRA-TV, Sacramento. I noticed a fierceness in him and a criticism of White that made no distinction between good readers and bad. Something in his manner, something I recognized, rhymed with the scholarship boy I was.
I went alone. My evenings out in Sacramento were secretive. Insofar as they were experiments with adulthood, I wouldn’t have considered bringing anyone else along. I went to hear Malcolm X alone, as I went alone to hear Marian Anderson. (Her red velvet gown. A baby’s little blue cry pierced the golden disk she had spun. Silence. Shame for Sacramento! A nod to her pianist to resume.) When I went to hear Malcolm X, I felt as invisible, as anonymous, as safe as I have ever felt. The audience was overwhelmingly male. It was a busy black time. No one seemed to notice my brown in the crowd.
Malcolm X stood in a circle of light. He was not possessed of a theatrical power to transfigure himself. His voice was nothing at all like what I expected. I expected the near-singing of ministers I had heard broadcast from the South. His voice was high, nasal, a scold’s voice. A hickory stick. But for all his thin stricture, there was something generous about this man, something of Benjamin Franklin—his call to brothers to better themselves. In his black mortician’s suit, Malcolm X spoke of his early life, his years as a con, a hustler; cruel toward women because false to himself. His glasses flared in the spotlight.
What about that summer night was so thrilling to me?
There is shattered glass in the street. I am transported by James Baldwin to Harlem in the aftermath of a race riot. (“On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.”) Among Baldwin’s plays, I knew only
The Amen Corner
(Beah Richards played it in San Francisco). Among the novels, I favored
Go Tell It on the Mountain
. Most, I loved Baldwin’s essays. There was to a Baldwin essay a metropolitan elegance I envied, a refusal of the livid. In Baldwin I found a readiness to rise to prophetic wrath, something like those ministers, and yet, once more, to bend down in tenderness, to call grown men and women “baby” (a whiff of the theater). Watching Baldwin on television—I will always consider the fifties to have been a sophisticated time—fixed for me what being a writer must mean. Arching eyebrows intercepted ironies, parenthetically declared fouls; mouthfuls of cigarette smoke shot forth ribbons of exactitude.
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
4.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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