Gene Seymour

  • The Year of Magic Thinking

    AS THE NEW YORK YANKEES remain baseball’s Unavoidable Fact, even when mediocre, so have the Los Angeles Lakers been nearly impossible for basketball fans to escape, despite having just completed one of their most maladroit seasons in recent memory. (For the benefit of those who neither know nor care, this year’s edition finished 33–49, even with reigning-if-aging superstar-in-chief LeBron James on the roster.) The reasons for the Lakers’ omnipresence are not obscure: even casual sports fans know how dominant the Lakers franchise has been in the global pop-cultural psyche since the 1980s, when

  • Sharpening Her Oyster Knife

    ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S LITERARY STATURE is no longer in dispute, yet people are still trying to put her into a box. “Do you think she was a libertarian?” someone once asked me. For whatever reason, I was too polite to say something like “How the hell should I know?” Far more polite than Hurston would be if she could now answer for herself. Yes, she made conservative, even reactionary noises in her lifetime against the NAACP, leftist politics, Richard Wright, and other socially progressive influences. But tagging Hurston as a libertarian or reactionary is far too reductive for such a formidable

  • Alt That’s Fit to Print

    I SUPPOSE THE FANTASY SUBGENRE OF “ALTERNATE REALITY” doesn’t altogether count as fakery since such storytelling is usually up-front about its artifice. Nevertheless, I am an easy mark for “what-if-the-Nazis-or-the-Confederacy-had-won” stories and their ilk wherever I can find them. My latest guilty pleasure is For All Mankind, an Apple TV streaming series that imagines what the latter half of the twentieth century would have looked like if the Russians had beaten us to the moon.

    Besides all the hyped-up soap-opera among technicians, pilots, bureaucrats, and the people who love them, there

  • The Love Movement

    They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed

    —Langston Hughes, “I, Too”

    WHEN HUGHES PUBLISHED THESE WORDS in 1925, Jim Crow’s rule over America remained at or near its peak. And so it was subversive optimism back then to envision a time when Black Americans would no longer be consigned, as Hughes’s poem delineated, to eat in the kitchen while everybody else sat at the table “when company comes.” Legally sanctioned segregation’s been subdued for decades now, but optimism’s still elusive no matter how much has changed in the almost hundred years since Hughes, “too,” sang America. Putting it

  • Dems the Breaks

    THEY’RE BOTH ON THE BOOK’S COVER, in the backseat of a limo, winner and loser of the 1980 presidential sweepstakes, riding, one presumes, to the inauguration of the one on the (so to speak) right. The outgoing president, giving the side-eye to his successor, stoically bears what one might view as an enigmatic half-smile. When things were going better for him four years earlier, his full-bore eighty-watt grin was his calling card, his ticket to glory. He’ll smile like that again someday, but it’ll never be the same. The incoming president? Nothing can harsh this guy’s mellow on this bright-and-frosty

  • The Tippling Point

    Deacon King Kong (Riverhead, $28) is a warm-blooded free-for-all, a donnybrook, a rumpus, what in baseball lingo would be called a “rhubarb.” And, as it happens, baseball, a steadfast metaphor for democratic ideals, plays a marginal role in James McBride’s bountiful and compassionate comedy of errors, bloopers, and near misses. The generosity of detail and range of emotional life infused in McBride’s vision of working-class Brooklyn at the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s are more characteristic of a nineteenth-century novel than of its counterparts in the twenty-first. And McBride is so adroit at

  • Henry James and Pigs’ Feet

    ANY OPPORTUNITY TO READ A GREAT WRITER’S MAIL should be embraced in these days when a serial Instagram feed is about as ambitious as correspondence gets. Granted, at roughly a thousand pages, The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison may be asking a lot, at the outset, of even the most committed scholar of twentieth-century American literature, to say nothing of the waves of readers who continue to come away from Invisible Man convinced that it’s the Great American Novel.

    But these letters, as assembled by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, come to us a quarter of a century after Ellison’s death

  • 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