COLUMN ONE : Turning a New Page in History : Prejudice and hardship buried the works of early black authors for years. But now, researchers are rediscovering the books and the truths they told.
Like marathoners forced to wear weighted shoes, black American novelists during slavery and for decades after faced seemingly impossible odds on the road to publication.
As slaves, black people were forbidden by law to read and write. Some slave writers not only had to escape their masters but flee the country as well. Even those who were befriended by sympathetic white Americans often had to tone down their views of racism in order to get published. And long after slavery ended, many black novelists could find no publishers other than themselves.
Still, they wrote. The early novels by blacks were steeped in realism born out of their enslavement, and, later, by the tyranny of low-level jobs, lynchings, segregation and discrimination. But through the years, these windows into the soul of black America remained largely closed, relegated to literary backwaters.
Now, university researchers increasingly are sifting through these novels and in the process have uncovered a trove of revelations about black life in America and race relations over the years. The search also makes an important link between the early black writers and those who came later.
Here on the elegant, tree-shaded campus of the University of Mississippi, where much of the racial history is steeped in anger and hate, a project is unfolding with the goal of cataloguing and collecting a copy of every novel published by a black American author since the first one in 1853, William Wells Brown’s “Clotel.” In all, some 2,000 titles will form the collection.
The effort, a daunting one, is similar to those at other universities, where collections are under way for periodical literature and for fiction covering shorter periods of time. In addition, collectors at private organizations increasingly are seeking out books written by blacks.
Experts say the collections parallel a growing dissatisfaction with educators’ lists of “great literature,” which often exclude books written by blacks and other minorities and those by women.
For black people the efforts bear particular significance. They carry the hopes of building black pride in literature, combatting white prejudice in publishing and chipping away at the huge rock of illiteracy--a problem exacerbated by dropout rates that hover around 50% in some predominantly black schools.
“Maybe they (black students) didn’t want to read ‘Silas Marner,’ but they would want to read ‘Clotel,’ said Casper Jordan, an adjunct professor at Clark Atlanta University’s school of library and information studies.
The collectors say their discoveries of early black novels will help tear down the stereotype that black people historically have had only an “oral tradition” of story-telling, not a written one. And the stories, they say, often provide insightful looks into ordinary black life, broadening everyone’s understanding of the black experience in America and inspiring black people as well.
“Black people have a history in this discipline, and we want to know what it is,” said Maryemma Graham, the director of the Ole Miss project who currently teaches English and African-American literature at Northeastern University in Boston.
So far, said Graham, her project has collected 1,500 of the known 2,000 novels by blacks, including 60 written before 1940. Graham, likening the search to following “a detective’s trail” through attics, basements, churches, libraries and minds, said the novels are collected and catalogued here in many forms, including photocopies, hard copies and microfilm.
There are always new trails for book detectives to explore. As an example, the first novel by a black American woman (and the first by a black published in this country) was published in 1859 but was lost for years until researchers from Yale University drew attention to it in 1982--"Our Nig or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” by Harriet E. Wilson.
Parts of her life paralleled the travails of the book’s heroine, Frado, an indentured servant to a brutal white family in 19th-Century Massachusetts.
Why did this work remain obscure for so long?
Henry Louis Gates Jr., now a Duke University professor who, while at Yale, led the rediscovery team, speculated that one possibility was that Wilson confronted Northern racism, thus alienating Northerners.
Gates, in his introduction to a Random House reprinting of the book, also cited as a possibility the book’s “unabashed representation of an interracial marriage, a liaison from which the novel’s protagonist was an offspring.” He went on to say that interracial marriage “was not a popular subject for representation in either anti-slavery or pro-slavery novels.” Through the years, many novels by blacks were published in limited quantities, often by “vanity presses,” sometimes circulated only among friends and church members. And say scholars, many black writers were exploited, much in the same way as black musicians who were cheated out of profits by record companies.
Here, at the project’s command center, Barbara Hunt, project co-director, leaned over an open file drawer, thumbing through book copies, noting that many of the early books centered on the devastating conditions during slavery. Such literature, she said, “doesn’t show too much in the way of optimism,” dispelling the notion of benign slavery.
First among these is “Clotel,” subtitled “The President’s Daughter” because it represents the persistent assertion that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by a black woman. Brown, an escaped slave who made his way from Kentucky to Cleveland, then Buffalo, N.Y., where his house was an Underground Railroad station, wrote the book in the British Isles, and it was published in London. At the time he could not return to America, lest he risk re-enslavement.
In the genre of the “tragic mulatto,” as is “Our Nig,” the novel details the sad, hard life of Clotel, born of a slave master and a slave, and in the process, provides graphic details of slave life.
At an auction where Clotel’s mother is sold, Brown notes that among the bidders, the “laughing, joking, swearing, smoking, spitting and talking kept up a continual hum,” while a “slave girl stood with tearful eyes, looking alternately at her mother and sister and toward the young man whom she hoped would become her purchaser.”
Brown, who himself was as fair-skinned as a white man, portrayed the conflicts between light-skinned blacks and darker ones, having one slave character say of another: “She tink she white when she cum here, wid dat long har ob hers.”
Connecting the evils of slavery and the sexual fears of white women, Brown wrote: “What social virtues are possible in a society of which injustice is a primary characteristic--in a society which is divided into two classes, masters and slaves? Every married woman at the South looks upon her husband as unfaithful, and regards every Negro woman as a rival.”
Researchers note that many students are familiar with the works of later black authors like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker and James Baldwin. But they are almost certain to know very little about Brown and other earlier authors, or about the depth of black talent, and despair, represented in their works.
In Los Angeles, Mayme Clayton, executive director of the Western States Black Research Center, recalled that years ago many blacks did not have access to black books, even in school, because many schools refused to buy them. Clayton said she began collecting books by blacks at age 13 and loves the old ones because “you will not know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”
The books, she said, prove that “black people were not as ignorant as white people made people believe.”
Indeed, even as a child, Frances E.W. Harper was acclaimed for her literary skills and developed an international reputation as a poet, lecturer and abolitionist. Her novel, “Iola Leroy,” published in 1892, was one of the early post-Reconstruction literary efforts to combat contemporary white fiction depicting a romantic South where all slaves were happy and the slaveholders kind.
In “Iola Leroy,” Robert Johnson, a former slave who, during the Civil War, rises to the rank of lieutenant in a black regiment, responds to a white captain’s statement about “ungrateful” blacks. Writes Harper: ‘ “Captain,’ said Robert, with a tone of bitterness in his voice, ‘what had we to be grateful for? For ages of poverty, ignorance, and slavery? I think if anybody should be grateful, it is the people who have enslaved us and lived off our labor for generations. . . .’ ”
In addition, several scholars noted that the collection of little known black authors will show the range of writing styles and subject matter that always have existed among black novelists.
Many white people “don’t believe black writers can write about universal themes--like beauty and truth,” said Jordan, the Clark Atlanta University professor. But many of the neglected novels undermine that prejudice.
For example, Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1937, explores the rich fabric of everyday life among rural black people and uses equally rich language to do it. Of sundown she writes: “The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky.” A well-proportioned woman looks “like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets,” and a good cook “switches a mean fanny round in a kitchen” and during a riveting moment, “nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody even thought to swallow spit. . . .”
Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at Howard University who is active in efforts to break down barriers to publication of black writers, said: “Black people have always had a world view that was expressed in their writings,” but whites “accepted the things they thought were flattering and rejected those things they thought were threatening.” Thus, he said, they were “able to maintain stereotypes” of blacks.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, a turn-of-the-century black poet and author, complained bitterly of being forced to write in black dialect because publishers demanded it. After writing three novels with white characters in white settings in an attempt to become a mainstream writer, Dunbar’s final novel--"The Sport of the Gods,” published in 1902--portrayed a black family that moves north, only to find it unbearable. Despair and disillusion pervade the book. A short exchange in it between a black man called Sadness and a white reporter named Skaggsy demonstrates Dunbar’s feeling about having to write dialect.
Skaggsy: “I tell you, Sadness . . . dancing is the poetry of motion.”
Sadness: “Yes . . . and dancing in rag-time is the dialect poetry.”
Ralph Bogardus, professor of American studies at the University of Alabama, is organizing a summer institute to teach Alabama teachers more about black literature. When whites read black books, he said, they “share feelings and thoughts with” black people, thus “broadening their experience.”
Researchers who uncover little known black books envision using them in classes not only to educate white people about the achievements and experiences of black writers but also to instill pride and interest among black people.
At Santa Monica College, Gail Davis Culp, who teaches African-American literature, said that she has seen a dramatic surge in interest in black heritage among black students who have read “Clotel.”
She said the book has inspired discussions of “the psychological implications of being a mulatto,” and that students have taken on roles of the book’s characters and made videotapes of scenes. “For the first time they’re recognizing that they do have a (literary) history and that that history started long before Richard Wright.”
Wright’s first book, “Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas,” was published in 1938. “Native Son,” Wright’s best known work--in which Bigger Thomas personifies black rage, declaring: “I killed for what I am"--was published two years later.
While many of the novels freeze history in place, others surprise with their timelessness.
For example, in “The Marrow of Tradition,” published in 1901, Charles W. Chesnutt, could have been voicing the frustration of black people today when he wrote a passage in which one black man was arrested on suspicion of murder and another, who felt the accusing stares of white people, complained that “the entire race is condemned on general principles.” And Dunbar’s “Sport of the Gods” shows that current-day black people are not the first to find disillusionment in the North.
Amid the increasing effort to collect and publicize black novels, there is likely to be an increased debate over whether they are “good literature.”
Ernst Benjamin, general secretary of the American Assn. of University Professors, said that in the nation’s 3,500 colleges and universities “some would say there is a list of the great books, (but) others say there are reasons to teach different books.”
Different, great, historical, Graham wants them all if they are black. The time is right, she said, likening her desire to spread black literature to the freedom movement in Eastern Europe. “People are crying for more democracy, more representation,” she said. “There is a role in our society for these texts.”
Staff researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.
EXCERPTS FROM BOOKS BY BLACK AUTHORS
“CLOTEL,” by William Wells Brown, published 1853:
This was a Virginia slave-auction, at which the bones, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young girl of eighteen were sold for $500; her moral character for $200; her superior intellect for $100; the benefits supposed to accrue from her having been sprinkled and immersed, together with a warranty of her devoted Christianity, for $300; her ability to make a good prayer for $200; and her chastity for $700 more. This, too, in a city thronged with churches, whose tall spires look like so many signals pointing to heaven, but whose ministers preach that slavery is a God-ordained institution!
“OUR NIG or, SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF A FREE BLACK,” by Harriet E. Wilson, published 1859:
“If I do, I get whipped;” sobbed the child. “They won’t believe what I say. Oh, I wish I had my mother back; then I should not be kicked and whipped so. Who made me so?”
“God;” answered James.
“Did God make you?”
“Who made Aunt Abby?”
“Did the same God that made her make me?”
“Well, then I don’t like him.”
“Because he made her white, and me black. Why didn’t he make us both white?”
“IOLA LEROY,” by Frances E. W. Harper, published 1892:
Miss Leroy, out of the race must come its own thinkers and writers. Authors belonging to the white race have written good racial books, for which I am deeply grateful, but it seems to be almost impossible for a white man to put himself completely in our place. No man can feel the iron which enters another man’s soul.
“THE SPORT OF THE GODS,” By Paul Laurence Dunbar, published 1902:
The subtle, insidious wine of New York will begin to intoxicate him. Then, if he be wise, he will go away, any place--yes, he will even go over to Jersey. But if he be a fool, he will stay and stay on until the town becomes all in all to him; until the very streets are his chums and certain buildings and corners his best friends. Then he is hopeless, and to live elsewhere would be death. The Bowery will be his romance, Broadway his lyric, and the Park his pastoral, the river and the glory of it all his epic, and he will look down pityingly on all the rest of humanity.
“THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD,” by Zora Neale Hurston, published 1937:
The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.