Honoring the achievement of African American writers

This week in North Philly Notes, we post an excerpt from Werner Sollors’ new book, African American Writing: A Literary Approach

In a lecture on “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” Richard Wright said that the literature should be understood against the background of the global movement from traditional, rural, religiously based, and pre-individual cultures, to modern, urban, industrial, secular, and stridently individual, societies. It is for this reason that, despite all specificities and differences, “one ought to use the same concepts in discussing Negro life that one used in discussing white life.” In this context, Wright arrived at one of his most famous quips:

 The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written  in vivid and bloody terms; it is the history of Western Man writ small. It is the history of men who tried to adjust themselves to a world whose laws, customs, and instruments of force were leveled against them. The Negro is America’s metaphor.

Today’s students may find Wright’s gendered language and the very word “Negro” antiquated, if not reactionary. Yet they may be overlooking the Enlightenment legacy both of the study of black literature–that began in the wake of the French Revolution with Abbé Henri Grégoire–and of the language of the “rights of man”–that could easily be imagined to stand for men and women: even the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments spoke of “the family of man” in articulating its hope for gender equality. The term “Negro,” too, though it was disparaged by 1960s radicals and satirized by LeRoi Jones as “knee-grow,” was once a dignified term into which the hope for full equality was inscribed. For Wright, the Negro as America’s metaphor was also a mirror for white America. Near the end of his lecture, he said:

The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we have all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims. Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives.

“Negro literature” was a global term, capacious enough to include writers anywhere in the world. In fact, from Gustavus Vassa to LeRoi Jones himself, writers most commonly employed the word “Negro” to describe themselves as well as people of African ancestry more generally. Early scholarship in the field in America, much of it written by intellectuals who had to work within the constraints of a racial segregation, supported the political strAfrican American Writing-smuggle for equality and integration. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week during the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (1818) and of Abraham Lincoln (1809), a black man and a white man, who together symbolized the end of slavery and the promise of full equality. Woodson had pioneered in history with such classic studies as The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915) and The History of the Negro Church (1924), and with an early focus on the history of what in the United States is called “miscegenation” (interracial sexual, marital, and family relations). Benjamin Brawley published literary histories that included The Negro Genius (1937); Eva B. Dykes demonstrated the significance of the antislavery struggle for English Romantic literature in The Negro in English Romantic Thought; or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed (1941); the poet-critic Sterling A. Brown critiqued stereotypes and highlighted realistic portrayals in American writing in his Negro Poetry and Negro Drama (1937) and The Negro in American Fiction (1937); Benjamin Mays pioneered in the study of religion and published The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938); the immensely productive historian John Hope Franklin offered a helpfully synthesizing textbook to complement American history textbooks, From Slavery to Freedom (1947); Frank Snowden, who in 1944 submitted his Latin dissertation “De Servis Libertisque Pompeianis,” focused in his Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983) on the role of blacks in the ancient world, a time when there were no black laws or bans on miscegenation; and Marion W. Starling (1946) and Charles H. Nichols (1948) undertook the first full-scale doctoral work on the slave narrative. Such scholarship had the effect of writing blacks into American and global history, rectifying omissions and neglect, and setting the record straight against the then dominant American scholarly opinion that slighted the importance and contributions of blacks. Perhaps the work of generations of “integrationist” scholars (and “integrationist,” once a fighting word, has also become a problematic term) deserves to be considered afresh today and to be taken as guide in rereading major works of literature and debates about the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation.

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