Connections in Community: African American Authors and the Reading Public
Connections in Community: African American Authors and the Reading Public Heather Martin February 6, 2007 Feel free to complete this poem if you know it: “What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay . . .”[WAIT FOR RESPONSE] “I just come to tell you, it’s Easter Day.” These opening words from Maya Angelou’s 1970 autobiography I Know Why theCaged Bird Sings vividly recall one of my first personal connections to African Americanliterature. I remember sitting in study hall in my middle school library in Kershaw, SouthCarolina, reading these words and thinking, “Hey, I know this.” I knew the words aswhat the toddlers (or older kids if they needed something at the last minute) said for theirEaster Day speech. Of course, being a precocious youngster that I was, I never resortedto such short recitations. Fortunately, I didn’t experience Angelou’s Easter Daypredicament as a girl: standing at the front of the church, forgetting an Easter speech,suffering the giggling of other children, and then running out of the church inembarrassment. But I knew the setting well, and was thrilled to find it in those first fewpages of a library book. Tonight, I’d like to explore briefly some examples of connections of AfricanAmerican literature and authors to the reading community. By reading community, I’mnot focusing on the community of literary scholars, critics, or even reviewers. Although
the authors I’ll discuss have been well-received by all these groups, my focus is more onthe connections that African American authors and their works have made and continueto make with the general reading public. As I explore some of these connections, notnecessarily in chronological order, I hope you’ll consider your own ties to Black authorsand literature and share them with group at the end of my talk. In the title of the first volume of her autobiography, Maya Angelou herselfacknowledges the connection and influence of an African American author who precededher. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a quote from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem“Sympathy,” not only represents Angelou’s early struggles as a child and teenager, it alsorecalls the veneration of African American authors by her community, the Blackcommunity, in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou writes of herself as a young girl: “During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. . . . I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn’t matter to anyone any more. Bailey [Angelou’s brother] and I decided to memorize a scene from the Merchant of Venice, but we realized that Momma would question us about the author and we’d have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn’t matter to her whether he was dead or not. So we chose ‘The Creation’ by James Weldon Johnson instead.” (16) Here we see one type of African American literary connection: the bond betweenAfrican American writers and the African American community from generation togeneration. As one of the first Black writers to gain international acclaim Paul Laurence
Dunbar was and continues to be in many Black communities, a standard of excellence inAfrican American literature. However, Dunbar and other African American authors’ links to the reading publicextend beyond immediate connections of racial pride and culture in the United States. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Does it dry up Like a raisin the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode? For many people, including myself, Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” was oneof the earliest introductions to literary analysis in elementary school or middle school.However, Hughes’s popularity and influence crosses international boundaries. He is oneof our most widely translated 20th century authors. In the Black American LiteratureForum article, “The Shared Vision of Langston Hughes and Black Hispanic Writers,”Richard Jackson writes of Hughes’ popularity among readers and other authors inMexico, Spain, Uruguay, Colombia, and Cuba. This influence stemmed not only from
Hughes’s travels to Mexico, Spain, and the Caribbean, but from his “common heritage ofslavery, racism, and oppression” shared with these authors (89). Hughes also translatedthe works of Spanish-speaking authors outside the United States, most notably FedericoGarcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen, and Gabriela Mistral. In addition to traveling to Paris as detailed in his autobiography The Big Sea,Hughes’s connections to the French include translations of works by author JacquesRoumain. Perhaps Hughes foreshadows his influence on the French and people of othernationalities when he writes in The Big Sea, “I think it was de Maupassant who made mereally want to be a writer and write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far awaylands would read them--even after I was dead.” My first reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in my junior or senior highschool culminated in an assignment to create a ten-question exam on the novel. I can’tremember the questions I created, and I vaguely remember doing well grade-wise on theassignment. However, looking back after studying the novel in college and graduateschool, I can’t imagine what insights I may have had as a high school junior or senior. I first read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple on my own while still in high school,although I did not study the novel in a classroom setting until college. In addition tocelebrating the strength of the female characters, and ultimately the importance of allfamily, the novel establishes a connection between Blacks in the United States andAfrica. [READ PAGE 171] Of course Walker’s novel created another type ofconnection in the reading community, a connection mired in controversy. Criticism ofthe novel, and later the film adaptation, focused on what was seen as an uneven and
unfair portrayal of male characters. I think this controversy illustrates the power ofliterature to spark debate and open discussion in the African American community. Now on to an author with what some might call a less obvious connection tocommunity. Let’s play six degrees, well three degrees of separation. Langston Hughes –Lorraine Hansberry – Adrienne Kennedy. I previously referenced Hughes’s poem“Harlem” with its description of a dream deferred as drying up “like a raisin in the sun.”A Raisin in the Sun, of course, is the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s Tony-nominated play,and --this last connection is mine as made in my master’s thesis-- playwrights LorraineHansberry and Adrienne Kennedy faced criticism of their work as not beingrepresentative of the African American experience. Some of you might say, well youmade up that last part, so it’s cheating. Others of you are thinking, “Who’s AdrienneKennedy?” Adrienne Kennedy is an African American playwright whose use of surrealism todepict the complexities of African American individuals established her as a uniquefigure in avant-garde theater in New York. In Kennedy’s play, Funnyhouse of a Negro(first performed in 1964), Sarah, a young Black woman living in New York City,constructs an isolated world of her own in her apartment. In this world, she is tormentedby historical and familial figures who voice her feelings of inadequacy and her search foridentity. The Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba are allpart of Sarah’s psychological identity and are manifested as characters on stage duringthe play. Kennedy describes each of these figures as one of Sarah’s “selves.” Sarah andthese manifestations of herself inhabit a funnyhouse where images are distorted as in afunnyhouse mirror. That’s right, folks, it’s a real, warm fuzzy drama.
So what’s the connection to Hansberry and community here? Well, here’s ateaser. I think both playwrights recognized the needs of Blacks as individuals whilecommunicating the concerns of the African-American community as a whole. In oneexample, both Kennedy and Hansberry address the lure of Africa in Black Americanssearch for identity. In Funnyhouse of a Negro, Sarah’s father goes to Africa to find hisbeginnings or “Genesis” and to lift the race. In A Raisin in the Sun, Asagi recalls howBeneatha first approached him at college: “Mr. Asagai—I want very much to talk withyou. About Africa. You see, Mr. Asagai, I am looking for my identity!” I encourageyou to read Kennedy’s play to explore these connections and judge for yourself. Octavia Butler connected the worlds of fantasy, the supernatural, and sciencefiction to the experiences of the African American community in her works. In Kindred(1979), Dana, an African American woman in her twenties is unexpectedly transportedthrough time to a plantation in the antebellum South. In this novel, surviving thebrutalities of slavery takes on new meaning as Dana must work to protect Rufus, who sheinitially saves from drowning as boy and must protect into manhood to ensure that hestays alive to father a female ancestor of Dana’s. These time jumps happen multipletime, and each time Dana cannot be sure of the year she will be transported back intoslavery. During one of her returns to the present (1976), she contemplates the impact ofher ordeal: “I had been home to 1976 , to this house, and it hadn’t felt that homelike. It didn’t now. For one thing, Kevin and I had lived here together for only two days. The fact that I’d had eight extra days here alone didn’t really help. The time, the year, was right, but the house just wasn’t familiar enough. I felt as though I were
losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. Colson Whitehead, one of the younger contemporary African American authors,uses the legend of John Henry to connect past and present in his novel John Henry Days(2001). In this novel, Whitehead juxtaposes a retelling of the John Henry legend with amodern day story of J. Sutter, a cynical African American freelance journalist coveringthe John Henry Days Festival in the small town of Talcott, West Virginia. Thetownspeople and its leaders strive to capitalize on the John Henry legend, initially, J.takes part in the commercialization in his reporting. Another African Americancharacter, Pamela, must decide about selling her father’s collection of John Henrymemorabilia. While in town for the John Henry Days Festival, she examines a statue ofJohn Henry in the town [READ PAGE 262 FIRST PARAGRAPH]. Combining folklore, satire, and negative commentary on commercialization,Whitehead’s novel compares and contrasts the stresses of John Henry the legendary folkhero’s battle against the steam engine with the modern day choices that J. Sutter andother characters must face in an increasingly technological society.
Thus far, I’ve touched on only a few authors, genres, and types of relationshipsbetween African American authors and the reading public. I’ve also played it relativelysafe and avoided some of the current controversies, but what’s the fun in that? You may have noticed I did not mention any children’s literature titles. That’snot because I didn’t read children’s books when younger, but because I really wasn’texposed to African American children’s authors until after high school. Of course, todaythere is a concerted effort in many public schools to include books by African Americanauthors, but not without controversy. Witness the controversy over the book Nappy Hairby African American author Carolivia Herron. Books written for teenagers/young adultstackle contemporary issues head-on. One example is Angela Johnson’s The First PartLast, a novel which tells the story of an African American teenager who struggles as asingle teenage father. Angela Johnson was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the way. Then there are popular titles by authors such as Terry McMillan and Eric JeromeDickey that created a surge in reading and book buying among African Americans.Some of these titles I refer to as “catalogue” novels because of a nearly across-the-boardfocus on detailing the possessions of the characters. But don’t get me wrong, I have funreading them. Urban or Hip Hop Fiction has made new and, again, controversial, connectionsamong African American readers. One of the initial controversies is what to call thegenre. With the increasing rise in popularity and mainstream acceptance ofcomics/graphic novels (my newest personal fascination) as literature, where are theAfrican American authors and artists in this genre and what are their connections to the
reading public? I’m sure many people are familiar with the Boondocks comics by AaronMcGruder. But have you heard of Kyle Baker, who has collaborated with McGruder(Birth of a Nation) and is an award-winning cartoonist and graphic novelist in his ownright (Nat Turner). Time will tell whether or not these newer authors and categories of AfricanAmerican literature will establish long-lasting generational connections in the AfricanAmerican and global community. Well, I hope that I’ve inspired, incited, or nudged you (take your pick) to recallworks by African American authors that have made an impact on you and with whichyou have a personal connection. Now, it’s your turn to share these works. We’ll notethese titles on Power Point during the discussion. I’ll compile them and will send the listvia e-mail to anyone who requests it. A sign-up sheet is available near the book display.
Works CitedJackson, Richard. “The Shared Vision of Langston Hughes and Black Hispanic Writers.”Black American Literature Forum, vol. 15, no. 3 (Autumn 1981), pp. 89-92.