The Great Migration

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[By Kenton Rambsy]

Utilizing a database of 100 novels reveals useful ways of considering the central topic of migration in African American literature. Mapping novel settings and the movements of protagonists across different geographic locations provides general readers and scholars important opportunities to consider how migration has emerged in the literary imagination of black novelists.

The Great Migration’s movements of two million African Americans from southern states to the Midwestern, Western, and Northeastern regions of the country during the early twentieth century are reflected in African American novels, particularly among black male protagonists. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Langston Hughes Not Without Laughter (1930), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) all feature men making migrations to the Northern cities, specifically New York City or Chicago. New York and Chicago stand out as popular destinations for black people during the Great Migration, and have remained as recurring settings for black novelists.

More than 54 of the 100 novels in our database are set in urban areas or have major scenes taking place in cities. New York City and Chicago are the settings or sites of scenes in more than 27 novels in our database. At least one novel, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), never identifies New York City by name as its setting, but the fictional metropolis featured in Whitehead’s narrative is definitely based on the Big Apple.

The recurring focus on Chicago and New York City in novels suggests the importance of those cities in the literary imagination of black America. Moreover, the prevalence of urban areas as settings for novels indicates that writers view city environments as fertile grounds for positioning their narratives.

Post-modernism and Ishmael Reed

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[By Crystal Boson]

Utilizing a database of 100 novels reveals useful ways of considering the importance of literary postmodernism in African American literature. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo can be considered to be Black Postmodernism’s torchbearer. It provides the reader with a highly complex narrative that blends genre and theme.

Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo blends elements of the classic detective novel with African American Folklore, iconography, racial identity, music and language, and does not lack venues for interpretation. It has been examined as a work of folklore, pure and imaginative fiction, a reversed detective novel, under postmodernism. It does not, however, lend itself solely to any of these interpretations.

Mumbo Jumbo lacks the literary schizophrenia and binary constructs necessary for a deconstructive, modern reading; the presence of a partial bibliography alone indicates the deliberate nature of Reed’s text. Furthermore, within the traditional detective novel, the plot revolves around decoding a mystery, and the story ends as the villain is reprimanded and clearly punished; here these roles are reversed, and there is no concrete ending to the work.

A complete reading of Mumbo Jumbo necessitates a new form of criticism and teaching, one that takes into account all of the disparate elements within the work. In the past, the apparent overproduction of artifacts and of assumed escapism has led Reed’s text to be examined in several different modes. Its combination of the detective genre, the elements of racial identity, folklore, religion, and iconography makes it one of the most identifiable Black Postmodern texts.

100 Novels: Trend Analyses Project

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[By Kenton Rambsy]

The Project on the History of Black Writing’s extensive collection of African American novels presents scholars with numerous opportunities to examine history, culture, and politics of black literary art. Over the last six months, members of HBW have gathered data on a group of 100 African-American-authored novels—from Williams Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1853) to Terry McMillan’s Getting to Happy (2010).

Collecting information on at least four dozen factors pertaining to the 100 novels and the lives of the authors has begun to reveal a wide range of fascinating commonalities and variations ranging from the months when the most major novelists are born and how many authors have received Guggeneim fellowships to the cities that have served as the most common settings for novels.

Our preliminary research findings have also led us to identify relationships between large numbers of books published over more than 150 years. For instance, a city like Chicago seems to be a popular setting for novels; the Windy City is featured in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), The Outsider (1953), and Lawd Today (1963), and Iceberg Slim’s Trick Baby (1967) and Mama Black Widow (1969). Novels that are adapted into movies seem to end up with several print editions and novel covers and highly developed Wikipedia pages. In addition, after 1980, there seems to be a strong correlation between novelists with M.F.A. degrees and novels that end up on The New York Times bestseller list.

Over the course of the next few months, we will elaborate on these and other notable findings in blog entries and through a series of public exhibits at the University of Kansas known as “The Black Literary Suite.” Ideally, the writings and exhibits on trends in the publication of 100 African American novels will shed new light on the holdings in HBW’s novel collection and stimulate more conversations about what we can learn by studying a large number of black artistic compositions.

Introducing the HBW Blog

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[By Kenton Rambsy]

The Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) has been in the forefront of research and inclusion efforts in higher education for twenty-five years. Founded in 1983 at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, HBW has over 900 novels in its collection published by African American authors since William Wells Browns Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1853). The ultimate goal of the project is to collect every novel ever published by an African American writer.

This blog serves to extend the efforts of HBW by identifying and highlighting topics related to African American and American literature that various audiences might find interesting. The blog also seeks to shed new light on the holdings in HBW’s novel collection and stimulate more conversations about what we can learn by studying a large number of black artistic compositions produced over 150 years.

Early on, we will focus on black literary history, contemporary developments in the production of black writing, digital humanities, and literary scholarship that pertains to African American writers.

For now, we will publish new entries on Tuesdays and Thursdays