Getting In

Samuel R. Delany’s Dark Reflections and the Racial Politics of Literary Awards

On the night of November 19, 2014, Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for her memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, a moving, lyrical narrative of a young girl growing up in South Carolina. Her NBA win was overshadowed by the show’s host Daniel Handler, who told a racist joke about Woodson being a black woman who is allergic to watermelon just after she came up on stage to receive her award. His comments drew sharp criticism, and Handler publicly apologized the next day, pledging money to support the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. Several days later Woodson gracefully addressed the controversy in her article “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.”

The watermelon allergy is real, and Woodson explains why Handler’s clumsy attempt to bring it into the awards show was a personal betrayal of something shared in confidence. For Woodson the controversy reaffirmed her commitment “to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction.”

That night now belongs to a curious history of literary awards marred by racist comments. At the 1952 National Book Awards banquet Wallace Stevens saw a photo of Gwendolyn Brooks in the list of judges and allegedly said, “Who’s the coon?” New Republic editor Jeet Heer, a literary critic and devoted Delany fan, wrote a piece exploring the connections between the incidents with Brooks and Woodson, and linking them to an unfortunate but well-meaning comment from Isaac Asimov to Delany at the 1968 Nebula Awards. Added to this peculiar history of racism and literary awards are the recent online brawls over diversity in science fiction’s Hugo Awards, a conflict which devolved into slurs so toxic I’m reluctant to have them printed here.

Stevens’s ugly remark hangs over the black, gay poet Arnold Hawley in Samuel Delany’s novel Dark Reflections, first published in 2007, where the infamous comment occurs at the fictional “Drew-Phalen Award” banquet. Delany spins it into a commentary on racism and literary gate-keeping, describing it as “a refrain…in the mind of any black writer contemplating his or her possibility for reward or recognition in America.” In Dark Reflections, Delany builds a novel around these concepts of reward and recognition, and shows how they play out in the life of a little-known black, gay poet struggling to stay alive in gentrification-era New York. Hawley’s story does not fit into the recuperative narrative of “overcoming adversity” through persistence, nor is it a heartwarming tale about liberal inclusion and diversity. Instead, it’s a stark and unforgiving look at the damages of racism, homophobia and poverty, and the consequences of these conditions in the life of an artist.

The novel, which was reissued by Dover Books in 2016, reinforces ideas that Delany previously explored in “Racism and Science Fiction” (an essential companion piece to Dark Reflections) in which he writes about racism (and homophobia) as structures. Incidents at literary ceremonies are not the momentary failures of discrete individuals, but the effects of ideas baked into this country’s laws, culture, religion, and education. It is for these same reasons that “inclusion” in itself does not solve the problem, and can actually stir up hostile and territorial reactions; so many people have been conditioned to read black progress and achievement as signs of disorder.

By paying attention to the microworld of poetry publishing in Dark Reflections, Delany helps to illuminate the cultural work of award ceremonies and the history of racism that pervades them. At the 2017 Oscars, the cast and crew of the Best Picture winner Moonlight had their winning moment ruined by the mistaken announcement of La La Land. It matters that this debacle happened to this film, that this melancholic tale of a shy black, gay kid growing up in the housing projects of Miami managed to capture filmmaking’s highest award, only to have its moment compromised by such an egregious error, and that it happened within an organization that has so seldom taken the work of black artists seriously.

Just a few weeks ago, the Pulitzer Prize awards were announced, and there were four black writers among the winners—Tyehimba Jess, Hilton Als, Colson Whitehead, and Lynn Nottage. In both cases of the Oscars and the Pulitzer, it wasn’t hard to find people grumbling on social media about how these awards were nothing but political correctness run amok. For many people, these black artists, on that stage and on that list, are interlopers in a place where they are not supposed to be. Implicit in the construction “Who let the coon in?” is that the black artist must have been “let in” to a rarefied space by someone white, probably a naïve bleeding heart liberal at best, or a race traitor at worst, who has given her something that she did not deserve—an award, a place at the table, or some kind of recognition.

In the first part of Dark Reflections, the protagonist Arnold lives on the Lower East Side near Tompkins Square Park and has just won the Alfred Proctor Prize for his sixth book of poems, Beleaguered Fields. The narrative of this section pushes forward into the 21st century as Arnold grows older and completes his latest manuscript of poems, That Pope’s Chestnuts, which he submits in hopes of winning another Alfred Proctor Prize. The storyline about the prize casts a satirical look at the insular New York publishing world, a world which Delany has known well as a writer who has published more than forty books since his first science fiction novel appeared in 1962.

In this case, “The Prize” is about the even smaller world of poetry publishing in New York, and the painful intimacy of a world in which all of the handful of entrants for a small prize probably know each other. Arnold is concerned about his literary reputation, and how any improvement to that reputation might help his dismal finances, as well as boost his morale. His first Proctor award had netted him $3,600 over three years, money that made his life in 80s New York slightly more bearable. In the years after the award, Arnold works at a city job, and later takes a position as an adjunct professor at the fictional Staten Island State University, which makes this the rare novel that depicts the precarious lives of adjunct professors, who now teach as much as seventy percent of university courses.

While reading Delany’s novel, I was reminded at times of Carl Phillips’ essay, “A Politics of Mere Being.” Philips is himself a black, gay poet, and his essay is a thoughtful and incisive exploration of the idea of “the political” in writing, particularly in the work of the minority artist, whose identity is always marked and associated with her work. Philips uses the wonderfully clarifying term “correctly political” (as opposed to the tiresome, overused, and abused term “politically correct”) to describe how the work of say, a black, gay poet tends to be read by critics. Philips pushes back against the way that artists of “outsiderness” are expected to write about identity markers (race, gender, sexuality) in prescribed and legible ways, arguing that there is a pressure for minority artists to be “correctly political” in terms of creating work that is political in easily identifiable forms.

One of the more noticeable changes to this year’s re-issue of Dark Reflections is a slightly expanded section that speaks to Arnold’s beliefs about art and politics. He attends a reading by Amiri Baraka at St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery in which Baraka and his entourage arrive late and march into the church shooting guns filled with blanks. Arnold’s distaste for the display registers in the first edition, but he goes on to explain it further in the revised version. Arnold is well-acquainted with a certain strain of racial pride particularly through his Aunt Bea, a cultured, proud intellectual who raised him back in Appleton, Ohio, but he is also skeptical about some of the more militant aspects of black nationalism. For one, he is opposed to the capitalization of Black (and White), a practice he describes to a colleague as “illiterate,” and which he feels transcendentalizes racial categories as trans-historical and biological, when they should be seen as provisional.

Part of the trouble that Arnold has with Baraka and the Black Arts Movement is that they seem to demand a kind of overt politics that he finds shallow and uninteresting. He sees his own poetry as politically informed, but not in these legible ways. As Delany writes, “His lonely and ascetic principle was: art is the one human enterprise in which, when you are doing what everyone else does, you are doing something wrong.” Maybe Arnold is sincere in his beliefs about the provisional nature of identities, but it may also be that his devotion to individuality has actually impeded his art (as Matthew Cheney eloquently points out in his LA Review of Books article on Dark Reflections).

This storyline bears a strong resemblance to the life of the poet Robert Hayden, who Carl Phillips mentions directly in his essay, and who Delany has written about before. There seems to be more than a little Hayden in Arnold Hawley, specifically in his dedication to formal poetics, and in his criticism of the Black Arts Movement. Delany’s 1995 novella about Harlem and the Great Migration, Atlantis: Model 1924, includes epigraphs taken from Robert Hayden’s slave rebellion poem “Middle Passage,” and there are clips from the DVD extras of Fred Barney Taylor’s 2007 documentary The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman in which Delany discusses his interest in Hayden’s poetry. Like Hawley, Hayden found himself at odds with a new generation of more politically militant black artists, particularly at a 1966 conference at Fisk University when he refused to call himself a “black poet.”

Anyone familiar with Delany’s work like Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, or his memoir The Motion of Light in Water, or one of his latest essays, “Ash Wednesday,” knows that he practices a radical candor about race, sexuality that Arnold never would. The middle section of Dark Reflections, “Vashti in the Dark,” contains the story of Arnold’s disastrous marriage to an eighteen year old white street girl who calls herself Judy Haindel. The title of this section comes from an unverified short story supposedly written by Stephen Crane, but which, thus far, does not appear to exist in any archive. Judy had been sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park with a friend named Vashti, and her friend’s name reminds Arnold of the story. As he explains it to Judy, “It was supposed to be about a minister whose wife, Vashti, was raped by a great big black man. And the minister got so upset, over the next year he died of grief.” Judy, in her own crude yet perceptive way, says the story “sounds like fuckin’ racist crap.”

This reference to “Vashti in the Dark” is indicative of Delany’s tendency to invoke the visibility and corporeality of racial difference, which is related to his emphasis on radical embodiment and sexuality. Rather than accepting a false, polite color-blindness, or a “love is love” erasure of homosexual desire, Delany candidly and defiantly delves into the specifics of different body types and sexual practices. That kind of imagery also shows up in the book’s third section “The Book of Pictures,” in the form of Slake Bowman, the tall, muscular, mentally-challenged delivery boy from Alabama who Arnold meets and has a brief sexual encounter with as a college student in Boston. Delany’s works are filled with these kinds of vivid images of racialized embodiment and playfully vulgar language. Profanity is a means through which Delany explores the visibility of black embodiment.

Through this candor, Delany pushes us to think about how the comments that tumble out of the mouths of a Daniel Hanodler or a Wallace Stevens are not just mistakes, not just moments of individual failure, but are part of a larger discursive field in which race is always visible, spectacular, and unavoidable in American culture. I mean, the 2016 election was won by a foul mouthed white supremacist whose fans insulted their opponents with the pornographic term “cucks.” How else is one to understand this kind of political discourse except through a vigorous analysis of how interracial desire, black bodies, and black sexuality have been the libidinal engines of white supremacy in American history? Delany’s approach to language and sex feels essential and necessary for making sense of the pornographic politics we’ve found ourselves in lately, and why the “moral values” segment of the polity has embraced it so fervently.

Dark Reflections is a powerful novel about the writing life and its troubles. Rarely does one find a work that is so candid about the material realities of publishing, so bluntly honest about what it means to become a writer, a decision which Delany succinctly describes in his 2005 book About Writing as “the decision to enter a field where most of the news—most of the time—is bad.” The fact that Carroll and Graf, original publishers of Dark Reflections, went out of business in 2008 shortly after the novel was released in 2007, leaving the book out of print for eight years, adds a layer of irony to a novel about the precarity of publishing.

Delany has referred to Dark Reflections as a dramatization of the ideas presented in About Writing, in which he explains the function of what he calls “markers”: the awards, reviews, citations, and informal praise that accumulate in order to create and stabilize one’s literary reputation. “Basically,” he writes, “the problem of the writer’s reputation is, how, during your lifetime, do you generate as many and as effective literary markers as possible?” Delany pays attention to the absence and presence of those markers in Arnold Hawley’s life, and Arnold is painfully aware of how his work has been received by readers and critics. Arnold pays a steep price for literary ambition with a life of loneliness, poverty and insecurity. “The fact is, there is no praise as great as the praise I want,” Arnold admits to his therapist at one point.

It’s all too easy to say these awards don’t or shouldn’t matter, or that we (however one defines that “we”) should have our own awards. And certainly there’s always a place for the eccentric outsider artist who toils alone and rejects these structures entirely. But one of the more candid messages of Delany’s Dark Reflections is that the artist is not above such prizes, however big or small. These awards are part of the validating mechanisms by which the business of art gets made, where works of art get praised, contracted, and sold, and by which artists get access to funding and employment that allows them to produce more work.

“Transgression inheres, however unarticulated, in every aspect of the black writer’s career in America,” Delany writes in his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction.” That’s been true ever since Phillis Wheatley’s poems were subjected to Thomas Jefferson’s hypocritical condescension in Notes on the State of Virginia. The black intellectual exists in spite of white supremacy’s insistence that she should not be possible. She exists in spite of that asshole sitting out in the audience, grumbling about who let them in.

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