The news of Michael Brown’s death cannot be ignored. When one of our young people dies from shots fired by a police officer, there will be sadness and confusion. There will inevitably be questions, and questions left unanswered will lead to anger. This is a week, perhaps, when we need fiction and art to help us try to make sense of who we are and where we go from here.
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.
These are the opening words of James Baldwin’s much-anthologized short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” which he wrote in 1957 and published in his 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man. The unnamed narrator in this story is talking about his brother, a jazz musician who has recently been arrested in a police drug raid. Yet the words echo eerily now, nearly 50 years later, against the backdrop of the protestors in Ferguson facing a heavily militarized police force, against the other names of civilians killed in police shootings across the nation that we’ve read in recent days and months—Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Alejandro Nieto. So much time has passed, but how much has changed?
In fact, there is much that Baldwin was sorting through in his stories, novels, and political life that we are still trying to resolve. He was like that, asking questions we can really only throw stories at or sit down in a respectful conversation to try and answer. That’s why now seems like an important time to read (or reread) Baldwin. In Going to Meet the Man, he’ll hypnotize you with “Sonny’s Blues,” he’ll demonstrate how hard it is to find a home when your skin is dark in “A Previous Condition,” and he’ll shock you when he speaks in the voice of a bigoted white man haunted by the day his parents took him to the lynching of a black man in the collection’s title story.
While not many of Baldwin’s short stories are available online, you can listen to him speak in any number of powerful videos on YouTube. Here, see him in a deeply heartfelt conversation with Kenneth Clark in 1963 immediately after the two met with the then-Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.
Following are a few recommendations of more recent short story collections of men and women trying to reconcile their racial identities in America:
Drown by Junot Diaz (1997)
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (2012)
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans (2010)
At Risk by Amina Gautier (2012)
Now We Will Be Happy by Amina Gautier (2014)
You are Free by Danzy Senna (2011)
How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capót Crucet (2011)
And Roxane Gay’s list of work by writers of color is another, much more comprehensive resource of writers in all genres.
On Thursday, Granta published Sophie Lewis’s fascinating interview with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret. The two spoke last week in Paraty, Rio de Janeiro, on the eve of the Fiesta Literária Internacional de Paraty (FLIP).
In the interview, Keret described his stories as being a 50-50 partnership between himself and the reader and said that he revels in the wide-ranging interpretations made of his work. Lewis also gently asked Keret about how he writes and survives, living with his family in such close proximity to the conflict in Gaza. Keret responded with a summary of recent opinion pieces he’s published on the subject in The New Yorker and the LA Times:
…I think using the word ‘peace’ destroys the actual possibility of peace occurring. Instead we should stop using ‘peace’ and start using ‘compromise’. When you use a word, it’s a pact, a deal; you’re signing a contract. If I say to you, ‘Let’s make love,’ or if I say ‘Let’s fuck,’ then in each case we have a different deal. So for me, in Israel the word ‘peace’ has a kind of Masonic aspect: you pray for peace. But if you use ‘compromise’ you cannot ignore that there is someone on the other side; you cannot ignore that you have to give up on something to achieve it. Peace could be a gift. It’s a word that doesn’t assume any responsibility. It’s not attached to you, nor to the other side.