Why is Black Pain High Art?

Go to the African American Literary top 100 list on Amazon today. Go there any day. And I promise you, out of the top 20 books, sometimes half of them, and occasionally even more than that will be about some of the most difficult periods in Black history and contemporary Black life– enslavement, Jim Crow, incarceration, addiction. It’s all there. For some reason, Black pain is more … literary, i.e., artistic. People are winning awards for their most authentic portrayals of how we suffer and bleed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t blame the artists. I’m pretty preoccupied with Black trauma myself. I find it difficult to look away from it, and have to remind myself that that isn’t all there is to us.

Alice Walker did that, didn’t she? She said that Black people, possess the “secret of joy.” I remember buying her book ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ almost entirely because of that title, because it sounded both true of us, and counter-intuitive. Because of the depth of our lows, our highs are so much more heady. We revel in them, we languish in them, and we celebrate the hell out of our celebrations, grabbing our joy where we find it and holding on as tight and for as long as we can. Well, the joke was on me, because that book, too, is not about joy at all, but about enduring pain.

After an emotionally exhausting week of anticipating and then finally getting up the guts to watch Ava Duvernay’s ‘When They See Us’, I honestly don’t have the stamina to begin to truly examine what all this means — that we, too, see high art in our own pain, and render it painstakingly, and over and over again, re-traumatizing ourselves and each other. I think part of it is the artist’s essential role as town-crier, helping the rest of us to bear witness, and make sure we never forget. But I don’t know … I’m starting to wonder whether we also have another responsibility, to portray ourselves as healthy, happy and whole. Can’t that be high art, too?

That’s all I got. 

Love & Light,

8 thoughts on “Why is Black Pain High Art?

  1. Absolutely. A large part of why I love the writers that I do is that they don’t let the characters stay in that place. Tales of our trauma are definitely important, but showing how we can and have overcome trauma, both real and fictionalized, has a necessary place as well.

  2. I also long for some semblance of balance in terms of black art, but a lot of us write what we know. It seems that what we know is “the struggle” and in an effort to keeps things believable we forget the other important parts that make us who we are.

    1. That’s a very good point. That’s why I like to keep realism in what I write. But lately, it all feels soooo heavy that I wish we all could have pure escape.

  3. I understand what you are saying and l agree there should be more to our stories than our pain, however when it comes to the story of the Central Park 5 I believe that is a story that needed to be told. We need to know exactly what was done in that case and to understand how that happened. So much of what is done to us by the various agents of supposed justice is swept under the rug. And it takes years to find out the magnitude of the actions taken against us. Besides that these men story need to be told because people need to know who they actually were and are since they were painted in such a savage and negative light during that whole thing. And I too have been finding hard to watch it but I will because as hard as it is for me to watch they had to live it. And yes it may be depressing and lack joy but it’s real. But there are some light hearted books some feel good books out there maybe not as much as the heavy ones but if that’s what you’re looking for.

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