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7 Works Of Literature Worth Reading During Black History Month

It is easy to overlook how much work went into solidifying the place of African-American writers within American literature at large. No one thinks it is strange or "politically motivated" anymore to mention James Baldwin alongside Ernest Hemingway, or Toni Morrison in the same breath as Philip Roth. And there is a very clear sense of the fundamental works that must be read by anyone looking to understand African-American literary history, or indeed history at large. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, and A Raisin in the Sun are widely taught in high schools and colleges; Langston Hughes serves as many Americans' introduction to poetry altogether; the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk are as much works of literature as they are historical materials.

But any literature must be more than its best-known highlights, and the efforts of countless writers and artists from Phillis Wheatly to the present to carve an equal place for themselves in American literature risk being forgotten unless present-day audiences seek them out. None of the reading suggestions on this list will be at all unfamiliar to a reader who's taken a few classes in African-American literary history; none are truly obscure in the least. But too many of them wouldn't be recognized by someone with a similar knowledge of American literature at large, which means that the work of literary de-ghettoization still needs to continue. All of these works in one way or another resolve the dialectic that the writers of the Harlem Renaissance worked so hard to dissolve — to be a black artist, or simply an artist? — by being stunning examples of the work of both at one and the same time.

1. James Weldon Johnson: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)



Johnson was in some sense the best-known African-American man of letters prior to the Harlem Renaissance; as a literary critic and theorist as well as a poet and a novelist, he probed the issue of where African-American culture ought to stand in relation to the literary culture at large, formulating the major cultural problems that would continue to attract the attention of black artists through the Harlem Renaissance and well afterwards. Autobiography is a novel written from the point of view of a black man who has chosen to pass for white after witnessing a horrific lynching — but at the expense of leaving his racial heritage, incarnated in the form of significant musical talents, in the past. Johnson's restrained style and his experimentation with the boundaries of genre prefigure Ellison, but also compare interestingly with rough contemporaries like Kate Chopin and Theodore Dreiser.

2. Jean Toomer: Cane (1923)

Cane cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Literary critics have made a concerted effort over roughly the past 15 years to rewrite the history of a modernism that once excluded black writers. Cane stands at the heart of those efforts: a wildly experimental work that arranges poetry, prose, and drama in a collage that makes The Sound and the Fury look tame and conventional in comparison. Yet for all that it avoids provoking merely what Virginia Woolf called "toleration of the fragmentary, the spasmodic, the obscure." At its best, Cane reaches a technical perfection and emotional liquidity of a kind previously touched by only Whitman and Eliot. Toomer even creates something that looks Shakespeare in the eye and matches him: "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" transmutes the sonnet "My mistress' eyes" into a keeningly electric element, unfurling into one of the sexiest love poems ever written. And in so doing, it inscribes "the souls of black folk" decisively onto the heart of not just an American, but a global literature without overtly striving to do so: in literature Toomer accomplished effortlessly what he and others struggled to do in life.

3. Countee Cullen

Cullen's poetry, never forgotten but also never quite fully appreciated, long wilted in the shadow of his contemporary and competitor Langston Hughes, and may have suffered due to his homosexuality. While Hughes worked had to continue Johnson's project of alloying poetry with ingots of jazz and brimstone, Cullen's poetry is self-consciously formal and even archaizing, saturated with echoes of Pope, Wordsworth, and Keats. But Cullen's work seems all the more remarkable for that thorough mastery of the high poetic tradition and determination to carve a place in it. Cullen, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, seems to have been born at the wrong time: Romantics in an age of modernists, they can seem stilted and dated at their worst moments, but at their best they realize creative visions that consummate the formal structures they adhere to. The best of the long poems ("The Shroud of Color," "Heritage") sing; the best of the short ones ("Incident," "For a Lady I Know") sting. The day for their full appreciation may come yet.

4. Nella Larsen: Quicksand (1928)

Nella Larsen photo

Helga Crane, half-Danish and half-African-American, sets off across country and ocean, hopping from the South to Harlem to Copenhagen, both exploring and fleeing her race. Larsen's Quicksand seems a world away from the bold innovations of Cane: on a first reading, the novel seems excessively contrived and stylistically derivative. But Larsen's other virtues require an adjustment of focus: Quicksand is a picaresque, a Candide skewering the foibles of a civilization, and by its close proves to be a glowering and ironic repudiation of what could be misread as a light, dainty tone. It is also a portrait of the European black expatriate life, the alienation felt by a half-white European woman in black America, and the quibbling mendacity into which even the best-intentioned of both white and black people too often descend when race is on the table.

5. Sterling Brown: the Slim Greer poems (1930-1933)

Sterling Brown photo

In this loose narrative sequence of five poems, Brown incarnates what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls "the most memorable character in black literature, the trickster" — a figure wily as Tom Sawyer and more tenacious than Ahab. And he does it in meter, rhyme, dialect, and no more than 15 pages. Like all great poems, they defy summary; but very few great poems have the merit of half the humor Brown seems to toss off as casually as a Fats Waller arpeggio. Unfortunately, many of the best passages are too profane to quote comfortably, but suffice it to say that you should read the blues ballad "Slim Greer" — and the wonderful "Slim Greer in Hell," which slyly relocates the inferno to another region known for its heat:

St. Peter said, "Well,
You got back quick.
How's de devil? An' what's
His latest trick?
 
Slim say, "Peter,
I really cain't tell,
De place was Dixie
Dat I took for Hell."
 
Then Peter say, "You must
Be crazy, I vow,
Where'n hell dja think Hell was,
Anyhow?"

6. Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes: The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955)

Sweet Flypaper photo

Roy DeCarava, the first African-American to be awarded a Guggenheim, produced some of the most eloquent and haunting photographs of the American postwar — especially here, of a Harlem after the Renaissance but before the Civil Rights Act. Abandoning explicitly sociological aims, he aspired to create images that would nevertheless speak distinctly as the products of a black photographer's eye — "black people portrayed in a serious way," he said of his own work. In this collaboration with Hughes, his photographs stand next to the story of an elderly Harlem lady making her daily round — but here DeCarava's work far outstrips Hughes's, which is much more a compliment to the former than an insult to the latter.

7. Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog (1971) 

Mingus was crude, volatile, brooding, and a pathologically untrustworthy memoirist prone to rambling, womanizing, graphic lewdness, and self-glorification. He also wrote an autobiography that manages somehow to transcend all of those traits and rise to the level of a literary work no less formidable than his diabolically gleaming jazz oeuvre. Life-writing of various kinds has been one of the most important forms of black literature since the time of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, and while Mingus seems to take the utmost delight in ignoring all of it, Beneath the Underdog somehow seems to be a kind of culmination to that tradition and several others: the trickster trope, the debate over the place of culture and music in black identity, the competing claims of moral uplift and faithful representation of the seamy underbellies of certain black communities. It's also one of the more crucial documents of the post-bop generation that has all but vanished from the face of the earth, its elders dead and its young Turks fading — the last tie between us and the glorious past when Armstrong and Ellington still lived, when jazz gods mingled with the jazzmen. 

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