The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Audio Companion

By Meehan, Kevin | The Nation, May 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Audio Companion


Meehan, Kevin, The Nation


On the first occasion I had to speak in public about The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, I transported fifty African-American literature anthologies to a small bookstore in Orlando, where I arranged them -- including Les Cenelles (1845), The New Negro (1925), The Negro Caravan (1941), Black Fire (1968), Black Writers of America (1972), The Black Book (1974), Black-Eyed Susans (1975), Midnightbirds (1980) and many more -- in a pyramidal stack, placing the new Norton on top. The point of this somewhat histrionic display was to reassert the longstanding legacy of anthologizing in the African-American literary tradition, and to balance claims by general editors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay that the Norton redresses "the fragmented history of African American writing." Neglected, yes, but fragmented?

The history of African-American literary anthologizing stretches back to 1773, with the publication of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and forward to 1996, with the publication of Cornerstones, edited by Melvin Donalson. Despite wide-ranging emphases in genre, period, region and other particularities, all these anthologies share four characteristics. First, they display a strong commitment to vernacular or oral forms such as church songs, blues, tall tales, work songs, games, jokes, dozens, toasts, sermons and rap songs. Second, they often mingle historical and literary texts. Third, they consistently address the international, the multilingual and what today we might call the multicultural. Finally, they take a stance on canon formation, though more than a few actually criticize canons rather than celebrate them. The new Norton, while it rests comfortably on the foundation laid by earlier collections, serves up a version of this legacy that is profoundly conservative and that retreats in significant ways from the progressive standards that have distinguished the genre.

The new Norton was assembled by Gates and McKay, as well as nine other eminent scholars who served as section editors. Like others in its family, it is massive (2,665 pages) yet "comfortably portable," in the words of the editors; it is remarkably inclusive in its historical scope and range of literary forms and generous in its level of critical commentary included, according to the editors, to "free the student from the need for reference books"); also available is an audio CD companion that should be a best seller in its own right.

"Talking Books," the preface, takes its title from an early trope for books and literacy found in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince (1770) and repeated in five autobiographies published by slave narrators between 1770 and 1815. Gates and McKay outline the emergence of a written tradition of African-American verbal expression, which they define as "two centuries of imaginative writing in English by persons of African descent in the United States." They note the horrendous ideological and physical constraints posed by the institution of slavery on writers of African descent. They comment on the struggle to have the literary merits -- and often the existence -- of black imaginative writing recognized. They announce the central notion of signifying (making ironic, revisionist intertextual references) as the basis of an evolving literary tradition.

While the Norton is not the first African-American literature anthology to come with an audio complement, the CD (including its own set of accompanying notes, and selections grouped under the headings "Spirituals/Gospel Songs," "Work Songs/ Secular Songs/Ballads," "Blues/Jazz," "Rap" and "Sermons") elevates the study of oral tradition. This is particularly true when it comes to the still-controversial topic of teaching rap songs in a literature classroom. Robert G. O'Meally relates rap to "the idea of spoken or chanted words as the beats of a modern-but-ancient, spirit driven drum. …

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