"Illuminating the darkened corridors": an interview with Alexs Pate.
Pate, born and raised in Philadelphia, imparts his iconoclastic image onto his work. He is an innovator, clairvoyant in his observations about love, humanity, and freedom. Pate, who has published five novels and a collection of poetry in a span of eight years, breaks new ground in the realm of African American literature. He shatters stereotypes associated with African American men and the African American home with the novels Losing Absalom (1994) and Finding Makeba (1997). He probes the nature of guilt that African American men feel as a result of the societal stereotypes that mark them as villains, as outlaws in his collection of poems innocent (1998) and in his recent novel The Multicultiboho Sideshow (1999). And finally in his new novel, West of Rehobeth (2001), he introduces a young boy, coming of age into a world full of guilt and despair, who learns the importance of maintaining innocence and hope.
This interview took place on June 10, 2000, at his home in Minneapolis, MN. It delves deep into the heart of Pate's novels and poetry as it explores themes in his work such as guilt and innocence. It examines Pate's philosophies on writing, on the job of the artist, on the importance of African American male writers, and on the state of contemporary African American literature. Ultimately, it gives us a clearer understanding of the relationship between Pate's work and his attempt to stimulate positive growth and change in our world.
Link: Describe what it was like growing up in Philadelphia.
Pate: I grew up in North Philadelphia, fairly deep in the hood. I lived on a block in the middle of a lot of poverty, but I lived in an enclave where most of the people owned their houses. Everybody had cars. It was a working middle-class community. Most of the fathers in the neighborhood worked one or two jobs, at least. Most of our mothers worked, too. It was like these black people, my parents and the people that were like them, really believed in the American Dream, and they worked hard to achieve it. They also worked hard to prepare their kids educationally. It was a time where kids learned etiquette and manners. There were clubs, Boy Scouts, summer camps, and summer vacations. I remember somebody in the neighborhood would gather up all the kids once a week during the summer to go for a ride. We would drive out of the neighborhood and into the suburbs to get ice cream, or to have a change of scenery.
I had a good childhood, but it wasn't idyllic because, at the same time, I lived around a lot of gangs and gang fighting. I was constantly dodging the impact of gang violence on the streets. It was around us, but it wasn't among us. We were among it. I wasn't untouched by it, but I wasn't molded by it either. I was molded by the fact that most of my friends' families were intact. And I always had to contend with which parent was watching me because somebody's parent was always near.
My mother made me read a lot, so I spent a lot of time in my room reading. That's where I developed a love for stories. My dad and I would go to baseball games to see the Phillies play regularly. He'd play ball with me, or I'd play ball with my friends out on the streets. I sort of vacillated between being studious and being a street jock. Of course, my family had a lot of stress, usually around money, but I grew up basically like a Disney kid. There was a certain kind of innocence actually, when I think about it--even among all the chaos and violence in the community.
Link: Since Finding Makeba came out in 1997, I've noticed a rise in novels that focus on children with missing fathers. It was one of the very few, if not the first novel, that explored the issues surrounding absentee fathers and that was written from a father's point of view. To me, that is why this book is important--because it addresses issues, however painful and tragic they may be, that most of America can relate to. What motivated you to write such a novel? And why do you think it wasn't until 1997 for a book like this to come out, considering that the existence of absentee fathers have been prevalent in families for decades?
Pate: I wrote that book as a letter to my children. I wanted them to know that even though I wasn't with them, I loved them and was unprepared to deal with the concept of absenteeism. I wanted them to know that the combination of these and other factors crippled me and, thusly, affected my relationship with them. I wanted them to know that I felt a certain guilt, one that I accepted as genuinely my own, that I wanted to grow from. I wanted to create a positive resolution to this dilemma. This is the pure magic of fiction: I could write a story in which a man and his estranged daughter could, after struggle, reconnect the wires of love.
In response to your question about why it took so long for a book like Finding Makeba to be written--that is a complicated question because I think it has to do with a natural evolution of blacks in America. The poetry and fiction of the various eras of our presence in the United States had other more important targets than self-exploration. Our stories were about survival, about the struggle to love and live in a hostile environment. And of course, they were about the fight for freedom. As we move through time, each new generation of writers sets about the task of moving these discussions further. As I've come of age as a writer, I realize I am interested more in internal issues than external ones.
When I began writing Finding Makeba, I remember asking a number of men who were separated from their children how they felt. How much did they miss their children? How much did they communicate with them? And if they didn't, why? I was surprised to find how many of them could not even talk about it. I knew then it was important. Black men are warriors, scholars, basketball players, rappers, and bus drivers. But no matter what we do, we must continue to understand more about who we are--how living in this time and in this society affects us.
Link: I can't help but see you in Ben, the protagonist. The narrator writes, "Ben was developing a new breed of African American writers .... he was driven to define the contemporary black man. And it wasn't all fight and fire." Do you believe you are developing a new breed of contemporary black writers? If so, how would you define the contemporary black man?
Pate: There are indeed parts of me in Ben. I'll admit to that. Yes, I think that I am a part of developing a new breed of black writers--writers who are consciously trying to continue the exploration of the depth of African American presence. We are mindful of the external, cosmetic details of African American life. We live in black skin. We listen to black music. But our goal, really, is to illuminate the darkened corridors, unlock the locked doors, and reveal the challenges that lie before us. This is what people who are striving to achieve and maintain the quality of their humanity must do.
And about the contemporary black man? No, I don't think I can define him adequately. But, suffice it to say, he is as diverse and multifaceted as any human organism on this planet. And this is my point really. He is sweet, soft, beautiful, and healthy, as well as the often portrayed array of negative images like angry, violent, and so forth. Actually I try to reveal as much in my work, if not more, about the emotional lives of the men in my stories as I do the women. This I think is the problem. Too often black men are flattened into symbols. Stereotypes. Elaborate, perhaps even complicated stereotypes, which actually serve to marginalize our lives in fiction. Without naming names, many women writers are guilty of this and a fair number of men writers are as well...most likely because these marginalized lives are much easier to commercialize.
Link: The paragraph continues on with, "The activist writers of the sixties and seventies had burned out. They had screamed and scratched and fought until there was nothing left. Only a handful of black writers survived the revolution. From this Ben knew that he had to control his rage so that it would not destroy him." Is this why, stylistically (with the exception of The Multicuitiboho Sideshow) your novels exude gentleness and tenderness and even sweetness? I mean, you definitely go against the stereotype that literature by black male writers is angry and bitter.
Pate: First of all, that stereotype is fading. I'd say that one of the rising concerns in African American fiction is the absence of pointed, clearly articulated anger. In a way, that was partly why I wrote Multiculti. I knew that Ichabod Word would make readers nervous.
But back to your initial question: If my novels "exude gentleness and tenderness and even sweetness," as you say, and I thank you for saying that, it is because that is a big part of my natural self. I understand anger, embrace it when it feels right. But my love affair with writing and fiction, in particular, is one totally born out of a fascination with the seductive qualities of words. I am a poet at heart. In my head when I write, it's like the continuous flow of words form a sort of song. It just streams out. I would call it my natural voice.
Link: You also wrote in Finding Makeba, through Ben, "How could the artistic expression for an African American man penetrate the same culture that enslaved him? How? ... And why did he care?" Ben never answers these questions. How would Alexs Pate answer these questions? Have you resolved this conflict within yourself?
Pate: When I posed those questions, they were more of an attempt to encourage my readers to think about such a dilemma. This dilemma is one that I wrestle with all the time. I think it's important to think about. But yes, I've answered those questions for myself. African American male artists can penetrate an oppressive culture if their work promotes and/or stimulates positive change. It is precisely the impact of the ideas and the realities of those who have suffered in this society that create the impetus and the support for whatever possibilities there are for social change. Whatever little contribution an artist can make to the process of change is worth the struggle. Indeed there are many who believe that artists and the work they do create the possibility for change. My belief in this drives me to continue my work as an artist despite the oppressive nature of our culture.
Link: When I read your novels, I feel like I am reading both poetry and prose at the same time. Do you purposely try to intertwine prose and poetry, or is this a natural result of your writing style?
Pate: Whatever happens when I begin writing is the result of all the reading I've done, and the music that circulates in my head and in the story I'm trying to tell. There is no doubt that reading Jean Toomer's Cane, for example, showed me the way to allow my own voice to develop, and to trust it. What then comes out is a pure representation of me. I first started writing as a poet, and I believe that poetic language can elevate a story beyond the mundane and expected. Actually it is the surprising nature of poetic language that provides a lot of the energy in a good novel.
Link: Critics have described you as a gifted storyteller. What key ingredients make a good story? What makes a good novel?
Pate: I think there are some specific craft-oriented things that you have to do. There's a set of things that work in storytelling--in writing novels, in writing stories--and you have to know what they are. This includes the development of character and the construction of conflict. Once you know what these are and internalize them to give order to your ideas and to the way you tell the story, then you can think about whatever story you want to tell. So craft is a big issue.
I also think that you have to be a keen observer of the way people are, and the way things happen. You have to have a desire to tell the truth about what happened, and why it happened. What I'm trying to say is that a good storyteller has to come to understand, through observation, that there is a reason for everything. Your job is to explain the reason why things happen, even the things that seem unbelievable. Whether it was because a butterfly moved in Indonesia, or whether a person was abused, or whether a person was rich, or poor, or sad--something happened that began a series of events that would lead to the event that you are writing about. You have to understand and explain that. And when you explain that, you are in fact telling the details of a story.
The other thing is that every story has to be about trouble because every story is about trouble, about a problem. We aren't really interested in stories that don't involve trouble. What we want from a story is to be vicariously involved in it so that our hopes, aspirations, and fears get touched, get taken to a certain place. If you don't have an interesting, or important, or significant piece of trouble to talk about, then you don't get the kind of stakes and risks that are needed to draw the reader into your story.
Link: What motivates you to write?
Pate: Probably the easy answer, and the answer that a lot of writers give, is that they have to. It's something that they feel like they have to do. And I think that's true for me. If I don't write over a period of time, I start to get uncomfortable. There's a certain part of me that doesn't get expressed; I can't articulate my thoughts or feelings. I can't really be who I naturally am. Writing, for me, is a natural condition, so I'm compelled to write. But also, when you start making up stories in your head, there's a certain joy that's connected with creating and writing, and you start to miss that if you don't write. That's one of the driving forces.
There is a secondary reason that drives me to write, which is separate from the personal satisfaction I get from writing. That secondary drive stems from the feeling that the things that I think about, and the stories that I create in my mind, are important and actually have a purpose--not just to entertain, or not just because I thought of it, but because the thoughts and stories relate to something. For example, they might relate to grief, or to celebration, or to love. And then I think, "Well, that's something that I was never told or taught, but it's something that needs to be told." That need to tell is the secondary drive; that's the part that is like a calling, or a purpose. I write because it would be irresponsible if I didn't.
Link: How would you describe your writing process?
Pate: What I've done now for years is sit at my desk every day between midnight and 6 A.M. I don't have to write, but I have to sit there. If I'm working on a story, I'm probably going to write. If I'm thinking about a story, I'm just probably going to sit there. Sometimes I watch television, or listen to music, or play computer games, but I take that time at my desk because I'm more likely to write than I am not to write. If I'm really involved in a story, I have to spend a certain amount of time thinking about where I've been--the part of the story I have already told. I'll look at what I've written already to bring myself up to speed, and then I begin writing. When I'm done writing for the night, I make a list of all the things I wrote about and a list of all the things I need to write about, or where I need to take the story next. And then I'll go away from my desk--it'll be six or seven in the morning--thinking about the things I need to write about the next time. That may mean that I'll be thinking abou t it all day, or while I'm dreaming, or sleeping. When I go to my desk the next night, I read the list of things that I wrote and the list of places where I want to take the story, and then begin writing.
Link: We've been mainly discussing your novels. However, you've also written numerous essays, short stories, poems, and plays. And right now, you're working on a film script. What is your favorite genre of literature?
Pate: Fiction. The novel.
Link: Hands down?
Pate: Yeah. Well, I think poetry is amazing. Poetry is one of those things that I always wished I could do.
Link: What do you mean?
Pate: Well, I write poetry, but I don't write poetry like some people write poetry.
Link: You did say you were a poet at heart, so aren't you naturally a poet? What do you mean you wish you could write poetry?
Pate: Because I consider poetry to be the most demanding of all the art forms. I think fiction is my favorite, but I think to be a good poet requires certain characteristics that are very difficult to actually achieve. Like in my mind, a good poet must live in truth all the time. To me you must give up your soul to be a poet; you must give up your freedom. I would be led by a poet, a good poet. And by good here, I mean a poet who is not just technically good, but a poet whose real purpose in life is to lead us into a place of understanding and truth.
Link: Doesn't your fiction do that?
Pate: When I say that I'm a poet at heart, I want my fiction to lead people in to truth and understanding. Sometimes it does that and sometimes it doesn't, but to me, to be a good poet means that there is no question about it. I mean, leading people is the only thing that a poet has to do. With fiction, there are other things you need to do besides lead people to truth: You have to entertain; you have to create believable stories and realistic characters; you have to describe a chair effectively. In poetry, you have to do that to a certain extent, but really the details of the house aren't always that important to a good poet. What you feel like when you're in that house is much more important. So you learn different things from poets and from writers of fiction.
Link: How specifically do you want to change this world? our society? In other words, when you write, what affect do you want your work to have on your readers?
Pate: The first thing I set out to do is to humanize myself. I really believe that being able to change the world has to begin here, with me. I was listening to a rap song the other day by Common, and at the end of the song, "A Song for Assata," Assata Shakur is quoted. She's a woman who is in exile in Cuba. In the song, someone asks her, "What is freedom?" And she says, "You're asking me, 'What is freedom?' Well, I don't think I know a lot about freedom. I know a lot about what freedom isn't because I've never felt what freedom is." And then she finally says that freedom is about being able to bloom, to blossom, to be yourself.
In this world, growing up in this country as an African American, trying to be yourself is a very difficult thing because there are these expectations. Some of them have to do with racial stereotypes, and some have to do with the negative history of racism in this country. A dimension of that is the way in which black men are looked at. It's the gaze they receive. It's like, "What do you see when you see a black man? How open are you to them? Do you see someone you welcome, or someone you are afraid of? Do you expect them to be smart and articulate, or do you expect them to be slow and unintelligible?" Unfortunately, black men are met with these types of questions at every door of every store in every restaurant, in every circumstance. Part of those expectations, or stereotypes, is based on a lack of knowledge. And some part of that is based on just plain rigid, racial hatred. I'm trying to get at the part that is based on ignorance. I want people to understand that I had a father and that he was a good man. I want people to know that I had a good mother. I want them to know that there were people in my neighborhood who cared about me and who I cared about. There were people who cared about their children--who wanted their children to have a good education, and who worked really hard, sometimes having two or three jobs. The realization and the recognition of that by people--by white people in particular--is critical in ways which I think will help spur change. So in my stories, this humanization, this attempt to make me real and to make my world real to other people, is the world-changing side of my work.
There are some people writing books that only pander to stereotypical images, creating a bullshit world--a world where a character is just concerned about meeting someone and having sex; a world where it's just about drugs and violence, and escaping responsibility. No. The world I try to create attempts to do something totally different. When people are reading my stories, looking in from the outside, I want them to see a family, a world that has love and dimension to it. To me, that is the world-changing side of art, of my work.
Link: I'd like to talk about Losing Absalom, your first published book. You mentioned that you want people to understand that you had parents who were good people, who worked hard, and who were responsible. You want them to "see a family, a world that has love and dimension to it." Is that why you wrote Losing Absalom?
Pate: Yes. In particular, I wanted to present a hard-working black man who was a father, and who was gentle, loyal, committed, and sweet--a man like my father. And I wanted to show him in a real world. But I also wanted to begin exploring the notion of home. For example, my father felt at home. Absalom felt at home. But Absalom's son didn't, and it cost him dearly. Those are two dominant themes in Losing Absalom.
Link: I read a critical essay of yours in African American Literary Criticism: 1773-2000 entitled "Making Home in the New Millennium: Reflections (1999)" that addressed the issue of home. What is the conflict surrounding home for you? How would you define home? Have you found or established a sense of home?
Pate: This is a bit complicated for me--this notion of home. I must confess that I don't feel at home anywhere, except perhaps in the body of a story that I'm writing. I feel at home there because it is a world that I have some control over. Ultimately, I believe this is all related to the repositioning of African American men in our society. I don't ever feel "expected," if you get my meaning. I, too often, feel like my presence is either demonized, or gratuitously accommodated. I want to belong, but I don't often feel like I belong anywhere. Now I have to admit that this may be a particularly personal feeling, but I can't help but write about it.
Link: Absalom's daughter, Rainy, believes "that at the base of every man was a deep emptiness. A lack of purpose. To her, men spent most of their time trying to figure out what their reason was for existing. Why did they exist?" Why do you exist, Alexs?
Pate: When I wrote that, I was burrowed into Rainy's character. She might look out at men and see their smallness, their vulnerability. The fact that they cause wars and commit heinous crimes--there has to be explanations for the type of things men do. I suppose I think one explanation is that men are forever in search of something they can't name, which you might identify as aimless, purposeless. Of course, there are obvious reasons men exist, procreation being primary. But it clearly isn't enough: to simply be. What I really think is the reason we exist is to discover why we exist. And my existence, I think, has to do with learning happiness and contributing to the growth of culture, as ridiculous as both of those goals may seem.
Link: I had the pleasure and privileged opportunity to read the manuscript of your most recent book, West of Rehobeth. This novel radiates the beauty and sweetness of language and imagery found in Losing Absalom and Finding Makeba. However, unlike these novels, the protagonist of West of Rehobeth is a young boy. What motivated you to write this novel?
Pate: Well, to be honest, West of Rehobeth grew out of a series of short stories I wrote more than twenty years ago when I was just starting out. I always promised myself that I would find a way to publish them because they are about the place I spent my summers as a kid: Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. So as I fashioned those stories into the novel, I realized that I was telling a "coming of age" story, which is relatively rare for a black male literary writer. And, actually, the existence of innocence in black boys -- or, rather, the moment at which guilt is bestowed upon black boys is very interesting to me right now. And what also interests me is how, as boys, we learn we are supposed to feel guilty, supposed to surrender our innocence matter-of-factly. As these issues began to surface, I realized that West of Rehobeth would be an important story for me to tell. Naturally, I hope its readers will feel the same way.
Link: The struggle to claim innocence for oneself and for others to validate that person's innocence is the ultimate struggle for the protagonist, Ichabod (Icky) Word, in your book The Multicultiboho Sideshow. Innocence and the belief in one's innocence from an outsider is also what the character, Rufus from West of Rehobeth, fights for. Why is acquiring innocence so important?
Pate: The simple act of living brings its share of guilts, both little and great. There are things we do or have done which might cause us to shudder with guilt when we reflect on them. This is not what I'm getting at. I'm more interested in the accumulated guilts that come to African American men simply because they were born black in America. From an early age, young black boys can feel the stares of corner store proprietors, green grocers, bus drivers, and mall security guards. What are the effects of this? I think they are devastating. Indeed, I believe that many black men are caught in a cycle in which nearly all of their actions happen in response to their sense of guilt. Whether they are smiling, proposing marriage, cutting jokes, or jacking a car, the shadow of guilt pervades. Conversely, I am very interested in my own reacquisition of innocence. After all, I truly am innocent. I don't deserve to be passed by taxi cab drivers, or blown off by exclusive boutique shop owners. And innocence is important because I think it's a precondition to being able to experience freedom--to the extent that it is possible in this world at all. However, I know that I can never feel free if I am weighted down by the chains of guilt.
Link: In every one of your novels, you develop conflicting ideas such as guilt and innocence, gentleness and rage, hero and outlaw, wholeness and emptiness, and, in West of Rehobeth, hope and despair. What is that all about?
Pate: How do we learn? One way is through experience. And each experience can be grossly simplified to the presence of something or the absence of something. There is a theme to every moment of our lives, but we aggregate because we aren't really capable of consciously living every moment. A writer cannot write about every moment anyway; it would be too boring. To me, the best way to get at issues is to deal with the presence and/or absence of, for example, love, respect, innocence, or completeness, and then to explore the details of these experiences in the lives of real people.
Link: Your book of poems that was published in 1998, innocent, also reinforces this overriding theme that is shown in your novels. The book's title suggests that the poems are about innocence, yet the poems are actually about outlaws, guilt, and shame, with the exception of the last poem, "innocent." Can you explain this paradox?
Pate: I began this whole exploration of innocence by exploring the nature of guilt. In Losing Absalom, Sonny feels guilty because he's a black man working in the corporate world in Minnesota. Ben, in Finding Makeba, feels guilty because he became separated from his family. In my first poem of the collection, called "The Outlaw Comes to Know Himself," I explore the nature of guilt-the whole feeling of being pursued, of being hunted, of being thought to be a criminal; it directly relates to the whole humanization of me. I would find myself flinching every time I heard a siren. I found that a lot of black men felt that way. If a cop pulls up behind me in a car, that instinct to be nervous, to feel that I did something wrong is profound. White men, or any other race of men, may feel those same feelings, but the palpable uneasiness it gives to African American men, borne out of the brutality of police and out of the history of racism in this country, is overpowering; you can never escape it. I found myself having a decent job and being a law-abiding citizen just like my father, yet feeling guilty. And yes, I've done things wrong in my life, things that the average person would suffer a certain amount of guilt for, and yet I felt criminal and criminalized about it.
I also found that when society turns its gaze toward African American men, for example absentee fathers, it's a criminal gaze. It's not a gaze of sympathy, or empathy that tries to understand why there are so many single-parent families in the African American community, or why men don't pay child support, or why men aren't connected more to their children. Instead it's a gaze that condemns and shames. The gaze communicates, "We have to figure out a way to get them for what they did." Well, to me, that's a whole criminal way of looking at that man. And actually by legal status, that man is a criminal.
Over time, I just got tired of feeling everybody else's guilt--associative guilt--like every bank robbery, every rape, every murder, every broken home was somehow connected to me. I just got tired of that.
Link: Feeling everybody else's guilt because you were black?
Pate: Because I was black. I remember a conversation that the Asian American poet and writer David Mura and I had during a rehearsal for a film I did with him called Slowly This in New York. (1) We were at an apartment in the Village. We were writing the script, actually, and David made a comment about his addiction to pornography and sex, and the struggle that he had with fidelity to his wife. He talked about it openly and freely. And I was like, "I could never do that. I would never do that." But in the middle of that, I realized that the only way out of feeling guilty was to strive for innocence, and then to communicate that innocence in such a way that it transforms the gaze that we receive; instead of seeing us as being guilty, people could see us as being innocent.
I also realized that you have to understand guilt to understand innocence. You can't really deal with innocence because innocence is the "absence of." So you deal with guilt, which is the "presence of." Once you understand guilt and all of its dimensions and impacts, then you can say, "Take this away. I don't want this." That's what I did in innocent. I made a list of guilts and went through each guilt saying, "This is not what I want. This is not what black men are. Get rid of this."
I do a lecture in which I talk about how, as a black writer, I'm constantly forced to tell you what I'm not. African American writing largely is about one thing: "I am"--this is who I am. But before most writers can get to that place, they have to tell you what they're not. For example in writing, if you're developing a character who is a good person, and you're trying to show that he or she will do the right thing, you'll constantly have to show what he or she is not. In other words, before you can begin to articulate what you are, as a black man in America, you must spend most of your life telling people what you're not.
Still today, if a white woman is walking toward me on an empty street, I may cross the street to keep from antagonizing that woman. I may cut a joke quicker, I may smile faster, I may be much more approachable, because I don't want them to think that I'm evil, angry, or full of rage. "I'm not an angry black man!" That's what I'm trying to say. So I'm already compensating--I never get to be innocent even when I am innocent! If I'm in a bar and the television flashes the latest gang murder, suddenly I have to not be that person because of the way in which our society works. So, in a general sense, I'm really trying to embrace the idea that achieving innocence for African American men is the fundamental step in a kind of equalization of power. No matter what other powers we have, they are undermined by the assumption of our guilt.
Link: I've heard you speak about working in the corporate world for about ten years after you graduated from college. Why did you wait so long to commit yourself totally to writing?
Pate: Because being a writer in this society is a very difficult thing to be. You have to be "it" and something else. You have to be "it" and a waiter, or "it" and a teacher. Our society doesn't reward writing financially unless you write commercially lucrative books. So for me, staying in the corporate world was always about working my way to a place where I thought I could survive as a writer. But then I reached a certain point where I said, "To hell with it. I'm going to take a chance and see what happens." It's very much like making yourself a pair of gossamer wings with a wooden frame and going to a high cliff with a long ramp. Once there, you start running up the ramp. As you're running, you think, "Okay, can I jump now? Is it time?" And then finally you run out of ramp, and you have to jump off the cliff. When you jump off, you don't know whether you're going to fly or fall to your death. So the time period spent in the corporate world was the time I was running.
Link: You're not only a writer, but you are also a professor at the University of Minnesota. Do you enjoy teaching?
Pate: Yeah, I love to teach. That's one of the things I love to do most. I have taught creative writing, fiction, and African American literature. I teach, particularly, classes on the literature of African American men. I also teach a class on the poetry of rap where I help students do poetic critical analysis of rap poems. And I teach a class on Amistad and other slave revolts.
Link: What do you like about teaching?
Pate: Working with young minds. It's amazing when somebody comes back to you five years later and says, "You know, I never forgot when you said 'such and such'." Then you realize that people are listening to you. And if they actually absorb what you teach them and apply the things they learned in some way, it has an impact somewhere--it may even impact the way they look at the world, which is really what I think a good professor teaches in literature. It's not just about analyzing a book or how to write, but rather how to process what is happening around the world, and how to make sense of all that somehow. So when I talk to former students who got something from my class, I realize the value of teaching. But I also teach for me--and maybe this is the biggest reason why I teach: I love to teach because it keeps me learning. I learn about new people and new ways of looking at things. I also get challenged on my ideas.
Link: You also teach writing classes at The Loft. Describe your work there.
Pate: The Loft is a literary center in Minneapolis. It's one of the largest literary centers in the country. They offer classes in writing; they sponsor readings; and they give grants to writers. It's a full-service literary organization. My work there goes way back, starting during the mid-eighties when I moved to Minneapolis. As a writer in the mid-eighties, I just sort of hung out there. It was a place that made me feel like I could be a writer. It was a place to get support, and to be nurtured--where you met other writers who were trying to do the same thing you were doing. There was fellowship and comradeship. Eventually, I served on the board for a couple of years and then became president of the board for a year or so. My interaction with The Loft was also driven out of a desire to make them more aware of what writers of color were doing in the Twin Cities. Because it's Minneapolis, I think historically the organization has had a hard time envisioning the role, or the impact, of writers of color. I cam e from Philadelphia where I was around a lot of black writers, and I just wanted the organization to be open and accessible and diverse. So I contributed my energy and time to try to make that happen.
Link: And what about your involvement with the Black Arts Movement committee?
Pate: The Archie Givens Foundation, through its collection and traveling exhibit, contributed to the rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance, and it decided to focus its attention on the Black Arts Movement. One of my passions, because I was a developing writer during that time, is the Black Arts Movement. I have always been struck by how little of that movement, in terms of the literature, moved forward--so many books were out of print. For example, when I started teaching, I wanted to teach some of those books--Amiri Baraka's Home or Addison Gayle's The Black Aesthetic, and I found them to be out of print. And I'm thinking, "We have these significant political literary movements like the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts Movement and, twenty years later, we can't find those books in the bookstore." Well, thanks to a lot of black scholars and critics, the Harlem Renaissance was rediscovered. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God suddenly comes back into print. Everybody is reading it again. Jean Toomer's Cane is a book that people start to read again. I wanted to be a part of the effort that would do the same thing for the Black Arts Movement, and The Archie Givens Foundation allows me to do that.
Link: As a black writer who developed during the Black Arts Movement, do you think the ideas and rights blacks were fighting for during that time have been manifested? In other words, do you think our society is making progress toward becoming less racist?
Pate: Sometimes I think you can see signs of progress, and yet they are sometimes almost imperceptible. We have just about exhausted the capacity to eradicate racism through legislative efforts. We have just about exhausted the capacity for the judiciary to have its impact on racism. Yes, there is such a thing as a hate crime nowadays, and certain acts that were legal in the past are illegal today, but that still doesn't change a person's heart. I really think that the work that is yet to be done is as significant, or more significant, than all the work that has already been done. And that work has to do with changing the way people think, changing their hearts. It has to do with holding open the possibility for love in people who you have been taught cannot love you. And it is also necessary for the people who historically have hurt you to apologize and to ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately, we're a long way from those things actually happening in this country. In fact, as the generations keep progressing, t he younger generations get further and further away from achieving that kind of reconciliation in this country. I really think what we're coming to is a time when we have to totally redefine what it means to be American.
Link: What past and/or present writers have influenced your work the most?
Pate: Maybe the first time when I really got turned on by writing was when I read Shakespeare. The poetic dimension, and the sheer brilliance of the plays and the sonnets he wrote still amazes me. Then there's the poet Anne Sexton, who I remember being affected by early on, and William Saroyan who wrote The Human Comedy. And then I made the progression into black literature. Alice Walker's In Love and Trouble, her collection of short stories, had a profound effect on me from the storytelling point of view. I also remember reading Hue and Cry by James Allan McPherson. I read that book in high school and it blew me away--just how good and skilled he was as a writer. Of course you then have Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison--each one of those writers did something completely different,, and I learned something from each of them. In some cases, it was how to build tension in a story. In some cases, it was how to create complex characters. In some cases, like Jean Toomer with Cane, it was how to merge p oetry with prose. I was always learning stuff from the writers that I'm talking about. There's still a handful more. Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo demonstrated how to fuse political satire, political comment with storytelling. I mean, he did that and does that better than most writers I know. Lately it's been John Edgar Wideman with Philadelphia Fire, Charles Johnson with Middle Passage, and Toni Morrison with Sula, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved. These writers bring an intellectual courage to the art of storytelling. As we move further into our progression as Americans, African Americans and the art that we produce continues to get more and more sophisticated. You have these writers who are taking literature to the next level--who have studied and thought about writing in such a way that what they do is amazing, beautiful. Reading all these books told me that I could do what I wanted to do.
Link: What is your perspective on the current state of black literature?
Pate: Well, I think that it's really in a bad state. On one hand, I think it's at its best and healthy. It's like I see it growing, but I don't like the way it's growing. It's growing because we have black writers who are writing romance, adventure, and pulp literature. There are black writers entering the marketplace at every possible level, which is great. This is what we have always wanted. When Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale (1992) sort of blew up, I think it opened the door for a lot of writers to come through.
On the other hand, in terms of the way m which people characterize that growth... I had an old friend who once said, "Growth is not always up." I think this saying applies to the state of black literature today. You have more books written by black writers in the bookstore, but some part of those books pander to the low, negative, base side of human consciousness. The ideas in those books don't elevate, don't lead; they don't take us anywhere. Black literature is growing, but it's growing in terms of quantity not quality.
Fundamentally when you asked, "What is art?" I could say that all art leads; it doesn't follow. That's my mantra. If I'm reading a book that doesn't enlighten or doesn't try to explore new territory, then I don't consider it art. It may be a well-written book, but to me it is not doing the work that art is supposed to do. A book should take me somewhere, open my eyes to something, expose something to me that I might not have wanted to know, or did know but didn't know I knew. When a book doesn't do that, then I'm judging it as being less than.
So what I think is happening is that there are increasing numbers of African American writers writing books that simply serve the entertainment need in whatever readership they have. While this is fine, the unfortunate part about this, and the thing that disturbs me, is that people are beginning to call that "the literature." And it crowds out the people--the Charles Johnsons, the John Widemans, the Ernest Gaines, the Alice Walkers, the Toni Morrisons--who are really trying to move the culture forward. People may know the book Beloved, but people don't know the book Beloved like they know Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree. And when you hear people casually talking about black literature, more and more of that conversation is about what I would call low-level literary efforts--literature that isn't leading us anywhere, literature that celebrates who we are--our problems, our love--but isn't asking hard questions, isn't challenging the dimensions of our humanity.
What I would prefer, of course, is that, when people talk about literature, they would talk about the artistic literary works of the writers I mentioned. And then also say, "Well, there are some really good books in the popular fiction world, too." I want them to make that distinction. If we don't make that distinction, we ultimately demote the continuum of African American literature that began with Lucy Terry, Phillis Wheatley, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. For years, those were the only books that would get published. They were the best, the very best. Today we have a lot more books, but when we talk about literature, we often talk about the mediocre stuff, not the great stuff. And I find that disheartening.
Link: So what do you see as the future of African American literature?
Pate: Honestly, I don't know. I do know that the culture needs the literature to grow. Literature is the blood of the culture, in my opinion. If the literature continues on the path that it is on, the blood will become thin, and the vitality of the culture will weaken. We're already seeing that happen. I mean, kids don't read as much anymore. Instead, they listen to rap. Rap conveys a whole different way in which values, morals, ethics, and ideas are communicated--totally different from the way it was communicated by Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison or John Oliver Killens, or any of the great black writers that I read during my formative years. They taught me what it meant to be black. But if you're going to learn what it means to be black by reading contemporary pop and pulp black fiction, then I think you've got a problem. I think you're going to have a problem. I mean, if it's a mix between commercial black novelists on one hand and Master P on the other, then what are you learning? Who are you? There's a p art of culture that just became invisible. A part of the mind, the heart, the soul that just became unreachable because it has been cut off from writers and artists who are trying to lead--artists who force you to look at who you are, force you to think about why you are the way you are, and ask you, "Do you want to change? Do you want to grow?" which is what black literature has always done.
(1.) The film was directed by Arthur Jafa and aired on the PBS series ALIVE TV in 1995.
Katherine Link received her masters degree in English, with a concentration in African American literature, from Howard University. She is currently enrolled in the American Studies Program, working toward her Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2002|
|Previous Article:||Religious revivalism in the Civil Rights Movement.|
|Next Article:||Crossing Western space, or the HooDoo detective on the boundary in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.|
|And a child shall lead them.|
|A few of my favorite things. (Meanderings).|
|Amistad/HarperCollins. (People On The Move).|
|Francesco Vezzoli: Fondazione Prada.|
|The fire still burns for Pate.|