Encyclopedia Explores Diversity of Black Writers, Genres: Science Fiction, Romance Share Space with History and Hip-Hop. (Faculty Club)

Article excerpt

Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels never expected to fall--and in a big way--for science fiction as a literary genre. In actuality, he's fallen for a group of African American sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers who are using African sensibility to reinvent the genre.

"Science fiction was a genre that ... I had completely ignored," says Samuels, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and director of the school's African American studies program. "I had no idea that (African American writers in the genre) had gained as much of an audience as they have."

As the general editor of A Gift of Story and Song: An Encyclopedia on Twentieth-Century African American Writers, Samuels has had to become more familiar with the less familiar. The title, A Gift of Story and Song, was inspired by W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folks.

"One of the many important things DuBois was attempting to do in that book was that he was trying to tell the world that they needed to acknowledge African Americans as girl bearers--as bringers of song and of stories," Samuels says.

The world was deaf to DuBois' message for much of the 20th century. "But if there wasn't enough evidence in the beginning of the 20th century of the song that African Americans had sung to the world, there's more than enough now," Samuels says, adding, "whether the subject is Zora Neale Hurston, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed--not only does this literature exist, but you cannot deny that it's a meaningful contribution to American culture."

Even though they're experts in the subject matter, Samuels and his four assistant editors--Dr. Tracie Church Guzzio, G. Winston James, Dr. Loretta Gilchrist Woodard and Dr. Melvin Donalson--have had a "real awakening" as to how rich and diverse African American literature is at this point in its history. Indeed, they had to limit the encyclopedia to 600 entries in order to avoid exceeding the targeted word length of 300,000 for the project.

"I see this (project) as a major breakthrough," says Woodard, an associate professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit who's the editor for women's prose literature. While the encyclopedia will be similar in spirit to the well-known Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Woodard believes A Gift of Story and Song actually will surpass that touchstone work in its emphasis on the contemporary scene.

"Young, emerging scholars will finally have available to them information on these emerging writers--Patrice Gaines, Janet McDonald, Jill Nelson, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Gwendolyn Parker, Charlotte Sherman--who were born in the '40s and '50s and share similar experiences in the post-1960s era. …