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Classically black: African American presses and new imprints lead the trend in reissuing important works for a new day.

When Oprah Winfrey decided to adapt Their Eyes Were Watching God to film, interest in the 1937 Zora Neale Hurston novel surged, as did the book's position on the best-seller lists. It was wonderful to see Hurston's name there, next to those of more contemporary writers. But one wonders why it took so long for many readers to get excited about her work.

Traditionally, classic novels have been studied in the classroom and then relegated to bookshelves across America, where they sit gathering dust. A lot of confusion surrounds the term "classic." Unfortunately, the politics of building a literary canon or a curriculum add to that confusion, and too often the works of African American writers have been discounted by people who don't understand their material or just couldn't be bothered. This has led individuals like Paul Coates, founder and publisher of Black Classic Press, in Baltimore, Maryland, to create institutions from within the community, with the aim of promoting and preserving an aesthetic free from the influence of the dominant culture. "When our press was founded twenty-seven yea s ago, "Coates says, "as far as I knew, there was no one out there defining black literature as classic literature ... and that's the environment we stepped into."

Coates and others like Haki R. Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, in Chicago, helped pave the way for similar efforts; and in the 1990s, several mainstream publishing houses Created multicultural imprints, hoping to attract more black readers. Soon, African American editors in mainstream publishing houses, who had their own notions of what classic literature was and should be, were reissuing books they considered important and relevant for modern audiences.

Janet Hill, vice president and executive editor at Harlem Moon/Broadway, when asked why she felt it necessary to revisit older works in addition to searching for new talent, put it this way: "To understand where we're going, it's critical to understand where we've come from, and I think that reading the classics--books from various points in history--allow us to do that."

Manic Barron, a former editor and publishing manager who is currently a partner in the Menza-Barron Literary Agency, echoed Hill's concern. "When I was an editor at Random House," says Barron, "I created the Harlem Renaissance Series as part of the Modern Library [because] I wanted to make sure the younger generation of readers knew there was a body of work prior to these writers and that these writers themselves were the antecedents for today's literary heroes. Without a Wallace Thurman there could not have been an E. Lynn Harris, and without Ann Perry there would not have been a Terry McMillan."

Standing on Broad Shoulders

Not only is it important to "keep people mindful on whose shoulders we stand," Coates says, but he believes that when it comes to defining which books are truly "black classics," black readers should have the last word on which ones make the cut. "In general, it's going to be something that reflects us" insists the publishing veteran. "It's going to be something that reflects our values [and] provides inspiration ... and it's generally not going to be a story about how the white man won the West."

Coates and Hill are particularly interested in releasing vintage works that never made it to print or, for a multitude of reasons, never found an audience. "We wanted, of course, to reissue books that were in the public domain," says Hill, "but we also wanted to reissue books, beloved treasures that had been published [in] a less hospitable book climate than the one in which we currently find ourselves."

These seminal works are attracting a new audience of readers, many of whom--black and white--are unfamiliar with the rich intellectual history of African Americans in the United States.

According to Barron, whose definition of classic is books that he calls "time-honored and timeless" as well as material that captures a particular era. Both kinds of writing are "representative of our time here in America" he says.

"They speak about our growth, and so they do need to be studied just as the European masters need to be studied, especially if one is talking about American literature," Barron says.

Hill concurs, adding that her aim is to bring black writers into the literary spotlight, where they can be recognized for their substantial contributions to American letters. "It's very important for African American classics to be read by blacks, but it's equally essential for other groups--the broadest audience possible--to read, appreciate and understand African American literature."

The Test of Time

For readers interested in exploring classic literature, Black Issues Book Review has compiled the following list of noteworthy titles recently reissued.

Clotel, or, the President's Daughter by William Wells Brown

by William Wells Brown Penguin Classics, January 2004 $11, ISBN 0-142-43772-7

This 1853 novel by Brown, a runaway from Kentucky, was actually published in London, where the author went to escape fugitive-slave laws. Long acknowledged as the first nobel by an African American writer, Clotel draws from the long-standing rumors surrounding Thomas and Sally Hemings, well-known slave narratives and Brown's own experiences as a bondsman in the South. Clotel is a quadroon girl who becomes the mistress of her white owner. When he marries, she is separated from their children and sold to a slave trader. Though revolutionary in many respects, Clotel doesn't make a complete departure from 19th-century literary conventions, themes or prejudices. There can be little doubt, however, about the importance of this groundbreaking work.

The Colonel's Dream

by Charles W. Chesnutt Harlem Moon Classic/Broadway, January 2005 $12.95, ISBN 0-767-91951-3

First published in 1905, Chesnutt's story of a former Confederate officer's return to a broken and corrupt Southern community further established his reputation as a writer who dared to tackle the most incendiary issues of his day. It was unusual for a black author to use a white protagonist, but Chesnutt, a civil rights activist and author of a host of novels, short stories and other writings, took up the challenge--producing a book that critiques and informs as much as it entertains.

For those unfamiliar with Chesnutt's work, Ishmael Reed's introduction offers some important insights into the life and career of this gifted writer. Also recommended are Chesnutt's novels The Quarry and Paul Marchand, F.M.C., which, having been turned down for publication in the 1920s (when they were written), were finally released in 1999 by Princeton University Press.

God Sends Sunday

by Arna Bontemps Washington Square Press, February 2005 $12, ISBN 0-743-26891-1

Many older novels can be appreciated not only for their literary merits, but also because they open a window into the past. In God Sends Sunday, Bontemps introduces readers to the world of 19th-century horse racing through the experiences of Little Augie, a black jockey. As a child in rural Louisiana, Augie desires to see the world, which lands him on a passing ship to New Orleans. His love of horses leads him to a stable where he discovers a talent for the racetrack. Fame and wealth follow, but Bontemps's cities are home to every vice imaginable--places where women are abused as a matter of course, men fight to the death and a "friend" can easily be bought and sold.

Eventually, Augie's success goes to his head and his lack of discipline, wisdom and humility ultimately prove to be his downfall. The story is told in a combination of simple prose and colorful dialect. In general, the plot takes precedence over character development. A prolific writer and a prominent Harlem Renaissance figure, Bontemps published more than 40 works in his lifetime. God Sends Sunday was his first novel.

The Heart of Happy Hollow: Stories

by Paul Laurence Dunbar Hadem Moon Classic/Broadway Books, February 2005 $10.95, ISBN 0-767-91981-5

Though best known for his poetry, Dunbar is also the author of four short-story collections, four novels and two plays. With The Heart of Happy Hollow, Dunbar explores the lives of black men and women--prosperous and poor; idle and industrious; city dwellers and farmers--in post-Civil War America. As scholar Eleanor Alexander notes in her introduction, Dunbar wrote in the "Plantation School Tradition"--a style characterized by "negroes speaking in a quaint manner, jovial negroes happy with their lot, and antics of the unlettered ..." Almost all of his African American characters speak in a thick dialect, and many (to put it nicely) are rather simpleminded. But a fair number of the stories deal with questions of morality, and though Dunbar doesn't openly denounce racisms many evils, he writes about a world undeniably tainted by the effects of slavery and white supremacy. Thus, these century-old sketches on southern life may also be viewed as indictments of that society and the mores that governed it.

Let the Lion Eat Straw

by Ellease Southerland Amistad/HarperCollins, July 2005 $11.95, ISBN 0-060-72421-8

Twenty-six years after its initial release, this edition of Southerland's novel about a young girl's journey to womanhood will likely attract a new generation of readers. Abeba Williams, a child of great beauty and undiscovered talent, has a safe and loving home with the midwife who brought her into the world. But when Abeba's absentee mother returns and moves her to Brooklyn, her life begins to change in ways she could never have imagined.

Southerland's story revolves around her characters' inner lives, focusing on the intricacies of human emotions and the choices that people make because of them. Let the Lion Eat Straw is no fairy tale; it is as much about abandonment and disappointment as it is about hope and the joy that can sometimes be found in even the bleakest of circumstances.

Our Nig or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black

by Harriet E Wilson Penguin Classics, December 2004 $12, ISBN 0-142-43777-8

The first known novel published by a black author in the United States, Our Nig is an indispensable and rare work that chronicles the struggles faced by black women who rived above the Mason-Dixon Line. Our Nig was first published by Harriet E. Wilson, a free-born woman from New England, in 1859. Frado, a child abandoned by her white mother, is the protagonist and her story loosely mirrors Wilson's own experiences as the indentured servant of a mean-spirited and violent woman.

This edition includes an Introduction by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts, which helps put the story into context for readers unfamiliar with the author's history. Wilson's characters are well developed; their actions and motives are believable; and her writing style reflects the influence of her contemporaries. Wilson freely criticizes the shallow religiosity of the adults who fail to recognize Frado's humanity and is unsparing in her descriptions of the abuses that Frado suffers daily.

Native Son

by Richard Wright HarperPerennial/Modern Classics, August 2005 $12.95, ISBN 0-060-83756-X

Black Boy by Richard Wright HarperCollins, December 2005 $24.95, ISBN 0-060-83400-5

Few who have read it can forget the story of Bigger Thomas. At 20-years-old, the protagonist of Native Son is barely a man, but already a murderer. Raised in the bleak and dangerous streets of Chicago, Bigger feels the twin effects of racism and poverty from a very young age. Frustrated by the seeming hopelessness of his situation, Bigger finds a sense of power through terrorizing others, and before long, he is moving rapidly along a path that can only lead to his destruction.

Also from Wright, this fall HarperCollins will release a special 60th-anniversary edition of Black Boy featuring a Foreword by Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World. Black Boy is often hailed as a masterpiece of contemporary autobiography.

The Quest of the Silver Fleece

by W.E.B. Du Bois Harlem Moon Classic/Broadway Books, September 2004 $14, ISBN 0-767-91845-2

This 1911 novel--W.E.B. Du Bois's first--is a fast-moving and wonderfully entertaining tale that transports the reader to an era when thousands of farmers were held bondage to the sharecropping system; when the few schools for blacks were subject to constant threats from angry white mobs; and when race, class and gender determined access to necessities of fife. It is a love story that bears witness to the sexual exploitation of black women during and after slavery, and one that explores the possibilities for healing and self-determination within the black community. While much of Du Bois's understanding of the South's social and economic structures informs the novel, his command of character is impressive and his plot, which contains its fair share of coincidences and a touch of the supernatural, will keep readers hooked until the very last page.

Arnold Rampersad's introduction includes a brief overview of Du Bois's influences; his work as a writer, educator and activist; and Rampersad's thoughts on the unique qualities of Dubois's fiction. Also this year, Black Classic Press has reissued Du Bois's book The Negro ($14.95, ISBN 1-580-73032-9). First published in 1915, this groundbreaking work introduces readers to the key figures, events and civilizations that shaped African and African American history.

Denise Simon is a writer and frequent contributor to BIBR. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Other Noteworthy Classic Titles

Blood on the Forge by William Attaway New York Review Books Classics, February 2005 $14, ISBN 1-590-17134-9

The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou by Kristin Lattany iUniverse (, April 2005 $25.95, ISBN 0-595-79635-5-4

When Washington Was in Vogue: A Love Story by Edward Christopher Williams, Amistad/HarperCollins January 2004, $23.95, ISBN 0-060-55545-9
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Author:Simon, Denise
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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