Virtual Event: Jesse McCarthy
Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?:
in conversation with NAMWALI SERPELL
June 11, 2021
7:00 PM ET
Join our online event (or pre-register) via the link in the event description.
Free - $5 contribution suggested at registration
Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes JESSE MCCARTHY—assistant professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University—for a discussion of his debut novel, The Fugitivities, and essay collection, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? He will be joined in conversation by novelist NAMWALI SERPELL, author of the award-winning The Old Drift: A Novel.
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While payment is not required, we are suggesting a $5 contribution to support this author series, our staff, and the future of Harvard Book Store—a locally owned, independently run Cambridge institution. In addition, by purchasing a copy of The Fugitivities and Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? on harvard.com, you support indie bookselling and the writing community during this difficult time.
About The Fugitivities
Like most recent college graduates, Jonah Winters is unsure of what's next. A young black American raised in France and living in New York City, he tries on a couple of careers only to find that nothing feels right. And as Jonah struggles to envision his future, he feels pressured by his friends and family to put the struggles of his community before his search for self.
But then a chance encounter with an ex-NBA player with his own regrets, inspires Jonah to take his life into his own hands. Deciding to leave the country entirely, he sets off for Brazil. And as he makes and breaks friendships on the way, reflects on his past relationships, and learns to rely on himself, Jonah slowly forms an understanding of self, community, and freedom that is rarely afforded to young black men.
About Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?
Ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s case for reparations to Toni Morrison’s revolutionary humanism to D’Angelo’s simmering blend of R&B and racial justice, Jesse McCarthy’s bracing essays investigate with virtuosic intensity the art, music, literature, and political stances that have defined the twenty-first century. Even as our world has suffered through successive upheavals, McCarthy contends, “something was happening in the world of culture: a surging and unprecedented visibility at every level of black art making.” Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? reckons with this resurgence, arguing for the central role of art and intellectual culture in an age of widening inequality and moral crisis.
McCarthy reinvigorates the essay form as a space not only for argument but for experimental writing that mixes and chops the old ways into new ones. In “Notes on Trap,” he borrows a conceit from Susan Sontag to reveal the social and political significance of trap music, the drug-soaked strain of Southern hip-hop that, as he puts it, is “the funeral music that the Reagan Revolution deserves.” In “Back in the Day,” McCarthy, a black American raised in France, evokes his childhood in Paris through an elegiac account of French rap in the 1990s. In “The Master’s Tools,” the relationship between Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and his acolyte-slave, Juan de Pareja, becomes the lens through which Kehinde Wiley’s paintings are viewed, while “To Make a Poet Black” explores the hidden blackness of Sappho and the erotic power of Phillis Wheatley. Essays on John Edgar Wideman, Claudia Rankine, and Colson Whitehead survey the state of black letters. In his title essay, McCarthy takes on the question of reparations, arguing that true progress will not come until Americans remake their institutions in the service of true equality. As he asks, “What can reparations mean when the damage cannot be accounted for in the only system of accounting that a society recognizes?”
For readers of Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things and Mark Greif’s Against Everything, McCarthy’s essays portray a brilliant young critic at work, making sense of our disjointed times while seeking to transform our understanding of race and art, identity and representation.
Praise for The Fugitivities
"In his insightful debut, writer, editor, and Harvard professor McCarthy explores the tension between community and individual perceptions of Black identity in different cultures . . . Superb storytelling." —Booklist
"The Fugitivities is an ambitious, debut novel that speaks to the deepest of vulnerabilities of the human condition: how we make sense of our identities as it relates to others and our stake and responsibilities in the world." —Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing
Praise for Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?
"Jesse McCarthy is an artist of the ear. In the essays collected in Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? he shows us how to hear the anguish and strange joy in trap music, the verbal and rhetorical nuances in American political and poetic traditions, and even the minute change in meaning between “black” and “Black.” Out of these sounds and many others, McCarthy’s challenging and startlingly humane essays make a symphony. This is a beautiful and beguiling new voice, tuned perfectly for the troubles and opportunities of our moment. Listen up." —Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker
"Jesse McCarthy’s Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? signals the rebirth of the golden age of Black cultural criticism. McCarthy is absolutely brilliant and this book is stunning. With an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge, McCarthy moves between popular culture, critical theory, scholarship, media, music, and art deftly and precisely in order to provide a historically informed assessment of our times. McCarthy is a beautiful writer and thinker and the world is better for his wisdom." —Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of Breathe: A Letter to My Sons
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