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JASON J WILLIAMS

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African American Review
by JASON J WILLIAMS   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012

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Jason J. Williams. Street Fam. Grandview, MO: Real Grit, 2009. 192 pp. $14.95.
Reviewed by John Edgar Tidwell, University of Kansas

In part, the provocative nature of this literary kind owes to the absence of an
agreed-to sense of art or aesthetics, thus making description, interpretation, and
evaluation problematic. One way to understand the “newness” of Williams’s “real grit”
fiction is to view it thematically in the “old” from which urban literature springs. It is
a tradition that arguably begins with movies the exasperated journalist Tony Brown
dubiously labeled as “blaxsploitation.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971),
Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and so many more became sources of black pride,
heroism, and polemical encouragement for an audience starved for affirmation.
Even though later historians would characterize this filmic genre as sensational,
conventional, formulaic, and uninspired, the viewers for whom these films were
originally intended found representations of the heroic in everyday life. Extraordinary
exploits made the impossible seem possible, thus providing not only entertainment
but a sense of meaning to their lives. Indeed, astonishing feats of masculine courage,
incredibly sensuous black women, and unbelievable success against overwhelming
odds offered relief from the tedium of their lives in the same way soap operas and
romance novels provided escape from a humdrum existence. Setting these films in
urban environments firmly established the inner city as the performative site for the
dramatic enactment of so-called ghetto life. As a consequence of their popularity,
these movies, it is said, saved Hollywood from financial ruin.
About this same time, a body of fiction based on urban life emerged as a complement
to “blaxsploitation” films. Led by the creative genius of Robert “Iceberg
Slim” Beck and Donald Goines, the real grit of pimps, hoes, drugs, and more became
the corollary in fiction of the cinematic representation of urban black life. Iceberg
Slim followed the initial underground success of his Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967)
with six more titles, including Trick Baby (1967) and Mama Black Widow (1969). Each
drew upon his life as a pimp, which, despite being scorned by mainstream publishers
and media, developed a strong cult following among members of what one critic
called the “Black is Beautiful” climate of the era. Inspired by Iceberg Slim’s foray
into the sexual world, Goines explored the nether world of drug addiction, using his
own life for subject matter. Holloway House, the publisher of Iceberg Slim’s work,
brought out Goines’s Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie in 1971. Goines was never
successful in overcoming his own addiction to heroin but incredibly managed to write
a total of sixteen books before his murder in 1974.
Both writers contributed to the creation of urban life as an ur-text of sorts that
morphed into the hip hop expressive culture that came of age in the 1990s. Politically,
the art from this cultural moment continued to express an anti-establishmentarian
theme. The nature of black heroism continued to insist on a figure who was extremely
masculine. Depending on his relationship to the community, he could be either a
“bad” badman or a “moral” badman. Estranged from the community, “bad” badmen,
like Railroad Bill and boxer Jack Johnson, represented a single-mindedness that could
only be considered self-centered, individualistic, and self-aggrandizing. On the other
hand, such “moral” badmen as John Henry and Joe Louis represented the community
and its sense of values. Because both were outlaws, who flouted the legal system
and even the moral order, the community admired their courage and determination
to resist the efforts exerted on them to conform to the social order. They became,
in other words, the men community people dreamed of being but who could never
reconcile the dream with reality. The result was hero worship.
Hip hop culture, especially via rap music, embraced this spirit of rebelliousness
and inspired a latter-day version of Iceberg Slim’s and Donald Goines’s urban fiction.
Proceeding under a number of names, including “street,” “gangsta,” “ghetto,” and
“urban,” the fiction emanating from the preoccupation with urban blight, bluster,
and “blow” manifested itself as the fictive arm of hip hop culture. It is this milieu
Cornel West once lamented, in his provocative essay collection Race Matters (1993),
reviews 307
as a revelation of cultural nihilism, anti-intellectualism, and hopelessness. More
recently, Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, in their Come On, People: On the Path from
Victims to Victors, vigorously, although implicitly, endorsed this critique in their claim
that the burden of West’s argument rests on a legacy of slavery and segregation from
which African Americans have yet to escape, resulting in an ethos of defeatism,
victimization, and self-hate. Collectively, this criticism raises an important question.
Can the lives of all who reside in such communities or conditions be relegated to
the realm of desolation, deprivation, and want? Quite simply, is this all there is to
urban life? Hip hop culture emerged as the other side of this defining coin. It reveals
a complicated site, one clearly intended to refute the perspectives of West, Cosby,
and Poussaint as stereotypical, narrowly construe d, and wrongheaded. Even though
the genre of urban literature lacks an agreed-to set of normative values, Street Fam
contributes to enlarging a viewpoint that continues to suffer from a map of misreading.
Part of urban literature’s bad reputation rests on the question of “excellence.”
How is it determined and what criteria are used in making that decision? One especially
outraged critic proclaimed the shortcomings of this genre as a series of “lacks.”
Novels in this genre generally lack “a beginning, middle, and an end,” originality,
climax, conclusion, character development, plot development, symbolism, imagery,
foreshadowing, and literary merit. It bears repeating that the most troubling in this
list is the undefined notion of “merit.” No one has emerged to codify a set of criteria
that would define aesthetic excellence in the same way as, say, Stephen Henderson
did for Black Arts poetry in his important Understanding the New Black Poetry (1972).
Into this definitional vacuum comes Street Fam. While it contains its share of imperfections,
this first novel nevertheless makes a contribution to defining the aesthetic
of this emerging genre.
The art of Street Fam rests most comfortably on the air of mystery it creates.
Instead of a bald, direct, chronological unfolding of plot, this novel uses indirection
to good advantage. Briefly summarized, it opens at the wake and funeral of Low, the
best friend and “street fam” of the unnamed first-person narrator. But the wake,
overflowing with family (both blood and street), friends, bitches, and hoes, becomes
a primary site for memory and performance. Through an artful use of flashback,
the narrator provides the backstory for the plot. While it doesn’t rise to the artistry
of Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, reflection and recollection nicely capture
the reader’s imagination and engage it in an intriguing plot. The question of who
killed Low is dramatically constructed, with few clues given to the identity of his
murderer. When all is revealed in the end, the reader goes back and discovers the
moments of foreshadowing deftly dropped along the way. It is a truism of all mysteries—
which is but a looser definition of detective fiction—that the element of
mystery controls the narrative. The strength of Street Fam lies in its adept manipulation
of this principle.
Inevitably, Street Fam cannot escape its generic roots in hip hop culture. One of
its most controversial manifestations, gangsta rap, has been rightly criticized for its
misogyny and general objectification of women. This novel is no different. The
stunning physical attraction of Tasha and Amber leads to an understanding of
beautiful black women as empty-minded, unintellectual vessels who are nonetheless
extremely street savvy and adept in using their bodies. When Tasha enters the novel,
the narrator describes her this way: “Built like a motha fuckin race horse for sure.
She was wearing this sweater that was cut down to show all her titties. Her stomach
was out, and the diamond stud in her belly button shined like new money when the
light hit it. Her tight ass jean shorts were cut so low they barely covered the magic
triangle” (29). Amber, her physical equal, is characterized as knowing the limitations
of her gender: “She has a way of blending in and not making much noise. That’s the
real ho in her. Does what she is told and tries to fuck you senseless. Since I know
308 FriCAN MeriCAN eview
she’s a ho and she knows I know she’s a ho, she ain’t got no right to be jealous of
any other bitches” (75).
What rescues the novel from the trough of conventional gangsta depictions of
women is Williams’s strong representation of the narrator’s mother. Without resorting
to saccharine or maudlin language, he creates a character that is streetwise, sensitive,
and much more. As if she had matured from a former life of booze, booty, and
parties, she brings to the novel an evolved strength of character that makes her at
once smart in the ways of the world and sensible enough to be frightened at life’s
fragility and tenuousness. From a place of experience with a brutal, if not unforgiving,
world emerges the motherly self-protective sense she devotes to both her son and
grandsons. About his mother the narrator shares an interesting insight: “She is one of
those square women who tried to grow up in the streets. She knew how to survive,
but she hated the shit that came along with it. She had gone to blows a time or two,
mostly to protect other people, but she hated fighting and she didn’t believe in death
and destruction” (120). The narrator has reached more than just a détente with her
teachings. Against “the rules of masculinity,” he admires, respects, and loves her for
her devotion and personal concern for his well-being. So powerful is her influence
that he is forced to accede to her wishes not to kill a woman crack-head he believes
was involved in the home invasion that nearly caused the death of his mother and
his sons. As a result of her compassion and humanity, she demands and receives his
and the reader’s respect and admiration.
Even the narrator emerges as more complexly developed than the conventional
real-gritter he purports to be. It is true that he is defined against the proliferation of
misogyny, drugs, and thug life, but his life of illicit drug sales is shrouded in a cloak
of respectability as an owner of a used car lot. What he says of Low easily applies to
himself: “Low lived well and he loved the way he lived. . . . I never asked him how a
man with no visible means of support could get a house like that. He will tell me in
due time. My house ain’t no shack. I’m comfortable in it and had no real problems
getting it, but I got my fronts running. Low don’t even pretend to work anymore”
(67-68). What these “fronts” are remain unspoken in the text. As readers, we want
more specifics and further development of this aspect of the narrator. Nevertheless,
he is partially redeemed from the self-absorption and egocentrism generally associated
with gangsta rap and thug life. His relationship with Low is one that is closer
than “blood fam.” As he explains the book’s title to the reader: “See blood and
DNA don’t necessarily make a brother. It makes you kin, but not a brother. A real
brother is some one [sic] who would lay down for you. I know Low would do it for
me just like I would have done it for him if I had known” (15). When the narrator
fails in this commitment, his remorse becomes a powerful motivator to seek street
justice for Low’s death.
The issue of what constitutes masculinity further complicates the character of
the narrator and helps release him from the stereotypical life of real-gritter. That he
rescues his two sons (or, his “little soldiers”) from their crack-addicted mother
speaks volumes about the love and devotion he has for them. With the help of his
mother, the narrator provides them a nurturing, loving environment. As he says:
“Just like I have invested my heart in those boys, so has she. Those two hard-heads
are my life, and I know they’re hers too” (103). It’s a father-son relationship that is
made more complex, however, by the lessons he teaches them. He resents the fact
that Devon, his younger son, pouts because it makes him look soft: “I have to make
sure my boys grow up hard and able to handle the world” (143). Darnell, his four-yearold
son, has already begun to embrace a lesson from the narrator’s “man philosophy”:
“Well, my daddy said a man’s got to be good with his fists so he can fight and take
care of his family” (155). While the narrator professes a hard edge as the essence of
the masculine, his own relationship with his boys belies a tenderness that seems at
reviews 309
odds with the unforgiving mask he wears. At some point in their development, the
boys will find this confusing, since undoubtedly they will be unable to escape love
and charity as object lessons taught by their grandmother.
But Williams does not stop here. Arguably the most atypical aspect of the narrator’s
character is his relationship with God, whom he calls “the Big Man Upstairs.”
It is not based on his “going in the building,” in other words, attending church services.
His admission that he’s been no saint and that he is going to have lots to
answer for on Judgment Day hardly prepares us for his confession that he does talk
with God “on more of a one on one type basis” (22). The prayer he offers is not
self-serving in that he seeks preservation for himself. He asks instead for divine
protection for his mother and sons and for strength to act on God’s behalf. Humbly,
he submits himself to God’s will: “I can take care of me as long as he don’t quit
looking out for me, and I don’t think that’s going to happen as long as I continue to
put him first in my life” (22-23). Later, when the narrator plays with his sons at the
park, he’s moved to confess: “I ain’t done enough good shit in my life to deserve any
special favors from God, but He sure blessed me with these two” (97). To represent
this side of the narrator is to risk textual inconsistency. Within the masculinist aesthetic
of a real-gritter, it is possible to see the narrator as unmanly or simply weak.
But, as developed here, vulnerability makes for a more complicated or well-rounded
figure, thus enhancing the power of his characterization.
Overall, Street Fam will find a popular audience. The question could be rightly
asked: “What are the terms of a ‘popular’ literature?”1 Is it popular because the
writer’s name is well known? Is it popular because the audience of readers has purchased,
read, and shared copies of the book? Or is popularity determined by a split
along class or even ideological lines? Toni Morrison and Alice Walker certainly
resonate with one body of readers. But the virtual explosion of urban literature
bespeaks a market of readers who may or may not have an interest in either Morrison
or Walker. Indeed, the so-called “nonacademic” readers have grown so numerous
that publishing houses are creating imprints for urban literature because they sense
an open market among those who traditionally would not read the work defined as
“true ” literature. Among the benefits of urban literature is that it has created an
audience of readers out of people who ordinarily might not pick up a book, especially
those from eighteen to thirty-five years old. Most people would agree that this is a
good thing, including readers of this novel.
Street Fam, in sum, perfectly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of a genre
seeking definition and codification by engaging its own history and tradition. Like
many self-published, independently published, and published-on-demand (POD)
works, this novel could benefit from more careful editing, tighter formatting,
improved graphics, and development beyond the length of a novella. And yet, it is
the writing that’s most important. The mode of storytelling is quite well done for a
first novel. As it implicitly struggles with the history of this genre in Iceberg Slim and
Donald Goines and in the more recent work of Sister Souljah, Zane, Omar Tyree,
E. Lynn Harris, and others, Street Fam clearly demonstrates its real-grit roots, but
with a twist. It undermines implicitly the gangsta focus on objectifying women and
revises and broadens traditional ideas of real-grit black masculinity. When the dust
settles from the definitional wars, Street Fam will be acknowledged for its role in
helping to delineate the art of urban literature. And this genre will have more properly
welcomed first-time novelist Jason J. Williams into its fold.
1. I am indebted to my colleagues Maryemma Graham and Tony Bolden for this idea, which we
discussed in different contexts.
310 FriCAN MeriCAN eview 



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