Like the walking bodies in our country that are in a slow hurry to advertise the fine art of tattooing, we best be asking hard questions about keeping Black real compared to what. Or can we defamiliarize an answer to Roberta Flack’s explicit question by saying Pink passing for White ain’t real?
In a pure fantasy that lacks referentiality, Wesley Brown’s second novel Darktown Strutters (New York: Crane Hill Press, 1994) is the inspiration for Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled ( 2000). Fantasy precludes proof. But we can have a noisy shock of recognition by juxtaposing the mumbling surrounding the film with the silence that engulfs the novel. Lee addressed the history of blacking up from the outside, from the vantage of an imminent present, and his satire sticks like water on Teflon. Brown, on the other hand, dealt with the racecraft of minstrelsy in America from the inside, from the interiors of its languages by allowing his characters Jim Crow and Jim Crow Two to be the partial narrators of the story. His fiction informs a consciousness of American class and caste formation; Lee’s film trivializes that consciousness and cashes in on entertainment values.
We should note also that Wesley Brown has credentials in terms of cultural nationalism that Lee must envy. In 1965, Brown worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; he became a member of the Black Panther Party in 1968, a year marked by the publication of the landmark anthology Black Fire and a year that the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History so richly documented ( read In Black America: 1968: The Year of Awakening ). Brown became a political prisoner in 1972 for refusing to be inducted in the military and spent eighteen months of his three-year sentence in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. We have a conflicted romance with incarceration in America, but Brown’s excellence as a fiction writer and dramatist and editor is to be measured both because of his political sacrifices and despite them. His mastery of craft is not innately wed to his ideology. Let us be clear about that. The separation of realms is no excuse, however, for failing to honor those who teach us that art and ethos are united.
It helps greatly to suggest that Darktown Strutters is to African American fiction what Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) is to Euro-American critical theory. The books do the work of enlightenment. Eric Lott tells us much that we do need to know about the centrality of race in the whole history of American entertainment, although he carefully avoids outing who now controls the entertainment industry in America. Wesley Brown is exempt from having to deal with that vexed and dangerous subject in his novel, because his objective was to liberate the languages of minstrelsy to speak for themselves. His superior artistry is implicated with a difference that Gayl Jones noted between Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Gaines in Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) -----“Gaines has carried us beyond Hurston’s illusion of Janie’s voice to the full value and reality of Miss Jane’s tall-telling” (169).
We have too long denied ourselves the pleasure of Wesley Brown’s company and denied that he is one of our national treasures, and we have squandered much too much of our literary energy in consuming what the Idols of the Marketplace have hoodwinked us into believing is Black. Do we have to remind ourselves that American Kente cloth is “made in China”? One purchases the real thing in Ghana. Wesley Brown’s novels Tragic Magic, Darktown Strutters, and Push Comes to Shove may have been tossed under the bus by marketplace politics in twentieth-century African American literature, but we do know they survived the accident and are well. If it is probable that we can have a renaissance of intelligence about what is Black and real, we will find ourselves teaching young African Americans how to write well by reading Wesley Brown as we sing to them a memorable line from Darktown Strutters: “Our people pass the word more regular than we pass water”(47).