Darryl Pinckney’s most recent book is a novel, Black Deutschland. (August 2018)

IN THE REVIEW

Ma’am’s Life and Loves

Princess Margaret at her house on the West Indian island of Mustique, April 1976

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

by Craig Brown
When HRH The Princess Margaret was born in 1930, she was fourth in line to the British throne. In 1936, she moved up two notches after Edward VIII, her fool of an uncle, bolted and was succeeded by her father, making her big sister the heir and she herself the …

The Afro-Pessimist Temptation

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates says that he came to understand as a grown-up the limits of anger, but he is in a fed-up, secessionist mood by the end of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. His collection of eight essays on politics and black history written during Obama’s two terms of office, introduced with some new reflections, portrays his post-election disillusionment as a return to his senses. Coates wonders how he could have missed the signs of Trump’s coming: “His ideology is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.” He strongly disagrees with those who say that racism is too simple an explanation for Trump’s victory. He was not put in office by “an inscrutable” white working class; he had the support of the white upper classes to which belong the very “pundits” who play down racism as an explanation.

Drue Heinz (1915–2018)

Count Guido Brandolini and Drue Heinz at a party hosted by Elsa Maxwell, Hotel Danieli, Venice, circa 1959
Some time ago, Drue Heinz said to me about dying, “It’s rather disconcerting to realize that you can’t take even a book with you.” We were in a very brown and velvety study done up by her favorite decorator, Renzo Mongiardino, in her house in New York, on Sutton Place.

Black Pictures

Poster for The Exile (1931), the first sound feature written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, based on his novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer

Pioneers of African-American Cinema

directed by Richard Norman, Richard Maurice, Spencer Williams, and Oscar Micheaux; curated and including essays by Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart
Gustave Flaubert’s next best seller after Madame Bovary was Salammbô, a historical novel about a revolt of mercenaries in third-century-BC Carthage. The black novelist Charles Chesnutt saw the Italian film director Domenico Gaido’s adaptation, Salambo, in a Cleveland movie theater in 1915. Chesnutt remembered that when Spendius, the mercenary general’s black lieutenant, came on the screen, a white woman sitting next to him remarked, “Well, look at the coon! He’s a spy and a traitor, no doubt.” The medium of film was still rather new, but the attitudes projected through it were the familiar, vicious ones that Chesnutt, born a free black in North Carolina in 1858, had made it his life’s work to write against.

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Miss Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, circa 1971

Aretha Franklin had been at the piano, in church, on the road, all her life. When a child star comes of age, beware. Maybe she had a somewhat perverse streak, an imperviousness to advice. She will wear a sleeveless gown at her age if she wants to; she won’t agree to the release of the film of her recording Amazing Grace. She shall not retire. To sing was to have power, so why stop? In five decades, she released more than forty albums, and just as many compilations and greatest-hits collections, and I am forgetting how many live recordings. She left no ballad standing and wrestled even the tenderest lyrics to the floor. And when she was fast, I don’t know what to say about that, except that she stayed in control so that we could lose it.

The Passport of Whiteness

An African migrant, Sicily, July 17 2017

Everyone knows we are a nation of immigrants, that immigrants are good for the economy, and that freedom seekers are our kin. What I find sad is that we all know this history. We did not think the ideal of liberal democracy, the open society, would have to be fought for all over again. We are so spoiled we thought that it just grew naturally with everything else we have in our gardens of relative good fortune.

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.

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