This month, the NYRB Classics series has released a new edition of Negrophobia. In most other years, this would have been a provocation: inserting the perverted and the grotesque into the four weeks of the year reserved for solemn quotations of Langston Hughes and committed misreadings of Martin Luther King Jr. But this year, the release seems more like an echo. February began with a famous actor confessing that he’d once walked the streets hoping to kill a black stranger (believing all black men to be implicated in his friend’s rape); a few weeks later, we had to imagine how and why a different actor might have staged his own lynching; and then there was Gucci, and Green Book, and… Virginia. The shadow of Sambo behind Bubbles on the cover isn’t a faded image from the past; it’s a projection in the back of her mind. Darius James asks: Is that funny?
The controversy around the 1992 cover became part of the book’s promotional strategy, with the Times and The Village Voice weighing in, all highlighting Washington’s complaint after being tipped off by the publisher’s PR department. It was also a kind of induction ceremony for James into the institutional irreverence of the Lower East Side writers and artists whose company he kept, writing screenplays for their movies and short stories for their magazines. As he hopped between the bohemian scenes in New York City, his native New Haven, and Berlin, his fellow provocateurs included Kathy Acker, who read the first few pages of the book and insisted that he finish it, and Paul Beatty, who fell into a now-familiar fracas over the cover of his humor collection Hokum(in which selections from Negrophobia appeared).
Later that decade, another of James’s friends, the artist Kara Walker, won the MacArthur “genius” grant for her graphic silhouettes of plantation scenes. Almost immediately, Walker became the object of fierce criticism and more than one letter-writing campaign by a group of older black feminist artists who, like Florence Washington, believed in the principles of black uplift. Walker’s output was “revolting and negative,” these critics proclaimed; in her works, they saw “African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art.”