Acknowledging the Acknowledgments

In our group discussion of Big Machine yesterday, we were all left grasping for straws. How do we make heroin, monsters called, “The Devils of the Mash,” male pregnancy, and a suicide cult fit together? We all have our theories, but we were left with the feeling that even after we finish the novel, we won’t have the answers that we want.

As we tried to piece things together, I turned to the back of the book to the Acknowledgments. Maybe some words from the author would help glean some knowledge. At the end of the section, Victor LaValle gives thanks to a list of “role models” that he thanks for setting a “great example.” He dubs the list, “The Black Eccentrics,” and notes that it is only a partial list of the individuals who inspire him.

Aside from Darth Vader and Octavia Butler, I had no idea who the other people in LaValle’s list were. This is where Google came in handy. Bad Brains starts out the list. They are an American rock band from Washington D.C, formed in 1977. The all-black band is described as a mix of hardcore punk, alternative rock, and reggae. The biggest thing that stuck out to me about the band was the fact that they have been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but have not been inducted. They have been eligible since 2008, so this seems rather odd. I am trying not to assume intentions, but situations like this make it difficult to not view this as a case of racism.

Gayl Jones is an African American novelist, poet, playwright, professor, and literary critic. She has not published a novel since 1999. Her first novel corresponded with the Black Arts Movement in 1975. Ishmael Reed is also an individual who wears all of the hats: poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, and lyricist. His work has been nominated for the National Book Award for both fiction and poetry. His list of works goes on for pages and pages. To say that this man has seemingly done it all would be an understatement. He also graduated from the University of Buffalo! Armond White is an American film and music critic. He is known for being highly controversial and provocative with his reviews. There has been some drama regarding his expulsion from the New York Film Critics Circle in 2014 when he allegedly heckled the director of the film, Twelve Years a Slave. I don’t know enough about the situation to make a comment, however. Michelle Wallace is an author and professor of English at City College of New York. Her book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, added to the discussion of sexism in the black community. There are a few different David Keiths that come up, so to avoid making a mistake, I am going to refrain from providing background on who he is. Fishbone is another American band that mixes a few genres: ska, punk rock, funk, heavy rock, and soul. They formed in 1979, right around the time that Bad Brains did. In fact, the two bands have often performed together or at the same events. Phil Lynott seems like the odd one out in the list as an Irish musician and songwriter. He had a style that was almost jazz-like, linking him back to the other musicians in the list. Charles Burnett is an American film director, producer, writer, editor, actor, photographer, and cinematographer. His films often deal with the structure of a family. Octavia Butler has a connection to our course that I can see: Bloodchild. In the story, we read about a pregnant male, similar to them as well. Kim Tyayil is yet another musician that La Valle adds to the list. He is the lead guitarist for the rock band, Soundgarden. The list ends with another two unlikely candidates: Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers, and Darth Vader. I’m not sure if LaValle is being cheeky with these last two mentions, or if there is a more direct connection that is going over my head. More likely, it is a mix of both.

Learning more about LaValle’s role models makes me more confused about Big Machine because it gives me even more to think about. I had not thought to look at the novel through a more musical lense, but now that I am seeing how many of LaValle’s role models are musicians, I am curious to see how it applies. Maybe I need to make more of a practice of acknowledging the acknowledgments.

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