Much has been said of the new Black Renaissance in music and film. African American novelists are now spreading the noted eloquence of such gifted analysts of our current political, social and cultural worlds as Ta nehesi Coates, bell hooks, Jelani Cobb and Henry Louis Gates into pioneering worlds of responsible fiction.
Consider three great books of recent years, and how well they blend great storytelling, age-old literary traditions, alongside new memes and modes of narrative while stretching our understanding into that vast arena all great art must inevitably encounter: empathy for others’ experiences and approach to the world.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, won the 2016 National Book Award and 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It dives deep into worlds of slavery, escape, and generational scars via one runaway’s story that slips into realms where fact seeps into something wider… just as the late Philip Roth morphed his talents for 20th century internal angst into alternate histories in the latter years of his heralded career.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won the 2016 National Book Award and was the first-ever American work to win Britain’s coveted Man Booker Prize, is an outrageous satire, in full Swiftian mode not seen much these days, that imagines a Los Angeles man who attempts to save his neighborhood by reintroducing segregation and accepts the last remaining survivor of the Little Rascals’ wish to become a slave… forcing uncomfortable glimpses into the ways our nation’s racial roots have oozed into present day norms.
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, takes the story of a tragically-fated marriage that sees a husband falsely imprisoned just after his marriage to a rising black artist into lyrically-detailed personal journeys and tales that draw a full portrait of worlds challenged by centuries of ingrained bias and hurt. At the time of this piece’s writing it was on the 2018 National Book Award’s short list.
The three works bend time, draw on elements of magical realism, dive deep into the personal, and together describe worlds many of us have only touched on peripherally in recent years. None has the pounding currency of Kendrick Lamar’s own groundbreaking Pulitzer-winning CD Damn, or wild pride of Black Panther or Sorry To Bother You. Yet they linger long, as Barry Hopkins’ Moonlight or Beyonce’s Lemonade do. They hint at worlds many of us missed, yet which define all that matters to the lives we lead these days. They’re the much-needed equivalent of all the Holocaust works that appeared 20 years ago; the beginnings of a reckoning.
But also a renaissance of new storytelling of the highest and most responsible order.