America would like to think that it’s made a lot of progress in the last two centuries. The land of the free and the home of the brave has abolished slavery, promoted universal suffrage, won wars in search of a freer world and even elected an African American president. But one not so pleasant tradition has persisted throughout the years – minstrelsy. Even though America promises racial democracy, minstrelsy continues to thrive in new forms, creating a gray space in regards to the racism of modern-day blackface. Blackface minstrelsy began as shows intended to amuse white audiences. Performers would “black up” their appearance and attitude in their caricatures of slaves and other African Americans. While such blatant depictions are scarce in modern times, minstrelsy still prevails in subtle ways.
Twenty years ago, basketball hall-of-famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson made a stunning announcement. On November 7, 1991, the Los Angeles Lakers legend told the world that he was HIV-positive and would be retiring from the National Basketball Association. His announcement rocked the sports world. Fans and detractors alike were shocked that such a popular, hyper-masculinized athlete could contract what had previously been seen as disease solely for the extremely deviant – the gays and the drug addicts – not for a heterosexual superstar. With his status, Magic Johnson shed new light on what it meant to be HIV-positive. While his story brought new attention to the disease, the media used his situation to perpetuate heterosexist and misogynistic ideals. Johnson’s own language after his announcement helped maintain his position as a hyper-masculine and hyper-heterosexual African American athlete. Subsequently, in the many articles that were written about him, these ideals persisted. Johnson’s situation was undoubtedly unique, but because of what he symbolized in popular culture, he was never demonized, but rather victimized and forgiven for his heterosexual promiscuity.
The words are on the wall or they’re in his head. These boys are restless. They can’t stay in bed because they know their rhymes won’t be affectless. He knows this baller life isn’t for him. He knows he can’t keep hustlin’ until 4 in the mornin’. They’re like J. W. Johnson with that free masonry – speaking up for those who are dyin’, showing those who refuse to see. Supporters call them messiah, Jehovah, but they accept the titles somewhat reluctantly. Two poets, two brains, two lives, two names: Gunnar from the Hillside in Cali and Shawn from the projects of Marcy. Gunnar Kaufman in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle transforms as he moves to the mean streets of West Los Angeles. He finds his voice within his poetry, and his words move people to the point where they accept him as their messiah and are all willing to be martyrs to his words. Shawn Carter is born into a music loving family in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York. He sees a way to make his life better by hustling to bring in money for his single mom, but also discovers his voice in a poetry of his own – rap, and Shawn transforms into Jay-Z. In his memoir Decoded, Jay-Z shows what his art means to him and the influence he has had on communities close to and separate from him. Both Gunnar and Jay-Z rhyme as a form of art and expression to give the world a deeper look at their overlooked realities.
Beating, biting and battering don’t typically go hand-in-hand with love and affection. However, the central female love interests in William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge and Frank Norris’ McTeague are attracted by being physically overcome by their partners. Despite striking differences in both personality and sexual experience, Big Mat’s lover Anna and McTeague’s wife Trina share an unusual desire to be dominated. Anna hopes to move up from her peon life as a prostitute and find a big man to fulfill all her monetary desires. However, she finds out that her wants come at a hefty cost. Oppositely, asexual Trina does not know what she wants until she succumbs to the overpowering nature of McTeague, which eventually leads to her demise.
The road is its own unique space. It is open to everyone. Most importantly the road offers a break from reality. It allows people from all over to leave their everyday lives in search of something different or something better. Jack Kerouac’s characters in On the Road live their lives in constant forward motion. In some ways, his tale subverts the naturalist theme of environmental determinism. Big Slim Hazard turns his back on what life had planned for him by consciously deciding to be homeless. Dean Moriarty has a rough childhood and succumbs to environmental determinism by following in his criminal father’s footsteps, but uses the road as an escape from this fate. Sal Paradise has no determined destiny, and always returns to the road in search of something greater than what his everyday life offers.