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.

 

Niggas, Bitches, and Hoes: The Linguistics of a Decade

Nigga…bitch…hoe…Offensive language or terms of endearment? Boyz N the Hood, NWA, Terry McMillan, and other prominent black artists, directors, and authors in the 90s often used these terms interchangeably to refer to women and men. The use of these terms bring up one debate that continues to persist today: The words “nigga,” drop the –er and replace with an –a, “bitch/hoe” are not as offensive as they used to be. They are now words that black people can use to show camaraderie.

“Nigger” has a complex and touchy history in the United States. “Negro” evolved into “nigger” and became a racial slur white people used to refer to blacks. White people who used this word did not mean to express love for blacks, rather it was meant to degrade and dehumanize. However black people have retained the word, even altering its spelling in order to express brotherhood, which was commonly seen in hip-hop culture. The film Boyz in the Hood perfectly illustrates how the word was used. Main characters Tre, Doughboy, and Ricky do not hesitate to call each other or others “niggas” and no one is shocked, offended, or outraged by its use.

But does the glamorized use of the word diminish the emergence of black consciousness? Bruce Jacobs says in his book Black Manners: Navigating the Minefield between Black and White Americans that the use of “nigga” is an act of defiance, a way to destroy yourself before white people could. He goes on to say, “The 1980s and early 90s defiant use of nigga as self-reference by young black people captured, more than any other act, the desperate dilemma of black identity: self-hatred coupled with a stubborn resolve for self-determination. To proclaim oneself a nigga was to declare to the disapproving mainstream, ‘You can’t fire me. I quit’” (12).[i] One could surmise that a new consciousness is born out of the word’s harsh history. Reshaping the abusive term “nigger” to “nigga” serves as a way to reconcile the past and a way to create a new identity, one we’ve created instead of one that has been force fed to an entire population.

“Bitch, you crazy.” “That bitch is fine.” “That hoe didn’t call me back.” Although they are slightly less controversial than “nigga”, “bitch” and “hoe” are terms that were widely used in the 90s and today. The terms mean different things depending on how they are used. For instance, in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, the main (female) characters refer to each other as “bitch” or “hoe” in jovial ways. On the other hand, when someone wants to disrespect another woman or even a man, both terms are used.

 

“Bitch” and “hoe” do not carry the same history as “nigga,” but all three serve as an example of the evolution of language. As a child my father often told me to never let anyone call me outside of my name (i.e. calling me a “bitch”) and I did not. Yet as time goes on, all three words roll off the tongue a little easier. The article “The Evolution of the Word “Bitch”: Sexist Slight or Empowering Expression?” states: The early 1990s, third wave feminism was born out of a need to address movements and activism of second wave feminism. Third wave feminism is known for its agenda including reproductive rights, social class, race, sexuality, “girl power,” “the glass ceiling” and the reclaiming of derogatory words. Words that they aimed to reclaim, that is “take back” and give new meaning to, included bitch, cunt, whore and spinster. The 90’s are looked back upon in history as a time of “girl power.” (Sassy Notations) [ii]

Whether for women, blacks, or both, taking back and renaming are common themes in the 90s. The basic premise on the use of “nigga,” “bitch,” and “hoe” were embraced to create new meanings and new consciousness.

It is safe to say that not everyone is using “nigga,” “bitch,” or “hoe” in the 90s were trying to create a new identity, and the reclaiming of these terms do not erase the sting that many people still feel when they hear them. Yet reclaiming and renaming provides some context for the emergence of the terms’ popularity. They were meant to add to black consciousness, not diminish it. However, I can’t help but wonder: does the continued use of “nigga,” “bitch,” and “hoe” today carry on the black consciousness of the 90s or do the reasons no longer add up?

The debate continues. —B. Stewart

 


[i] Jacobs, Bruce A. Race Manners: Navigating the Minefield between Black and White Americans. New York: Arcade Pub., 1999. Print.

[ii] Murphy, Kristi. “The Evolution of the Word.” Sassy Notions. WordPress.com, 01 Nov. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

 

Freaknik: The Black College Spring Break

“Mention Freaknik to any native Atlantan and you’re in for an earful — while the celebrations ended years ago, the memories are still fresh in many peoples’ minds,” wrote Michael Kahn.[i] Freaknik began in the mid 80s as a small picnic between Morris Brown and Spelman students, yet really gained traction and popularity during the early to mid-90s and became an important staple in the black college spring break experience. An impromptu gathering birthed a street party that attracted HBCU students across the country and by 1993, Atlanta’s streets were packed with students looking to party and as the name suggests, get their freak on. The music was loud, the clothes were tight, the drinks were flowing, and the streets were crowded. When stripped down to these terms Freaknik represented a time for black students to get together and just chill.

Atlanta has a history of breeding and nurturing black American culture and Freaknik was no exception. Freaknik of 1993 took the city by surprise when at least 100,000 college students stormed Atlanta, making it a party zone. What made Freaknik of 1993 incredible was the power of word of mouth. No one tweeted, IGd, Facebooked, or Snapchatted the event, it just happened. Students at HBCUs across the country heard about Freaknik some way or another and had to be in Atlanta, not at a beach, but on the streets of Atlanta.

The location and time: The third week of April, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Peachtree street spanning into the West End of Atlanta (near the AUC Center), Auburn Avenue, and other streets of Atlanta hosted the event. The early days, people spent time in Piedmont Park socializing and having a good time, and as Freaknik evolved and grew in popularity, people spent time bumping music while gridlocked in traffic and eventually at clubs and concerts catered to the event. Clubs such as 559, The Gate, and Club 221 featured artists like Uncle Luke, Killer Mike, Jermaine Dupri, and Snoop Dogg and boasted large parties.

By 1994, Atlanta hosted nearly half a million Freaknik attendees, and the increased popularity brought the city of Atlanta millions of dollars in revenue. However, the growing popularity also brought greater risk of violence. College students were left to their own devices without much interference from the city and over the years more cases of rape and assault were reported. Mayor Kasim Reed said of the event, “I think that Freaknik was a good thing—until it wasn’t, until it lost its essence. It stopped being about black students having a good time and took on an All-Star Game type of feel. It really became a black Daytona Beach.”[ii]

As Atlanta prepared for the 1996 Olympics there was a push to “clean up” and rename Freaknik (i.e. Spring Jam 1997). Yet, the renaming didn’t hold. Eventually, an increased police presence and crackdown on lewd behavior and partying led to Freaknik fizzling out by 1999. Students traveled to beaches such as Daytona instead. It was the end of an era. At the end of the day, Freaknik was a historic event that gave black college students a chance to get together and simply hang out; and although it didn’t last very long, Freaknik introduced Southern rappers to the world and paved the way for music videos that featured scantily clad women that accentuated their assets and public twerking became the norm.[iii] Just think: what would music videos look like today if it weren’t for Freaknik? Would twerking be as popular? Thanks to this “freaky” event, we will never know. B. Stewart

 


[i] Kahn, Michael. “Freaknik Memories.” Curbed Atlanta. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

[ii] “Freaknik: Rise and Fall of Atlanta’s Most Infamous Street Party.” Atlanta Magazine. N.p., 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

[iii] Elliott, Angel. “The Oral History of Freaknik.” Complex. Complex Media, Inc, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 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.

 

The Reign of the Black Family on T.V.

The Cosby Show premiered in 1984 on NBC and quickly became a staple in television history. The show featured comedian Bill Cosby and based a lot of its episodes on Cosby’s personal life. Although the show, a sitcom featuring the Huxtable family, a prominent black family living in Brooklyn, New York, reached its end in 1992, it influenced not only television, but also the view of the black family in the 90s. Millions of people looked up to Cliff and Clair Huxtable. This fictional family was the epitome of black success. The Huxtables had respectable professions (obstetrician and lawyer) and reared five obedient, for the most part, children. The show portrayed a view of the black family that was rarely seen on T.V., an entirely positive aesthetic.

TV Guide said the show “was TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre.”[i] No truer words were spoken. The Cosby Show broke the mold and went on to spawn other popular black family sitcoms in the 90s such as, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Both sitcoms featured loveable characters like Steve Urkle and Will Smith, but they also carried on the model of The Cosby Show. The families were middle to upper-middle class professionals, and the children had their faults, yet were, for the most part, model young adults. The children made mistakes, but learned from them. Both The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters proved to be positive influences of the black family in the 90s. The era of black consciousness made its mark on more than film, music, and literature. It permeated into mainstream television, too.

 

The New York Times credits The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with putting rap on the map and reinforcing the themes in raps’ biggest songs of the 90s in a different way. “We will start to deal with some of the same things as N.W. A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and artists with a much more radical way of communicating their life style. But we’ll do it Will’s way, rather than in their language.”[ii] The show addressed issues that plagued the black community, such as racial profiling and vigilante justice. Audiences were entertained by Carlton’s naiveté, Hiliary’s spending habits, and Will’s jokes, but they were also enlightened. The world could look on and experience the era of black consciousness in an unassuming way.

The Big 3 of Black sitcoms opened the door for black families on television, and the 90s saw an explosion of representation of black families. Shows like Hanging with Mr. CooperMoesha, and Smart Guy featured families that weren’t technically nuclear. Hanging with Mr. Cooper and Smart Guy featured families with single parents raising children to the best of their abilities with the help of the community around them. Though the titular Mr. Cooper had no children, he acted as a father figure and friend to  Nicole, the child of single mother, Georgia, and other kids in the neighborhood. Moesha and Smart Guy dealt the life after the death the family matriarch, and life after such a tragedy. These sitcoms presented different configurations of the Black family that were still positive and uplifting. 

However, after The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matter in 1998, the picture of the black family in America diminished. Television has evolved. Shows like Empire, Love and Hip Hop, Basketball Ball Wives, and The Real Housewives of (insert city) are the portrayals of black family seen today. The black family is seriously misrepresented. It is broken and dysfunctional at best. Black women on TV are unmarried and can’t find a man, and the men are untrustworthy players with multiple children. People can argue that “families” such as this exist in America, yet it’s not all that exists so it’s not all that should be portrayed (or the majority of what is portrayed). So what happened to empowering black women? Black men? Black children? The black family? Where’s the sense of black consciousness that infected the 90s? The Fresh Prince was raised by a single mother and barely knew his father, but he had a support system and family in uncle Phil, aunt Vivian, and his cousins. The show exposed the bad, but showed there can be good too.

With the black family’s downfall came the demise of the view of the ultimate black patriarch, Bill Cosby. Since 2000, Bill Cosby has faced sexual assault and abuse, rape, and drug allegations from over fifty women that he encountered before and during the pinnacle of his career. These allegations have rocked the black community and torn people apart, supporters and now naysayers of Cosby. During The Cosby Show’s reign, no one would have conceived that Bill Cosby, Mr. Huxtable, loveable father and doting husband would fall from grace. Yet, he has. No matter what one chooses to believe about him, he has fallen, hard. The beginning of Cosby’s assault allegations coincides with the end of the black family on TV.

The end of an era.

Symbolic or coincidental?

Both. B. Stewart

 


[i] “The Cosby Show.” TVGuide.com. CBS Interactive, Inc., 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

[ii] Rohter, Larry. “‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ Puts Rap in Mainstream.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Sept. 1990. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.