Walter Dean Myers: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

 

Picture from Myers’ obituary

Walter Dean Myers is the preeminent author of African American teenage fiction and nonfiction of the 1990’s. Using perspectives that many teens had not read before, Myers’ prose humanizes and refines black characters that are often vilified in literature, film, and television.  Myers’ works such as Monster, Slam, and countless biographies of African American visionaries gave access to life stories that many teens had not experienced or did not know existed. Myers was a champion for underrepresented, and it is apparent when reading his books that he wrote for those who did not have a voice. In turn, he inspired a generation of children by telling their stories.

Myers was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia on August 12, 1937. He lived ten miles from the plantation on which his relatives had been enslaved for generations.[1] Myers moved to Harlem four years later, and this is where the majority of his works take place. Myers spoke fondly of his New York upbringing and questioned why some authors did not return to their roots, asking, “What happened to the idea of celebrating a neighborhood and the ordinary people in it? Nobody gives them a voice, but I do.”[2] Myers made it a point to celebrate the ordinary in the inner-city and beyond. His works are not confined to Harlem—his most acclaimed and controversial book is Fallen Angels (1988). Taking place during the Vietnam War, its visceral depictions of the war and raw language got it banned from countless school districts. Building upon that book’s fame, Myers entered the 1990’s as one of the most talked about and controversial teen fiction authors in America.

The 90’s marked a plethora of literary awards for Myers. Most notably, he was the runner-up for the Newbery Medal in 1993, runner-up for the National Book Award for Teen Fiction, and was awarded both an American Library Award and a Coretta Scott King Award in 1994.[3] Myers’ most notable work of the 90’s is Monster: A Novel (1999). Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old African American from Harlem accused of felony murder. I particularly remember seeing the cover of this book in my Catholic elementary school library. The mugshot of a very dark African American teenager juxtaposed next to the National Book Award sticker makes for a striking cover. The intimidating black felon on the cover is quickly revealed to be a sensitive, shy teenager with a speech impediment, tragically caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Myers explores black identity throughout the book, with the protagonist writing in his journal after meeting with his lawyer, “I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was.”[4] The protagonist tries to reflect goodness and worth in a trying situation. He fears condemnation from other people particularly from his father and white female attorney.[5] Other themes of black identity are prevalent throughout Myers’ other works, namely roots in slavery, uncertainty, and praise of Harlem, America’s “black capital.”[6]

Book cover for Monster: A Novel (1999)

Realistic depictions of injustice, discrimination, transcendence, and hope are Myers’ forte. In fact, Myers wrote over 100 books on a wide array of subjects, from the Iraq War to an African princess.[7] While the majority of his works take place in contemporary times in New York, Myers started writing biographies and historical fiction in the 1990’s. The Glory Field (1994) takes place in 1763 and describes the shackling and transportation of Muhammad Bilal from Sierra Leone to an American plantation; the subsequent story traces the family lineage from his kidnapping to the mid-20th century.[8] The Great Migration: An American Story (1993) “pictures the centrality of scripture-based faith and memories of family members buried in the agrarian South as wanderers make a new life in the urban industrialized North.”[9] Myers even won awards for picture books. Among his most lauded works is Brown Angels: An Album of Picture and Verse (1993). “Brown Angels” reclaims black children from media stereotyping by showing them in child fashions long out of style, reminding the reader “the child in each of us is our most precious part.”[10] Myers’ diverse range of subject matter and genre allowed for a wider audience to consume his books. This expansion of style began in the 1990’s and was one of Myers’ most creative and awarded periods of writing during his career.

A contemporary of Myers, noted children’s author Avi, said “Besides his books, his legacy is a compassionate identity with these young people.”[11]Myers certainly gave a voice to disenfranchised black children and teenagers, writing honestly and compassionately about them. The compassion and honesty he used to describe their experiences made his works appealing to all demographics. Myers’ love and compassion of children from his neighborhood allowed him to transcend target audiences. Myers’ audience is truly anyone willing to take the time and read his books. Three National Book Award nominations in the 90’s cements that legacy, and he will truly be remembered as a positive and influential voice for children and teenagers.—Jeff Brown

[1] Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers: A Literary Companion (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006) 5.

[2] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 65.

[3] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 27.

[4] Walter Dean Myers, Monster: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) 92.

[5] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[6] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[7] Felicia R. Lee, “Walter Dean Myers Dies at 76; Wrote of Black Youth for the Young,” The New York Times, July 3, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/arts/walter-dean-myers-childrens-author-dies-at-76.html.

[8] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[9] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 65.

[10] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[11] Lee, “Myers.”

Oprah’s Book Club & The Oprah Effect

As of 2015, Oprah Winfrey is the sole black American female present on Forbes’ list of billionaires.1 From meager beginnings in rural Mississippi, and a childhood entrenched with bouncing between family households, facing discrimination as a black girl in the south, and experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of both friends and family members, Oprah would become the biggest name in television talk show history. She is by all accounts the definition of a self-made success.

In 1996, ten years after the start of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey introduced Oprah’s Book Club which selected a feature text to be discussed by both audience members and the author during a new show segment. Winfrey presented the idea for a national reading club to a studio audience stating, “I want to get the whole country reading again. Those of you who haven’t been reading, I think books are important.” As the first text, Oprah selected The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, a first time author. Judging by USA Today’s Bestseller’s Lists, it was clear that Winfrey’s influence was indeed leading Americans to read. Choosing 48 books between 1996 and 2002 when the show ended, “Each book joined the top 150 best-selling titles in America for at least a few months… Of the 45 adult books, only five were on the top 150 list the week before being featured by Oprah…Just eleven of the 45 books had been part of the top 150 at some time before Oprah featured them on her show. Furthermore, the highest ranking any book had achieved before its book club introduction was just 25.”2 In research extending to 2011, Fordham University found that, “Of the 70 books she singled out, 59 made it to the USA Today bestseller list.”3 Statistically speaking, it is likely that many of the selected authors would not have achieved the levels of success they reached without Winfrey’s endorsement.

Quoting David Kipen, former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, USA Today writes that, “At the club’s peak, ‘Oprah gave America an excuse to talk about books every couple of months…She served a useful purpose in the same way that the myth of summer reading does: reminding the forgetful that reading exists, which greatly expands the number of people us bookish types can talk to.’”4 Winfrey’s ability to influence the masses while simultaneously bringing them together is the same strength that allowed her book club to flourish. Whether they were avid readers beforehand, or they simply chose to read books as Oprah supporters, Americans were reading.

The impact of The Oprah Winfrey Show is unquestionable and is evinced by her 25 year run as a daytime talk show host—the most successful of the 90s. In 1996, the same year she founded her book club, Oprah received both the Peabody Award and the Daytime Emmy for both Outstanding Talk Show Host, and Outstanding Talk Show. As another display of her dominance over the 1990s talk show world, Winfrey received both of the aforementioned Daytime Emmy’s six times in the decade. What makes Oprah’s prominence most fascinating is her station as a black woman with a television program that was viewed by a predominantly white, female, middle-aged audience.5 Of all people, a woman who emerged from a poor, rural upbringing in highly racialized Mississippi was able to connect with and influence an antithetical viewership despite not being the typically idealized version of womanhood. She was unabashedly single, without children, outspoken, and adept at navigating interview topics ranging from the delicate to the entertaining. This influence reached far beyond the small screen as Oprah used the talk show platform as a catalyst political change. After publicly sharing her personal story of abuse, Winfrey advocated at a Senate hearing for the National Child Protection Act. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed into law what would be known as the “Oprah Bill.”6

In ranking Oprah’s ten most memorable moments, NBC’s Today contributor Randee Dawn opens the article stating, “Oprah Winfrey is a kind of teacher. Since 1986, via her classroom called ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ she’s taught us it’s OK to cry, OK to share our problems, OK to give away cars to an entire audience and OK to love books. In return, she has earned the uniquely American honor of being known by her first name only.”7 Most fascinating about Dawn’s comment is the notion of the talk show host being known by only her first name. There simply is no other Oprah, but first names are intimate; they signify a closeness to an individual, a familiarity with that person. Oprah managed to create a personal relationship with television viewers in the comfort of their own homes. Whatever drew and continues to draw us to her, Winfrey’s impact on American entertainment is incontestable and likely here to stay. —Mara Johnson

  1. Nsehe, Mfonobong. “The Black Billionaires 2015.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
  2. Butler, Richard J., Benjamin W. Cowan, and Sebastian Nilsson. “From Obscurity to Bestseller: Examining the Impact of Oprah’s Book Club Selections.” Publishing Research Quarterly 20.4 (2005): 23-34. Communication & Mass Media Complete. PDF File.
  3. Jacobson, Murrey. “The Oprah Effect, by the Numbers.” PBS. PBS, 25 May 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
  4. Minzesheimer, Bob. “How the ‘Oprah Effect’ changed publishing.” USA Today. USA Today, 22 May. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
  5. Anburajan, Aswini. “Breaking Down Oprah’s Numbers.” NBC News. NBC News, 7 Dec. 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
  6. Fetini, Alyssa. “Top 10 Oprah Moments.” Time. Time, 25 May 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.
  7. Dawn, Randee. “Oprah’s 10 Most Memorable Moments.” Today. NBC News, (2011). Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

 

Octavia Butler: Redefining and Rebuilding Black Identity

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler created new realities. Some of Butler’s realities are populated with aliens, such as the short story “Bloodchild” and the Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). In other cases, there are telepaths, immortals, and a variety characters some may expect to see in science fiction. However, what is most important is that her visions and examinations of the future (and past) portray realities with African-American men and women at the center. She offers nihilistic realities where black people are redefining and rebuilding humanity.

Octavia Butler

Butler published work from 1977 to shortly before her sudden death in 2006. However, she had several major milestones during the 1990s; she published the award-winning Parable Series–Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—and the story and essay collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. In 1995, she was also awarded a $295,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant”; Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive this prestigious fellowship.

Parable Series

The Parable series follows young black female Lauren Olamina. She is 15 at the beginning of the first novel, which follows her journey during the years 2024 through 2027; the sequel takes place in the time period 2032 to 2090. Extreme poverty, violence, and (especially in the sequel) tolerated persecution of many non-Christians is often seen and too often encouraged. Lauren creates a new religion Earthseed, but she repeatedly faces sacrifice, violence, and loss on a long and difficult rode to her faith finding a following. Olamina is a complex character who arguably sacrifices her family and personal happiness (as well as the happiness of her child) led by a greater sense of duty to help build a social, spiritual, physically decaying version of the United States. Olamina is not perfect, she provides black people with a readable complex character making difficult decisions and in a dark and scary society; she is an actor and not acted upon. A young black woman is an agent of power and change.

In an interview following the main text in Parable of the Talents (Grand Central Publishing edition), Butler offers insight into her choice for the title of the novel. She explains, “the parable of talents is one of the harsher parables of the Bible, but then life can be harsh…We will use our talents or we will lose them. We will use our talents to save ourselves or we’ll do what other animal species do sooner or later.”[i] Many of Butler’s realties are dark, violent, and just plain scary; they are warnings of Western society’s and general human failings. She forces the reader to consider and examine different possibilities for saving humanity and (even more deeply) the individual soul. Butler does not ignore or minimize the complexity of the future. She offers a reality that puts black people in the center of negotiating it. —Ebony Gibson

[i] Butler, page 409.

McMillan and Harris: The Mother and Father of Black Fiction

Terry McMillan came on the literary scene in 1987 with her first novel Mama, however it was not until she published her third novel Waiting to Exhale in 1992 that she received fame and fortune. Waiting to Exhale told the story of four professional, middle class black women and their experiences with love. Readers experienced each character’s loneliness, destruction, happiness, sadness, sexual desires, and frustrations with black men; things that readers, especially female readers, could relate to.

While some argued the novel represented a negative view of the black woman and her relationship with black men, the novel spent months on the New York Times Bestseller list and went on to sell over three million copies, and a film adaptation was released in 1995 that featured Whitney Houston. Author and professor Daphe A. Brooks says of the novel: It marked a watershed moment in American culture as it announced and contributed to a shift in Black popular cultural consciousness and production during the last decade of the twentieth century. Advantageously positioned in the aftermath of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Senate hearings, Exhale dramatically extended and popularized for mass consumption the politics of a particular kind of heterosexual, Black middle-class conflict and desire.[i]

McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale not only depicted a demographic, middle-class black women, of people not regularly seen in literature, but she also shed light on the complexities of relationships.

McMillan is credited for jumpstarting the African American fiction movement with Waiting to Exhale, and throughout the decade she went on to write more novels that gave glimpses of black love and published one of her most popular novels How Stella Got Her Groove Back in 1996; in 1998, the film adaptation featuring Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs was released. The novel told the story of Stella and her relationship with Winston, a man considerably younger than her. Winston taught Stella to embrace life and eventually his love because she married him. The novel mirrored McMillan’s experience with then husband, Jonathan Plummer.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back is another novel that sets McMillan apart because she reveals the questions, concerns, hopes, and fears of dating someone younger. Stella (and McMillan) has to deal with the thrills and drama that comes along with dating someone younger and at a different stage in life. Likewise, Terry McMillan’s novels did not only deal with love in terms of black men and black women, a few of her works also introduced black’s complex relationship with homosexuals. She weaves in political and social concerns in the black community, such as the understanding (or misunderstanding) of HIV/AIDS and the negative stigma of being black and gay.

Consequently it is of no surprise that another author would emerge and hit the issue of being black and gay head on instead of touching on the subject as McMillan does. Author E. Lynn Harris filled this role and shocked the world with his tales of black men on the DL and carrying on relationships with women. Harris’ novel Invisible Life (1991) told the story of Raymond Tyler struggling with his identity as a bisexual black man. In the novel, Tyler was torn between his married boyfriend and girlfriend. Although readers were stunned by the then-taboo topic, the novel went on to sell millions of copies. Harris’ novels speak to an audience that was largely ignored by authors. All of his books reached the New York Times bestseller list and he is one of the most successful black authors. He was even referred to as the male Terry McMillan.

Some were surprised by Harris’ success because the black community does not readily accept or discuss homosexuality. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Harris says, “I feel like my readers get that I’m writing from the heart, and that resonates with a lot of people in the black community, women especially. Even though the character might be a gay man, they can connect with him emotionally. They can relate to being in hurtful relationships, and because they get that, it doesn’t matter if it’s a gay or a straight relationship” (2003). [ii] Even though homosexuality in the 90s was a taboo subject, readers could relate to Harris’ works. He spoke for and told stories for those who could not speak for themselves during that time.

Both authors captured readers by representing and telling stories that black women and men craved, and they provided literature for black middle-class Americans, a largely underrepresented group before the 90s. McMillan and Harris used personal experiences and turned them into fiction in order to reach and possibly help a multitude of people. Without their persistence in creating stories that people could relate to, who knows what black fiction would look like now.B. Stewart


 

[i] Brooks, Daphe A. “”It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”” Taylor & Francis Online. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

[ii] Millard, Elizabeth. “Writing to Find Some Kind of Peace of Mind.” PublishersWeekly.com. N.p., 16 June 2003. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

 

Beloved: Reconciliation and Re-memory


Beloved. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Toni Morrison, inspired by runaway slave Margaret Garner, tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave that kills her daughter to save her from being taken into slavery. Years after Sethe pays the price for her crime, a mysterious girl, Beloved, comes to stay with Sethe, her daughter Denver, and her lover Paul D. Upon Beloved’s arrival, her new family feels content and for the first time, happy. Yet, as Beloved’s stay is extended, Denver and Paul D suspect that she is not who she appears to be and for Sethe, Beloved forces her to reconcile her past in order to survive the present.

Although Beloved was published in 1987, the novel had a significant impact on the 90s. The novel helped catapult Morrison into the mainstream and depicted a story of slavery that had not been previously told before. Beloved takes on the complex idea of re-memory and reconciliation. Throughout the novel characters experience re-memory (or what many just believe to be “remembering”) and attempt to reconcile the memories of the past. Sethe and Paul try to keep their slave experiences locked away, yet have to eventually face them head on. Interestingly, while Sethe fights to keep re-memory at bay, Beloved cannot recall her past. The longer Beloved stays Sethe relives more of her past. It is not until Sethe lets go of the past that Beloved disappears and she is allowed to heal.

The idea of re-memory in the novel provides context to the black experience in the 90s and presently. Tricia Rose’s Black Noise (1994) and Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) both hypothesize that black people are disenfranchised and frustrated because they are still dealing with the lasting effects of slavery. In turn, blacks turn to music or other forms of expression to reconcile slavery’s effects. According to Rose and Gilroy, re-memory permeates rap, movies, texts, and in general, black culture. Essentially, black people are facing re-memory and we won’t be able to move on until we reconcile our past. The question is: how can we escape re-memory or are we destined to stay in its grasps? What has to “disappear” in order for black people to move on?

Beloved also shocks, incites, and questions humanity. Sethe firmly believes that she is justified in killing her baby and sees it as a side effect of slavery. Slavery made Sethe into the monster the others believed her to be. Slavery created a desperate mother that did not want her children to endure the agonizing injustices of slavery. Slavery forced a mother to make a gut-wrenching decision: she would rather her children die than be enslaved.

Slavery’s effects were seen in the 90s and even today. Going back to scholars Rose and Gilroy, black people are facing decisions and creating art that perpetuates those effects. There is the realization that slavery inflicted more damaging effects that probably were not even conceived of. It is no wonder why Sethe struggles to reconcile her actions and even her life. By the end of the novel, Beloved becomes imposing, dangerous, restrictive, and burdensome—just like slavery. During the reconciliation process, Beloved drains Sethe of life while she grows pregnant with it. Again, Sethe cannot thrive until she escapes Beloved or re-memory, or slavery. Black people cannot thrive until we escape re-memory, or slavery.

Toni Morrison poignantly says of the novel: “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”[i]

The 90s was a decade that spawned black consciousness, and Beloved was no exception. The novel succeeded in creating what Morrison wanted to do; thus it goes without question that Beloved is significant to the 90s and continues to be relevant today. B. Stewart


[i] “A Bench by the Road.” UU World. Unitarian Universalist Association, 11 Aug. 2008. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.