This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
My friends are other black writers, musicians, and journalists. Over the course of a few months we’ve talked in small and large groups on Zoom and Facetime. We have laughed, planned protests, organized petitions, and lamented all the ersatz virtue signaling with kente cloth and black squares. We do all this as we wait for the nation’s racial amnesia to return. In my inner circle, we don’t expect change because there is an unspoken secret among America’s racial problems, a secret that we dare not speak in public. In order to succeed in this society, most black artists have to perform blackness for white people.
People of color have been performing race for white audiences for centuries. The writings and works I produce about my experiences are almost solely judged by how they make white people feel about themselves. Due to my addiction to eating food and paying my rent, I have to perform my identity in what I say, what I write, and how I explain my experience. I am aware of what is expected of me and I carefully juggle what I know, what I can say, and what white people can handle. Even as I write these words, I know that it will annoy some readers that I’m implying black people code switch and have a triple consciousness, because my reality isn’t judged on what my black friends and artists live: it is based on how comfortable white readers can feel about hearing me. This influences almost all black narratives in entertainment and on the news. Our stories exist for others. They are performances of blackness. After all these years, we are still the children of Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Our issues are tragic caricatures or exaggerated rages for white liberal consumption.
During times of civil unrest like the Ferguson uprising and the current George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protests, my inbox is flooded with requests. I am expected to go out and do some theatrical black acting that is some version of Malcolm or Martin in calling for fiery protests or Christian forgiveness. In the last few months my black artist friends have been asked to expand their concert schedule of performances. Our bosses ask us to sit on diversity panels, read BLM-supporting corporate statements for the right tone of contrition, chime in on conference calls. My colleagues take a sudden interest in my opinions about Ta’Nehisi Coates. My text messages and email inboxes are filled with people checking in on me which is an awkward way of trying to engage in conversation. These “check in” messages make me feel as if I was either a bomb about to explode or a delicate glass menagerie that is being shattered by the thought of racism. I am neither. I am mostly numb from the tap dancing.
Despite all the talk from the mainstream media, NO NEW INFORMATION was revealed to me by recent tragic events. I’m black and I’ve been black for 40 years. This means I have complex, interlocking layers of experiences. I have had to deal with outright abuse as well as invisibility. I have dealt with obtuse racist white people who turn around and ask me, why don’t black people like them? I have sat in Southern colleges with Confederate flags, Confederate monuments, and marbled tombs of Confederate generals and had earnestly concerned white donors ask me “how do you attract more black people to our institutions?” In none of these situations have I erupted in insane Joker-esque laughter or screamed at anyone. I have negotiated an identity and a way of communicating with white frailty, blindness, and privilege. I do so with triple consciousness of what my black self is seeing, the coffee filter of social standards whose default is always at white comfortability, and then outer performative black shell.
James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” blasted Richard Wright. In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” he draws the continuum of black protest art that ranges from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which black people are helpless victims, to “Native Son,” in which we are violent monsters. This is the kind of protest art filled with cheap caricatures that made white liberals feel guilty. Baldwin’s problem with “Native Son” was that it read less like a novel and more like a racial pamphlet.
Some people said Baldwin was just jealous. What right does a gay black artist have to tell Wright about blackness? Conversely, Baldwin would argue in private that it was hypocritical for Wright to pen such cheap claptrap, get rich from the caricature, move to Paris, marry a white woman, and continue to speak as if he were a black radical on the street. How could the author move to the artistic Eurocentric epicenter of whiteness off the protest art of “Native Son” and still claim to represent our struggle? Simple: Wright wasn’t representing our struggle. He was performing it for white audiences.
Over 75 years later most high school students have to read either “Black Boy” or “Native Son.” It is the requisite black art novel you get in high school. Almost no one outside of lit majors still reads Baldwin’s criticism. Yet, his criticism of Wright seems more valid than the original art. The criticism seems to offer more nuance than this portrait of a murdering, raping, hulking black man whose literal name is Bigger. It’s as if Wright was giving his character a name to remind himself of the main thrust of the story … bigger crimes, bigger hopelessness, bigger archetypes, bigger and more operatic tragedy.
As author Ayana Mathis wrote in the NYTimes….
“Native Son” sold an astonishing 215,000 copies within three weeks of publication. Thus, a great many people received a swift and unsparing education in the conditions in which blacks lived in ghettos all over America. Of course, black people already knew about all of that, so it is safe to conclude that Wright’s intended audience was white. And, in any case, I don’t imagine many black people would have embraced such a grotesque portrait of themselves. Bigger Thomas is a rapist and a murderer motivated only by fear, hate and a slew of animal impulses. He is the black ape gone berserk that reigned supreme in the white racial imagination. Other black characters in the novel don’t fare much better — they are petty criminals or mammies or have been so ground under the heel of oppression as to be without agency or even intelligence. Wright’s is a bleak and ungenerous depiction of black life.
“Wright knew this, of course — his characters were purposely exaggerated, in part to elicit a white audience’s sympathy and to shock it into racial awareness and political action. But where does that leave his black subjects? Let us consider some other works published in roughly the same era: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” Ann Petry’s “The Street.” Like Bigger Thomas, the protagonists in these books are black, suffering under segregation and, for the most part, poor. Unlike Bigger Thomas, they are robust and nuanced characters — not caricatures endlessly acting out the pathologies of race. Much of the black literature of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, explicitly or implicitly, was concerned with race in America. How could it have been otherwise? For better or worse, many of the characters in the literature of that period were representational to some extent — black people in the real world were the correlative to black characters on the page. And this is significant, because when black writers affirmed their black subjects’ full humanity, the scope of their novels included the expectation that the real world would change radically so that it too could affirm and acknowledge that humanity. I am led to wonder, then, about a character like Bigger Thomas. What future, what vision is reflected in such a miserable and incompletely realized creature?”
If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked to write my blackness BIGGER … then I would have almost as much money as the white creators of “The Help,” “Greenbook,” and “The Blind Side.” I get slavery and prison requests from people of all types, and by people I mean white, and by all types I mean neoliberal allies. There is a reason why certain black narratives are so popular. They have nothing to do with us. Slave narratives make white people feel good.
I have sat in many barbershops, cafes, cookouts, and proverbial places where black things happen, and no one has ever said, “I wish there were more stories about slavery.” That is not to say that slavery should be dismissed. It is an important topic. That is not even to say that I dislike stories about enslaved people overcoming obstacles to gain freedom. But no black person has to ever advocate for more slavery stories, because we know that white demand for slavery narratives will always outpace our curiosity. And there is something eerily creepy about outsiders having more interest in your most traumatic performance of your identity than in your healing. It would be like contemporary German citizens craving Holocaust stories about helpless Jewish people saved by a few good Germans.
What many black artists and thinkers are confiding in each other in private is that we fear the next wave of “Native Son” caricatures. We fear the pandering black art that will be created after this moment. We worry about the silencing of complex artists of color by gatekeepers who are white, brown, and black. We worry that future generations will read the art and artists that represent this moment and find us cheap and hollow and performative.
Some black artists argue: what does it matter? What does it matter if the art isn’t as complex, if the novels are pleading urgently. Our political movement IS pleading urgently and rightfully for life. How can art compare to such an urgent cry? The most important struggle is going out in the streets. I would argue that the most important struggle IS our narrative. That is the only thing we can control and, in turn, shift how black lives matter in this country. We are talking about the survival of black voices and souls. If Black Lives Matter, then all of them do … the nuanced ones, the biracial ones, the ones who are right-wing, left-wing, the sarcastic ones, the cynical black voices that stand askance the political correctness and feel castrated, the black voices who don’t want a white liberal pet or to be treated like a baby needing protecting. The full scope and dimensions of black voices matter, not just the ones performing blackness for white media.
Black thinkers creep around the edges of the latest upheaval. They see the changes needed, support fighting racism but are also scared of losing their independence. They are worried about theatrical blackness for whiteness. They worry about blanket statements, racial caricatures, and mediocre narratives created to please white audiences. We don’t want to be pandered to, infantilized, castrated, and turned into helpless victims. But more than that … they are scared of losing their freedom and individuality. They don’t want to speak on your diversity panel, listen to white liberals on instagram crying about their privilege, or placate corporate America with a black square on a social media profile. They are scared of that most American concept of pursuing their own happiness and setting forth their own unique voice. It’s difficult to do that when all people want is a performance of what they think all black people must be feeling.
Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, reporter, and multimedia artist. He is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and has received residencies at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Lab, National Black Theatre, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange.