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Pascal Robert Headshot

What Happened to the Black Literary Canon?

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One of my fondest childhood memories was going into a closet in our home where my father kept some of his books. My Pop was an auto-mechanic, a blue collar guy, so you would think his reading selection would be limited to those five inch thick repair manuals that grease monkeys always kept handy for the latest technological change to a vehicle's specs. That was not the case with my old man. From The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Sammy Davis Jr.'s, Yes I Can, my Pop kept a wide variety of books at his disposal. Invariably many of these books dealt with either a Black figure or some issue of Black life. As a Haitian immigrant having lived less than a decade in the United States at that time, my father's interest in such books was a testimony to the extent he placed importance on awareness of the plight of the Black community in his adopted homeland. There was also the assortment of old Time Magazine issues with pictures of Richard Nixon, Black Panthers, and global conflicts in that same literary treasure trove. So for me, reading books and magazines always had the connotation of something serious people should do. My Pop was a serious man, so for him to be spending time indulging in this material meant that this was an endeavor I needed to engage in.

Fast forward to my college years in the late 80s. Though not a period known to produce a level of social consciousness and protest activity of note in comparison to the 1960s, a variety of factors made the late 1980s a time in which being a student of color on campus required one to have a degree of familiarity with a certain canon of books that, if lacking, one's dedication to "the cause" could be called into question. Horrific Apartheid in South Africa, the advent of culturally aware Hip Hop Music, and the debates around Afro-centricity created an air of racial awareness and a level of political acumen that required students of my era to be familiar with what I call "The Black Literary Canon." These were books that made up the intellectual arsenal that students of color discussed, debated, and even sometimes used to show off to the ladies to make themselves seem like the "deep brother" on campus.

From James Baldwin's, The Fire Next Time, E. Franklin Frazier's, Black Bourgeoisie, Cater G. Woodson's, The Mis-Education of the Negro to Cheik Anta Diop's, The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality, Black students from this period had at least a basic command of texts that offered not only a guide through the confusing matrix of race and identity many had to navigate, they imbued students with a sense of cultural integrity which ensured that any offense hurled at the collective psyche of Black Consciousness would be met with the harsh reprisal.

Moving on to today when the nature of music, especially Hip Hop, has shifted from cultural awareness to capturing the latest designer brand or flashy piece of jewelry, and instead of having to spend hours in the university library to find answers to basic questions you perform a Google search on your smart phone, it brings one to ask: What happened to the traditional Black Literary Canon? Do today's 20 somethings place any importance or relevance on maintaining the level of cultural and racial integrity which was so crucial to young people from my era in order to avoid being called the offensive title of: "The Lost Brother or Sister?" Is the "Obama generation" even remotely concerned with answering those nagging questions of racial identity, or have they assumed the more commercially palatable and socially convenient mantra of "transcending race" to move to the Utopian ever so tranquil "post-racial America." A position that does nothing but anesthetize people of color into avoiding the recognition that some of the most horrid racial injustices in American society are occurring today even in the age of Obama. How much have we transcended race when we have political movements like the Tea Party premised on the "otherness" of the first Black President.

As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow stated in his startling piece: Black in the Age of Obama:

A May report from the Pew Research Center found that blacks were the most likely to get higher-priced subprime loans, leading to higher foreclosure rates. In fact, blacks have displaced Hispanics as the group with the lowest homeownership rates.

According to the most recent jobs data, not only is the unemployment rate for blacks nearly twice that of whites, the gap in some important demographics has widened rapidly since Obama took office. The unemployment rate over that time for white college graduates under 24 years old grew by about 20 percent. For their black cohorts, the rate grew by about twice that much.

And a report published last month by the Department of Agriculture found that in 2008, "food insecurity" for American households had risen to record levels, with black children being the most likely to experience that food insecurity.

Things on the racial front are just as bad.

We are now inundated with examples of overt racism on a scale to which we are unaccustomed. Any protester with a racist poster can hijack a news cycle, while a racist image can live forever on the Internet. In fact, racially offensive images of the first couple are so prolific online that Google now runs an apologetic ad with the results of image searches of them.

In no way can President Obama be made to blame for these realities. But the greater question is this: how can we expect the young bright minds the Black Community offers to combat these ever increasing racial realities if the intellectual arsenal of books and authors that were once heralded as crucial to ones personal edification become relics in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere? Have we come to a point where being post-racial is not a personal choice young people make in order to function under the accepted norms of today's America, but a consequence of the lack of awareness and knowledge of the multi-generational struggle people of color have waged throughout the world to obtain freedom? If so, perhaps there is a need for us to dust off those old books and re-investigate that Black Literary Canon. Because if history does not provide us with the cultural armor to withstand these impending racial attacks, we will be doomed to live the worst of our existence in the future instead of celebrating overcoming our obstacles from the past.

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