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The Norton Anthology of African American Literature edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay
Norton. 2,665 pp. $49.95

Organized like similar collections, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature will impress many college students and their teachers as a conventional survey. It includes the writings of acknowledged black authors like the poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84), the ex-slave Frederick Douglass (1818-95), and the novelist Richard Wright (1908-60), and it is arranged in sections approximating the traditional chronological divisions of American literary history. Competent scholarly introductions by period specialists—William L. Andrews (18th and 19th century), Richard Yarborough (19th and early 20th century), Arnold Rampersad (20th century), and Barbara T. Christian (20th century and women’s literature)—add to the impression of unexceptionableness.

If there is little here to startle the average student, scholars will similarly notice that the Norton editors have strayed far less from standard anthology form than did Benjamin Brawley in Early Negro American Writers (1935), or Sterling A. Brown et al. in The Negro Caravan (1941), two earlier collections that imaginatively arranged black writing less according to periods than according to its own most distinctive genres. Indeed, the new anthology’s predictable surface is disrupted only by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his general introduction to the volume, and by a chapter on vernacular discourse edited by Robert G. O’Meally These openly polemical sections do finally locate African-American writing within the ideology now dominant in black literary studies.

Before commenting on that ideology, it is worth noting how thoroughly the study and even the production of black literature have become, these days, a university affair. Gates’s polite acknowledgment of M. H. Abrams, the chief editor of the now-nearly-canonical Norton Anthology of English Literature (first edition, 1962), reminds us of the mid-century academic boom in literary studies, a discipline that, by the time Abrams was chosen as editor, had already shed many of its old Wasp trappings and become increasingly diverse by ethnicity and class. Fittingly, the new Norton’s editors are also drawn from a cohort that began entering the profession of English in the 60’s and 70’s.

The resources (and the fashions) of the academy have proved decisive in a number of ways. They have, for example, enabled a new generation of scholars to unearth and reclaim the work of women writers like Maria Stewart (1803-79), Pauline E. Hopkins (1859-1930), and Angelina Weld Grimke (1880-1958), or to cast new light on a pivotal figure like William Stanley Braithwaite (1878-1962). Less tangible but no less telling is the air of confidence that pervades the anthology’s aesthetic judgments. Reprinted in full here, for example, are Frederick Douglass’s Narrative (1845), Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). It is thanks to the academicization of African-American studies that these once-obscure texts have become canonical in American literature.

Finally, the integration of black studies into the mainstream has meant a material revolution not only in scholarship but in literary creation—and this sea-change, too, is reflected in the new Norton. The late poet Robert Hayden may be the most striking example of a gifted black writer freed to create largely as a result of well-deserved and long-delayed appointments at Michigan and Yale, but the list of university-connected writers is by now very large. It includes, to name only some of those represented here, John Edgar Wideman, David Bradley, Ishmael Reed, Ernest J. Gaines, Michael S. Harper, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, June Jordan, and Sonia Sanchez.

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But the embrace and “normalization” of black studies in the university also pose a problem—at least for those black professors who have been in the habit of stressing the ways in which the African-American tradition “subverts” or rebels against white cultural norms. Their particular dilemma may be thought of as a subset of a larger psychological confusion that characterizes a fair portion of the growing African-American bourgeoisie. Thus, as we learn from studies of black college students by Jacqueline Fleming, and from a spate of books by Brent Staples, Lorene Cary, Ellis Cose, and others, upwardly mobile as well as already successful blacks—that is, those who have achieved or are on the way to achieving the very integration into American society long sought by their elders—are often beset by feelings of ambivalence, displacement, resentment, and even rage.

In the Norton anthology, the peculiar mental habits generated by the new conditions of integrated black life in America are best represented by the literary ideology of Henry Louis Gates. Indeed, the prolific Gates, who teaches at Harvard, has developed an entire professional style designed to give symbolic expression to the mood of black intellectuals who mean to keep up adversarial appearances while staying within “the system.” In his introduction to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Gates elevates this style to the status of a full-blown literary model.

The entire black literary canon, according to Gates’s scheme, may itself be understood as an extension of the folk ritual of insult known as “signifying,” a form of mock rebellion—think of Br’er Rabbit—in which a speaker’s meaning is reversed and turned back upon himself for purposes of one-upmanship. To Gates, what is important about “signifying” is both its subversiveness and its playfulness: the invitation it extends to its audience, white as well as black, to join in a shared, knowing consensus of bad faith.

But if the content of “signifying” is one emblem of a distinctive black discourse, another is the vernacular nature of that discourse. Invoking the language of folk sermons, songs, and tales, Gates defines American black literature as a “talking book” or, alternatively, an “archive”: an imagined institution in which the (adversarial) oral traditions of American blacks have become, in effect, their version of a literary canon.

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Gates’s conception has been very influential in the academy, where it serves to make a claim for the place of black literature within American high culture by grounding it, with a winning show of defiance, in low or folk culture. But what does any of this have to do with the writings collected in the Norton Anthology? To read the first sections of this long book is to see how limited and limiting is Gates’s scheme. There is, in fact, no evidence that the earliest black writers in America were influenced by folk culture; nor did folk culture play a significant role in the main line of African-American literature for most of the 19th century.

Published African-American literature begins in Protestant poetry, spiritual autobiography, adventure stories, political writing, and the many popular forms of the late 18th and early 19th century. Not only did most black writers keep a careful intellectual distance from the folk, they tended, if anything, to adhere to a genteel bourgeois ideal of assimilation into middle-class Victorian culture. Even the recently recovered body of black women’s writing shows the persistence of middle-class attitudes deep into the period of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.

The folk-vernacular style in black literature made its first appearance in the late 19th century. But even then it subsisted for quite a long time alongside the more powerful genteel tendencies before it finally—and only partially—overtook them. Unsophisticated students who take the CD-Rom recordings of oral folk art accompanying the Norton Anthology for a rigorous historical representation of “African-American literature” will be poorly served by what is beginning to look like literary history overdetermined by black-bourgeois therapy.

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The limitations of Gates’s approach may be appreciated by considering an earlier figure with a rather different orientation. Sterling Brown, a professor at Howard University, was the author of an acclaimed collection of poetry, Southern Road (1932), as well as of critical works like The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and Negro Poetry and Drama (1938); he was also editor of the extremely valuable anthology, The Negro Caravan. Brown’s “caravan” was shaped by his own commitment to literary realism, which he saw as a much-needed counter to earlier, ideologically driven depictions of black life.

To Brown, realism was not only a literary but a moral tool, enabling black and white writers alike to confront honestly the social, political, and ethical issues that inevitably dogged any effort to represent black life. But Brown also saw African-American literature, for all its distinctiveness, as continuous with American literature at large; indeed, The Negro Caravan is deeply ambivalent on the question of whether there is such a thing as African-American literature. Above all, what Brown aimed at was a critical and self-critical black discourse, one that assumed and would thus help to create a place for black writers in American public culture.

The strict moral consciousness adumbrated in Brown’s concern with realism is precisely what is absent from Gates’s more cathartic preoccupation with “signifying.” By making a fetish of lower-class culture, Gates ducks the question of how black writers might free themselves to transcend their material, social, and political surroundings. No less importantly, he forfeits the role of the intellectual as critic and judge of his own social order—an order in which, today, the black lower class happens to play a deeply problematic role.

This is not to say that the Gates perspective is entirely without merit. It has illuminated the work of writers like Zora Neale Hurston, and has also helped clarify patterns of influence among black writers, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Ishmael Reed. The reputation of Reed, a deft satirist of the world of white patronage, has especially benefited from Gates’s literary attention.

In the end, though, what The Norton Anthology of African American Literature shows is the deep inadequacy of the vernacular model—and, more broadly, of the ideological reductivism that now dominates the field of black literary studies and much of our current discourse on race alike. In the diversity and even the self-contradiction of the writings that fill its many pages, the new Norton itself escapes the limits of the environment in which it was conceived, and honors an earlier and better idea of literature as a mirror of the mixed truths of lived human experience.

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About the Author

Phillip M. Richards, an associate professor of English at Colgate University, is the author most recently of Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African-American Letters (Peter Lang).




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