The Black List

The Black List

3.7 8
by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Elvis Mitchell

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In The Black List, twenty-five prominent African-Americans of various professions, disciplines, and backgrounds offer their own

stories and insights on the struggles, triumphs, and joys of black life in America and, in the process, redefine "black list" for a new century.

As seen in original portraits by renowned photographer TimothySee more details below


In The Black List, twenty-five prominent African-Americans of various professions, disciplines, and backgrounds offer their own

stories and insights on the struggles, triumphs, and joys of black life in America and, in the process, redefine "black list" for a new century.

As seen in original portraits by renowned photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and in a series of incisive interviews conducted by award-winning journalist, critic, academic, and radio host Elvis Mitchell, this group exemplifies today's most accomplished, determined African-Americans, whose lives and careers form a trail of inspiration and example for people of all races.

Spanning the arts, sports, politics, and business, the diverse accomplishments and lives of these remarkable individuals create a kaleidoscope of ideas and experiences, and provide the framework for a singular conver-sation about the influence of African-Americans on this country and on our world.

The Black List is:

Slash - Toni Morrison - Keenen Ivory Wayans - Vernon Jordan - Faye Wattleton - Marc Morial - Serena Williams - Lou Gossett Jr. - Russell Simmons - Lorna Simpson - Mahlon Duckett - Zane - Al Sharpton - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - William Rice - Thelma Golden - Sean Combs - Susan Rice - Chris Rock - Suzan-Lori Parks - Steve Stoute - Richard Parsons - Dawn Staley - Colin Powell - Bill T. Jones

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Created by photographer Greenfield-Sanders and entertainment critic Mitchell (currently editor-at-large at Interview), this handsome collection of original portraits and essays, companion to the HBO documentary, celebrates 25 successful black Americans, including Toni Morrison, Reverend Al Sharpton, Serena Williams and Colin Powell. Though beautifully reproduced photos capture both "formality and familiarity," the honest, insightful essays are the heart of the book, personal narratives written by the subjects themselves. Greenfield-Sanders means to "track the black experience in America" while "exhibiting the wealth of variety in it," and his subjects bring together a wide range of experiences: Zane describes her reasons behind writing erotic literature; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls the first time he met Miles Davis; Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood, discusses the intersection of her religion and her commitment to advancing freedom. Affixed in a crisp layout, this volume should make a well-crafted gift for readers (of any color) looking for inspiration.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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by Elvis Mitchell

What is a Black List? Historically, Americans know exactly what it is: a group of people punished by being marginalized and denied work or social approval, generally for their having taken political stands. And, for African-Americans, it's yet another slap at the word black, which includes such slurs as black sheep and blackguard. The Simpsons Movie cleverly takes aim at the tired attitude toward black when Mayor Quimby is forced to deal with an emergency by declaring "code black," and Lenny groans, "Black? That's the worst color!" Another Clinton -- George, Parliament-Funkadelic founder -- bounced the taint when he proclaimed in song that he wanted to "Paint the White House Black."

With the serious attention directed at Senator Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, the concept doesn't seem as much like the dance floor science fiction that Dr. Funkenstein chuckled his way through. Although the creakily derogatory stamp on the word black predates creation of these United States, the negative connotation is the reason why, until the 1960s, respectable people of color didn't want to be called black; it was nothing short of an insult. Not until race pride shocked the country out of its ignoring and ignorant attitudes about the impact of, well, blacks on America, did the word take on a fresher and desirable aspect for many African-Americans, especially the young; the Afrocentric revolutionaries and the integrationist civil rights workers alike found something desirable about being known as black. For years before the 1960s, of course, it had the transgressive allure of cool. An underground recycling of the concept was taking place -- in those halcyon days before cable TV, the internet, and bar codes burned onto youth culture so that its shopping habits could be tracked and exploited -- in the shady bunkers beneath the Establishment, where jazz and blues musicians plied their trade for an appreciative audience of freethinkers who were disinclined to be described as Negroes, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head and a five-cent tip.

For me, the real question is, What's in a Black List? All of those past associations, as grim and lethal as an undertow, are to be obliterated by the new implications of the term that we're creating here. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and I decided that The Black List would be made up of portraits in both senses of the word: pictorial and verbal. What I didn't realize until we undertook the Black List is our essential similarity of interest; we are both primarily curious and pointed toward finding ways to get people to reveal themselves -- he with his camera, and me through questions. The results that we managed for The Black List come from the living-portraiture approach, done with a formality and familiarity that I think is rare and thrilling. The subjects reacted to this technique with a confidence born of esteem for every part of their lives, rather than just their areas of endeavor or expertise. The relationship is seen in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's smiling as he talks in depth about Harlem, Miles Davis, and his fascination with American history, as well as his days on the basketball court for UCLA, Milwaukee, and the Lakers.

Here, the term Black List becomes a reboot, a gathering of some of the most capable and, just as important, determined African-Americans, whose work and careers leave a trail of inspiration in fields ranging from politics and letters to civil rights and corporate responsibility. What they all have in common is a kind of activism, furthering the cause of African-American visibility while not shirking devotion to family and morality; that tradition of "each one teach one," and elevating the race -- watchwords that still have import for much of black American society as the gap between the well-off and the black citizenry left behind mired in deprivation grows wider. For me it's a rescue that complements the world that I've grown up in, something that blacks raised in this land hear one way or another at one point or another.

So much of African-American cultural history is about reclamation. That understanding that nothing should be thrown out reminds me of something my Mississippi-born-and-bred grandmother said to me when I noticed so many pork products -- headcheese, pigs' feet -- pickling in jars in her kitchen that I half expected Boris Karloff to pull a lever, and a bolt of revivifying lightning shock them back to life: "Baby, we eat everything on the pig but the oink." Frankly, the oink sounded like a less scary -- and less smelly -- prospect for a meal than the chitlins that boiled away for what seemed like my entire childhood on her stove. But her words have sat with me for the rest of my life, and revisit me on occasions such as sitting in an Italian restaurant when a dollop of lardo is offered as a spread. It would never occur to me to wrinkle my nose at it; I grew up on what were the discards and what are now found in the pricier establishments around the globe. (Other words of my grandmother's come to mind: "Honey, the wheel turn slowly, but it turn.")

One of the purposes of this Black List is to track the black experience in America, and by doing so, to exhibit the wealth of variety in it. What's evident from the speakers on the Black List is how that experience defies definition. Vernon Jordan puts it as simply as saying that African-American thought is not monolithic. Women's rights crusader Faye Wattleton voices the idea that integration has caused problems as well as solved them; the areas that once housed every layer of the African-American social strata, from professionals to laborers, clergy to philosophers, offered illustrations of virtue to all within hailing distance; once those restrictions that kept blacks together were removed, a whole class of people was left behind without models next door to follow through the corridors of attainment. The necessity of having examples literally within reach is not lost on her. For those pursuing art, avoiding the simplistic classifications of blackness is a full-time occupation itself; dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones discusses the limitations of the cliché of black rage, and the dangers of not acknowledging his blackness first and foremost -- which for him was an aesthetic self-abnegation but which his detractors saw as renunciation and selling out. Dealing with blackness for others is a call to arms; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks embraces what might be called the nontraditional behavior of black audiences by providing context for it and looking to incorporate these responses into her work.

The journeys taken by Jones and Parks, as well as others here, are reflections of what blacks in America have always had to do: make their way in the world and comment on the repression as it happens, using irony as well as persistence to keep moving forward. Keenen Ivory Wayans speaks of his breakthrough film, Hollywood Shuffle, and television comedy, In Living Color, which served both those purposes. He brought his understanding of what was missing from the mainstream; the kinds of things discussed among blacks but never portrayed in movies, like the depiction of black fear (not the stuff of racist Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s, in which African-Americans were reduced to cowardly stereotypes).

The sheer force of will required to be a success while being condescended to (under the best of circumstances) is frequently in evidence; condescension must have felt like a constant greeting to the subjects found on this Black List. Negro League baseball star Mahlon Duckett refuses to wallow in what might have been; self-pity would be an unwelcome distraction from his pursuit of excellence and the education he got seeing Major League players up close and finding that they weren't any better than his colleagues laboring under a system that didn't allow for adequate stats for black players. Studio Museum of Harlem chief curator Thelma Golden takes it in stride, and any hint of dismissal lights a fire under her. For Vernon Jordan, it's the example set in his neighborhood by the educated blacks whose pride in accomplishment adds a bounce to their walk as they pass by him.

One way or another, the constant reminder of being black is always close at hand; for Slash, the specter of responsibility rises when his then partner in Guns N' Roses, singer Axl Rose, spews an ugly mouthful of venom at a group of targets that includes "niggers" with the song "One in a Million," and the guitarist who rarely had race mentioned in his presence is suddenly the target of anger by blacks who demand that he take a stand. What's most powerful about the incident is how the hot splash of Rose's hatefulness lingers in Slash's soul long after he's forgotten the specifics of Axl's lyrics. (You can't help but wonder if purging the words from his mind was his way of rejecting Rose's cruelty.)

Nowhere does the boldness of converting offal into something to be proud of come more into play than language. Consider the 1980s, when the word nigger was pried loose from the jaws of racists and given new weight by rappers. Russell Simmons and Steve Stoute discuss the momentum and tragedy that this new stream of black consciousness evokes. Rap flourished during a crucial period in which the lag time between information spilling from the black underground into the mainstream was shortened from weeks or even years into mere moments, and the gravitational pull of black culture could no longer be denied, let alone fought. Whites barely had time to register what was being said before something was added to the rap glossary, its insistent reinvention provoking as much fear as excitement. Simmons and Stoute address this phenomenon as well with concise observations.

It was about this period, as I was interviewing a prominent black entertainer, that I mentioned snatching the word blacklist out of its toxic ditch. He told me that a friend of his coined "Black Pack" as a spin on a term then used to describe a group of celebrities: "Brat Pack." I said that, as a kid, I'd always imagined it was a cool thing until I had its history explained to me in school. And my friends used it as a down-low category to compile names of black people whose achievements meant something to us, such as the women authors whose fiction was collected in the book Black-Eyed Susans and Midnight Birds (where I first read Toni Morrison, who appears in the gallery of notables assembled for this edition). Some part of me always imagined that James Brown was only a heartbeat away from releasing an album titled The Black List, in which he'd put together a gaggle of the elements of African-American culture that most influenced him. As Brown's protégé Al Sharpton mentions in his section, Brown made American culture black by sweating out his own beat for the whole country -- and eventually the world -- rather than diluting his message and driving for audiences, as crossover performers before him had done. And because of his example, black culture crossed over in the mainstream forever. Sharpton also adds his feelings about rap and the damage he feels it has left.

Black culture existed as a code; notes from underground. The spirituals were delivered from the gospel as encoded messages from the slaves, so that escapes could be plotted, and missives were songs as information, so that it was known when the overseers and masters were about. That underground still exists for black artists. Zane crafted her fiction solely for her own self-expression and posted it online, to find that an audience hungry for her combination of erotica and self-examination existed and clamored for more of the dialogues her characters had with each other. Even after being evicted from one website, the compulsions of her creations -- and the need for black women, unused to this kind of raw honesty, to keep up with her work -- continued to find a place, finally, in print.

Perhaps language and culture have come to mean so much to African-Americans because, until the last century, it was something we owned that couldn't be taken away from us. Blacks weren't allowed to own land in a great deal of the United States for most of this country's history (California had clauses preventing home ownership by African-Americans until the 1960s, for example), and the intense hold on our culture provided a spiritual home for us. Former New Orleans mayor and National Urban League President Marc Morial reminds us of the need for home, literal and metaphorical, as he summarizes black political progress -- and how quickly racism can reemerge in the twenty-first century -- through the microcosm of his birthplace, pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina. His thoughtfulness and carefully contained passion are valuable notes to be sounded at a time when so many want to conclude that race is no longer an issue in the United States.

African-American culture is something that we all created here together because so many blacks were stolen from their homelands, and we became the melting pot that was extolled as the motto of this country -- even as so many Europeans got to cling to their respective traditions as they supposedly assimilated. Assimilation was not merely an option for African-Americans, it was a means of survival, since the only other choice was death. And the conflation of nations and peoples led to the amalgam that is now -- and has been -- among the most potent artistic and social exports America has created. It is a culture that includes Toni Morrison and Russell Simmons, Vernon Jordan and Thelma Golden, Susan Rice and Colin Powell, Bill T. Jones and Dawn Staley, Slash and Zane. In Ralph Ellison's introduction to Invisible Man, the title character keeps reciting a refrain from a Louis Armstrong song that perpetually rolls around in his head: "What did I do to be so black and blue?" The blues that each of the subjects in the Black List endured aren't limned from the poetry of suffering, they are the hues of bruises, the marks gained from stepping into the fray and coming out bloody but unbowed; each warrior is happy to explain the stories behind all of the scars and lacerations. No one holds anything back, and part of the pleasure I got from listening to all of them was watching as their guards dropped and they opened up in front of Timothy's camera. And if you, the reader, get a glimmer of the exhilaration I felt as each of the figures here spoke at length about their wishes, their battles, their anxieties, and fulfilling their goals while getting through the everyday vagaries of life, then that imparts an extra sweetness to victory.

Go through this new-century version of a blacklist; I think your perceptions of it, and of Black America, will be changed forever in the same ways that Timothy's and mine were. No doubt, the word black has outgrown much of the downbeat past, and all it took was several hundred years and a different kind of home-style thoughtfulness: black American ingenuity, which is as much about reinvention as it is invention. That's the heart of the Black List that will carry us forward.

Copyright © 2008 by Freemind Ventures LLC, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Elvis Mitchell

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