Gene Seymour

  • The Margins Will Not Hold

    The decades of near-silence that came in the wake of Charles Wright’s trilogy of short novels seem almost as aberrant and disquieting as the novels themselves. Wright died of heart failure at age seventy-six in October 2008, one month before Barack Obama’s election and thirty-five years after the publication of Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, the last of Wright’s novels, whose 1973 appearance came a decade after his debut, The Messenger. Wright clawed and strained from the margins of American existence for widespread acknowledgment, if not the fame his talent deserved. Cult-hood was

  • Immodest Proposals

    Back when I was entering my forties and thus more youthful and idealistic than I am now (the forties having been the new twenties since the ’80s), I read Darius James’s Negrophobia in its original 1992 edition, and upon sustaining its full impact, I said to myself: “You know what, self? If something this graphically over the top, in your face, and on the mark doesn’t mortify white supremacy into oblivion, then nothing will.”

    At this precise moment in our history, I’ve decided that nothing will. Which has a lot more to do with white supremacy’s exasperating resilience than with James’s scatological

  • Look Before You Veep

    It was sometime during the fall of 2010, a dismal mid-term election season, that I found myself waiting and searching for a passionate voice among progressive politicians that could effectively counter what turned out to be a resurgent conservative Republican wave retrieving both houses of Congress that November—and continuing afterward to obstruct any meaningful legislation on behalf of poor and marginalized Americans.

    I didn’t think I was asking for much; just somebody (besides the then-incumbent and beleaguered president) capable of not just speaking truth to power, but of summoning

  • Throne of Games

    I’m pretty sure Robert Lipsyte was the first to make the insolent-yet-logical suggestion that the World Series be referred to by a more appropriate name: the North American Baseball Championships for Men. This was back in 1975, when Lipsyte’s SportsWorld: An American Dreamland was first published. It was also the year of perhaps the most riveting of those men’s baseball championships ever, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox. Superlatives were common in sport that year, which also presented for history’s consideration the epochal third heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad

  • The Novel as History

    “Old Nat.” You hear people calling Nat Turner that to this day, even though he was barely past thirty when he was executed for leading the single most effective slave uprising of antebellum America. Black people over the decades since that summer-of-1831 rebellion in Virginia have claimed a kind of exclusive intimacy with “Old Nat” in song and folklore. More than a martyr for generations of African Americans before and after Emancipation, he has been an heirloom, a talisman, a cautionary tale, a heroic paradigm. Because so little has been known of the real Nat Turner beyond the “Confessions”

  • Harlem Renaissance Man

    So for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be “kept down,” or “in his place,” or “helped up,” to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden. The thinking Negro even has been induced to share this same general attitude, to focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.

    —Alain Locke, The New Negro (

  • Loss Horizon

    The resolute, earnest, and somewhat wistful grandmother whose byline is attached to What Happened (Simon & Schuster, $30) comes across in its pages as someone you’d love to have over to binge-watch The Crown on Netflix, enjoy meeting up with to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, or trust with your small children for a long afternoon as you deal with an unexpected emergency. Only the most credulously stubborn, or stubbornly credulous, of readers could come away from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s loser’s-lounge testament believing her to be the malevolent dark angel of Far Right and extreme-Left

  • The Evidence of Things Not Seen

    The hottest writer in America right now has been dead for thirty years, proving how so many people for so very long got James Baldwin so very wrong.

    When Baldwin died in 1987, at sixty-three, his importance as a literary voice for the civil-rights movement as well as his not-as-heralded-but-just-as-significant stature as a celebrated black and openly gay novelist was so widely acknowledged as to be almost taken for granted. Yet there were many book-chat pundits, especially in the years leading to Baldwin’s passing, who were ready to write him off as Yesterday’s News, someone whose artistic

  • The Sounds and the Fury

    Part of the suspense in reading Hari Kunzru's astringent, transfixing White Tears comes in wondering when, or if, it's going to stumble into becoming the very thing it's trying to subvert: a sentimental paean to black musical authenticity that gets its back up about white folks' egregious and (seemingly) endless appropriation of blues, jazz, rap, and other African American art forms. Such suspicions grow as it becomes clear that, once again, African Americans themselves are consigned in Kunzru's narrative to bystander status, at best. But by the time the book's horrific jolts have finished

  • Conduct Becoming

    SIFTING THROUGH the diffuse emotional backwash of Decision 2016's immediate aftermath, my mind, for whatever reason, kept wandering back to an admonition from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "God damn it, you've got to be kind." These many weeks later, I'm still stuck as to why I kept landing there, and wondering at whom the quote was directed. A quick reread of that 1965 novel reminded me of its eponymous sad-sack alcoholic millionaire's impulse to provide aid and comfort to America's exploited, bewildered, and thwarted—a description that could easily apply to some who voted for

  • The Human Factor

    Folks in general, especially those of varied shades of pink and brown most in need of his wisdom and perspective, still haven't discovered, much less figured out, Albert Murray. It's not as though they haven't had enough time to try. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Murray's birth, and he almost made it to the centennial finish line, missing it by three years. His first book, The Omni-Americans, published in 1970 when he was fifty-four, was a collection of essays submitting vibrant, complex, and liberating counterarguments to those—well-intentioned or not, militant and moderate

  • Fear and Loafing

    So what kind of book will emerge from the 2016 presidential campaign? For more than a year now, I’ve been saying a secular metaphysical cleric from deep in South America—Borges, say, or Julio Cortázar—should compose it. I recognize that they’re both “with the ancestors.” But would a Book of, or by, the Dead about Campaign 2016, complete with mix-and-match chapters and faux arcana, be any less opaque to real life than Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who exists in his own alternate universe, where feelings are facts and facts always lie?

    As many others besides me have remarked, being

  • Beauty Is Sleuth

    ALL I HAD WITHIN easy reach was a yellow rain slicker, the kind with metal buckles and no buttons. It wasn’t a trench coat, but it would have to do. I was seven years old, give or take, and I wanted to go outside and play detective. I had no case to solve. But I was going to walk around the garden-apartment housing project in Hartford, my known universe back then, until I found one. As it was the middle of a summer’s day, I was certain that whatever mystery awaited me outside couldn’t stay hidden for long. Off I went, thinking myself inconspicuous, though I wasn’t. My parents were having a

  • Super Bad

    “If Elvis Presley is / King,” Amiri Baraka’s “In the Funk World” asked, “Who is James Brown, / God?” This, as far as black people throughout the world are concerned, is not a question but an assertion. “You want to say Elvis was King? Feel free,” we might say. “But he never ruled us!”

    True, Elvis’s come-hither swagger may have compelled the American mainstream to deal with its complex transactions between classes, cultures, and races (along with parts of its own collective unconscious, as Greil Marcus reckoned in his essential 1975 rock ’n’ roll panorama, Mystery Train). But James Brown had

  • Macabre Driver

    Along with its consumers, American popular culture in the 1950s became both besotted with the abundant possibilities set loose by the Second World War and discomfited by the looming prospect that this bounty, along with all of humanity, could at any moment become devastated by nuclear oblivion. The postwar mood swings of “Oh, wow!” and “Uh-oh!” were absorbed, often with cheeky abandon and heedless ingenuity, by movies, television series, and paperbacks using otherworldly scenarios to probe for malignancies beneath the chrome-plated dreams of Better Tomorrows. The state of dreaming—mostly while

  • Splitting the Difference

    Fine. Let’s start with “Negro,” or, if one prefers, “negro.” Even with this word’s present-day, often lower-case status, there are African Americans for whom “Negro” is a trigger word for outrage or affront. Some want the word excised altogether—which, at least to this African American, displays amnesia toward (or, worse, disrespect for) our collective history. Between the years 1900 and 1970 (give or take), “Negro” defined a people in transition through two world wars, a cultural renaissance, and a social and political movement that changed everything around it. Those who defined themselves

  • The Satire This Time

    My late, much lamented friend John Leonard once wrote, "Satire means never having to say you're sorry." I wish John were still around for many reasons, but pertinent to the task at hand, I wish he were here to frame that assertion in the context of Paul Beatty's audacious, diabolical trickster-god of a novel. The Sellout taunts, jostles, bites your face, and makes so many inappropriate noises at whatever passes for America's Ongoing Dialogue on Race that it's practically begging to be batter-fried in acrimony and censure. A scatological narrative submitted with demonic energy and angelic grace

  • Invisible Men

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation used stink bombs against the Black Panthers. I know, right? Stop the presses! But it’s still a mildly disquieting hoot to come across this disclosure, mentioned offhandedly by William J. Maxwell in F.B. Eyes. Operation Stink Bomb (as it most certainly would not have been called) was just one of many acts of domestic spying perpetrated under the bureau’s notorious COINTELPRO program of the ’60s and ’70s, which sought to infiltrate and discredit, by any means necessary, the era’s burgeoning left-leaning protest movements. Citing congressional testimony, Maxwell

  • Striking a Chord

    Think of history as a piano: an austere, glossy model that invites and intimidates whoever’s looking for revelations from its keyboard. A sensibility oriented toward fact is sufficient background to tease out a few notes into a simple, logical pattern. And if you have a surfeit of facts and can season them with nuance, the audience should end up nestled in your hip pocket. But facts can only do so much, especially if they’re slippery or cloaked in shadows. When that happens, the music can become static, even inert. So you shift tactics, go for broke, make a few educated guesses—for a start.

  • Dearth of a Nation

    In the American-history textbook I used in my public high school, the chapter that covered Reconstruction included a photo of Thaddeus Stevens, the nineteenth-century radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, who appeared, to judge by the evidence of this daguerreotype, to have been in a foul mood. I distinctly remember how the photo’s caption referenced Stevens’s glowering, stormy countenance as an outward and visible sign of his spiteful scorn for the vanquished Confederacy. As far as the textbook’s authors were concerned, such vengeance—and only such vengeance—accounted for what they