boots riley: the legacy of black literary masculinity

December 10, 2018

There is no inherent meaning in life and to superimpose meaning and importance on an one-dimensional image can feel futile unless the image transforms from simply an image into art, history, or a warm memory. Photographer Art Kane performed such alchemy with his now iconic image “A Great Day in Harlem,” which depicted some of the most iconoclastic jazz musicians in 1958 — including Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, and Thelonious Monk — gathered on a stoop in Harlem.

Sights like a brownstone in Harlem are injected with historical and artistic power because of the men that flooded that mundane urban space — the stoop — with meaning. Boots Riley in 2018 did something else with a collection of Black writers. T Magazine tapped Boots Riley to creative direct an image with a similar goal as Art Kane’s A “Great Day in Harlem,” to fill the empty space with meaning and depth.

Boots Riley decorated a library with 32 Black American male writers. As talent like Ishmael Reed, Major Jackson, and Brian Keith Jackson filled the room with their bodies and legacy to give definition and meaning into the open space, an air of familiarity filled me. Isn’t this what Black people always do?

I think of the brass, stiff instruments that created jazz. I think of the animal remains that were willed into soul food. We jumped over the gaps and broken promises given to us by the state, and create hip-hop. And I also think of empty stoops that turn into historical monuments because a people born from alchemy turned nothingness into soul. The nihilistic thought of nothing in the universe having any inherent meaning does not cause existential anxiety in the Black spirit because in darkness and infinite nothingness is where we create our best offerings.

Boots Riley and 32 other Black men kept a literary tradition alive by observing the blank page and not being intimidated by it, but being freed by it.

Within the piece that accompanied the photograph for T Magazine written by Ayana Mathis, there’s space given to what can be interpreted as sexist and archaic about the centering of Black manhood as the visual representation of Black literature in 2018. This is addressed directly in the article, and through the men being asked about their favorite Black women writers. It is worth echoing that because of the nature of patriarchal culture, there is an erasing that happens of Black women and other Black gender experiences by returning to the public gaze to The Black Man and his literary efforts. It also feels equally antiquated to separate Black men from other Black gender identities to discuss literature. Even Netflix’s ode to Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem photograph, the Kwaku Altson’s photographed A Great Day in Hollywood, widened the view of Blackness by including Black folks of different gender experiences and identities. The color in Altson’s version feels like a metaphor for the breadth of Black artists that are now empowered to represent Blackness.

These limits were addressed in the content, but addressing something shouldn’t be confused with correcting it. The moment visually still perpetuates an elitism and hierarchy that exists in the Black community around what gender identities and performances get to be associated with the Black literary legacy. Only history will tell if the pushback in the article created a soulful shift in who is the authority of Black literature, or if it will play into the patriarchal trope that men, especially men in suits, have more serious things to say than anyone else. The subversive moments that T Magazine offered us could just be absorbed into our love of Black men intellectualizing the world around us.

Regardless of my critique, the image does fill my eyes with pride. It does feel good to see Black men who write gather for an old Black tradition: turning the blank meaningless spaces and pages into cultural milestones.