Nightmare Overhanging Darkly: A Book Review
by Dax-Devlon Ross
When Dr. Acklyn Lynch published Nightmare Overhanging Darkly sixteen years ago he placed himself in rare company. Few authors would attempt to chronicle the contours of a culture’s tradition of resistance in a single volume; even fewer could plausibly pull such a feat off. In today’s soundbyte-driven marketplace many authors (and publishers) err on the side of specialty. Rather than engage in rigorous analysis that integrates multiple fields of inquiry, they carve out their little crevice of “knowledge” in hopes of perpetuating their careers as “public intellectuals” on the lecturing and talk-show circuits. The social-scientist doesn’t dare dip into the literary critic’s bag. The journalist steers clear of polemics. And he historian guards himself against literary stylistics. In Nightmare, Dr. Lynch resists those constraints, though not merely because they are artificial outgrowths of the marketplace. He resists them because in order to complete his task, in order to advance the study of and appreciation for Black culture, he must. The intellectual model placed at his disposal by Western Civilization is inadequate to deal with the issues facing African-Americans. It is, in fact, at odds with Black culture. Writes Lynch,
“The problem of educating African Americans has been the attempt to measure Black people against a standard outside of our cultural context. The Western powers during the twentieth century have intensified “specialization” in their educational and training activities. They have programmed people’s minds through isolated forms of language where there are few, if any, common bases for effective communication. This takes away a sense of solidarity or unity and produces cold, alienated people without human values.”
Only by bringing it all together – economics and education; literature and social science; the blues and pop culture; the street corner and the college campus – can Black people start to see that it is all connected, all one—all integral to the survival and progression of the culture. In Lynch’s lengthy interview with Archie Shepp, the saxophonist and scholar strikes at the core of the problem when he asks: “How do we create musicians, painters and writers? How do we even lend a certain dignity to those professions equivalent to such professions, as economists, lawyers and doctors?” Through the process of assimilation, Shepp goes on to say, Black people have taken to relegating their culture workers to the lower rungs because the wider society has ‘skooled’ them to believe that black culture is “primitive” and “folksy,” rather than “high” and “cultivated.”
Nightmare’s solution to this cultural crisis is both practical and theoretical. As a scholarly text, it commits itself to a thorough-going analysis of the works of black writers. It removes the writings of George Jackson and Malcolm X from the ‘jailhouse polemicist’ box they normally inhabit and puts their words and ideas to work in a unique capacity. Malcolm X becomes as an historian of 1940s
Harlem. George Jackson (and his younger brother Jonathon) become critics of consumer culture. Both writers engage in conversation with Wright and Baldwin, comparing the struggles of the fictional Bigger Thomas and Alonzo Hunt to the real life struggles of San Quentin prisoners. Literature, Nightmare insists, can not be separated from the culture that produces it. The same hunger that led Richard Wright to forge library cards so he could acquire more books inspired Malcolm X to write, “Where else but in prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day.” They were both “biting into that reality which escapes us everyday, but remains vital to the essence of our will to survive.”
As a polemical treatise, Nightmare envisions enlisting the educational apparatus to integrate culture into the African American “life process,” and thereby advance the race. “You don’t control your product solely by the creator’s statement,” Lynch writes, “but rather by building an infrastructure for control.” Elucidating his point, he adds,
“You have other people who can be creative in the administrative, legal, management, marketing, engineering, research, writing and design areas, that will undergird the work of the musician. The technician’s responsibility will be the projection of a product useful to the sustenance of the culture. Black academicians and educational administrators do not have any understanding of this necessity in program design. Nohwere is there built into the educational system the notion that these are essentially creative and important careers.”
In Lynch’s view, the creative artist needs the support of the community in order to do his job of preserving the community. This is a radical departure from the assimilationist’s dogmatic approach to education purely for the sake of upward (and outward) mobility. This is a call for self-organization and cooperative action to build, understand and sustain Black culture for the sake of generations yet to come.
Nightmare is broken into three sections: Black Culture and Consciousness, Art and Resistance and The Educational Imperative. Each section contains a series of essays. Each essay showcases the author wearing one of his many hats. Each hat is worn with a radical flair and with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Donning the social scientist’s cap, Lynch diagnoses the black on black homicide rate as an epidemic resulting from a mental health crisis. Although the specifics of the nearly two decade old figures are time-worn, Lynch’s analysis is indispensable. Nightmare asks the deeper, more difficult questions that usually go unuttered in popular forums that simply rely on figures: “What represents homicide or murder? Is homicide a mental health problem or is it a political and economic problem? Is it something one should relate to the individual or to the society in general?” These are critical questions that still are not being thoughtfully and honestly engaged in by lazy-minded, knee-jerk politicians and pundits who make their living by blaming the poor and disenfranchised for their situation. They would rather not deal with black on black homicide as an epidemic that is rooted in the fall-out of the Vietnam era and the economic recessions of the 1970s because doing so impugns the “myths that are constantly propagated” in America. Among the ones directly interrogated by an honest and thorough assessment of the urban epidemic are “(1) the myth that anyone who is industrious can become an entrepreneur and can be successful in the larger society, (2) the myth of the equality of all people.”
Once the link betweenVietnam and the post-Civil Rights urban setting is firmly laid out, Nightmare begins to hit one of its many virtuosic strides. One of Lynch’s finest attributes as a writer is his capacity to identify with the unspoken for, the silenced, to imbue them with the language to match their intuitive comprehension of their position vis-a-vis the societal hierarchy. He sees what the liberal-minded bourgeoisie refuses to see: that young people living on the edge of society know exactly what time it is. “They understand poverty, racism and affirmative action,” he writes. “They understand the progress of the Black middle class and the they know the price which has been exacted for that progress since Martin Luther King’s death. They have listened carefully to Black leaders, especially Black mayors and they are not impressed.”
By granting the brothers and sisters on the margins a logic, Lynch removes them from the categories of the ‘crazy nigger’ or ‘passive victim.’ They are certainly victims of forces beyond their control, but they are not passive. Instead, out of their psychological distress, growing self-contempt, powerlessness and frustration, these marginal people created an alternative set of values to meet their needs. By identifying these ritualistic practices within hip-hop and documenting their connection to the “warrior” tradition, Lynch becomes one of the earliest scholars to hear the music, respect it and place it into perspective.
Lynch’s take on Black culture in pre-war period is a competent and balanced piece of historical writing. His broad-stroke overview of the consciousness permeating the pre-war period counters and interrogates the prevailing uber patriotic narrative that is generally attributed to this era. He shows how the angry black masses pushed their leadership toward a militant stance on the war, then how creative artists captured, recorded and distilled that nascent spirit through music, dance, poetry, painting, literature, and theatre. Nightmare radically departs from conventional art criticism of the period in that it links the creative developments catapulting “Swing” to “Bop” directly to the politicization of the people. The creative artist, according to Lynch’s reading of the period, was operating within a context, against a backdrop, in conjunction with a movement. Writes Lynch,
“Artists like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Chano Pozo, Machito, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and Margaret Walker provided the cultural underpinning that helped to spark the revolt towards authenticity, creative integrity and political independence, but in so doing, they returned to their sources and essences. They were the archetypes.”
But those archetypes would soon begin being marginalized, pushed and pulled by the unwieldy forces of physical and psychological oppression in conjunction with cultural exploitation. After the 1943 Harlem Riot, Mayor Laguardia closed down the Savoy Ballroom and “declared Harlem off-limits for white servicemen.” Police harassment of interracial couples stepped up. The “war tax” stifled dancing in clubs. Businesses of all sorts felt the pinch and began closing down. Next came the infusion of drugs, heroin in particular, into the community. Without viable options uptown, the creative artists began descending on midtown in search of venues and pay. The bandstands were smaller, the entry prices steeper and the audiences whiter. Suddenly, the artist was no longer a part of the community which had spawned her. Suddenly, the community didn’t have the same access the artist.
Lynch’s biographical sketch of Malcolm X must be read with one particularly important proviso: it was written before Spike Lee’s film hit theatres and created the interest in and appreciation for Malcolm that is prevalent today. At the time, Malcolm was not in vogue. That being said, Lynch’s essay on Malcolm is crisp, lean, and restrained. Aside from a single parenthetical critique of the Black Congressional Caucus and a reminder of the United States’ efforts to minimize Malcolm’s reception in Africa, Lynch allows Malcolm’s life speak for itself. While at this point in time popular culture is far more familiar with Malcolm’s life and work, what Nightmare still manages to add to the conversation is a broader conception of how Malcolm’s rise coincided with the student sit-ins in the South as part of the Zeitgeist. Lynch also asks prescient questions about Malcolm’s meaning with regard to contemporary political scene that must be wrestled with: “Where would Malcolm have stood on the Presidential elections of the 1980’s and 1990’s? Would he have supported any of the major presidential candidates? Would he have offered us “the lesser of two evils” argument?”
Section II, Art and Resistance, is guided by a single, searing statement Lynch makes early on: “We are still functioning in the plantation model.” The damning indictment is quintessential Lynch. Never one to mince words, he assesses and articulates the thrust of the artistic dilemma the black artist and his community are confronted with. Black artists (including athletes and entertainers) are “controlled and cordoned off” by people who are not particularly interested in advancing black culture. But Lynch doesn’t play the traditional Blame Game. He places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the successful Black artists whose obligation it is to not only produce significant work but to ensure the perpetuation of a technocratic class to keep the culture in tact. The extended Archie Shepp interview is perhaps the gem of the entire book. The term interview, in fact, does not do the conversation justice. It’s a meeting of the minds, an old school pow-wow. And after the first few pages, once you realize the level of discourse that’s taking place, you feel like you’re sitting at the feet of your elders and that you’re privileged just to be there. Though the interview took place more than three decades ago, today’s artists would do well to read it and think about it, and, perhaps, discover their own potentialities through it. For Shepp, the challenge is to produce art that meets the people where they are without watering itself down; to use art to create “critical awareness of just what our culture is”; to educate the black professional class so that it sees the creative class on an equal footing; and to create a university culture that participates in the conservation of black creative product. These are all lofty ideas that have still not been entirely understood or appreciated, but the more important thing might be what it shows younger artists about their elders. Archie Shepp was a student of his culture and his craft. He seriously thought about ideas like cooperative economics and the implications of social change on the creative community at large. His music nourished his politics just as his politics fueled his music. The two were inseparable. IV.
Part III is highlighted by an excoriating analysis of the modern university. It asks the question, ‘what is happening on campus?’ and answers with a resounding ‘nothing.’ Lynch’s lament is that the university has devolved into a place where “[young people] are socialized to be passive consumers, attracted to the glitter of the flea market.” Rather than develop the tools to “comprehend the language and logic” of the music they listen to, students seek to ‘get high’ off it. As opposed to analyzing, discussing and fully understanding the films they watch, students are allowed to remain ‘visually illiterate.’ In turn, and as a direct result of a lack of understanding that begins with their instructors, black students have little to no appreciation for their forebears and therefore leave college with little to offer the community. Ultimately, Lynch’s indictment of the university dovetails back into refrain that by this point has become familiar: black culture needs “technically skilled and competent people” to thrive.
Nightmare is a deceivingly dense book. Though it is only 260 pages long, it reaches wide and deep in order to diagnose what went wrong in the black community, to describe what continues to go wrong and, finally, to prescribe how it can be fixed. The lofty “blueprint” for a new educational framework for black America that Lynch lays out is informed by his abiding love for his people, and by his unwillingness to stand idly by in the midst of their suffering. Just as the children of the ghetto have been deprived of educational and economic opportunity, the children of the Black middle-class have been deprived of their culture’s history. Everyone is suffering; everyone is in need of healing. In the book’s closing pages Lynch writes,
We are in a period of stasis. With economic recession at our doorstep and thousands of workers having been laid off, “rigger mortis” has set in and many of us are one paycheck from bankruptcy. Time runs like a broken river, dragging along uprooted trees and scattered branches. We have to bury our dead properly and privately, and the ranks keep getting thinner.