Posted by: zhiv | December 23, 2008

Literary Parenting: African American History and Literature

For the last month I’ve been buying books and filling up a couple of shelves to address an intriguing semi-blind spot: African-American Literature and History.  This falls under the Literary Parenting category (LP) for a fairly basic reason: my son’s English teacher is black, she’s reportedly the best, most accomplished lit/hist teacher at his school, and she specializes in African-American literature.  So the idea is to swim on out to her interests, as we like to say.  He’s finishing Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye right now with his class, and I have a complete Morrison blind spot.

I’ll start with what I have read and the little bits that I know.  One of my first posts on this blog was about James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, which was extraordinary.  Going back much further, I think I read The Color Purple around the time it came out.  In my book hunting I’ve been looking around for a good copy of it for the new shelf, but haven’t found one yet.  One of my favorite books from my ’87-’91 manuscript and book-reader days was Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. I found good reading copies of Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills last week.  Around the same time (87-91), I read John Edgar Wideman, Brother’s and Keepers (84) and Reuben (87), and I have a few of his other books.  I have a copy of Al Young’s Ask me Now in which I wrote my name and the date, “4 August 1980,” right after I graduated from college and before I contracted bibliomania.  And around the same time I also read Young’s 70’s novel Sitting Pretty.  I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in college.

The next phase was following up my daughter’s introduction to African-American literature.  The changes from the early 80’s to the late 90’s are fascinating, with so many books published by Penguin and The Modern Library and others and the canon expanding and taking shape.  I became aware of this when I read Nella Larson’s Passing, published in 1929 and reissued by Penguin in 1997.  It’s a strong Harlem Renaissance novel that my daughter and I found on a summer reading list and she read it again in a class–it’s a good female identity and relationship book for reading in a girl’s school lit class, and I think it was paired with The Awakening, which I haven’t read.  And I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, which seems to be on the short list of African-American classics.  It’s an extraordinary book.  Around that time (2004-5?), I read Charles W. Chestnutt’s The Home Behind the Cedars (1900), reissued in The Modern Library in 2003.  I suppose my larger point is that these books weren’t available or visible on the bookstore shelves until fairly recently.  At the same time, I bought a copy of William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter (1853; 2004), but I haven’t read it.  I did read an excellent civil rights autobiography, Ann Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, which I highly recommend, and I think I read The Life of Sojourner Truth then–my son just read it a couple of weeks ago–and I was dipping into copies of The Life of Frederick Douglas and DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and I read Lorraine Hansbury’s Raison in the Sun.  So all of that is the backgrounds and beginnings of filling in what I call the “semi-blind spot,” and I suppose I had some momentum going into reading the Baldwin book at this time last year.

Reflecting, I can detail the sequence even more precisely, because my LP run through South African literature came during the interim.  My daughter’s senior project eventually became literature and art, focused on Schreiner, Gordimer, Brink, and Coetzee–and in the end it was mostly Coetzee, but when it began in summer 07 it was South African autobiography, which I left to her.  I think that one of the best parts of the projct at its inception was that I had no interest in it, or knowledge about it.  But if I remember correctly, I was curious to see if it might ultimately connect to slave narratives and African-American autobiography, which led to Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, and Ann Moody.  And I was interested in DuBois and his most famous book, Souls of Black Folk, but I didn’t get very far. 

So the question is where this might go.  There’s that Toni Morrison blind spot, but I do like to work my way up to these things.  I want to finish/refresh my reading of Frederick Douglas and DuBois.  The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (1997), which I got from the library, seems like quite a treasure trove, starting with its biographical introductions, and I’m lusting to own a copy of it.  Last week, I took a gift book back and bought five new books: Toni Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy; Carter Woodson’s The MisEducation of the Negro; a Dover Edition of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Dover has published a lot of accessible, cheap editions of Af-Amer literature); and a brand new book by Eric Sundquist, King’s Dream.  Sundquist was an American lit professor at Berkeley when I was there, but I never took a course from him.  He has been at UCLA for years now, and he’s something of a giant in American lit crit, from what I can tell.  Taking one class from him at Berkeley might have gone a long way, but that’s how it goes.  In the meantime, I’m not sure about the next step after James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which I just finished.  It might be Harriet Jacobs, but it might not.

Two more things:  I also got a book called “The African-American Bookshelf,” by Clifford Mason.  I love books on books in general, and this type of collection is perhaps my favorite.  The subtitle is “50 must-reads from before the Civil War through today.”  It seems to be more historical than literary, and it has a rather strong flavor in pushing for “the fighters,” but it covers a whole lot of ground and it’s great to know the best histories for broad topics.  This is the type of book that I use to guide hunting through bookstores and going on, giving me things to look for. 

Lastly, it should be evident that I don’t need much of a prompt to start reading into and filling up the shelves with a topic.  I always like to see what I already have lying around, and to work from there.  But in this case there’s an obvious currrent level of interest beyond my son’s teacher, and it seems like a good time to read more deeply into these writers and their books, and to put the first real literary and intellectual president in a long time and his own autobiographical book onto the list.

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