Backed-Up Book Reviews: M.K. Asante, Randall Kennedy, Devorah Heitner and Geoff Wisner

I got tired of waiting for a certain website to print these. I hope it still does.

The reviews are in the posting style of the website, not the one I usually use here.




A Young Filmmaker Recalls His Caged Bird Years


I got so much trouble on my mind/
Refuse to lose

–Chuck D, “Welcome to the Terrordome”, from “Fear of a Black Planet,” 1990


In the 1990s, while M.K. Asante’s world of childhood privilege fell apart and he began a lonely, angry, abandoned adolescence with “broken glass in my mind,” a smattering of Baby Boomer Black journalists began to write memoirs. Most talked about their personal struggles, and almost all of them had most of the same elements: a missing or abusive father, problems on The Street, jail time (or the threat of it), and discovering the power of the written word. All of them had the most important narrative element: a job at a prestigious white newspaper that challenged them on many personal levels. (One writer, a Black journalist known to be a contrarian in a way that Zora Neale Hurston would be proud of, derided the new sub-genre early on, calling them “modern-day slave narratives” and attacking their hard-won Black middle-class status at The Washington Post or some equivalent as, frankly, a dubious kind of freedom.) All these memoirs, however powerful, gave us, in effect, something relatively new back then: “Native Son” with a “happy” ending: think “The Cosby Show” with dabs of irony and righteous Black anger.

If Asante—an award-winning filmmaker and a tenured professor at Morgan State University, all under the age of 35—has written a post-modern “slave narrative” with his brand new memoir “Buck”(Spiegel & Grau), he has mastered, usurped and updated the genre for the 21st century. (Public disclosure: I was a fulltime Lecturer at Morgan from 2007 until this year, and Asante and I were colleagues in the university’s College of Liberal Arts.) The poet tells his story of Cracked Up and Drive-By Ghetto America in a way that combines expressive beauty with the hard-driving beat found in any urban nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights. He narrates a simple yet gripping chronicle of his response to the abandonment of his famous academic father (“[His] bag’s been everywhere; it spends more time with Pops than I do”), the mental illnesses of his mother and sister, and the imprisonment of his older brother.

His slow descent into his own hell is at once touching, funny, frightening and disturbing, as ghetto stories often are. A sensitive Philadelphia teenager becomes a dropout, thug and drug dealer, testing his and society’s restraints. “Decisions lead to options, options to choices, choices to freedom,” writes the author. “We all design our own reality, write our own script, build our own house…or prison…or coffin.” Like a sort of male, real-life Precious in “Push,” he is rescued by, among other things, words and the caring alternative-school teachers who encourage him to explore them. When the smoke clears, it does so in tear-jerking, Afrocentric-yet-family-values ways that will fit well if the rumors about this book being considered as an upcoming Jaden Smith film vehicle are real.

The only complaint is that sometimes the power of this truly inspired work often folds in on itself. The deeper symbolism and detail of both his life and the lives around him occasionally seem to be sacrificed for speed and style. (Using excerpts from his mother’s diary gives the work more heft, but not the amount of depth needed.) The hiphop lyrics sprinkled throughout, for example, are used to quickly describe a scene or a feeling. As a kind of punchy punctuation, they help the reader get (to) the point quickly, but perhaps that is not the best way to allow the life—even one of a reckless 1990s teen—to marinate, and ultimately resonate, in a memoir.

“Buck” may not be more than the sum of its often-flashy parts, but it is undeniably powerful. With this, his fourth book, M.K. Asante joins the post-modern pantheon of, arguably, the greats of today’s Black male nonfiction writers under 55: Jabari Asim, Ta-Nehisi Coates (who, by the way, also has a fantastic memoir that covers some similar ground), and William Jelani Cobb. “Buck” and Asante demand to be taken seriously as literary on their own lyrical, painful, b-boy terms, and they exceedingly succeed.




New Anthology of African Autobios and Memoirs Show Continent’s Diversity

There is more, much more, to African writing than the literary holy trinity of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe (now an Ancestor) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There are stories about women, about members of the LGBT community, about lives in Northern Africa, about childhood stories that don’t all start with growing up in huts and end with the colonial powers taking their community’s land, leaving a nation of victims. “The problem with stereotypes…particularly in literature,” postulated Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “is that one story can become the only story: stereotypes straightjacket our ability to think in complex ways.”

Adichie’s essay, “African ‘Authenticity,’” is part of this book, edited by Geoff Wisner, a White, Brooklyn-based writer who has demonstrated a serious commitment to African literature. It is billed as the first anthology of African memoirs and autobiographies. Skipping past the irony of this situation, Wisner wisely gets out of the way so that Africans can speak for themselves.

The writing in this collection—novelists contribute from all across the continent and autobiographies, or speeches of, or conversations with, major 20th century African political leaders such as Steve Biko and Kwame Nkrumah show their necessity—has been translated from many (mostly colonial) languages, so that English speakers can sample the rich diversity of the continent’s writing.

Wisner’s selections emphasize personal identity, so that stereotypes can be shattered. Dagmawi Woubshet writes about his sexuality while growing up in Ethiopia. Many of the childhood tales—and there are many, perhaps too many—share the universal feelings of pain and pleasure that situate the reader into the worlds of the writers, whether male, female, Muslim, Christian or indigenous religion. “I took for granted the fact that my friends came in all shapes and colours,” remembered James R. Mancham of his growing up in the small East African island of Seychelles, “that a Seychellois could be blond with blue eyes or as Black as night, or any shade in between.” Not surprisingly, the personal evolves into the political in many of the excerpts, with the CIA and the colonial powers firmly placed in the background.

The anthology is heavy with writers recalling their empowerment through writing. “I had always told stories,” declared Laila Lalami, a Moroccan journalist and novelist, “but now I wanted to be heard.” Wisner ensures that the continent’s multi-hyphenated rainbow of nonfiction writing, old and new, at all edges of the continental compass, gets that chance.



Randall Kennedy, one of Black America’s top legal scholar stars, makes the politically difficult defense of affirmative action in this time of White and Black conservative retrenchment. Kennedy sketches the legal history of affirmative action, from its origins in the days of the Kennedy administration and implementation by Presidents Johnson and Nixon to the battles against it in the courts, including the Supreme Court, from the late 1970s until the present, including the views of President Obama, arguably the policy’s most powerful beneficiary. “Whether it is good or bad depends on local conditions—the character of the society’s needs, the relative strength of those benefited and disadvantaged, the plausibility of alternative vehicles for reform,” writes the author, using a scholarly reasonableness almost bordering on neutrality. But one thing is clear, he argues: there will always be vocal and organized opposition to social resources—notably jobs and university slots—going from one group to another, no matter who they are and how they were, or are, oppressed.


Black Power TV


In this post-modern, sci-fi age where millions of Black Americans (and Africans, and Caribbeans, and…) can make youtube videos of themselves discussing Trayvon Martin and trend on Twitter about Harry Belafonte hating on Jay Z, it’s becoming more and more difficult to remember yesteryear’s quaint and analog six-channel, black-and-white TV world that began, one hour a week at a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to emphasize the Black for the first time. And the power those local and national political and cultural images carried, reverberating in Black communities, back in the days when “keeping it real” was referred to as “telling it like it is!”

Devorah Heitner, a White feminist media scholar, has documented much of this period as it played out on the East Coast, and has done a superb job. “Black Power TV” (Duke University Press) is the first comprehensive look at Black public affairs television programs. The groundbreaking shows discussed are Boston’s “Say Brother,” Brooklyn’s “Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant” (look at this link to see Roxie Roker, Lenny Kravitz’s mom and Helen Willis, the neighbor married to the White guy on “The Jeffersons,” before she became a network sitcom star), and the national “Black Journal” and “Soul!” (imagine a “Soul Train” for Black nationalists). These programs did something truly evolutionary: they presented Black people on television from the points of view of Black people themselves.

These programs, most of them weekly that aired for an hour on weekends, were created and aired as a response to the 1960s summer urban insurrections sparked by racist police brutality, poverty, a sense of invisibility and, in 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Writes Heitner: “These programs created a space for publicizing internal debate in Black communities, negotiating between a lively mix of strategies proposed by Black leaders during the Black Power era, from about 1965 through the early 1970s, including armed revolution, electoral participation, economic self-help, cultural nationalism, community policing, affirmative action, collective agriculture, separatism, and other strategies.” They were a way for all races, all viewers, to see and understand the Black Power and Arts movements up close, in the comfort of their own homes. In which direction would Black America head—chaos or community? Dashiki or business suit, or both? Tune in next week!

The author correctly dissects and describes how undiluted Black history, Black culture and Black anger shook the conservative and very White boob tube, thanks to the work of White foundations, White television executives, Black street activists and Black community-minded broadcasters. She is unafraid to peer inside an almost-forgotten period of television history in order to explain the funky and the radical, catching the tenor of the time. Tavis Smiley, Black America’s Larry King, owes his whole television career to the brothers and sisters in Heitner’s book. Right On!

One response to “Backed-Up Book Reviews: M.K. Asante, Randall Kennedy, Devorah Heitner and Geoff Wisner

  1. Pingback: Amiri Baraka, Black Literature and the Prospect of Radical Thought | I MiX What I Like!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s