Celebrating Black History Month with our African American Literature titles

This week in North Philly Notes, we focus on our African American books about books in honor of Black History Month

From Slave Ship to Supermax: Mass Incarceration, Prisoner Abuse, and the New Neo-Slave Novel by Patrick Elliot Alexander

In his cogent and groundbreaking book, From Slave Ship to Supermax, Patrick Elliot Alexander argues that the disciplinary logic and violence of slavery haunt depictions of the contemporary U.S. prison in late twentieth-century Black fiction. Alexander links representations of 2426_reg.gifprison life in James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk to his engagements with imprisoned intellectuals like George Jackson, who exposed historical continuities between slavery and mass incarceration. Likewise, Alexander reveals how Toni Morrison’s Beloved was informed by Angela Y. Davis’s jail writings on slavery-reminiscent practices in contemporary women’s facilities. Alexander also examines recurring associations between slave ships and prisons in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and connects slavery’s logic of racialized premature death to scenes of death row imprisonment in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.

Alexander ultimately makes the case that contemporary Black novelists depict racial terror as a centuries-spanning social control practice that structured carceral life on slave ships and slave plantations-and that mass-produces prisoners and prisoner abuse in post-Civil Rights America. These authors expand free society’s view of torment confronted and combated in the prison industrial complex, where discriminatory laws and the institutionalization of secrecy have reinstated slavery’s system of dehumanization.

Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World, by Eve Dunbar, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes were all pressured by critics and publishers to enlighten mainstream (white) audiences about race and African American culture. Focusing on fiction and non-fiction they produced between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, Eve Dunbar’s important book, Bla2239_reg.gifck Regions of the Imagination, examines how these African American writers—who lived and traveled outside the United States—both document and re-imagine their “homegrown” racial experiences within a worldly framework.

From Hurston’s participant-observational accounts and Wright’s travel writing to Baldwin’s Another Country and Himes’ detective fiction, these writers helped develop the concept of a “region” of blackness that resists boundaries of genre and geography. Each writer represents—and signifies—blackness in new ways and within the larger context of the world. As they negotiated issues of “belonging,” these writers were more critical of social segregation in America as well as increasingly resistant to their expected roles as cultural “translators.”

Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, by Justin Gifford, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

“Lush sex and stark violence colored Black and served up raw by a great Negro writer,” promised the cover of Run Man Run, Chester Himes’ pioneering novel in the black crime fiction tradition. In Pimping Fictions, Justin Gifford provides a hard-boiled investigation of hundreds of pulpy paperbacks written by Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim (a.k.a. Robert Beck), among many others.

Gifford draws from an im2186_reg.gifpressive array of archival materials to provide a first-of-its-kind literary and cultural history of this distinctive genre. He evaluates the artistic and symbolic representations of pimps, sex-workers, drug dealers, and political revolutionaries in African American crime literature—characters looking to escape the racial containment of prisons and the ghetto.

Gifford also explores the struggles of these black writers in the literary marketplace, from the era of white-owned publishing houses like Holloway House—that fed books and magazines like Players to eager black readers—to the contemporary crop of African American women writers reclaiming the genre as their own.

Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards 

Generating a new understanding of the past—as well as a vision for the future—this path-breaking volume contains essays written by playwrights, scholars, and critics that analyze African Americ1429_reg.gifan theatre as it is practiced today.

Even as they acknowledge that Black experience is not monolithic, these contributors argue provocatively and persuasively for a Black consciousness that creates a culturally specific theatre. This theatre, rooted in an African mythos, offers ritual rather than realism; it transcends the specifics of social relations, reaching toward revelation. The ritual performance that is intrinsic to Black theatre renews the community; in Paul Carter Harrison’s words, it “reveals the Form of Things Unknown” in a way that “binds, cleanses, and heals.”

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall

The extraordinary spirit of Toni Cade Bambara lives on in Savoring the Salt, a vibrant and appreciati1900_reg.gifve recollection of the work and legacy of the multi-talented, African American writer, teacher, filmmaker, and activist. Among the contributors who remember Bambara, reflect on her work, and examine its meaning today are Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Pearl Cleage, Ruby Dee, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Nikki Giovanni, Avery Gordon Audre Lorde, and Sonia Sanchez.

Admiring readers have kept Bambara’s fiction in print since her first collection of stories, Gorilla, My Love, was published in 1972. She continued to write-and her audience and reputation continued to grow-until her untimely death in 1995. Savoring the Salt includes excerpts from her published and unpublished writings, along with interviews and photos of Bambara. The mix of poets and scholars, novelists and critics, political activists, and filmmakers represented here testifies to the ongoing importance and enduring appeal of her work.

Yo’ Mama! New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America, edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie 

Collected primarily in metropolitan New York and Philadelphia during the classic era of black “street poetry” (i.e., during the late 1960s and early 1970s) these raps, signifyings, toasts, boasts, jokes and children’s rhymes will delight general readers as 1453_reg.gifwell as scholars. Ranging from the simple rhymes that accompany children’s games to verbally inventive insults and the epic exploits of traditional characters like Shine and Stagger Lee, these texts sound the deep rivers of culture, echoing two continents. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s introductory essay situates them in a globally pan-African context and relates them to more recent forms of oral culture such as rap and spoken word.

Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, by Trimiko Melancon, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Unbought and Unbossed examines black women’s literary and cultural production of the 1970s and early 1980s. Considering texts in the socio-cultural and historical moments of their production, Trimiko Melancon analyzes representations of black women that not

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only transgress racial, gender, and sexual boundaries, but also diverge from both discourses of “whiteness” and constructions of female identity imposed by black nationalism.

Drawing from black feminist and critical race theories, discourses on gender and sexuality, and literary criticism, Melancon illuminates the complexity of black female identity, desire, and intimacy. She sheds light on a more complex black identity, one ungoverned by rigid politics over-determined by race, gender and sexuality, while also enabling us to better understand the black sexual revolution, contemporary cultural moments, and representations in the age of Michelle Obama.

Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, edited by D. Quentin Miller, foreword by David Adams Leeming

This new collection of essays presents a critical reappraisal of James Baldwin’s work, looking beyond the commercial and critical success of some of Baldwin’s early writings such as Go Tell it on the 1463_reg.gifMountain and Notes of a Native Son. Focusing on Baldwin’s critically undervalued early works and the virtually neglected later ones, the contributors illuminate little-known aspects of this daring author’s work and highlight his accomplishments as an experimental writer. Attentive to his innovations in style and form, Things Not Seen reveals an author who continually challenged cultural norms and tackled matters of social justice, sexuality, and racial identity. As volume editor D. Quentin Miller notes, “What has been lost is a complete portrait of [Baldwin’s] tremendously rich intellectual journey that illustrates the direction of African-American thought and culture in the late twentieth century.”

African American Writing: A Literary Approach, by Werner Sollors

Werner Sollors’ African American Writing takes a fresh look at what used to be called “Negro literature.” The essays collected here, ranging in topic from Gustavus Vassa/Olaudah Equiano to LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and in time from the Enlightenment to the Obama presidency, take a literary approach to black writing and present writers as readers and as intellectuals who were or are open to the world.
From W.E.B. Du Bois com2396_reg.gifmenting on Richard Wagner and Elvis Presley, to Zora Neale Hurston attacking Brown v. Board of Ed. in a segregationist newspaper, to Charles Chesnutt’s effigy darkened for the black heritage postage stamp, Sollors alternates between close readings and broader cultural contextualizations to delineate the various aesthetic modes and intellectual exchanges that shaped a series of striking literary works.
Readers will make often-surprising discoveries in the authors’ writing and in their encounters and dialogues with others. The essays, accompanied by Winold Reiss’s pastels, Carl Van Vechten’s photographs, and other portraits, attempt to honor this important literature’s achievement, heterogeneity, and creativity.

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Celebrating the Olympics and Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we pay tribute to both the Olympics and Black History Month by reposting our Q&A with Tommie Smith for his book Silent Gesture.

Q: Congratulations on your book. Why did you wait almost 40 years to tell your story?
A: My life wasn’t ready to be told in story until there was a closure with my athletic, teaching, and coaching career. The time I needed to devote to such an adventure was too great. You have to begin somewhere to be great. The race began in 1968 and now it is time to tell the journey of “how did I get to this race, and where did I go when it was over?”

Q: You say you “never regretted” your actions on the victory stand, “and never will”—that it was, as you write—”something I felt I had no choice in doing.” Did you think at the time that your protest would become one of the most famous protests in sports history?
A: I do not feel remorseful about the act on the victory stand as it was an act of “faith.” Because I believe in “hope” for our changing society, the evidence of non-equality had to be challenged. At the time, my “visual” on the victory stand was not thought of as a portrait to be classified as a picture of history, but as a cry for freedom.

Q: Do you think that such a protest could take place now?
A: Making the same gesture now is defeat; let us repeat the cry with sounds of understanding and deliverance.
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“This is a book about principle, commitment, belief; and consequences. And the consequences of consequences. Tommie Smith says his gesture was done in the name of human rights, and in these pages, he offers himself up, in the fullest-the complexity, the scars, the pain, and the affirmation of his own humanity. Should there ever be an appointed time, would that I might show half the commitment and courage. Bravissimo!”
Delroy Lindo

Q: Can you briefly describe the Olympic Project for Human Rights and discuss your participation in it?
A: The Olympic Project for Human Rights was a non-violent platform used in the athletic arena as a cry for freedom. It originated on the San Jose State University campus in 1967. I was one athlete who chose to involve myself for the human rights issues.

Q: You and your family received death threats and hate mail before and after Mexico City. Were you prepared for this? How did you handle living in fear?
A: My family received hate mail and death threats which altered our daily routine, but we had to continue to remain calm and socially aware. There are still some [people] who do not change and there are some who have made progress.

Q: You have been “forever linked” with John Carlos (Bronze medal winner at the 1968 Mexico City games) on and off since the Olympics. How has your relationship with him been over the years since your “silent gesture”?
A: I had not known John Carlos until my senior year in college, in 1967. Since then, my response to John has been a respectful acquaintance.

Q: You talk about how San Jose State welcomed you back and dedicated a statue to you and John Carlos. How have attitudes towards you—and your actions—changed over time?
A: When I returned to the San Jose State University for the statue dedication, attitudes were fresh, warm and respectful. The student body and administration was knowledgeable and unafraid in their quest to identify pioneers from the past and ideally, former students such as John Carlos and me.

Q: You have worked as a track & field coach and talk about your coaches in Silent Gesture. Do you have any particular mentors and coaches that influenced you?
A: There are two coaches in my past that I will forever remember because of their knowledge and their social attitude. They were positive “in the time of need.” Lloyd C. “Bud” Winter, my college coach and Bill Walsh, my professional football area coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Q: Silent Gesture dispels the rumors that you were a member of the Black Panthers. Your book also clears the record that the Mexico City Olympic Committee did not take for your medals back, or throw you out of the Olympic Village. Can you discuss these rumors?
A: Tommie Smith has never been a Black Panther. I am still in possession of my gold medal—I won the race fair and square, and so the medal is mine. I stayed in the Olympic Village until the race was over, and I returned the next day to get my belongings. As I was leaving, the press was everywhere, so kicking me out of the Olympic Village was a “helpful exit.”

Q: I understand at one point in time you were interested in selling your medals. Is that true? Why did you consider this?
A: I will answer a question with a question…Can you find a Humanitarian donor for $500,000?

Q: You are a hero to many for your actions—who were your heroes?
A: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who had a Dream of Freedom and Equality, and my father, Richard Smith, who taught me pain is obvious, but how you react is not.

Q:  What do you think yo ur legacy will be?
A: I want to leave a legacy that says, “Tommie Smith was a Man who also had a Dream and a Vision and his Standing was not in vain.”

 

Temple University Press staff picks for Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, Temple University Press staff members select their favorite titles for Black History Month

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

I was totThe_Parker_Sisters_emboss_smally captivated by Lucy Maddox’s The Parker Sisters! In 1851, the two free black sisters were kidnapped from a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and sold back into slavery for a full year. Their story reads like a novel with twists and turns at every angle as the true story of the two young sisters unfolds. True freedom was not to be had for many African Americans during that time, and for both the free and fugitive living in border areas like here in Pennsylvania and nearby Maryland, danger lurked everywhere. Slave catchers were a mighty force, getting legal and illegal assistance from both black and white. Through newspaper accounts, diaries, and courtroom documents, Maddox traces the sisters harrowing experiences and provides a glimpse into what life was like in mid-19th century America.

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

I’m a complete sucker for Sandra Bullock and her film The Blind Side. But after reading Matthew Hughey’s The White Savior Film, I can’t look at this (or any other) film about racial uplift the same way again. Hughey’s cogent unpacking of “saviorism” has prompted me to call it out whenHughey_front_012814_sm I write about film, and also to find films that eschew this trope that perpetrates stereotypes about race, class (and even gender). Reading Hughey’s book makes me even more conscientious of racial equality in film. And “The DuVernay Test,” named for African American filmmaker Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Selma), was devised to monitor films to ensure “African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenLayout 1ery in white stories.” The current Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which features a trio of female African American mathematicians playing vital roles at NASA, passes the DuVernay test, and despite scenes of saviorism, is decidedly not a White Savior film. These women were real people whose abilities paved their way to success. Incidentally, Hidden Figures also evokes another Temple University Press title, Swimming Against the Tideby Sandra Hanson, about African American girls and science education, which also demands reader’s attention.

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

Aden_2.inddThousands of people come to Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia each year to visit the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the nation’s first White House, known as the President’s House.  There they’ll also see the only memorial to slavery on federal land.  As Roger Aden explains in his book, Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public History, the memorial’s location is more than a gesture. When he came from Virginia to live in the President’s House, George Washington brought with him nine African slaves and later found a loophole in Pennsylvania state law that allowed him to avoid granting them their freedom.  The stories of freedom and liberty associated with the events that took place in Philadelphia rarely if ever acknowledged the existence of the slaves present as history was being made, and Aden’s book speaks to the importance of expanding the “history” commemorated at the site and describes the perhaps unexpected issues around doing so.  Its discussion of the sometimes uncomfortable presentation of this piece of our history speaks to many of the threads woven into Black History Month and to the need to change what we’re taught about how the notion of  liberty was applied.

Ryan Mulligan, Editor

Layout 1We’ve seen sports serve as an intensely visible and symbolic ground to showcase the slow march towards progress that has, in fits and starts, propelled black history. In sports we’ve seen exclusion become segregation, participation met with resistance, success met with fear, and finally and most ironically racial pride become national pride. This last transition is visible in the distance between now and the 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith scandalized America by celebrating his gold medal in the 200-meter dash with a raised fist gloved in black as the National Anthem played. That scandal forced spectators to reconcile America’s progress with its work to be done, that if it wanted to take pride in its native son’s achievement, it would also need to hear his protest. This seems to me emblematic not only of a step in black history but also in the telling of black history. Black history, taught and learned well, cannot be restricted to a story white people tell about statuesque historical figures frozen in time but must give a platform for those figures to speak for themselves. That is why I’d like to call attention to Silent Gesturewhich Temple published 10 years ago in which Tommie Smith tells his own story and his silent gesture takes on a living voice.

Aaron Javsicas, Editor in Chief

Tasting Freedom_AD(12-16-09) finalDan Biddle and Murray Dubin’s Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America is a masterfully told story about this important figure in both Philadelphia and American history. Catto’s heroic activism and tragic murder at the hands of a racist mob on election day in 1871 foreshadowed the century of civil rights struggle to come. As Philadelphia prepares to unveil a statue memorializing Catto’s life later this spring on the grounds of City Hall, please consider picking up a copy of this engrossing and important biography.

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