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Young, Gifted, and Black


The author on the genius slave musician who inspired his novel and the fallacy of a post-racial America.

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Image by Mark Hillringhouse.

“In America at that time, the idea of a black genius was not something that anyone could wrap their heads around,” Jeffery Renard Allen tells me. He is talking about the climate surrounding black musician Blind Tom, the historical figure who inspired his most recent novel, Song of the Shank. Set in the 1800s, the book traces Tom’s journey as he’s born into slavery, separated from his mother when still a small child, and forced to perform at concerts for the financial gain of his white owners. Amid all this, Blind Tom finds success; he becomes the first African-American musician to play at the White House. “And yet,” says Allen, “here we are in the twentieth century, and he has been completely written out of history.”

Allen grew up in Chicago in the ’60s. He describes it as a “turbulent time,” recalling the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police Department, and the violence against protesters during the 1968 Democratic Convention. But through his mother’s volunteer work for social justice organizations, he came to understand the power of hope—and empathy. In a New York Times review of Song of the Shank, Mitchell S. Jackson wrote of Allen: “One of his immense gifts is his skill at imagining his characters’ piquant voices, the most memorable of which belongs to his protagonist.” Jackson called the novel an “imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

In the tradition of Toni Morrison, Allen’s fiction and poetry is unapologetically concerned with the lives of black folks in America. His work confronts slavery, and the history of aggression and inequality that followed—the old and the new Jim Crow. These themes inhabit his books of poetry, Harbors & Spirits and Stellar Places, as well as his short story collection, Holding Pattern, and his first novel, Rails Under My Back.

This October, Graywolf Press will reissue Rails Under My Back, originally published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2000. The book follows two families in 1980s Chicago caught amid America’s shift to conservative politics and ensuing institutionalized racism. While Song of the Shank grapples with slavery specifically, Rails Under My Back addresses the present-day racial violence inflicted on black bodies. In the wake of so many deaths—Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Justus Howell, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice—Rails Under My Back feels prescient and chilling. Of the history of racial inequality that prompts his work, Allen says, “We always see ourselves as such a progressive society, but…this is a country that was founded on violence—on genocide, on the exploitation of people, and racism.”

I spoke with Allen by phone while he was in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a literary event. He was at a bookstore at the time, and had just unearthed first editions of books by Hemingway and Ralph Ellison (his idea of a good time). He possessed a certain stillness, often pausing, seeming to consider the significance of each word he was about to use. Only when I heard his young daughter approach did his mood shift, and he laughed. At one point, he talked about the challenge of raising children in such a troubled world. “I try to show them that there are other worlds out there,” he said, “much larger than the spaces that other people would like to confine us in.”

Hope Wabuke for Guernica

Guernica: What fueled your drive to write?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I was always an avid reader, but my mother encouraged my reading and would take me to museums. She worked as a domestic, cleaning the homes of wealthy white people, and would take me with her when she went to work. This is how I became a writer. I would go to these wealthy people’s homes in the suburbs of Chicago, and then come back to the ghetto where we lived. I would start to get stories in my head about a black family who lived in one of those homes.

Writing isn’t something I ever chose. I always liked reading. I always liked writing stories. When I was a kid growing up in the ’70s, the idea of the writer was highly idealized in popular culture. You would watch a television show, and there would be a writer sitting at a desk typing some pages and then pulling them out and throwing them in the trash. I thought: Wow, I could do that. That would be a great job for me.

But I didn’t consciously make the decision to become a writer until I was a senior in college. Up until then, I was an engineering major because my counselor in high school encouraged me to do that. I have had wonderful mentors who supported me. It takes an extreme amount of determination, a tremendous amount of faith, dedication, and patience. You have to be willing to put in the hours to understand the craft.

From a young age, I came to value the life of the imagination. I always will.

Guernica: Tell me a bit more about growing up in Chicago in the ’60s.

Jeffery Renard Allen: The ’60s were, of course, a turbulent time, defined by the extremes of hope and dread. And Chicago was at the center of it all. I lived only a few blocks from the national headquarters of the Nation of Islam. I can remember brothers of the Nation carrying cartoon books that would show what happened if you ate pork—black folks in Chicago loved them some pork—how you would literally turn into a pig. I can remember when [Black Panther leader] Fred Hampton was killed, murdered by the Chicago Police Department. I remember when cops beat protesters in Grant Park during the Democratic Convention in 1968. Gang warfare and killings—the Blackstone Rangers and, later, the Black P. Stone Nation, the Vice Lords, and the Gangster Disciples. But it was also a good time. I can remember throwing up the peace sign and the black power fist.

I measure the present in terms of this past. I feel that the many of the youth of today, including my own fourteen-year-old son, have bought into our present culture of branding. Your life is of value to the degree that you own things. So we need to think about this some. A different world than the one I grew up in. We had no money, no credit, and even if we had, there was nothing to buy, really. From a young age, I came to value the life of the imagination. I always will.

Guernica: This October, Graywolf Press will reissue your first novel, Rails Under My Back. What does Rails mean now, fifteen years after it was first published?

Jeffery Renard Allen: Rails put me on the map as a writer. The novel was one of a kind in the way that it looked seriously at the problems of violence and the breakdown of family in what the mass media started to call the “inner city” in the 1980s, what was simply called the “ghetto” when I was growing up. Jess Mowry did several novels about gangbangers in Oakland, but beyond his books, there was almost no serious literary fiction about these topics at that time—and there still aren’t. But Mowry was a realist, whereas I am always trying play around with the form, to innovate.

Guernica: Why did you choose to set Rails in 1980s Chicago?

Jeffery Renard Allen: To live in the 1980s was to witness destruction on an apocalyptic scale worldwide. Apartheid in South Africa. Mass killings by paramilitary organizations in Mozambique. Mass killings throughout Central America. Police killings in Brazil. Cocaine barons waging war against Columbia. The Paki bashing in Margaret Thatcher’s England. A revisionist denial of history in Reagan’s America, where the Vietnam War was a good thing, where black leaders [exaggerated] racism, as Reagan once said. AIDS. So there was all of that—and more. I always feel that the twentieth century came to a close in 1980, since that year signaled a radical shift in the political and social landscape.

In my immediate, day-to-day life in Chicago [in the ’80s], I felt like I was at the center of a storm, as if a tornado was sweeping through Chicago and erasing the city that I had grown up in during the ’60s and ’70s, and it was leaving behind this city I no longer recognized.

Guernica: What were some of your inspirations when writing Rails?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I found a commonality in some of John Edgar Wideman’s novels. His Philadelphia Fire and The Cattle Killing played a crucial role in shaping my thinking and approach while I was writing Rails. And so did Wright’s Native Son. Although Wright’s novel was set in Chicago in the 1930s, it also spoke to the Chicago of the 1980s in understanding the connections between racism, self-hatred, and violence.

The Jeff Allen who wrote Rails is not the Jeff who wrote Song of the Shank. I grew a lot between books. Obviously there were writers whom I read whom I had not when I was writing my first novel. I’m thinking of people like Proust, Sebald, Bolaño, Lispector, and Chamoiseau. Also, the world changed. The attacks of September 11th signaled another shift in the political and social landscape. I started working on Song of the Shank in the wake of these attacks, so the novel is as much about terrorism as it is about America during Reconstruction.

Guernica: Let’s talk more about Song of the Shank, which came out in 2014. It’s inspired by the real life of Tom Wiggins, a blind, autistic slave who was also a musical prodigy. How did you first come across Blind Tom’s story?

Jeffery Renard Allen: Accidentally. I first read about Blind Tom in the 1980s in a book called The Negro and His Music, which was published by an Afro-American musicologist in the 1960s. But then I completely forgot about him. And then, in 1998, when I finished my first novel, I came upon a book by Oliver Sacks called An Anthropologist On Mars. Sacks, of course, writes about unusual neurological disorders. In one chapter, he wrote about a British kid who was an “autistic savant” and thus was able to draw anything he saw. At the start of that chapter, Sacks also wrote about Blind Tom as one of the first historical examples we know of, as what is now known as an “autistic savant,” even though that was not the term used during Blind Tom’s lifetime.

Tom, apparently, had incredibly vibrant and compelling stage performances. Given that I’m a failed musician, I like to write about music, and I find it a great challenge to write about musicians. Tom was a widely celebrated musician, probably the most successful pianist of the nineteenth century. And he was the first African-American who played at the White House. So I was really fascinated that there had been an African-American who had had tremendous popular success as a pianist, primarily performing classical compositions. Here we are in the twentieth century, and he has been completely written out of history. I was curious, too, how that could happen.

Guernica: Do you find that a lot of African-American historical figures have been disappeared from history?

Jeffery Renard Allen: A friend of mine, Tyehimba Jess, has been working on a series of poems about nineteenth century African-American musicians, many of whom who are not part of the general conversation, primarily because there are no examples of their recorded music. But I think, in Blind Tom’s case, there is something very particular about him. In 1878, James Monroe Trotter published in his book Music and Some Highly Musical People that Tom was one of the greatest musicians he had ever seen. But Tom did not become of interest to musicologists, because he was labeled an “idiot savant” in his day, or what is called an “autistic savant” today. Given that he had this label, musicologists assumed that Tom was not a genuine musician, that he was not a truly creative person, but was instead an exhibition or a spectacle. And he isn’t taken seriously in terms of musical history.

Dr. Geneva Southall of the University of Minnesota, a musicologist who researched Blind Tom, has said that Tom was the blind Mozart: if you compare the two musicians, Blind Tom had a musical memory that was equivalent to Mozart’s.

So her argument was that Tom was a musical genius of the sort like Mozart, but Tom wasn’t taken seriously—primarily due to of racial reasons. Tom’s management invented the idea of the “idiot savant” as a way of selling concert tickets. It was a kind of flat-out racist move on their part to present Tom as something other than an actual musician. In America at that time, the idea of a black genius was not something that anyone could wrap their heads around.

Guernica: What were Tom’s performances like?

Jeffery Renard Allen: His performances were billed as “Blind Tom Exhibitions.” And in Tom’s exhibitionism, he reminded me of some twentieth-century musicians who were known to do radical things when they performed, such as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind jazz saxophonist who could play two songs at once on three different saxophones and blow a flute with his nose. Among other things, Blind Tom was known for performing three different songs at once. He would play one song in one key with his left hand, another song in another key with his right hand, and then he would sing a third song in a third key.

But for African-American historians, Tom became a problematic figure. Tom was owned by a slave master who was an advocate for Southern secession; Tom was made to give concerts in support of the Confederate cause, and to write songs in support of Confederate victories. All that is very difficult when trying to find a black figure to celebrate. And because of how Tom was presented publicly—as a natural, unlettered “savage,” by his management and the press, as someone whose talent was given to him in a supernatural rather than a creative force, as someone “primitive”—many African-Americans would have found him an embarrassment.

Guernica: Structurally, Song of the Shank is comprised of fragments, but is held together by a vivid voice. And, through your choice of details, you create a world that’s almost dreamlike. Your main character is blind, and we as readers feel enmeshed in his consciousness. Can you tell me about how you approached the voice in this work?

Jeffery Renard Allen: For me to get excited about any narrative I am working on, I have to get excited about the language. I am always thinking about what I can do with the language that is not done by others. You need to have your own voice. That voice represents your own particular vision of the world.

I’m trying to tell my own story. One of the difficulties in writing the novel was that I had all the facts I could find about Tom’s life, but then I had to make those facts into an imaginative narrative. Which is to say: How could I make Tom’s story my own? And the one way I could do that was to bring my own sense of language to it. Trying to figure out how I could tell that story in a way that nobody else could.

Guernica: You mentioned you’re a failed musician—how does your musical background influence your writing?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I play guitar. But once I realized I would never be a musician, I started to look for ways to bring music into my writing. A work of literature will never have the immediacy of music. But language has to have rhythm and some kind of emotional core. Some of the most powerful moments of my life have been when listening to live music. Those can be almost transcendent moments. I try to have a little bit of that in my writing.

I was really intrigued by the fact that Tom was blind. Because he couldn’t see, he couldn’t see skin difference. Maybe he assumed he was a white person.

Guernica: Can you discuss how you envisioned Tom’s agency, or lack thereof?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I tried to express some ambiguity about who Tom was as a person. In some of the articles I read about him, the authors assumed he was completely brainwashed and exploited. The question is: To what degree did Tom have any agency? To what degree was he aware? Tom was a blind boy, he was a slave. He didn’t have many choices or options available to him. At one point, he says, from historical record, that he wouldn’t “have his shoes blacked by no nigger.” As offensive as that sounds, it was common for slaves to internalize their masters’ language and use that word when discussing themselves. I thought about this a lot: Is this guy so brainwashed that he buys into Confederate ideas? And then I began to wonder: What if Tom was aware of his exploitation? What if he was aware of the exploitation of those black boys? What if his refusal was in sympathy, in solidarity?

You see, the only form of agency Tom had was small refusals. The little we do know about him comes in the form of refusals; what we do know about him is that he did refuse, eventually refusing to go onstage, which ended his career. That could have simply been Tom saying, “I am done being exploited.” It was important to me that Tom have a tremendous form of agency in these refusals, and in being difficult to deal with.

But to what degree was he aware of himself as a black person in America? I wanted to leave a little ambiguity there. I’m not so sure who Tom was. He was never asked about any of these things in the factual record.

In my novel, I give the answers that I think Tom would have given. I was really intrigued by the fact that Tom was blind, so maybe he couldn’t recognize himself in the racial terms that society had established. Because he couldn’t see, he couldn’t see skin difference. Maybe he assumed he was a white person. Separated from his mother for years, he wouldn’t have had any sense of who she was.

When you begin to look at these issues, you begin to look at what an extremely deep form of injustice slavery was. The destruction of the kinds of human relationships that make us who we are. When the familial bond is destroyed in that way there is a deep psychological damage that has been done that perhaps cannot be rectified.

Guernica: Both of your novels reckon with the history of American slavery.

Jeffery Renard Allen: The United States government has never given an apology for slavery. What does that mean? Bill Clinton contemplated doing that, but then decided he couldn’t. So now we live in a society where there is all this talk of America being a post-racial space, which I feel is totally dishonest nonsense.

On a personal level, my mother is from Mississippi, as well as my aunts, my grandparents, and so on. Born and raised in the segregated South. And the reality of that is, it was so painful for my mother that she could never talk about it. It reminds me of how some Holocaust survivors could never talk about the Holocaust with their children. When we look at the fact that slavery ended, but our country allowed this system of legalized segregation to happen that re-enslaved black people, do we ever think about the fact that black people had to lay down their lives and die to have the rights we were constitutionally given? If you look at the history of our country, anything that has ever benefited black people and women came about because people put their lives on the line to get them. As Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” In order to have this extreme system of racial injustice, in order to have this extreme exploitation for the purpose of money, America had to create a system that justified that.

There is an archetypal foundation that was laid down that allowed slavery to be seen as morally right. And that doesn’t just disappear overnight.

Guernica: How do you think this legacy affects us today?

Jeffery Renard Allen: One of the most important things in looking at history is that when you take a glance back into the past, you are trying to peel away the fabric of history to show that the things that were true then are still true now. In America, in particular, there is a kind of dishonesty where we see our past as completely separate from our present. We always see ourselves as such a progressive society, but I think the horrible reality is that this is a country that was founded on violence—on genocide, on the exploitation of people, and on racism.

If you look at Tom’s life story, you can see parallels with things that happened before him, and things that have happened since him, and things that are still happening in our society. I was extremely interested in using history to talk about things that are still present today and will be present for a very long time.

There is an archetypal foundation that was laid down that allowed slavery to be seen as morally right. And that doesn’t just disappear overnight. It was manifested in Jim Crow segregation, and now in the new Jim Crow—ideas discussed in the excellent book by Michelle Alexander—where so many black people are unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated. It’s manifested in the Donald Sterlings of the world. It is manifested in the fact that if I go into a store, the sales associates will not come over to help me because I am black, and they assume I have no money. It is manifested when I am stopped by police on multiple occasions because I fit the racial profile of a suspect.

The legacy of slavery is very much with us today, and I think there is a tremendous dishonesty about that in our society, especially when we begin to bandy the idea about of a post-racial society simply because we have Barack Obama as our first black president.

Guernica: Recently, the NYPD grew enraged with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for pointing out that he has had to talk with his biracial son about dealing with racism and racial profiling from law enforcement. In this time of Eric Garners and Trayvon Martins and Renisha McBrides and Freddie Grays, how do you teach your children to deal with racial violence?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I don’t know the full answer to that, but I remember when my son, now thirteen, was five. He came home from school, made a comment about something that had happened that day, and I realized he was aware of race. He would have to fight some of the same battles I fought. I think the thing is to make your children as aware as you can about some of these realities about race in America. And to let them know there are beliefs that can sustain them as they deal with the system. To let them learn how to create a psychological buffer so they are not damaged by it.

The biggest thing about any form of political injustice is that if you are fighting racism, if you are fighting sexism, etc., it gives you another kind of thing to battle in life that you really shouldn’t have to. Being a good person is hard enough. Being a good son, brother, father, friend is hard enough. Making a living is hard enough. All of these very basic things of living that every human being faces, are hard enough. When you put any kind of discrimination on top of that, people who are oppressed in that way begin to direct all of their energies to dealing with that oppression, and then the other parts of their lives—those things we all face as human beings—become neglected.

I try to show my children how to survive that exhaustion. I try to show them that there are other worlds out there—much larger than the spaces that other people would like to confine us in. If I think about it, that is what my mother did. Perhaps it was subconscious. But if she didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here today.

Guernica: Kiese Laymon and other writers have spoken about the times they were told that there was no market for black writers and black stories. Junot Díaz recently wrote about the stifling whiteness of his MFA program for The New Yorker. Has this been your experience?

Jeffery Renard Allen: That’s just one of the realities of the American publishing industry. Way back in the ’80s, before I had ever published anything, an instructor of mine was good enough to give a story of mine to an editor. The editor rejected it—now, I agree with that, but not for his reasons—and wrote me back a two-page letter telling me that, as a black writer, I shouldn’t write in that style. The story was written primarily in vernacular, and he said it was too difficult for a white person to read. He also made me a list of the black writers I should be reading as models.

I encounter that all the time. I’ve been in workshops where people have said, “Black writers, they’re just not as good.” There are a lot of assumptions that come from the racist idea that black people can’t have the same intelligence as white people.

Guernica: Who are some of the authors you keep going back to?

Jeffery Renard Allen: There are so many. Proust, W.G. Sebald, Edward Jones. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is one of my favorite books in years. One Hundred Years of Solitude, because it delights in the process of storytelling. García Márquez’s imagination is so rich in that book that you are compelled to follow him. Toni Morrison, particularly Beloved, which I have taught many times. John Edgar Wideman’s work I teach often.

Some of the books I teach every year are a way of staying in touch with those writers, going back to these books and seeing what new things I can discover in them. But on the other hand, you are always trying to read new writers. You are in conversation with the writers who have come before you, the writers of the present, and the writers of the future. Newer writers I love are Kiese Laymon, Paul Beatty, Marlon James. Victor LaValle always has interesting stories to tell.

Guernica: What is important to you, beyond literature?

Jeffery Renard Allen: The thing about being human in the world is learning how to be decent to other people. You want to be treated well, and you want to treat others in the way that you want to be treated. If you start with that, so many good things can be done.

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