On Darryl Pinckney

(Times Literary Supplement, 2020)

In Darryl Pinckney’s novel Black Deutschland (2016), a young Chicagoan, Jed Goodfinch, moves to West Berlin in the 1980s and takes up residence in a ramshackle commune a few hundred metres from the Wall. The commune operates a bookshop, in which a debate ensues: should Eldridge Cleaver’s notorious 1968 book Soul on Ice be stocked? Jed flies into a rage: to his comrades, the book “was a classic from the black American revolution of the 1960s but to me had nasty things to say about gay black men wanting to have babies by white men and the rape of white women as Cleaver’s personal retribution for the Vietnam War”. It is a passage that sheds autobiographical light on Pinckney himself. He is old enough (born in 1953) to remember Cleaver and the pinnacle of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, but as a gay, black intellectual he recoils from Cleaver’s homophobic bluster. About the Panthers and their leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Pinckney is laconic: “Students, professors, intellectuals, and famous people were into the Panthers. However, Newton and Seale mostly recruited brothers off the block”.

Quite a few black radicals have come and gone since the 1960s, but Pinckney remains on the race beat – a clear-eyed liberal voice who is an expert on the protest tradition in black writing but stands aside from it; again and again, he returns to the examples of Richard Wright and James Baldwin to assess how black writers should balance art and political commitment. Most of his output has appeared in the New York Review of Books, but he has also written for the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and Salmagundi. Armed with a glowing foreword by Zadie Smith, Busted in New York and Other Essays collects twenty-five pieces he has produced as a freelance.

Pinckney is nuanced, historically minded and subtle – qualities that have allowed him to skirt the trapdoors of neoconservatism on the right and Marxism and black nationalism on the left. His work is imbued with an appealing, unadvertised bookishness, the result of wide and greedy reading. By and large, his sentences are smooth and readable, but sometimes they can be opaque and leaden, at which point one misses the light, compressed prose of his friend Elizabeth Hardwick, whose essays and stories Pinckney has chosen and compiled for publication by New York Review Books. Busted in New York shows him to be not only a formidable essayist, but a deft reporter as well. The reportage is edgy and idiosyncratic; it gazes outward but looks inward; it is heavily autobiographical; now and then, its time sequences unfold in jarring and surprising ways. The most impressive examples of the formula are a trio of reports from New Orleans, New York and Ferguson, Missouri.

“Deep in the Bowl” is based on several trips that Pinckney made to New Orleans after 2005. It starts with a confession: “I’d told my parents that I had research to do about post-Katrina New Orleans, but I was just putting off going to see them”. In his wanderings in the city, he avoids the boosters, power brokers and windbags, and allows his book knowledge and instincts to guide him to the margins of the artistic community. At the L9 Center for the Arts, he sees a photography exhibition by a husband-and-wife team whose archive was damaged in the flood. “Their son persuaded them not only to salvage the work but to display the damaged photographs with the rainbow patterns the waters left over the black faces. A loud band played for an interracial crowd.” Pinckney is alert to patterns of urban recovery after the hurricane, and he provides details that don’t appear in newspapers: “If there wasn’t open resentment of Asian immigrant success in traditionally black neighborhoods, there was sometimes a disdain. I was told that one Vietnamese-owned store in Tremé not only got looted in the chaos after Katrina, but that the looters also defecated in it. I had heard the same about the Los Angeles riots: black vandals left their shit in Asian-owned stores”.

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The most dramatic piece in Busted in New York is the one that gives the book its title. Originally published in 2000, it describes how the author, along with two women friends, was arrested for smoking a joint outside a reggae club in the East Village. “How could we have missed the blue unmarked van parked on the other side of Sixth Street?” The essay is about a broken criminal justice system, but it also takes in open-ended questions of masculinity and guilt. As he was handcuffed by a white policeman in plaid shorts, Pinckney went into shock and told the officer: “I’m going to be sick” – at which point he thought of his parents, NAACP activists who worked to desegregate police and fire departments. “Injustice had only to ring their doorbell, and they were off to the poorhouse. And here was frivolous me letting a white man put me in handcuffs for something other than protest.” His wry descriptions of the garrulous cops who arrested him, and the details of the harrowing night he spent in the Tombs, are memorably drawn.

In 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the NYRB sent Pinckney to report on the aftermath of the shooting. He briskly sketches the political disempowerment of Ferguson’s black community; he encounters various groups of protesters, and has intense discussions with a fiery young activist, the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, who proclaims, to Pinckney’s disapproval, that “given the little that black people have gotten for it, voting fits the popular definition of insanity”; and his first-hand testimony reminds us how Ferguson resembled a war zone: “Buildings burned on either side of us, huge boxes of acrid flame, and what really confused me was the honking. It sounded like a football victory at times. Except for the gunfire”. For his conclusion to the Ferguson story, he reaches into history: “After the Civil War, thousands of black men were on the roads, looking for new starts but mostly looking for loved ones sold away. Vagrancy laws were passed that said if you couldn’t say where you lived or worked, you could be picked up and put on the chain gang. America has always felt the necessity of keeping its black male population under control”.

There are essays on Barack Obama, the eighteenth-century composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (who was born in Guadeloupe), and on Margo Jefferson’s memoir of the black upper class, Negroland. Of special interest are two pieces on Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose influence has soared in recent years, as America’s racial demons have returned to the forefront. In a review of Coates’s bestselling book Between the World and Me (2015), Pinckney appeared to be ambivalent about Coates’s blunt insistence on the pervasive and unchanging nature of American racism, and his conclusion took the form of a hesitating question: “Is it a problem that Coates comes across as entirely reasonable in his refusal in this book to expect anything anymore, socially or politically?”

Three years later, in a review of Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American tragedy, Pinckney answered his own question. His ambivalence has vanished, and he defines Coates’s writing as “Afro-pessimism”: “Afro-pessimism and its treatment of withdrawal as transcendence is no less pleasing to white supremacy than Booker T. Washington’s strategic retreat into self-help”. His sword drawn, he pointedly reminded Coates that “history is human-made” and that “‘Afro-pessimism’ is not found in the black church”. The coda is autobiographical: “My father used to say that integration had little to do with sitting next to white people and everything to do with black people gaining access to better neighborhoods, decent schools, their share. Life for blacks was not what it should be, but he saw that as a reason to keep on, not to check out”. Pinckney is pushing against the tide; in the US, and especially among the young, “Afro-pessimism” dominates, at least in activist circles. In 1967, Harold Cruse published his striking polemic, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual; it may be only a matter of time before we see a book entitled “The Crisis of the Black Liberal Intellectual”.

Busted in New York ends with a celebratory essay on Aretha Franklin, but it can’t disguise the melancholy within these pages. Unresolved skirmishes with deceased parents permeate the text, and darken it: the existential ambiguities of the expatriate life (the author has lived in Berlin and Oxfordshire), and the hazards of the artistic vocation. Pinckney stands alone, encircled by his personal and intellectual ghosts, among them Claude McKay, who ended his life “eating bread in the dust”. While he rejects “Afro-pessimism”, he does not embrace the hopefulness of Ralph Ellison, whose protagonist affirmed in the closing pages of Invisible Man: “My world has become one of infinite possibilities”. At the end of Black Deutschland, we see Jed, brooding in a Berlin café, a quarter century later: “I am one of the black American leftovers who sit by themselves … I eat alone at Christmas”. “Low-frequency me” is how he describes himself – an allusion to Ellison’s novel – “lexicographer of desire and ruin”.