Can We Combat Racism with African American Literature?
"Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the
things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches."
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
So much racism left in our country, like a suppurating wound! Naively, I had thought that we were on the road to being truly healed when we elected Barack Obama president and saw eight years of his thoughtful presence stabilizing our country, giving hope. It is easy to be naive when you live in the countryside on beautiful land, as I do, and think your own thoughts. But the facts are staring us in the face.
When I see a poll that indicates a majority of white people do not support black athletes "taking the knee" in protest against police brutality or other forms of racism, I am appalled. Yet here I am, an old white woman in the country, so placed in the world that I hardly feel able to make a difference.
I have lived much of my life in literature. Yet even in literature one might say that for a long time, most of my friends were white: John Keats, Coleridge, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, George Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf. But not any more. In literature I am blessed with just as many friends who are black and hispanic. If you happen to love literature, you know what I mean; you know how real those friendships can be. And in literature at least, if not in life, perhaps there is somethingthat I can offer, however ephemeral. Many years ago, when I was teaching literature at the State University of New York, college at Oneonta, I founded a course, with the help and guidance of the Africana Latina Studies Department, that I called African American Women Writers. That course meant as much to me as it ever did to my students. The literature I discovered and shared with them was so immensely powerful and enriching, that I wish everyone, whatever their background, would make it a point to read writers of color-- for readers of color, to strengthen their sense of empowerment and pride, for white readers, to dispel their ignorance and expand their understanding and empathy.
How can I even begin to tell you about them? I think my own education began through Alice Walker's writings on Zora Neale Hurston. Would I have understood Zora as well without Alice's seminal article in Ms. Magazine decades ago, in which she went on a pilgrimage to find Zora's forgotten grave? Probably not. But Alice did lead me to Zora, and to works like Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Dust Tracks on the Road. Alice Walker herself is best known for her great novel, The Color Purple--but to me, her most powerful and important work might be her third novel, Meridian, which offers the reader an intimate experience of the Civil Rights movement. How can anyone read her story of the direct experience of Civil Rights workers seeking to register people to vote and not become painfully aware of our history and the changes that still must be made?
As I prepared the syllabus for my course on African American Women Writers, I read more and more deeply. There were anthologies that gave a historical perspective, and gave the reader access to forgotten voices. My favorites were a collection of stories called Black-Eyed Susans, and a splendid poetry anthology, Black Sister, where I encountered poets from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as more recent writers. It was a deep experience and an inspiration to discover poets like Pauli Murray, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Audre Lorde!
As a fiction writer, I was especially thrilled to read more of writers I already loved, like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara. And thrilled to discover for the first time Ann Petry's passionate novel about a young black woman's life on her own in Chicago, The Street. And what a joy to meet the spirited sisters of Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo! I was able to invite Shange to visit our campus and give a reading one year, and her presence was an inspiration to far more students than those few in my class. A more recent discovery that I have often wished I could get more people to read is Black Girl in Paris, by the poet Shay Youngblood. First published in 2000, there is now a movie based on this wonderful novel, and I'm happy to see it is still in print.
Though my emphasis, as a specialist in women's studies was women writers, I also immersed myself in learning all I could about the classic writings by African American men. I might have been introduced to their work first by teaching James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," one of the greatest short stories ever written, in my fiction writing class; and then by assigning The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land in my Autobiography, Gender and Culture class. These are works I think everyone should read, whether in literature classes, or classes in African American history; if such courses were required in high school for all students, perhaps white Americans would become more empathetic, more conscious and aware than the polls are telling us we are. Once you have read Langston Hughes and Malcolm X, Richard Wright and Claude Brown-- how can you ever be the same? Once you have read Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ann Petry, Shay Youngblood, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde-- how can you ever be the same?
When I began teaching my course on African American Women Writers, most of the students were white, with only one or two black students in a class, making it very difficult for them to feel at ease. I had begun the course hoping to create pressure on my department to hire a person of color to teach these crucial works. Sadly they dragged their feet, and that important hire never happened in the years that I was teaching. Still, the last time I taught the course, there were seven African American women in the class, and when we had oral presentations near the end of the class, they stood up together and bore witness in a way that was so proud and bold and beautiful I will never forget it.
The Romantic poet Shelley wrote that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." That is often dismissed as, indeed, a "romantic" idea. But I believe it. I believe that if a society read more of works that bear witness to wrongs, bear witness to life itself and the forming of our imaginations and identities; works that imagine a better world; works that empower resistance and increase understanding-- we really would be stronger, wiser and better, and so would the world that we live in. Zora Neale Hurston struggled with this idea in her essay, "Crazy for This Democracy," where she demands a repeal of the Jim Crow laws that existed in her time. "I am crazy about the idea of this Democracy. I want to see how it feels. Therefore, I am all for the repeal of every Jim Crow law in the nation here and now. Not in another generation or so. The Hurstons have already been waiting eighty years for that. I want it here and now." And in "What White Publishers Won't Print," Zora demands that her voice be heard as well. Publishing has changed since Zora's time, but it's important to remember the struggle she and other writers of color have gone hrough. "Outside of racial attitudes," Zora writers, "there is still another reason why this literature should exist. Literature and other arts are supposed to hold up the mirror to nature. With only the fractional "exceptional" and the "quaint" portrayed, a true picture of Negro life in America cannot be. A great principle of national art has been violated."
Thanks to the persistence and vigilance of writers who came after Zora, that great national art is now available to all; we only have to reach out and discover it. An unacknowledged legislator of the world, Zora Neale Hurston understood that, if she found the right words, the entire world could indeed be expressed in the life of one human being:
"Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around
the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!
She called in her soul to come and see." Their Eyes Were Watching God.