July 2015

Deborah Douglas


Love is a Form of Resistance: Talking with Jabari Asim

"Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it." ― Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes famously shared his grandmother's advice about choosing to laugh when you feel like crying, an ethos author Jabari Asim uses to great effect with his debut novel Only the Strong, which employs humor to drive a story about African American residents of Gateway City, a fictionalized version of St. Louis in 1970.

"You hope he's in heaven," said Ananias Goode to his employee, Lorenzo "Guts" Tolliver, who decided to "retire" from being a leg-breaking henchman after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, and settle for simply acting henchman-like while running a taxi service. There's the humor found in referring to someone who's "got more chains than a runaway slave," and insider jokes, like the character Shadrach saying white folks' "hotcakes just had to be better. Turns out they didn't taste no different." Then there are Asim-isms, when the author refers to a woman's "hirsute exuberance" upon donning an Afro for the first time or one who is "defiantly cheerful."

"Humor is underused in literacy fiction" says Asim, a husband and father of five, who is also an associate professor at Emerson College and author of several children's books and commentaries, such as What Obama Means. "It can be very useful, sort of as a leavening agent that moves the story along and expands the story and makes more readers feel welcome."

Asim's brand of dry humor is found in the intimacy of conversations and familiarity between characters, in a tale about ordinary people who are emblematic of the type of folks who form the backbone black communities unseen and unregarded in the public conversation -- until tragedy strikes such as that evoked by #blacklivesmatter, or King's assassination, which has already occurred when this story takes off.

These types of people aren't very often immortalized in fiction, especially black ones, given the dearth of diverse books, but they take the spotlight here, getting credit for the simple act of...persisting. Asim's Gateway is showing signs of a certain kind of wear and tear indicative of the unraveling of black communities where Great Migration families settled and segregation prevailed. It's where a real-life Michael Brown would have hailed from or Rekia Boyd's people might've come from.

Only the Strong takes up where Asim left off in his short story collection A Taste of Honey: Stories. Goode is a big man about town with a fortune built on corruption sealed with brutality, though he's been making inroads into cleaning up his image, taking his place in polite society.

"He wore the crown and wore it with ease," Asim describes Goode.

Guts is back trying to live right but shadowed by a trail of blood left in the wake of being an effective and legendary enforcer for Goode. And like any community that works to save itself against inside and outside forces that would break it apart, there are community pillars like Dr. Artinces Noel, who has secrets, and her ward, Charlotte Divine, "described as a headstrong protégé" on her way to college. The table is complete with the high-on-meringue Lucius Monday who married the Pie Lady, Playfair, PeeWee and 'em.

Laughing away the tragedy and pain is a form of creativity that is "genius in its own way," says Asim, noting that the darkness wrought by #blacklivesmatter and #blackspring has left many people laughing away the pain caused by the deaths of the likes of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Brown and Boyd, real-life people rooted in the backstory and shared experience of these characters and fictional cities like Gateway.

Growing up in St. Louis, Asim says there were a lot of street-corner, porch-sitting Dave Chappelles, Jesse Jacksons, and Martin Luther King, Jrs.: "They were yarn spinners and joke tellers," who had "unrecognized genius sparkling in the midst." Asim gives voice to these comedic thought-leaders and color to those whose stories otherwise fade into the background.

But the heart of the matter in Only the Strong, named for the eponymous Jerry Butler song, is love. Even a semi-retired leg breaker like Guts can't escape it, and it reveals itself in many layered, rich ways. There's the love between lovers and from parent to child. There's a love of community and making sacrifices to make it better in the face of structural resistance. But it is the love in a brotherhood of men that provides a binding sense of what Asim calls "ambient masculinity."

In this, Asim pays homage to the men he grew up with, the African American men who formed a protective force field around his childhood.

Asim says a "real old dude" named Mr. Logan used to look out for him. Like the fictional Mr. Logan, who raised Guts when his parents died, he, too, ate a sweet potato a day, a habit he took up while growing up in the South where he worked in the fields: "We rarely talked. He was so old you could barely hear his voice. His eyes were on me all the time. There was no way anybody could have snatched me."

Then there was Mr. Nash, the crossing guard who "took such good care of me, he made me feel I was his grandson," Asim recalls. "I could observe these men and know this is how honorable men behave."

President Obama's persona has been informed by ambient masculinity, Asim says, as he composited ways of being from images of black male culture. Asim grew up close his father, unlike Obama, but the men in his community offered additional masculine material from which to draw.

Asim admits to being a romantic at heart, influenced by both sets of grandparents, married for 60 years apiece, and his parents, who have been married 65 years. Asim has been married to his own wife, Liana, for 30 years.

"I look at love as a form of resistance," he explains. "Every time we choose to love each other, not just romantically, every time we endure despite all the things that happen, that's a form of resistance. And I think we're choosing love all the time."

The stories of everyday people in Only the Strong will certainly be familiar to many black audience members, and for other readers "it is a glimpse into a world they don't know much about," Asim says. However, he cautions that the book is inherently an American story for one and all:

"The story of the African American community emits metaphoric power," Asim says. "It's quintessentially American."