The Best Black Intellectual Criticism These Days Comes From A Young Brit Of Barbadian Descent
It is by no coincidence that many of the foremost American writers have produced their finest works as expatriates, from Langston Hughes and Richard Wright to T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. James Baldwin, once confined to the professional caste of young book critics who explored the African-American condition, achieved literary fame only after he left U.S. shores for Europe.
And so European shores appear to be something of a panacea for the American literary set. Perhaps contemporary American writers ought to take note of this, and in particular, the African-American opinion writer. The tradition of African-American opinion writing--or pontification, as it might be termed now--grew from the efforts of the likes of Hughes, Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, but has devolved into a cesspool of rudimentary intellectualism and mediocre writing.
There's a laundry list of African-American pontificators who fit this mold. You know their names and faces: Juan Williams, Armstrong Williams, Stanley Crouch, Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter. They hold much sway in the press, taking up a great deal of space in the editorial pages or hogging up face time on our airwaves. They author books on identity and cultural politics. They are celebrated as great thinkers and skilled writers, and yet they leave so much to be desired. Perhaps we were spoiled by Hughes and Baldwin, who dazzled with meaty prose and artistry. Today's leading black American cultural observers lack both flair and substance. They write with a high-mindedness lacking eloquence and insight, and it's puzzling that they have found such acceptance among the American press and enjoy status as leading commentators and men of letters.
And then there is the iconoclastic black Brit Gary Younge, current New York correspondent for The Guardian, the U.K.'s flagship news publication. Short and stocky, the 38-year-old Younge looks every bit the British football thug--replete with earrings--but his nimbleness of mind has brought him much acclaim abroad and in America, though only among members of the so-called liberal smart set, readers of The Nation and In These Times included. With his charismatic prose and adept writing, Younge wipes the floor with Juan Williams, but he will never share face time with Brit Hume or Christopher Wallace. His words penetrate with more voracity than do Kevin Powell's, but he will never have a following among the hip-hop set, nor draw praise from the reverends Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Put more plainly, Younge is a much more nuanced and gifted thinker and writer than any African-American commentator currently enjoying success on the U.S. stage.
In print, Younge's brilliance is quite evident. Born to immigrant parents from Barbados, Younge studied French and Russian at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh before receiving his postgraduate diploma in newspaper journalism. As the son of immigrants and as a recent transplant to the United States, Younge's aptly titled Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States (New Press) was a 2006 must-read. It's a collection of Younge's finest essays, commentaries, and reports during his earliest days as a U.S. correspondent. Witty, piercing, and eloquent, Stranger harks back to the African-American cultural writing tradition established by Hughes, Baldwin, et al. In fact, it recalls Baldwin's scorching essay collection The Fire Next Time, albeit on a larger scale: Younge tackles international politics, Operation Iraqi Freedom, racism, and cultural politics. After digesting Younge's prose, you wonder why he's relegated to the pages of The Nation while Williams has carte blanche to infiltrate American media with his musings.
And several prominent African-American writers and pundits released book commentaries last year. Walter Mosley released the svelte Life Out of Context through Nation Books. Tavis Smiley and his entourage scored big with the New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Covenant With Black America. Kevin Powell released Someday We'll All Be Free, and Juan Williams garnered a great deal of attention with Enough. And then there was Younge's excellent collection, brought to American readers with too little fanfare.
Younge is an impressive talent with extraordinary range, and it is all on display in Stranger. His voice is fresh, and is at times humorous, at times intellectual, but always candid and appealing. He writes with an aplomb and gusto rarely seen in the contemporary American press. He is an erudite journalist writing during an age of journalism marked by specification. In his effort to explain class in America, Younge writes:
[N]otions of personal reinvention and economic meritocracy that lie at the heart of the American dream are far more powerful and enduring than the kind of class consciousness necessary to redress the imbalance between rich and poor. Inequality of wealth in the US has long been justified on the grounds that there is equality of opportunity. The trouble is that while inequalities have grown dramatically over the past 20 years, equality of opportunity has been all but eroded.
In short, his style is something his American counterparts need to recognize and emulate. Williams and his ilk might be reminded of truly quality writing and journalistic intellectualism if they bothered to read Younge's work. And their readership would be better off for it.
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