Black Literature in White Spaces: Gil Scott-Heron and Me

Throughout all my years of literary studies I had never been formally introduced to Black Literature until I chose to do so myself. In the spring of 2015 it was time to submit my idea for my Bachelor’s Dissertation. I’d already had a proposal for a creative writing option, featuring some of my poetry, rejected. I was told instead that I would need to write a ‘regular’ dissertation. I didn’t for the life of me know what to write about, but I was put at ease by the months I had to figure it out.

I was not looking forward to regurgitating some white canonical writer’s trite observations. I was hoping that by submitting my own poetry I would at least remove the trite and canonical aspect of it.

It was around this time that I rediscovered the work of Gil Scott-Heron. I had first heard his work the previous summer, while looking for new music. Ever since, I have been in awe of his poetic rhetoric, and the fluidity of his voice as it wove surreptitiously through the music in a hauntingly profound manner.

In my opinion, two paradoxical voices always characterized Scott-Heron’s work: one of urgency and one of despair. Urgency in identifying the problem, but always with a certain hopeless desperation that seems to accompany most visionaries. Unfortunately, the true hallmark of a visionary is their ability to see things in a world which is blind. In many ways, that is also their curse, for they are forever doomed to see a world not ready to change, or in some ways, unwilling to change.

In the film ‘Black Wax’ he talks about the classical rhetoric of poetry that seemed ingrained within the sinews of the art. He talks about his first experience with poetry and aptly describes his reaction: ‘man that must be deep.’ In many ways that sums up what the art form had, at the time, become. Just meaningless drivel that would slowly melt away into oblivion when an ordinary person attempted to decipher it.

When did inaccessibility become a prerequisite for good art? When did obscurity become the goal, and not the means? And how has the primarily white literary and artistic elite managed to marginalize an entire community of ‘others’ to the back pages of literary history?

These are some of the most profound questions that Gil Scott-Heron and many other Beat Brothers of the era asked. They questioned traditional literary standards, but also frowned upon the treatment of Blacks in literature, or rather, the lack thereof. Where was the Black man?

More than anything, they were concerned with questions of ownership and license. They refused to let their message be compromised by adapting to the time’s existing literary, poetic, and musical frameworks. Not only did this marginalize them further, it also undermined their legacy, which was substantial.

This period saw the birth of the Black Arts Movement, defined by pioneer Larry Neal, as the ‘radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic.’ It was about ending the tyrannical rule of white literature and the white voice in history and art.

Dubbed by many as the Godfather of Rap, Scott-Heron brought art to the streets. He empowered the uneducated, the marginalized, the forgotten – because he used rhetoric that only spoke to them. Nothing was embellished to make out like it was something else. Nothing was given a second meaning, unless it needed to have a second meaning.

But in that brutal honesty, there was space for the critical treatment of contentious issues. I decided I would write my dissertation wholly on his second novel, ‘The Nigger Factory’ which is deeply political and still, somehow, shockingly relevant. Tensions erupt on Sutton University, a fictional Black College campus, after the University President, Ogden Calhoun, refuses to implement several reforms. As the situation spirals dangerously out of control, it becomes clear that Brother Calhoun, a man with a history of service to the Black Community, is merely the pawn in a much larger game. MJUMBE, the dominant Black Power group on campus, are heavily involved in leading the strikes, at times reverting to dubiously authoritarian tactics.

Scott-Heron refuses to engage in a black and white discussion of morality and justice, and that is what makes his work so important. Instead of focusing on the one in power – Calhoun, by all accounts a progressive Black man – he seeks to expose the insidious racism and marginalization that is, at this point, so deeply enshrined within the educational and larger socio-political system that it goes almost completely unnoticed and unchallenged. Despite his fervent participation in many of these Black Power demonstrations and concerts, Scott-Heron remains remarkably neutral in his treatment of MJUMBE. They aren’t idolized, politicized, or made out to be other than what they are: the raw voices of a generation unwilling to give into oppression and willing to do anything to end it.

Scott-Heron doesn’t take their side. In fact, he paints their flaws with deadly accuracy. He exposes their cynical hypocrisy as they discuss how the ‘fraternity had another line of pledges to indoctrinate,’ blatantly ignoring the ominous parallels this draws with the educational indoctrination they so ardently oppose. And so too it is with Earl Thomas, president of the SGA, who tries desperately to balance the interests of the students with his perilous grip on political power.

So, what can we learn from a novel that seems to criticize everything and everyone? We learn that the only way forward is to be critical, to be aware of different perspectives and the complexity of reality, and to present that in an intriguing manner.

As vitriolic as Scott-Heron’s music and poetry is, that is how sensitive and carefully constructed his novels are. He refuses to adopt polarizing rhetoric, seeking instead to tackle the systemic faults that are hidden under many centuries of white oppression. Yet there seems to be no critical addressing of his work, no recognition of any sort that seemed to correspond to the depth and value of his contribution to art, writing, and music.

By refusing to acknowledge the importance of Scott-Heron’s groundbreaking work, the ruling elite of the literary and musical world are almost principally responsible for the regressive artistic treatment of spoken word forms dominated by Black people, such as Rap. It seems a convenient form of self-preservation to simultaneously ignore and ridicule the one artistic form and style that seems to undermine your own credibility. But it is nothing short of artistic genocide.

My attempts to understand the very core of these problems betrayed a fatal flaw in my academic upbringing. It seemed that everywhere the system provided obstacles. I hate to use the word “system”, but that is what we are talking about here: the educational system. My supervisor reminded me not to pick too obscure a topic, and reminded me of the rather limited secondary sources that were available on the novel. The reality was that Scott-Heron’s novels had never been written about in any great detail in any kind of academic context. But did that warrant avoiding them now?

Why was everyone turning a blind eye? Is that really what the western academic world has come to? Let’s just not delve into the uncomfortable and the marginalized, the elements of society we don’t understand properly and focus on what we do understand. The Robert Frosts, the T.S. Eliots, the F. Scott Fitzgeralds, and the William Shakespeares. And the world will always be the same and will never have to change.

The irony of it all was that my reality was succumbing to the same ominous fate as the characters of Scott-Heron’s novel. Here I was trying to write about a generation of marginalized Blacks trying to dismantle the system that prevented their progress. And I was dissuaded to do so by the very institution that was supposed to encourage innovation, critical thinking, and independent research. It is moments like these when you realize just how incredibly important Scott-Heron’s message is, how much it transcends race, and how much it seeks to expose the systems that keep everyone’s potential hidden from the world. And more importantly, from themselves. Especially Black people.

It is times like these when you realize the power of words. The sheer power of choosing to write about what’s important. Because the written word renders anything immemorial.

Don’t let them tell you what you can and can’t write, whoever they are. Oftentimes, writing is all you have. Writing is the only real release from the shackles these oppressive systems impose on you. That, if anything, is the real message we can learn from Scott-Heron. That compromise is death and selling your message, your soul, and your purpose is tantamount to giving up.

I hope that one day the overwhelmingly white literary and artistic elite manage to look in the mirror and realize art has been one of the most transformative elements of the last 100 years and it belongs to everyone. And maybe, one day, we will get to a point where the only black and white on a page will be the letters and spaces in between.

By Augustijn van Gaalen

Having lived abroad for much of his life, Augustijn van Gaalen has grown accustomed to seeing differences between people and the effect it can have on society. A student of Literature and Politics, he spends much of his time writing poetry or working on his novel. His interests include roles of gender, race, ownership, alienation and the orient.