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Other Book Reviews:
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Africa Speaks
by Mark Goldblatt
A Non-review by J. Stefan-Cole

Mark 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. Genetically.

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 result?

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



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