Reading American Literature
Readying myself for isolation during the Great Pandemic of 2020, I naturally went to my local bookstore to stockpile necessities, had a heavy discussion with one of the sellers about finally making time to reread old favourites. He named the Russians and I said Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, having secretly claimed African American literature a birthright since leaving my home in the United States twenty-one years ago, my skin white like spaces between the words that have consistently taught me right from wrong.
I remember being twelve, newly bleeding. It’s near-to summer and the scent of magnolia is sexing the yellow pollen while ants dig in Georgia’s red clay. At school we’re a mix of weary and anxious, waiting for the last bell of the year, and we’re talking about Huckleberry Finn, my teacher’s southern accent so strong ‘Jim’ has two syllables. I say the book is anti-racist, though the n-word is used more than two hundred times. There’s only one Black student in our class and he doesn’t say anything at all. I am smart enough to know that Twain is my inheritance, not Ellison.
A few years later I am river-glisten and Southern rock mixed with sweet Georgia blues and I’m reading Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, desperate to write with a similar soul-rhythm to theirs but all I’ve got is a journal full of tepid poems recounting a boundless loneliness. Odd because I have a lot of friends. Sometimes my friends and I hang out in Little Five Points, where hippies and punks sit on the grass smoking marijuana right outside A Cappella Books. At A Cappella I find Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise, which I read slowly one night, belly-flat on my carpeted floor. It’s not long before I realise my words might have a pulse too, so I find You Better Believe It: Black Verse in English from Africa, the West Indies and the United States and I buy it, and I read it, and I feel political.
One day I’m outside the house of a new friend who’s about to sell me a five-dollar joint. I am sixteen-years-old and upper-middle class so I think I’m a rebel, the friendship confusing. There’s an old-time statue on his front porch of a smiling Black boy wearing overalls and eating bright pink watermelon. Racism is confusing too, my insides twisting and tightening when I look at the statue. I begin to wonder: if racism runs through the history of his family, does that mean it’s his default, and does that mean he’s not to blame? And if I decide to remain his friend, do I accept his racism or do I try to change him? And if I decide I cannot be his friend anymore, can I still buy weed from him?
I smoke the joint by the Chattahoochee River and go home to read another book I found in that shop in Little Five Points, Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. It’s a hardcover, which I’m now collecting. Like me, it is set in Georgia. I have my licence now and once a month I drive forty minutes from my home in Marietta to Little Five Points in Atlanta and when the suburbs disappear I’m left with highway, where the kudzu vine strangles the pine though neither, amazingly, ceases to grow.
My parents ban me from the city once fire-spears are thrown and cars are overturned. Those nights of riot, the moon is as bruised and swollen as the face of Rodney King. I see him every night on the news. The cops who beat him, acquitted.
At school, Mrs Black (I have not changed her name for the sake of this essay, honestly you cannot make this shit up) has us reading Invisible Man. She’s passionate, like when we were reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury earlier in the year and she threw up her hands and yelled ‘Sexual! Amen!’, all of us laughing, only this time it’s ‘History! Now! as we discuss the author’s white cop killing his Black peddler. Nobody is laughing; all of us are thinking Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King. The book blows my mind like a double-action revolver and I promise myself I’ll read it again, someday.
Turns out Mrs Black was right: history is now, because at the end of May, as COVID’s isolation was slowly lifting in South Australia, we were stuck to our TVs and mobile phones watching George Floyd take his final breath. I talked to my children about the broken window theory and systemic racism in America’s policing, Atlanta was burning once again, the tremors from the Black man’s death and the aftermath tearing through the streets, travelling over mountains and through deserts and under the ocean, the ocean itself moaning like the belly of a harpooned whale, and here we were in Adelaide: history now. I was so sad I couldn’t get to sleep so I picked up the little blue hardback I bought back in Georgia, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not remembering how dense and beautiful the language, how long ago it was written, just knowing it was time.
Then I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, as did my partner, our dissection of it urgent as white power grew. And grew. And grew.
Then I reread James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, the eloquence and subtlety so needed in the all-cap-tweet world we’d been thrust into.
Then I reread Maya Angelou’s ‘On the Pulse of a Morning’ on the day of the US election, remembering what hope felt like.
Then I ordered Claudia Rankin’s Just Us from the same bookseller who told me he’d read the Russians. He told me he didn’t end up reading any Russians.
Then, at three in the morning on the day Kamala Harris became the first female and Asian American and African American to become the Vice President of the United States, the same day a twenty-two-year-old Black poet named Amanda Gorman said to a space full of past presidents and COVID emptiness and red, white and blue flags that ‘being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it’, I picked up Tara June Winch’s The Yield, just knowing it was time.
Heather Taylor-Johnson’s novel Jean Harley was Here was recently optioned for a tv series. Her 5th book of poetry will be published by Wakefield Press in 2021, as well as an epistolary verse novel by Recent Work Press.