Slave to the word

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature - Black Intellectuals
March 7, 1997

European Enlightenment philosophers tended to regard the written word as the place where all things admirable - namely, reason and genius - manifest themselves. If there were no "negro" writers in America, this was not seen as the logical consequence of draconian laws against their being taught to read or write. No, it clearly proved - at least to the eminent philosopher David Hume - that negroes were "naturally inferior" to whites. Immanuel Kant, for much the same reasons, stated with equal certitude: "The negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling." White supremacist philosophers (and scientists) habitually transformed the social into the "natural".

When Phyllis Wheatley, a Boston slave, produced a thin sheaf of poems she claimed to have written herself, she was ushered into the Boston courthouse for close questioning. The 18-year-old "Negro Girl", who a few years earlier had been imported as "an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa", managed to convince the dubious group of eminent citizens that she was capable of writing the poems. The book was published in London (Boston publishers remained sceptical). It was the first book by an African American. The year was 1773.

Two hundred years later, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. The weighty Norton Anthology of African American Literature (not as "comfortably portable" as it purports to be) is a celebration of two centuries of African American literature.

But it is this century that has seen African American writing burst out and up, like so many fireworks. An anthology like this serves to remind us that the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s, was just half a century removed from slavery. In his 1922 anthology of Negro poetry, James Weldon Johnson was painfully aware that his people still had to prove their fundamental worth: "The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior."

African American literature did not "come of age", the editors Henry Louis Gates Jr and Nellie McKay tell us in their preface, until "well into this century". And in the past decade or so, it has taken off like a forest fire. The number of books by black writers among the New York Times bestseller lists shows a solid readership across the races, and there are more black readers than ever before. Every self-respecting English department in the country now includes courses on black literature. We have come a long way, the editors remind us, from 1970, when a proposal to write a PhD dissertation on an African American writer created an outcry.

This anthology, ten years in the making, provides a wonderful tool for teaching. Divided into seven historical periods introduced by well-known African American critics, it contains work by 120 writers. The introductions will help teachers and students trace influences and patterns in the black literary tradition. Wherever possible, the selections are not extracts but complete works. A number of key texts (from Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk and Jean Toomer's Cane to Toni Morrison's Sula) are included whole. The editors aimed to make the anthology sufficient in itself for a survey course in African American literature, allowing for variety and the opportunity to explore side-tracks. The bibliography provides an excellent pointer to further reading.

The opening section, "The vernacular tradition", discusses that "rich storehouse of materials" constituted by church songs, blues, jazz, sermons, folktales, speeches and rap, and their influence on American writers, black and white. The accompanying audio CD encourages listeners to make connections between the written and oral traditions.

But this handsome book should not be relegated to the textbook category. It will be a treasured addition to the library of anyone interested in American literature. Scholars working in the field will want to familiarise themselves with this book, the new bible of African American studies, and ultimately, perhaps, to argue with it.

Like his Enlightenment predecessors, though for quite different reasons, W. E. B. Du Bois, the grandfather of black intellectuals, placed great emphasis on "exceptional men". Outstanding African Americans would necessarily pose a challenge to white supremacist theories. Moreover, Du Bois, filled with late Victorian optimism, hoped that talented black individuals would elevate the black masses by their example, becoming "leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people".

Since Du Bois's 1903 essay, "The talented tenth", the responsibility of black intellectuals has remained a hot topic in African American culture. Their position is ambiguous, poised as they are on a tightrope between two cultures. Those able to wend their way through the many obstacles and gain the intellectual and psychological wherewithal to make public comments on social issues are still rare. When they look around at the ever-growing black "underclass", do they consider they have a responsibility towards their race? If so, what is it? Should they feel obliged to use their education to benefit the race? Does the "Don't let the race down, son" ringing in their ears constrain their imagination, the scope of their thinking? They are in a position of uneasy dependence on a white society which does not quite accept them, and, whether they choose it or not, they are regarded by white society as the spokespeople for their race.

William M. Banks's Black Intellectuals looks at these sorts of issues in a broad historical sweep. Banks, a professor of African American studies at Berkeley, was impressed by Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), one of the influential books of the Black Power movement. Cruse's nationalist and separatist position made Banks slightly uneasy, but he was impressed with Cruse's courage. "His example convinced me that sharp critical commentary was necessary, and that to fall silent was to be disloyal to the intellectual's mission."

Black intellectuals have not been a cohesive group. Far from it. Banks says he intends to examine some of the "central controversies". This would make a fascinating and important book. Passion and commitment among black intellectuals have never been lacking; but they have rarely agreed about how best to serve the black community.

Like Du Bois, Banks sees black intellectuals as having a "mission", a "calling". This priest-like concept surely sets them apart from the average educated person. Indeed, Banks defines intellectuals in his introduction as "individuals who are reflective and critical, who act self-consciously to transmit, modify, and create ideas and culture".

This is vague, however, and throughout the book he invariably uses the term "intellectual" simply to mean "educated". All academics are "intellectuals" for Banks, and more surprisingly, so are most prominent black figures in the arts, music and politics - from Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Robeson to Malcolm X. There is no denying their talent and intelligence, but by calling them (and everyone else) "intellectuals", Banks strips the term of meaning and inevitably diminishes the accomplishments of thinkers like Du Bois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin (to name the more obvious ones), all of whom Banks merely mentions in passing.

This book would have been better served with a different title and introduction. Banks is not primarily interested in the content of the controversies between the great black thinkers. The book is most valuable, and most engaging, as a social history of black education in the United States from slavery onwards: the many obstacles in its way, the heated debates about the aims of black education (for example, the controversies surrounding Booker T. Washington's accommodationist policies at Tuskegee), and, later, about black schools versus integrated schools.

Banks writes particularly well about higher education, and the impact of black students entering mainstream campuses in the late 1960s. His interviews with a number of prominent black academics make illuminating and interesting reading.

In the final analysis, these two books describe a triumph of monumental proportions. Within two short centuries, black intellectuals, black writers and black leaders in all fields have overturned the self-congratulatory wisdoms of the European Enlightenment masters. The dragons have been slain.

Hazel Rowley, author of Christina Stead: A Biography, is writing a biography of Richard Wright.

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature

Editor - Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay
ISBN - 0 393 04001 1
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £21.00
Pages - 2,665

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments