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Q&A: 'Go Back and Get It'

Erica Vital-Lazare

Local scholar and author Erica Vital-Lazare on her new project to resurface important Black literature

The 1978 novel Tragic Magic by Wesley Brown should’ve been back on bookshelves by now. It’s the first book in a series, from respected publisher McSweeney’s, titled “Of the Diaspora,” which will reprint out-of-print and new works of Black literature. Now, thanks to COVID-19, you can’t read Tragic Magic until February. That hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of series founder Erica Vital-Lazare, a CSN English professor and stalwart of the Las Vegas literary scene.

Tragic Magic was championed by the late Toni Morrison, and the second book in the series, Praisesong for the Widow, from 1983, was written by Paule Marshall, whom Vital-Lazare cites as a mentor. These volumes and the ones to follow are “all tied to the same narrative, of having crossed that treacherous triangle and becoming part of the slave trade — much of Western civilization is based on that diasporic journey that was not voluntary in any way, but upon which our identity rests,” Vital-Lazare says.

Following are excerpts from a wide-ranging conversation about the series, Black literature, and the value of the past.

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IT STARTED AT such an intimate level, just myself and my good friend talking about books. That friend would be Brian Dice, president of McSweeney’s. And we were just doing what we do, we’re talking about books, talking about classic Black works that sometimes fall out of print.

EVERY 20 YEARS or so, generations need to revisit the past. All the strides of the Civil Rights Movement and the turmoil that my parents and grandparents had to endure in order to be recognized as human — in the ’80s and ’90s we got further and further from wanting to revisit that struggle. We were told you can be anything, do anything, the playing field is now even. Then in comes 2016. And Brian and I, talking about works of literature like we do, it had a particular urgency then. Almost like we were sleeping, we were dreaming, and then all of a sudden you’re reminded that there are certain powers that would prefer you not to breathe. And love of this literature became conversations about how much it is needed. The message, the stories, the reminders, the beauty, and the Black humanity in those works. We needed to revisit and remember.

THERE’S SANKOFA, the African symbol — “go back and get it,” is what sankofa means. You don’t go back (into history) and hold on. You don’t go back and wallow. You go back and get it.

PARTICULARLY AS A Black woman I see the ways that reinvention is always necessary to survival. And what you really want to be reminded of is the thriving that is the ascendancy of just survival.

EACH OF THESE works is about liberating the self at a very personal level. There’s whiteness on the large exterior landscape and the particular ways it has impacted Black life. But in these works you’re looking at how these Black identities are able to reclaim for themselves who they are.

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WITHOUT SOUNDING too “Ebony and Ivory” about it, the fact that the project came out of the love that my friend and I have for this work, and he’s a white dude in San Francisco, and I’m a Black woman here — and yet we share this love, and from this love and a conversation, this project is born. It’s one thing I’m often struck by.

THE GREAT IRONY that the works would not exist without the narrative of captivity is something that is very painful to think about, and also something that’s very liberating. Because a whole art form, a whole genre of literature, literature itself, I think — Toni Morrison in one of her essays talks about how white literature would not exist without the tension of Blackness, of otherness, to support it. So that’s a lot to contend with. It’s amazing, horrifying, brutal, and lovely.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.