Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories (1990), winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, introduced readers to Rio Seco’s Westside, a ghetto whose residents speak a black patois as redolent as barbecue and gumbo. I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots (1992), a much-praised novel spiced with other varieties of the patois, took a Gullah woman from South Carolina’s Lowcountry to the Westside. Blacker than a Thousand Midnights, featuring more of the rich patois, resumes the Westside saga (including previous characters) by examining the situation of the black male.
Susan Straight, author of these three books, sounds like a new star in the galaxy of black female writers, along the lines of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, or Ntozake Shange. The books’ dust jackets, however, picture a youngish smiling white woman. She should smile, because the literary feat she pulls off is even more impressive than singers’ crossing over: She portrays the black community in a totally convincing fashion, right down to the last word of dialect.
Straight’s model for Rio Seco (dry river) is Riverside, California, where she was born and grew up in a section resembling the Westside. Apparently she, her husband, and two daughters still live there, close to other relatives and friends. In an afterword to Aquaboogie, she noted, “I’ve been in the community so long, no one remembers any more that I’m not black.” She studied at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where her instructors included James Baldwin and Julius Lester.
Straight’s background helps explain her ability to portray black life and speech, but crossing over into this turf also takes some daring. In Blacker than a Thousand Midnights, she is even more daring, crossing over not only racial but also sexual barriers: She explores the mind and life of a young black man, Darnell Tucker, who struggles against racism and ghetto conditions while all around him peers succumb to defeat, drugs, and death.
Straight’s subject is certainly on the cutting edge of social concerns. The question, as the media pose it, is whether the black male is an endangered species. While the media themselves—with their discourses of violence, hype, and ignorance—are part of the problem, it is safe to say that the main cause goes back much further. Basically, after centuries of being denied manhood, how will the black male now define it? This is a tough job to give a boy, especially one facing such other disadvantages as racism, poverty, poor education, negative peer pressure, and lack of one or both parents.
The extent of residual racism is underlined in Blacker than a Thousand Midnights. Police helicopters with spotlights patrol the Westside at night as if it were some futuristic war zone. Young black men driving around are repeatedly stopped by police, who sometimes flatten them out on the ground and frisk them. While working as security guards, Darnell and his friend Donnie (also black) are mistaken for “perpetrators”; the police turn a dog loose on Darnell and shoot Donnie.
Racial prejudice also pervades the job market. Black men working in the suburbs are viewed with suspicion, and Darnell has to pretend to be Asian to start his own business, Tuan’s Oriental Landscape Maintenance Service. They are lucky, though, to have jobs at...
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