The story of black America is that of a journey from slavery to freedom. But this change in legal definition describes only the obvious. Less apparent is the journey not yet completed, the journey that blacks and whites must make together. That is the one toward the egalitarian ideal that will be reached only when blacks and whites can look at each other and not see race, but a person first.
It is outrageous that any people on this planet should have to "prove" their humanity to any other group. Yet that is precisely what African Americans have had to do since their involuntary arrival on these shores. Yes, European immigrants were subjected to prejudice, but discrimination against these groups mostly disappeared as successive generations were assimilated into American life. Although there have been native-born African Americans since Colonial times, white superiority persists with preternatural intensity into the closing moments of the 20th century.
One of the weapons African Americans have wielded against racism has been literature. Professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay argue in their introduction to "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature" that "the Anglo-African literary tradition was created" to prove that African Americans were "full and equal members of the community of rational, sentient beings, that they could, indeed, write." They quote the black novelist and poet James Weldon Johnson, who averred 70 years ago that "[n]o people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior."
Unfortunately, Johnson's naive faith has gone unrewarded, but that is not the fault of African Americans. This monumental collection demonstrates that the black literary tradition is long, varied and rich.
It is the seventh in the Norton series of anthologies that are regarded as embodying the literary canon. Designed for use in colleges and universities, it has an accompanying course guide that includes sample syllabi and suggestions on how to use the anthology in teaching. Unique to this anthology in the series is an audio CD with music of some of the poetry in the section on oral tradition.
The book is divided into seven sections, edited by nine academics. Ranging from African American beginnings in this country to the present, it includes the work of 120 writers, of whom 52 are women. Thirteen novels, five plays and one book-length poem are presented in their entirety, including such seminal works as W.E.B. DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folk," Jean Toomer's "Cane" and Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."
The basis of the African American literary tradition is not the written word but the oral tradition, and it is appropriate that the anthology begins with the poetry found in African American religious and secular music--spirituals, blues, work songs, etc.--as well as the rhythmic and colorful prose of sermons and folk tales. Not only has much African American writing sought to incorporate, use and improvise on these forms, that writing has also plumbed such themes as protest and survival, endurance and transcendence, which find expression in the oral literature.
The written tradition started before the Revolutionary War in the narratives of ex-slaves, anti-slavery essays and speeches, and poetry. The thrust of this early work was understandably an amalgam of pleas to be viewed as members of the human family and to protest slavery and discrimination. Sadly, much of this work is modern in tone and content, such as the 1857 oration of the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who called Fourth of July celebrations "a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery. . . ."
Where the writings from Colonial times through the Civil War were focused on the necessity to end slavery, the period from 1865 to the end of World War I produced the first giants of African American literary, intellectual and political life. Black writing became more varied, ranging from the dialect poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar to the sophisticated novels of Charles Chestnutt to the cosmopolitanism of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois.
African American literature reached its first flowering between the two wars when the writings of the Harlem Renaissance shifted to a celebration of black culture. Zora Neale Hurston began her work as the first black folklorist. Langston Hughes' poems used the blues and jazz as inspiration and models for new literary forms, while Countee Cullen and Claude McKay took traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet and infused them with racial consciousness. The era also saw the maturation of black literature in the satiric fiction of Rudolph Fisher and Wallace Thurman and the acerbic journalism of George Schuyler. As Arnold Rampersad, editor of this section, comments: "In this period, black American artists laid the foundations for the representation of their people in the modern world, with a complexity and a self-knowledge that have proven durable."
From the inception of World War II until 1960, no less than six African Americans produced bodies of work that found places not only in the African American literary canon but in the American one: novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, essayist James Baldwin, poets Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks and playwright Hansberry. In each of these genres, the writing achieved a level of such sophistication and complexity that it had to be considered as being on a par with "white" literature.
The last three decades have seen an explosion of African American literature in voices as multifarious as the colors of a kaleidoscope. In the last 10 years, black writers have won more literary awards than the total number won by blacks in the previous 86, since 1900. It is not uncommon to see black writers on bestseller lists, sometimes three or four at a time. Perhaps the ultimate recognition that African American literature has come of age was the awarding of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature to novelist Toni Morrison.
The "Norton Anthology" admirably achieves its goal of collecting in one place work that academic scholars consider as constituting "the canon." Where previous anthologies, such as "The Negro Caravan" (1944), defined the canon for their times, these works were designed to appeal to a general audience. The "Norton Anthology" seeks to make African American literature unassailable as a legitimate academic discipline. But ironically, this effort gives the anthology its own niche in African American literary history as the most recent attempt of blacks to "prove" to whites that they are "equal."
The book also seeks to provide critical interpretations that will be authoritative, if not canonical. Each of the anthology's seven sections has an introduction, and within the respective sections are brief biographical and critical essays on the work of each writer. The learning displayed in these essays is, for the most part, dazzling, especially the felicitous writing of Rampersad in the section on "The Harlem Renaissance."
However, it is to be hoped that the interpretations of the various editors will not be accorded similar canonical reverence. Robert G. O'Meally's analysis of the trickster figure in African American folk tales reduces Brer Rabbit to the quasi-political and is blind to the complexity of the trickster as the bringer of chaos to the overly structured. Barbara Christian's enthusiasm for the writers in her section ("Literature Since 1970") leads her into unnecessary hyperbole, which might cause students to overlook the weaknesses in some of the work included.
In a book purporting to be canonical, it is annoying to find small errors in the notes editors supply to explain allusions in various literary works. Paul Douglas, for example, was a U.S. senator from Illinois, not Massachusetts. We are told that Charles Chestnutt's black storyteller was "Uncle Junius"; elsewhere, he is referred to correctly as "Uncle Julius." In DuBois' poem "A Litany of Atlanta," the Hebrew word selah is used. The note here defines the word as "forever." In reality, it is a musical term meaning to pause or be silent.
Unhappily, the specter of black-Jewish tensions appears in several places. Black writing contains numerous biblical allusions, the River Jordan being one and Canaan another. Editors' notes describe the former as being "in Palestine," while Canaan is "a region of Palestine west of Jordan." Since there is no formal geographical entity known as Palestine, it appears that the editors were seeking to avoid referring to Israel.
More problematic is the attempt by Houston A. Baker Jr. to discuss the anti-Semitism in some writings of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. In seeking to explain, Baker comes dangerously close to justifying. He does not see black anti-Semitic expression as a weakness or as a lamentable lapse in simple human decency, as surely racist expression would be in the literature of any other people.
In an anthology of this size, it is easy to quibble with editors' choices. Inevitably, there are writers and works included and excluded that should not have been, but there are only two cases important enough to mention. The absence of work by Martin Delaney, a 19th century figure who was one of the first black separatists and an early novelist, is inexplicable.
More questionable is the inclusion of a translation of "La Mulatre (The Mulatto)" as "the earliest known work of African American fiction." The anthology, in its own words, is supposed to represent writing "in English by persons of African descent in the United States." Though "La Mulatre's" author, Victor Sejour, was born in New Orleans in 1817, he went to Paris when he was 19 and never returned. Because "La Mulatre" was not translated into English until its publication in this volume, it cannot have influenced the African American literary tradition. A literary curiosity, its inclusion here is unjustified.
Criticisms aside, "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature" is a triumph and should accomplish its goal of securing a place of acceptance and respect in the academy for African American literature. Such a volume was a monumental undertaking, and the editors are to be commended for having fulfilled the challenge of presenting in one book the remarkable literary journey of a people who were, a mere 130 years ago, only coming out of slavery.
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EXCERPTS FROM 'THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE'
From "America," by James M. Whitfield (1853)
America, it is to thee,
Thou boasted land of liberty,
It is to thee I raise my song,
Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.
It is to thee, my native land,
From whence has issued many a band
to tear the black man from his soil,
And force him here to delve and toil;
Chained on your blood-bemoistened sod,
Cringing beneath a tyrant's rod,
Stripped of those rights which Nature's God
Bequeathed to all the human race,
Bound to a petty tyrant's nod,
Because he wears a paler face.
From "Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral" by Jesse Redmon Fauset (1929)
Opal Street, as streets go, is no jewel of the first water. It is merely an imitation, and none too good at that. Narrow, unsparkling, uninviting, it stretches meekly off from dull Jefferson Street to the dingy, drab market which forms the north side of Oxford Street. It has no mystery, no allure, either of exclusiveness or of downright depravity; its usages are plainly significant--an unpretentious little street lined with unpretentious little houses, inhabited for the most part by unpretentious little people.
. . . In one of these houses dwelt a father, a mother and two daughters. Here, as often happens in a home sheltering two generations, opposite, unevenly matched emotions faced each other. In the houses of the rich the satisfied ambition of the older generation is faced by the overwhelming ambition of the younger. Or the elders may find themselves brought in opposition to the blank indifference and ennui of youth engendered by the realization that there remain no more worlds to conquer; their fathers having already taken all. In houses on Opal Street these niceties of distinction are hardly to be found; there is a more direct and concrete contrast. The satisfied ambition of maturity is a foil for the restless despair of youth.
From "Cane" by Jean Toomer (1923)
Her soul is like a little thrust-tailed dog that follows her, whimpering. She is large enough, I know, to find a warm spot for it. But each night when she comes home and closes the big outside storm door, the little dog is left in the vestibule, filled with chills till morning. Some one . . . eoho [call] Jesus . . . soft as a cotton boll brushed against the milk-pod cheek of Christ, will steal in and cover it that it need not shiver, and carry it to her where she sleeps upon clean hay cut in her dreams.
When you meet her in the daytime on the streets, the little dog keeps coming. Nothing happens at first, and then, when she has forgotten the streets and alleys, and the large house where she goes to bed of nights, a soft thing like fur begins to rub your limbs, and you hear a low, scared voice, lonely, calling, and you know that a cool something nozzles moisture in your palms. Sensitive things like nostrils, quiver. Her breath comes sweet as honeysuckle whose pistils bear the life of coming song. And her eyes carry to where builders find no need for vestibules, for swinging on iron hinges, storm doors.
From "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality" by Maria W. Stewart (1831)
All the nations of the earth are crying out for liberty and equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression! And shall Afric's sons be silent any longer? Far be it from me to recommend to you either to kill, burn or destroy. But I would strongly recommend for you to improve your talents; let not one lie buried in the earth. Show forth your powers of mind. Prove to the world that
Though black your skins as shades of night,
Your hearts are pure, your souls are white.
This is the land of freedom. The press is at liberty. Every man has a right to express his opinion. Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings; but God does not consider you as such. He hath formed and fashioned you in his own glorious image, and hath bestowed upon you reason and strong powers of intellect . . . and according to the Constitution of these United States, he hath made all men free and equal. . . . It is not the color of the skin that makes the man, but it is the principles formed within the soul."
From "To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time" by Countee Cullen (1927)
I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
There never was a spring like this;
It is an echo, that repeats
My last year's song and next year's bliss.
I know, in spite of all men say
Of Beauty, you have felt her most.
Yea. Even in your grave her way
Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,
Spring never was so fair and dear
As Beauty makes her seem this year.
From "Reena" by Paule Marshall (1982)
Like most people with unpleasant childhoods, I am on constant guard against the past--the past being for me the people and places associated with the years I served out my girlhood in Brooklyn. The places no longer matter that much since most of them have vanished. The old grammar school, for instance, P.S. 35 ("Dirty 5's" we called it and with justification) has been replaced by a low, coldly functional arrangement of glass and Permastone which bears its name but has none of the feel of a school about it. The small, grudgingly lighted stores along Fulton Street, the soda parlor that was like a church with its stained-glass panels in the door and marble floor, have given way to those impersonal emporiums, the supermarkets. Our house even, a brownstone relic whose halls smelled comfortingly of dust and lemon oil, the somnolent street upon which it stood, the tall, muscular trees which shaded it were leveled years ago to make way for a city housing project--a stark, graceless warren for the poor. So that now whenever I revisit that old section of Brooklyn and see these new and ugly forms, I feel nothing. I might as well be in a strange city.