Never let it be said that yours truly aired black people's dirty laundry. Yours truly is fully aware--truly--that black people do not take kindly to such an offense. For some bloods, it's regarded as a crime worse than blasphemy. It's an unpardonable sin, an act of treason punishable by banishment from the race.
It seems that African-American writers, who sometimes publish works that reveal unpleasant truths about black life, run as great a risk as anybody else of being charged with racial treason. For sure, if some "righteous" brothers and sisters had their way, black writers who air our dirty laundry would be taken to the chopping block and dealt with--righteously. They'd be hounded, like Salman Rushdie, the dude whose novel about Islam inspired Muslim fundamentalists to offer a hefty price for his balding scalp.
In the past few decades, a number of black writers have been subjected to less extreme but more relentless attacks by African-Americans because of the notion that they violated some unwritten taboo about telling it like it is. In the 1970s, it was Michele Wallace, who wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Then, Ntozake Shange caught hell for bringing us For colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.
With all the debate generated by those controversial works, you'd think black folks would've worked through their misplaced anxieties by now. But clearly, that's not the case. After writing Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan got a dose of black rage from some brothers, who questioned her devotion to the race. Black women worship Terry to the high heavens, but even today she has to tread lightly aroundsome brothers. (One guy was so upset about her portrayal of black men that he went on The Oprah Winfrey Show campaigning for blacks to boycott the movie version of the book.)
Few writers have aroused more fury than Alice Walker, whose 1982 book The Color Purple upset a whole lot of people. Although she wrote the novel more than a decade ago, Alice's name is still mud in many parts of the 'hood. Until things cool down, Home Girl can forget about going down to the corner bar to get a taste. And if she happens to drop in at the greasy spoon for a pig-ear sandwich or collard greens, Alice had better order her food to go.
The truth is that black folks have spent a good part of the second half of this century dogging some of their best and most prolific writers when it comes to this business of exposing various aspects of black reality. They've harped on the issue so much that it may be taking a creative toll, affecting the literary judgment and decisions of black writers and forcing them to second-guess themselves.
Black writers really don't need a defense from me, mind you. Most of them would do just fine in a heads-up rumble. But for me it's a matter of principle--free speech is free speech. It's also a practical concern: If critics will come strong after such luminaries as Alice Walker and Terry McMillan for airing black folks' dirty laundry, surely they'll come at the struggling wretches on the lower rungs of the black literary ladder, including me. And I hope that my comrades in literature will have my back.
Blacks, of course, aren't the only people who are sensitive about how they're portrayed. Many Italians got pretty upset with Mario Puzo because they thought his classic book, The Godfather, promoted stereotypes of them as a tribe of organized families made up of cold-blooded killers who would do anything to protect their criminal interests. Likewise Philip Roth, particularly after he wrote Portnoy's Complaint, caught lots of flak from Jews, some of them saying that his novel about a neurotic Jewish man (who is obsessed with masturbation) is an anti-Semitic book.
The point is, every race has dirty laundry, and it seems that every race is sensitive about how it is depicted in literature and film. But this laundry thing has always been a fairly easy question for me: The best way to get your laundry clean is to wash it. Then it should be hung out in the open-aired, so to speak--so it can flap in the wind and freshen, rejuvenate.
I would even say that our continued growth as a people depends largely on our ability to recognize the beauty of that cleansing process. And we must admit that at this stage of the game, some of our stuff stinks real bad. Let's face it, at our best we're as black and beautiful as beautiful gets. But at our worst, well, we be some ignorant niggas sometimes. Black-on-black crime, violence, pettiness, disregard for our children and elders, political apathy, disunity, and general chaos in black communities--you name it, we got it going on.
So I ask, Who more than writers can expose the sometimes sick and trifling behaviors that impede our collective progress? Who else but black scribes can hold our dirt before us to be tossed into the wash?
As much as we're struggling to work through all the B.S. that white America heaps on us, you'd think we'd welcome the liberating insight that writers often bring to the table. But we often don't. We attack instead. We dust off the protest signs and take to the streets. We dog the messenger.
That knee-jerk response to unflattering portrayals of blacks is partly rooted in what I call the colored logic. The colored logic dictates that black people always put on our best and most dignified, unified, and glorified face for white America, even if such an image misrepresents the truth. The colored logic argues that if we African-Americans,-er, colored people--air our dirty laundry, if we reveal the worst of what's going on among us, white folks will use that information to confirm the ugliest stereotypes that they already hold.
Yours truly says, Forget that. And forget white America, too. In case you haven't noticed, some white people believe what they want to believe about black folks whether it's true or not. White people will continue believing what they want to believe about us. Some of them need to view us in a negative light in order to maintain a positive image of themselves. It's sick and it's sad, but it's also true.
Although The Color Purple and Waiting to Exhale were fiction, some whites (and even some blacks) elevated these works to the status of sociology; they treated them as documented proof of what one white writer described as a "festering animosity between black men and black women."
As one writer who has been taking in all the shrillness in the portrayals of black folks in literature and film, I find it hard sometimes to be sympathetic to the fuss. I find the criticism particularly frustrating because I think I know something about writers' motivations. Basically, our goal is to get as close as we can to conveying our truth. We want to tell a good story. Selling books is important, too. But first and foremost, an author's aim is to get it right.
All this is not to suggest that I'm not sensitive to the delicacy involved in airing dirty laundry. I'm hip to the hurt blacks feel. I also understand how our laundry got so downright funky in the first place. It started long ago, when an entire race of people nearly had its identity stamped out and was left confused about who it was.
And it didn't help that in the years since then, white popular culture has compounded the pain by portraying blacks in unflattering ways. In literature, film, and practically every other aspect of American culture, blacks have been mocked ruthlessly, from Amos 'n Andy and Buckwheat to J. J. Walker. White America has found fault--and laughter--in every characteristic, from the width of our noses to the way we speak. They continue to ridicule blackness, and they seem to take special delight in condemning black men.
Not surprisingly, this constant ridicule by whites has made black people hypersensitive to criticism of any kind from anybody--especially from their own people. White scorn has made blacks so edgy that they're distrustful, even of black writers who mean them no harm. We're a people who, in the words of Alice Walker, are "so wounded by betrayal, so hurt by misplacing their trust, that to offer us a gift of love is often to risk one's life, certainly one's name and reputation."
And who would know that better than Alice Walker? In The Color Purple, she wrote about four black women--Celie, Shug, Nettie, and Sophia--trying to survive in a male-dominated rural society. Within the confines of that world, some black men were tyrants, holding women hostage and even, God forbid, committing incest. Lordy, lordy, the black people cried when the book was published. What Alice Walker do that for?
"Black people," the critics charged, "do not commit incest. The Color Purple is white propaganda . . . That's why she won the Pulitzer Prize. That's why she made so much money from it. That's why they made it into a movie. Blah, blah, blah, blah . . ."
After the publication of The Color Purple, black folks ate Alice Walker for lunch. They were still nibbling on chunks of her ass in 1992, when Waiting to Exhale came out. Terry McMillan wove a homespun tale about four black women--Robin, Bernadine, Gloria, and Savannah--and the consequences some of them suffered for the choices they made, especially their choice of men.
Did McMillan really put black men down? I don't think so. Her book actually delivered a backhand slap at sisters' questionable judgment in affairs of the heart. But more than anything else, what pissed off so many black men is that the book cast some male characters in an unflattering light. Some people, such as Myles Johnson, a brother in Morristown, New Jersey, saw Waiting to Exhale as male-bashing in buppie chic--"just another facet of the assassination of the black male character."
"Black writers do have a responsibility to be good storytellers," Johnson told me recently. "However, they do not operate in a vacuum. Every single thing that they write impacts on the group as a whole. I'm not disputing that Terry may have had bad experiences with some black men. But it's unfair to take those experiences and use them as an indictment against all black men. Terry's work may be therapeutic for her, but there must be a balance. If you're showing one side of black men, where is the flip side? Where is my portrayal? I don't behave like those men in her book."
Ironically, without being aware of it, many of the blacks who criticize the way African-Americans are portrayed are doing the very thing we accuse whites of doing to us: using the twisted behaviors of a few people to make judgments about the entire race. We know that most black men are strong, noble brothers who struggle as hard as anybody else to make the most of a messed-up situation in America. If we truly know this, then it seems we should be able to accept isolated stories about disturbed or oppressive black men as just that--tales that don't reflect our total reality.
Instead of being so defensive about negative portrayals of black men, maybe we ought to look around and ask ourselves: Is this story true in part or in whole? If what's written is even partly reflective of our reality, then critics should back off, cool out, chill.
The disturbing thing is that in the cases of McMillan and Walker, the criticism they got may have affected them enough to influence their subsequent works. Even now--fourteen years after The Color Purple was published--Walker is arguing that the book and movie were misunderstood. She was so disturbed by what she considered the public's misinterpretation that she devoted a recent book, The Same River Twice, to the trauma she went through. In one chapter, Walker actually reprints the complete unused version of the screenplay of The Color Purple. It's as if she wants to prove to the public that the movie conveyed a different message than she intended to convey.
For me, the irony in all the criticism is that so many black community "activists" came out, unified and powerful, to protest the negative black male images in the The Color Purple, yet nobody can seem to find those activists when their help is needed on more crucial fronts. For years now, gangsta rappers have bombarded our senses with profane, sexist songs and videos that celebrate the very worst in black behavior--male and female. But there's barely a public whimper from the so-called activists who clamored so loudly for Alice Walker's head. It smells like hypocrisy and cowardice to me.
My biggest problem with gripes about Terry McMillan's and Alice Walker's writings is that critics seem to overlook the enormous good those books have done. For sisters, they provided a kind of therapy that's been hard to come by anywhere else. The Color Purple and Waiting to Exhale put black women's innermost struggles on center stage. They represented validation of black women's pain and struggles. They inspired a whole lot of soul-searching by black women, who wrestle with an array of complex social issues in trying to define their relationships as the mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, and lovers of black men. As Michele Wallace pointed out in Black Macho, much of the previous literature about black women has reflected the broader public view of them as superwomen. They've been portrayed as fat Sapphires who were put on this earth to shoulder the many burdens of their families and men. In this warped vision, black women either don't have personal needs or they happily submerge their needs and ambitions for the sake of the greater black good.
As the colored logic goes, Alice Walker would have been much better off writing about mean old white people committing incest. It's possible, though, that because she wrote about incest among blacks, some African-American victims might be more inclined to get the help they need. Likewise with Waiting to Exhale, scores of black women wrestling with tough issues of career, family, and men could celebrate their struggles and take comfort in knowing that they're not alone.
Picasso once said, "Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth." We need to accept stories about black life for what they are: On one level, they're art-entertaining and often fictitious stories; at the same time, they're blunt truths, literary accounts of the pain we suffer--and inflict on one another--every day.
The bottom line is we need black writers to air our dirty laundry. We also need those writers to resist pressure to sugarcoat black reality. Lord knows we need that, all of us.