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African American Literature in the BlackBy Jabari Asim
Sunday, June 1, 1997
It's hard -- if not impossible -- to find a period in modern American literature that did not mark significant changes for African-American writers and readers. It's just as difficult, perhaps, to discuss the 1970s -- when The Washington Post's independent edition of Book World was born -- without at least a nod to the turbulent decade that preceded them. Twenty-five years ago, flush from the gains of the Black Arts movement, many promising writers dared to envision lucrative careers in the spotlight, lives spent fashioning well-wrought books of poetry, essays and fiction for a passionately interested readership. Those dreams soon faded, however, quashed by the hostile indifference of mainstream publishing houses, most of which neither desired nor acknowledged African-American audiences.
Poets enjoyed a rare primacy during the Black Arts heyday, largely because of two factors: 1) the rise of a new breed of black-controlled, poetry-centered publishing concerns, most notably Detroit's Broadside Press, and 2) the unparalleled accessibility of the work itself. With fervor not seen since Langston Hughes haunted Harlem's nightspots, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eugene B. Redmond and others reached out to embrace the common reader. Often adopting the colorful, tough lingo of the streets, they read their poetry in bars, on street corners and at political rallies -- in short, wherever potential readers could be found. Many of the supportive small presses led short lives, however, and as time progressed, poets found themselves at the mercy of virtually all-white publishing houses.
Some of the major poets who emerged during the '60s continued to publish through the following decade, including Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez. My own favorite collection from the '70s is Play Ebony Play Ivory (1974), a posthumous volume by Henry Dumas. A native of Sweet Home, Ark., Dumas was an elemental poet who mixed earthy funk with unabashed romanticism to create work of remarkable resonance. Equally adept at blues verse, mystical meditations and "protest" poems, Dumas never sacrificed metaphor for simplistic slogans. His love poems are suffused with heat and longing: "I know why the desert/ burns with fever./ It has wept too long without you." Shot dead in 1968 by a policeman who mistook him for someone else, Dumas was just 34 years old.
Random House's publication of Dumas's poems was made possible in large part by a senior editor there named Toni Morrison. In the 1970s Morrison and Maya Angelou both began writing careers that would grow to monumental stature. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou used novelistic techniques to recall her life as a young girl in the South during the early '30s and '40s. For many critics, including this one, Angelou's effort heralded a new approach in black women's writing, one based on distinctly feminine themes of empowerment and self-determination. "And Still I Rise," the title poem from her third collection of verse, adored by generations of young black readers, has become an anthem of affirmation. "You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,/ You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I'll rise."
Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), gave clear indication of the brilliance that would lead to Song of Solomon (1977), inarguably a masterwork, and culminate in her acceptance of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature. Morrison also published Sula in 1973, for a total of three first-rate novels in a decade. Angelou and Morrison have continued to be dominant literary voices; both recently had works selected by Oprah Winfrey for inclusion in her much-discussed Book Club.
Ishmael Reed, one of the most versatile and productive American writers, published his landmark novel Mumbo Jumbo in 1972, and in the process helped to expand prevailing notions of black storytelling. Reed is the high priest of Neo-HooDooism, his philosophy of art and living derived from African religious practices and a select sprinkling of New World ingredients. Mere descriptions of Reed's creative methods fail to do justice to the results, which are often magical. Witness, for instance, Mumbo Jumbo's memorable beginning: "A True Sport, the Mayor of New Orleans, spiffy in his patent-leather brown and white shoes, his plaid suit, the Rudolph Valentino parted-down-the-middle hair style, sits in his office. Sprawled upon his knees is Zuzu, local doo-wack-a-doo and voo-do-dee-odo figzig."
Other writers who first published in the '60s and gained greater notice in the '70s include Alice Walker and James Alan McPherson, whose short-story collection Elbow Room prompted considerable hue and cry, and earned him a 1978 Pulitzer Prize as well.
Walker edited I Love Myself When I Am Laughing, an anthology devoted to resurrecting the image of Zora Neale Hurston, a genius of the Harlem Renaissance whose work had been woefully neglected in past decades. Hurston's resurgence is due in no small part to Walker's efforts on her behalf.
By the 1980s, a variety of spiritual descendants had embraced Hurston's legacy of strong, woman-centered storytelling. Gloria Naylor made an auspicious debut in 1982, when her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, earned critical plaudits. Naylor's interlocking stories of seven black women living on the same dead-end street won the American Book Award for Best First Novel that year. Ntozake Shange, whose explosive "for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf" appeared in 1974, also published her first novel in 1982. Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo is an impressive tale of three South Carolina-born sisters trying to live as independent, self-sufficient women. An unabashed experimentalist who cites trailblazer Clarence Major (author of Reflex and Bone Structure and All-Night Visitors, among others) as an early influence, Shange infused her prose in Sassafrass with the same high musicality found in her best poems.
After years of selflessly uplifting Hurston's reputation, Alice Walker entered the limelight when her third novel, The Color Purple, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. This epistolary novel about Celie, a heroic woman who overcomes the worst challenges that her oppressive, sexist society can throw at her, remains Walker's best. Still, not a few critics found The Color Purple objectionable. The author's use of Southern black dialect, mocked and condemned by any number of detractors, acquires a patina of irony when viewed in light of the current Ebonics controversy. Many critics also took offense at her treatment of men, which they deemed overly harsh. In a letter to her sister, Walker's heroine reflects, "The God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown." However, Celie makes peace with her former tormentor near the novel's end, and the ultimate theme of Walker's saga is less about misandry and more about transcendence.
Probably the most underappreciated novel of this period is Xam Wilson Cartier's Be-Bop, Re-Bop, published in 1987. Shange began her first novel with the observation, "Where there is a woman there is music" -- a theme Cartier brings to life in masterful fashion. Her unnamed narrator's recollection of growing up in the 1950s approximates the frenetic splendor of bebop by successfully incorporating its complex rhythm changes and glorious melodic flights.
Yes, black men also wrote fiction during the 1980s, a decade in which proven veterans -- John Edgar Wideman, Ernest J. Gaines, Charles Johnson -- were joined by such young guns as Trey Ellis and Randall Kenan. Wideman published three well-received works of fiction during this period, including the second and third installments of his acclaimed "Homewood Trilogy." Even so, his most noteworthy effort was nonfiction. Brothers and Keepers (1984), a series of autobiographical essays, was written with his brother, Robert "Robby" Wideman, who is serving a life sentence in prison. Why did John, an award-winning writer and professor, become a successful member of society while Robby, raised in the same household, ended up behind bars? The brothers don't claim to have the answer to that question, but they explore its ramifications with unflinching honesty.
Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men (1983), which relates the murder of a Cajun from 15 different points of view, is easily one of the best novels of the decade. Raised on a Louisiana plantation, Gaines has committed himself to portraying the customs and personalities he encountered while growing up. His five novels and one short-story collection, all set in fictional St. Raphael Parish, have earned him considerable acclaim -- and a MacArthur grant in 1993.
Rita Dove's first collection to be published by a major house, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), signalled the emergence of a tightly disciplined, restrained poetic style, a movement away from the loud urgency favored by the Black Arts school. Dove's technique is no less powerful, however. Her creative use of form and her gift for devising imaginative metaphors usually results in poems with startling impact. Her brilliant sequence of poems about slavery in The Yellow House, for instance, enables her to heartily condemn the peculiar institution without raising her voice. Consider these lines from "The House Slave," in which a servant observes her fellow slaves hustling to the fields: "I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat// and as the fields unfold to whiteness,/ and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,/ I weep. It is not yet daylight." A subsequent, even stronger Dove collection, Thomas and Beulah, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. She became U.S. poet laureate in 1994.
The present era, energized by the publishing world's apparently astonishing discovery that there is indeed an audience composed of black readers, encompasses a range of writers that is perhaps more diverse than ever before. Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale, 1992), Toni Morrison (Jazz, 1992) and Walker (Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992) continue to occupy national bestseller lists. Occasionally, they are joined by black men such as Walter Mosley (A Little Yellow Dog, 1996) and E. Lynn Harris (And This Too Shall Pass, 1995).
It is also a time in which black writers are winning recognition and prestigious prizes with increasing frequency. Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, his best novel yet, established this promising tone by capturing the National Book Award in 1990. Morrison's Nobel followed soon after, as did poet Yusef Komunyakaa's 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a reigning critic of the current age, has argued that black autobiographies are regarded as more significant than black novels because the author's experiences, "however personal, are also automatically historical." Perhaps that explains the enduring popularity of first-personal accounts. Gerald Early's Daughters and Brent Staples's elegant Parallel Time have set the standard so far.
In the Tradition, an anthology edited by Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka, announced the arrival of a new generation of writers, many of whom were mere infants during black literature's last resurgence. Some of those included, such as Elizabeth Alexander (The Venus Hottentot, 1991), John Keene (Annotations, 1995), and the remarkable Paul Beatty (The White Boy Shuffle, 1995) have gone on to fulfill their early promise. Others of their generation -- poets Carl Phillips and Alison Joseph, fiction writers Ricardo Cortez Cruz and Jake Lamarr -- have also done outstanding work. The dazzling variety of creative approaches, unencumbered by dominant ideologies and propelled by a common pursuit of excellence, confirms the anything-goes tenor of the times. It also confirms, as critic Robert Elliot Fox has observed, that "there are, and always have been, several black traditions, sometimes conflicting, sometimes intersecting, but nonetheless coexistent."
Jabari Asim is an assistant editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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