Looking at African-American Icons

Considering the cynicism many of us feel about the current state of American education, at least with the curriculum there is one vast improvement from the past: its diversity.  In the excellent public schools I attended in Iowa in the 1940s and 50s, I learned absolutely noting about our country’s diversity—unless Pocahontas is supposed to count.  Though I concentrated on American literature for both my BA and MA, I never once encountered an African American writer. It pains me to admit this because I took several courses in American literature from a distinguished professor, who was a Negro, to use the racial designation of the time.  He even directed my MA thesis on William Faulkner, but it was not until after I graduated that I discovered that he had one of the finest private collections of works by African American writers in the United States.  But never a mention of any of those books, or their writers, while I was enrolled in his courses.

By the mid-1960s, awareness of American’s literary diversity had begun to change.  There was growing admiration for Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, but less for Richard Wright and almost contempt for earlier African American writers.  When I initially tried to convince publishers that novels by these writers (especially those of the Harlem Renaissance) ought to be brought back into print, I met with no enthusiasm.  I’m talking about such writers as Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Nella Larsen.  I was repeatedly informed that their novels were not worth reprinting, yet slowly things began to change and a few publishers met the challenge.  It was from such an atmosphere that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. began his impressive academic career.  Though he was certainly not alone, Gates—probably more than anyone else—helped mid-wife the rebirth of interest in African American literature.

Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 is a stupendous undertaking, chronicling the African American contribution to America, beginning with the first Africans to reach these shores—thirty Africans, as part of Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s “expedition, which “discovered” the Pacific Ocean in 1513—and concluding with Barak Obama’s inauguration.  When you consider those two polarities, you understand how remarkable that contribution has been.  In between,  Gates’ book—in his own words—“ranges from the exploration of the New World and the long ordeal of slavery through Emancipation and the Civil War; from the era of Reconstruction through Jim Crow and World War I; from the Great Migration of 1910 to 1930—including the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age—through the Great Depression and World War II; from the civil rights movement and its aftermath, and the Black Power insurgence, on to the age of hip-hop and of the Joshua Generation, leading to the election of the first African American president of the United States.”

The text (composed of dozens and dozens of brief essays) is illustrated with hundreds of illustrations (many in color) in what can only be regarded as a cornucopia of riches, the highs and the lows of African American life in the United States, the heroes and the heroines of a distinct culture and—once again to Gates’ credit—the less-well known activities and lives of “significant men and women long forgotten.”  Gates proclaims that this book is for a general audience, but I can attest to the fact that if you are already knowledgeable of African American history, there are surprises here throughout the entire volume.  I count myself as one of the informed readers, having taught African American literature for twenty-five or more years, and yet I couldn’t have been more delighted (and rewarded) by some of the stories recorded in this volume and many of the startling photographs I have never seen before.

For example, a toss-aside fact which, if I once heard, I have totally forgotten: “Mexico received more slaves than the United States did.” Or, to mention another startling revelation in this volume, the Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, writing an account of his first awareness of African small-pox inoculation: “I had from a Servant of my own, an account of [inoculation] being practiced in Africa.  Enquiring of my Negro-man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow, Whether he had ever had ye Small-Pox; he answered, both, Yes, and, No; and then told me, that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-pox, & would forever preserve him from it. He described ye Operation to me, and shew’d me in his Arm ye Scar.”  Boylston was writing in 1726, describing an incident revealed to him in a letter written ten years earlier by Cotton Mather, revealing “how in 1713 an African brought a life-saving medical technique to the greater European world.”

The forgotten and the unsung are also revealed in illustration after illustration in Life upon These Shores.  There’s a reproduction of a pencil and watercolor, by Lieutenant Frances Meynell, titled “View of the Deck of the Slave Ship Alabanoz,” drawn in 1846.  I have never seen this painting before, never encountered such a horrifying “visual” of the Middle Passage, replete with dozens of slaves on top of one another in wretchedly cramped circumstances.  Or, to mention another illustration—an advertisement for Pullman Compartment Cars—sometime from the 1930s, showing two men (who oddly look Middle Eastern), seated at a table, drinking spirits and served by a Pullman porter.  On still one more, a “Save the Scottsboro Boys” donation pin, “created by the Communist Party—affiliated International Labor Defense, the organization that represented the Scottsboro defendants.”  The good and the bad, ugly stereotypes, derogatory images, racist documents—all are here, including several pages of color illustrations in a section called “Sambo Art.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s Life upon These Shores: Looking at African American History has been conceptualized and executed with loving care and rigorous intellectual grounding.  Though clearly timed for gift-giving during the holiday season, the book should just as accurately be regarded as a major resource document for the future.  Simultaneously, the Library of  America has issued a two-volume collection of nine novels of the Harlem Renaissance (five from the 1920s and four from the 1930s), edited by Rafia Zafar.  Though there is no general introduction, there is a plethora of background material—a time line of the era, biographical information about each writer, and textual notes—at the end of each volume. The novels include Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer; Home to Harlem (1928), by Claude McKay; Quicksand (1928), by Nella Larsen; Plum Bun (1928), by Jessie Redmon Fauset; and The Blacker the Berry (1929), by Wallace Thurman.  And in the second volume: Not without Laughter (1931), by Langston Hughes; Black No More (1931), by George S. Schuyler; The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), by Rudolph Fisher; and Black Thunder (1936), by Arna Bontemps.

As with Gates’ Life upon These Shores, the Library of America collection of Harlem Renaissance Novels chronicles the lives of African Americans from every possible background (rural and urban, the North and the South, low-life to upper class, the educated and the uneducated) in a rich panoply of narrative styles and sub-genres.  For me, Jean Toomer’s Cane is the masterpiece of the period, a widely innovative modernist text, as significant for American literature of the era as the greatest novels by William Faulkner.  The unique power of Toomer’s vision is narrated by poems, vignettes, brief character sketches, and a lengthy section which reads as if it had been intended to be a film script, yet all these works in concert with one another present a over-arching image of black life in the United States, at a time when people were leaving the South and migrating to the North in search of greater riches.

Nella Larsen’s Quicksand—the second most important novel of the first volume—relates the sad story of Helga Crane, her difficulties of fitting in, of finding a niche where she can survive in a world that has largely cut her off from her people because of her education.  Larsen daringly exposed the obstacles confronting black women seeking  mates in an environment where black men had lesser education and prospects than many black women—sadly a situation still unequal today.

Of the second volume, mention should be made of George S. Schuyler’s wicked satire, Black No More.  Schuyler—a black conservative, who wrote a syndicated column for many years—narrates the story of a physician who prefects a process for removing the melanin from dark skin, making black people white.  The result of this hilarious transformation is that soon there are no black people left in the United States.  So who is there to discriminate against?  Who is going to do all the menial tasks that black people have done for years?  I’m not going to tell you how this “problem” is resolved.  You’ll have to discover that for yourself by reading Black No More and the other eight novels in this fabulous addition to The Library of America’s on-going offerings.

What better gifts for the holiday than these two elegant compilations of African American life in the United States.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008.  Knopf, 487 pp., $50.

Rafia Zafar, ed.  Harlem Renaissance NovelsLibrary of America, 2 vols., 1725 pp., $70.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  His books include Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen. Email: clarson@american.edu


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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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