Black Men Speaking. – book reviews

Edited by Charles Johnson and John McCluskey Jr. Indiana University
Press, 1997 Bloomington and Indianapolis 188 pages Hard cover: $19.95

Reading Black Men Speaking is not unlike the dichotomous
soul-troubling and spirit-affirming experience of attending all-day
Sunday or Wednesday night church services. The book is a gripping
litany of sermon, scripture reading and spirituality. It is strident
and unembarrassed by its message, urgent in its delivery, somewhat
daunting in the tenets it proposes, and clear in its mission.

This book is a test of faith. And within all tests exists a tacit
assertion: “If you are up to this, you will succeed. If not, you will
learn more from your failing.”

Like a month of Sunday sermons and songs, the mission of Black Men
Speaking is divulged in parts — structurally and rhetorically,
selection by selection — each contributor offering his take on what
has been the bane and/or benefit of his experience.

The introduction provides more than enough statistical evidence and
emotional angst to justify the necessity of such a book. The
introduction is, in some ways, a separate essay that is both a more
formal departure from the contents that follow and a worthy foundation
on which the urgency of the contents firmly rests.

As for the selections, Charles Johnson and John McCluskey Jr., the
book’s editors, have gathered a wide range of contributors who use a
variety of formats to make their points. Issues of ownership of culture
and heritage join with pleas to own up to responsibility as fathers,
brothers, sons, and pillars of the community. The sometimes reductive
and accusatory impressions toward African American women are
accompanied by expressions of reverence and gratitude for elements of
Black matriarchy.

The book may lose a few readers with some of its extreme or
exclusive perspectives. But it will win others through the range of its
approaches and its sheer candor. It is nothing if not honest. Right or
wrong, for better or for worse, the honesty of these men provides a
tone that may be missing from the recent wave of writing on the African
American man.

Joseph W. Scott provides a testament of gratitude to a hardworking
father who, by example and lesson, made Scott the man that he is. It
reminds one of the tender and poignant resonance of Robert Hayden’s
famous Those Winter Sundays.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakka provides painfully clear and lyric meditations on the Black male experience.

Don Belton, editor of his own collection of writings on Black male
identity entitled Speak My Name, provides a deeply resonant memoir on
the evolution of a mentor for troubled young relatives. That he reveals
his homosexuality is more significant for its implication — it is
mentioned but not dwelled upon — than its exposition.

Ellis Marsalis provides luminescent wisdom by delivering a
beautifully written and intellectually stunning vision of how the
education of our youth must not only include but rely upon cultural
experience.

Wilbert Jordan’s, Peter J. Harris’s, and Michael O’Neal’s offerings
remind one of the most engaging of church laypersons or ministers. Men
of faith whose rhetorical fluidity and memorable anecdotes, borne on
the vitality of the spoken message, serve as powerful calls to action
among the masses of what they perceive as an inactive and ambivalent
African American male population.

To balance those perspectives, David Nicholson offers a tightly
constructed, hard-nosed mandate for Black men to own up to their
shortcomings and resist the racist notions that they have taken on in
constructing their identities.

The editors, both well-established and widely acclaimed writers of
fiction, are fitting anchors for the collection. Johnson, who won the
National Book Award for Middle Passage, honors fathers in a way that
reprises the heritage of Black parents who provided much from next to
nothing and passed that ability on to their children. McCluskey, who
wrote look What They Done to My Song, focuses less on his own ideas and
provides a forum for five men to discuss their anger, anxiety, hopes,
fears and solutions.

Non-Christians may find little for themselves in this book, where
Christianity is considered a necessary salve for the wounds that
afflict African American men. Feminists may also be uncomfortable with
the attempt to empower Black men because women are sometimes viewed as
a conflicting element to that empowerment. Some Black women will
question the need for gendered solidarity and be put off by the
resentment, anxiety and skepticism directed at them. And although some
Black male homosexuals may find solace in the attempts to affirm,
reconstruct, or mend the notion of what it is to be a man, others may
be disappointed to note that the editors and writers of Black Men
Speaking seem to envision a Black male coalition that has little room
for the African American gay community.

Nevertheless, the book is useful if only because it is genuine to a
great number of American sentiments. In this age of too-careful
politics that often cloud rather than clarify important issues, it is
vital that some parts of any discourse be valued for their candor and
directness so that opinions may be more clearly and constructively
defined.

Black Men Speaking confirms that we must listen not only to the
African American scholars whom the White establishment has tapped and
tokenized as the voices of Black America, but also — and with
increasing care and respect — to the experiences of the ordinary, and
extraordinary, Black male. By participating in the discussion, and
noting the development, of their experiences, we all will come closer
to understanding — and hopefully changing — the plight of African
American men.

William Henry Lewis, the Allan K. Smith assistant professor of
Creative Writing in Fiction at Trinity College in Hartford,
Connecticut, is the author of In the Arms of our Elders, a collection
of stories.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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