Quantcast

Book Reviewing, African-American Style | The Nation

  •  

Book Reviewing, African-American Style

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

On April 14, my review of Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven
appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I finally
assessed the book thusly:

In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that
tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors
("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy similes
("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time")
are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto
accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come
without explication, and schmooze substitutes for action....There is too
much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song
Flung Up to Heaven
seems small and inauthentic, without ideas,
wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but
it isn't a song.

The review caused an immediate furor in the African-American community.
Subsequently, I was banned from participating in a reading and book
signing at Eso Won Books, the leading African-American bookstore in Los
Angeles, because of it. Two editors of the Book Review reported
that the publication had received a flood of letters, to date
unpublished. After months of taking phone calls and letters requesting a
response from me on the issues raised, I offer the following:

Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day
African-American writers, no matter their origin, is a minefield of a
task complicated by the social residuals of slavery and the shifting
currents in American publishing. Into this twenty-first century,
African-Americans are still denied full and open participation in the
larger culture absent the confusions and machinations of race. Thus, by
nature and necessity, our fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry
continue to be repositories for the complaints and resentments harbored
against the nation we love, as well as paeans to the courage, fortitude
and sacrifice of peers and forebears.

For those who need reminding, books by Negroes and other writers of
color were still largely found in the sociology and anthropology
sections of libraries and bookstores until the civil rights movement
(roughly 1953-69) was well under way. (The glory rush of pride, wonder
and dismay I felt whenever I stood before those sections has never been
forgotten. Too, in the children's section, boys' books were separated
from girls'.) In grade school, circa 1954, the year "under God" was
inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, works by Negroes were treated as
contraband if brought into class or onto the school ground, and were
confiscated by white teachers or administrators and the child
responsible given demerits or suspended.

Outside of home and church, creative writing by colored people did not
seem to exist except for those authors who occasionally appeared in
glossy coffee-table magazines or who were assigned classroom reading
during Negro History Week (becoming Black History Month in 1976). They
could be counted on two hands: Arna Bontemps, Paul Laurence Dunbar,
Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay,
Phillis Wheatley, Richard Wright and, later, James Baldwin and Lorraine
Hansberry. Of those then living, Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes and Wright
were invariably the designated cultural spokesmen for our race.

Buying their books was problematic, if not impossible. Books by "the
children of Ethiopia" were not widely distributed in Southern
California, no matter how famous the authors. To acquire them meant
leaving the ghetto to visit public libraries or (after weeks of hearing
the "hush-hush") borrowing from friends or relations, on one's solemn
oath to return the precious tome. Few Los Angeles bookstores featured
black literature, even in the sociology section, and by the end of the
1960s fewer than five such bookstores were said to be black-owned, the
longest-lived the Ligon's Aquarian Book Shop, casualty of the April 1992
rioting.

If there were more independent publishers in the mid-twentieth century,
few braved the economic uncertainty of carrying more than one or two
Afro-American authors, whose readership was circumscribed by the going
sociopolitical nasties. Black-owned presses, sans white patronage, by
and large had extremely short lives, never having exceeded a handful at
any given point (Black Classic Press, Broadside Press, Lotus Press,
Third World Press). Books by blacks had even less of a shelf life when
reviews--good or bad--failed to appear in the leading literary
publications of the day. Good reviews were the ideal, but bad reviews
(most, invariably written by whites) were welcomed if they generated
enough controversy to sell copies. The few black reviewers were usually
one of the ranking spokesmen (Baldwin, Wright, Ellison), occasionally
granted salvage or sponsorship of emerging kindred. Too, there was an
ideological divide between those considered to be writing for white
readers and those who wrote for blacks. The former received the greater
attention. Reviews appearing in the few black-owned publications
(Charlotta Spears Bass's California Eagle, W.E.B. Du Bois's
The Crisis or Robert S. Abbott's The Chicago Defender)
could not guarantee the author the crossover or white leisure-class
readership that generated lucrative book sales.

The truths of our daily lives defined the truths for our literature: We
were constantly discriminated against, monitored and censored. In
defense and support of Negro writers, book clubs, discussion groups and
writers' organizations emerged--in Los Angeles, Vassie May Wright's Our
Authors Study Clubs, the Black Writers' Guild (absorbed by the Writer's
Guild of America, west, to become the Committee of Black Writers) and
later, the International Black Writers' Association and the World Stage
in Leimert Park--but the majority of "folks" were reached via a
sophisticated version of America's mob-world network. Word of mouth via
the grapevine (a k a "the drum") was the primary news-and-reviews
resource, if gossip, rumor and speculation were its discounts. It was
and remains swifter than radio and television, as effective as the
Underground Railroad and--best of all--is uncensored by the white
establishment.

In 1963 Arna Bontemps published his American Negro Poetry
anthology, which reintroduced poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden,
Dudley Randall and those better known for their prose (H. Julian Bond,
Sterling Brown, Clarence Major, Jean Toomer, Margaret Walker, etc.). As
the political climate among America's Vietnam War-era youth became
increasingly radical, a new group seized the black literary podium, as
the more racially conscious scions of education, miseducation and
self-education converged in The Muntu Group (a k a The Black Arts
Movement). Many were included in Bontemps's ANP--Nikki Giovanni,
Ted Joans, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Larry Neal, Don L. Lee (Haki R.
Madhubuti) et al. Although he was originally from the LA community of
Watts, Bontemps's focus was on the Harlem Renaissance and the Midwest,
with exceptions from Texas and the old South, plus Bob Kaufman (the
black Rimbaud of San Francisco's Beats). Outside Bontemps's radar others
were rising--Ed Bullins, Lonne Elder III, Charles Gordone, Etheridge
Knight, Paule Marshall, Ishmael Reed, A.B. Spellman and Al Young. By the
end of the 1960s, popular fiction writers, too, were reaching audiences,
black and white--Donald Goines, Alex Haley, Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim,
John A. Williams, Frank Yerby--as a constellation of once-silenced
voices exploded into print, and onto screen and stage.

From the ashes of the August 1965 riots that scarred LA County, Budd
Schulberg's Watts Writers Workshop (Quincy Troupe, Kamau Daoud, Odie
Hawkins, et al.) reinforced the militant expressions of racial pride and
the spirited entitlement to unfettered speech defining those who
rejected self-censorship in hopes of attracting a white
readership--Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and, later, Ntozake Shange. But
the price that most paid for this newfound freedom was scorching reviews
by white book critics, and having their work ignored for literary grants
and prizes. Knowing they were not exempt from the currents and trends
affecting all writers, many had long observed the games characteristic
of the literary life--cronyism, favoritism, patronage--and were becoming
equally adept at play. Impatient with the harsh and racist criticism
that truncated their literary careers, they answered via the grapevine,
making a demand for same-race interviewers and reviewers. Supported by
the leading black celebrities of the day and underwritten by a
riot-singed loosening of cultural constraints, African-American
reviewer-journalists began appearing in the print media.

What had begun with Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka,
Kansas
(1954) and the push for the desegregation of schools resulted
in the boom of black studies programs (Afro-American, African-American,
now Africana) in American colleges and universities throughout the
1970s--and other study programs tangential to the broadening of the
American cultural terrain. But by the 1980s, textbooks adopted for many
of these programs bore copyrights between 1968 and 1973, roughly
corresponding to the presidency of Richard Nixon (1969-74)--texts that
overlooked a third wave busily establishing themselves in and outside
the mainstream--Ai, Toni Cade Bambara, Xam Cartier, Cornelius Eady,
Charles Johnson, David Bradley, Toi Derricotte, C.S. Giscombe, Yusef
Komunyakaa, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Michelle Cliff, Michael S.
Harper, Audre Lorde, E. Ethelbert Miller, Alice Walker (who resuscitated
Zora Neale Hurston's works), John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson.

Since the 1970s America has produced the largest educated population in
its history, racism aside, Americans of color benefiting, despite the
givens. New writers have emerged from workshops and MFA and PhD programs
via whatever means necessary--affirmative action, grants, student loans
and scholarships--with "political correctness" and multiculturalism the
more obvious of mitigating factors. The publish-or-perish mandate of
academic life, in tandem with increases in the black middle class and
underclass, accelerated the outcry for cultural redress, as
African-American readers demanded literature that reflected their lives
and values. An explosion into print of new kinds of writing to satisfy
this boom market has followed, meaning an inevitable diversity of black
authors across genres. The pioneering Samuel R. "Chip" Delany and
Octavia Butler in science or speculative fiction, and Walter Mosley
(harking back to Himes) in the mystery/crime/suspense genre, have
created a tsunami of younger African-American writers eager to replicate
their successes (Nelson George, Gar Anthony Haywood, Nalo Hopkinson,
Barbara Neely, Gary Phillips, Sheree R. Thomas). J. California Cooper,
Terry McMillan and Gloria Naylor have inspired a new breed of women
novelists. Then there's the popular black romance or "trash" novel trade
(Pinnacle Arabesque, Holloway House and Signet).

Simultaneously, a fourth generation has emerged: Jeffery Renard Allen,
Paul Beatty, Eric Jerome Dickey, Trey Ellis, Ruth Forman, Lisa Jones,
Thylias Moss, Kevin Powell, Sapphire, Patricia Smith, Sister Souljah,
Lisa Teasley, Jervey Tervalon, Colson Whitehead. Not to be ignored are
the birth and entrenchment of a black academe--Houston A. Baker Jr.,
Percival Everett, Gloria Foster, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Nellie McKay,
Jewell Parker Rhodes, Richard Yarborough--and the emergence of black
social critics--Stanley Crouch, Henry Louis Gates, Earl Ofari
Hutchinson, Cornel West. A burgeoning black avant-garde claims
influences from the Absurdists to the Sublime and the Surrealists--Will
Alexander, Ricardo Cortez Cruz, Renee Gladman, Nathaniel Mackey,
Harryette Mullen and Giovanni Singleton.

A rap/hip-hop generation of writers influenced by Gil Scott-Heron and
The Last Poets includes young whites as well as the Nuyoricans (elders
Miguel Alguin, Papoleto Melendez and Nancy Mercado) and the slam
poets--including the acculturated who write and perform under a dominant
African-American influence, many yet to become substantial in
print--although that necessity may be dictated by the Internet, should
magazines continue to go online, or develop online versions, and should
e-zines continue to proliferate.

As this century begins, the vast depth and breadth of African-American
writing over the past fifty years make these categories seem arbitrary.
Another hundred authors could easily be added, plus an overlapping and
equally illustrious list of American writers of African heritage from
other parts of the Black Diaspora.

The number of writers identifying as African-Americans now outstrips the
available review media and bookstore shelves, placing emphasis and
stress on what does exist. Numerous small magazines now welcome work by
or on them (Another Chicago Magazine, Crab Orchard Review,
Massachusetts Review, Other Voices, Paterson Literary
Review
). The editors of African-American Review,
Callaloo and Obsidian, three long-lived culture-specific
journals, have done their best to document our progress faithfully, as
have the newer Black Issues, QBR: The Black Book Review
and Ishmael Reed's Konch. However, they have yet to approach the
career-making editorial power of The Atlantic Monthly, The New
York Review of Books
, The New York Times Book Review, The
New Yorker
and the like, which do not exclusively feature
African-Americans (those once dwarfed by the recently discontinued
Oprah's Book Club). Kalamu Ya Salaam's e-drum, an online
resource, encompasses and targets the entire African Diaspora, unlike
the nation's review media, which have failed to expand in response to
this explosion of talent. The staggering number of black writers across
disciplines suggests future potential for genre-specific magazines
(e-zines) and bookstores, online and off.

A search of the Internet yields more than 300 black book clubs and
discussion groups of fluctuating longevity nationwide (Book Divas,
Chat-n-Chew, Eye of Ra, Seven Sisters Sipping Tea, Twelve Black Women
& One Brother), some business-oriented, like Troy Johnson's AALBC
(African-American Literature Book Club), the Black Writer's Alliance and
Black Expressions--each with its own roster of frequently read authors.
The readers are hungry, and the potential market for mainstream reviews
of African-American literature is equally vast.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon any book reviewer to grasp these diverse
happenstances composing what was once simply summarized as "The Black
Experience." It is the duty of the reviewer to accurately portray,
critically summarize and convey them to potential readers regardless of
the varied heritages involved--in the assumed common language. The
ironic complexity of this task, no matter how savvy the reviewer, is
best illustrated when the quality of the work produced by black writers
is measured against that of whites using the criteria of excellence
governing standard English and its variants--Ebonics aside. Ideally, the
social context within which the work under review is created should be
factored in, but should that be done to the exclusion of the quality of
the writing? A number of reviewers, including many of the writers listed
above, are answering that question for themselves: Hilton Als, Jabari
Asim, Samiya Bashir, Daphne A. Brooks, Grace Edwards-Yearwood, Lynell
George, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Ron Kavanaugh, Julius Lester, Quraysh Ali
Lansana, Arnold Rampersad, Angeli Rasbury, Lorenzo Thomas and Greg
Tate--to name a very few.

On this shaky cultural terrain, arbitrarily divided into high and low,
or commercial and literary, the average critic-reviewer is bound to
stand on shifting ground. If that critic is also a literary or scholarly
writer, he or she is likely to be acutely sensitive to the dangers of
penning a negative review. A fledgling writer trounced or a veteran
prematurely interred might emerge as a MacArthur grant recipient,
Nobelist or Pulitzer Prize winner. Worse, that same writer might end up
on the literary grants peer panel, become director of a coveted reading
series or chair a funding committee or English department to which their
writer-critic has submitted an application, request, proposal or
résumé. Therefore, there may be, for some writers, a
certain amount of fear attached to the task. In the black world it is
more like having the author's cousins and uncles gang up on you. Too,
the sense of community and the desire to compensate for the damages of
racism, however perceived, may or may not affect how one
African-American reviews another. While failing to say anything about an
author's book that cannot be excerpted for the press kit or book jacket
may possibly have severe literary consequences for the critic-reviewer
in general, for black reviewers, the consequences may be dire. Their
creative efforts may be likewise reviewed for suspect reasons. They may
be denied appearances on certain TV book shows. They may be denied
invitations to significant events celebrating African-American pride and
progress. They may be banned from certain black-owned bookstores.

It is under these kinds of pressures, with an awareness of these
contexts, armed with all the information above, that I write, whenever I
place my own creative work on hold to assume the role of book reviewer.

I am acutely aware of the anger any reviewer may incite when criticizing
the work of a popular author, and that the density and history of the
African-American community may intensify that anger. Few readers enjoy
having their favorite author-hero or heroine excoriated. However, the
job of the reviewer is to bring the best analysis of the book, and
perhaps the author, to the readership--whoever makes up that readership,
black, white or otherwise.

All literary criticism, at root, is biased--the favorable and
unfavorable alike--because reviewers must bring to the act their
individual worldview and aesthetic sensibility. And it is up to each to
decide if the social values of a text as a political record is more
important than its literary values--which is often the choice when books
by African-Americans are under review. But fostering an illusion of
excellence where none exists, regardless of the race, gender or class of
the writer, or the subject matter of the text, is to do a democratic
readership the ultimate disservice. Saying amen to the going cultural
directives, minus a true analysis, is as morally suspect as any bigoted
criticism--whether done out of guilt, fear or the desire to compensate
the author for the social ills that shaped his or her existence.

In our post-9/11 America, where unwarranted suspicions and the fear of
terrorism threaten to overwhelm long-coveted individual freedoms, a book
review seems rather insignificant--until the twin specters of censorship
and oppression are raised. What has made our nation great, despite its
tortuous history steeped in slavery, are those who have persisted in
honoring those freedoms, starting with the Constitution and its
amendments. It is this striving toward making those freedoms available
to every citizen, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or origin,
that makes the rest of the insanity tolerable. It is what allows me to
voice my opinion, be it praise song or dissent, no matter who
disagrees.

Subscriber Log In:

Subscribe Now!
The only way to read this article and the full contents of each week's issue of The Nation online on the day the print magazine is published is by subscribing. Subscribe now and read this article—and every article published since 1865 in our 148 year digital archive—right now.
There's no obligation—try The Nation for four weeks free.

 

 
  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size