Thursday, November 4, 2010

Back in the Day: A Look at Nostalgia in Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor

There’s a little joke in the black community that black folks don’t do nostalgia. The premise is pretty obvious. Given our history in this country, what do we have to be nostalgic about? But, like most jokes, there is also a bit of the untruth mixed up in there too. Unlike most people, black folks don’t wist nostalgic for the simplicity and wholesomeness of times gone by, but we have been known to glance fondly to “back in the day.” This is a lot different than believing the past, be it the 1950s or 1960s, was a great time to be alive, but rather an acknowledgment of the past as a personal or communal scrapbook of who we were as a people. It’s an acknowledgment about how things might have been better in spite of the bad stuff that went down; an acknowledgment of what was gained and lost on that long journey to now.

I came of age during the late 1970s and 1980s, hardly a banner decade for black folks. And yet when I hear songs I grew up listening to, movies or TV shows that I watched, my mind flits back to a past when I was young and the world seemed safer, more contained, familiar. This is the sort of nostalgia that Colson Whitehead zeroes in on in his novel Sag Harbor.

Released in 2009, Sag Harbor takes place in the late 1980s and tells the story of Benji, a teen from a well-to-do black family who spends his summer largely unsupervised in the black neighborhood of Sag Harbor, a Long Island beach town for the upper class. Now don’t let the class issue fool you. Whitehead creates a believable teenage world that you can relate to. This is a world where the various tonal deliveries of the word “dag” is examined for all its different social and emotional meanings and personal insults are finely honed like an Eric B and Rakim rhyme. This is a world where the unstructured time of summer can lead to endless possibilities, both good and bad. It’s a world where young black men weigh their manhood against ever increasing and stultifying definitions of authenticity (one that insists that a love for ABBA or The Smiths or geekiness is not “black enough”).

Whitehead deftly employs 1980s pop culture to create the unfamiliar world of the black bourgoisie (“The Talented Tenth” as W.E.B. DuBois called them) and make it every bit as familiar largely because he shows the conceit that class plays in the black community, a conceit that even a family like the Cosbys can have issues and that the children from these families still deal with problems of identity and authenticity. Unlike most novels which throw in pop cultural references to pull off phony autheticity, Whitehead instead uses them as nostalgic reference points of a time when black culture had a comfortable but tenuous finger on the American mainstream. The 1980s and early 1990s can arguably be pointed out as the last time when black youth defined American culture, whether it was through Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, Prince’s wailing guitar, Run D.M.C.’s “My Adidas,” or Vanessa Williams’s Miss America crown. While Sag Harbor takes place in 1985, it expands the way in which 1980s black pop culture defined the country then before the War on Drugs, the AIDs epidemic, and the Ronald Reagan’s rollback of the social achievements made during the 1960s and 1970s took their toll. It was an era that divided between the rise of the black middle class and the disenfranchisement of the urban black poor. Whitehead demonstrates this divide when Benji and his friends go out BB gun shooting, using a Six Million Dollar Man action figure as a target and pretending to be the gangsters from the distant poor black areas they hear about in the news. Benji and his friends navigate the various incarnations of manhood, using pop culture from Greedo of Star Wars fame to Starsky and Hutch as models. Hip hop also becomes a model on which to test their identity, and it is here that Whitehead reveals how pop culture and authenticity take an unlikely turn.

Lyrics from the aforementioned “Here We Go” and then “Now I Gotta Wet’cha,” copyright 1992 by Ice Cube, born the same year as me, who grew up on Run D.M.C. like we all did. “Wet’cha,” as in “wet your shirt with blood.” All of us, the singers and the audience, were of the same generation. Something happened. Something happened that changed the terms and went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.   

Most reviewers missed Whitehead’s point entirely by focusing on the rambling, plot-less nature of the story or the pop cultural references, concluding that Sag Harbor is simply a coming-of-age tale where nothing of importance happens. I disagree. While the events in the novel are certainly not momentous---nobody dies; Benji’s family, who, unlike the Cosby family, are a dysfunctional mess ready to implode, but don’t; Benji doesn’t fall in love or lose his virginity. Rather within the story’s rambling structure, epiphanies, no matter how mundane, are made. As Whitehead writes, Sag Harbor is about that “history of young black men” of the hip hop era and how the pop culture of Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and Run D.M.C. can turn to T.I. and Lil Wayne and all that happened in between. Sag Harbor, in essence, is a nostalgic love poem for black pop culture on the precipice of disaster.

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