Book Reviewing, African-American Style

Book Reviewing, African-American Style

Book Reviewing, African-American Style


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 Two editors of the Book Review reported that the publication had received a flood of letters, to date unpublished.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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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