Who Gets to Be an ‘American’? These Artists Have an Idea or Two
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In An American Summer, veteran journalist Alex Kotlowitz ties together vignettes of Chicagoans in the aftermath of violence and death within their predominantly black neighborhoods. The wrenching portraits center on themes of love and forgiveness. A mother of a slain man wants restorative justice for her son’s killer; a teen must grapple with witnessing his classmate bleed out; a young woman watches her childhood friend stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.
We’ve read versions of these stories in the news—and seen them used to advocate for solutions to the systemic problems that plague cities. Kotlowitz’s work does this. But he confronts his readers with a challenge even before they open the book: Can you consider this “an American summer”?
Kotlowitz argues that the devastation of black Chicago is just as emblematic of the season as enjoying a hot dog at a ballpark. Summer, in art and life, isn’t always carefree—it can be heated, uneasy, violent. And for the 965 people wounded and killed in Chicago during the 2013 period when the book takes place—mostly black Americans—it represents a thin line between life and death. Kotlowitz says he wrote his book, which was released in March, in the hope that “these stories will help upend what we think we know.”
Artists have long used the word “American” as a tool to make us reckon with troubling or complicated versions of who we are. FX’s hit Russian spy drama The Americans just capped off six seasons of subverting visions of domestic life. The filmmakers behind American Beauty and American Pastoral used the word to capture a plaster-perfect white vision of the country, then probed the flaky fissures under its surface.
Like Kotlowitz, author Tayari Jones focuses on people of color for her New York Times best-selling book, An American Marriage. The 2018 novel traces the rise and fall of a union between two young black professionals in Atlanta after the husband, Roy, is wrongly convicted and sent to prison for years. At first, Jones, who is black, joked about her title to the Houston Chronicle: “I told my editor An American Marriage sounded like a novel about some white people in Connecticut experiencing feelings.”
Her decision to place that title on the book is what drew Oprah Winfrey to it, and the media mogul ended up putting it on her influential book list. Scores of commuters now hold Jones’s book on subways and planes, carrying this message further: The story of a black husband and wife ensnared in the prison system is a fair depiction of the modern-day pressures facing couples in this country. Move over, Kramer vs. Kramer.
They couldn’t come at a more pivotal time, when the president takes to Twitter (truly the littlest form of literature) to stoke debate over who gets to come here and who may remain. Your race, even if you’re a citizen, like the four congresswomen of the Democratic “squad,” might become an argument for you to be sent away.
For most of the country’s history, white people were the only ones given space in books, theater, and films to be fully human. And creators are pushing back. This year the Pulitzer Prize went to playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose play Fairview examines the phenomenon of white watching. She methodically shows how only certain types of black stories are told to mass audiences, then explodes the guardrails around them—breaking the barrier between the set and the seats and leaving white members of the audience onstage while the black cast moves out to replace them in the aisles. It’s a forceful subversion of who gets to be “in” the story.
In early 2019, Broadway’s American Son, starring Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale, told of interracial parents who spend a night in a Florida police station waiting for word of their missing son. Written by a white playwright, Christopher Demos-Brown, it grimly brings to life the fears parents of black children live with, and its chilling conclusion brings to mind Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, boys whose stories ended in a way we know all too well. American Son is being adapted for Netflix, where it will appear in the “recommended for you” fields of people who watched Scandal—the streaming version of a glimpsed book jacket on a plane, quietly drawing your attention.
These “American” works are moving the tales of black people from the “African American” section of the bookstore to the front table, a powerful advance. There, these narratives of everyday life are better positioned to meet and contradict divisive fictions emanating from politics and the media. They’re inclusive stories whose strength comes from the complex world where Americans actually live, grow, and dream.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at email@example.com
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