Academic journal article African American Review

Tip-Toeing on the Tightrope: A Personal Essay on Black Writer Ambivalence

Academic journal article African American Review

Tip-Toeing on the Tightrope: A Personal Essay on Black Writer Ambivalence

Article excerpt

A drum roll roared, a crowd hissed, cymbals clashed, and a muscular young African woman finessed her way up the ladder to the landing, then to the wire. Fans around the world marveled at this glamorous Black woman with sparkly make-up and neon tights who danced on the high wire at the UniverSoul Circus, the world's first all-Black circus held recently on Chicago's South Side. I thought it was the first time I witnessed a Black person walking the tightrope, until my genetic memory reminded me of the many times Black folks have had to, and will continue to, walk the tightrope.

Welcome to my Big Top. Step right up as I walk you through the death-defying feats performed by and performed on Black writers who could be ringmasters in the literary circus we call "The Academy" if their greatness were not judged by the lions.

Black writers - meaning those of African ancestry from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean - have been prolific and profound, writing volumes on the subject of Black writer ambivalence, the duality of attempting to amplify their writer's voice within the Black aesthetic while maintaining reverence to the Eurocentric aesthetic; projecting through one's words a moral and political awakening while playing out the stereotypes some Whites still have for Black writers and other Negroes; continuing to treat this affliction with a prescription of value-laden verbs while fighting disillusionment and constant explanations about duality to people who wake up every morning never feeling the pangs of race and its relationship to class, gender, and sexual orientation.

Black writers' ambivalence is aggravated by the need to be twice as good as White writers while receiving only a third of the money and an eighth of the recognition. The tension between the two selves we battle as Black writers in a White literary world is our exigence, our source of triumph as well as defeat - our source of immense satisfaction yet also the reservoir of our angst. From Du Bois to Danticat, scores of important Black writers have dissected the double-vision of the children of the ancient African diaspora. For example, author-lawyer Derrick Bell, in his essay "The Last Black Hero," details the schizophrenia afflicting his hero, writer-singer Paul Robeson (Faces 66), who was accepted for his art but not for his race - though my psychiatrist-wife frowns upon my apparent misuse of the precise clinical term schizophrenia, which she defines as "a psychotic illness involving hallucinations, delusions, and bizarre behavior."

Bell explains in "The Rules of Racial Standing" that Blacks are denied "legitimacy when they discuss their negative experiences with racism or even when they give a positive evaluation of another Black person or his or her work" (Faces 111). Saul Bellow detailed his feelings on this subject in 1952 when he praised Ralph Ellison for finding a "way," as a Black novelist, to "go at their problems, just as there are Jewish and Italian 'ways.' "According to Bellow, had Ellison adopted a more strident tone - one typical of many of today's minority writers - "he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone" (qtd. in Crouch 89).

Antigua-born Jamaica Kincaid says that she had to flee from her Black island home to New York's White literati to begin her career, simply because she "could not have become a writer living among the people" she knew best (162). Is this double-talk or double-vision? Author-curmudgeon Stanley Crouch illuminates the double-vision concept in his book The All-American Skin Game when he explains: "Conceived and laid out by W. E. B. Du Bois in the first chapter of his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk, the condition somehow disallows consciousness of self and creates an aching split - 'this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. …

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