The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.
AFTER TEN YEARS OF ADVANCE PUBLICITY, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature appeared in 1997. For professors like me who regularly teach African-American literature, this was a most welcome event. No more would I have to cobble together a variety of paperbacks, photocopied materials from out-of-print sources, and a home-made tape recording of spirituals and folksongs assembled from our library's sparse collection. Better yet, by the time the Norton came out, another major textbook publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was months away from delivering Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Each anthology is a well-informed collection, a useful guide to African-American literature and a handy storehouse/reader from which to teach. Each one includes teachable texts, a mix of canonical works and new material, and a unique CD with musical and spoken-word performances. And each is governed by a different story. One, the Norton, is the story of American adaptation and subversion, of "signifying" upon the social and aesthetic ideals of the Enlightenment and the American experiment in democracy. The other, Call and Response, is a story of survival and revival, of an African diaspora that refused to disappear, and of this diaspora's growing consciousness of its own distinctive voice and vision.
I am convinced that these two views are not mutually exclusive, even though the two anthologies cannot help competing with each other, since most classroom teachers will use only one or the other as their text. Both sets of editors indirectly acknowledge their competitor. Call and Response occasionally goes out of its way to criticize Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a well-known public intellectual who also happens to have co-edited the Norton, for his view that African-American literature is part of mainstream American literary history. Gates refers to the competing anthology obliquely in the preface to the Norton when he uses a phrase from a rather obscure exchange between him and another scholar which Call and Response had chosen to include. In those 1987 essays, Joyce A. Joyce asserted that "Black creative art is an act of love" and Gates entitled his response "What's Love Got to Do With It?" Writing the preface to the Norton in 1996, aware that Call and Response was near completion, Gates and co-editor McKay appear to revive the debate for a moment when they note that all anthologies are "acts of love" (p. xxxvii). Thus, though neither mentions the other by name, both anthologies occasionally hint that they are correcting the other. But the more I studied each anthology, the more I was convinced that these differing storylines are both correct, both true stories, and that each deepens our understanding of this literary tradition.
Neither narrative is yet as widely known as it should be, a sad fact many reviews of the Norton indicate. The story many of these reviews presented was that any anthology of African-American literature was a new and singular occurrence (almost none of them seem to have heard of Call and Response). It is true that for this literary tradition to get its own Norton was in itself an event. Thanks in part to vigorous marketing efforts, the publication of this Norton anthology was widely heralded not just inside the academy, but in general-interest publications as well. Apparently on the strength of Norton's reputation and Gates's byline, Gates published a shortened version of the anthology's introduction in the New York Times Book Review a week before the volume appeared.(1) And the anthology, marketed in retail as well as college bookstores, has been reviewed in many publications that normally take no notice of university textbooks. After the first notice of the book in the New York Times, reviews appeared nationwide in newspapers from the Houston Chronicle to USA Today,(2) and in periodicals ranging from National Review and Harper's to the academic journal Race and Class. Most of the reviewers took up the storyline presented by the New York Times article, which quotes Gates announcing, "We are canon makers!" and co-editor Nellie Y. McKay asserting that "There needed to be a book that gave a coherent text of African-American literature."(3)
Some insiders might quibble with McKay's statement (many other anthologies of this literature exist already), but anyone reading my essay is unlikely to dispute that the tradition is important enough to warrant an anthology. Some of the non-academic reviews remind us, however, how little most people know about this tradition. For the vast majority of general readers, the tradition is not yet coherent or even visible. In the National Review Steve Sailer asserted that the Norton Anthology confers undeserved respect upon many writers. "By `canonizing' 120 writers (at least a quarter of whom seem decent but quite dispensable) they [the editors] have legitimized a vast supply of subject matter to stoke their specialty's publish-or-perish fires for years to come." For readers like Sailer, an anthology authorizing this literary tradition is self-evidently controversial. "This compendium raises the more general question of what is the overall contribution of blacks to American culture?" he writes, and later, "[W] here does African American literature rank?" implying that there's some sort of competition in which he needs to cast a vote. Granting some high-quality exceptions, Sailer concludes that most of this literature talks about the African-American experience a little more than is good for it: "Notice that you almost never find yourself saying, `Gee, I didn't know that writer is black.`"(4) One might expect a negative response from the National Review, but even a reviewer in Harper's seems to be searching for reasons to discredit a literary tradition he knows nothing about. The reviewer, Vince Pasarro, praises texts in the Norton which he seems never to have heard of before, noting that the anthology contains "amazing treasures: the fascinating early slave narratives, for example."(5) He feels sufficiently expert in the field, however, to conclude that many of the other authors weren't good enough to rate inclusion, that the style of The Color Purple is insufferable, and that one footnote to a folktale is stating the obvious. Such "tweedy, altogether Caucasian editorial moments," Pasarro reports, mar the anthology (p. 74). (As it happens, Robert O'Meally, who edited this section, Is black.)
Other responses to the anthology suggest that even inside academe, there is no general consensus about the character of the African-American literary tradition. In Commentary, Philip Richards criticized the Norton editors' emphasis on folk and vernacular expression. "By making a fetish of lower-class culture, Gates ducks the question of how black writers might free themselves to transcend their material;"(6) such "transcendence" seems to be, in Richards's view, the true purpose of this literature. Two reviewers in America, on the other hand, see the "the dynamic at the center of African-American literature" to be "the conflict between constituted authority and insurgent force."(7) These reviewers seem to assume that the literary tradition is essentially a reactive rather than a proactive or creative one, and although they praise the Norton, they seem to regret its appearance as well. "We see the canonicity of the anthology form incorporating the counter-canonical energy of vernacular forms such as work songs and rap. What will be the effect upon African rebellion toward the canonization that has so denigrated it and its producers? Will this rebellion continue to give offense? Will it become another criterion for literary taste? Or will it become another commodity, as some of its producers themselves once were?" (p. 26). Similarly, in his review in the New Statesman Ellis Cashmore asserts that ".. the accomplishments of black culture are the result of the conflict between American identity and subordination."(8) Cashmore darkly refers to "those who profit from selling commodified versions of culture," reminding us that "this anthology is a commodity; as if to remind us, it comes with a companion CD" (pp. 52-53).
Yet common sense (and a better knowledge of the contents of this tradition) discredits such interpretations: if African-American literature were truly controlled by a capitalist monolith, not even the slave narratives would have been published, much less David Walker's incendiary 1828 Appeal. A review in Race and Class, concluding that the Norton succeeds in contributing "to our understanding of the struggles of African-American people to articulate their experiences and to change society,"(9) offers a more flexible interpretation of this literary tradition and the proper role of "canon makers." Theodore O. Mason suggests, in a similar vein, "that in the case of an anthology we have less likely achieved an idea of a canon (given the definitional problems inherent in the terms culture and nation) and more likely set the stage for the work that needs to be done in understanding the conflicts comprising our history."(10)
Like Mason, I am reluctant to ascribe to any anthology the power to fix and render static our understanding of literary history. Anthologies offer, but cannot impose on us, their stories of a literary tradition. Call and Response, which few reviewers have even mentioned, presents a different story, in which the literary tradition reflects the continuing presence of its African ancestry. Which of these texts is the right choice for a teacher or student? Chester Fontenot, who has written the most thorough discussion of the two anthologies side-by-side, concludes that for a semester-survey, "it matters little which of these texts one adopts" since each has so much in it that is helpful.(11) My study of the two anthologies leads me to a similar conclusion. Each is a good choice, whether for an undergraduate survey course or a graduate seminar, and teachers and scholars should know about both. In the following discussion I would like to characterize each anthology in more detail. The interpretive frameworks, the governing stories, of each anthology contribute significantly to our understanding of this treasurehouse of cultural expression, and will doubtless give rise to more stories of American literary and cultural history.(12)
Through the divergent formats of the two anthologies, the editors convey their differing storylines. Gates and McKay are correct in announcing that they are "canon makers" because W. W. Norton, more than any other single academic publisher, defines the canon. Every Norton anthology uses the same tried-and-true layout and graphic design, structuring principles, and conventions of annotation, and this Norton is yet another example of why that format is useful. In addition to a historical organization, Nortons feature brief headnotes, running heads that identify the author and text, dates of both publication and composition of a text, and a brief discussion of secondary sources to point students to further study. Nortons also favor complete works rather than excerpts whenever possible, and often include a timeline of historical and literary events, as this one does. Except in the introduction of a CD, which I will discuss later, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature offers little that is innovative in its format. Its effect, then, is to assimilate this body of literature into the mainstream--to "Nortonize" it. These editors knowingly offer the Norton imprimatur as a sort of authenticating format. Gates and McKay, et al., presume that the literary traditions of British and American literature are worthy monuments, and by patterning their collection after anthologies for these established traditions, they are paying tribute. Bringing the African-American tradition into the literary hall of fame, they are also promoting an altered perception of Western literature. As they conclude in their Preface, "Talking Books," "The authors of these works (whose births range from 1730 to 1957) have made the texts of Western letters speak in voices and timbres resonant, resplendent, and variously `black'" (p. xl).
Homogenizing though the Norton standard might seem, readers may long for it when attempting to navigate Call and Response. Without running heads, this book obliges readers to return to the table of contents to orient themselves, and the lack of dates beside individual texts sends us on further searches, sometimes to the copyright page, to find such basic information. Dates and full bibliographical information sometimes do appear in the Call and Response headnotes, but they sometimes do not. And the layout of Call and Response does not help readers to discern whether they are reading an excerpt or a complete work, nor does it remind us that we are moving into a new author, a new historical period, or an introduction to a new group of authors. We would have been better served by a more consistent design (in the size of typeface and other graphics) for the sections and sub-sections. Anthologies like these are mammoth projects to create, requiring many hands in their production, but for students and even advanced scholars, their purpose should be to guide us through a vast literary storehouse, and Call and Response, while navigable, is not as well-marked as it should be.
However, Call and Response outshines the Norton in creating a format that is expressive of its own aesthetic. The editors call this collection the "first comprehensive anthology of literature by African Americans presented according to the Black Aesthetic." Their title refers to the musical and religious pattern in which an individual preaches, sings, or otherwise "calls," and the hearers answer in kind. The introduction notes that the call-and-response pattern "fosters and reinforces a dynamic, artistic, and cultural relationship between the individual and the group" (p. xxxiii). This relationship, together with a conscious emphasis on African and African-American identity, defines the Black Aesthetic. This anthology designates its sections as either Calls (Call for Deliverance; Call for Political and Social Change) or Responses (Black Literary Declarations of Independence; Voices of the Harlem Renaissance). And the introduction to each section pays tribute to W.E.B. DuBois, who might be said to be the reigning spirit of this anthology. In his seminal Souls of Black Folk (1904), DuBois began each chapter with a musical staff notating the melody of a spiritual. The sections in Call and Response use this device as well, and also incorporate lyrics in their titles ("No More Shall They in Bondage Toil"; "Win the War Blues"). By using this music to express a kind of zeitgeist of the African diaspora in America, DuBois in 1904 and Call and Response in 1997 announce their concern with art that reflects distinctively African-American experiences. "We believe that African American literature is a distinct tradition," the anthology's Preface announces. Instead of Nortonizing African-American literature, the editors of Call and Response appropriate a trope used by an earlier black intellectual, the motif of the spiritual, to legitimize and honor this literary tradition.
It is unfortunate, then, that the editors did not call more attention to their use of DuBois as a model, and that in the entry on DuBois himself, the impact of the musical notation is blurred. Call and Response uses a wide page and double columns, which makes more lines of text available, but this layout is visually confusing when one text abuts another in an adjacent column. In the selections from The Souls of Black Folk this is especially infelicitous. The narrow margins and double columns reduce DuBois's effect of the musical staff presiding over the whole chapter that follows it. The concluding chapter of Souls is followed immediately by DuBois's fine poem "A Litany of Atlanta," as if they were a continuous text, almost obscuring the fact that Souls ends with a musical staff. Call and Response's tribute to DuBois is moving testimony to its assertion in the Preface that "African American literature is a distinct tradition," but the presentation of DuBois's work obscures the link between it and Call and Response.
Format is not the two volumes' only difference. The editors tell their respective stories more directly as well, especially in their introductory essays. Gates and McKay tell the story of Phillis Wheatley's oral examination by white Bostonians as their opening parable of African-American literary history. For Patricia Liggins Hill and the other editors of Call and Response, however, in the beginning was, not Phillis Wheatley writing herself into American society, but African griots telling stories of a much older civilization. "This separate nation endures as a collective identity with unique sociocultural idioms," the opening section asserts (p. 2). The first texts Call and Response presents are folklore, both African-American material and "African survivals" such as proverbs, work songs, and religious epics. In contrast to Call and Response's Afrocentric interpretation, the Norton editors note that "African American slaves, remarkably, sought to write themselves out of slavery by mastering the Anglo-American belletristic tradition" (pp. xxvii-xxviii). Call and Response does not portray a belles-lettres tradition; it describes nineteenth-century verse as "transcribed-oral protest poetry" (p. 212) and says that such poets and orators were like the New Black Poets of the 1960s. "Like these later bards, the antebellum griot-poets embraced the aesthetic of art for people's sake rather than the Eurocentric art simply for art's sake" (p. 222). Their storyline sees the Black Aesthetic, a term that was coined in the 1960s, as a condition that existed long before we had a name for it. Call and Response fleshes out this storyline when it compares Frances Harper's Moses to Etheridge Knight, a poet who began writing in the 1960s; in her later poem Moses, Harper, like Knight, exhibits a "heightened sense of communal consciousness" (p. 348). Similarly, it links James Whitfield's protest, in his 1853 poem "America," to that of "revolutionary black poets of the 1960s and 1970s" (p. 376). By contrast, the Norton's introduction to the period from 1746-1865 contends that "early African American writers identified themselves as Americans with a special mission" (p. 127). Yet even this patriotic-sounding ideal was revolutionary, for, as the essay notes, "the intention of slavery was to create in the slave a sense of complete alienation
from all human ties" except servitude to the master (p. 130). This essay adds that Jefferson followed a number of European philosophers who believed in white supremacy and thereby provided "intellectual and moral cover for slavery's naked politics of exploitation" (p. 131). Thus the two anthologies are building two different narrative lines, but there are certainly many shared characteristics in the two tales. In both accounts, upholding the humanity of people of African descent in the slaveholding societies of Europe and America was a radically subversive act.
Both anthologies pay comparable tribute to specifically African-American cultural experience by printing generous selections of folklore texts, a fact that some reviewers of the Norton found puzzling even though anthologies have been doing this for a long time. African-American literary scholarship has long included folklore in its purview, as has scholarship on literature of the American South (both white and non-white). Norton anthologies have been slower than others to include vernacular traditions, but their inclusion of folklore is nothing radical for an anthology in itself. Hence this Norton's presentation of its folklore is a bit disappointing, not for what it includes but for what it doesn't. Information standard in a Norton presentation of a literary text (date of composition, date of publication) does not apply to folk materials, but readers could still be given more information about when and by whom an item was collected, and what variants of the item (the Flying Africans story, the John Henry ballad) exist elsewhere. Folklore is divided by genre, which is perfectly reasonable but inconsistent with the rest of the anthology, which is chronological. So the folklore contained in the Norton is valuable but incompletely documented. Its incompleteness is even a bit misleading in comparison to the tidier and more conscientious presentation of the other literature, suggesting to the reader that no parallel contextual information is available for folklore and that these items are unique. Robert O'Meally, who edited the section, certainly does not think this; as his excellent introduction reminds us, he is an eloquent advocate of the importance of the vernacular tradition, and as his intelligent selection of items demonstrates, he knows his folklore. My hope is that a revised edition will correct this oversight and develop a brief and consistent format for presenting the time and prevalence of the item's transmission.
By contrast, Call and Response does not treat its folklore differently from its other texts. Each of the six historical sections includes folk materials and items from popular culture. In this sense the anthology provides more of a context for the folk material (since we know roughly the era in which the items were transmitted) and for the literary texts that coincide with, and may reflect the influence of, this collection of folklore. Moreover, literary selections that imitate vernacular creations (sermons by James Weldon Johnson, tales by Charles Chesnutt, and rap by John Auger Wideman) are included in folk sections without any differentiation from the folklore that was actually collected in the field. No one can say that Call and Response's presentation of folk texts makes them look less important, less carefully documented than the literary texts. Unfortunately, few entries in Call and Response are carefully documented. None of the texts, literary or otherwise, have that handy date of composition and first publication after them. To get this information, a reader has to search in the headnote or deduce it from the copyright page. The obscurity of this information inadvertently suggests that readers ought not to care very much about these dates. I am certain the editors of Call and Response actually believe passionately that readers ought to care; I have heard Trudier Harris, when teaching or delivering papers, routinely rattle off dates and contextual events whenever she names a work, and I recall a keynote address in which Bernard Bell included the classroom mantra with which he likes to admonish his students: "Problematize, historicize, contextualize." So, as with the Norton, I think it is quite likely that the next edition of Call and Response will make more of its format consistent with its aim of teaching readers how to interpret this literary tradition. For literary texts to become intelligible, especially texts from this tradition, fundamental contextual information is as important as the texts themselves. Although I deplore the publishing practice of issuing frequent revised editions in order to prevent students from buying used textbooks, I believe that revised editions of both of these anthologies would become genuinely more valuable than the first editions if they added this information.
On the other hand, both anthologies provide an immediate service and brand-new ways to teach both folklore and traditional literature with their audio CDs. In my view, the CD is one of the most important dimensions of these two anthologies, a new idea the Norton editors announced in the 1980s that has since been employed by anthologists of other subjects. These two CDs have very little overlap. The Norton CD contains a good bit more music: twenty-one tracks including six spiritual or gospel songs, four in the category "work songs/secular songs/ballads," and eight in the category of blues/jazz. One selection by Grandmaster Flash is in the category of rap, and two speeches (by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X) are classified as sermons even though they were not delivered in a worship service. In the booklet accompanying the CD, Robert O'Meally, who also edited the folk section of the Norton, provides brief notes for each selection, commenting on the genre of the piece, the lyrics or text as well as the music, the occasion of its recording, and the style of performance. Call and Response's CD has no separate notes, but its producer, Robert Catliotti, has written a six-page essay that appears in an Appendix in the anthology, where he asserts that "the sound of black expression is a communal rejection of oppression, an essential spirit that refuses to submit" (p. 2034). This CD contains some very interesting items, such as a performance of an African epic poem; in it, Catliotti writes, one can hear a call-and-response pattern in the griot's words and the response of his stringed instrument. "Go Down, Moses," identifying African-American slaves with Biblical chosen people, is cited as another African connection. Contemporary Fisk Singers perform "Wade in The Water" and a blues musician sings "Back Water Blues"; the SNCC Freedom Singers perform "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round," and John Coltrane performs "Big Nick." There's not nearly as much music in this collection--nine out of twenty-six tracks, as opposed to nineteen out of twenty-one on Norton. But Call and Response's CD does provide a wonderful array of African-American writers reading their own work (Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, even Booker T. Washington) and performing the work of others (Margaret Walker and Arna Bontemps). Libraries should be sure to acquire the CDs along with the anthologies.
The sections that cover the early periods of African-American literature have many entries in common, but the Norton stresses the contexts and the formal properties of its texts. As Gates and McKay announce in their Preface, "Writers in the black tradition have repeated and revised figures, tropes, and themes in prior works, leading to formal links in a chain of tradition. ... [W]orks of literature created by African Americans often extend, or signify upon, other works in the black tradition" (p. xxxvi). This emphasis on the linguistic may seem, to some readers, to ignore the political activism that was also a long-standing feature of this literary tradition, a feature stressed more in Call and Response. Yet the linguistic emphasis can also lead us to understand the historical and political conditions into which these texts speak. In distinguishing between the styles of Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, Whose narratives are only two years apart, the Norton offers the following useful analysis:
Douglass's storytelling incorporates the rhetorical conventions of nineteenth-century platform oratory and the structure of Protestant conversion narratives to emphasize how Douglass had fashioned himself into an exemplary figure. Brown's modest, understated plain style, displaying few flourishes and little self-reflection, refuses to make great claims for the man himself. Instead, it is often the ordinary, the representative, and the nonheroic--even the antiheroic--that come to the fore in Brown's narrative of his life. Yet in Brown's willingness to focus on himself as a slave trickster and to explain the contradictions between a slave's survival ethic and the dominant morality of his time, we discover a surprising brand of realism. (p. 246)
This nuanced distinction between the narratives, identifying their uses of existing literary conventions and the unique conditions of the slave narrative, makes me eager to reread and to teach Brown as well as Douglass.
Different though they may be in emphasis, the two anthologies contain many of the same texts, some frequently anthologized and some less familiar to the nonspecialist. In studying the two collections I realized I needed to start teaching "An Address to the Slaves of the United States" by Henry Highland Garnet, an 1843 speech that both the Norton and Call and Response include. A startlingly brave call for resistance, Garnet's address is also illuminating to read alongside Douglass's 1845 Narrative, showing how subdued and careful Douglass had to be when addressing a primarily white audience. Garnet, acting as a minister as well as an abolitionist, preached to slaves, "TO SUCH DEGRADATION IT IS SINFUL IN THE EXTREME FOR YOU TO MAKE VOLUNTARY SUBMISSION." Call and Response has more such texts--speeches, pamphlets, and other documents that testify to the large number of African-American men and women of letters who were speaking to one another as well as to Euro-Americans. The Norton has fewer examples of these, but acknowledges their existence; for example, its entry on Maria Stewart helpfully places her speech in the tradition of African-American sermons.
The pre-1900 portion of each anthology includes some useful nuggets not found between the covers of the other. For example, when Call And Response notes that 500,000 copies of an address by Alexander Crummell, an early advocate of a return to Africa, were printed, it furnishes impressive proof of a long-standing and widespread interest in Africa on the part of American slaves. The Norton provides a new translation of a short story by Victor Sejour, the first published short fiction by an African American. This 1837 story, "The Mulatto," describes a slave's revenge on his evil master-father. Written in French and published abroad, it reminds readers, among other things, that many blacks were sympathetic to violent reprisals by slaves, even though they dared not publish such sentiments in the U.S. Both anthologies, in other words, attest to an ongoing discourse of resistance, of what Ishamel Reed might call "witchery on the word."(13) Both present a literary tradition of using established texts, from the Bible to the Constitution to British literature, in a new context, showing that human rights and humanistic ideals do, indeed, apply to African Americans.
Both Call and Response and the Norton provide extensive and well-informed coverage of the literary tradition from 1900 to 1950. As with their coverage of the earlier periods, each anthology presents this period somewhat differently, according to its governing narrative. The Norton devotes ample space to James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a work that is a portrait of a failed artist, among other things; Call and Response does not even excerpt this work. By contrast, Call and Response chooses to present more voices and more contexts for a period that was as concerned with political progress as it was with literary developments. "Whether in autobiographical narratives or more strict literary forms, writers between 1865 and 1915 did not have the privilege of separating their blackness from their creative endeavors ... [yet] [t]hey set the stage for later writers to carve out freer and larger national and racial spaces for their creativity" (p. 556). Elsewhere Call and Response comments on such writers as Gwendolyn Bennett, placing her in the context of Countee Cullen and Claude McKay; it also presents Sterling Brown as a Southern counterpart to Langston Hughes, and Frank Marshall Davis as a colleague and friend of fellow Chicago writers Wright and Margaret Walker. The Norton's belletristic emphasis appears in its inclusion of the full text of the modernist, avant-garde Cane, the salon chapter from Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring, and George Samuel Schuyler's essay "The Negro-Art Hokum," which provoked Hughes's famous manifesto "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The section devoted to the era following the Harlem Renaissance does not have a historical title but is called "Realism, Naturalism, Modernism"; its introduction describes the "Wright school" of fiction writing, a label that Call and Response rejects in its discussion of the same era; its write-up of Ann Petry makes a compelling argument that we should not pigeonhole her as a female Richard Wright. Each anthology also includes selections not available in the other anthology, such as the selection in Norton by Sutton Griggs: the lynching section from The Hindered Hand, which is excruciatingly graphic. Call and Response presents Chester Himes as an antecedent of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcom X, and the Himes short story "Marihuana and a Pistol," notable not least for its brevity, would make an interesting companion piece to Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground."
In each anthology's presentation of this period, an era so rich and full of prophetic texts we are only beginning to understand it, each volume also displays shortcomings, some unique and some shared by both. A few editorial gaffes appear. Why doesn't Call and Response provide any footnotes for Robert Hayden's densely allusive "Middle Passage"? Why does it include James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Evr'y Voice and Sing" without a date or a cross-listing of Johnson's biography, which appears seventy pages later? Why does the Norton feel it should footnote the term "reconstruction" and do so in not one, but two separate places, using the same text in both notes? Why does Call and Response include the same discussion of sermons verbatim, both in its opening essay for the period 1865-1915 and then in the headnote preceding the wonderful entry "De Sun Do Move"? In some places in the middle sections of both anthologies, not just errors, but editorial biases emerge as well. Call and Response devotes four and a half pages to the Locke-DuBois debate, and in headnotes on other writers, such as Marcus Garvey, continually casts DuBois as the hero and Alain Locke as the villain. The Norton editors, on the other hand, say of Alain Locke, "The New Negro is virtually the central text of the Harlem Renaissance" (p. 960). A Norton description of Robert Hayden's career cannot refrain from describing the poet as "rejecting Wright's theory of naturalism as well as radical Marxist cant" (p. 1517). I do not mean to imply that scholars ought not to hold such opinions; my point is that they are clearly opinions, rather than neutral descriptions. As such, scholars should claim them, rather than presenting them unsigned, implicitly in the same objective category as dates of publication and titles of works.
The two anthologies appear to diverge the most in their presentation of literature since 1960. The rhetoric seems more insistent at times, shriller. Yet each anthology includes texts that stress both nationalism (the Black Aesthetic) and multiculturalism (the inclusive dream of American democracy):
Think about it: ain't nobody really talking to you. We're sitting here in Willow Springs, and you're God-knows-where. It's August 1999--ain't but a slim chance it's the same season where you are. Uh, huh, listen. Really listen this time: the only voice is your own.(14) People must be taught to trust true scientists (knowers, diggers, oddballs) and that the holiness of life is the constant possibility of widening the consciousness. And they must be incited to strike back against any agency that attempts to prevent this widening.(15)
So even when the voices are shrillest, the net effect of each anthology is to contribute to a "widening," to offer new ways for us to "really listen this time," and to discover that "the only voice is your own."
The last section of Call and Response is called "Cross Road Blues," and its introductory essay tells us that the crossroads is "whether to choose social integration or black cultural nationalism" as the means of attaining freedom and fulfillment (p. 1342). Here, then, the editors portray the Black Aesthetic as a sensibility that must oppose the American mainstream. They include Larry Neal's essay "The Black Arts Movement," which says that "much of the oppression confronting the Third World and Black America is directly traceable to the Euro-American cultural sensibility. This sensibility, anti-human in nature, ... must be destroyed before the black creative artist can have a meaningful role in the transformation of society" (p. 1451). In this essay, which Call and Response presents as "cogent and thoughtful" (p. 1449), Neal accepts the anti-Semitic statements contained in Baraka's poems "Black Dada Nihilismus" and "Black Art," as justified expressions of anger, and in analyzing Dutchman he makes no objection to Baraka's sexist projection of white racism/evil onto Lulu. These sentiments may have been acceptable to many readers in 1968, but they are hard to take today. The Norton does at least acknowledge the offensiveness of some of Baraka's rhetoric (which he himself has repudiated), but it tells readers only that there are more harmful things in the world than anti-Semitic language: "But the anti-Semitism of the Black Arts movement is scarcely more devastating or inhumane than the economic, social, political, and educational conditions from which the Black Arts hoped to rescue the black American majority" (p. 1805). This leaves me wishing it had said nothing instead.
The Norton confines the Black Arts Movement to the decade of the 1960s, whereas Call and Response classifies writers of the past twenty years as part of the Black Arts movement's "New Wave" and asserts that these writers "either are adherents of an integrated society or have been silenced by that society" (p. 1382). This surprised me, since August Wilson, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor, among others, have hardly been silenced, and they seem to me to be emphasizing the very same values and techniques associated with the Black Aesthetic. The "Literature Since 1970" section in the Norton also surprised me with its the reference to Clarence Major as "possibly the most celebrated postmodern African American writer" (p. 2241)--this was a celebration I seem to have overlooked, busy as I was observing Morrison, Naylor, Wilson, and others who seemed to have been more on my radar screen.
Between the difficulty of assessing the impact of contemporary work and the explosion of literary production by African Americans, it is no surprise that there is less consensus between the two anthogies in their final sections. By my count, fifteen writers in Norton's last section, entitled "Literature since 1970," are not in Call and Response's last section, which covers the period from 1960 to the present; another ten authors who are in Call and Response's last section are not in the Norton. I would have liked to have seen a representation of the later work of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks in this section; neither anthology gives Brooks the space and attention she deserves.(16) While I'm complaining, I'll add that Call and Response's section on Rita Dove does not mention her recent accomplishments (Mother Love, her stint as Poet Laureate), and the Komunyakaa poetry presents him as primarily a Viet Nam poet when he is at least as concerned with the subject of jazz. There are many entries to praise in these final sections as well. Call and Response includes some important poems by Baraka that the Norton leaves out ("leroy," "An Agony. As Now." and "A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand") which promote the Black Arts movement's revolutionary stance in an emotionally and intellectually nuanced form. The Norton includes selections from science fiction writer Octavia Butler and mystery novelist Walter Mosley. Call and Response also introduced me to the later poetry of Etheridge Knight, and to a hilarious poem by Al Young, "The Old O.O. Blues," that pokes fun at the rhetoric of revolutionary poets, describing a writer who writes poems entitled "Slaughter the Pig and Get Yo-Self some Chitlins" (p. 1671).
Call and Response includes much more literary criticism, and this emphasis seems especially appropriate for the past thirty years, during which many black literary theorists have altered scholars' perceptions, not only of African-American literature, but of literary texts generally. Call and Response includes essays from a variety of critical positions ("Africana Womanism," "Towards A Black Gay Aesthetic"), which will be particularly helpful to advanced students. However, few students will be helped by the pair of essays by Gates and Joyce A. Joyce that Call and Response reprints. Joyce's "The Black Canon" makes an argument for art that is accessible to the masses. She concludes eloquently, "Black creative art is an act of love which attempts to destroy estrangement and elitism by demonstrating a strong fondness or enthusiasm for freedom and an affectionate concern for the lives of people, especially Black people. Black creative art addresses the benevolence, kindness, and brotherhood that men should feel toward each other" (p. 1465). Gates's reply, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" argues that there is a place for intellectually oriented literature as well as for works intended for a mass audience. Although the essays do articulate contrasting aesthetic principles, neither represents either scholar's best or most important work. Gates, doubtless pained by Joyce's charge that he is not a "race man," stoops to a bit of razzing as he defends himself, repeatedly addressing his remarks to "Joyce Joyce." Call and Response's introductory note on Gates, however, is the most embarrassing moment of all, full of near insults such as, "Beyond all else, he has been a consummate salesman for the cheerful acceptance of privileged whites into African American studies and for a very few qualified scholars of color into the American mainstream" (p. 1468). Other inaccurate and misleading statements in this section ascribe to Gates a much greater importance than he actually has, characterizing him as the Trojan horse of an evil American empire. This is a point of view that any critic or scholar certainly has a right to hold, but an essay expressing this view really needs to be signed, rather than presenting itself as a neutral summary of facts.
How deep is the rift between scholars who emphasize the Black Aesthetic and those who emphasize the multivoiced mainstream? Both anthologies appear at times to be paying tribute to the emphasis they have not chosen. Gates's "What's Love" essay ends with a section he calls a Coda, and when I came to it as I was reading his essay in the anthology, it gave me a start, because the editors of Call and Response had been using such a device in their introductory sections. I know that the editors are paying tribute when they use musical staffs in the same way DuBois used them in Souls of Black Folk. Is that what they are doing with this Coda? And why does the introduction to the Norton, co-authored by Gates and McKay, echo Joyce's phrasing when it says that earlier anthologies were, like this one, "also acts of love" (p. xxxvii)? Are both sets of editors signifying on the language and the structuring devices of others? Perhaps it is the language itself that is the colonizer and co-opter and transforming agent, fluid and supple in accumulating new layers of signification, and as neutral as water in the service to which it can be put.
Immersion in this literary tradition can renew us. Baldwin says this better than I can in "Sonny's Blues" (included in both these anthologies).
Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.(17)
As we come to know more of the stories that anthologists use to present this literary tradition, we will become better interpreters of literature and other linguistic "acts of love." Even with a handful of errors and an occasional outright blunder or show of bad faith, both these anthologies fulfill Keneth Kinnamon's prediction, made while both books were in production, that each would be "among the very best anthologies in the field."(18) All of us who teach American literature should know about both of these "acts of love." Together, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Call and Response present an enormous range of topics worthy of further study, far more than one semester, or a whole scholarly career, could exhaust. Whether you identify yourself as part of the African diaspora and heir to the Black Aesthetic, or as one among many voices striving to fulfill America's democratic ideals, we all have much to celebrate, to claim, and to honor in this literary tradition. Long may it signify.
(1) Henry Louis Gates,Jr., "American Letters, African Voices," New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 39.
(2) See Claudia Kolker, "A Literary Landmark: Black Canon Receives Its Due in Comprehensive Project," Houston Chronicle, April 27, 1997, p. Z20; Sharon Shahid, "Anthology Embraces USA's Black Culture," USA Today, December 26, 1996, p. D3.
(3) Dinita Smith, "Centuries of Writing By Blacks Distilled in One Volume," New York Times, December 12, 1996, p. B1.
(4) Steve Sailer, untitled review of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, National Review, March 10, 1997, p. 50.
(5) Vince Passaro, "Black Letters on a White Page," Harper's, July 1997, p. 72.
(6) Philip Richards, "Signifying," Commentary, 105 (1998), 70.
(7) Michele S. Frank and Craig Smith, untitled review of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, America, May 31, 1997, p. 27,
(8) Ellis Cashmore, "Profit and Oppression," New Statesman, April 25, 1997, p. 53.
(9) Louis Kushnick, untitled review of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, the Oxford Companion to African American Literature, and Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, Race and Class, 39 (1998), 108.
(10) Theodore Mason, Jr., "The African-American Anthology: Mapping the Territory, Taking the National Census, Building the Museum," American Literary History, 10 (1998), 197.
(11) Chester Fontenot, Jr., CLA Journal, 41 (1998), 492.
(12) I see evidence that the bar has been set higher in the new Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature (edited by Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones [Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000]). Although this textbook has no particular innovations and is less comprehensive and scholarly than either the Norton or Call and Response, it is still better than anything that was available before these two volumes appeared.
(13) Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (New York: Atheneum, 1989), p. 13.
(14) Gloria Naylor, Mama Day  (Call and Response, p. 1842).
(15) Amiri Baraka, "The Revolutionary Theatre"  (Norton, p. 1899).
(16) Her Poem, "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" is particularly important, but it appears in neither volume. My guess is that permissions for Brooks poems are expensive or perhaps unavailable--some authors or their copyright holders refuse permission altogether, objecting to anthologies. If such is the case with Brooks, perhaps editors could make this clearer in revised editions, for many teachers do use the anthology's table of contents as a guide when making decisions on how much time to devote to a particular author. An enterprising scholar or press might also be able to work with Brooks to find more ways to get Brooks's poetry (and helpful apparatus, similar to the casebook Eric Sundquist prepared for Invisible Man) into the hands of our students.
(17) James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues" (Norton, p. 1716; Call and Response, pp. 1315-1316).
(18) Keneth Kinnamon, "Anthologies," in Oxford Companion to American Literature, ed. William L. Andrews, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 23.
JULIA EICHELBERGER College of Charleston
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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