Damned If You Do: Banned Books, Rejected Emmys, and the Catch-22 of Being a Black Artist
There exists a certain irony that arises when Black artists attempt to achieve recognition in a country where Western European notions of what constitutes talent still predominates the artistic landscape. Recently, fellow blogger Anti-Intellect wrote a blog over at Funky Dineva challenging the Black community’s apparent outrage at Kerry Washington losing out on a Emmy. Essentially, he asks the question of why we continue to seek validation from white-dominated sources like the Emmys and Oscars, while concurrently snubbing recognition from Black outlets like the BET awards and the NAACP Image Awards? Of course, this is undoubtedly an important question that the Black community must ask ourselves, and the question is largely rhetorical—many of us are still cajoled into believing that our Black talent is not palpable until a white, affluent, and seemingly prestigious institution grants us recognition.
But while the Black community must be vigilant about critiquing our own understandings of validation, we must still be critical of the peculiar racism that often rears its ugly head when it comes to the recognition of Black talent. I say “peculiar” because Black talent is often “dismissed” rather than “critiqued” meaningfully, despite the fact that many Black artists of Western countries are actually trained in the Western European tradition.
What this means is that many of our most prominent historical and contemporary Black artists who have achieved any sort of notoriety first had to master and prove themselves capable of understanding the artistic capacities of (usually) dead white men. The feat of the Black artist is to then take this tradition, and use it to create something new, original, and appealing. The Black artist, if they wish to create art that speaks to their own identity and community, must figure out how to spin gold from a racist yarn that has stolen from, omitted, and oppressed them for centuries. This new gold is then weighed against the yarn, and many times the gold is still dismissed and derided, despite the powerful alchemy of the Black artist.
This conundrum is what makes recent attempts to ban Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, both annoying and baffling. Despite having won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize, Morrison’s books continue to come under fire, this time from her home state. Additionally, Ellison’s book was nearly banned by a North Carolina school board, with one member stating that he found “no literary value” in the novel. This is of course absurd. To find “no literary value” in a book that won a National Book Award is actually just ludicrous. What this member must have meant is that Invisible Man is not Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Poe, and therefore cannot be considered literature, even though many of his white compatriots have already let it be deemed so. This member probably doesn’t know that Ellison’s book was actually criticized by many of his African-American contemporaries for being too saturated with Western European influences and allusions. This member probably doesn’t know that some of Ellison’s most beloved influences were the poet T.S. Eliot, Russian writer Dostoevsky, and Hemingway himself. Would this member have said the same of Morrison’s novels? Dismissing her allegiance to the canon of white literature, despite her masters thesis being on Virginia Woolf?
I reiterate. The point is not to validate our Black artists by closing their proximity to Western European artists. But the genius of Black artists is that they take a standard that has been forced upon them, and use it to create something both truthful for the universal, and vital for the particular. As a young Black man, I have read artists like Ellison and Morrison for survival, not merely just for fun. As a Black audience, we watch shows like Scandal not just for sensory pleasure, but for the deep psychological and emotional need to see ourselves reflected back upon us. This is perhaps changing slowly, but as long as our artists must be successful in this country, they must master and yet be trounced by artistic standards that had little to do with them in the first place. Our Black artists are constantly under the pressure of being “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
While this problem plays itself out, we can certainly celebrate when our Black artists are recognized on mainstream terms. But when they are not, we should not be surprised, and furthermore we must ensure that they are recognized on our terms. For the Black artist is indeed a master of two worlds.