What ‘Poetic Justice’ Can Teach Us About Black Art Beyond Trauma
For my family, the American Dream has always been a fever dream with the most painful chapters missing-my mother facing racism in a white high school during desegregation bussing, the many times that the men in my family went to prison for drug dealing, the shock I felt as a middle schooler as our class watched new clips of the post-Hurricane Katrina devastation. The American Dream I’d been taught was also the most forgetful, convenient, and white version.
This iteration of the American Dream guided the beginning of my life as a writer at the age of twelve. At twelve years old, it was writing that helped me process a world in ruin-helped me better understand the distance that survival against all odds put between Black people and our ability to process, to tell stories, and to heal. Seeing bloated Black bodies floating along the streets of New Orleans inspired me, but even my creativity was shrouded by the white gaze.
I went home and wrote a short story about a girl attempting to survive Katrina with her older brother. Both characters were white. In my young mind, Black suffering could only be resolved through whiteness because of the framework that I’d been given in the books, television, and films I’d consumed. A framework that said fleeing one’s land to live in a safer, whiter place, of knowing that safety means being selective about the stories that we tell ourselves and others, was the only realistic path. It would be years before I realized that, until Black writers know and own our stories, we cannot truly heal from the traumas of our past.
The 1975 film Cooley High ends with a funeral. The main character, Preach, stands alone at the gravesite of his best friend, Cochise. Preach, who has spent most of the film getting into debauchery and hitting on women with his best friend, says a tearful goodbye, pours out a drink for his late friend, and departs for the West Coast to become a writer.
Cooley High was one of the first films I’d seen as a child that opened up the possibilities of what Black characters could be and become. On-screen, white characters, in general, were often allowed to be much more complex-portrayals of white writers included. White writers are vagabonds, as in Walter Salles’s 2012 film adaptation of On the Road; idealistic creatives in search of stardom (while Black writers are transformed through respectability politics); or the white saviors, like Hilary Swank’s character in Freedom Writers. This reductive portrayal of the Black writer not only affects our culture’s capacity to imagine the Black writer but also reduces the young Black writer’s ability to envision a future beyond the bounds of the white gaze.
Cooley High is one of the earliest films with a Black writer as a main character and is the blueprint for the Black coming-of-age films that would follow. The film itself mirrors the life of its writer, Eric Monte, who dropped out of high school in Chicago in 1960 and moved to Los Angeles. Monte’s life of financial and creative displacement in the years since Cooley High are emblematic of a deeper problem-a culture that is terrified of what stories and futures Black writers can imagine for themselves.
Cooley High was one of the first films I’d seen as a child that opened up the possibilities of what Black characters could be and become. On-screen, white characters in general were often allowed to be much more complex — portrayals of white writers included. White writers are vagabonds, as in Walter Salles’s 2012 film adaptation of On the Road; idealistic creatives in search of stardom (while Black writers are transformed through respectability politics); or the white saviors, like Hilary Swank’s character in Freedom Writers. This reductive portrayal of the Black writer not only affects our culture’s capacity to imagine the Black writer but also reduces the young Black writer’s ability to envision a future beyond the bounds of the white gaze.
I wanted my life and body of work to be tied to a legacy of Black writers that refused to fold easily into the American Dream.
Although Cooley High is a landmark film, it falls short. Preach and Cochise spend much of the film coercing women into sex, even posing as cops to scam money from sex workers in their neighborhood. Preach’s mask of Black masculinity only falls away when he is taunted by his Black peers for not being suave enough or for being too obsessed with poetry. In a way, Eric Monte’s life imitated his art when the social forces around him left little room for a sustainable future for himself, therefore limiting his imagination for Preach’s fate to exodus.
By the time I turned thirteen, I had already watched many Black men around me destroyed in one way or another. Two of my uncles were murdered in their home. My stepfather was sentenced to five years in prison. Like Preach, my writing was born out of a need to make sense of the chaos around me. Unlike Preach, I was not a wild teenager, though I did wear my own mask to fit in, while grasping for clues to a life I had no blueprint for.
While attending summer programs for gifted students, I avoided bullies by spending my lunch periods in the library. If my mother asked how things were going in these programs, I learned to give answers that soothed her worries. I didn’t want to add to her burdens as a mother with an incarcerated partner who was trying to raise two kids. The more I wrote, the more stories I passed along to my mother, and the more they collected dust on the dresser in her room.
“I’ll read them later,” she always said, exhausted.
To a child’s ears, her “later” sounded like all the other vague answers to questions I’d asked over the course of my life: What kind of man had my father been? How had my family survived through all of the silences? Would I become someone worthy of disappearing too? The more that I wrote and admired the characters in my stories for their bravery, the more my writing voice was shaped by the literary escapism a white world provided me.
By college, I was still imagining worlds for white characters that I couldn’t imagine for Black people. I enrolled in college as an English major and tried to become an honorary beatnik by writing slam poetry and drinking beer at a local dive bar. White professors filled my head with literature from the white canon but never spoke deeply about how Black writers, like Essex Hemphill or Zora Neale Hurston, had waged creative revolutions in the face of queerphobia and death.
Soon, I grew tired of simply musing about the writing life, especially as the realities of being Black in America and having to face more loss crept in further. During my junior year in college, I found out that my stepfather was going to prison once more and that my best friend’s mother, Krystal, had cancer. The bullets of deranged white men started to increasingly disrupt public events. The brutality of the American Dream was creeping in closer than ever. Despite my reservations about the film, Preach’s decision to leave Chicago for the West did not seem so peculiar. I knew then that his blueprint was one that I could follow.
At nineteen years old, I took a two-day Greyhound bus ride to Yellowstone National Park to work a summer job with Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey on my mind. My mother feared for my life. When I told her that one of my busses to Wyoming had been postponed, leaving me stranded at a bus stop for fifteen hours, she warned, “You’re gonna end up dead, just like your father, if you keep living like this.”
Her words haunted me all summer. I worked long hours on a cafeteria line, smoked weed in the woods with my friends, filled my notebook with as many poems as possible, and tried to distance myself from the terror of Krystal’s stage-four cancer diagnosis. All the while, I ached for my mother to explain why a well-lived Black life equated to an early death. On a night out with my white coworkers during my first month, I was caught underage drinking. The next morning as everyone else that was fined laughed, I felt a breaking within. My double consciousness made it more obvious than ever. Their whiteness made the debacle something jovial. My Blackness tied the underage drinking to a people’s history of being violently policed. I attended court and consoled myself in private.
I’d followed my dreams of being a writer who went West, like the Kerouacs before me, but the narrative held a different meaning for me. My mother’s words on the phone suddenly made sense. By August, I would be confronted with the murder of Michael Brown, and, similar to Baldwin’s decision to return to the US in 1957, I returned to Ohio with an awakened sense of terror.
It was around this time that I watched the 1992 film, Poetic Justice. In the film’s opening, Justice is like any other teen, kissing her boyfriend in his car during a drive-in movie, until he is murdered right in front of her. She spends most of the film glued to her poetry or dodging jabs from coworkers about how she needs to get a man.
I revered Justice for the ways that her grieving was relegated to her notebook while she lived in a community that told her to move on. Her grief turns her writing into a reckoning with the past, a procrastination of truly facing herself after years of neglecting to open herself up socially or romantically. Though the film itself was powerful, Maya Angelou’s account of acting in the film, pulling aside a young Black man irate at a white crew member, and telling him, “When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Our people stood on auction blocks, were bought and sold, so you could stay alive today,” resonated with me long after the movie had ended.
Her words left me thirsty for my own reckoning. During my senior year, I dove into campus organizing and took my first African American literature class. I learned about Zora Neale Hurston’s and Langston Hughes’s escapades with their Niggerati Manor crew, read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and tried to find my Black writing elders through the words. I wanted my life and body of work to be tied to a legacy of Black writers that refused to fold easily into the American Dream. But the penultimate lesson of Cooley High and Poetic Justice still followed me — the ways that Preach’s and Justice’s creative journeys were either catalyzed or halted by Black loss at the hands of an unjust world without any visible guidance from elders.
Mere weeks into my senior year, I learned of Krystal’s passing. The Black Lives Matter movement took on a new meaning for me. Following the murder of Eric Garner, I challenged students to walk around with an “I can’t breathe” sign all day before a protest. We marched through traffic as Christmas music played and our tears blended with the rain. For winter break afterward, I went to Costa Rica to stay with my friend, Eli. Days passed where I spoke almost no English and melted into the background. I cried as fireworks lit up the New Year’s Eve night sky as I thought of Krystal’s death. During my spring semester, I was invited to write a guest column for our school’s newspaper and found the beginnings of my journalistic voice on matters of racism and unrest. Even as I felt I was “becoming” the writer that I wanted to be, the headlines of police murders of Black people showed that the procession of Black death was not over.
Similar to Justice, I felt immobilized by a future that promised more Black suffering. Similar to Preach, I knew that I needed to leave again to find more answers on how I could live as a Black writer. What I needed from this kind of cinema was a lesson in how to survive America in a more intentional way.
We must define our realities for ourselves in more daring ways, with more daring art, each time.
Still searching for answers post-graduation, I moved to Montana in the summer of 2015 to work a summer-season job at a new resort. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time and listened to Civil Rights Movement speeches while hauling my cart of heavy cleaning supplies around the halls and during my breaks and meals. That summer, Dylann Roof entered a Charleston church and killed numerous attendees before standing over the shooting’s lone survivor, Polly Sheppard, and saying, “I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”
I was struggling to make sense of myself, my art, and the world. For weeks, I scrubbed hotel bathroom floors and thought of the domestic work my grandmother had done in the US in the seventies. How had I ended up doing similar work, even just for a summer? Why hadn’t my family told more stories about their early days in the US? Roof’s twisted sentiment washed over me, and in it, I saw an answer that I couldn’t accept anymore: trying to find meaning in how the white world hurts us. Roof, like so many other white men, turned their pain into our pain. That pervasive whiteness — and what we see play out in Cooley High and Poetic Justice — is what had made it so difficult to tell our stories without grounding them in pain as well.
I had to go further.
When we fail to envision more complex narratives and futures for the Black writer in cinema, it is both a product of white supremacy and a projection of how we view the Black writer in our world: impermanent and our work a product of death and pain. Can Black writers be seen as more than this?
In recent years, more nuanced portrayals of Black writers in cinema have emerged to break some barriers and take inspiration from previous films about Black writers. The 2004 film Brother to Brother skews many of these Black-writer film motifs beautifully through the queer Black experience. The film follows Perry, a gay Black wannabe painter in New York City, as he meets and is mentored by famed Harlem Renaissance writer and queer figure Richard Nugent. By the end, Nugent dies and Perry dedicates his thesis to him. Although marked by loss, the film provides a much-needed blueprint of how Black creative elders can pass on their wisdom to the young. A seemingly sad end can also be a new beginning when the young are guided forward in some way.
The beginning of my love for writing also marks another kind of end, another kind of erasure. The more I wrote toward my own “becoming,” the closer I edged to painful truths that seemed to frame finding my voice as a Black writer. Mining my family’s history helped me learn about Cedric Murray, one of the men charged with the murder of my uncles in 2006. Having grown up in poverty in Jamaica, Murray followed in his older brother’s footsteps, joined a local gang, and became a hired killer. After four years on the run, he was murdered by police on his thirty-seventh birthday. Police found a journal on his bullet-ridden body. In his last months, he wrote of isolation, grieving the murders of his fellow gangsters, and wishing that he’d one day have the chance to write his own story.
In the hardships of Eric Monte’s life, the inspiring yet somewhat shallow films about Black writers, and my own family’s circumvention around Murray’s existence for most of my life, I see our cultural reliance on the disenfranchised Black writer turned revolutionary, gangster, runaway, or martyr. These categories alone do not account for the realities or futures that Black writers desire — the future I desire. We must define our realities for ourselves in more daring ways, with more daring art, each time, so that each new vision of a Black writer gets closer to the reality that Black writers actually deserve.
Originally published at https://catapult.co on December 17, 2020.