A well-known West African proverb states: “Only when lions have historians will hunters stop being heroes.”
After reading A Treasury of African-American Christmas Stories,
there is no doubt that Temple University Historian Bettye
Collier-Thomas, who compiled and edited the book, has taken this maxim
to heart. As the “lions’ historian,” she unveils entirely new insight
into nineteenth century African American life and lore. We must remain
indebted to her for the rare blend of scholarship and narrative that
she brings to this project.
Although A Treasury of African-American Christmas Stories has
arrived just in time for holiday giving, its timelessness and
“family-friendly” contents ensure that readers will return to this
first-ever collection of Christmas stories written by African Americans
throughout the year. The volume is carefully crafted with enchanting
and informative stories brimming with new and enlightening literary,
historical, and cultural content. Whether conjuring images of
ante-bellum or post-bellum life, these tales highlight the loves,
hopes, aspirations, holiday traditions, family values, spirituality,
and fears common to those times.
In her “Introduction,” the author speculates that readers may be
surprised to find that well-known journalists, activists, and national
leaders such as Ida B. Wells Barnett, T. Thomas Fortune, Alice Moore
Dunbar-Nelson, and others wrote fiction.
“It was their commitment to address the pressing issues confronting
the African American community and their high level of responsibility
to positive race relations that encouraged them to use as many mediums
as possible to get their messages across,” she writes.
By inserting brilliantly crafted, highly readable, and
exceptionally informative headnotes at the beginning of each story,
Collier-Thomas has done much the same thing. Each story begins with a
biographical profile and contextual notes particular to the locale,
people, traditions and concerns of the times. in this way, the stories
take on far greater meaning. One can not only appreciate the lyrical
and narrative strengths of the stories, but can simultaneously learn
far more about issues of concern to African Americans a century ago.
The technique employed by Collier-Thomas and the authors whose
works she has collected is in the oldest of the West African
story-telling traditions. Noting that the concept of “art for art’s
sake” was outside of the cultural constructs of most West African
communities, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has often observed that
the writer — like the griot before him — approached his subject
assuming an obligation to educate and entertain.
A Treasury of African-American Christmas Stories is unquestionably
situated amidst this African-centered paradigm. Like the West African
creators of praise-poems and legends, these nineteenth century authors
also combine fact and fiction to create the hybrid often called
Indeed, Collier-Thomas notes that most of the stories were based on
real events and the authors “changed the names/locales to protect the
innocent.” Clearly, they continue to employ the griot’s “how and why”
tradition of education and entertainment.
The viability of this technique is evident in the headnotes for Ida
B. Wells Barnett’s “Two Christmas Days: A Holiday Story.” The tale
risks being interpreted as a love story. The headnotes, however, give
it an entire different meaning. The reader learns that Barnett, best
known for her anti-lynching activism, was also a steadfast critic of
“the [B]lack intellectual elite.” Collier-Thomas explains how and why
Wells-Barnett use this story to reassert her belief that Black
professionals needed to dedicate their lives uplifting their race.
By clarifying such issues, Collier-Thomas helps to affirm that the
work of man contemporary activists is “in the tradition.” When Alice
Moore Dunbar-Nelson write about the importance of Christmas to children
in “The Children’s Christmas Plea,” she also admonishes adults to
remember “the reason for the season.” One can’t help but draw parallels
between her pleas and those echoed by Children’s Defense Fund founder
Dr. Marion Wright Edelman almost a century later. It’s quite likely
that those who carry on the racial-uplift traditions advocated by all
of these authors will be energized and inspired by their connection to
Last but not least, the book reveals that the concept of “bearing
witness” — long noted by scholars as representative of the art
produced by Holocaust survivors — is not peculiar to the chronicling
of that genocidal experience. Collier-Thomas’s authors also “bear
Although some authors bear witness by evoking memories of
plantation life and myriad injustices to ensure — like the Holocaust
artists — that their pain is neither forgotten nor repeated, others
appear to have a different objective. Augustus Hodges, in “Three Men
And A Woman,” writes about taboos such as miscegenation and armed Black
retaliation to lynching to make sure that the abundant myths and
stereotypes dominating the literature of the era was not the only voice
This compendium of enlightening stories so effectively negotiates
the difficult space between entertainment and education that its
“cross-over” appeal must be noted. Whether it is read for fun, during a
Kwanzaa celebration in tribute to the ancestors, or in a classroom as
an example of ways in which African Americans fought against
discrimination, it is certain to be well received.
By shepherding the re-issue — almost a century after their
original publication — of fictional works by activist leaders whose
names we rarely connect with this genre, Collier-Thomas has given
readers a Christmas gift of unprecedented value.
Dr. Gloria H. Dickinson is an associate professor in the African American Studies Department at the College of New Jersey.
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