Academic journal article African American Review

Black South Literature: Before Day Annotations (for Blyden Jackson)

Academic journal article African American Review

Black South Literature: Before Day Annotations (for Blyden Jackson)

Article excerpt

Spike Lee prefaced She's Gotta Have It with the famous opening of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a fitting gesture of honoring his ancestors while projecting for his audience a gendered joke about the Black South rage to explain:

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. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

It is possible to escape the yoke Hurston fashioned in the second paragraph by turning to the haunting stories in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938), stories that remember everything we must not forget. The escape, however, is rather an instance of jumping from the frying pan into the kettle, because one intriguing gloss on Hurston's illusion of forgetting and Wright's verifiable remembering issued from the lips of an ex-slave who problematized the South whence the fictions emerged. It appears in Booker T. Washington's "An Address Delivered at the Opening of the Cotton Stated Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, September, 1895":

A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, "Water, water, we die of thirst!" The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back: "Cast down your bucket where you are."

In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Washington's dream pertained to the the coming "into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth." Washington resigned in 1915, and the 1930s mocked his dream in double measure, sending the plague of the Depression and challenges to (his)(story) by way of Wright's depiction of how the old hell prevailed in history and Hurston's disputation with the emotional truth of history in (her)(story).

Move from Washington's pre-future gloss to the contemporary paratext of Hurston's review of Uncle Tom's Children. Wright's stories are "so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live." And although she admits Wright's collection "contains some beautiful writing," she hopes he "will find in Negro life a vehicle for his talents." He had found the vehicle, but it was necessary to move the children out of Mrs. Stowe's cabin so they would not be enslaved to the long dream of the new heaven on the muck! Such is the vicious modernism of intertextuality to be given to some alien Other who asks about the intimacy of Black South literature.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's "Songs for the People" was published in 1895; Harper's poem is echoed thematically and given specification in Margaret Walker's iconic "For My People." The way out of the kettle and of dealing with essential Black South tensions (Washington /Du Bois and Wright/Hurston) is to turn to the legacy of Margaret Walker's vision.

For My People. New Haven: Yale UP, 1942.

Asserting directly the desire Toomer hinted at in Cane (1923), Margaret Walker's first published poem "I Want to Write" (Crisis May 1934) begins:

I want to write I want to write the songs of my people. I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark. I want to catch the List floathing strains from their sob-torn throats.

Eight years later, Walker proved how genuine her intent was with the publication of the award-winning volume For My People. From the beginning, as Eleanor Traylor has written, Walker "mine[d] the depth of heritage: music (melos), memory (ethos), and community (epos)."

Shortly after the publication of Margaret Walker's first book, Louis Untermeyer wrote in the Yale Review (Winter 1943):

Margaret Walker's "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year's selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the competitive honor. …

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