Writing the Future of Black America: Literature of the Hip-Hop Generation
Daniel Grassian, the author of Hybrid Fictions: American Literature and Generation X (2003) and Understanding Sherman Alexie (2005), offers another view into contemporary literature with his 2009 publication, Writing the Future of Black America: Literature of the Hip-Hop Generation, a study of a culturally-inscribed literary movement in America during the 1980s and 1990s. Grassian situates Writing the Future of Black America in the wake of era-defining works such as Bakari Kitwana's The Hip-Hop Generation (2002) and other "hip-hop scholars" who link Afrocentrism's politics with hip-hop's urban narratives, lyrical boldness, and social protest (3). As well, Grassian incorporates the opinions of seminal African American cultural critics such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Bill Cosby who acknowledge the "gulf between the civil rights generation of African Americans . . . and the hip-hop generation" (1). Having thoroughly recognized prevailing ideas on and of the hip-hop generation, Writing the Future of Black America breaks new ground in studies of African American literature by promoting eight African American writers who have come of age during hip-hop music's rise to prominence—Trey Ellis, Jake Lamar, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Danzy Senna, Allison Joseph, Terrence Hayes, and Suzan-Lori Parks. By virtue of their unique responses to the literary, political, and cultural milieu of the past thirty years, these authors help to define a genre of literature that distances itself from postmodernism and "Generation X" writing, as well as from preceding traditions of African American literature.
Grassian's introduction describes hip-hop as a reasonably inclusive and fluid concept that has shifted from being a "medium of social protest, as it was more so in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to more of a big business promoting toughness and hedonism" (5). Yet for Grassian's purposes, hip-hop's popular tropes of violence, materialism, and authenticity are less important than its adaptability to individual artist's aims. Grassian argues that these eight authors of the hip-hop generation commonly address the question of "what [to] strive for or aspire towards individually and collectively for the African American community," now that "race, discrimination, and prejudice in contemporary America" are "increasingly complex" and differ from the difficulties previous generations faced (17). Grassian does not suggest, however, that these authors subscribe to a set literary identity or bind themselves to generalized aims. Rather, he takes pains to explore each author's success in what hip-hop critic Tony Boyd would describe as "honoring one's [own] convictions" and "keepin' it real" (qtd. in Grassian 10).
As the title of his book suggests, Grassian's most exciting goal for Writing the Future of Black America is promoting writers who can influence younger generations of authors and readers, whose own labels will likely continue to defy strictures of identity and who will be in a position to "counteract inequalities, prejudice, and racism" (183). [End Page 198]
In light of the hip-hop generation's potential for re-identification and reassessment, Writing the Future of Black America's importance rests in its timeliness. Specifically, Grassian claims that these eight authors represent and depict the "intersection point between academics and street life"—a point at which the degrees of success for urban youths and the intensity of racial tension vary (182). At a time when mainstream films such as Dangerous Minds (1995), Finding Forrester (2000), Freedom Writers (2007), and Precious (2009) oversimplify the academic-street life intersection by too often depicting the successes of urban youths as contingent upon the efforts of white liberals, Grassian's book is indispensable in current scholarship, as are the authors he promotes.
In the chapters devoted to individual hip-hop generation authors, Writing the Future of Black America places each author in an ongoing trajectory of academic-meets-street aestheticism that addresses a nebulous concept of race through diverse fictional, poetic, and dramatic forms. The chapter on Trey Ellis, author of "The New Black Aesthetic" (1989), Platitudes (1988), Home Repairs (1994), and Right Here, Right Now (1999), positions this author as the hip-hop generation's "spokesperson," and describes his fictional oeuvre as one that redefines an aesthetic by "break[ing] away from standards of so-called authentic or legitimate African American life and behavior" (21). As it develops, Ellis's fiction becomes "less focused on race," focuses more on "issues of media, adolescence, and sexuality" (19-20), and suggests that an aesthetic and ideological ideal is possible through a "combination of the civil rights and hip-hop generations' ethos" (43).
Jake Lamar's fictional focus on race's role "in the contemporary lives of middle- or upper-class, urban, African American professionals" takes up the issues of the subtlety of racism and the difficulty of measuring and achieving racial equality (44). As seen in Bourgeois Blues (1992), The Last Integrationist (1996), Close to the Bone (1998), and If Six Were Nine (2001), Lamar explores the "extent to which race matters" (46), the possibilities for defining African American identity, and the ways to create a "safe space" for minorities in America across "significant racial and economic divisions" (66).
Grassian describes the work of Colson Whitehead, author of The Intuitionist (1999), John Henry Days (2001), The Colossus of New York (2004), and Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), as continuing to address serious race issues by exposing the subtleties of racism "beneath the surface of everyday life" through varied literary modes (67). In particular The Intuitionist is an allegorical rendering of subtle racism, while John Henry Days explores the (in)accuracy, exploitation, and impact of the conventions of African American folklore. Like Ellis and Lamar, Whitehead champions the "blend[ing]" of civil rights and hip-hop generations' agendas into a "more productive symbiosis" (89).
Grassian's chapter on Paul Beatty's linguistically playful and musical books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Tank (1991) and Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994), and his novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996) follows Beatty's achievements in "uncover[ing] a duplicity and hypocrisy behind the seemingly good intentions of the multiculturalist movement" (94), while his summary and analysis of Tuff (1999) acknowledges Beatty's indictment of contemporary hip-hop music and "its lack of political agency" (113).
Grassian's chapter on Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia (1998) and Symptomatic (2004), demonstrates continued attention to hip-hop generation writers' fictional deconstructions of "categories and notions of race" through "ethnic hybridity" and the tradition of "passing" narratives (116). Senna's fiction draws attention to the different hardships that [End Page 199] "multiethnic hip-hop generation members" and "African American" members face, and raises questions about postethnicity and the consequences of categorizing people by race or of ignoring race altogether (133).
Grassian's chapters on Allison Joseph, Terrence Hayes, and Suzan-Lori Parks more specifically address these writers' aesthetic attachment to or divergence from hip-hop and its spontaneous performative value. In devoting a sizeable space to quoting lines and verses of poetry by Joseph and Hayes, Grassian shows their "blend [of] the academic and the colloquial as well as popular/low culture with academic/high culture" (134). Through this blend, both poets explore how form can "efface the divisions between the races, but at the same time . . . create new stereotypes . . . and shad[e] over the still-existing institutional racism in America" (162).
Grassian places Suzan-Lori Parks's works in the historical context of African American theater and in the cultural climate of the 1990s and 2000s when hip-hop generation playwrights and hip-hop theater follow different avenues toward political and aesthetic commentary (165). Grassian points out that Parks's drama combines elements of hip-hop theater with the literariness of hip-hop generation drama in order to speak to current issues of race, most notably that "racism and prejudice have not disappeared but have morphed into more easily ignored but still potentially deadly forms" (163).
In addition to its timeliness, Writing the Future of Black America's importance rests in its potential for expanding this newly-emerging canon of hip-hop generation literature. While publications such as Dana A. Williams's edited Contemporary African American Fiction: New Critical Essays (2009) are useful in charting traditions of postmodern and contemporary African American writing inspired by writers such as Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison, Grassian's book carves its niche specifically in response to the cultural phenomena of hip-hop, hip-hop generation literature, and its wide-spread and adaptable presence. For now at least, the "Hip-Hop Generation" is a convenient label for these African American authors and perhaps some of their contemporaries. However, Grassian's critique of hip-hop's "ghettocentric" associations—whether violent, political, or materialistic—suggests that hip-hop as a label for a generation is subject to replacement, unless it encompasses more nuanced associations between the music and the literature of the generation (12). Future scholars may indeed devise a more precise or less confining label that more fully accounts for the complexities at work in the African American community and in the literature that derives from it. At any rate, Grassian catalyzes a critical approach based on keeping track of the rapid evolutions in African American literary studies, as the hip-hop generation frees itself from obligations to previous African American literary movements and to their own Generation X contemporaries, continuing to confront issues of race in America on their own terms.
These exceptional merits considered, Writing the Future of Black America leaves room for further questions about how specific forms of hip-hop music and culture—from the beginnings of its popularity as social commentary in the 1980s and 1990s to its current fusion with other musical genres and pervasiveness as cultural capital—influence not only literary content but also literary forms. Grassian's analysis begins the process of identifying the socio-political messages of the eight authors' works expressed through a variety of forms, from Ellis's use of metanarrative in Platitudes to symbolize cross-generation debates over form and content to Suzan-Lori Parks's use of Greek dramatic chorus in In the Blood [End Page 200] to represent "society's condemnation of the main character" (171). Subsequent criticism on the social and formalist connections in these authors' works might do well to initiate analytical threads based on hip-hop or literary concepts such as "The Spoken Word" or "'Street Narratives' in Verse and Fiction." These analytical threads could facilitate more specific discussions about the ways in which particular hip-hop artists, musical selections, as well as lyrics and sound qualities are enacted in the generation of writing they help define. After all, Grassian acknowledges that hip-hop "can and has been considered to be many things" (163), and further socio-political and formalist readings of hip-hop music and the literature of the hip-hop generation can reveal the complexities of meaning driving those many things.
Julie Elizabeth Tyler is studying for the PhD in English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.