Why we need to engage with Black literature beyond racial politics

Frankie Reddin
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

There's a huge spotlight on Black literature at the moment - for obvious and essential reasons. These spotlights on Black literature have appeared before, yet they rarely look beyond the confines of politically-charged, racially-orientated, or complex academic accounts of the Black experience, when it comes to mainstream trends at least. This sometimes leads to outdated or one-dimensional perceptions of what it means to be Black, both historically and today.

In its most negative guise, the subconscious begins to associate a Black experience with race relations, slavery, violence or erasure. The alternative to this, the ‘positives’, are reducing the lived Black experience to specific sectors of culture, for example music, sport, fashion, entertainment and art that can play into racial tropes or appear as illegitimate intellectual contributions to society as a whole (when compared to other human contributions such as science, history and so on). It's a nuanced issue, but it feeds into a dysfunctional value system that seeps into everyday lives. This allows non-Black audiences to distance themselves from stories about slavery, race and history simply because they happened in the past and are not explicitly connected to their current world. With contemporary, positive stories one has to engage with Black people.

Specific to literature, we as Black publishers see first-hand how Black writers are marginalised or hidden by the mainstream. Examples include publications refusing to review a book because they have dismissed it as too niche (too Black or not Black enough) and not of interest to their readers regardless of the quality of the writing. Their response implies that there is not enough space for equal representation or that literature is not judged on content, rather it is judged on the authors perceived importance to society. Another common occurrence is a literary festival or event only having space for one Black writer on a panel thus rejecting all other Black writers regardless of their merit.

We see this across many industries; it’s not an unfamiliar observation. There are Black bookshops up and down the country that are filled with century’s worth of Black literature including contemporary works, not just from the UK or US, but the world. If the usual response to observations such as above are: “we couldn’t find any Black authors to speak on the panel”, or “Black literature doesn’t speak to contemporary audiences or themes”, we know it’s because there is no visibility or an apathy toward engaging with alternative resources. This is demonstrated on personal levels, but most often than not, it is systemic and perceived as just ‘the way it is’.

Photo credit: Courtesy

Black the Literary Salon, our event series established by the first African publishing house in the UK, Cassava Republic Press, is here to heighten visibility and challenge the way we engage with Black literature. It’s fundamental to any human experience to be seen as a whole being. Art and literature is a gateway into exploring the layers of society and ourselves. It is expansive. We do not expect the same language, the same behaviours, or the same conversations from literature because it would mean living within a vacuum. Let's apply this way of thinking to the question: why is it so crucial we start celebrating Black writers from all perspectives, not just racially? We believe that it is key to societal growth and maturity. Black authors and critical thinkers contribute significantly to our cultural life and spotting the gap within the literary world, we wanted to curate an event series that celebrates them and provides a platform to probe more deeply into selected themes in a critical but joyous way.

We need to see the joy in Black literature at this time and beyond because what recent events have exposed - we are now in the fourth week of international protests against anti-Black racism and police violence - is that Black Lives Matter, not just Black deaths. The Black experience cannot be defined by one moment or incident. If it is, it becomes detrimental to self-identity, mental health, and ultimately, progress and change. It is also not the experience of every Black person in the world. It's relief, entertainment and escapism to explore other narratives, whether it be Afro-futurism, LGBTQ+, or African, European, American, Latin American in its very origin. For want of a better word – it’s fun.

Black becomes a space to celebrate the diversity and richness of Black literary voices from across the world and to connect authors and thinkers with a wider audience. We’ve picked themes that fascinate us as readers, as literary producers, and themes we want to see explored in more depth. Once we decide on a theme, we approach creative, inventive and talented writers who are in some way united by the theme and who will inspire and engage an audience.

Our first event in February 2020 centred on Love & Desire and daringly explored without restraint the intricacies of sexuality, intimacy, friendships, relationships, family dynamics and of course sex. With our second event coming up on Thursday 25 June, we will continue what we have started and the second salon will cover theme of Maleness, Masculinity, and Selfhood with authors Paul Mendez (Rainbow Milk), Elnathan John (On Ajayi Crowther Street) and Thando Mgqolozana (A Man Who is Not a Man).

It's time to stop solely viewing blackness through the prism of racism and slavery. We must engage in the fullness of Black experience - and that includes joy.

Tickets for Black: The Literary Salon #2 - Maleness, Masculinity and Selfhood are available to buy via Eventbrite.


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