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,
N.