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Nashville Scene American Heritage

A variety of titles remind us that black history is American history

By Diann Blakely

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  It's Black History Month, and bookstores are prominently displaying classics like Their Eyes Were Watching God alongside recent big-sellers like Africans in America, A Lesson Before Dying, and what the publishing industry refers to as "Girlfriend Novels," ubiquitous since Terry Macmillan's Waiting to Exhale rose to bestsellerdom in 1992. Long before "crossover" hits like these, though, independent presses knew that interest in African American culture wasn't limited to black readers. Moreover, such houses believed that crucial chapters of the American experience could only be told from the black point of view.

One of the best of these independent presses is Lawrence Hill. Among its recent offerings is the "Library of Black America" series. Yuval Taylor, who serves as the series' general editor, also assembled its first volume, I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, and its third, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. The latter condenses five volumes of Douglass' speeches, letters, articles, and editorials from Philip S. Foner's definitive set. The second volume in this handsome series collects the fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, whose shamanic cameo in last year's Bulworth has led to a renewal of interest in his work.

Lawrence Hill has also recently published an updated edition of Mel Watkins' On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy From Slavery to Chris Rock. Watkins, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, uses humor as a lens for exploring American race relations. "For a vulnerable black minority," he writes, "surreptitiousness and trickery were the principal defenses against repression." The latter often involved false ignorance and naiveté--think "Sambo" of the minstrel shows, Amos and Andy, or Eddie Murphy in some of his Saturday Night Live routines. But playing dumb--a ruse scarcely limited to the African American cultural tradition--has its drawbacks, having too often "fostered and affirmed the most insidious and demeaning stereotypes."

Yet what Watkins calls "Sambo comedy" serves as one of the foundations of modern African American comedy; "surreptitious" humor, developed in the privacy of wholly black settings, represents the other. Watkins explores both, showing how the latter began to trickle into the mainstream with performers like Redd Foxx. The author's inclusion of jokes from slavery times to mid-century to the present era--including those of Foxx, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris Rock--makes for a compendious, erudite cultural study that is also a delight to read.

If the American experience in black--and white--can be told through the evolution of its comedy, it can be told equally well through its various musical traditions. DaCapo Press, which specializes in popular musicology and music biographies, has published classics of the literature, from Samuel Charters' pioneering studies of the blues to Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. DaCapo's offerings continue to expand: Among its newest titles are Chip Deffaa's Blue Rhythms: Six Lives in Rhythms and Blues and Robert Nicholson's Mississippi: The Blues Today, the latter of which features photography by Memphian Logan Young.

Massachusetts was once home to 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley and to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Today, it's home to the University of Massachusetts press, which has just published a groundbreaking guide to African American cultural history. Write Me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader, edited by Steven C. Tracy, offers selections from nearly every major blues-based folklorist, musicologist, critic, social commentator, novelist, and poet in its 600-plus pages, along with excerpts from important related documents like The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Tracy defines the blues' importance to the 20th century through a brief discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's fictional masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston "carves out," he writes, "a mythic space in words that establishes the 'lowly' front porch of the rural, small-town general store at day's end as the place where the politically and socially powerless become the lords of sound." This is a perfect metaphor for the blues, which Tracy calls "this century's humbling towering art form." Through this oral tradition, he explains, African Americans have been able to transcend the inferiority imposed on them by white culture.

One glaring omission in Tracy's pioneering and largely definitive opus is Jean Toomer, whose Cane remains one of the great works of the Harlem Renaissance. Hill Street Press in Atlanta has just published Essentials, a less well-known book by Toomer, who was a longtime student of Eastern mysticism. Essentials belongs with collections of spiritual/psychological/aesthetic aphorisms like Pascal's Pensées and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Toomer both anticipates and critiques today's neo-transcendentalism with statements like, "Man adjusts to what he should not; he is unable to adjust to what he should."

Such language is oddly abstract and disembodied, especially when set beside the humid red clay and pine-resonant landscapes of Cane. Nonetheless, Essentials remains an important book.

Interesting, thought-provoking volumes about African American culture are no longer the sole province of independent publishing houses. A few mainstream publishers have recognized the growing--and racially mixed--audience for books previously thought to appeal only to the black "niche market." Thus Random House, under its Clarkson Potter imprint, has issued Maya Angelou: The Poetry of Living, a celebratory book of photographs and testimonials on the life and work of one of our most famous poets. Similarly, Ballantine, in its Library of Contemporary Thought series, recently commissioned Walter Mosley to write about race and economics at the millennium. The result is a brief but exhilaratingly impassioned volume called Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History.

Mosley is justly celebrated for creating the Easy Rawlins mysteries, the visionary RL's Dream, and the Socrates Fortlow works, but he has also earned a nearly heroic reputation for hands-on activism in the literary community, including his support of institutions as diverse as the Poetry Society of America and the Black Classic Press. Workin' on the Chain Gang draws both on his activism and his imagination, and the result is a lyrically insightful, elegantly argued, and morally bracing book.

Mosley uses metaphor to unite, rather than divide, those less than enchanted by our neo-gilded age. "There is an echo of Jim Crow in the HMO," he writes, in the way people are "shunted aside, denied access, and allowed to suffer with no real democratic resource. Downsizing is an excellent way of robbing a worker of her accrued wealth. The widening gap between rich and poor is a way of demonizing the latter, because poverty is a sin in the richest country in the world. These new systems of injustice wear the trappings of freedom, but they are just as unacceptable as their forebears."

Everyone in our country, Mosley insists, can learn from slavery's legacy, which he calls "a torch in the darkness" for its strength, resistance, and creativity in dealing with oppression and marginalization. Indeed, Mosley states outright what the other writers mentioned above imply: "Black American history is American history."


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