African-American Anthology `Talks Back' and `Talks Black'

By Weightman, Sharon | The Florida Times Union, February 23, 1997 | Go to article overview

African-American Anthology `Talks Back' and `Talks Black'


Weightman, Sharon, The Florida Times Union


"How long, how long, how long?"

That's the question songwriter Leroy Carr repeats in How Long

Blues, one of the selections at the beginning of the recently

released Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

In the case of the anthology itself, the answer is 2,665

pages. And an entire decade.

Yes, it took 10 years to create this tome, an overview from

1746 to the present, featuring poetry, fiction, drama,

autobiography, journals and more, from 120 African-American

authors.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay served as general

editors and nine eminent scholars served as period editors.

Here, side by side, are major works and once-forgotten pieces,

the anonymous authors of No More Auction Block for Me and Steal

Away to Jesus alongside Pulitzer Prize-winners Gwendolyn Brooks,

Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and August Wilson. Also included is

Pulitzer nominee Maya Angelou, who praised the book as

diminishing "the dangerous ignorance about our collective past."

"I pray every American home will boast of owning at least one

copy," she said in the anthology's promotional copy.

The anthology's publication is bound to make the teaching and

study of African-American literature a much easier process. Not

only do the editors establish a canon of what's most important

in this literary tradition, the anthology makes those works

accessible, portable and fairly affordable as textbooks go.

And there are three added attractions.

The first is a thoughtful preface by Gates and McKay explaining

that in earlier centuries the mere existence of writings by

African-Americans was a challenge to slavery. The ability to

read and write and reason refuted the slave-owners'

justification of slavery on the basis that blacks were

"uncivilized" and less than fully human.

The second attraction, praised to me by local scholar Roderick

Williams, is a 12-page time-line that integrates literary events

with general historical events in a way that gives the

literature a more meaningful context.

But third, and most ground-breaking, is the availability of a

companion compact disc (sold separately) with 21 tracks of

recordings from the section of the anthology that covers the

"vernacular" or oral tradition.

As Gates and McKay point out in the preface, all literatures

are based on an oral tradition but "in the instance of our

literary tradition, the oral, or the vernacular, is never far

from the written. …

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