Thursday, November 02, 2006

RIP, Willian Styron

In 1967 a cracker from Newport News, Virginia who could only gain admission to college by way of World War Two's affirmative action-like officer training programs, penned and published a fictionalized account of Nat Turner's 1831 Southampton slave revolt. The Southampton Revolt was a spate of violence which argubaly did more to shape America than 9-11, or certainly more than the contemporaneous 1967 riots fulminating in cities across the nation. Even though I was a tiny fella when this book came out, I can summon a dim , filmy memory of my uncle relating to my mother the bluster of Panthers and other activists over a white man chronicling their icon, and the lament that no "revolutionary" black writers were stepping to the plate. Well, in 1967 we were already starting to surrender our unique contributions to human art--Jazz and Blues (so unique that Jazz and Blues classics were blasted out of the solar system with Voyager, Galileo and Explorer spacecraft in the hopes that alien cultures will discover them and think us worthy). Was't it only a matter of time that the sand of commercialization and indifference would bury our blazed literary trails?

Yet I'm sure these folks quieted a bit when they digested passages like this:

[White men watching blacks forced to box are]...those so mean and reptillian in spirit, so worthless, so likewise despised in the scheme of things and saved from the final morass only by the hairline advantage of lighter skin. Not since the day years before when I was first sold and I felt such a rage, intolerable rage, rage...that was the culmination of all the raw buried anguish and frustration growing inside me...when I first understood that I was a slave and a slave forever. My heart...shrank inside was at this instant I that I knew beyond a doubt or danger that whatever gentle young girl now serenely plucking blossoms...or the mistress knitting in the coolness of a country parlor or the innocent lad seated contemplating the cobwebbed walls of an outhouse...the whole world of white flesh would someday founder and split apart upon my retribution, would perish at my design and at my hands. My stomach heaved and restrained the urge to vomit on the boards where I sat... [portions omitted from quote]

And that's why the man won the Pulitzer Prize. Ten years later he followed with Sophie's Choice, and what awed me wasn't so much the personalized, internalized view of the Holocaust, or the roiling tempest of dysfunction that was Nathan and Sophie's affair. Rather, it was how Styron weaved himself into the story, as "Stingo," the fish-out-of-water redneck wannabe writer who's moved to Brooklyn and Brooklyn is like another planet in another galaxy, full of wonderous alien Jews and Italians and Poles and sharp-dressing, silver-tongued colored folks, and outworldly rowhouses, bizarre general stores called "delicatessens," spired towers and a gothic-vaulted bridge...

I lament that we as black writers have allowed the legacy of our own literary giants to be ignored or trivialized, just as our artforms like Jazz or the Blues have been displaced by the newer, coarser, more ignorant brand of 21st Century hip-hop. Perhaps some of us can take lessons from this man--yes, an old white cracker--and reclaim this spirit. I don't think it's irony; I think Styron would consider it a nice, neat little arc, re-attaching us to 1967. Just as he did for the general American culture through Sophie's Choice, Styron didn't teach black people about our heritage. He reminded us.



good picture

Anonymous said...

You should rewrite this for BIBR the way Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes wrote a tribute for Octavia Butler. I think your angle is very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Ditto (and is Jamesee your fanclub prexy? LOL). I remember we had a rau when I was in high school over this novel (Nat Turner). It wasn't over the racial points or the imagery and violence but instead there are some erotic and homo-erotic themes in the thing (as a found out reading it in college), and thus the library nixed it.

I think your tribute's better than the thing I saw in the papers today.

I haven't read Sophie's Choice but I saw the movie and I'm wondering why TCONT has not come to film?

Anonymous said...

Well said. Controversial and powerful novel from a controversial and power writer. However, many people thought he'd take over the mantle Faulkner as occupied down here, but he never did. I know YOU will say it was white bitterness concerning his glorification of Nat Turner, but I think he just wanted to escape the South rather than study it.