Among the saints included in "Chant of Saints" are fiction writers Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, James Alan McPherson, Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison, poets Robert Hayden and Derek Walcott, artists Romare Bearden and Richard Yarde, photographer Lawrence Sykes and others. This much-needed collection also includes essays and interviews with some of the contributors.
The editors do nt claim that the volume is fully comprehensive, but they have achieved in their selections an expression of the richness and variety of black art. A black writer talks to a black painter in the related language of the arts, but black art follows no prescribed formula or form, as Toni Morrison makes clear in the interview with her in this volume. This is surely in evidence in Robert Hayden's spontaneous "American Journal," for example.
It is hard to believe that there could ever have been talk in America of the innate inferiority of blacks. As "Chant of Saints" proves, this race of unique and determined people has triumphed over institutional degradation to the extent that its achievement has become an important part of American culture. Ralph Ellison declares, in an interview conducted by the editors, that "American culture would not exist without its Afro-American component, or if it did, it would be quite different." Or is the world still under the grips of lionized writers like Conrad, who in Chinua Achebe's piece, "An Image of Africa," is frightened by the realization that the black man shares a common humanity with the white? "Chant of Saints" is a black cultural harvest. It is, to change the metaphor, a single pot out of which students, teachers and lecturers can help themselves to the rich food of the black survival in history and in art.
The conversation with Toni Morrison in "Chant of Saints" includes a description of different types of black American women. "Midnight Birds," in which Mary Helen Washington has collected short stories from black women writing in the '70s, continues this discussion. It is a book that is difficult to fault, except that African women writers, though black, are hardly represented. Nonetheless, the universality of its message is not diminished. For example, one can recognize Toni Morrison's Eva Pearce in black women anywhere, whether among the desperate ones in London or those in Africa. And her type cuts across race. dDo we not read of Jewish women who threw their babies out of cattle-coach windows to save them from the gas chamber?
"Midnight Birds" speaks through its admirable selection of stories to black women in particular and to all women in general. The message is clear: It is about time we women start to talk to each other, the white to the black, the black American to her African sister, ironing out our differences. For as Toni Morrison said, "Because when you don't have a woman to really talk to, whether it be an aunt or a sister or a friend, that is the real loneliness."