Friday, January 12, 2007

Remembering Leon Forrest (pt. 1)

Last Monday marked the 70th anniversary of the birth of Leon Forrest, the Chicago novelist who died of cancer in 1997. Forrest completed only four novels in his lifetime, but he left his mark on American letters.

Forrest’s novels are “among the major works of his generation,” according to Prof. John G. Cawelti of the University of Kentucky. Forrest “wrote beautiful fiction that contributed to the sustenance and the growth of black culture and black life,” writes Howard University’s Dana A. Williams.

That Leon Forrest never gained popular acclaim is due, no doubt, to the “difficulty” of his modernist prose. His magnum opus, “Divine Days,” weighing in at more than 1,100 pages, strove to do for Chicago what Joyce’s “Ulysses” did for Dublin. (“Divine Days,” upon its release in 1992, was championed by Sven Birkerts, Stanley Crouch and Arnold Rampersad. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls it the “War and Peace” of African-American literature.)

Forrest was a “race man” in the old-fashioned sense, a proud portraitist of the black American “folk.” But in an era when the ideology of Afrocentrism – and the Black Arts Movement before it – rejected white aesthetic standards, Leon Forrest looked to Faulkner and Shakespeare and the Russian masters as primary influences. And was unashamed to say so.

I interviewed Leon Forrest in 1993, during his tenure as chairman of African-American studies at Northwestern University. Here is some of our conversation:
DAVID MILLS: Is there a conflict between honoring the particularity of the black American experience – and black American art – and its universality also? In terms of “Divine Days,” you’re up-front about wanting it to be considered a great novel per se –

LEON FORREST: Sure. I was out to write the great American novel. Not the great black American novel.

MILLS: But is built into that a desire or a need to appeal to a literary establishment that is overwhelmingly white? In other words, this isn’t a book for the folk.

FORREST: Well, no, but it’s about the folk all over the place. I write, I must say, for serious readers. And those serious readers might be in black Baptist churches, they might be in synagogues. I don’t have any problem, because I’m a black American, so I would expect that I would appeal to a broad range of people. I certainly never have been Afrocentric in that sense.

I am always searching for ways in which I can take the richness of the black experience, the folk material, and project it to the highest levels of thought, of sensibility and creativity. I like to think that I try to do more with the ranges of black voices – as much as any writer.

But I also must remind myself that I’m a novelist. So I go and hear a sermon by a black preacher, I don’t wanna simply turn on the tape recorder and imitate what he’s doing. I wanna take it to another level. And it’s in taking this to another level that we are enriched by literature, by art.

Don’t forget, the slaves and the blacks after slavery mingled their experiences with the stories of the Jews and their struggle in the Old Testament, and the story of the New Testament. This is how we got Negro spirituals. Nobody ever puts down Negro spirituals because they’re talkin’ ‘bout “Go down, Moses… Let my people go.”

MILLS: What was your literary awakening as a reader? Did you read as a kid? Was it part of the family?

FORREST: Very much so. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. Both parents went to about two or three years of high school. But my parents had this ethos of the lower middle class. My father was a bartender on the Santa Fe Railroad, and he travelled a lot, and Daddy wrote lyrics to songs. My mother used to try to write, had sent some stories off to magazines. Never were published or anything.

My father would read to us when he was home from the railroad. My father had a very nice reading voice, and he used to like to read a lot. I used to read to my mother, my mother would read to me. … My great-grandmother lived with us until I was 9, and I would read the Old Testament with her. She only had gone to about fourth grade and had trained herself to read. So there was a lot of reading going on in the household.

And then, of course, I was born in 1937, so the radio was still popular when I was growing up. We didn’t get a television till I was about 14, so I was saved from that, you know. There were all these wonderful dramatic voices to listen to on the radio. …

The creation of literature may be a miracle, but the processes which you must go through are not miraculous at all. The whole business is that there’s a library underneath the letters. And the writer must find this library, by one means or another, or he or she will never develop as a serious writer. I know [Ralph] Ellison quite well, and his library in his home is probably as large as many community libraries in the city.

MILLS: So when did you start to conceive of yourself as a writer?

FORREST: I would say that I began to want to write long before I knew it consciously. And the writers who were very influential would’ve been Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Wright, Emily Dickinson.

I went to a very good black grade school, and one of the chores we had was to create a Negro history notebook, a scrapbook. And our English teacher had taught us some of the works of Langston Hughes; we became aware of Wright, we became aware of Sterling Brown.

I went to a predominately white, Jewish high school, but I had this background by then in black letters to a degree, and I was on the creative writing magazine. And the first story I wrote was a story on Dr. George Washington Carver. Even though I went to a predominately white high school, I still lived in a black neighborhood, so I had this kind of back-and-forth.

That’s in some ways been the story of my life, being involved in the white world and at the same time based in a certain Negro setting. Even here, I’m teaching at a predominately white university, [but] I teach out of a black American context basically. Then I try to enlarge it by seeing how African-American letters are influenced by other writers. Let’s see how our work stands up. I’m very interested in seeing how “Invisible Man” stands up to Dostoevsky. Or how Wright, who was influenced by Dostoevsky quite a bit, stands up.

And I don’t see any dilemma here. I don’t see a schizophrenia here. I see a possibility for continual advancement of the race.

MILLS: Here again, I’m not an Afrocentrist, I’ve just been thinking a lot about that line of thought. If we talk about Shakespeare, whom you allude to often, definitely with love – Does Shakespeare belong to you?

FORREST: Oh sure. All those people belong to me. That’s our Western library. I would say that it’s in Shakespeare where you find the greatest, probably, psychological and spiritual development of characters. Therefore I must read him. That certainly would be true with the great Russian writers.

Also, with the Russian writers, you have so many of the problems we face. The whole idea of the relationship of Europe to the Russian sensibility. Russians were fighting like hell in the 19th century about “How much are we Westernized?” and “How much are we Slavicized?” Certainly the idea of an oppressed people, the idea of a Russian soul struggle, which was an argument over “Who am I spiritually, intellectually and emotionally?” That’s very much like our battle.

Young people are very much caught up with Malcolm X. My God, that’s his story – a soul struggle, who he was spiritually, intellectually, racially. This was thought out not only in this country but in the Slavic countries. So you can be enriched by the experience of other people’s battles, and you can find the techniques to help you with your own struggle.

Obviously the issue of racism is a particular one for we of African descent. So I may not look to European letters for that; I know about that. (laughs) But I wanna know about other things. …

And the whites don’t have any problem [with this]. I mean, they’re expropriating our stuff all over the place. Some of my white friends that have a large jazz collection, larger than many blacks, I can’t say, “That’s not your music, that’s mine.” It came out of a culture that I came out of, but jazz now belongs to everybody.

And as we’re seeing now, blues belongs to everybody. And that’s black as you can get. But you go in these clubs in Chicago, 75 percent or more of the people in there are whites, young whites.

MILLS: And there are people who resent that, too.

FORREST: Yeah. A lot of people say, “Well, do they appreciate it?” Well, I don’t know, but they’re paying their money, they’re sitting there listening to it. And I’m sure the black blues musicians are glad to have anybody.

MILLS: I think it took some courage for you to satirize the Nation of Islam the way you do in “Divine Days.” And you served as editor of Muhammad Speaks, even though you weren’t a Muslim. Why was it important for you to critique them?

FORREST: Let me say, first of all, there are a lot of things I admire about the Muslims. Mom-and-pop stores, and the fact that they’ve done a lot of things that built up a certain amount of courage within black people. The way they dealt with the underclass; nobody else wanted to.

But like any movement, it has much in it that needs to be satirized. I look at satire as a cleansing, and as a way of never taking oneself too seriously. Also, satire is a way of cutting back on this dangerous sentimentality that we are developing. No matter what level of refinement or bullshit is involved, we tend to say, “Oh well, you know, I don’t wanna criticize a brother, I don’t wanna criticize a sister.” … We need that. And I feel that way about the Muslims. I admire certain things about ‘em; some of it needs to be satirized. Certainly the whole racist thing about whites being devils and so on.

Now, I was also aware that to awaken this man at the bottom, he needs something almost like an electric shock to the backbone. And that shock is very much a force of nationalism. That was very important in the early stages of awakening consciousness. Where it becomes dangerous is when it veers over into racism.

It’s one thing for me to say, “Our people are a helluva people, we have a destiny,” and so on. But it’s another thing for me to say, “And your people are inferior.” That does just great damage, because it means that I cut myself off from exposing myself to other groups and their enrichment and their development and their technology.

In terms of the nationalism, that was very successful. You can do. You can have these stores, you can have a newspaper, you can protect your women. This is very healthy. But then, after nationalism, you’ve got to reach out. “Now I’m up again as a man, I’m a very proud man.” Next thing you do is venture out into the world. Not to withdraw and say, “These people are inherently inferior. And I’m a God.” That’s very dangerous.


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