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African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. (Reviews).

Emmanuel S. Nelson, ed. African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood P, 2002. 431 pp. $94.95.

For the large and growing numbers of scholars and students of African American autobiography, Emmanuel Nelson's sourcebook should prove useful. It contains a wide representation of personal narratives published as early as the mid-eighteenth century and as recently as the last decade of the twentieth. A variety of genres are included as well: captivity narratives, antebellum fugitive slave narratives, spiritual autobiographies, travelogues, and self-reflexive autobiographies. The range of autobiographies includes those by well-known and often studied writers such as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Wilson, Jarena Lee, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Maya Angleou, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker. Included as well are infrequently discussed autobiographies by Hilton Als, Toi Derricotte, Juanita Harrison, Brent Staples, Patrice Gaines, and Sarah Rice.

Each entry in this sourcebook begins with a biography of the autobiographer, followed by a brief discussion of the themes of the autobiography and a short description of its critical reception. The entries conclude with a bibliography of autobiographical works, critical studies, and reviews. This configuration of each entry renders the entire sourcebook user-friendly as a reference in selecting texts for a course, and in researching secondary sources for a project.

Notwithstanding its attempt to include a wide range of African American autobiographers, the sourcebook omits Harriet Brent Jacobs, whose Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is now considered central to the canon of the genre. Absent as well are autobiographers who have been the focus of critical studies such as Patricia Williams (The Alchemy of Race and Rights), Assata Shakur (Assata), Melba Patillo Beals (Warriors Don't Cry), and Elaine Brown (A Taste of Power). Of the lesser-known African American autobiographers worthy of inclusion, in my opinion, is Era Bell Thompson (American Daughter) and two men who originally published in the nineteenth century: David F. Dorr's travelogue A Colored Man 'Round the World and Amos Webber's diary We All Got History: A Memory Book. The editor, Emmanuel S. Nelson, insists in the brief preface to this volume that he did not intend to define the African American autobiographical canon, but that the volume "is likely to be implicated in canon formation." This is why, in my opinion, the specific omissions that I mention are so unfortunate. Those students and scholars just entering the field of African American autobiography studies will need the guidance of an instructor who can fill in the gaps of this sourcebook and recommend other references, such as the many book-length critical studies of African American autobiography published in the last twenty-five years.

As the first of its kind, African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook is an earnest effort, but to be of enduring value as a reference, the major gaps in the roster of African American autobiographers it includes must be corrected in subsequent editions.
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Author:Deck, Alice A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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