Literary Black History

As Black History Month winds to a close, I thought I’d focus my attention on some of the work I’m familiar with that’s either by African American writers, or in some way has to do with civil rights.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African first came out in 1789. It is Equiano’s narrative of his life in Africa, his capture and life as a slave. Definitely worth reading. Another book in the memoir category is The Confessions of Nat Turner, told by the man who led the now-historical 1831 slave revolt in Virginia that left 59 white people dead.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (along with two other novels by greatly-underrepresented author Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing), deals with the phenomenon of black people passing as white and its psychological implications. Only slightly branching off this vein is Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a tale of two boys (one white, one black) switched at birth.

— C.W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition is an exploration of life, sterotypes, and a race riot in a Southern town. It’s also an excellent book.

The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois is a collection of essays on African American life, that includes, among other things, interesting comments on the phenomenon of double consciousness (simultaneously being aware of who you are and how you’re perceived), and the seemingly prophetic statement that the problem of the 20th century is (was) the problem of the color line (this statement was the seed for a LitKicks October Earth discussion, available here). A poem that is related to the notion of double consciousness is Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask”.

— James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie is a brilliant play that is loosely based on a real life event — the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (information on Till’s murder can be found here). His short story, “Going to Meet the Man” also deals with lynching, but from a different perspective, climbing into the power issues that surround it.

— A great collection is The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, edited by William J. Harris. Regardless of what you may think of Baraka and some of the more inflammatory comments he’s made, this book is, quite easily, the most effective, detailed, literary journey through American racial politics that exists, by demonstrating the path LeRoi Jones took to become Amiri Baraka.

— Here at LitKicks, we sometimes talk spoken word in the form of hiphop (we even had a couple of discussions: here and here), but I thought I’d focus on a couple of remarkable speeches instead. Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” is an amazing bit of rhetoric, and is still good, even today. (Text of the speech available here.) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (full text here) is a speech he gave one year before his assassination, and though it doesn’t get the same kind of attention as his other speeches (namely, “I Have a Dream”), it’s still pretty incredible. Though both of these speeches dealt with time-specific things, it wouldn’t be that hard to argue that many of their points are still applicable today.

There are lots of things I didn’t mention here — the poetry of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, among others — but I thought I’d cut myself off before my post got too monstrously long.

Anyway, have you read any of these works? Do you like them? Think they’re important? What do you think about them? Any others you’d like to suggest?

To push this out into a wider question, what do you think about the fact that this literature is often pigeonholed into specialized African American Lit or Civil Rights categories? Isn’t it all just literature? Or does making a specific category for writers or subjects based on race make it more likely that this literature will be preserved?

10 Responses

  1. Bill’s PicksA couple of
    Bill’s Picks

    A couple of months ago I read the remarkable Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. When I read what Frederick Douglas went through and what he accomplished, it humbles me. One of my favorite parts is when people are trying to discredit Douglas’ narrative soon after it was first published. Some accuse him of never being a slave, saying no slave could possibly write so expertly. Then one dumb-ass slave owner writes a letter to the newspaper, adding his two cents. He says (I paraphrase here), “Don’t any of you listen to Frederick Douglas. He’s lying about all that mistreatment! You can’t take the word of an ex-slave!”
    Well, Douglas replies, “First of all, thank you. Thank you for verifying that I was, in fact, a slave – that my narrative is true.”

    Next, I have to mention one of my favorite books, right up there with On the Road. It’s called Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This book was written during the heyday of the Beat generation and it’s too bad that Ginsberg and Kerouac didn’t hang out more with Ellison. Maybe they did, but I’m not aware of it.

    Finally, I’ve got to talk about poet Al Letson. I’ve seen & heard him read twice, once at a benefit for Stetson Kennedy and once at the Boomtown Cafe. Both these events were in Jacksonville, but Letson is a nationwide performer. Al came in first at the Atlanta Poetry Grand Slam in 2000, he ranked 3rd at the National Poetry Slam (2000), and more recently took part in Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam.

  2. Hey Bill –Good picks. Your
    Hey Bill —

    Good picks. Your comments on Douglass reminds me of a line in the Adrienne Rich poem “The Burning of Paper instead of Children” —

    “Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s.”

    He did indeed write beautifully. A great short story by Douglass is “The Heroic Slave”, which brings up some interesting points about double standards and the price of freedom. I’m sure the text is available online somewhere.

  3. Malcolm X autobio. &
    Malcolm X autobio. & pigeonholing

    1. Malcolm X’s autobiography is the best.
    2. Being white and a man, your correspondent is the mainstream and thus unqualified to comment on being non-white; that disclaimer given, it should all be about writing, e.g., after reading a short story by a famous African-American about his going to a tent revival and not receiving any transcendence or a religious mystical experience, your correspondent could understand and have empathy. Possibly if the writer wasn’t identified as black, the short story would’ve never been read by yours truly.
    3. Academia seems to like pigeonholing everything and assigning everything written a genre. At Harvard College, given in the fields of concentration are: African and African American Studies, Classics, East Asian Studies, English and American Literature and Language, Folklore and Mythology, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Social Studies, Special Concentrations, Visual and Environmental Studies, Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Yale offers fewer. Whether either approach helps human progress, the answer probably deals with funding but extremist groups would most likely not be invited to establish a chair anywhere in the Ivy League.
    4. In Sartean terms, a writer who rejects his facticity is in bad faith.

  4. African-American
    African-American Literature

    The author that has left the most impression on me from the genre would be Langston Hughes. I haven’t read him in years, but I remember being much impressed & amused by his witty rhymes & pointed social observations. I plan to look more into the Harlem Renaissance: it’s the most important black literary movement together with Negritude from France. The few works of Baraka I’ve come across were pretty compelling.

    Categories are like menus in a restaurant: they help the person draw distinctions between varied classifications in order to distinguish the context of each. Even if there were no categories one would eventually create them, as differences in our existences highlight the value of the subjects taken interest in.

  5. I agree with you that
    I agree with you that categories are helpful. Of course, we know that some things overlap from one category to the other, but that’s ok, it’s still a useful tool.

  6. Brent Staples’
    Brent Staples’ Comment

    Speaking to a Harvard panel, Staples said: Newspapers in their present form will be long gone before blacks are doing their share of the reporting.

    Possibly the same’s in the competitive field of publishing.

  7. Personal Pespective on Black
    Personal Pespective on Black Lit

    I review life from a lofty pespective of now being 60+ years. Not that that’s significant, but in this case, interesting.

    You see, when I was in school, black literature didn’t exist and neither did black history. Our texts were written by whites about white culture, history, evolution, and white contributions to man’s survival. I had no clue that the continent of Africa was filled with indications that ancient civilizations had once thrived there. I always assumed that this “dark” continent’s history did not exist and that nothing had ever happened there. I never read anything by a black writer except the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr. My only black hero was Cassius Clay.

    Now Mr. Malcolm X came along when I was in my teen years. He was the real “bad guy” sowing malcontent with his voice raised for segregation and the making of a separate Black Nation. He didn’t impress me as much more than a rabble rouser. Now don’t jump to conclusions here. I was totally FOR integration and equal rights for black people. There just weren’t any where I lived and my spin on the world situation came from the media. This was the 50’s after all and it was a while before he changed his militant stance. From my current perspective, I view him differently than I did as his story was being recorded on the nightly news.

    But I am way off track…

    My daughter exposed me to black writers as she began reading them. Much to my surprise, I had a lot to learn. I still feel like a part of my education was totally omitted. That angers me a lot and I could just go off on that but I won’t.

    Because I was unaware of black literature it seemed to me that it has exploded during the last couple decades. Of course there was no explosion; I just became aware.

    I still feel like I am sadly lacking in my knowledge of black writers. Of those I have read, I feel this:

    Black literature should be read with an understanding of the culture and times of the writer. These things impact what the writer is saying and helps the reader understand where he is coming from. So, I think this makes the writer’s race significant to the reader. Does all black literature need to be tied up in one neat package, “segregated” so to speak? Well, no. Only for the reason stated.

    My sad lack of knowledge does not let me list the black writers I find significant. I have come to appreciate Baraka and Morrison and have read some others I have really enjoyed because of the beauty of their style or simply what they had to say. So forgive my not responding to this part of the discussion. I still have so much catching up to do.

  8. Yes, The Autobiography of
    Yes, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an excellent book. It’s also, I think, one of the most valuable I’ve ever read.

    And also, yes, academia is very fond of pigeonholing, and I think that even to a degree, this has its value. Yet I also noticed during my own stint in academia that literature is divided into two main categories: Literature and Other Literature (and it is under this Other Literature category that most of those subcategories fall). The aforementioned value in this is, I think, that a lot of this stuff is being read and discussed, and it wasn’t even seeing the light of day before, yet the questionable aspect of this is that it tends to give the so-called Other Literature a novelty value that isn’t fair or deserved.

  9. yesterday and todayI’ve read
    yesterday and today

    I’ve read a few of these writers. My two favorite African-American writers are two you didn’t mention, though: Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison.

    I can’t pretend I rush out to buy every new Alice Walker book. But I respected the hell out of “The Color Purple” (despite the soggy Steven Spielberg movie that followed it). I think she’s a courageous and original voice.

    I like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” because it is strongly in the grand tradition of powerfully self-lacerating existential self-portraits, along with Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground”, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, Camus’s “Stranger”, Kerouac’s “Subterraneans” and Burrough’s “Naked Lunch”.

    I think a few current (or only recently dead) hiphop poets — Jay-Z, Biggie — will stand the test of time and be remembered as serious writers in the distant future.

  10. Being a generation younger,
    Being a generation younger, your correspondent’s full of assumptions that the status quo was always forever; however during elementary school, went through many consciousness raising exercises and learned terms such as stereotyping and the definition of prejudice, never dreaming he could be at the receiving end in the USA or East Asia or Central China.

    That said, New Orleans’ Neville Bros. wrote a song about Rosa Parks because a young African-American who mugged her didn’t know who she was so there is a case for consciousness raising and finding out others’ literature.

    Lastly, your correspondent feels he knows enough personally about being a member of the economic underclass and would like to read more about transcendence without being a Pollyana or a Candide.

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