In the opening essay of “Speak My Name,” titled, “How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?” novelist Trey Ellis recounts this joke by the comedian Franklin Ajaye:
I was walking down the street last night and this old white couple kept looking back at me like I was going to rob them — so I did.”
Ajaye cleverly captures how images of Black masculinity are part of the white imagination. Historically, Black men have fought against racist stereotypes. They have also come to realize their own power. This is evident in Ajaye’s humor as well as Don Belton’s new anthology, which features the work of a number of established Black male writers and several refreshing new discoveries.
This new anthology can serve as a companion volume to recent books which celebrate the Million Man March of last October. It is not as comprehensive as “Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America,” edited by Herb Boyd and Robert Allen, but it rivals the more literary “Swing Low: Black Men Writing,” edited by Rebecca Carroll.
Yes, we are currently caught in the market promotion of the Black male. In fact, the 1995 Time magazine “Man of The Year” featuring Newt Gingrich should have been removed from the newsstands — 1995 was the year of the Black male! Images were everywhere, from the return of Michael Jordan, to Colin Powell, Mike Tyson, Louis Farrakhan, O.J. Simpson and Johnnie Cochran. Black men proved they were no longer invisible.
Words and Music
Black masculinity has built and shaped America. It is an old story which our fathers taught us; it is measured by their quiet dignity as well as their fears. What is heroic about “Speak My Name” is the fact that the contributors are men who decided to become writers. They all made the decision to use words instead of fists. They are writers shaped by the 1960s, like Arthur Flowers, who writes:
“And, understand, the 60s were more than street battles or sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the 60s were about commitment. We cared. We tried. It was important (and do-able) for us to make a better world. It was important to save the race. And it still is.”
While our society still attempts to come to grips with the lyrics of tappers, Don Belton’s book is a gift which offers insight into how a few Black men think and feel. For sisters who are still waiting to exhale, it serves as testimony that there are good men in the world and we only have to speak their names.
Belton’s purpose for editing the volume was to “experience a richer sense of community and communion among other Black male writers.” This is evident in the interview conducted by Lewis Edwards of Albert Murray. Here, a young writer sits at the feet of an elder with an acknowledgment of inheritance and a respect for tradition. When Murray (author of “The Omni-Americans” and “Train Whistle Guitar”) talks about his friendship with Ralph Ellison during their days at Tuskegee, he conveys to Edwards how two Black men enjoyed reading and developing their intellect.
“Speak My Name,” according to Belton, is structured in “jazz music’s compositional model of theme and variation, giving my contributors a series of extended solos that develop toward visions of masculinity as a struggle for hope.” Belton divides his book into five sections, although these categories are unnecessary. One can enjoy the entire volume the way one appreciates the old Ornette Coleman “Free Jazz” album; just open the door to the studio and let the brothers play. The music will find its own center.
Pain and Love
Belton’s ensemble of writers is a collection of all-stars: Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Walter Mosley and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Also included in “Speak My Name,” are new voices like William Henry Lewis who is as good as one of those young basketball players in the new Nike commercial dribbling to the sound of the old Gil Scott-Heron hit, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
“Shades,” by Lewis, will make every reader want to hug his father.
Belton has done an excellent job finding work by Black male writers which is very personal. The stories are original; so is the pain and the love.
“Speak My Name” is not a collection of sociological essays explaining why Black men are an endangered species. It is not a hallway of housing project horrors, although Jerrold Ladd’s excerpt from “Out of Madness” lets one off on the wrong floor. This book also contains a very funny piece by Robin D. G. Kelley, which is about Black male images and how they can be as enslaving as they can be liberating.
To document how far Black male writers have come the last twenty-five years, one only has to read Haki Madhubuti’s “Race, Rage, and Intellectual Development: A Personal Journey.” Here is an account by an important Black nationalist which is as tender as it is insightful. Madhubuti writes about his mother and sister with the honesty which is not simply confessional but also instructional.
Bringing together fiction and nonfiction as well as interviews, Don Belton has compiled a book which can serve as a text for the classroom as well as enjoyable reading for the general public. For example, “My Mother and Mitch” is one of the best short stories ever written by Clarence Major.
In his forward to “Speak My Name,” playwright August Wilson writes, “If we are not our brother’s keeper, then we are still our brother’s witness.” Wilson’s remarks remind me of something James Baldwin would have said. Like Baldwin, Don Belton has given us a book worthy of the price of the ticket.
E. Ethelbert Miller is the Jessie Ball du Pont Visiting Scholar at Emory & Henry College in Emory, VA.
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