Catch Hunter and local artist Moses Sun in conversation at Elliott Bay Books on Wednesday, Jan. 18.
by Troy Landrum Jr.
Literature has unexpectedly built the cobbled path of my life. It has bridged the crevasse between purpose and the spiritual, the space in between that creates the creative path I hope to continue on throughout my days. As a Black man, there is a dichotomy in that. At one point in American history, to be Black and to read or write was an illegal act. These laws were set in place to control Black people, to keep them from understanding the world around them; the laws were ingrained so Black people could be totally reliant on the white faces that enslaved them. For a Black person to wield the power to read and write was more powerful than any weapon that could inflict bodily harm. Fear rested in the hearts of the enslaver: fear of riots, of coups, of power being overthrown. To possess these forbidden abilities meant white supremacy’s days were numbered.
Books have done the work of bringing me one step closer to my authentic self. I was aware of that during my conversation with Max “Diego” Hunter, Ph.D., the author of Speech Is My Hammer: Black Male Literacy Narratives in the Age of Hip-Hop, published Oct. 4, 2022. On Wednesday, Jan. 18, Hunter will be in conversation with local artist Moses Sun at Elliott Bay Books.
Sun is an afro-abstractionist and member of the Vivid Matter Collective, whose prolific works and public murals explore Pan-Africanism and diaspora. Hunter and Sun will discuss Hunter’s book, a work of art that centers around Black male narrative and well-known Black authors who face, in their life and work, the reality of double consciousness and literary ambivalence. W.E.B Du Bois famously coined the term “double consciousness” in his masterful work The Souls of Black Folks. Du Bois’ own definition of the term states, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
As my mind breaks down the depth of knowledge that reveals itself through Du Bois’ words, I think of the “white gaze,” a term taught to us by the beautiful minds of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. They taught us as writers and creators to fight against the white gaze in our creative lives. They taught us to see the world through our own eyes and experiences, to dismantle the world that centered around whiteness, in order to inch closer to ourselves. These were the historical rabbit holes that Hunter and I found ourselves in as we spoke about his work. Glimpsing into the future to make sense of our present. Diving into our own lives and throwing them against the canvases of Black authors, the brilliance of Black folks, and how literature has guided us like a painter’s muse. The title, our talk, and his life’s work struck straight to the core of my personal expedition and my own ambivalence about literature. Our talk made me reflect on my days in the classroom when the internal fight and the balancing act of being an athlete and an academic were most relevant. It made me reflect on the first time I was struck with the statement of despair to the sensitive heart of a middle school Black boy, “You talk white.” Just as Hunter’s book Speech Is My Hammer made me reflect on the map of my journey, so did our unforgettable talk. And, of course, it is through the narratives of others that we gain a glimpse into our own realities.
Hunter blew into Washington by way of southeast San Diego. This sheds light on the part of his name that he has adopted through the years, as an homage to his roots, Max “Diego” Hunter. The circumstances he found himself in in his hometown, which he vulnerably addresses in his book, led him to the place he believes his mom always prepared him for, through her love of the Northwest.
“She wanted to be a Black hippie. … She always loved to cook and have people over. And I think she thought there was a certain type of spirit here where people were free,” Hunter said.
Seattle welcomed him primarily because of the way he moved in the city. The influence of his mom had made him a chameleon, blending in with the scene of Seattle even as a Black man. Eventually, Hunter focused more internally, on the spiritual part of his life, which led him to people who would give him the confidence to pursue education wholeheartedly. At one point, he was described as an “academic tourist” because of his great interest in the “lives and minds” of others. It was education that forged the idea of his book.
“I wanted to kind of understand my literacy journey. … I started out when my professor … I said to her in a meeting, because we had to take these super seminars with her before she could take us on to write our dissertation, and I told her I had an intuition: Black males are not anti-literate, they are just ambivalent,” Hunter said.
This statement followed with his professor telling him to prove it to her, setting Hunter on the hunt for that answer. To him, the evidence was rooted in one of the most renowned writers of the 20th century, Langston Hughes. In his memoir The Big Sea, the beginning scene is captured by him throwing all of his books into the sea and dropping out of Columbia. Hunter saw the ambivalence in the work of Frederick Douglass, a slave who taught himself how to read against the backdrop of violence and anti-literacy laws. Douglass, having published one of the most famous memoirs in the history of literature. “They were almost apologetic for being literate,” said Hunter. His statement was like a hidden treasure of feelings put into words. The ambivalence was in me, it was in him, and this literary journey had to be one of unpacking, reclaiming, and unapologetically destroying the white gaze within us.
Our conversation concluded with a deep dissection of a quote that pays reverence to our mutual lifelong educational journeys and our beautiful connection to literature. Quoting activist and educator David Kirkland, Hunter said, “Literacy in the lives of Black men has never been about French and Russian thinkers or banal analyses of data. … Their literacies have been about friends and families — the haunting presence of mortality, the endless threats of being a victim while being cast as the villain … of complex tongues and bodies simplified and reduced to fit deficit presumptions that refuse the fullness and beauty, the triteness and tragedy of the lives Black males compose.”
Through these words, we start to understand the power and structures that have been put in place to reinforce America’s racist history, showing up in the ambivalence of the Black male, specifically in literacy. A history that stares us in the face and shapes these ongoing narratives of anti-literate Black males. Hunter sums it up perfectly: “White theorists illuminate the structures, the histories that created the society and the pathological systems that came to bear on the lives of Black men. … When we remove the structure and remove the theory, we just see an individual within a community in their circumstances, and we’re not able to understand how power is coming to bear on this small child or this young man. In this power, the structure of power has been designed to marginalize and destroy us.”
We as Black men, as writers, as scholars never came to a conclusion, just a deeper knowledge and understanding of what literature means to us and what it has to mean to all of us. A small movement toward freedom.
To register for the event at Elliott Bay Books on Jan. 18, head to the official website.
Troy Landrum Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently a program producer for KUOW’s “Radioactive” program. He has spent the past few years as a bookseller at Third Place Books in Seward Park and recently graduated with a master’s in fine arts at the University of Washington, Bothell. Follow Troy on Twitter at @TroyLandrumJr.
📸 Featured Image: Max “Diego” Hunter, author of “Speech Is My Hammer: Black Male Literacy Narratives in the Age of Hip-Hop,” signs a copy of his book. (Photo courtesy of Max Hunter)
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