Podcast #103: Darryl Pinckney and Zadie Smith on Achievement and Beyoncé

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
March 15, 2016

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Darryl Pinckney is a Whiting Award winner, a former Cullman Fellow, and a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books. He visited the New York Public Library for Conversations at the Cullman Center co-sponsored by the NYRB to discuss his book Black Deutschland with Zadie Smith, the Orange Prize-winning author of several works including White Teeth and NW. This week for the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Darryl Pinckney and Zadie Smith discussing achievement, inspiration, guilt and Beyoncé.

Darryl Pinckney and Zadie Smith

One of Pinckney's major influences is Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories. He discussed Isherwood and other literary antecedents:

"I can remember sitting in study hall reading The Berlin Stories in an obsessive way that meant you weren't going to finish the term paper you had due, and that book is rather coded, but if you can hear the dog whistle, it speaks and speaks and speaks to you. Then a few years later, Isherwood wrote a memoir called Christopher and His Kind, and it was this rather irate concordance about everything he couldn't say openly at the time. I actually like the coded book better, because then I knew I was a member of a select club. Isherwood is an inspiration for the narrator, but he's not a model for me and this book... He does these interesting things in The Berlin Stories. The women dismiss Isherwood the narrator as unsuitable for boyfriend material, so he doesn't have to fake anything, and he's off the hook, and he can just be an observer, and he's very much an observer. The narrator of this book is much more participant in his grand mistake, which is what going to Berlin and staying in Berlin kind of is. I always think of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and the way that they couldn't find for themselves antecedents in nineteenth century American fiction because race always got in the way, even Hawthorne or something like that. So they chose the Russians because the same things were involved: freedom, serfs, national identity. The narrator I always have first in mind are these sort of rootless losers from Dostoevsky like the guys says in The House of the Dead, 'I'm just going to talk about this prison, nothing else,' or the guy in Notes from the Underground says, 'I'm not a nice person, but you're going to listen to this story.'

Pinckney traced the history of black achievement, how it has oriented around both negative and positive connotations and how memoirs like Margo Jefferson's Negroland help to prevent the erasure of a 1960s conception of achievement as not antithetical to authenticity:

"My father would insist that this life of negro achievement cannot be separated from the brutality of its context, and neither can the achievers. There is no way. There is no separation. In the old days, all black classes lived very near one another, and then if there was white flight, there was brown, beige, high yellow flight as well. Whatever you want to call it. I think one of the things Margo Jefferson's marvelous memoir does it to remind us that classed aspiration was at one time a radical act or a radical mode for black people, because white people didn't want you to leave the plantation. They didn't want your barber shop to succeed. They didn't want you to go to college. They didn't want you to have Latin in college because they violated what DuBois called 'personal whiteness.' It wasn't until the late fifties with the E. Franklin Frazier book Black Bourgeoisie that all this was demonized, that black middle class. DuBois also raked everyone over the coals for wanting to play golf instead of wanting to be in the NAACP. And then in the sixties, middle class life became an optic of scorn anyway. So blacks were doubly scorned, for 'trying to be white,' which was a deep insult because these people had found a way to be black, and that wasn't respected at all. And so Margo Jefferson sort of restores that sixties generation in the proper historical continuum where negro achievement is not selling out."

Smith asked Pinckney to talk about his reaction to Beyoncé's "Formation" music video, which she had sent him prior to the NYPL event. He described some initial confusion, followed by a sense that Beyoncé's generation has advantageously eschewed a sense that success and blackness are mutually exclusive:

"The first thing I feel looking at a Beyoncé video is old. You know, and I'm not sure I understood it. It is a very deep change because of hip-hop from my political generation in the attitude toward materialism. Of course the revolution was righteous and so you expected people to give up all this stuff, which you know, no one wanted to go to the demo and sneak off. This generation doesn't feel any contradiction between success and being black. And I think that's really very good, and here's this woman married to this tycoon, and she's a tycooness, and she's got an amazing body and can do this stuff that my mother would really not approve of. It would shock her so much. The lyrics I found shocking once I understood them. I didn't get them right away."

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