Uneven collection of nine essays by Alexander (African-American Studies/Yale) examining the role of the black artist in the larger culture and within the black community.
Early on, the author articulates her intent: to reveal what she calls the “black interior . . . black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination.” She pursues this goal variously. Several essays explore the lives, imaginations, and creations of black artists and pioneers, among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael Harper, and Anna Julia Cooper. Others meditate on the significance of various cultural artifacts and historical events, including the murder of Emmett Till and the O.J. Simpson trial. Another group provides lengthy and not always engaging explications of poems by noted black poets. (Alexander is herself the author of three poetry collections.) The pieces here certainly display the considerable range of Alexander’s interests as an essayist, though the results are mixed. Her literary analyses, overly technical for general readers, will no doubt interest professors of prosody. The more personal essays are appealing and even riveting, especially one about the evolution (or lack thereof) of Jet, which she calls a “little lozenge of a magazine.” Another very strong essay, “A Black Man Says ‘Sorbet’,” explores the image of African-American men in American culture by focusing on Johnnie Cochran, Colin Ferguson, Basquiat, and David Hampton, whose weird story inspired John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation. She again pursues the issue of the black man’s image in “Denzel,” indulging in an overlong exegesis of the film Ricochet before emerging with the unremarkable observation that buddy movies frequently float on streams of homoerotic energy. It’s also hardly necessary for Alexander to tell us that Louis Armstrong was a jazz trumpeter. Her concluding piece on the Rodney King case, however, is a tour de force.
A few of the parts are more powerful than the whole.