Darryl Pinckney’s most recent book is a novel, Black Deutschland. (August 2016)

IN THE REVIEW

Black Lives and the Police

Black people in America have been under surveillance ever since the seventeenth century, when enslaved Africans were forced to labor in the tobacco and rice fields of the South. Colonial law quickly made a distinction between indentured servants and slaves, and in so doing invented whiteness in America. It may have been possible for a free African or mixed-race person to own slaves, but it was not possible for a European to be taken into slavery. The distinction helped to keep blacks and poor whites from seeking common cause.

Blacks & Jews Entangled

Fran Ross, from the frontispiece to her novel Oreo

Oreo

by Fran Ross, with a foreword by Danzy Senna and an afterword by Harryette Mullen
Google wasn’t around when Oreo was first published in 1974. You are hit with Greek mythology and Yiddish right away and just the look of the pages of Fran Ross’s novel about an Afro-Jewish girl’s quest to find her white father can discourage or intimidate. Oreo, by an African-American writer …

Elite Black & Quite Different

Margo Jefferson at Columbia University, New York City, September 2015

Negroland: A Memoir

by Margo Jefferson
The house Negro, according to Malcolm X, looked out for his master’s interest and put the field Negro back in his place on the plantation when he got out of line. The house Negro lived better than the field Negro, Malcolm X explained. He ate the same food as the …

NYR DAILY

Looking Harlem in the Eye

Carl Van Vechten: Ethel Waters, 1932

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), enthusiast of Modernism and ally of the Harlem Renaissance, had a swell time while the Roaring Twenties lasted and his home became something of a cultural clearinghouse for black writers and artists. But his photographs of black people are perhaps his most personal work. Van Vechten’s admiration for his subjects was unambiguous and the portraits speak of his talent for friendship. They knew who he was. Even when the subject’s gaze is averted, as in Van Vechten’s 1936 portrait of Lottie Allen, described as a domestic worker, her “dates unknown,” the viewer believes that she, who appears to be in uniform, trusts the white man behind that camera.

Dancing Miss

Billie Holiday, 1938

Darryl Pinckney remembers Elizabeth Hardwick’s portrait of Billie Holiday, which first appeared in the March 4, 1976 issue of The New York Review.

Singing of Adultery and Apartheid

Nonhlanhla Kheswa as Matilda in Peter Brook's production of The Suit

Can Themba’s “The Suit,” a sparsely told tale of betrayal, was adapted for the stage in South Africa in the early 1990s. Peter Brook presented his production of The Suit at the Theatres des Bouffes du Nord last year. His English version is now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the Harvey Theater, a space made to look distressed, in imitation of the look of decay that Brook’s Paris theater has made famous. Audiences will know immediately that The Suit is the work of Peter Brook, in its looking beyond Europe and the West for stories to tell on stage, and also in the elegant economy of the staging itself.

Misremembering Martin Luther King

Dr. Martin Luther King leading the march from Selma to Montgomery

The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC looks like heroic sculpture from the China of Chairman Mao. In The Mountaintop, a play by Katori Hall now on Broadway, Dr. King is offered yet another tribute his memory could maybe have done without. In Hall’s well-meaning, but naive play about an imagined conversation between King and a maid at the motel where he stayed on the night before he was killed, King’s last hours on earth become an occasion for tribal laughter and warm black feelings. The Mountaintop is so focused on reconciling us—and him—to his death, that Hall seems uninterested in how she might be exploiting King’s legacy.

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