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Black American Literature at Year 2000: A New Presence

Written by eastern writer on Sunday, June 01, 2008

by By Robert B. Stepto

During the 1960s, as the civil rights movement expanded, there was a feeling in U.S. literary circles that black American literature was in the midst of a second renaissance, following the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II era.

A case certainly could be made for this view. The 1960s saw the emergence of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City, and countless smaller theater troupes across the country, as well as the more radical black arts movement in both drama and poetry. Publications proliferated, from new titles from major publishing houses to new journals to extensive efforts to republish hundreds of out-of-print titles -- such as the reissuance, in 1969, of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Furthermore, the first courses in black American literature appeared in the catalogs of a number of colleges and universities. On the one hand, students worked toward graduation by studying black American literature; on the other hand, a demand suddenly sprang up for qualified teachers of this literature.

What began in the 1960s surged in the decades that followed, and surely appears to be continuing as a movement and as a literary tradition at the turn of the new century. This expansion has been so dramatic that one is tempted to say that the second renaissance is over, not because "the Negro is no longer in vogue" (the fate of the Harlem Renaissance), but because the black American is both in vogue and in the mainstream. It is fair to say that if the Depression of the 1930s killed the Renaissance of that era, prosperity has enabled the second renaissance to thrive. Today, black American literature is no longer so marginal, so novel or so limited in its readerships that its fate is uncertain. Today, virtually every strand of writing in the United States includes a wealth of prominent black American authors, to the extent that no one definition of the black American writer prevails.

While it is obvious that black American talents are working in all major literary genres, what may be less obvious is what new directions they are taking within those disciplines. In fiction, for example, while historical accounts are not new, what does seem intriguing is the fresh effort to write the stories of slavery. Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), for instance -- which may have been the catalyst for her Nobel Prize for Literature -- is a striking example of the new imagining of slavery. Rather than offering the familiar tale of the revolt-leading male slave (versions of which began in 1853 with Frederick Douglass' The Heroic Slave), it presents the story of Sethe, a female ex-slave who killed her child rather than see her subjugated. Then, too, Charles Johnson's stories and novels are fresh in terms of vision and sensibility. The opening premise in his National Book Award-winning 1990 novel, The Middle Passage, is that the Negro hero is so hapless that when he stows away aboard a ship to avoid marriage he unwittingly chooses a slave ship. This is the essence of blues humor, born of slavery. Yet it took until a decade ago for an author to risk finding that humor in the story of the agonizing middle passage from Africa to the Americas that was at the heart of the slave trade.

In other words, black American writers of literature are self-confident enough these days to be able to come at a well-worn subject in a different way -- even expressing criticism of something they might not have criticized before. In that sense, they are following in the wake of historians of the African American experience of the last quarter of the past century who paved the way for new perspectives.

In keeping with the adage that new experiences occasion new stories, black American writers of late have been writing about new venues and neighborhoods, new schools, friends and work situations. This may be part of the reason why they are reaching new audiences. As a result, Terry McMillan -- in books like Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) -- can depict successful black women finding love in varied surroundings and gain a wide readership as well. Darryl Pinckney, in High Cotton (1992), can attract and amuse readers with his take on the corporate lunchroom. Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips (1984), Trey Ellis' Home Repairs (1993) and Right Here, Right Now (1999) and Connie Porter's All-Bright Court (1991) represent the work of three young writers who, in symbolizing a middle-class milieu, incisively render relatively new black situations.


At a time when black American literature is thriving, when authors of long standing are lionized as they run familiar courses and new writers surface to be categorized into well-worn compartments, there -- sui generis -- is John Edgar Wideman.

It is difficult to itemize the disparate elements of his personal history without seeming to strain credibility. Consider: Born in Washington, D.C., in 1941, and raised in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), he is the son of a working-class family, a onetime basketball hero at the University of Pennsylvania, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, holder of a degree in 18th-century literature, a novelist and memoirist with an endless string of enviable critical successes and a faithful readership, a married man and the father of a star player in the U.S. professional women's basketball league. He is an esteemed professor of English at the University of Massachusetts. Among other honors, he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for his fifth novel, Sent For You Yesterday (1983), the only prize judged and funded by writers. Indeed, he has been called "the black William Faulkner," and "the softcover Shakespeare" -- a reference to the folio of paperback editions of his various titles.

And then there is the other side of the frame.

He is the author of Brothers and Keepers (1984), centering on the relationship between a successful man and his imprisoned sibling, convicted of murder and sentenced to life behind bars. It is not a novel. It is a family memoir. And he is the author, among other magazine articles, of a searing piece in Esquire some years ago about a father and a son who, having gone astray, killed a classmate. It, too, is nonfiction.

Two lives lived. It's the stuff of stories. But it's all true.

His personal traumas, one can imagine, have enriched his creative gifts. But the reader will not know anything more than the writer wants revealed, in books such as Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (1994). As he said in a Washington Post interview, "I'm not putting up my life as material to explain anything to anyone. I'll put it this way. It's a formulation. My life is a closed book. My fiction is an open book. They may seem like the same book -- but I know the difference."

Most likely, this writer -- because of his literary gifts -- would have been as profound, as impassioned and as insightful if none of the tragedies had befallen his family, no matter what subjects he might have explored. What his eyes have seen, what his ears have heard in the inner cities of Pittsburgh and elsewhere, including the music, have given his fiction a depth and a fragmented beauty that few of his peers can match.

In novels such as Damballah (1981), Hiding Place (1981) and Sent For You Yesterday -- familiarly known as The Homewood Trilogy -- he penetrates, incisively, the Pittsburgh neighborhood of his youth as it was and as it is. The Cattle Killing (1996) is a period piece, centered on a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Two Cities (1999), his most recent novel, it set against a backdrop of present-day Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and constructed along musical lines -- blues, jazz, Motown, gospel, classical and funk.

Wideman has observed that he once yearned to write books that both his family in Pittsburgh and literary scholars could read and enjoy. The fact that his books have a wide following in the mass-market audience, and that a two-day international celebration of his work was slated for April 2000 at the University of Virginia, indicates that he may have achieved that seemingly elusive objective.

-- M.J.B

to be continued....

Robert B. Stepto is professor of African American studies, American studies and English at Yale University. He is the author of Blue As The Lake: A Personal Geography (1998, Beacon Press), and From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (1991, University of Illinois Press).

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