Darryl Pinckney is a longtime contributor to The New York Review. His most recent novel, Black Deutschland, was published in February.
 (May 2016)

Elite Black & Quite Different

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

The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York City, 2012
In his writings, Baldwin stressed that the Negro Problem, like whiteness, existed mostly in white minds, and in Between the World and Me, Coates wants his son, to whom he addresses himself, to know this, that white people are a modern invention. “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Forward Passes

Carrie Mae Weems: May Flower, 2002; from ‘The Memory of Time,’ a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The catalog is by Sarah Greenough, Andrea Nelson, and others, and is published by the museum and Thames and Hudson.
The importing of human beings into the US from Africa to be sold as slaves was outlawed in 1808, after which the slave markets of the southern states traded in black people born in America. The rules of New World slavery decreed that a person’s status was derived from that of the mother, not the father. A slave owner’s children by an enslaved woman were, firstly, assets.

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.

In Ferguson

Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a leader of the protest movement, kneeling in prayer between police and a crowd of protesters outside the police station, Ferguson, Missouri, September 2014
Ferguson feels like a turning point. For so many, Michael Brown’s death was the last straw. Black youth are fed up with being branded criminals at birth.

The Home of Southern Secrets

Allan Gurganus, North Carolina, 2013
Falls, North Carolina, the setting for the three long stories or novellas that make up Allan Gurganus’s Local Souls, is the kind of place where people end up, come back to, can’t get away from. It has descendants of Confederates who consider themselves aristocrats, new tobacco money that has got …

The Real Harlem

The Baby Grand bar at 319 West 125th Street, Harlem, 1977; photograph by Camilo José Vergara from Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto
Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips. Their black tenants defied them and in many cases the landlords walked away from their buildings, left them to run down.

On Your Own in Russia

Frederick Bruce Thomas, a black American who became a millionaire nightlife entrepreneur in pre–World War I Moscow, circa 1896
After the Decembrist uprising of liberal officers in Russia in 1825, the imperial government restricted where the young Alexander Pushkin could go and what he could publish. In 1827, he began “The Negro of Peter the Great,” a novella about his great-grandfather Ibrahim Hannibal that he left unfinished. It is …

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.

On James Baldwin

I had no idea why I was so absorbed in James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, but everyone else in the car knew. My father had been driving for so long he gripped the wheel with paper towels. It was 1967 and we were days from Indianapolis on our way to Disney Land. We were actually on Route 66 and I didn’t care. I was thirteen years old and I wasn’t causing trouble, sitting between my two sisters with Baldwin’s novel about a man’s love for another man in my face.

Countee Cullen: The Reluctant Lamb

Countee Cullen in Central Park, 1941; photograph by Carl Van Vechten
A generous selection of Longfellow’s poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy, is available from the Library of America; a scanned edition of James Russell Lowell’s poems is ready for your Kindle; and Honor Moore makes her case for Amy Lowell in the American Poets Project series. But we don’t read these …

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.

Young Barry Wins

Barack Obama posing for the camera during his freshman year at Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1980
David Maraniss in his proudly sprawling Barack Obama: The Story presents a biography of the president that he is determined goes deeper than anything else out there. He is clearly pleased to have reached previously untapped sources. Barack Obama: The Story is well over five hundred pages and at its end the future president is just twenty-seven years old, on his way to Harvard Law School. Many share his subject, but Maraniss is the large beast come to the watering hole.

Big Changes in Black America?

Kehinde Wiley: The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia, 101.5 x 226.5 inches, 2008; from Kehinde Wiley, a monograph of Wiley’s paintings of contemporary African-Americans in heroic poses, just published by Rizzoli. Two exhibitions of his work are on view in New York City this spring: ‘Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel,’ at the Jewish Museum, March 9–July 29, 2012; and ‘An Economy of Grace,’ at the Sean Kelly Gallery, May 6–June 16, 2012.
It would seem that although black people are in the mainstream, black history still isn’t, because certain basic things about the history of being black in America—American history—have to be explained again and again.

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.

The Two Conversions of Malcolm X

Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X at a Nation of Islam rally, 1961
In Dreams from My Father, President Obama recalled his confusion about identity when he was a student at the Punahou Academy in Hawaii. “I had no idea who my own self was.” He didn’t feel comfortable talking about white folks with his black friends on the basketball court. Then one …

Invisible Black America

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden having a beer with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30, 2009
On July 16, 2009, Sergeant James Crowley, a white police officer answering a call to investigate a possible break-in at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, address not far from Harvard, arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., charging him with disorderly conduct, even though the middle-aged black man had shown that he was …

Jimmy Baldwin: Stirring the Waters

James Baldwin, New York City, 1976
Life never bribed him to look at anything but the soul, Henry James said of Emerson, and one could say the same of James Baldwin, with a similar suggestion that the price for his purity was blindness about some other things in life. Baldwin possessed to an extraordinary degree what James called Emerson’s “special capacity for moral experience.” He, too, is persuasive in his antimaterialism. Baldwin, like Emerson, renounced the pulpit—he had been a fiery boy preacher in Harlem—and readers have found in the writings of each the atmosphere of church.

It’s not that Emerson and Baldwin have much in common as writers. Harlem was not Concord. Except for his visits to England, Emerson stayed put for fifty years and Baldwin spent his adult life in search of a home. Yet Baldwin and Emerson both can speak directly to another person’s soul, as James would have it, in a way that “seems to go back to the roots of our feelings, to where conduct and manhood begin.”

High and Low on Crack

Bill Clegg, New York City, April 2010
Drugs, altered states of consciousness, and addiction entered modern literature with the Romantics. Much poetry has come from that artificial paradise, as Aldous Huxley called being high on something. However, the memoirs and autobiographical fiction in English written over the past two hundred years about what is now called substance …

On Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick, New York City, 1991; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
Elizabeth Hardwick, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, said that if she had to come from the South, she didn’t mind it being the Upper South, because even though a lot of nonsense about the Confederacy could be found in Kentucky as readily as anywhere else, for some reason when …

What He Really Said

At the inauguration of Barack Obama, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington, D.C., the day before the inauguration, I was with maybe two hundred people at a wreath-laying ceremony at the African-American Civil War Memorial on U Street, a bronze monument in a little square not far from a corner once known for prostitution.

Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone

The following pieces are adapted from comments made at “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election,” a symposium at the New York Public Library on November 10, 2008, presented by The New York Review and sponsored by the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and Live from …

Obama & the Black Church

My parents, old NAACP activists, live in front of CNN, and back in April I happened to be with them in Indianapolis the week before the Indiana primary, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy returned to embarrass Senator Barack Obama’s campaign. To my mother, passionately pro-Obama, nothing justified what she …

Dreams from Obama

On a surprisingly mild January afternoon in Harlem, the day of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, my barber predicted that Senator Barack Obama would win by a landslide. He shut off his clippers and took the floor. “We need to pull for him. I’m sick of people saying, ‘They’ll …

On Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007)

In the fall of 1973, she told her creative writing students at Barnard College, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.” She used to tell us that we couldn’t be writers if we couldn’t be told no, if we couldn’t take rejection. We supposed, therefore, that …