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Preserving Our Literary Legacies

Preserving Our Literary LegaciesWhen assistant editor Kendra Hamilton proposed the idea to do a piece on Black literary journals, the editorial staff agreed that this could be an interesting article. However, no one got more out of writing and reporting the piece than the reporter herself.
Kendra expressed great enthusiasm as she reported back from her trips to the library to peruse the various journals, so I suggested she write the Editor’s Note for this edition. She declined, but later sent me the following note to publish in this column. So instead of rewriting Kendra’s words, I’ll let her speak for herself.
“I felt an indescribable thrill sitting in the stacks of UVa’s (University of Virginia) Alderman Library, poring through back issues of Negro Digest and Black World, Obsidian, Callaloo and Black American Literature Forum. It seemed I was listening in on conversations from another era: Black voices speaking deep truths with beauty and wit.
It seemed I was pinpointing the precise moment African American literature made it into ‘the canon,’ as I read the volumes on Black writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, co-edited in 1984 by two young scholars who were to go on to do great things, Thadious Davis and Trudier Harris. Hard on the heels of that effort came the ‘Afro-American’ issue of The Southern Review in 1985. I could imagine the collective bones of the Nashville Fugitives rattling in their graves as I leafed through provocative interviews with Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and many more.
I felt as if I’d found, in those dusty volumes, languishing on a library shelf deep in the stacks, the whole literary heritage of our people. As my mind flickered to the fare on the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble, it was clear to me that something had been lost.
As African Americans have moved into the mainstream, the scholars have become adept in the obscure language and abstruse reasoning of our disciplines, and the journalists have learned to mouth the language of ‘objectivity.’ We’ve lost the sound and sense of the lively debates we used to have when we talked to each other about Africa and utopia and the Black aesthetic and all the exciting ism’s of the past 70 years.
Even worse, we are so caught up in our pursuit of mainstream success, so distracted by the ‘ka-ching’ of cash registers as our cultural productions are commodified for the ‘mainstream’ market, that we never stop to give homage to the giants on whose shoulders we stand: those whose collective wisdom gave us the strength to withstand the poison of American racism.”
Marie Brown, the literary agent who has been called the “godmother” of African American literature, may have said it best, Kendra said.
“Somebody has to wake us up. As a generation, we will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on our children’s college educations and on making sure they have all the advantages, and yet we will not have any documentation of the times they’ve lived through. This is what White people do: They have invested in making sure that their legacies are documented and published and preserved. But (outside of the literary magazines) who is preserving our legacies? Who is in control of our voice?”
It’s a question that needs an answer.  Hilary Hurd Anyaso

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