(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Platitudes is a novel within a novel that tells two parallel love stories. The first story concerns the romance of high schoolers Earle Tyner and Dorothy LaMont. The second story is about the growing attraction of authors Dewayne Wellington and Isshee Ayam. The romance of the two authors develops while Dewayne is writing the story of Earle and Dorothy, called Platitudes. These two stories are periodically interrupted by parodies of aptitude test questions, menus, song lyrics, and different comic lists.

At the beginning of their story, Earle and Dorothy attend different private schools in New York City and have not met. Both black students try in different ways to fit in at their mostly white schools. Earle excels in computer class and associates with computer buffs Donald and Andy. Together they call themselves “Trinary.” They are looked down upon by the other students, who call them “Nerd One, Two, and Three.” Dorothy divides her time between the wild social life of her wealthy friends at school and the dull work at her mother’s Harlem home-cooking restaurant.

After introducing these characters, author Dewayne interrupts the story of Earle and Dorothy to confess that he is having trouble writing and to ask for assistance. He receives a sharply worded response from Isshee Ayam, who criticizes what Dewayne has written as sexist and offers her version of Earle and Dorothy’s story. In Isshee’s first chapter “Rejoice!,” Earle is a respectful child of a poor but honest rural black family struggling for survival against a heartless creditor, Mr. Wyte.


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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Platitudes consists of two novels in progress and the correspondences between their respective authors. Both writers are African American, as are most of their characters. Dewayne Wellington’s writing style is postmodern, hip, and urban. Isshee Ayam, whose work includes such titles as My Big Ol’ Feets Gon’ Stomp Dat Evil Down, Hog Jowl Junction, and Heben and Chillun o’ de Lawd, is more traditional in terms of both her narrative style and her preference for what Dewayne refers to as “Afro-American glory-stories.” She bears more than a passing resemblance to such authors as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, while Dewayne is somewhat similar to novelist Ishmael Reed.

Dewayne’s novel is about two black teenagers in 1980’s New York City, both in private school: Earle, a shy, upper-middle-class “nerd,” dreams of love and eagerly awaits his first sexual experience; and Dorothy, who frequents the city’s hottest clubs, experiments with drugs and sex and hopes to get rich and leave Harlem. When Dewayne, stuck in the writing of his novel at chapter 6, solicits Isshee’s advice, she disgustedly condemns his work as sexist. She also sends him a chapter based on his characters but reflecting her own beliefs about the appropriate functions and components of African American literature. This chapter, and those that follow, is located in rural 1930’s Georgia, with Earle and Dorothy recast as farm children, poor but proud, who walk fifteen miles to school each day. In both works in progress, the two teenagers become friends and, eventually, lovers. Although the two authors have radically different styles and political agendas, they are headed for the same goal, and their chapters work in parallel to...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ellis, Trey. “The New Black Aesthetic.” Callaloo 38 (Winter, 1989): 233-243. Ellis describes the art and philosophy of art being produced by a new generation of black artists. Ellis calls these artists, including himself, “cultural mulattoes,” able to appreciate and function in both white and black culture. He states that such an aesthetic is “not an apolitical, art-for-art’s-sake fantasy” but a redefinition of “the black aesthetic as much more than just Africa and jazz.”

Favor, J. Martin. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby.” Callaloo 16 (1993): 694-105. Martin reviews both Platitudes and Ellis’s essay, “The New Black Aesthetic.” Comparing both works, he focuses on the artistic impressions of black Americans, factors constituting African American experience and expression, sexism, and notions of racial pride.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. African American writing is organized around the figure of the “signifying Monkey,” a trickster in West African folk tales known for his quick wit. This influence of the vernacular trickster tradition is examined in the work of major African American authors including Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker.

Hunter, Tera. “It’s a...

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