When It Comes to Innovation There Are No Modest Ideas


I was on my way—on foot—to the library at the university where I work, listening—through headphones connected to my phone—to the poet Morgan Parker, who had appeared as a guest on David Naiman’s “Between the Covers” podcast to discuss her book Magical Negro, and was reading a poem titled “Who Were Frederick Douglass’s Cousins, and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School,” in which the speaker says, “My teacher can see right/ through me, all the way/ to Black History Month. It is my fortune to be/ ashamed, and from nowhere./ How can I concentrate/ on photosynthesis when/ there is a thing called Africa?” I didn’t hear the rest of the poem because I was stuck on those last three lines. I was imagining the speaker as a young black girl sitting in a desk at school, caring less about plants converting light into chemical energy than trying to comprehend where her ancestors had come from and why and how. I also couldn’t hear the word “Africa” without remembering the trip to Ivory Coast I’d taken with my family when I was fourteen. I hadn’t wanted to go. Not really. It wasn’t that I had anything against Africa. It was that I hadn’t been crazy about traveling there to hang out for however many days—10 days? Two weeks?—with my missionary relatives, who did not live in huts with mosquito netting like the missionaries I’d read about in the books published by my church but rather in a modestly-sized, well-furnished house surrounded by a wall with a locked gate. My uncle, who’d served as an associate secretary for the Seventh-day Adventist church’s so-called “Africa-Indian Ocean Division,” employed a man named Ishmael to slice fresh pineapple and to cook the family crepes and soufflés and French fries. They owned an African gray parrot that my father taught, in a week’s time, to sing the first few bars of the Star-Spangled Banner. They had an aboveground pool. They had a guard who watched over the property and who had once, using a machete, killed a black mamba he’d found slithering through their backyard. I remembered flying to Abidjan, how we’d stopped in Monrovia and black men and women wearing fine robes boarded our plane and a stewardess went up and down the rows spraying air freshener because, as someone in my family pointed out, the people who had just boarded did not bathe regularly or wear deodorant. I remembered de-boarding the plane and before leaving the airport a young boy kneeling before me in an attempt to shine my shoes, which, incidentally, were not the kind that required shining. I remembered the teeming market of Triecheville, where disembodied horses’ heads hung on the makeshift rafters of one of the markets hundreds of booths, above a man who used an ox stomach to bag the meat a woman had purchased. I remembered watching an elephant at a zoo cradle a watermelon with its tongue and crush the whole thing into its mouth. I remembered how my uncle had bribed an armed guard at the entrance to a beach we wanted to visit by handing him a stack of church literature, how my uncle had said that the people here loved paper, especially if it was colorful. I remember shirtless women at the beach and a road through the jungle and a pot luck after a church service where a man bit off the tops of bottles of brightly colored sodas, and how he spat a bottle top into the air and expertly headed it into the grass like a soccer player would a ball. I remembered distended bellies. But we never saw a black mamba. This was long before Kobe Bryant had come up with the nickname. As it turned out, I’d begun the day thinking about him, about how he and his daughter had gone to a 7 a.m. mass and taken communion and prayed before getting on a helicopter that had lost its way in the fog and then crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board. My father had said he’d hoped that would’ve been the way it’d happened: instantly. Now, in my head, Morgan Parker was telling David Naiman that “facts” were “white.” And that the notion of “linear time” was too. In other words, “facts” and “linearity” were “fake structures” invented by white people in an attempt to shape and control human experience. Parker told Naiman that sometimes she really felt like she remembered being on a slave ship and that sometimes when she re-read her poems she wondered who really wrote them. By this time, I had visited the third floor of the Newman Library and retrieved a book I’d read about earlier that morning in a New Yorker article by Hilton Als about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which had been published in 1970 and was therefore celebrating its 50th birthday—or, rather, Als had celebrated its birthday by writing the essay. I’d picked up this particular issue of the magazine to read in bed with my morning coffee, and had been pleasantly surprised to see a black and white photograph of a young Morrison and especially intrigued to discover that Als had written an entire article about The Bluest Eye, for this same book sat beside me in bed, as I had assigned it to graduate level course I was teaching and would be discussing it the very next day. Near the end of the essay, Als described a book called The Black Book that Morrison, who’d worked as an editor for Random House, had helped edit and which, because our university’s library carried a copy, I had checked out. The book’s introduction asked its reader to “suppose a three-hundred-year-old black man had decided, oh, say, when he was about ten, to keep a scrapbook—a record of what it was like for him and his people in these United States” and that “he would keep newspaper articles that interested him, old family photos, trading cards, letters, handbills, dreambooks, and posters, all sorts of stuff.” The Black Book is then perhaps what such a book might look like. The man who wrote this introduction, I learned, was Bill Cosby, and he’d written this long before before he’d been convicted of sexual abuse, and before he’d become famous for flirting with Clair Huxtable and wearing crazy sweaters and eating hoagies and dancing in his living room, which burned its way into ours every Thursday, back when I lived with my family in a mountain holler that got dark early in winter. I was carrying The Black Book in my backpack as I walked to my office, and in my head I was carrying the voices of David Naiman and Morgan Parker, who were discussing the idea of simultaneity and the fact that she could feel ancestral hands moving within her as she worked on her poems. Naiman asked Parker if it would be okay for him to “be a little weird” about where he went from there. “So if we think of facts and time as ‘white,’” he said, “and you have this line ‘negro propaganda is born of the opportunity in blips, dead air, revision, imploding narratives, and space travel,’ and also ‘negro propaganda insists upon simultaneity,’ both of which you just touched on, it makes me think of black holes, and in the language of physics, black holes act as quote unquote ideal black bodies, bodies that reflect no light, and they form when a star collapses, so they form out of something, you know I’m thinking this is just crazy connections but much like you’re saying negro propaganda is born of imploding narrative, the black hole is born of an imploding star, and they warp all of the typical understandings of time and space, literally because of their strong gravitational pull. So in a way it feels like Magical Negro is a black hole that rearranges its universe on its own terms.” Parker loved this. I did, too. I had to press pause on the podcast, though, because I’d entered the building that houses my office and had run into a woman who used to work there, as the Financial Technician for the English Department, a woman who liked to wear lots of purple and costume jewelry and liked to say, because her house is located just behind a rural cemetery, that she lived behind a “gated community.” I told her about the joke that a man who had opened his job talk with recently had told about his first day as chair of a different department: his mentor had called him to ask how the job was going and the man had said fine and the mentor had asked him whether he knew what being the chair of a department had in common with the groundskeeper of a cemetery and the man had said, “No” and the mentor had told him that in both cases the person in charge could talk all they wanted because nobody was really listening. I thought, as I had many times throughout the day, about Kobe and his daughter and the rest of the passengers whose names were unfamiliar to me flying through the fog and crashing into a mountain and exploding into flame. I remembered that morning, how, lying in the comfort of my bed, enfolded in darkness save for the bright slab of the magical device that cast its spells over me every morning, I’d clicked on a headline claiming to provide audio captured by a surveillance camera from a nearby house of the helicopter’s final moments, but before I could hear the engine strain, before I was allowed to hear the final thump of the machine as it ran headlong into earth, the website upon which this was appearing insisted that I first watch a commercial for Ram trucks, in which a black man in a hard hat climbed into a blue truck beneath a giant white windmill, and a tough-sounding voiceover informed me that when it came to innovation, there were no modest ideas  

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