Black Literature in the Age of Hip-Hop

During the 1990s, a new generation of Black writers has emerged in the spotlight to continue the literary tradition of giving voice to its experiences as Black people in the African Diaspora. Brought up in the throes of a post-Civil Rights, post-integration era and the pop cultural buzzsaw of television, film, video games, and music-particularly hip-hop and rap-they represent what Kevin Young refers to as “another new thing” (5), a literary movement in the Black arts that is fully aware of the legacy it has inherited and yet keenly focused on contributing to that heritage.

While some might argue that not all these writers, particularly fiction writers, are equal in talent or, for that matter, book sales, and that this new literary movement (Post-Soul, the New Black Aesthetic, Word Movement, as it has been alternately dubbed) doesn’t have the same unifying political force as past literary movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, others counter that this generation of Black writers have greater diversity and freedom as artists than ever before.

Who are these new and emerging writers and what affect has the Reagan/Bush, hip-hop era had on their work? Do they have more freedom as artists, or is that merely an illusion? And how is this movement, if that is the word to use to define this loose collective of writers, different or similar to past literary movements?

To start, one way in which this new generation of Black writers is similar is that, like the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement, their emergence onto the literary scene paralleled a societal environment that was shaped by cultural and political change – namely the shift in race relations due to the integration of public schools, affirmative action and continued civil rights activism which took place during the 1970s and 1980s. While most African Americans benefited from these programs, such as the Black middle class, which rose during the 1970s, others remained in a downward spiral of poverty, drugs, and gang violence in many of America’s urban centers.

This period also saw the rise of the Republican right, which swept Ronald Reagan into the White House and helped legitimize a concerted attack on affirmative action, multiculturalism in universities, and the safety net programs designed to help the poor. Young Black people who bore witness to these changes, along with the highs of Jesse Jackson’s two “historic” presidential campaigns, Nelson Mandela’s liberation from a South African prison and Vanessa L. William’s crowning as the first Black Miss America to such lows as the Atlanta child murders, were also being criminalized through the drug wars and racial profiling.

This contradictory aspect of Black life in a post-integrated America has given young Black people a strangely unique position “to interpret the political and cultural terrain of our own conflicted moment” (Powell 184). Failed by a leadership “elected and anointed” to “adequately respond to the failures of black urban life in the 1980s,” young Black people turned to hip-hop culture to express their “inner rage” toward their increasing disenfranchisement (184). Critic and author Nelson George refers to this period as “Post-Soul,” as in “the world after Motown and Mayfield, the birth of funk and hip-hop and, yes, disco…” (Young 8).
It was out of this pop cultural and sociopolitical environment that a new generation of Black writers emerged.

Writers such as Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle), Danzy Senna (Caucasia), Trey Ellis (Platitudes, Home Repairs), Edwidge Danticat (Eyes, Breath, Memory; Farming the Bones), Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist, John Henry Days), Junot Diaz (Drown), and Zadie Smith (White Teeth); as well as cultural critics and journalists like Greg Tate (Fly Boy in the Buttermilk), George (Buppies, B.-Boys, Baps and Bohos), Joan Morgan (When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost), Danyel Smith, Cheo Hodari Choker, and Farai Chideya, to name but a few. While social and personal themes (biracial and sexual identity, personal relationships, popular culture) run a cohesive thread through their work, many agree that the political, intellectual, or philosophical ideology that fueled the literary movements of the past is largely missing in today’s Black literature.

In his essay “Angles of Vision,” Jabari Asim attributes this to the lack of national agenda-setting concerns toward civil-rights issues (Powell 149), unlike previous literary movements, which were greatly influenced by the political tenors of their times. For instance, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement mirrored the Marcus Garvey Movement of the 1920s and the Civil Rights, Black Power, and the African liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s, respectively (11). Yet, as Asim also notes, the “new-integration landscape” of today’s America has presented “land mines” to emerging Black writers, but has also provided them with “new opportunities,Ã?® such as the freedom to “investigate one’s art” without the pressure of “censure from one’s peers” (149).

In his 1989 essay “The New Black Aesthetic,” which first paid notice to this nascent literary movement, Trey Ellis wrote “[Black writers] no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please either white people or black” (Powell 150). There is more room for diversity among young Black writers today, not only in style, but in the exploration of the so-called “Black experience.” The idea of Blackness is no longer considered “sacred” or “inviolate” – one that is not in constant need for uplift and is open for deconstruction (Asim, “African-American literature” pX20). In this way, Black writers today differ greatly from their literary forebears, for whom the issue of “Black identity” or “authenticity” was a constant, yet necessary preoccupation.

For African Americans, the issue of “authenticity” has always been a question. What is the authentic Black experience or voice? In a country where the definition of Blackness within the cultural mainstream has been shaped by with a vested interest in maintaining that image (Blackness as inferior, inhuman, “other” ), particularly Eurocentric literature, criticism and other forms of media, questions about identity and authenticity have held a greater significance to Black writers. Therefore, the notion of authenticity is a theme that runs as a whole through the Black literary movements of the twentieth century.

During the Harlem Renaissance, the Black intelligentsia, including W.E.B. Du Bois (whose NAACP magazine, The Crisis, helped spearhead the movement) believed that Black art had a unique responsibility to uplift the race by portraying them in a positive “civilized” light. Yet others, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who embraced the idioms, music, and attitudes of Black people, particularly southern Blacks, thought that the “only way to create a true Black aesthetic was to be our natural Black selves – loud, proud, musical, good, bad, ugly, beautiful, sexual…” (“The Era of the New Negro” www.fyah.com/new negro.htm).

During the 1940s, Richard Wright, a one-time Marxist, rejected his literary forebears in the Harlem Renaissance (with an exception to Hughes, Hurston, and others who embraced Black folk culture and music) as nothing more than “pen-packing petty bourgeoisie with misguided ambitions.” Wright, who wrote Native Son and Black Boy, believed that Black art should be committed to the political struggle of the community from which it sprung (Powell 144). Writers Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were alternately criticized by Black and white critics alike for writing novels that either distorted or did not “authenticate” the Negro experience, while Ellison denounced his critics for being too “militant” and straying away from work that is “universal” in theme.

Wright’s literary “sons and daughters” during the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, in following his example one step further by writing “revolutionary” poetry and prose, also denounced Ralph Ellison or any other writer who ignored the activist struggle of Black liberation. During the 1970s, a movement of Black women’s writings, such as those by authors Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange and others, emboldened by the white feminist movement of the same period, critiqued black and white male patriarchy in America. They, too, came under fire. Criticized for their treatment of Black men in their work, their critics complained that these women writers were being “dishonest” and “inauthentic” in their portrayals of the Black community. Two specific examples of these criticisms occurred after the publications of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place for their treatment of such issues as rape, incest, domestic violence, and lesbianism within the Black community.

Critics of African-American art usually fall within two different camps: those who believe that the arts should portray Black people positively and those who think that it should reflect the political and cultural aspirations of the Black community. This can prove to be a dilemma to any writer who not only wants to be accountable to his/her community, but also wants to explore the different ideas of what it means to be Black and do so in ways that are not generally associated with Black literature. This is an issue that confronts Black artists even today (rappers are criticized, rightly or wrongly, for not only their depiction of Black people in their work and videos, but also for being “apolitical”).

Yet, while the question of authenticity has not quite left the minds of writers from the “Post-soul” generation, there is a willingness to embrace the notion that the so-called “Black experience” can be much broader, more diverse than previously imagined. As Kevin Young writes in the introduction to Giant Steps, an anthology of contemporary Black writers: “From positions as varied as biracial or Caribbean, rural or urban, funk or folk, the [book’s] contributors here have managed to expand the term African American – or more accurately, to recognize that now, as always, we contain multitudes.”

These “multitudes” include works such as Edwidge Danticat’s writings who, like Paule Marshall’s work, brings the individual perspective of an immigrant (in Danticat’s case Haitian) on American soil; E. Lynn Harris, who, in the tradition of James Baldwin’s In Giovanni’s Room, writes about the lives of Black men dealing with their homosexuality; and Senna’s Caucasia, which explores, just as her literary foremother Nella Larsen did, the idea of biracial identity:

The Elemenos, she said, could turn not just from black to white, but from brown to yellow to purple to green, and back again. She said they were a shifting people, constantly changing routine was a serious matter – less a game of make-believe than a fight for the survival of their species. The Elemenos could turn deep green in the bushes, beige in the sand, or blank white in the snow, and their power lay precisely in their ability to disappear into any surrounding. As she spoke, a new question – a doubt – flashed through my mind. Something didn’t make sense. What was the point of surviving if you had to disappear? (Powell 275).

Senna, along with Whitehead, Ellis, Smith and other writers of her generation, raise issues that were brought up by their literary forebears, but in current terms: “Is there such a thing as talking black? Is a fondness for white music, fashion, friends, etc. an indication of racial disloyalty? Who is truly qualified to determine exactly what blackness is?” (Asim “The Book Club” pT03). The question of authenticity or identity in Black literature today has deeper, more complex meanings in a culture in which white kids listen to and identify with rap music and where the Black community can consider Bill Clinton its first “Black president.”

Among the other freedoms Black writers enjoy today is the chance to explore old themes in new ways, though many suggest that they are merely following in the paths already traveled by their literary ancestors. Colson Whitehead, whose first novel, The Intuitionists, explores race through the allegory of elevator inspectors, said in a 1999 Salon.com interview that he sees his work more in the tradition of such experimental writers as Ishmael Reed (Mumbo Jumbo, Flight to Canada), Clarence Major (All Night Visitors), and Charles Wright. Yet, he also believes that there are more Black authors writing in this new literary generation today and that they do have more freedom to explore different areas of style and content in their work. “It’s not as polemicized,” he says.

“I’m dealing with serious issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.” This “non-polemicized” environment also allows Black writers a greater freedom to branch out into different genres, such as mainstream popular fiction (Bebe Moore Campbell, Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey), mystery (Walter Mosley, Valerie Wilson Wesley, barbaraneely), and science fiction/thriller (Tanarive Due). While there have been Black writers who explored genre fiction in the past (Chester Himes in the mystery/detective novel department, and Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany in speculative fiction), there is a huge glut of Black authors today with a wider niche market in genre fiction than ever before.

The influence of popular culture in the lives and writings of these young writers is perhaps the singular predominant theme of the “Post-soul” movement. Pop cultural icons such as Jet magazine, blaxploitation movies, Parliament Funkadelic are, in the hands of these writers, considered “acceptable themes for literature” (Young 7). Whitehead’s recent novel John Henry Days is one such interesting example of this. Bridging the gulf between the folk culture of the past (John Henry) and pop culture of the present (hip-hop, techno, celebrity culture), the novel, which follows two days in the life of a buppie freelance writer as he covers the inauguration of a commemorative John Henry stamp, is rife with currently familiar pop cultural icons and lingo.

Senna, Beatty, Harris, and others also use pop-culture to provide a common terrain to their work and, in many ways, to critique a society inundated in that culture, as well. Hip-hop also has an enormous influence on contemporary Black literature. As I stated before, many of these writers were born after 1960, so their maturation occurred roughly during the same period when hip-hop rose up out of the Boogie Down Bronx through DJ Kool Herc’s turntable stylings in 1972 to the recording of the first rap record “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang in 1979. In his introduction to the anthology step into a world, writer and editor Kevin Powell noted that hip-hop’s influence helped “catalyze(d) young black verbal expression as had not been done since the 1960s…” It has also had an influence on young Black writers and their style. Kevin Young writes that Black writers today are also members of the “hip-hop generation.” And though, this does not mean that they are “rappers or urban” they do, he goes on to write:

use, quite comfortably, hip-hop’s aesthetics and sense of history – that is, that history is ever-present, the past easily taken from (“sample”), repeated (“loop”), collaged together, unified often only by voice and by the rhythm of day-to-day life (“flow” and “beat”)…These writers flow and then are willing to interrupt that flow, to challenge the aesthetic of quiet storm “smoothness” or sitcom solutions, that are hallmarks of a public need for “positive images” or “easy uplift” (6).

If Young’s discourse on hip-hop’s influence on contemporary Black literature sounds similar to the aspirations of past literary movements – particularly Langston Hughes’s seminal 1926 essay for the Nation magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” – then it is no mistake since the writers who make up the “Post-soul” generation are a continuation of their forebears’ desires to “express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame” (Hughes). Hip-hop, Powell wrote, was a musical form, that paid little attention to what “white people thought of them” and, like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, “showcased” the musical idioms and attitudinal flavor of Black people. As with hip-hop, or other forms of popular culture which had a defining influence on them, young Black writers borrow a page from their literary ancestors by using these influences in their work the same way that writers of the Harlem Renaissance incorporated the folkways and the blues and jazz riffs of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, or in the way writers from the Black Arts movement integrated be-bop and Soul (Coltrane’s “The Love Supreme” and James Brown’s “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud) into theirs.

Another way in which hip-hop has had an influence on today’s literature is through the Spoken Word movement of the early ’90s. Poets such as Beatty, Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Dana Bryant, Elizabeth Alexander and others, following in the tradition of Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and other poets who were groomed out of the Black Arts movement, as well as the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe of New York, and the Watts Street Poets of Los Angeles in the ’70s, married spoken word poetry to live music. Slam performances, films like Slam and Love Jones, and an MTV unplugged special have given new energy to poetry and spoken word. While most people might argue with the idea that Spoken Word is a more literate version of hip-hop, it is no mistake that its re-popularity came on the heels of rap’s dominance in mainstream culture with such artists as Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. hitting the top ten Billboard charts.

Yet, Powell throws a note of caution about how the mainstream culture has “overemphasized” poetry to the exclusion of other literary genres, such as fiction, essays, criticism, and drama, while as the same time, elevated “mediocre” poetry by young writers who have an “all-about-the-benjamins mentality,” and are less concerned with doing their homework – meaning reading and perfecting their craft (7). The same criticisms are being made about the current slate of Black popular fiction which followed in the footsteps of such literary success stories as best-selling novelists Terry McMillan and E. Lynn Harris. After the publication of Macmillan’s Waiting to Exhale, novels depicting the travails of materialistic Black women, usually a quartet of girlfriends, and their relationship problems with men, became, as Debra Dickerson notes in a review of Benilde Little’s The Itch, “just a hodgepodge of tired black stereotypes” whose only justification for being were to “cash in” on the “cultural zeitgeist” of literary-starved African-American women looking for reflections of themselves in books (Powell 173). Many people blame this glut of “bad” writing to a publishing industry, after not only recognizing that Black people do read, but have a steady “word of mouth” support system for books by Black authors, are willing to push titles that are designed to offer bigger returns rather than expand the scope of the literary arts. Mystery writer, Walter Mosley, who in 1996 turned to a Black publishing company, Black Classic Press, to publish his novel, has said, “The publishing business is in a cultural way the most powerful institution in America,” adding that certain books aren’t being published because the white-dominated publishing industry isn’t “sensitive” to the needs of African American readers (“Black Purchasing” 36).

If this is the case, then, it certainly brings into question the “freedom” young Black writers today truly have in writing the types of stories they want to tell as opposed to the ones that will get published and ultimately read. Yet, Black writers, particularly those with uncompromised voices, have always faced obstacles getting their work published, whether it was the Harlem Renaissance writers who had to rely on white patrons to support their art or Black Arts writers whose work was considered too incendiary by literary publications both established, independent, Black or white (ya Salaam www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/blackarts/historical.htm). Yet, they have also managed, by the grace of God and, as Malcolm X would say, any means necessary, to get their work into print (either through self-publishing or through Black-owned presses such as Third World Press). The same holds true for young Black writers today who have turned to alternate means, such as the Internet, to get their work to an eager reading public.

This determination to write and be read is a hallmark of African-American creativity. After all, Black folks have been reading and writing since this nation’s start, when it was illegal in many parts of the country for them to do so. The act of writing for African-Americans is a political act in and of itself. And while young Black writers today might not be writing opuses that are overtly “political” as their literary ancestors, they continue a tradition began when poet Phillis Wheatley first dipped her pen in an inkwell. And so it is, as Langston Hughes concluded in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”: “We build our temples tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” Today’s Black writers continue to build that temple one layer.

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