Tag Archives: African-American Literature

Revisiting Sula

I first read Toni Morrison’s Sula when I was 17.  Although I was old enough to appreciate its symbolism and complexity, I could not identify with the themes of judgement, love, loss and survival.  I was 17.  I had not lived, lost and learned that life could hold the darkest of moments.

FullSizeRender (2)Several quotes from Sula remained with me in the 15 years since I’ve read the novel.  Fifteen years have passed and I, an older and (hopefully) wiser woman, now understand the meaning of these quotes more deeply.  I understand that Sula is inherently about life, love, choice and perspective.  As I approach my 32nd birthday, I realize that this novel deserves revisiting, in order to better appreciate these themes.

Here are a few passages that, for me, have stood the test of time:

 

On a dream deferred
“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”

On letting go:
“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

On choice:
“When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.’
‘I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

On Sadness:
“the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. it was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

On love and sacrifice:
“‘Mamma, did you ever love us?’…’What you talkin’ ’bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you'”

If you’ve read Sula, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the novel.  Are there any novels you read at a young age that now have deeper meaning to you as an adult?

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Filed under Afro-American Lit, For Lovers, Readers and Me

Writing While Black (Words from Toni Morrison)

 

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.   

– from Conversations with Toni Morrison

I deeply understand Toni’s frustration.  Writing from one’s own truth/perspective/history is the surest way to resonate with readers from all walks of life.  I myself have felt deeply moved by authors whom I have little in common with – Edith Wharton, George Orwell, Charles Dickens, John Keats, etc.  From their hearts they wrote their stories, not mine.  Yet their words spoke to me, a black girl from Ohio (like Toni), in meaningful ways that still resonate today.  Similarly, Toni Morrison, Richard wright, and countless other black writers do an exceptional job of tapping into their introspective selves to tell their story in a way that resonates with a multitude of readers.  Why, then, are they asked to write “universally”?

Thoughts?

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What She’s Reading: Corregidora

20140802-192930-70170024.jpgHave you ever read a book that was so good you purposely delayed finishing?

Corregidora is only 184 pages, a book I could zip through on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but I have been reading as slowly as possible. My goal was to limit myself to reading only 25 pages a day but, unfortunately, I have no self control. With 20 pages to go, I will soon have to move on 😦

Let me try to explain why this novel is so captivating. Corregidora is the story of Ursa, a young woman whose ancestors were held as slaves on a Brazilian plantation and forced to work as prostitutes. Ursa was born after emancipation but her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother passed along their horrific stories in order to ensure that future generations bear witness to the harsh psychological and physiological realities of slavery.

The novel follows Ursa as she attempts to navigate the world as a black woman in the early 20th century, simultaneously living in the past (through her ancestors) and present. But this dichotomy renders her love life dysfunctional. Gayl Jones, the author, portrays Ursa as a young woman living with a form of cultural PTSD – post traumatic stress syndrome – passed down by her family’s tragic history. The impact of this trauma, brilliantly expressed in Jones’ writing, is crippling. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the impacts of inhumanity within American history.

I can’t say enough about this book (as evident by my numerous tweets on the subject) and its succinct and compelling description of slavery as a historical event as well as a long-term systematic means of dehumanizing a people. If that doesn’t tell you enough, I’ll leave you with the following reviews from a few literary greats, who were also blown away by Corregidora:

“Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of black men and women.” – James Baldwin

“Gayl Jones has concocted a tale as American as Mount Rushmore and as murky as the Florida swamps”– Maya Angelou

“She (Gayl Jones) lit up the dark past of slave women with klieg lights and dared to discuss both the repulsion and the fascination of these relationships.” – Toni Morrison

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Filed under Afro-American Lit, What We're Reading

Thank You, Maya Angelou

Excerpt from “A Brave and Startling Truth”

…When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

– Maya Angelou

You will be missed…

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“Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright” now available in paperback!

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Congrats are due to one of our Afro-Librarians!!!!  Dr James B Haile’s Philosophical Mediations on Richard Wright will soon be available in paperback!

The text has been described as “thought-provoking” and “elegant” and esteemed as a compilation of of essays that are integral to the analysis of Wright’s body of work. Haile is not only re-imagining the canon but is creating a new methodology for examining Afro-American literature.  It’s no surprise that, in addition to being used in universities around the country, this text is also read by readers varying from scholars to afro-literature lovers and hobbyists.

I recently read through this compilation and was inspired to re-read Wright’s work in its entirety.  So if you are also interested in digging deeper and gaining a unique perspective on classic Afro-American and American literature, purchase your copy here:

http://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Meditations-Richard-Wright-James/dp/0739144944

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Five Must-Read African American Authors (Who Aren’t Toni Morrison)

As an avid reader and the creator of this book blog, I am often asked to provide reading recommendations. I won’t lie to you, I live for those moments. There is nothing I love more than to impose my reading agenda share my thoughts and bookish favorites with beloved readers, family, and friends.

Each time I’m asked this question, particularly in regard to African-American authors, I start by listing the pre-requisites – Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Zora Neal Hurston, and others of the Afro-literary canon. But I always make it a point to throw in new or lesser known authors and titles.

In this post, I eliminated many of the above-mentioned canonical works by excluding non-living Afro-American authors. I also removed (living) author Toni Morrison because, although she’s brilliant and worthy of high praise, there lots of other talented and noteworthy authors on the afro-literary scene.

The authors listed below are making a huge impact on the contemporary Afro-literary genre and on literary fiction in general. They are bold, creative, imaginative, ambitious and simply brilliant. These are the authors whose work I recommend you get acquainted with, if you haven’t already, and those whose careers you should definitely should follow.

Without further ado, I present my list of the five authors you must read if interested in contemporary Afro-American literary fiction:

Colson Whitehead
In 1999, Whitehead wrote a brilliant piece of speculative fiction entitled “The Intuitionist”. The novel mixes afro-futurism with issues of morality, race and politics. Hailed as an innovative and poetic debut novel, Whitehead’s allegory has already been compared to such classics as “The Bluest Eye” (okay, one Morrison reference . . . sue me!) and “Invisible Man”. As if this weren’t reason enough to read his work, his second novel, John Henry Days, an epic American narrative, was a Pulitzer And National Book Critics Award finalist. Yeah, he’s kind of a big deal . . .

Edward P Jones
Award winning short story author, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, and self proclaimed hermit, Edward P Jones has all the makings of a literary genius. In 2009 The Washington Post published a rare interview with Jones in which the journalist was surprised to learn that the author had yet to type a single word of the book he has been “writing” for the last ten years. Jones revealed that he constructs his novels in his head – entirely, punctuation included – and, once finished, sits at a computer, types the finished version and sends it directly to his publisher. For that reason alone, you should read his epic novel “The Known World”.

James Mcbride
There is a natural harmony between literature and music. Cadence, lyric, and tone are descriptive of both melody and prose. Perhaps this is why McBride’s novels are written so beautifully – he is both an author and jazz musician. He received the National Book Award for “The Good Lord Bird”, a hypnotizing novel about a slave living in Kansas territory who befriends abolitionist John Brown. But prior to receiving this award (and catapulting to fame), McBride wrote noteworthy literary gems such as “The Color of Water”, “The Song Yet Sung”, and the novel adapted to film “Miracle at St. Anna”.

Jessmyn Ward
National Book Award winner for Salvage the Bones, a novel about a Mississippi town ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Ward weaves one heck of a tale. I believe that a strong opening line is an indication of good fiction and “Salvage the Bones” begins with: “China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws”. Ward also wrote the next book on my TBR list, the widely acclaimed memoir, “The Men We Reaped”. It’s a haunting account of black male pathos and southern family histories that is accessible to readers both within and outside of the ivory tower.

MK Asante
Born in Zimbabwe to American parents, Philadelphia raised Mk Asante is a highly respected professor, filmmaker as well as a critically acclaimed author. “Buck: A Memoir” is currently being adapted into a screenplay by Asante himself. Uber-talented and ambitious, Asante has received high praise from the likes of Poet Laureate Maya Angelou. The novel is unique in language, immersing the reader in the visceral and verbally assaulting world of “Killadelphia”. Asante will entertain you and, if you aren’t careful, he may also teach you something about urban America.

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Does African American Literature Exist?

20140107-005202.jpgWith Kenneth W. Warren’s recent essay, “Does African American Literature Exist” published February 24th, 2011 in the Chronicle Review, a debate, old, continued on the nature and existence of African-Americans, blackness, and the black aesthetic. Once again, this latest version of the ill-fated debate has begun with a set of philosophical assumptions and by one who has little interest in the terms of the debate.

In the space here I wish to address the latter concerns of race, African-Americans, blackness, and black aesthetic production. What I want to focus on is not the potential ahistorical nature of Warren’s essay, nor the hidden assumptions/presumptions of what African and American may mean when brought together. Rather, what I’d like to focus on is the emergence of something like ‘African-American literature’ as a form of aesthetic experience and expression, the kind which brings with it an understanding of history.

Philosophically, what is of interest in Warren’s essay is the status and role of history itself, as an entity, on black aesthetic expression (literature). It is Warren’s assertion that, “Jim Crow and the fight against it gave rise to—and shaped—African-American literary practice as we have come to know it.” For Warren, Jim Crow, as a moment of American history, serves up its artifacts, one of which is African-American literature. Warren, though, goes on to make a stronger claim as to the nature of history itself in the creation of culture and racial identity when he writes, “Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon…” Warren’s latter claim (especially taken with his former claim above), brings to mind philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 essay, “Black Orpheus” which infamously proclaimed black identity and black aesthetic expression (poetry) to be either pain and suffering (under oppression), or to be nothing at all. One wonders aloud with Warren’s essay whether he believes that “what is often called the black soul is white man’s artifact”.

While it may not have been Warren’s desire to weigh in on the intellectual debate on the nature of history and its relation to aesthetic expression generally, black aesthetic expression, specifically—as well as culture and identity—he nevertheless has staked a position. History, in Warren’s essay, is a force: that is, a set of events, exogenous to the life-world of peoples, that acts upon them offering them a series of experiences which help to necessarily shape not only aesthetic expression, but frame their world-view. And, though Warren himself may openly reject the very idea of history as determining or necessary (in any way), his essay seems to enliven a kind of mechanistic materialism, African-Americans, in this case, would be akin to any other physically existing material thing, affected by some force that works to determine and necessitate. In this case, to understand African-American literature all one needs to do is understand the history of racial oppression in America from 1896 to 1970 (though this may seem pejorative, Warren’s essay does lend itself to this reading).

The challenge that Warren’s essay offers is not solely the continuation of what constitutes African-American literature, but also the deeper questions of what constitutes our concept of race, African-Americans, blackness, and black aesthetics. And, what is more, it is a challenge into the nature of thinking about these concepts as they relate to one another.

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Happy Birthday Zora Neal Hurston

Today marks the birth date of the legendary Zora Neal Hurston – perhaps the earliest known African-American anthropologist/author – and thus we celebrate her life.  She was born in Alabama on January 7, 1891 and died nearly penniless – although posthumously acclaimed – on January 28, 1960 in Florida.  During her literary career, she authored four novels and countless short stories, but is perhaps best known for her acclaimed novel (later adapted to film) “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

In reading her work, her sharp wit and observations are clear indications that Hurston was a natural born as well as an academically trained anthropologist and ethnographer (she held a BA in the subject and completed graduate work). Although the dialogue in her narratives was often lambasted by critics for caricaturing African-Americans as illiterate, it is hard to ignore the wisdom and insight that pours out of each text.

I could go on but, being a librarian, there is nothing I love more than to let the author’s work speak for itself. Enjoy these gems:

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” (Duck tracks on a Road)

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”  (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.” (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

“The sun had become a light yellow yolk and was walking with red legs across the sky.” (Seraph on the Suwanee)

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” 

And last but certainly not least (my personal favorite):

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” 

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A New Perspective in the New Year

A champagne toast in a Atlantis Bookstore in Santorini

A champagne toast in a Atlantis Bookstore in Santorini

Happy New Year from the Afro-Librarians!

We hope you all enjoyed the holiday season and are starting the new year with new goals, resolutions and fresh perspectives.  Here in the afro-library we are preparing a series of posts for the month of January that re-examine the African American literary genre.  The first three posts include:

1) The Role of Biography in African American Thought

2) Back to the Woodshed: What Is African American Literature

3) Does African American Literature Exist A review of Kenneth Warren’s critical essays

In these and subsequent posts, we will revisit the construction of the African American literary canon.  What is African American literature?  What makes it great? Who is included in the African American literary canon and is their inclusion justified?

Admittedly, this is quite an ambitious way to begin the new year but we welcome challenges in 2014!

Stay tuned . . . .

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A Conversation with Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz at the NYPL

Did anything notable happen last week? Oh nothing . . . just an event featuring two of my favorite authors held at one of the most beautiful libraries in the USA **insert feigned nonchalant shrug as I try to contain my excitement**

Talk begins approximately 50 minutes into this video.  I die of euphoria at approximately 51 minutes . . .

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