As Hilton Als begins his master class on March 25, the classroom is hushed with expectation. Als is distinguished in the literary world for his memoirs, essays, and reviews, but as a queer black man in the literary world he often finds himself pigeonholed into discussions on race and sexuality.
He sits before the classroom, listening as he is welcomed with a hearty applause.
“I haven’t read from this book since it was published,” he confesses, holding a copy of his 1996 book The Women. The master class is full of students in English 127, who read Hilton Als as part of a syllabus that included Black American voices like James Baldwin, Owen Dodson, and Richard Wright. His smile is professional but warm as he asks the audience, “Tell me what you want to talk about. I don’t want to bore anybody.”
Als rejects tokenism — the notion that any one voice can represent the multitudes of emotion and experience that comprise any demographic drawn by race, sexuality, or socioeconomic class.
In his essay “The Enemy Within,” he writes, “It was in Baldwin’s essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized.”
The personal voice is a faithfully cultivated tool in Als’s craft. He recounts the time he spent three days calibrating his desired voice for a chapter in The Women. He identifies the treacherous drive to duty and competition that can cost queer writers of color like Dodson and Baldwin their individual voices. Listening to Hilton Als, I remember his passage from The Women about the competition that minority writers often undertook to distinguish their works to a traditionally white American literary establishment.
“Although many, many people knew what Owen [Dodson]’s intellectual and aesthetic tastes were, they never discussed the absence of those tastes from his written work, where he forfeited his vision for the sake of Negro respectability, writing what he felt should be said instead of what he wanted to say,” noted Als.
At one point during questions, he chuckled at a long smear of beige paint behind a student’s head.
“Sorry,” he said, cracking up. “I keep thinking you’re raising your hand, until I realize that it’s just the paint on the wall.”
To a visibly more relaxed, chatty, and smiling classroom, Hilton Als dispensed a final piece of advice before leaving, fingers tapping on the Baldwin and Dodson books as if in warning.
“Don’t compete,” he said. “Don’t compete, ever.”
by Aretha Guo