Darryl Pinckney’s latest book is a novel, Black Deutschland. (April 2017)

IN THE REVIEW

Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)

Robert B. Silvers in his office at The New York Review of Books, early 1980s
Until I arrived at the Review as an editorial assistant, I had never met anyone who so rarely engaged in idle pleasantries as Bob. His daily language was pared down, accurate, and sincere. I found his example revelatory, and I would ponder his usage and elisions like a giddy college freshman. Bob would never, for instance, wish us a good weekend. Presumably he had no particular investment in the quality of our weekends, and possibly he didn’t even know when his assistants’ weekends were, since we took turns working Saturday and Sunday shifts with him. But was he also, I wondered, rejecting the implied value of a good weekend? Is the goal of leisure time pleasure? Edification? Novel experience? If we couldn’t settle on criteria, we couldn’t possibly arrive at a valuation, in which case why bother asking on Monday morning how someone’s weekend had been?

Moon Over Miami

Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders as the teenagers Kevin and Chiron in Moonlight

Moonlight

a film directed by Barry Jenkins
Moonlight is a love story in a place where we don’t usually find a gay one and at the same time it’s very different from other black films set in the ’hood, mostly because of what it doesn’t focus on. We don’t hear gunfire and there is no pounding soundtrack, just as it has no bohemian artists or middle-class triumphalism about family. It’s about a homo thug from that street world of the fatherless where masculine pride is supposedly all and tests of manhood are brutal. But Moonlight isn’t trying to be realistic about anything, even as it confounds what we expect from stories about young black men, starting with the film’s texture, its intricate soundtrack, tantric pace, and beauty frame by frame.

Under the Spell of James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro

a documentary film directed by Raoul Peck
James Baldwin said that Martin Luther King Jr., symbol of nonviolence, had done what no black leader had before him, which was “to carry the battle into the individual heart.” But he refused to condemn Malcolm X, King’s supposed violent alternative, because, he said, his bitterness articulated the sufferings of black people. These things could also describe Baldwin himself in his essays on race and US society.

The Genius of Blackness

Kerry James Marshall: School of Beauty, School of Culture, 107 7/8 x 157 7/8 inches, 2012

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, April 23–September 25, 2016; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 2, 2017
Two things hit the viewer pretty soon into the Met Breuer’s exhibition of Kerry James Marshall’s beautiful work: figure after figure in his canvases is black, really black, so much so that that blackness becomes his signature. But Marshall’s black people are not Kara Walker’s haunting silhouettes, questioning presences stepping …

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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