We're pleased to welcome Wesley Brown to our At Home with Literati Series in support of Tragic Magic. He'll be joined in conversation by author Derecka Purnell.
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Tragic Magic is the story of Melvin Ellington, a.k.a. Mouth, a Black, twenty-something, ex-college radical who has just been released from a five-year prison stretch after being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Brown structures this first-person tale around Ellington's first day on the outside. Although hungry for freedom and desperate for female companionship, Ellington is haunted by a past that drives him to make sense of those choices leading up to this day.
Through a filmic series of flashbacks, the novel revisits Ellington's prison experiences, where he is forced to play the unwilling patsy to the predatory Chilly and the callow pupil of the not-so-predatory Hardknocks; then dips further back to Ellington's college days, where again he is led astray by the hypnotic militarism of the Black Pantheresque Theo, whose antiwar politics incite the impressionable narrator to oppose his parents and to choose imprisonment over conscription; and finally back to his earliest high school days, where we meet in Otis, the presumed archetype of Ellington's "tragic magic" relationships with magnetic but dangerous avatars of black masculinity in crisis. But the effect of the novel cannot be conveyed through plot recapitulation alone, for its style is perhaps even more provoking than its subject.
Originally published in 1978, and edited by Toni Morrison during her time at Random House, this Of the Diaspora edition of Tragic Magic features a new introduction by author Wesley Brown.
Wesley Brown is the author of three published novels, a collection of short stories,
Dance of the Infidels, and four produced plays, including Dark Meat on a Funny Mind. He is Professor Emeritus in English at Rutgers University and has taught literature, drama and creative writing at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. He wrote the narration for a segment of the 1997 PBS documentary, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices and is co-editor of the Methuen Anthology of American Women Playwrights : 1970-2020. A new edition of Brown’s first novel, Tragic Magic will be published by McSweeney’s in 2021. He lives in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Derecka Purnell is a lawyer, writer, organizer, and author of forthcoming Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. She works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and trainings in community based organizations through an abolitionist framework.
As a Skadden Fellow, she helped to build the Justice Project at Advancement Project’s National Office which focused on consent decrees, police and prosecutor accountability, and jail closures, providing community training, political education and legal representation to organizers. Her advocacy efforts led to the dismissal of over 3,000 cases based on unconstitutional policing practices. Additionally, she supports several campaigns and grassroots organizations around the criminal legal system, electoral justice, and community investment, including Action St. Louis, Dream Defenders, Communities Against Police Crimes and Repression, the Ferguson Collaborative, and the Movement for Black Lives. Derecka also organized the founding steering committee for Law for Black Lives, a growing network of 5,000 law students, lawyers, and legal workers to support social movements.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Derecka co-created the COVID19 Policing Project at the Community Resource Hub for Safety Accountability. The project tracks police arrests, harassment, citations and other enforcement through public health orders related to the pandemic.
Derecka received her JD from Harvard Law School, her BA from the University of Missouri- Kansas City, and studied public policy and economics at the University of California- Berkeley as a Public Policy and International Affairs Law Fellow. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Teen Vogue, The Appeal, Truthout, Slate, Boston Review, Huffington Post, Vox, and In These Times. She’s been on NPR, Democracy Now!, Slate’s What Next, and MSNBC, and is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. Derecka has lectured, studied, and strategized around social movements across the United States, The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
She is from St. Louis and lives in D.C.