WASHINGTON, D.C.–Is the current resurgence in Black literature and enduring one or is it just a “spike”? What’s driving it? Will it last? And how should colleges and universities respond in their literature classes?
These and other issues were raised recently by a distinguished panel of writers, publishers and academicians on the live videoconference “The Revival of Black Literature,” sponsored by Black Issues In Higher Education.
Moderating the event was former news anchor and president of Bunyan Communications, Maureen Bunyan. Panelists included: W. Paul Coates, founder and publisher Black Classic Press; E. Lynn Harris, a current bestselling author; Sandra Kitt, author of Black romance novels; Dr. Eugenia Collier, an essayist and the former chair of the Department of English at Morgan State University; John Edgar Wideman, the first writer to win the Pen Faulkner Prize twice; and Max Rodriguez, publisher of The Quarterly Black Review of Books.
The question of whether the Harlem Renaissance was a spike–an upsurge that peaked and then fell off dramatically–or “the” turning point in African-American literature set the tone for the discussion.”The Harlem Renaissance was that period when Black literature flourished, but I always like to put it in context. It seems to me that when there is a cultural expression, writing always follows that,” Rodriguez said.
“It followed not just a mass migration from the South to the North, but also a great movement around music, and a great expression of self that found its way to New York, because New York was always `Mecca,”‘ he noted, adding, “There was a literary movement prior to the Renaissance, but for the first time we found writers who were accepted by white audiences and white publishers. And that really is what the Harlem Renaissance was–the acceptance of our expression by a white audience.”
Collier asked: “Was acceptance of our work by whites what caused the Harlem Renaissance? And if we are in a renaissance now, does its depend upon white acceptance of our work?”
In comparing the Harlem Renaissance to the present, Harris pointed out that one difference today is that the success of contemporary Black writers is being spurred by Black readers, not by mainstream acceptance. “One of the things that’s been most heartwarming for me at my signings has been that it’s been Black people who have been buying my books,” said Harris. But there is a commonality, said Kitt.
“We may, as writers, be writing for our communities and our people, but the publishers are still mainstream publishers and they are not [publishing Black writers! for altruistic reasons but because they know there is a market there and consumer dollars that they could potentially benefit from. The bottom line for publishers is still the money to be made.”
Other panelists agreed and Wideman said the most important point to remember about the Harlem Renaissance was not whether the audience was Black or white, but that it was a period of tremendous self-assertion. “Whenever we see a change, it has to do with consciousness, politics and with all the cultural institutions being spiked in various ways. And that energy–to me–was really what the Harlem Renaissance was all about,” Wideman said.
Coates agreed with Wideman but added that the Renaissance, while being centered in Harlem, was not geographically limited to that part of the country. “It was a period of Negro nationalism when people decided what was best for them. We need to look at it as a literary achievement, but also as a larger movement.”
One of the more provocative topics raised by calls from the viewing audience was whether the panel thought rap and rappers were a part of a new renaissance, and if rappers should be considered the new creators for the twenty-first century.
Rodriguez expressed what most of the panel seemed to believe–that rap is a valid literary form. “It is our rappers who are our “riots and they lead the way. It is a valid expression.”
Said Wideman: “It is important to get young people to understand that even with all the creativity of rap, it is still within a tradition. Langston Hughes read his poems to jazz and the poets of the sixties did that. Blending of word, music and dance is definitely part of the great tradition we brought here from another world.”
To illustrate how rap has influenced the world, Wideman related a story from a German friend. On the friend’s grandfather’s birthday, his two granddaughters serenaded him with rap music. “So just imagine two blond frauleins doing a rap,” said Wideman, “and he didn’t know what the heck was going on. But he loved it.”
Collier said her only problem With rap was the images portrayed by the music. Rodriguez answered, “If we want images to continue and [be] in our voice, we have to be able to make decisions about what images those will be. We have to be able to perpetuate ourselves and not ask someone to perpetuate us.”
Today’s renaissance also differs from the previous in the many new genres being published, including non-fiction books on race such as Dennis Rodman’s and Johnny Cochran’s, and the eighteen best-selling romance novels authored by Kitt.
But Wideman noted that while there may the many messages and lots of interest in Black literature, there is still the “ex-slave narrative”–the archetypal form of Black autobiography. According to Wideman, it tells a certain market what they want to hear:
“Okay, the system’s not so bad after all.” Another factor in the current resurgence, according to Kitt, is that the Black middle class in America is no longer as invisible as it has been and is composed of readers and consumers. “The appeal of Waiting to Exhale was that it was about the Black middle class who did not have a strong voice that translated out there to anyone else before,” Kitt offered.
Coates pointed out that we have to be careful not to measure a writings worth on how many books are sold. Kitt agreed, saying that Black writers have become the “flavor of the month,” a phenomenon driven by publisher’s following market trends.
Wideman added that part of the problem is that it is hard to figure out today what’s going to last tomorrow. “People have the power to commercially segment the market, but nobody knows what’s good. We figure that out with each book,” he said.
The panel also explored the responsibility of a Black writer. Bunyan asked if the Black writer is responsible to his or her inner self, or if the responsibility of the writer is to help the community understand itself and its issues? Answered Collier: “All of the above applies. Because racism is not over, writing still needs to define who we are as well as be popular.”
Wideman said the best way he could illustrate what responsibility should mean for Black writers and publishers–or those with the power to give the Black writer exposure–is the example set by Oprah Winfrey. The talk show host has devoted several programs to literature and chose Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon as a book for discussion on her show.
“That is the best coming together of commerce and art and that is a very exciting event for me,” said Wideman. “It’s the same thing as Michael Jordan going down to Cabrini Green and building a house and inviting doctors and lawyers to come live in his little village that he is starting.”
Coates pointed out that publishers have seen the Black market as one could expand while supporting other projects. But the publishing industry has suffered of late, and technology is changing the way books are delivered. Publishers are looking for new markets and that has triggered the recent upsurge in Black literature.
Coates said readers have a responsibility to buy Black Classic Press as well as Doubleday, Putnam and other mainstream publishers.
George Mason University
African-American literature professor Marilyn Mobley raised the issue from the audience of how colleges and should teach what is going literature.
Wideman answered that he thinks specialized literature classes are still needed. The complexities of the Black experience cannot be blended into courses with a different focus, he said.
In conclusion, Harris said: “it is an exciting time to be an African-American writer–and I don’t think it’s because of a new type of renaissance. It’s because the product is there and we have shown the people who make decisions that Black people do, in fact, read. And we want to read about ourselves.”
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