"Keepin' it real": Walter Dean Myers and the promise of African-American children's literature.
Let us celebrate the children (Myers, Glorious Angels, n.p.)
One afternoon not long ago, I spent over three hours with a group of diverse colleagues deliberating on how space is negotiated in light of post-structuralist theory and philosophy. After class, I felt stimulated by the theoretical constructs at which we'd arrived. But as my mental "high" subsided, reality crept back into my thoughts. I began to consider how many young black men had fallen victim to a violent crime while I mused with novelty over "the production of space." How many young black women under the age of 16 had been impregnated during those three hours? In the throes of what I diagnose as "black intelligentsia withdrawal," my deliberation on space came crashing down to terre/firma; our discussion had not changed a thing that is happening around me in "real" space. As a black man, I find this a particularly disheartening and disempowering sensation; often, while many of my colleagues retreat obliviously to coffeehouses to continue their discussions of theoretical matters, the pressures and realities of real "space" invariably seem to prevent me from enjoying such leisure. I frequently find myself in the midst of "intellectual" discourse wondering how, if ever, these battles will genuinely affect realities outside of the classroom. While post-structuralists skeptically contest the notions and test the certainties of what is "real," I would be quite tickled to observe them trying to explain their "theories" to folks that I grew up with - people who are facing - very "real" problems. In short, time and reality, theory and practice are very tangible issues that I wrestle with consciously.
The clock is always ticking, in my estimation, at a faster pace for black folks, especially for black children. Without question, literary critical theory has opened up a vast space to unlock the discursive values of texts for their usefulness, timelessness, and function. But how can literature and theory be combined in their most cogent form, to exact change in social practices? In short, how do we use literature to facilitate liberatory struggle?
One underexamined, overlooked, and neglected domain exists in the area of children's literature. This fertile genre provides us with a means to engage the minds of the proximate generation before they are swept away by the whirlwind of indoctrinated misinformation promulgated by mass media - the agents of mediated images and hegemonic ideology. In the area of children's literature, we - as scholars, thinkers, educators, and parents - can transform theory into practice that will enhance the developing critical minds of our collective future.
If we want to theorize about how gender and race are mere social "constructions," we must then accept that these same social "constructions" have manifested and asserted themselves in very real ways. In order to defuse the punitive damages wrought upon society by these constructions, we must actively engage in deprogramming destructive ideologies before they crystallize within the mind set of the next generation. Certainly, television and cinema are viable alternate resources, but neither can replace the active interrogatory processes that germinate from the engagement with a malleable literary text. While a television show can passively socialize a young mind into accepting a mediated image of reality, children's literature allows young minds to participate in the production of space, to create their own realities, both real and imagined. When children and young adults create images, this activity brings forth a sense of agency that reflexively evokes power, for when we create an image, we can create our own realities and our own selves. Television - in its breakneck thirty-minute conflicts and resolutions - and film - in its two-hour, multi-million-dollar productions often deny and suppress the active production of images because the medium is already ever-present for its spectators to see, absorb, and accept. While visual media render their audiences passive spectators, literary texts hoist those audiences into the producer position, involving their reading in the formulation of images.
The genre of children's literature is essential to the development of creativity, utility, and critical activity. When harnessed, children can shape their own thoughts and in turn feel empowered to shape and interrogate public images. Yet this area of discursive power remains largely untapped, particularly in the sector of African-American children's literature; that is, children's "literature written by African-Americans that seeks to represent, interpret, and envision the lives, real and imagined, of African-American people" (Johnson 3). This literature is especially important in combating passive learning and the absorption of negative and hyperbolic images.
The wave of "multiculturalism" has been effective in adding more color to the faces in book illustrations, yet do these stories adequately reflect the experiences of a young black readership? If not, how can stock tokenism without sonorous identification sustain a young black reader's interest in a given text? If interest cannot be sustained, self-image cannot be furthered, and change becomes encumbered. Though lack of self-esteem and lack of self-image have long been identified as key proponents in the dearth of African-American academic performance, only an alarming 51 published children's books out of over 5,000 were written and/or illustrated by African-American artists in 1990. When we question where efforts are being placed, I must interject that the problem is not simply a publishing-house issue. Though the "black shelves" at Barnes and Noble are filling up with memoirs and biographies with alacrity, a customer will be hard pressed to find a single book dedicated to the critical study of children's literature. Indeed, we seem more concerned with our present struggles than with "celebrating the children" - through actively addressing the formative materials that will prepare them for the problems that we currently face. By failing to be proactive, we condemn our children to the same fate that many of older generations have had to endure.
We often underestimate the revolutionary potential of black children's literature. In terms of constructing identity, selfhood, and purpose, there is a rich history of how literature targeted for black children has battled to defy, resist, and complicate public representations. Though African-American children's literature can be traced back to the late 1800s, the legacy of intentionally stimulating liberatory change in self-esteem, self-image, and self-agency through black juvenile literary products based on a sociopolitical agenda dates back to the early Harlem Renaissance period, when W. E. B. Du Bois and Jessie Redmon Fauset published The Brownies' Book magazine (1920-1921). Decades later, the Black Panther Coloring Book (1969) surfaced, arguably one of the most overt means of producing revolutionary ideology and political consciousness in the minds of black children. Ebony Jr! (1973-1985) stood as a publication dedicated to stimulating the minds of young black children, calling upon various means of entertainment to stimulate intellectual and creative development (games, coloring, riddles, etc.); its artistry concentrated on promoting a positive self-image by depicting smiling faces of all shades of brown. Today, Young Sisters and Brothers (YSB) is a publication similarly dedicated to providing young black children with a literary product that reifies the black image as a positive as well as prolific public image. YSB articles frankly discuss real issues that affect the black community, with respect for the magazine's young readership; the celebrity spotlights take care to present an alternative to the hyper-sensationalized persona of the black celebrity; its readership learns that their black "stars" hail from the same towns, eat the same foods, and enjoy the same leisure activities that other African Americans do. Unfortunately, I understand that YSB will discontinue publication because it does not sell well enough.
In short, the celebration of children and the concentrated efforts of targeting children for revolutionary change are not new endeavors. Unfortunately, our children have largely been neglected by the intelligentsia while organized street gangs have recognized their value. While the NAACP struggles for youth involvement and participation, gangs have a decade-spanning track record of successfully and heavily recruiting youth to insure their future livelihood.
Recognizing these potential areas for raising consciousness, let us begin to utilize our theoretical discussions on the constructions of masculinity, identity, and representation to begin to assess the usefulness of presenting youth with values that will combat the perilous situation before them. Borrowing from the prolific African-American children's novelist Walter Dean Myers, let us "celebrate the children" in practice instead of theory, for it seems that intellectuals and scholars have woefully misdirected the fruits of their labors. While we tirelessly and passionately debate issues of "race," "representation," "feminism," "masculinity," "authenticity," "simultaneity," and other "hot" intellectual topics of discourse, the (white) hegemonic patriarchal influences of the electronic age swiftly indoctrinate the minds of black children with inauspicious images. Let us ask and begin to resolve the question: How must we "celebrate the child" that stands within the ofttimes crushing interstices of race, class, and representation in modern American culture? As mediascapes frequently fetishize the "other-ness" of the black experience, what habitually results is the privileging of extreme "types" of representations that do not gel in a healthy manner with black children, leaving them with a vexed mode of identification. As Michelle Wallace states,
When it comes to the black world as projected through a white-dominated media, one quickly arrives at the impression that there are only two kinds of black people: the successful ones who do nothing but promote themselves, and the underclass ones who spend all their time robbing, stealing, doing drugs, and killing. We are all aware of this double image.... they are flip sides of the same coin, and neither of them has anything to do with who black people really are. (302)
Thus, children repeatedly bombarded with media images that posit how black folks are "supposed to be," images that prove to be difficult to enhance syncretically and to re-figure because of the omnivorous role of the media in public representation. Literature, on the other hand, serves as a fertile discursive realm in which images can be actively created and its subsequent messages absorbed, interrogated, discussed, and critically interpreted.
The greatest problem that faces the future of the African-American community is the lack of self-worth that we derive from our daily processes. As a healthy collective identity wanes, finding place and purpose engender conflicts that plague black folk in ways transcendent of socioeconomic class. The malady that besets our youth is the growth of nihilism, which Cornel West insists in Race Matters is the greatest threat to black American existence. Judging by the candid voices of rap artists, the contemporary heralds of young black America, it is apparent that West's prophecies may be quite tenable. If one chooses to disavow the psychic pain melodiously confined within the rap lyric, there is hard data to bolster their poetic lamentation. As a testament to black resiliency, African Americans have, historically, had the lowest suicide rates among all groups of ethnicity and class. However, that statistic has now reversed itself: According to federal statistics, black men are committing suicide at a faster rate than any other group. An article in the 1995 Morbidity and Mortality Report states that the suicide rate among black males rose 300 percent between 1980 and 1992 (Leary A15). Without question, we are in crisis.
Standing in ever-closer proximity to the harsh social conditions and injustices that exist in America, being systematically and painfully made aware of the reality of racism at younger ages, African-American children often possess a sense of realism that transcends their age. For this reason, children's literature that is directed at African-American youth must be cognizant of the unique insights that a young black reader may possess. As Dianne Johnson suggests, "African-American youth live in a society and in a world in which the 'happy ending' does not constitute a realistic model. Their realities must be represented, explored, and interpreted in the literature that they read" (2). While Johnson's comments may be considered an essentializing statement that clumps black youth into an archetypal configuration, her comment is "essentially" correct when applied to the majority of black youth who are "at risk"; i.e., those who are in need of developing stronger self-images are less likely to accept a "warm and fuzzy" text without some apprehension. As a result, such texts will fail to enter the guarded consciousnesses of reality-weathered youth. The capitalistically driven film and music industries have discovered this relationship between identification and market consumption: When black youth can identify a product with their lived experiences, sales and absorption of that product increase exponentially.
This is not to say that stories that completely mirror more "realistic," less-than-perfect conditions are wholly liberatory. The "hood" films of the late-'80s and '90s have, for example, proven problematic, for their nihilistic edge often fails to arm their filmic spectators with any viable stria of hope. Furthermore, the "hood" film has fetishized deviancy through the glorification of the nihilist, self-destructive protagonist; thus, Wallace's critical observation regarding how public culture has polarized the dimensionality of black experience serves to leave the black spectator, particularly the younger one, with problematized images to relate to.
The work of celebrated African-American children's novelist Walter Dean Myers opposes the rising trend of incongruous representations; Myers celebrates children by weaving narratives of the black juvenile experience in ways that reverse the effects of mediated messages of the black experience in public culture. Several authors in the genre of children's and young-adult literature adequately address these issues, but few with the meritorious resolve of Myers. Clearly, Myers's fiction is regarded as seminal in the discourse of children's and young-adult literature, and his presence as the only prolific contemporary African-American male novelist of young-adult literature affords him an especially valuable place in the conversation. A two-time Newberry Award Winner, five-time Coretta Scott King Award Winner, and eight-time ALA Award winner, among other accolades, Myers has been well-received throughout his twenty-five-year career. His multitudinous interests and escalating predominance have carried him into diverse areas, from children's picture books that draw upon African folktales (How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World) to photo essays that champion the majesty of black childhood (Glorious Angels). However, his dominant literary strength and influence lies in his conceptualization of the African-American experience through fiction addressed to the young reader.
Though his interests are varied, Myers primarily focuses on young African-American males and the struggles that particularly engage them as a group. For this reason, I will focus on the attention he brings to the problematic meditations on conceptualizing black manhood. As an author, Myers has evaded most of the criticism that struggles with what constitutes "realistic" representations and portrayals of African-American protagonists and their communities. In this polarized era - which I would characterize as the hyperbolic fissure created by sitcom/utopian, "Cosby-ized" black family existence and nihilistic Menace II Society film naturalism - Myers has found a space of his own that eludes easy classification. Myers has not only discovered a solution to the moral quandary regarding what aspects of realism should be presented to young readers, but he has excelled - particularly in the area of illustrating, interrogating, and problematizing how black masculinity comes to be shaped and (under)developed by socio-environmental nuances of class and experience.
While the intelligentsia mulls over issues of authenticity in the black literary tradition, the streets rumble over the same issues about discourse. Today, in the subaltern sphere of black youth culture, there is a popular epithet that champions the yearning for authenticity: The street insists that its iconic mouthpieces "Keep It Real." That is, although a given artist may have "arrived" commercially (and financially), that person is obligated to maintain affinity and connection with the black community, usually his or her initial locus of departure. Thus, many black artists who have acquiesced into stardom and, in turn, been appropriated by mass (white) culture have lost their status of "real-ness." Myers has earned the distinction from his young readership of an artist that "keeps it real," though he has amassed countless awards that definitively suggest that he has been accepted by the authorizing frameworks of academe. How so? Simply put, Myers has been successful in constructing a palimpsest - a layering touched with realistic narrative, collective experience, and the literary imagination to create a "real" consciousness. This "vellum-style" of narrative is organic, adding dimensionality to a race-textured canvas that is so easily and often stereotypically presented.
The urban canvases of Myers's novels become more than apocalyptic jungles - chiefly because his narratives stand tall, grounded in the presence of protagonists that are suffused with the heterogeneous possessions of reality and the resolute firmaments of hope and renewal. His potentially stock urban scenery is layered with realistic subtleties through meticulous characterization. His characters do not represent every reader, nor do they attempt to. Instead, there is a nuance in each that black children will relate to, whether this identification is grounded in situation, language, conflicts, dreams, interests, hopes, challenges, dilemmas, or something else.
Myers's fictional characters are intended to advance a singular voice derived from collective nonfictional experiences tempered by an urban landscape. In relating his work to that of Langston Hughes, Myers states that
... being a black writer mean[s] more than simply having one's characters brown-skinned, or having them live in what publishers insist on describing on the book jackets as a "ghetto." It mean[s] understanding the nuances of value, of religion, of dreams. It mean[s] capturing the subtle rhythms of language and movement and weaving it all, the sound, the gesture, the sweat and the prayers, into the recognizable fabric of black life. (qtd. in Bishop 96)
For this reason, Myers's novels do not always end happily. In many of them, there remain aspects of his characters (including his protagonists) that the reader may not (and should not) agree with. Many of his characters do not evolve into fine, upstanding citizens. However, in every novel, there is some sense that the protagonist has become stronger in his or her acculturation into a real society with its respective shortcomings and hard messages.
Rudine Sims Bishop eloquently elaborates on the discursive, empowering spirit that dwells within Myers's urban novels in the wake of their naturalism: "If there is an overarching theme, it is that survival, both psychological and physical, is possible even in those desperate circumstances. [Myers] celebrates the human spirit and the spirit and strength of a people whose survival has been achieved at great cost" (66). The connection to a black urban landscape is not the mark of damnation that many banal representations tend to depict. Myers transforms this setting into a multi-faceted land of dreams and nightmares, happiness and hardships, and, importantly, depicts it as a preparatory ground for the realities of black experience. The lessons learned by the inhabitants of Myers's urban world strategically arm the young reader for adversity: Through the whole and partial triumphs, the young black reader stands as a testifying witness to and an ex officio participant in the struggle. This ability is what garners Myers the respect from educators, his literary peers, and, most importantly, his massive young black readership. Unquestionably, Myers is "keepin' it real."
Balance, stability, and values are passed along to Myers's characters through rites of initiation and ritual. While many values and ethical standards should be maintained, other "traditional" values and standards should be discontinued. Myers's Somewhere in the Darkness (1992) is an initiatory novel that examines examples of both. Crab and Jimmy (father and son) are two men that embark upon a quest for their self-completion. Due in part to his affirmation of patriarchal notions of masculinity, Crab arrives at the doorstep of Jimmy and Mama Jean an older, yet not necessarily "grown," man. This trip consummates Crab's aspiration for retribution; however, the end of his journey brings him into a new state of consciousness and awareness that delivers him into death with a sense of completion.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is a younger initiate who stands in the same position as Crab does. At an earlier stage of development, Jimmy is equally swept into this journey toward maturity and completeness. Though the postures of Western social anthropology have painted a skewed image of African rite-of-passage processes, initiation is a critical exercise in the identity development of African people. Initiations in modern contexts have taken different forms, but maintain similar purposes. Jimmy's initiation into manhood is similar to that attained through traditional African initiation ceremonies. Many traditional African communities (including the Dogon and the Ndembu) do not label their children with gendered roles until after certain rituals and, in some cases, initiations (Ray 129). In this light, Jimmy, gazed upon as an androgynous figure (as opposed to a polarized masculinist or effeminate character by stereotypical connotations), is perceived to have been taken from the maternal authority to learn more about his inner self and his waking consciousness. Though Initiation is commonly judged in Western contexts by the external symbols and manifestations of the process (circumcision, excision, scarification), for Jimmy, the shift in cynosure, from exteriority to interiority, is the result of the collected experiences on the road between New York, Chicago, Arkansas, and back to New York. In this process, that finds its culmination upon introspection, both Jimmy and Crab begin to gain new insights into their respective conscious humanities. As in an initiation, these characters are plunged into a situation in which they have little knowledge, control, or autonomy. And as the book's title indicates, the answers, lessons, and, most paramount, truth to be derived from the experiences are to be found in darkness - the tract of the unknown. Though the men are years apart in age, both have a great deal to learn as they both begin to understand the subtle yet crucial distinction between what is conceived as masculinity and what is conceived as manhood.
Jimmy Little is a young black boy in his early adolescent stage of development. His mother deceased and father incarcerated, he lives with Mama Jean, his legal guardian, in the heart of an underprivileged community in New York City. Though Jimmy is well-adjusted socially and shows signs of academic promise thanks to the tutelage of Mama Jean, he behaves in ways indicative of the early stages of functional teenage depression.
As Jimmy finds escape through television and daydreaming, we find that he stands at a very critical stage in the development of his personal identity. His overlapping relationship between fantasy and reality suggests that he is beginning to question his own self-worth and value. This fissure is articulated in how the youth drifts from his home to school. While school is intended to fill a young mind with direction and self-worth, the conditions that surround Jimmy compel him to drift. Myers writes, in regard to Jimmy's delinquency, that
the funny thing was that he never knew he wasn't going to school until he found that he wasn't there. Every morning he would think that he was going to school. Then he would drift down McDonough and turn left instead of right, or cut across Rockaway Boulevard towards Fulton.... if he went to Fulton, he would just walk, sometimes all the way downtown, and daydream. (4-5)
It is clear that there is something that remains unsettled in Jimmy's consciousness. He misses school often because he feigns sickness. The narrator comments,
Jimmy hadn't been sick so much as he had been tired. It was a funny kind of tired, not the kind that you got from playing ball. No muscles ached, his arms and legs weren't tired. It seemed to come from inside. It was almost as if something tired was growing in him. In the mornings he would just get up and not feel like doing anything. He didn't know why. (17)
His lassitude does not appear to emanate from laziness, but rather from the stirrings of nihilistic restlessness.
When Jimmy returns from school one day, his father Cephus (Crab) Little is waiting for him. Though Crab has not seen his son in more than ten years, Crab hastily informs Mama Jean and Jimmy that he has been paroled and intends to take his son with him to Chicago. Mama Jean resists, but Crab and Jimmy depart that same night. Jimmy and the reader quickly discover that Crab has lied about his state of affairs. On the journey to Chicago, Jimmy learns that Crab escaped from a prison hospital and that no certain job awaits him in Chicago. He emphatically proclaims that the reason that he escaped imprisonment was to clear his name with his only son. Crab hopes to convince Jimmy that he was not a participant in the murder and armed robbery for which he was imprisoned.
When they arrive in Chicago, Crab contacts Mavis, a former lover, and attempts to secure a job as a trumpet player at a local tavern. The plan of action does not run smoothly. Crab's former lover does not feel obliged to support him, and his sickness grows worse. The relationship between Jimmy and Mavis's son Frank is also bumpy. Though Jimmy and Frank are both products of female-headed households, they contrast boldly in terms of individual temperament. Jimmy is more of a dreamer, more introspective, whereas Frank is more physically assertive and aggressive. A young pugilist, Frank is a bully who takes pleasure in intimidating others in and out of the ring. What is more troubling to Jimmy is the fact that Crab relates more closely to Frank than to him.
Crab does secure a job at a tavern, but his developing sickness quickly overwhelms him, and Crab determines to run again: He procures a rental car with a stolen credit card, and the two leave for Arkansas. On the road, Crab and Jimmy talk about life and other matters. Crab's newest plan is simple: drive to Arkansas to locate the only man who could positively vouch for his innocence on the day of the murder - Rydell, one of the band of thieves who escaped arrest. Furthermore, Crab admits that, after witnessing a fellow inmate die during incarceration, he became convinced that he had to seek out his only son in an attempt to regain Jimmy's respect before it was too late.
Prior to the inevitable confrontation with Rydell, Crab consults a conjure man, who verifies that Crab's time is short due to his taxed physical condition. The conjure man remarks that Crab's desire to fulfill his mission is possibly the only thing that has kept his fuel burning. When Crab does confront Rydell, he asks him to confess Crab's innocence to Jimmy. Rydell refuses, stating that he would not know the truth himself, since he was not a participant in the robbery. After Crab grows upset with Rydell's noncompliance, Rydell informs the authorities of Crab's whereabouts. As Jimmy and Crab argue about whether or not it is truly important that Rydell confess, the authorities arrive. During an ensuing chase, Crab passes out. He dies in a prison hospital soon afterward, but before he does, he feels more at rest because he has tried to rectify the situation between himself and his son. Crab may have failed to obtain a confession from Rydell, but Jimmy has a new respect for his deceased father and develops a firmer understanding of himself and his unconscious yearnings for a male figure in his life. Most importantly, he learns valuable lessons about maturity, fatherhood, and manhood.
Jimmy seriously considers what kind of father he will be one day, and he returns to New York and to his true home with Mama Jean - the woman who had provided him with most of the tools that prepared him for his journey. Above all, he returns to the warmth of Mama Jean's guidance and the cold realism of his urban existence with a new sense of being and resolve. His inaugural voyage into manhood is complete; thanks to the abstruse legacy of his father, he is much more prepared for his future carrying on some "traditions" of manhood, and leaving others in the past. The void in his personal history now filled, he moves forward with a greater understanding of what it means to be a man - more importantly, what it means to be Jimmy Little, what it means to be one's son, and what it will mean to be someone's father. Though many questions remain unanswered regarding Jimmy's future, it is certain that the paralysis that had begun to creep up on him has subsided; both he and Crab have undergone transformations in their journeys toward selfhood and completion.
Evaluating Myers's discovery novel in relation to theories of masculinity allows fertile connections between theory and practice to emerge. In "Are You a Man or a Mouse?" Homi Bhabha asserts that our aim must not be to deny or disavow masculinity, but to disturb its manifest destiny - to draw attention to it as a prosthetic reality - a "prefixing" of the rules of gender and sexuality, an appendix or addition that, willy-nilly, supplements and suspends a "lack-in-being" (57). Bhabha's comments echo growing sentiments that masculinity exists primarily as a social construction; however, his critique of masculinity also suggests that we must draw attention to its very real effects. We must cast a light upon what it has meant to be "masculine" in order to take the machine apart. Bhabha is clearly not the first to regard masculinity in such contexts, but I believe that his rendering of the construction as a "prosthetic reality" is a particularly useful guiding metaphor in assessing how masculinity is understood in the experiences of the black male who wishes to assert his masculinity in its (Anglo) patriarchal, hegemonic connotations.
Shaped by the ideology of patriarchy and the legacy of overt and institutionalized racism, black masculinity is a special derivation of male-gendered constructions. Most classical and contemporary studies in the area do not recognize the implications of such constructions. While (white) male identity has most recently been regarded as "a fragile and tentative thing with no secure anchorage in the contemporary world" (Brittan 12), the postulation of African-American male identity has maintained an equally vexed status, particularly since the annals of history have rendered the black male body as a commodified possession. The dissolution and fragmentation of traditional African manhood have forced gendered identities to be dependent upon the trends of the hegemony. Currently, that sphere has promulgated the sexual division of labor and responsibility, the normalization of heterosexual behaviors, and the demarcation of separate spheres of influence all patterned on the balance of a patriarchal-dominated order, an old-white-boy tradition delineated in Sir Robert Filmer's 17th-century yarn Patriarcha, which posits the progression of God (the Father), Adam (the mortal father), and the King (the state's father) as proof of the destiny and necessity of patriarchy in the naturalized order of things (May and Strikwerda 76).
Thus, African-American conceptualizations of masculinity have followed the fluctuations of mass cultural perceptions. While the "breadwinner ethic" of masculinity rose into renewed vogue during the rapid economic growth in America during the postwar '40s and '50s, black men followed such patterns with the assistance of liberatory movements of the '60s. Unfortunately, the current deconstruction of once-engendered roles have been no less easily accepted in the black community as a result of our acceptance of hegemonic ideologies, without strong interrogation of its discontents.
How do we apply these ruminations about gender to the pressing issues of black masculinity? Myers's dual protagonists in Somewhere in the Darkness actualize the meditations on the dilemmas of black manhood. Crab is a prime example of how definitions of masculinity become problematic in the hands of the black male. Clearly, his understanding of what it means to be a "man" and what it means to be a "father" is entrenched in traditional patriarchal masculine conceptions. However, as an African-American male fugitive, Crab cannot act with the agency typical of the traditional masculine figure. And as a person nearing death, he has very little control over his own body, figuratively or literally.
The reader witnesses Crab's authoritarian posturing from the beginning. When Crab storms abruptly into Mama Jean and Jimmy's life, he attempts to assert his manly right to authority:" 'I've come for my boy,'" (20) he states, with a voice that echoes the code of masculinist privilege. His aggressive urgings are indicative of how conceptions of masculinity evoke power responses that regard woman and children as property. It is no surprise therefore that, before he rides off with Jimmy (his paternal property), he pauses only to fix the sink (24). His actions make clear that he is filled with the illusion that he must assume the role of hero, one who has traveled through adversity to imbue upon his son wisdom and guidance. Though he is an escaped convict, Crab takes pleasure in conveying to Jimmy his world views of surviving as a "man," on fighting back, even on issues as trivial as correcting Jimmy's grammar. In short, Crab believes with certainty that a "man" is supposed to be a provider of near-heroic magnitude - in accordance to the (Ward)Cleaver/(Bill)Cosby/(Super)Man images of manhood and fatherhood. However, his journey, which is in some regards more initiatory than Jimmy's, serves to illustrate to Crab that he does not possess all that is deemed manly, by right.
Through his conversations with his son, it becomes clear that his conceptions of what it means to be a man were (mis)shaped by his ephemeral relationship with his own father, C. C. Little. Not even knowing what "C. C." stood for, Crab was denied the opportunity to develop a healthy male identity from his natural paternal source. Crab says of his interaction with his own father," 'I used to see him about twice a month. He was a cook on the Southern route'" (100). Again, this recollection points to the inadequacies and inconsistencies in patriarchal notions of masculinity that exist and which black men have accepted, even though they have historically had to take menial positions that limited their ability to assume a nurturing role in the development of their offspring and their household. As a result of this systemic legacy, Crab was only exposed to a reductive conceptualization of manhood, one which depicts the man as "provider" and negates the "nurturing" aspect of fatherhood. In a very telling recollection, Crab recalls the one and only time that he "bonded" with his father. When he was twelve, Crab's mother forced C. C. to take Crab with him on a hunting trip. After a day of hunting, the group of men sat around and drank. After Crab turned down a drink from his father, he said to Crab, "'You in the company of men, now, you got to act like a man acts' "; Crab recalls that he took a drink, and "felt pretty good" afterward (101).
In this sole interaction with his father, Crab learns of the ease and pleasure of going along with the marrow of tradition. For Crab (and many other men), it is very easy to conform to the standards established by generations of "manly ways." Unfortunately, this lesson proves to be a very costly one. As the story unfolds, it is evident that the misfortunes that have befallen Crab, including his incarceration and the subsequent displacement between him and his son, are a direct result of following the beaten path of "tradition." Not understanding the nurturing aspect of masculinity, Crab has carried on an "ill" tradition.
Whether it is a conscious undertaking or not, Crab's recollections contribute to the generational script of Jimmy's memory. Jimmy processes this information and reflects upon Crab's experiences in light of the awakening questions regarding his own experiences that come as he moves into manhood. By the close of the novel, Crab is rewarded with a newfound awareness; by yearning to pass on his knowledge of manhood, he learns the limitations of serving strictly as a male "provider" and comes to realize the expansive value of being a "nurturer." Crab helps Jimmy come to terms with some of his demons, and this nurturing activity allows Crab to find inner peace prior to his death.
Dennis Vellucci contends that what makes many of Myers's young-adolescent protagonists "remarkable ... is the degree to which they are able to maintain a significant measure of personal and moral integrity in environments that are relentlessly inimical to such integrity" (194). Ironically, it seems as if Jimmy has a more fully developed understanding of manhood (in derivations concentrating on maturity, responsibility, and integrity) than Crab does. However, Jimmy is not whole; his self-identity is burdened with a subtle sense of lack. Myers reveals through brief asides into Jimmy's consciousness that he has often fantasized about his father, manhood, and his role as a black man. While his conscious meditations regarding manhood, fatherhood, and masculinity materialize only through conversation with a school psychologist (15), his sojourn with Crab illuminates many waking introspective questions that had previously lain dormant. It is no accident that Jimmy never stops through his "initiation" to call Mama Jean, though he considers it many times. He understands that this journey is one that he must complete on his own.
Elaborating on Jimmy's ambivalent attraction/repulsion of suddenly having a father present, the narrator states that Jimmy "hadn't wanted to be friends with [Crab] or anything like that. What he wanted most was just to see him move. He wanted to see how he swung his arms and maybe how he would wave when they met on the street" (76). Vying for acceptance, Jimmy lies to his father about his passion for football when he discovers that Crab enjoys it (55). Feeling a growing curiosity, Jimmy soon realizes that he has become increasingly concerned if Crab likes him. The narrator reveals that Jimmy "hadn't wanted to think about [his growing predilection for Crab's approval] but he did anyway .... The thought, hidden away in the recesses of his own mind, still embarrassed him yet made him smile" (72). Though both Crab and Jimmy have very different demons to confront, both embark on a symbiotic journey of awareness and deliverance that educates them both about the subtle yet critical differences between masculinity and manhood. In the tradition of the group initiation, both men are searching for a missing part of their existence and are equally dependent on each other for the completion of their tasks.
Myers, in his exploration of the "legacy" and "tradition" of black manhood, actualizes Bhabha's theorization of masculinity itself. Myers does not ignore the realities of the masculine presence but instead chooses to illustrate the shortcomings of its mystique, its manifestations in the context of black experience. The depiction of black masculinity in Somewhere in the Darkness is not an exercise in relativism; instead, masculinity is valued as a state of being that is an intangible yet influential property of development. Myers problematizes the excuses made by black men regarding their vexed, de-hierarchized position in the gendered order yet, at the same time, illustrates the necessity of handing down generational lessons that can sometimes only culminate, and in some cases be exploded, through these gendered paths of dissemination.
At the same time, Myers's realistic narrative illuminates shortcomings that are inherent in many real characters, the maternal figure being no exception. Mama Jean is a strong, independent black woman, yet she allows Crab to walk in one day and strip her of Jimmy, who constitutes an important part of her livelihood. As a "supportive" black woman, she yields authority to the black man who has been disempowered by society vis-a-vis social castration - incarceration. Unfortunately, Mama Jean is guilty of subjugating her well-being in deferring to Crab's lack of autonomy. Like many black women, Mama Jean compensates the black man for his absence of "male" power in the world of white patriarchal dominance. bell hooks comments that many black women "were raised in homes where black mothers excused and explained male anger, irritability, and violence by calling attention to the pressures black men face in a racist society where they are collectively denied full access to economic power. They clearly believed, as do many black men, that racism is harder on males than females ...." And hooks goes on to posit that "assumptions that racism is more oppressive to black men than black women, then and now, are fundamentally based on acceptance of patriarchal notions of masculinity" (75). Clearly, Mama Jean and Crab are wrong in their coupled submission to gendered roles: Crab imposes on Mama Jean's goodness to take guardianship of Jimmy and takes him away without remorse by virtue of his masculine position. Though she initially resists, Mama Jean eventually accepts a subordinate (female) role.
Thus, Myers's characterizations of the female and male figures are not above criticism - yet at the same time this is one of his greatest strengths. His characters are beset with problematic tendencies at the outset of his novels, but by the conclusion, his characters have come to a new degree of awareness. Resiliency and survival are higher priorities in Myers's novels than are perfection and holistic resolution. This is a critical element of Myers's artistry: The realism and the hope weave together to form a tapestry that not only "keeps it real" but "keeps it right" as well. The black literary legacy of resilience through adversity appears in a muted but real form that does not leave the reader with a sensation of emptiness; conversely, the reader is not filled with a tale of surreal, commercial fantasy.
The characters in Somewhere in the Darkness are not above the dominant patterns of behavior. Crab does not escape from prison a completely changed man, nor does he escape the real implications of his troubled life; he is hindered by the shortcomings in his own self-identity. Mama Jean does not put her foot down when it comes to Crab's hasty request; she is hindered by similar shortcomings involving gendered roles. Jimmy is a product of these shortcomings, yet he stands to grow and develop from the rich lessons derived from this initiatory experience into maturity and self-purpose. What is most auspicious about Jimmy's "passage" is that, like all initiations, this is simply the "initial" battle, just the beginning. He will have many more battles from which to emerge and prevail.
As I draw to close, I would like to return to my original questions and concerns regarding the nexus that exists between theory and practice in the promising space created by children's literature. Undeniably, Myers is an excellent storyteller, but his narratives become revolutionary only if we embrace and unlock the messages that lie within his artistry. Ironically, spatial "theorizations" can be taken up to extract the "real" implications and potential of his literature. Using Myers's novels as a mode of communication with children, we can begin to engage them in a dialogue that reassures regarding their self-worth, their power to create both real and imagined realities, and their ability to actualize the struggles they depict as the characters embark upon journeys toward maturity. Myers's novels have found a sweet spot that accepts the realities of urban existence and have discovered and hence illuminated the power that is available in that space. Myers respects the intellect of his readers; in his own words, he "hear[s] the questions in their hearts" (Glorious n.p.) and they love him for it.
For adults, Myers's novels serve as excellent discussion pieces to plant the seeds of change. While African-American children have often absorbed the polemical stereotypes of underclass existence, Myers's novel shows that (1) a female-headed household can (and does) produce men that are, for all purposes, armed with the components of survival, and (2) a black man who is incarcerated and punished for his deviancy still can play an integral role in his child's life. Myers's novel illustrates what is rarely ever illustrated: The incarcerated black man is still human, still capable of love. Though he is not a perfect individual, though his son may have a better foothold on the difference between being a "man" and being "masculinist," his actions do help; Crab provides his son with lessons that he would have never learned from Mama Jean and might eternally have struggled over. Through this depiction, Myers, in a revolutionary maneuver, resists the negation of the black convict, a viable (and exponentially growing) member of the black collective, thereby exposing the utility of each man and woman within it.
Furthermore, Myers explores the power and fortitude that are ever-present in the young, black, struggling child. First and foremost, he complicates the mythic conception that black youth suffer from a lack of self-esteem. On the contrary, Jimmy is a young man with a great deal of self-esteem due to the influences in his life (Mama Jean, his environs, etc.). What is missing from Jimmy's desires, however, is purpose; through Myers's encoded, initiatory subtext, Jimmy locates this missing appendage of his passions. Though Jimmy hails from a less than perfect background, though he is poor, though his mother has passed away, though his father is incarcerated, he emerges from this estranged journey a young man who recognizes his role and agency in this society. Upon his return to New York, Jimmy gets off the plane and, upon observing some children at play, wonders if they should be in school.
Jimmy, through his resiliency and inner spirit, takes one step toward manhood. It has nothing to do with his physical ability to best Frank in a boxing match, nothing to do with leaving the legacy of his convict father behind, nothing to do with being taken away from female agency; instead, Jimmy's epiphianic journey has everything to do with drawing from his own experiences, situation, and selfhood to discover a way to persevere and to find purpose with respect and awareness of his past. He comes to terms with his biological "creator," and though Crab is flawed, Jimmy also learns from the experiences with his father to step forward and make his "real" space a better one.
The lessons to be learned from Somewhere in the Darkness can benefit both young and old, as it illustrates that the theorizations of gender, race, and class are social constructions. More importantly, Myers's rendering of these "theorizations" proves that these constructions can be overcome and defeated. Myers takes these discoveries straight to the practical source of resistance the black child. Somewhere in the darkness, somewhere between The Brownies' Book and the Black Panther Coloring Book, Myers's stratagem is revolutionary; the intrinsic value to black youth of his lessons stands priceless, timeless, and class-transcendent. Myers's mastery is but one example of the promise of this genre, as the corpus of children's literature deserves much more critical inquiry. In the contention that my thoughts constitute a prolegomenon, I suggest that my urgings are only the beginning of a larger revisioning of our efforts as intellectuals.
Baghban, Marcia. "Through a Glass Clearly: Positive Images of African-American Fathers in Young Adult Literature." Smith, African-American 225-45.
Berger, Maurice, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson, eds. Constructing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Bhabha, Homi K. "Are You a Man or a Mouse?" Berger, et al. 181-212.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. Presenting Walter Dean Myers. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Brittan, Arthur. Masculinity and Power. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End P, 1990.
Johnson, Dianne. Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African-American Literature for Youth. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
Leary, Warren E. "Young People Who Try Suicide May Be Succeeding More Often." New York Times 21 Apr. 1995, late ed.: A15.
May, Larry, and Robert A. Strikwerda. "Fatherhood and Nurturance." Rethinking Masculinity: Philosophical Explorations in Light of Feminism. Ed. May and Strikwerda. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992.74-111.
Myers, Walter Dean. Glorious Angels: A Celebration of Children. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
-----. Somewhere in the Darkness. New York: Scholastic, 1992.
Ray, Benjamin C. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community. New York: Prentice, 1976.
Smith, Karen Patricia. African-American Voices in Young Adult Literature: Tradition, Transition, Transformation. Ed. Smith. London: Scarecrow P, 1994.
-----. "Introduction." Smith, African-American 4-19.
Vellucci, Dennis. "Man to Man: Portraits of the Male Adolescent in the Novels of Walter Dean Myers." Smith, African-American 193-223.
Wallace, Michelle. "Masculinity in Black Popular Culture: Could It Be That Political Correctness Is the Problem?" Berger, et al. 243-67.
West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon, 1993.
R. D. Lane is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame, with an emphasis on African American literature and contemporary narrative. His area of concentration deals with representations and constructions of black masculinity in visual, aural, and literary expression within (and without) mass culture. He wishes to express his indebtedness to Dr. Violet Harris for her valuable insight into the power and importance of children's literature. He is equally indebted to the work of the theorists bell hooks, Wahneema Lubiano, Laura Mulvey, and Joan Scott, among others, who have been integral to what he regards as bringing theory into practice. Finally, he is grateful for the inspiration garnered from the work of Mircea Eliade, Erskine Peters, and Malidoma Some.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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