[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim

From A Taste of Honey – Stories by Jabari Asim, Broadway Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-767679-1978-4

I knew a man who only read non-fiction because he “didn’t see the point” of fiction. Would it surprise you to know that this man was one of the least empathetic I never knew?

I firmly believe that fiction is more powerful than non-fiction, as a way to help us understand each other’s truths. So I used Black History Month as an excuse to seek out short fiction by writers of color. I  picked up this collection at my local library, and the first story in the collection has already confirmed my belief.

Opening Lines

“I’d Rather Go Blind” is the story of a moment in a pre-teen boy’s life during the ‘hot and forbidding’ summer of ’67.  In fact, that’s the opening line,

The summer of ’67 was hot and foreboding.

It’s a bit of a cliche to begin a story with the weather, but Asim pulls it off here because there is more in this line than a weather report. It tells us that we’re in 1967, a year that anyone with a basic knowledge of contemporary American history, knows was a big one for the culture. And it’s not just ‘hot’ it’s ‘foreboding’.

This one word promises us that something big is going to happen in this story. It’s not just going to be about the domestic trials of a youngest brother; it’s going to be the moment he intersects with the cultural changes going on round about him. We’re immediately curious.

The narrator reinforces this promise a couple of sentences later,

There was no question though, that the temperature was steadily rising. Young men no longer hailed each other with an innocuous wave; instead they thrust black fists skyward.

And when he then mentions his radicalizing older brother, Ed, we know something big is coming, and Ed is going to be right in the middle of it. I’m nervous for Ed from the start of the story.

The Middle

But it’s not a high-tension story.

Instead the author switches gears, to a nostalgic look at how the boy spends his days: his friends, his struggles with his identity especially compared to his handsome older brothers, the people he encounters on his travels around the neighborhood. Through them, he builds up a picture of life in a real neighborhood populated by real people, good, bad and every shade in between.

The Big Moment

When the moment comes—the life-changing moment every story should revolve around—we are completely invested in this community. We see how the narrator has changed, how he grows up in that life-changing moment. We see events from many angles: the narrator’s, and reflected in the words and reactions of his parents and his neighbors.  We come away with a deeper understand of what it is to live in someone else’s skin.

We leave this story changed.

Tell me THAT’s not as worthwhile as a hundred scrupulously-sourced accounts written up by historians [1. This, from a woman with a Master of Arts in…um, History).

Writer’s Notes

All the details in this story are carefully chosen to reinforce a sense of reality, to keep us in the story. Ed uses not just ‘hair cream’ but “Murray’s pomade”; Curly listens to not just any singer, but “Etta James”, and more than that, the song “I’d Rather Go Blind”. The narrator keeps everything in his perspective by the child-like way he measures time: referring to ‘the second bell’ or saying that “it was time for my favorite show Captain Nice.”

Two Diversity Notes

I’m a fan of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and this story is helping me to articulate why.

As a white immigrant to the US, I struggle with the idea of adding characters of color to my stories, for fear that my ignorance is just too deep to write a realistic character. That’s one of the reasons I try to read stories by people unlike myself.

For example, in online forums I’ve seen readers of color pleading with writers to stop describing them in terms of food (and here’s a guide to doing better).

In this story, I noticed that this writer never used food analogies and got along just fine.

It was my misfortune to be somewhat melanin-deprived just on the eve of the Black Is Beautiful revolution. I was yellow, beige on my best days, with orange lips that were big and swollen as Tweety Bird’s beak. My hair was coppery with edges burned orange by the sun and locks coiled tight as bedsprings.

The only time food is mentioned it is from the perspective of our narrator, and in keeping with a young boy’s perspective. No stereotypical “African American” food, just a litany of the candy they loved to buy from the blind man at the candy store.

Another thing I noticed was in that opening paragraph. When the writer talks about young men he doesn’t qualify it by saying ‘young black men’, though he does clarify by saying ‘black fists raised’.

In writing, we tend to add in adjectives for minorities (“African-Americans”, “male nurse”) which leads to the assumption that ‘normal’ is something other than that. You can see, I hope, how that would get a little tiresome, if you were constantly being identified as ‘abnormal’.

In this case, the author didn’t need the qualifying adjective because the ‘normal’ in this story was majority-black.

This might seem like a small thing, but word matter. Words shape ideas. Ideas shape actions. And so, our words, our stories can change the world.

Do you think it is important to seek out stories that represent communities unlike yours? How do you choose which stories to read? (And I promise not to judge if you say, ‘randomly’, because that has been most of my method, too!) Leave a comment about if/ how you seek out short stories to read.

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