A glorious year for African-American writers

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  • Gene Seymour: 2015 was a tough year for race relations in America but a great year for African-American literature
  • He says books from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Margo Jefferson, Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith and others follow path of greater enlightenment

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)It was a terrible year for race relations in America. It was a glorious year for African-American literature.

Gene Seymour
The first premise was affirmed by a poll conducted earlier this month by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal revealing that only 34% of Americans believe that relations between the races are fairly good or very good, compared with the 77% who shared this belief in the wake of Barack Obama's election as President seven years ago.
In light of this, mass media would do well to acknowledge the better news that there has been an outpouring of innovative, boundary-breaching fiction and nonfiction by black writers rivaling waves of similar breadth and dimension that rose during the 1960s and 1970s.
    More than 40 years of history separates the cries of "Black is Beautiful" from "Black Lives Matter." Everything that's happened in between -- from the Rodney King riots to the polarizing verdicts in the trials of O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman to the high-profile deaths of black Americans at the hands of police officers and the too often violent aftermaths -- suggests that we are still very far away from realizing the dream of a "post-racial" society envisioned after the 2008 election.
    But artists and writers are inclined and empowered to dream bigger than the rest of society. And the black men and women who published their deepest dreams and brightest ideas this year could lead the rest of us toward a broader vision.
    Arguably the most prominent of these books was Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me," which has appeared prominently on several "year's best" lists and last month won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
    A nationwide best-seller, Coates' trenchant, emotionally detailed blend of memoir and j'accuse on the persistence of racism in the age of Obama, hip-hop and Ferguson is written as a letter to his 15-year-old son -- just as one of the essays in James Baldwin's 1963 best-seller, "The Fire Next Time," is in the form of a letter to his young nephew.
    Using vignettes, memories and cultural analysis, Coates interrogates the value of black lives in America, an urgent, especially topical subject in a year when the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized activists and angered many others. It's a book that people will continue to talk about and argue over as events in and out of the courts, from the Freddie Gray trials to Supreme Court deliberations over affirmative action, continue to surge through news feeds.
    Even with Coates' book dominating attention, black women made comparably significant contributions this year to African-American memoir. In "Negroland," Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and critic, took an inquisitive, gimlet-eyed tour of her past as a child of the so-called "Talented Tenth" elite of black America, when growing up privileged and highly educated in Chicago didn't always insulate you from the hazards and humiliations of racism during the 1950s and 1960s.
    Two award-winning poets, Tracy K. Smith and Elizabeth Alexander, contributed their own deeply personal and beautifully rendered reminiscences. Smith's "Ordinary Light" is a warm, witty account of how it felt to grow up in Northern California in the 1980s as the daughter of someone who helped put together the Hubble Space Telescope, while Alexander's "The Light of the World" chronicles in tender detail her romance and marriage to an Eritrean refugee and artist, who died unexpectedly.
    Black novelists, meanwhile, continued probing the past for revelation and perspective on their people's past. Among the best of these books was Jabari Asim's "Only the Strong." With lean prose and deep compassion, it examines the lives of African-American men and women of different generations from a large Midwest city as change overtakes them in the early 1970s.
    An even more intriguing trend among black novels in 2015 was their cheeky willingness to challenge narrow-minded definitions of what it means to be black in America in the 21st century.
    T. Geronimo Johnson's "Welcome to Braggsville" attracted comparisons with David Foster Wallace, Mark Twain and Toni Morrison with its stylistically adventurous saga of a multicultural quartet of Berkeley students protesting a Civil War re-enactment in a Georgia town.
    And Mat Johnson's acerbic and humane "Loving Day" divulges what happens when a mixed-race comic book artist, returning to his Philadelphia home town after divorce and fiscal ruin in Europe, discovers he's the father of a mixed-race teenaged girl. Together, they discover that even the ghosts haunting his Irish father's abandoned house are somehow struggling to define themselves in a world where things, literally, aren't always black or white.
    Raising the stakes of such satiric invention was Paul Beatty's "The Sellout." Even more impudent and audacious, it recounts the adventures of a young black Southern Californian seeking to retain his rural community's identity through such dubious means as re-segregating its local schools and taking on a onetime member of the Little Rascals as his slave.
    Beatty, Johnson and other comic novelists have claimed their respective debts to "Oreo," a raucously inventive 1974 novel, republished this year to great acclaim, by the late Fran Ross, who conceived this picaresque tale, with mythic overtones, of a young mixed race woman who bolts Philadelphia to search for the Jewish father who abandoned her.
    Considered ahead of its time even when first published, Ross' novel has been brought back at a time when black writers of varied backgrounds, preoccupations and styles seek even greater autonomy over how their lives are depicted.
    As American society struggles to disentangle itself from the knotty, exasperating constrictions of prejudice and injustice, its black artists, seizing their imaginative independence, continue to forge a path toward greater enlightenment. As they assert who they are, their country may figure out what it can be.