BOOKS | Firebrand author writes of being “Incognegro” in South Africa, America


Frank B. Wilderson, III is hyped as a single-handed second coming of the Harlem Renaissance, the best since Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Chester Himes and such. For once, the drum-beaters got it right. Wilderson’s firebrand tour de force, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (South End Press, $18), wholly compels; the hard truth is written in a fluidly articulate hand to deliver a strong voice.

Wilderson, who grew up in Minneapolis, earned the Loft-McKnight Award for Best Prose and the Maya Angelou Award for Best Fiction portraying the Black experience in America. Earlier this month, Incognegro walked off with the American Book Award. Wilderson (FW) spoke with Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder on his craft and career.

For more on Incognegro, see Book note: A literary genius goes “Incognegro”

MSR: Why did you write this book?

FW: The book wrote me. It was going to be a novel. I realized a novel would not have allowed me to make the case that there is no essential [and] no structural difference between apartheid South Africa and post-civil rights America.

Painstakingly [attending] it as nonfiction made it harder to infuse suspense.

Real life doesn’t work like an Alfred Hitchcock film, a John Le Carre spy novel or a Chester Himes detective story.

But, it had to be nonfiction. I did not want Whites and other non-Blacks to be able to appropriate the political vision of the book for their various projects of access to the barred spaces of civil society.

MSR: It’s decades since the incendiary days of James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Is there hope that such discourse about African American issues will happen again in America?

FW: When Baldwin, Cleaver and Malcolm wrote, there were 22 million Black folks in the U.S. Now, there are over 35 million. And folks like Mumia Abu Jamal, to whom the torch was passed, are rotting in prison, as opposed to writing in their offices or marching in the streets. Mumia is a perfect example of what the state does to Black intellectuals when the state understands the power of Black writing.

MSR: “We shall overcome” has turned into “I got mine.” Do you agree or disagree?

FW: Yes, I do.

MSR: Several times in Incognegro, you speak of crying and times when you had to keep from crying. For instance, when you wanted to smack that White South African drunk into next week and you did cry. Most men, whatever the color, have forsaken the ability to cry. As a Black man, has being able to cry helped you hold on to your sanity and not implode with rage?

FW: My crying — well, Baldwin’s works taught me how to be vulnerable, that it’s okay, at least on the page. I’m not sure I project such vulnerability in my daily life. I did it in this book and then forgot that I’d done it.

Crying is a double-edged sword for Black men and women. On the one hand, maybe, as you say, it can keep us from imploding. But on the other hand, we have to remember that we are beasts, not beings, in the collective psyche of the world.

If we cry expecting to be heard, we might learn that our pain and suffering have no auditors.

My crying is now wedged elegantly between the pages of a beautifully bound book. Most of us aren’t so lucky.

MSR: It’s generally unheard of to cast Nelson Mandela in anything but the glowing light of sainthood. And you caught hell when you first did. Do you still encounter knee-jerk hostility for calling him to account?

FW: Ah, yes, Saint Nelson! Here’s where the nonfiction genre holds me in good stead. I held elected office in the ANC [African National Congress] and fought in its underground wing. I’m an insider, of sorts, and I’m calling Mandela a sellout not because he’s not saintly — I could give a rat’s a$$ about his character or spirituality — but because he’s not a communist, with a lowercase “c.” [That is] a blight on his political record.

Interlocutors who recoil at this are confronted with my memoir, [which] changes the terms of the debate from questions of divine character to the redistribution of wealth. The book abrogates their power to pose the question and subordinates their notions of [divinity] to a rigorous debate between revolution and reform.

MSR: What’s next?

FW: Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms should come out from Duke University Press in late 2009, early 2010. I’m also working on a novel, my film Reparations…Now and trying to find a university press to publish a collection of essays titled The Black Position: Civil Death in Civil Society.

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