The problem with white praise of black art
Recently I went to a reading and discussion for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing as part of a citywide book club called Seattle Reads sponsored by the Seattle Public Library. The event was held at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center – located in the historically black Central District, the Langston was first built in 1915 as a Jewish synagogue but was purchased by the city in 1972 and transformed into a really lovely community center which now houses several arts-and-culture nonprofits. Seattle is an enthusiastically literary city, in fact it’s one of the US’s two Cities of Literature as designated by UNESCO, so it was no surprise the auditorium quickly filled up. Dozens, in fact, were turned away with apologetic looks from event staff, directed instead to a livestream of the event on Facebook. I was one of the last few to sneak in and, after observing me anxiously ping-pong from one end of the auditorium to the other three times in vain search of a seat, the event manager shrugged and said I could sit on the steps, which I did, uncomfortably (I’m 6’4” with long and not particularly bendy grasshopper legs) and with as much casual panache as I could muster.
After a local poet gave a beautiful reading of a couple of chapters, Gyasi took to the stage to answer questions about the book – first from a local writer, who functioned as the moderator and often asked meandering monologuish questions which elicited matter-of-fact responses from Gyasi, and then from the audience. Truthfully I find public Q&As like this one both deeply excruciating and weirdly necessary; people often ask tone-deaf or aggressive questions, or plug the works of others or themselves, or give rambling off-topic soliloquies, or else just ask questions that have already been asked and answered, but the fundamentally democratic nature of the process is so awkwardly and undeniably American that I suspect its function is deeper than it appears. This one was no different, anyway, from all the other Q&As I’d sat through, and Gyasi fielded each question or comment directed at her or at least in her general vicinity with a graciousness that I’m sure I could not conjure up myself, were I in her shoes.
Homegoing is a brilliant and, to a fellow and much less successful writer, jealousy-inducing family epic which spans, roughly, 250 years, and recounts the stories of various members of two lines of a single Ghanaian family. The novel grapples with the effects of massive historical events on individual characters, and is very much about the oppression of black lives. The majority-white audience was perfectly fine and appreciative during the reading and moderated discussion, but, when given the opportunity to engage directly, the room tensed with that palpable discomfort that’s characteristic of many public interactions between white and black Americans.
Most of the questions and commentary came from older white women, which is unsurprising – Seattle’s population is somewhere around 65 percent white, and in recent years, the Central District has become the most notorious case of gentrification in a city that’s gentrified and grown more rapidly than just about any other city in the country, thanks to massive multinationals like Amazon and Starbucks. The CD, as it’s known, was once more than 70 percent black; it’s now less than 20 percent.
Each question or comment followed an interesting pattern: before diving in to what they had to ask or say, the audience member would thank Gyasi for her book, for various reasons – its beauty, its characters, its storytelling, etc. – and do so effusively. It was clear the book had been meaningful to lots of folks in that auditorium, most of whom, again, were white. The sheer effusive repetition of the praise, over the course of a half hour of questioning, struck me as curious, though, and oddly familiar: it was tonally similar to the breathless reverence progressive white folks reserve for contemporary black luminaries – Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Oprah, the Obamas. We’ve seen this nationally with the massive white hullaballoo surrounding Donald Glover’s music video for “This is America,” and a similarly bookish frenzy has engulfed Seattle, in fact, with the release of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon; of the 226 copies owned by the library, just five, at this writing, are available for check out.
It’s no secret that, in general, progressive white people are afraid to talk about race and racism. For us it’s an invisible force, difficult to grasp because we never feel its negative effects. This has been endlessly frustrating and painful and often fatal to Americans of color, who experience racism viscerally, institutionally, every single day, and are compelled to speak out about it because it’s painful and because it contradicts the fundamental value of equity this country so fervently claims ownership of. Our finest writers and thinkers on the uniquely American subject of race are historically black, and remain so today: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, MLK Jr., Malcom X, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Seattle’s own Ijeoma Uluo. There are lots more (there are fantastic Native American, Latinx, and Asian-American writers on the subject, as well) and, conversely, there are no white writers of note on the subject. There is instead a profound silence, broken occasionally by the sound, again, of praise, which is in reality relief. Because we don’t know how to talk about or think about race, or reckon, individually or institutionally, with the facts of white supremacy, we are thankful for black writers and artists who do. Our silence, which is a function of privilege and fear – there’s no need for us to speak out, and anyway, if we do, we’re afraid we’ll get it wrong and end up being pegged as racist – forces still more black writers and artists to speak up.
It’s a vicious cycle, in other words, which is why this praise and reverence is so distressing: in essence we’re forcing black writers and artists to perform the difficult emotional labor of articulating the various aspects and effects of institutional racism. There is, too, an element of tokenism in the act that’s a little bit harder to pinpoint, but which can be located, I think, at the vector of racial capitalism and the black minstrel tradition. In other words there are two aspects to the act of watching-while-white. The first is that the effusiveness of white progressive praise and the very public nature of our willingness to purchase black art is an attempt at buying forgiveness. Such atonement-via-capitalism is distinct from reparations because it is not systematic and, in many cases, much of the cash you fork over in purchasing somebody’s book or album goes right back into the coffers of giant white-managed companies. It’s kind of like buying indulgences to remit a purgatorial sentence: all that money went back into the Catholic Church, which was then incentivized to keep up the whole disgraceful charade. It’s also a form of virtue-signaling, which in our age of social capital is important to just about everybody.
The second aspect is possibly even more problematic. There is an uncomfortably ethnographic element to the act of watching-while-white: Progressive white Americans are curious to see what black life is really like, which in itself does not constitute the problem. Instead it’s the intention: we’re looking to see if black lives conform to stereotypes. Let’s call it can-I-touch-your-hair racism. Such curiosity gave rise as well to the black minstrelsy tradition of the nineteenth century, which was responsible for embedding harmful and false assumptions about African-American culture and engendering a paternalistic attitude toward black lives which endures to this day. Ethnographical questions and commentary – about Ghanaian traditions, mostly – constituted a sizable percentage of what we talked about during the Q&A for Homegoing. People wanted to know about Africa. People wanted to know what Gyasi discovered in Africa. People wanted to know what Gyasi discovered about herself and her family. People wanted to know what Gyasi’s African parents thought about the book.
So please don’t get me wrong. It’s extremely important for white Americans to support writers and artists of color (whose work is very often not about race and racism, it’s sadly important to note, but about love, family, joy, personal failings and triumphs – the much vaster array of basic human stuff). Though lots of our money does indeed flow right back into the pockets of white-managed companies, the financial success of each black writer and artist opens the door just a little bit wider for others and eventually allows for watershed moments, like the monumental success of Black Panther. In other words what we’re reading and watching is an extremely important bellwether. And it’s critical, too, that we show up to events like the Homegoing discussion. Although it’s miniscule, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, an acknowledgment, by progressive white Americans, that institutional racism is, in fact, a thing. And that we’re listening. My fear, however – and this is borne out historically – is that this is where our engagement halts. And this historical refusal to dig any deeper in understanding black lives has led to us filling in our knowledge gaps with harmful stereotypes which pervade our institutions and end up reinforcing the inequities we claim we want to get rid of or even worse, claim no longer exist.
That can’t be the case anymore. White Americans are, ultimately, responsible for acknowledging, in our own voices, the country’s original and ongoing sin. For reckoning with it, and, ultimately, dismantling it. The power to do this is ours, after all.