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The Black Canon. (Book Reviews).

Four landmark volumes define and describe the best of African-American literature.

I wasn't taught African-American literature at my high school in Jacksonville, N.C., during the mid-'70's. I was never introduced to the rich rhythms of my own people's literary texts. Instead, I had my family stories of slavery and sharecropping, of hand-rowing ferries on North Carolina's rivers and eating turtles. Those mysterious tales moved me to search out the literature rooted in my own culture, to find the works of Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Now at the close of the 20th century, we finally have "The Norton Anthology of African -American Literature. "Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University and Nellie Y. McKay of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This long overdue anthology, which commandingly surveys the breadth and diversity of African-American literature created during the past 250 years, took ten years to complete. This literary buffet offers reading for everyone's appetite, including poetry, novels, autobiography, short Fiction, plays, slave narratives, sermons and folk tales, as well as lyrics from jazz, spirituals, ballads, work songs, rap and the blues.

It features the works of 120 writers, including the famous and the not so famous. There are generous samples from Frederick Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Martin Luther King Jr. Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Rita Dove, Richard Wright, Alice Walker and Amiri Baraka. Thirteen works appear in their entirety, including W.E.B.-Du Bois's "The Souls of Black Folk" and Toni Morrison's "Sula." Excerpts of Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress," and Octavia Butler's short fiction, "Bloodchild," are also included, underscoring the wide range of forms and interest of African-American literature

The volume is arranged chronologically -has seven sections, including "Literature of the Reconstruction to the Negro Renaissance: 1865-1919," "Realism naturalism, Naturalism, Modernism: 1940-1960" and "Literature Since 1970." Each section is prefaced with an article tying the pieces together. The chapter titled "The Vernacular Tradition takes the most risks by incorporating the rhymes of rap music, which many critics have disparaged, largely for political rather than artistic reasons. But, as the anthology shows, the best of rap is powerful literature that captures the struggles and dreams of the black underclass.

Another standout is the section, "The Black Arts Movement 1960-1970," spawned by the civil rights and black power movements. The featured writers in this chapter -- Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Haki R. Madhubuti and Nikki Giovanni -- established a political aesthetic that redefined art as a vehicle for social change. Thus it makes sense that works from two people not normally considered creative writers -- Malcolm X, represented with Chapter I 1, "Saved," of "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. 's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" -- are included.

The editors must be commended for their choices of representative works, but it is a testament to the fecundity of African--American literature that even this 2,665 page volume could not squeeze in every writer of the first rank. Marilyn Nelson Waniek, Jay Wright, Toi Derricotte, Sterling D. Plumpp, Alvin Aubert, Marita Golden and Eugene B. Redmond are noted by their absence. Nevertheless, this indispensable volume proves richly engaging and warrants serious attention. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature" is a landmark reference tool of a different sort. Edited by three renowned scholars -- William Andrews and Trudier Harris, who teach at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Frances Smith Foster of Emory University -- it is organized like an encyclopedia and includes thoughtful, well-researched entries on topics as diverse as the blues, conjuring and signifying, the Middle Passage, the trickster and literary characters, such as Bigger Thomas. There are articles on 150 major African-American literary works and more than 400 writers. Entries are presented in alphabetical order, so the book is user friendly. The articles -- written by more than 300 scholars, including Arnold Rampersad, Thadious M Davis, Gerald Early, Karla FC Holloway, Jerry W. Ward Jr. and Joyce Pettis -- provide helpful historical perspectives. For Example, in "Brer Rabbit" Elon A. Kulii and Beverley Threatt Kulii shed light on the organization and the emergence of this trickster. Brer Rabbit tales helped the underclass deal with inequality in the American system.

I especially liked the coverage of the black press and the essay "Afrocentricity" by Molefi Kete Asante, which compares the validity of Afrocentric views with the dominance of Eurocentric views. An assessment of Afrocentricity is necessary for understanding the new black renaissance of the 1990's. This revival of African-American literature is the reason readers can appreciate "The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature."

The "Companion" also includes lively, incisive biographical sketches of most major black writers such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. In addition, there are entries on musicians, political leaders, artists, sports figures and activists. Cross-references direct the reader to other entries on specific topics. Moreover, an index offers easy access to all the entries; and there are biographies after most of the articles.

"The Oxford Companion to African American Literature" is significant for its illuminating information and cothpellin2 contribution to the study of 'African-American literature, this volume is so essential that it must be consulted along with "The Norton Anthology of African American literature" to deftly explore and understand the literary canon. But it also should be required reading for all African-American studies programs and general American literature programs, too. I think many other readers will share my response, reading and re-reading these two volumes, flipping page after page, unaware of the passage of time but more aware than ever of a powerful literary tradition too long neglected.

Reprinted from "The News & Observer, with permission of the author.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Black Writers' Guild
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The Norton Anthology of African -American Literature
Author:Moore, Lenard D.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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