(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Reginald McKnight’s work is a refreshing change from much of the black protest literature of the 1970’s and 1980’s. While white people are often presented as unpleasant, annoying, and mean-spirited, they are seldom presented as outrightly diabolical. McKnight deliberately refrains from political statement in his fiction, believing that art has the higher purpose of bringing a sense of joy to the reader, the type of joy that makes one think that “life is deep, limitless, and meaningful.” Yet he does not believe that art should be harmless. “It should get under your skin,” he says. McKnight refuses to accept or to promote any singular concept of black identity; instead, he respects the diversity of black experience found in the United States and elsewhere.

Like many writers, McKnight draws heavily on personal experience to find subject matter for his stories. For example, several stories found in his collections are set in West Africa with an anthropologist as the narrator. Other stories include the painful experience of being one of a handful of black children in a school. His experience in the military is also woven into several stories. His stories, however, are no mere transcription of personal experience. He is equally successful in portraying the experiences of black working-class males.

Many of McKnight’s stories are boldly experimental in point of view, tone, style, and concept. His stories set in West Africa are particularly notable for their non-western philosophical views and the incorporation of the fantastic. For example, in “The Homunculus: A Novel in One Chapter” (found in The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas), the protagonist is a young writer in a fairy-tale-like place who becomes so consumed with his writing that it becomes a flesh and blood likeness of himself. McKnight’s work is characterized by his successful, convincing use of multiple voices.

“Uncle Moustapha’s Eclipse”

“Uncle Moustapha’s Eclipse,” the title story of McKnight’s first collection, is narrated in the broken English of a Senegalese interpreter working for an American anthropologist living in Africa. This story has the feel of a folktale; that is, it is clearly meant to teach a lesson. Uncle Moustapha is a successful peanut farmer, who lives in a small African village with his three wives and seven children. His only problem is that he constantly thinks of death; he would not have this problem if he had not adopted the white man’s tradition of celebrating his birthday. On the eve of his sixtieth birthday (or at least what he has designated as his birthday), he goes to bed anticipating an eclipse of the sun, which has been predicted for the next day. On the following morning, a white scientist arrives to set up his viewing equipment on Uncle Moustapha’s land. The scientist warns Moustapha not to view the eclipse directly with naked eyes. At first, Moustapha complies and views the eclipse properly through the scientific equipment. However, he quickly becomes overjoyed with the eclipse, believing that it was sent to him as a gift from Allah and his ancestors. Moustapha runs to fetch his favorite wife, Fatima. They rush together to the baobab tree, which is believed to house the spirits of their ancestors. After a brief prayer, Moustapha experiences a rush of heightened sensory perceptions. He turns to stare at the eclipse with his eyes wide open, so that he can see “it all in supreme detail.” As he returns home, the world seems more beautiful to him than ever before, except for a black shape that begins to flicker on and off in his left eye. The ending of the story is ambiguous. It is not clear whether he goes blind or it is death that is finally coming to Uncle Moustapha. However, he has no regrets because he has seen “what no other living soul has seen today.” Clearly, he does not believe that going blind or even dying is too great a price to pay for such a magnificent experience.

“The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas”

In this O. Henry Award-winning story, McKnight explores the ambivalence of friendship, not just between blacks and whites but also between blacks and blacks. Clinton Oates, the narrator, is one of three black children in his sixth-grade class in Waco, Texas. Oates, who is eager to prove himself inoffensive to whites, feels embarrassed by...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)