"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
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. …