Art and Literature

black masculinity, football, sex, and history: coloring books 2015, 03/10/15

Dear friends –

We all know that a good book can take you out of yourself when times are hard. But a truly compelling story can do more than make you forget your troubles; it can lift your spirits and challenge your ethics, your politics, and your awareness of history. A novel that tells an important story in an accessible manner can educate you in a way that perhaps nothing else can. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum told me once that she is convinced that fiction trains us to become better people.

IN THE NIGHT OF THE HEAT is certainly doing that for me. This novel is the second in the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series – a series co-written by Blair Underwood, Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due. Tennyson Hardwick is a handsome African American actor with a troubled past – and this past keeps on coming back up for him as he tries to make a living in Hollywood. We see this happening to him very clearly in the first novel, CASANEGRA, where Tennyson becomes a suspect in the murder of a famous female rapper.

HEAT ups the ante and is a remarkable piece of writing. This beautifully crafted mystery isn’t just a suspense fiction although it is certainly that. It also gives us a thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, and illuminating look at the lives of African American athletes in the 60’s.

As a resolute non-athlete I don’t know much about athletics in this country, and I know even less about football, which is probably my least favorite spectator-sport. But you don’t need to be a sports fan to appreciate what this novel is doing, and if you ARE a sports fan you will recognize the resonances very quickly.

But IN THE NIGHT OF THE HEAT – and the series as a whole – is doing more than just tell us about history. This novel in particular is showing us something important about the ways in which black men are objectified and fetishized in American culture. Without spoiling too much, I will just say that the authors bring up this issue right away in the opening scene of the novel, and continue to work with the issue in complex and surprising ways.

These novels are also – at least the two I’ve read – are quite erotic. In his acknowledgements at the end of HEAT, Barnes writes passionately about how black men are not visible to us on the big screen unless they are having sex with white women. So, they have to be visible SOMEWHERE, he argues.

I’ve been thinking about this, and the only exception to the rule I can think of is in Do the Right Thing and that is because my daughter reminded me about it. I think that Brother From Another Planet may have a sex scene in it with a black man (the visitor) and a black woman, but I’ll have to watch the film again to check.

The paucity of black men as sexual agents in the cinema is shocking to me, and I am grateful to these novels for making me think about this issue, but I’m also wondering what audiences can do to insist on more diversity.

But while we’re figuring this out, we have these amazing novels. I really recommend CASANEGRA and IN THE NIGHT OF THE HEAT. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series as well.

And for writers, it’s important to remember that so-called “genre fiction” can get the political consciousness raising job done incredibly well.

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