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Encyclopedia Explores Diversity of Black Writers, Genres

Encyclopedia Explores Diversity of Black Writers, Genres
Science fiction, romance share space with history and hip-hop

Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels never expected to fall — and in a big way — for science fiction as a literary genre. In actuality, he’s fallen for a group of African American sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers who are using African sensibility to reinvent the genre.

“Science fiction was a genre that … I had completely ignored,” says Samuels, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and director of the school’s African American studies program. “I had no idea that (African American writers in the genre) had gained as much of an audience as they have.”

As the general editor of A Gift of Story and Song: An Encyclopedia on Twentieth-Century African American Writers, Samuels has had to become more familiar with the less familiar. The title, A Gift of Story and Song, was inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks.

“One of the many important things DuBois was attempting to do in that book was that he was trying to tell the world that they needed to acknowledge African Americans as gift bearers — as bringers of song and of stories,” Samuels says.

The world was deaf to DuBois’ message for much of the 20th century. “But if there wasn’t enough evidence in the beginning of the 20th century of the song that African Americans had sung to the world, there’s more than enough now,” Samuels says, adding, “whether the subject is Zora Neale Hurston, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed — not only does this literature exist, but you cannot deny that it’s a meaningful contribution to American culture.”

Even though they’re experts in the subject matter, Samuels and his four assistant editors — Dr. Tracie Church Guzzio, G. Winston James, Dr. Loretta Gilchrist Woodard and Dr. Melvin Donalson — have had a “real awakening” as to how rich and diverse African American literature is at this point in its history. Indeed, they had to limit the encyclopedia to 600 entries in order to avoid exceeding the targeted word length of 300,000 for the project.

“I see this (project) as a major breakthrough,” says Woodard, an associate professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit who’s the editor for women’s prose literature. While the encyclopedia will be similar in spirit to the well-known Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Woodard believes A Gift of Story and Song actually will surpass that touchstone work in its emphasis on the contemporary scene.

“Young, emerging scholars will finally have available to them information on these emerging writers — Patrice Gaines, Janet McDonald, Jill Nelson, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Gwendolyn Parker, Charlotte Sherman — who were born in the ’40s and ’50s and share similar experiences in the post-1960s era.”

E. Ethelbert Miller, the well-known poet and editor, who also directs the African American Resource Center at Howard University, agrees.

“We’re compiling material that’s going to be very important to the preservation and study of African American literature,” says Miller, a consultant to the project. “And it’s especially important for scholars to be analyzing contemporary literature. When you look at what’s published, it’s always focused on the (past) — the contemporary artists get left out of the picture.”

A Gift of Story and Song — which goes to the publisher in mid-2003 — highlights three significant periods of creativity for the African American writer: the period encompassing the “New Negro” or Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement (1900-1960); the period of the “Black Aesthetic” or Black Arts Movement (1960-1980); and the post-1980, post “Black Aesthetic” period up to and including hip-hop, rap and def poetry.

Samuels is well aware that the inclusion of rap artists such as Grandmaster Flash and Tupac Shakur may ruffle some scholarly sensibilities, but graduate students and professors are not, in fact, the intended audience for the encyclopedia, he says. Scholars of the first rank will be writing the essays, but Samuels and the publisher, Facts on File, have been very clear that this is a “different sort of project.”

“We’re more interested in secondary school students or even the man or woman on the street who want the information but don’t want to wade through the jargon of contemporary theory to get it,” Samuels explains.

Readers will find many well-known autobiographers, critic-scholars, dramatists, novelists and poets among the entries — from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Toni Morrison.

But there will also be a number of bona fide “finds.” For example, the encyclopedia will document the “Black queer” renaissance, which produced writers such as the poet G. Winston James and the fiction writer Thomas Glave, whom many have begun calling “an early Jimmy Baldwin, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of talent,” Samuels notes.

Writers of children’s literature will be included, as will the many important genre writers who have emerged in the last decade: from Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre to E. Lynn Harris in romance and Walter Mosley in mystery.

“We are excited by the diversity,” Samuels says. “I think African American literature is ‘where it’s at’ in American literature”— and A Gift of Story and Song will certainly help to prove it.

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