Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Judging a Book by Its Writer's Color

Been busy the last couple of months writing for my supper, but I had to pop in to share this most interesting and timely article from The Chronicle by Professor Gene Jarrett. Thoughts?

Judging a Book by Its Writer's Color

Thanks to the widely acclaimed Norton Anthology of African American Literature, we can read and celebrate an assortment and abundance of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama by black writers. But this admirable book ignores a remarkable history: Some of our most celebrated black authors weren't always so "hungry for texts about themselves," an actual phrase used to introduce the anthology's second edition. Contrary to this claim, some canonical authors were just as interested in writing about our common humanity, regardless of racial differences.

Take a look at this list of authors and some of their fiction. Ironically, although numerous anthologies tend to hail the former, they often ignore the latter: Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's Sowing and Reaping (1876-77); Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Uncalled (1898); Nella Larsen's "The Wrong Man" and "Freedom" (1926); Jean Toomer's York Beach (1929); Wallace Thurman's The Interne (1932); Ann Petry's Country Place (1947); Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee (1948); Chester Himes's Cast the First Stone (1952); Richard Wright's Savage Holiday (1954); James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956); Samuel R. Delany's "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" (1968); Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" (1983); and Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild" (1984).

These short stories, novelettes, or excerpts of novels have two things in common. First, they feature characters who are white or racially unmarked or ambiguous. Second, these works tend to go unread, undersold, or out of print. For those reasons, they could be thought of as the anomalies of African-American literature.

A 2004 international bibliography of academic scholarship prepared by the Modern Language Association supports this point, particularly because the editors of anthologies of African-American literature tend to be scholars. In an analysis I did of the MLA bibliography, I found that anomalous stories constituted the main subject matter of less than 2 percent of all the dissertations, articles, chapters in edited collections, and books published on African-American writers since 1963. Such a circumstance has certainly prevented us from realizing how prolific and sophisticated our most famous black authors actually were.

By neglecting these works, we also fail to learn more about the most famous examples of African-American literature. "The Wrong Man" and "Freedom," stories about the emotional struggles of white women, anticipated Nella Larsen's experimentation with certain literary themes and techniques that later appeared in her two classic novels about racially mixed women, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). The themes of dialect and male chauvinism in Seraph on the Suwanee recalled Zora Neale Hurston's earlier outstanding novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Finally, by the time "Recitatif" appeared, Toni Morrison had already released two well-known novels — The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973) — whose themes of strong women and deadbeat fathers also enhanced her first short story.

In addition to the idea of anomalies, the lesser-known works of fiction mentioned here could also be thought of as African-American literature written beyond race. The word "beyond" doesn't necessarily assert an optimistic belief that we can advance beyond race in our world. To do so would be naïve; it would ignore race's persistent and pervasive social impact today. However, it does mean, as Toni Morrison explained in a 1994 lecture at Princeton University entitled "Home," that blacks can admirably and usefully write literature that is at once "race specific" and free of "racial hierarchy," or is "a world in which race does not matter." In the personal lives of certain famous black writers, of course, race and racism were palpable realities, mattering at all times. But these writers also felt that this fact shouldn't have always required them to write stories of analogous political charge.

So why are anthologies of African-American literature so one-sided, reluctant to select such literary mitigations of racial politics? This canonical tendency is symptomatic of the broader cultural preoccupation of American society with racial authenticity. Since slave narratives were published in the first half of the 19th century, literature written by black people — or, more precisely, by people who are identified or who identify themselves as black — must be "the real thing," a window into the black experience, in order to have any aesthetic, cultural, social, political, or commercial value.

After slavery, the earliest and most remarkable example of a writer who suffered from the culture of racial authenticity is Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose legacy is enjoying a scholarly renaissance today. A century ago, Dunbar died separated from his wife, and an alcoholic at the young age of 33. By the time of his death, he had published four novels, four collections of short stories, and 14 books of poetry, as well as many songs, plays, and essays in newspapers and magazines around the world. Dunbar was the first black writer born after the emancipation of slaves in 1865 to become a phenomenon in this country and the rest of the world.

The centennial of Dunbar's death has led to a recent blitz of publications, including five books of Dunbar's writings in the past several years alone. What makes Dunbar so remarkable today, however, isn't just his career-long productivity and the centennial of his death. The circumstances of his emergence as the first "Negro Laureate" of the United States teach us not to prejudge a book by the author's skin color.

In the early months of 1896, James A. Herne, a pre-eminent actor and playwright, returned to his hotel in Toledo, Ohio, where his play Shore Acres was running, and learned that Dunbar had left him a gift with the hotel clerk. After attending and enjoying Shore Acres, Dunbar decided to leave Herne a complimentary copy of his second and latest book of poetry, Majors and Minors. Herne turned out to be well acquainted with the "Dean of American Letters," William Dean Howells, and Herne passed Majors and Minors on to Howells.

Both men were captivated by the frontispiece of the book, an image of Dunbar at age 18. Howells found the image so compelling that he decided to review the book in Harper's Weekly. Howells called Dunbar "the first man of his color to study his race objectively" and "to represent it humorously, yet tenderly, and above all so faithfully." For the benefit of his readers, he also described Dunbar's facial features: "In this present case I felt a heightened pathos in the appeal from the fact that the face which confronted me when I opened the volume was the face of a young negro, with the race traits strangely accented: the black skin, the woolly hair, the thick outrolling lips and the mild, soft eyes of the pure African type." A black star was born, but perhaps for a few wrong reasons. What Howells did, although in an older and especially racist fashion, is similar to what readers do today: They presume what a book is about based on what the author looks like.

Certain authors have tried to counteract this literary sort of racial profiling. The most famous case of an author resisting identification with the black community is Jean Toomer. Against the wishes of publisher Horace Liveright, who advised the author to mention his "colored blood" in the publicity of Cane (1923), Toomer reiterated his autonomy: "My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine." Toomer preferred to be called a national or American writer; he refused to allow race to overdetermine his identity as a person and artist.

Unfortunately, the historical record of authors' interrogating the racial identities thrust upon them has had little impact on the definition of African-American literature. This definition has long imposed a mythical "one-drop rule" on authors, meaning that one drop of African ancestral blood coursing through their bodies makes them black. It has also dictated African-American "canon formation," misleading readers into believing that black people write best only about black people.

This authentic idea of African-American literature — perpetuated by publishers, acquisition editors, anthology editors, scholars, teachers, and ultimately students — is everywhere. It determines the way authors think about and write African-American literature; the way publishers classify and distribute it; the way bookstores receive and sell it; the way libraries catalog and shelve it; the way readers locate and retrieve it; the way teachers, scholars, and anthologists use it; and the way students learn from it. In short, it determines our belief that we supposedly know African-American literature when we see it.

But readers arrive at this conclusion not because they think about it as deeply as they should. They arrive at it because they focus on the author's skin color. Although readers know by heart "not to judge a book by its cover," they are still likely to remain superficial and prejudge the content of a book based on the author's skin color. And if that book defies their expectations or presumptions, they ignore or devalue it. As long as readers cling to this idea, they fail to learn about black culture in all its guises. And that includes African-American literature beyond race.

Gene Andrew Jarrett is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park and the editor of African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader, published this year by New York University Press. This essay is adapted from Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African-American Literature, forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright © 2006 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 47, Page B12

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education


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