“good kid, m.A.A.d city: Kendrick Lamar’s Autoethnographic Narrative”
Kendrick Lamar, in characterizing good kid, m.A.A.d city as a “short story”, announces, in his second studio album, a public declaration: we, the listening audience, are not hearing another hip-hop album, another autobiography, but something else, we are hearing a mixture of social, cultural and the personal in what will be termed the “autoethnographic”. That is, in addition to a personal declaration, Kendrick offers us a new way to think about hip-hop as a whole, not simply as a capitalistic enterprise, nor merely as a “black news” channel, but as a distinct method for collecting data and understanding the experiences and existence of black people that can be used to understand not only urban Americans, but non-normative persons of color the world over. Along with Kendrick Lamar’s album, I will be analyzing Richard Wright’s Black Boy and his Native Son character, “Bigger Thomas” as textural transcript, which can be mined for methodological purposes. Lamar’s text, along with Wright’s “Black Boy” and Bigger Thomas, can be read beyond the(ir) individual’s narrative, but rather for its [their] collective, auto-ethnographic narrative. Utilizing autoethnographic method, this essay brings together epistemological, ontological, and ethical concerns within sociology of knowledge and phenomenology, operating as both a way of understanding reality and an expression of reality.
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Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody’s did…For years I thought my sister was right; it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding…What is clear now is that of all that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth.
There is nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
In these lines, right up front, Toni Morrison links the relationship between Pecola and her father to that of the earth and its yielding (of marigolds). Morrison establishes a metaphysical condition as the underlying condition of each relationship, one in the other. What is more, Morrison is telling us, up front, that analyzing Pecola and her situation existentially—that is, analyzing her situation in terms of concepts such as, “hope, fear, lust, love or grief”; or, the more traditional existential cognates of anguish, abandonment, and despair—is not her primary concern; rather, what is of concern, what remains, is the metaphysical connection between “Pecola and the unyielding earth.” What we are left with is not the psychoanalytic explanation of why any of “this life” occurs—the psyche or ego individuated making sense of the world—but the voice of a child engaged with existence connecting the seemingly disparate elements of life—a little girl and the hard black dirt. “We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair.”
What is left when the traditional ‘existential philosophy’ has failed is the metaphysical question: not why, but how—how does anything, anyone come to be who or what they are?
In the introduction of the 2012 publication of Richard Wright’s posthumous book, Haiku: The Last Poetry of Richard Wright (Arcade Publishing), Wright’s daughter, Julia, referred to the following as his literary enigma: “how the creator of the inarticulate, frightened, and enraged Bigger Thomas ended up leaving us some of the most tender, unassuming, and gentle lines in African-American poetry.” Wright left some four thousand haiku (only a few hundred published), and the question has been left unanswered: what, if any, is the relationship between his haiku poems and his social/political prose and non-fiction?
I have always been drawn to Wright’s interest in nature, in the mysteries of nature, and how this interest influenced and informed the social and political (perhaps protest) work for which he has become strictly known and infamous. What if we rethought the relation of politics to nature, “realism” to “surrealism” such that these haiku are no longer understood as a side-interest, or the ramblings of a sick man at the end of his life, but as evocative of the meaning of human existence, black existence?
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