Oct. 15, 2018: Writers gather at the Brooklyn Historical Society

 

WATCHING “MOONLIGHT” in theaters across the nation, American audiences were reminded of the power of black male storytelling. The screenplay for the 2016 film was written by Barry Jenkins and adapted from a semi-autobiographical stage play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The story follows the maturation of a young black boy who struggles with trust issues and coming to terms with his sexuality. A beautiful film with an all-black cast and memorable writing, “Moonlight” won universal praise, a Golden Globe, and historic attention at the Academy Awards, including eight nominations and Oscars for Best Picture and Best Writing for an Adapted Screenplay.

Anticipation is high for Jenkins’s next project, a big screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” due in theaters Dec. 14. Jenkins reveres Baldwin. If one were to consider who has assumed the mantel of literary exceptionalism from Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, the list would include the likes of Jenkins, and contemporaries such as Paul Beatty, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Gregory Pardlo, Colson Whitehead, and Kevin Young, the poet and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

The forthcoming cover of T: The New York Times Style magazine is paying tribute to the giants of contemporary letters, three generations of black male novelists, poets, and playwrights. The Dec. 2 issue gathers 30 writers for a group photo at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Many are widely celebrated. Others are lesser known. Those pictured include Pardlo, Young, Nelson George, Brian Keith Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, James McBride, Darryl Pinckney, Ishmael Reed, George C. Wolfe, and Robert Jones Jr., who goes by Son of Baldwin on social media, among others. Four different covers were produced for the special issue.

 


From left, author James McBride, poet Kevin Young, poet Yusef Komunyakaa, and poet Gregory Pardlo.

 

Hanya Yanagihara, editor of T magazine distills the thinking behind the project in her editor’s letter. “We assembled them not because there are more of them than ever before, or that they’re collectively more meaningful than they were—as the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins tells the novelist Ayana Mathis, the author of our story about these artists, ‘It feels like people are just suddenly noticing that there are black people in the room’—or, importantly, that their voices are somehow more essential than those of black female writers (also numerous and diverse and excellent, beginning with Mathis),” Yanagihara writes.

She continues: “We did so because the black male body itself is so particularly freighted in our culture, because it has been used to monger fear, because it has been appropriated as symbol and shorthand. These writers’ works remind us that the black male is not something apart from America: Rather, he is America itself, and that to read literary works by black men is to read America, too.”

“These writers’ works remind us that the black male is not something apart from America: Rather, he is America itself, and that to read literary works by black men is to read America, too.” — Hanya Yanagihara

The cover story by Mathis discusses the contributions of the group and several additional figures and considers what it means to be a black male writer in the current moment. Careful not to discount the strides of women authors, the Times also asks the men about their favorite works by black female writers. Young praises poet Lucille Clifton, calling her “an abiding spirit.”

Clifton’s 1993 poem “won’t you celebrate with me” resonates with Young. The poem’s title also serves as its first line. “The last lines are ‘Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.’ I think about that a lot,” Young said. “Survival, but also I think blossoming and blooming in the face of such peril. And she’s really beautiful writing about that and getting us to think about the ways that survival isn’t just existing, but also thriving.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: First row, from left: Robert Jones Jr., Nathan Alan Davis, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Jamel Brinkley, Gregory Pardlo, Dinaw Mengestu, Major Jackson. Second row: Michael R. Jackson, Shane McRae, James Hannaham, Brontez Purnell, Ishamel Reed, Brian Keith Jackson, Danez Smith, Cornelius Eady. Third row: Jeffrey Renard Allen, James McBride, Darryl Pinckney, Kevin Young, James Ijames, Jericho Brown, Nelson George, George C. Wolfe, De’Shawn Charles Winslow. Fourth row: Reginald McKnight, Phillip B. Williams, Rickey Laurentiis, Marcus Burke, Mitchell S. Jackson, Maurice Carlos Ruffin. | Photo by Shayan Asgharnia. Creative direction by Boots Riley. Styled by Carlos Nazario

 

BOOKSHELF
Ayana Mathis, who wrote the magazine’s essay about black male writers, is the author of the critically recognized and bestselling novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.” Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad” won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty was recognized with the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Titles by James McBride include his bestselling debut “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” “Five-Carat Soul,” and “The Good Lord Bird” (Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction). Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, recently published two volumes: “Brown: Poems” (2018) and “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” (2017). Young also edited “The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (American Poets Continuum).”

 

 

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