by Mark Goldblatt
A Non-review by J. Stefan-Cole
Goldblatt's Africa Speaks, The Permanent Press, 2002,
is a novel with no first hand action, no real plot. Throughout
the book, Africa Ali, and a few of his friends are interviewed
by a nameless, wordless male. We guess the interviewer's questions
by the responses to them. An uncomfortable idea of the interviewer
does develop though, and it has to do with his being white
and his subject being black.
The question quickly arises: Is that a problem? A white
author writing in a black character's voice? My first answer,
my proud, liberal, non color-biased self says, no, why should
it be a problem?
Let's consider this year's Academy Awards. Three talented
black actors won Oscars, a life time achievement for Sydney
Poitier, best acting Oscars to Denzel Washington and Halle
Berry. Was it coincidence or affirmative action Hollywood
style that the top honors went to people of color? After
gigantically ignoring black actors for fifty years suddenly
three take home prizes in one night? As Africa Ali might
say, what's up with that?
It ought not to matter about an actor's color. I mean in
the parts they are hired to play. But we all know this isn't
the way it is. Even white actors are typecast, and white
female actors stand a poor to no chance at juicy leads,
great lines or large bucks. So, black actors generally get
to play what? Pimps, cons, cops, druggies, heavies, or jokey
types supporting white male leads. What black actors rarely
get to play in movies is regular people--read, white-like.
Color line Hollywood. Color line America. Mark Goldblatt's
book arrives against that backdrop. After Mohammed Ali beat
Sonny Liston for the world boxing title, he said he didn't
have to be what the white man wanted him to be. Rightly
or wrongly, he joined the Nation of Islam to repudiate white
supremacy. Today we are still a nation where well-off blacks
typically pay higher mortgage rates than comparably well-off
whites. Where health care for blacks, regardless of income,
is often unequal to whites. There is a color line in educational
opportunities, in opportunity generally. (To be fair, inequalities
are not limited to race, there is a 'glass ceiling' for
women, for example, and gross pay scale discrepancies.)
Legally, black is non-existent--theoretically. But blackness
in America is never invisible; it's about as visible as
invisible can get, and Africa Ali knows it. He knows too
that for whites blackness has guilt attached to it, and
fear and awe. But Africa says black men are better connected.
Sexually, intuitively, every how more real than whites.
"But that's the power of the black man. He can look
you in the eye, and just like snap he can look right through
you. Right down to your soul. It's an African thing; it's
a connection to the spiritual side. It's like our ancestors,
they're still alive inside us." It should come as no
surprise that African Americans are perceived as having
a separate culture.
According to Africa's politicized college friend Jerome,
the white man stole the black man's knowledge. Blacks built
the pyramids, he says, Cleopatra, Socrates and Jesus were
all black, and, "Aristotle stole everything he wrote,
every single thought, every single word, from the Library
at Alexandria. Now the reason the Egyptians allowed him
to do it is because it didn't matter to them. They figured
that ideas belonged to everyone. That's the reason Egyptian
thinkers never even signed their shit. It just never occurred
to them to claim it for their own." Jerome says this
is documented fact.
Africa has assimilated this and he has his own ideas about
what the white man has done to the black man through slavery
and apartheid. Mostly, highjacked his self-esteem. And he
wants nothing much to do with a white world.
Africa--or Kevin, his real name (or "slave name,"
as Africa puts it, which is how Cassius Clay put it when
he became Mohammed Ali)--is a street hustler, a small time
dealer. Nickel and dime bags of weed sold on street corners.
He doesn't go near the other stuff and faults his buddy
Herc for it. Herc's a hard core dealer, a big man who will
beat up a stranger for any or no provocation. He body builds
and is essentially a walking weapon loose on the street.
Africa is loyal to his 149th Street home crew, his dawgs
from the block: Herc, Fast Eddy, Jerome, Lakiesha and her
girls--Caramel, Dorinda, Mona Lisa. He's given up on his
own family: mother long dead, father a history teacher Africa
calls an Uncle Tom with whom he no longer associates, his
brother Dexter dead from gunshot. We learn of Africa's child,
a boy he has not seen since the day he was born. At his
birth, Africa refused to "front," to tell the
boy's mother he loved her, so she threw him out of the delivery
room and out of his son's life.
There is a lot of sadness in this book, the sort of sadness
you hear about in the news. Babies beaten by their mother's
boyfriend, kids with no idea who their fathers are, physical
violence. But there is also a lot of very funny writing.
Mark Goldblatt has a gifted ear for the vernacular of his
subject, no doubt about that.
Africa Ali speaks about the black man's affinity for sex.
"The black man's got a mind for pussy. I'll go you
one better. The black man, he invented pussy. White folks--with
them, well, it's like intercourse. Sound like a damn ramp
on a highway! It's like, "Oh Biff, let's climb into
the Volvo and have intercourse." Then Biff, he's like,
"Just a second, Muffy. Let me find my map." There
is an emphasis on the physical. We hear from Africa's home
girlfriend, Lakeisha, that black people are more natural.
"What you got to understand is black folks look at
sex in different ways from white folks. For white folks,
sex is like Sex. Like with a big old S. You know what I'm
saying? But for black folks, sex don't come with no big
S. It just, you know, sex. It what folks do in the natural
way of things." A repetition of Africa's thoughts on
the topic, only put more gently. This bodily ease, according
to Africa, is what makes the white man jealous of the black
man. He argues that given an even playing field, the white
man wouldn't stand chance against the black man. Physically.
The physical part is important. Africa, besides believing
that ancient whites stole knowledge from ancient blacks--a
wrong that will someday be put right when black men rule
in a world free of wars, a brotherhood of harmony--reveals
his almost bodily contempt for white society. He doesn't
want to be pale and always looking out for money with lawyers
and power deals and always fearing death. The white man
is disconnected from himself, but the black man is whole--only
his self-esteem has been robbed, humiliated by his manipulating
oppressor. Africa does not want to compete in a white world,
to beat the man at his game and become like him. He wants
his self-esteem on his terms. Sure, but he has to find out
what those terms mean first.
His friend Fast Eddy doesn't see it that way. He works
in the mail room of a corporation and plans to make it into
sales. Eddy owes no money, he won't "get" with
a woman until he is ready financially. He won't mix with
crime or drugs, and he thinks Africa's life is a tragedy.
He sees Africa standing on his corner selling dime bags
when according to Eddy he could be at Columbia studying
engineering. Eddy knows Herc thinks he's an Uncle Tom, but
he doesn't care what Herc thinks. He says he lives and lets
live. Is that the solution?
It falls on Liang, a Chinese immigrant whose father worked
two jobs until he dropped to bring Liang and her mother
to America, home in the promised land (in Queens). Liang
tells Africa to get over the past, stop using the degrading
N word--nigga--in reference to himself and his friends,
get up and appreciate what is possible in the land of the
free. That is until he gets over her. Africa is pretty badly
smitten with Liang, he fronts all over the place for her,
meeting her mother and having no sex for the three or so
weeks they are together. He finally calls it off when she
gives him an ultimatum not to cover Herc's back in a situation
over a disrespect that will go down in The Bronx, and involve
guns. I think we are supposed to conclude that Africa blew
an opportunity with Liang, that she was right and he ought
to listen, make a life, give up this losing loyalty to his
crew and move on. But Liang is a bit of a beautiful stiff
and, anyway, Africa thinks his life is okay.
It seems that Africa makes all the wrong conclusions. He
sounds almost sadly dumb when he explains why he did poorly
in school or when he reflects on raising the consciousness
of the world (including whites), or when he's racist, talking
of rich Jews, and Chinks, and pussy. He sounds naive sometimes
when he gets going until the interviewer cuts him off. But
the question comes up in spite: Is Africa entirely wrong?
"'Cause when you get right down to it, yo, it's the
mind that keeps people in chains. It ain't physical chains
no more. It's mental. You know what I'm saying? It's mentality
that keeps people in chains." He's saying that one
day whites may no longer rule, and he's questioning--in
spite--whether or not the white way of the world is the
best way. Or the only way.
So, I thought, while reading, well, there's Condoleezza
Rice, Colin Powell and (like their politics or not) compared
to them Africa is dumb. But then I think, sure and one or
two Surgeons General and a black held cabinet post here
and there, some mayors of cities with large minority populations:
D.C., Newark, New York--and there's Denzel and Halle...and
then I think, yeah, IN THE ENTIRE POLITICAL HISTORY OF AMERICA,
and I wonder about Africa Ali and all the sorry, self-defeating
conclusions he comes to from the ruling class perspective,
and then kind of ask myself, what's necessarily so good
about the ruling class perspective? If it is possible to
truly integrate, to erase the black from black what would
This book should encourage debate. And the debate should
not center on a white guy daring to write in a black guy's
idiom. If Africa Ali is colorful but delusional, the interviewer
is, to quote Africa, "stone cold," and just a
little bit mocking. What's needed is for a black writer
to jump into a white character's skin to write that book.
There is a dark idea afloat, largely unconscious, that something
is basically wrong with being black, and whites and blacks
believe it, and this needs badly to be brought out and questioned.
Africa Speaks is a start.
©June 2002 J. Stefan-Cole