Tag Archives: African-American Literature

What He’s Reading

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Pulitzer Prize winning genius Edward P Jones hit the ball out of the park with his debut novel.  Vivid, descriptive, and captivating, The Known World deserves a standing ovation. Few authors effectively utilize “stream of consciousness” but Jones makes this technique appear effortless, adding difficulty by combining narratives from the past present and future.

But don’t take my word for it (in Levar Burton voice), below is an excerpt:

“His oldest child from his second marriage, Matthew, stayed up all the night before he was buried, putting his father’s history on a wooden tombstone. He began with his father’s name on the first line, and on the next, he put the years ofhis father’s coming and going. Then all the things he knew his father had been. Husband. Father. Farmer. Grandfather. Patroller. Tobacco Man. Tree Maker. The letters ofthe words got smaller and smaller as the boy, not quite twelve, neared the bottom ofthe wood because he had never made a headstone for anyone before so he had not compensated for all that he would have to put on it. The boy filled up the whole piece ofwood and at the end of the last line he put a period. His father’s grave would remain, but the wooden marker would not last out the year. The boy knew better than to put a period at the end ofsuch a sentence. Something that was not even a true and proper sentence, with subject aplenty, but no verb to pull it all together. A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could not live without a verb.”

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The Philosopher’s Corner: Metaphysics in Morrison’s “Bluest Eye”

Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody’s did…For years I thought my sister was right; it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding…What is clear now is that of all that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth.

            There is nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

In these lines, right up front, Toni Morrison links the relationship between Pecola and her father to that of the earth and its yielding (of marigolds). Morrison establishes a metaphysical condition as the underlying condition of each relationship, one in the other. What is more, Morrison is telling us, up front, that analyzing Pecola and her situation existentially—that is, analyzing her situation in terms of concepts such as, “hope, fear, lust, love or grief”; or, the more traditional existential cognates of anguish, abandonment, and despair—is not her primary concern; rather, what is of concern, what remains, is the metaphysical connection between “Pecola and the unyielding earth.” What we are left with is not the psychoanalytic explanation of why any of “this life” occurs—the psyche or ego individuated making sense of the world—but the voice of a child engaged with existence connecting the seemingly disparate elements of life—a little girl and the hard black dirt. “We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair.” 

What is left when the traditional ‘existential philosophy’ has failed is the metaphysical question: not why, but how—how does anything, anyone come to be who or what they are?

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The Philosopher’s Corner: A Brief Review of Richard Wright’s “Haiku”

In the introduction of the 2012 publication of Richard Wright’s posthumous book, Haiku: The Last Poetry of Richard Wright (Arcade Publishing), Wright’s daughter, Julia, referred to the following as his literary enigma: “how the creator of the inarticulate, frightened, and enraged Bigger Thomas ended up leaving us some of the most tender, unassuming, and gentle lines in African-American poetry.” Wright left some four thousand haiku (only a few hundred published), and the question has been left unanswered: what, if any, is the relationship between his haiku poems and his social/political prose and non-fiction?

I have always been drawn to Wright’s interest in nature, in the mysteries of nature, and how this interest influenced and informed the social and political (perhaps protest) work for which he has become strictly known and infamous. What if we rethought the relation of politics to nature, “realism” to “surrealism” such that these haiku are no longer understood as a side-interest, or the ramblings of a sick man at the end of his life, but as evocative of the meaning of human existence, black existence?

Link to purchase:

http://www.amazon.com/Haiku-Last-Poems-American-Icon/dp/1611453496/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382584170&sr=8-1&keywords=richard+wright+haiku

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10 Great Opening Lines in Afro-Literature

Every great writer knows the importance of the opening text. Not only is it the author’s first shot at engaging the reader, it also sets the tone for the entire novel.  A truly great incipit, as evidenced by the examples below, will also foreshadow theme, structure, plot and even conflict.

Let’s face it, a strong opening is perhaps the best indication of a strong text.  So let’s take a look at a few of the most profound within the Afro-literary genre:

“On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Francoise Derbane slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes.” – Lalita Tademy, Cane River

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me.” – NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

“A dwelling.” – Nuruddin Farah, From a Crooked Rib

“I was not sorry when my brother died.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

“124 was spiteful.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.” – Zadie Smith, White Teeth

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish aboard.” – Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.” – Ben Okri, The Famished Road

“They say it came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.” – Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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