'Black on Black' celebrates Black culture while exploring history and racial tension
These lines appear on the first page of Daniel Black’s “Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America:”
“I write because we hurt. I write because some pain can’t be described. It can only be felt in the marrow of a story or the lyrics of a song.”
Black’s new collection of essays dig deep into Blackness, history and racial tension in this country, while simultaneously serving as a powerful call to action and a celebration of Black culture.
“Black on Black” is not an easy read. Black’s voice is strong, informed, angry, and relentless — and that infuses his essays with the power to affect readers. Whether Black is discussing racism, the crooked justice system that leads to things like the Central Park Five case (also known as the Central Park jogger case), the public education system and its impact on HBCUS (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), or how different generations of gay Black men learned to navigate AIDS, Black’s writing carries the kind of righteous anger — and more than enough facts — to elicit a response in most readers with a pulse. Hopefully, that response leads to change.
There are no throwaway essays here and they all fit together in ways that give the collection a great sense of cohesion, but there are some standouts that merit a moment in the spotlight. “When I Was a Boy” is a heartfelt essay about growing up feeling like a “freak” that eventually morphs into a narrative about acceptance and a critique of the way young Black men are expected to perform a special brand of masculinity.
Black always knew he was different, and different wasn’t good. He thought he was worse than everyone else even when he became obsessed with words — with reading and writing — and people told him he was “too smart” for his own good. The emotional and psychological scars that came from Black’s youth permeate the collection, and this essay, the second one in the book, is a perfect introduction that helps to contextualize what follows.
“The Trial and Massacre of the Black Body” is a brilliant essay about George Floyd that asks the same question we still have to ask regularly: “…not whether a black person is dead, but whether the police we see committing the act will be held responsible.” Black, a keen observer as well as a scholar, exposes, time and again, the shield of cultural protection that surrounds white male patriarchy and power and the way this often leads to the murder of Black individuals going unpunished. Perhaps the most painful essay to read, this one is packed with examples that show the perpetuation of racial abuse and unfettered discrimination against Black people despite the outcome of the Floyd case. From the bodies of those aboard the “Amistad” to Emmett Till to Rodney King to Trayvon Martin to Breonna Taylor, Black leads readers on a painful tour of the deadly consequences of unfettered racism.
And those aren’t the only essays I was thinking about long after finishing the book. “Black, But Not Beautiful: An Aesthetic Dilemma” shows how “whiteness is inherently supreme, and blackness is, by definition, unruly, undesirable, and unholy.” Black looks at popular culture to explore the idea that it’s hard for Black people to see themselves as attractive in a society in which beauty standards are “diametrically opposed” to their features.
“When WE See Us,” which is a perfect companion piece to “The Trial and Massacre of the Black Body,” Black examines the justice system through the lens of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “When They See Us.” Lastly, “The Beauty and Struggles of HBCUS” explores how HBCUS and those who work and teach in them tackle the monumental, and incredibly necessary, task of convincing students of their intellectual prowess, which is something that, in most cases, no one has done up to that point.
“Black on Black” calls for an overhaul of the American criminal justice system, an overhaul of the Black church, an overhaul of the way Black people see themselves, and an overhaul of the country itself, and it does so with authority. From invitations to kiss God in the mouth to declarations about the need to “ignite conversation” about difficult topics, “Black on Black” never waivers, never backs down, never pulls its hard punches full of painful truths.
In an essay that presents a celebration/critique of Black churches and they way they follow the same set of believes that enslavers followed, Black mentions outstanding contemporary African American writers Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, and Jericho Brown and then states: “The black pen never fails to produce spirit-filled work that, if black people read and heed, would set them free.” “Black on Black” adds Black’s name to that list, and that makes it an important, relevant work of nonfiction that should be required reading in these troubled times.