Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1405
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 all. Before starting his own business, Darnell spends considerable time working at temporary jobs, filling out applications, helping his father, and taking care of the baby while his wife works.
An alternative form of “business” that offers quick money is the drug trade. Even Darnell gets his grubstake by making a drug run to Tahoe and Portland. The well-known occupational hazards of this trade are illustrated, however, by Louis’ prison term and death in a drive-by shooting. Then there is the kind of company one keeps, exemplified by the rich white “consultant” who runs the operation, the nervous drug dealers such as Leon, and the gun-happy Vernon. Finally, there is the devastating effect of the “product” on people. As various characters make clear, drug dealing is not a morally acceptable business on the Westside.
Otherwise, with unemployment widespread and business opportunities limited, the young men in the novel spend quite a bit of time waiting—waiting for a job, serving time, simply “hanging out” (which seems to be the black version of waiting for Godot). With waiting so endemic in their lives, it is not surprising that they are ready for a little excitement.
Some, in fact, seem to be waiting around to die. Among these are the drug addicts, whom the patois describes either as “sprung” (high) or as “zombies.” Equal opportunity operates here: Two of the most pathetic “zombies” are young women, one from Portland who is willing to lick Darnell’s wounds for a ride to Los Angeles and one from Rio Seco who is adept at oral sex because her front teeth have been knocked out. Also showing a death wish are the drug dealers, who appear uncaring and fatalistic.
Then there is Darnell, who has an attraction to fire. Growing up, he would run to see fires and even take along his girlfriend Brenda. Now his ambition is to be a firefighter—an ambition fed by a season in the Conservation Corps and another in a unit fighting forest fires in the mountains. Darnell gets his high from the roaring flames, binding the relationship with a ritual burn across his hand.
His firefighting job in the mountains, however, is only temporary, and besides, the Rio Seco homefront requires his attention. Brenda is pregnant, they are still unmarried, and her daddy is mighty unhappy. Darnell finally works up nerve to face him, Brenda, marriage, and fatherhood.
Thereafter the story becomes a contest between Darnell’s marriage to Brenda and his marriage to fires, between domesticity and danger, between life and death. It is not too hard to guess which side wins, as Darnell learns his lesson both symbolically and literally. Bending down to pick up his daughter’s fallen Barbie doll saves his life in the drive-by shooting. Then he jeopardizes his daughter’s life by chasing a forest fire with Charolette and getting caught in it. They escape, but the experience cures Darnell.
Family values win the day not only in Darnell’s relationships with Brenda and Charolette but also in his relationships with his mother-in-law and father. Both support his efforts, and each at a crucial time has a heart-to-heart chat with him. In contrast, Louis’ father cuts him off, refuses to acknowledge his existence, and is left holding his ashes.
For the problems facing the black male, then, Straight finds solutions within the family. She does an excellent job of making the reader realize the nature and extent of those problems, and her solutions seem valid. Everyone needs family support, particularly when facing an unfriendly environment and society, and one should assume one’s own family responsibilities to help the next generation make it. Clearly, the generational links are important.
The definition of manhood implied by the novel might not seem as satisfactory, as if man were created to be tamed, domesticated, and put out to work by woman. The dichotomy between domesticity and danger in the novel also rings false (even marriage should have some excitement). The way Brenda keeps putting the choice to Darnell—either her or the fires—is enough to drive any man away. She appears irrational, even hysterical, not to mention selfish. One might agree with Darnell’s friends that just as Mrs. Batiste has tamed the proud Etienne, Darnell is “pussy-whupped.”
One could, however, look at it this way: The black male is up against so much in this society that simply earning a decent living provides plenty of excitement and tests of his manhood. Darnell must dodge the bullets of a cross-town gang during one commute. At any time he could be shot by one of his own customers. Believe it, his dog bites are more than merely ritual wounds.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXIV, July, 1994, p. 107.
Booklist. XC, June 1, 1994, p. 1774.
Boston Globe. June 12, 1994, p. 19.
Chicago Tribune. June 26, 1994, XIV, p. 1.
The Christian Science Monitor. July 1, 1994, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times. June 27, 1994, p. E2.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, December 11, 1994, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 4, 1994, p. 41.
San Francisco Chronicle. June 19, 1994, p. REV3.
The Washington Post. June 7, 1994, p. B2.
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