Monday, September 17, 2012

Gil Scott-Heron and a Hint-filled Detail

[By Jerry W. Ward]

“Gil Scott-Heron was one of [the] most insightful thinkers of the late twentieth century,”  Tony Bolden writes in Chapter 22 of The Cambridge History of African American Literature, “yet few critics have considered him a serious artist” (552).  Few have commented on Scott-Heron’s serious artistry in the novel The Nigger Factory (New York: Dial, 1972; Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2010).  This work of vernacular realism fell through the cracks.

Recuperative criticism can reconnect The Nigger Factory with the sabotaging of history and “the redemptive power of storytelling and satirical truth-telling for the liberation of the minds of black people” (Bernard Bell, The Contemporary African American Novel 248).

In his “Author’s Note,” Scott-Heron made a stinging topical remark: “Black students in the 1970s will not be satisfied with Bullshit Degrees or Nigger Educations.  They are aware of the hypocrisy and indoctrination and are searching for other alternatives”(x).  His fictionalized critique of higher miseducation and student revolt was eclipsed by Spike Lee’s School Daze (1987) and the film’s transportation of the novel’s primal themes from readership to spectatorship. Given the intensifying crises of HBCUs ---red wake-up flags in the works by Scott-Heron and Lee, revisiting the subject of revolution and education is not an intellectual luxury but an academic necessity.  How have students of the early twenty-first century asserted or inserted themselves in the “other alternatives” that Scott-Heron envisioned?

Reading The Nigger Factory exposes a hint-filled detail that assists interpretation of a work that refracts the dynamics of daily life.  Character types people the novel.  Scott-Heron subverts expectations by illuminating how revolts can force static/flat characters to reveal dynamic states of being.  His narrative method is akin to exploratory surgery, especially in showing the role fraternity may play in revolutionary actions.

In the novel, a few Omega Psi Phi brothers organize themselves as MJUMBE to initiate change at Sutton University (Sutton, VA).  Mjumbe is Swahili for messenger; MJUMBE   is the acronym for Members of Justice United for Meaningful Black Education (6). The coolest, most taciturn member of the fraternity and MJUMBE is Abul Menka aka Jonathan Wise, “the style-conscious New Yorker from the Bronx” (13), and he is a puzzle awaiting a solution.  The hint-filled detail that complicates the puzzle and mystifies Abul’s “character” is choice of clothing.  When his brothers make a political fashion statement by wearing black dashikis, Abul wears “black trousers, gold corduroy dashiki and gold-framed sunglasses” (107). Ice.  Abul is a ‘cool Q,’ but his clothing announces complexity deeper than symbolic coolness.  Scott-Heron effectively uses a detail to highlight the inability of Black Anglo-Saxons, of the black bourgeoisie want-to-be revolutionaries to read a clear sign of an authentic revolutionary act.

To recycle a 1970s cliché, Scott-Heron artistically selects details to “raise consciousness.”  Reading The Nigger Factory elevates appreciation of Scott-Heron as a critical thinker, an astute observer, and a masterful writer of serious vernacular fiction.

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