The Long Voyage Home

In singling out three “mavericks of black literature” for his new book Out There, Darryl Pinckney, who has written much on black literature in these pages, perceptively and with the animated brilliance of a passionate reader (he is also the gifted author of the novel High Cotton), has employed a working definition of “maverick” that includes the phrase “a striking eccentricity of purpose.” They are words that are as good as any and more apt than most to describe the work of the Jamaican journalist J.A. Rogers, the expatriate American memoirist Vincent O. Carter, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the contemporary British novelist Caryl Phillips. These are, at any rate, the three writers whose literary lives inform the pages of Pinckney’s collection, and though their work and biographies are treated with Pinckney’s own eccentricity of approach (the essays were originally lectures given at Harvard and will seem, perhaps, brief for those readers seeking comprehensive details of a writer’s childhood or formative romances), they are full of great personal feeling, intellectual curiosity, and original, groundbreaking research.

J.A. Rogers was, according to Pinckney, a kind of through-the-looking-glass Kipling, documenting those spots around the world “where the white and the nonwhite are not in their ordained places.” Born in Jamaica in 1883, and emigrating as a young man to the US, Rogers became a kind of popular historian of black achievement and was thought of as the first black war correspondent (though one wonders why George Washington Williams, who was born almost thirty-five years before and by 1890 was reporting on the Belgian Congo, has not been given that title). Rogers’s purpose was black pride and moral restitution for the Negro, and in his three volumes of Sex and Race he became obsessed with compiling a kind of historical Believe It or Not of people of color, even going out on a limb and including the swarthy, brooding Beethoven—and if not Beethoven, well then Beethoven’s accompanist—to prove that race-mixing is the reality of history. Rogers desired to serve the black community, as was the wish of many subsequent literary radicals, but he worked within white-defined categories of history and culture.

As Pinckney writes, “We don’t need to claim Beethoven.” Rogers was considered half-nuts by some, including his fellow countryman Claude McKay, who came to doubt very much Rogers’s stubborn accumulation of “Amazing Facts.” Rogers was especially interested in such things as Warren Harding’s reputed African-American blood (Bill Clinton may imagine he is the first African-American president, but he may be simply the first to boast of it). The part-disparaging, part-prideful parlor game of ethnic naming (the Polish genius—Conrad, Chopin; or the Jewish sex symbol—Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas) engages in any minority some group feeling of unjustified insecurity and a suspicion of cover-up in the mainstream culture. But in such a game of self-esteem, which is the project Rogers was interested in, one must walk through the room of bias and prejudice, noting the insulting stereotypes, before attempting to demolish them. The well-intentioned…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.