Cultural Oppositions and Jean Toomer

[By Crystal Boson]

Jean Toomer’s Cane is a beautiful modernist text that captures the binaries that are most easily associated with Black literary lives of the early 20th century: The North versus the South and the rural laid against the urban.  In its entirety, the work follows the trail of the Great Migration, starting South, heading North, and concluding in a liminal space that is in simultaneously neither and both location. The first section of the book focuses upon the trappings that situate the Southern landscape as a site of horror and oppression.  The poem “Portrait in Georgia” calls up the spectre of lynching, and places it in conversation with images of inter and intra racial social violence, present in Blood-Burning Moon, Karintha and Becky.  The Southern landscape is not entirely demonized; the poems “Song of the South” and “November Cotton Flower” hold glimpses of beauty.


               The first section of this work has an interesting focus on both Black aesthetic beauty and the deconstruction of the Black body.  Concerning beauty, Toomer presents an image of culturally normative beauty in his opening work, Karintha.  The entire piece serves as a tragic homage to her beauty and her youth and innocence stripped to carelessly from her, but her beauty is constructed around the images of “skin like the dusk” and the ways of the folk.  Carma, who is presented within her self titled short story, is presented as strong and capable as well as beautiful.   Sadly, however, the strengths of these women were presented as vehicles that lead to their individual tragedies.  The destructive power of feminine strength is tied within the concepts of deconstruction of the body within this section.  The image of smoldering sawdust serves as a continual backdrop to the multiple bodies this section presents that are burned, broken, and dismembered in a physical or metaphoric sense.
               The second section of Toomer’s work examines the city, and presents the image as gritty, a potentially degrading influence, and a site for both creation and destruction.  The opening work of this section Seventh Street invokes the images of speed, movement, and restless migration.  A sensuality of musicality rides along the prose of this section, most evident in the opening poem in Seventh Street and “Her Lips are Copper Wire”.  Both Bona and Paul and Box Seat present the problematic nature of social control, racialized representations of love, and the isolating nature of the urban.   
               The third section of the work calls to DuBois through the bars of the prose, marking the Black literary imagination upon the image of the isolated educator within a liminal landscape and the situation of being uprooted from home and the land on which one is born.
               Toomer’s Cane is nothing but a work of beauty.  It situates the location based binaries of the cultural and national landscape within the complexity of Black life, love and sorrow.  It is nothing short of breathtaking.  

Oprah Winfrey and Black Literature

[By Kenton Rambsy]
Oprah Winfrey has been a major leader in promoting African American literature through various dramatic mediums. Oprah Winfrey’s mark on black literature has been significant in terms of dramatizing the works of Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Oprah’s contributions to black writing spans more than twenty years from her portraying Bigger Thomas’s mother in the 1986 remake of Native Son to financing the 2007 made-for-television film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Oprah’s portrayals of Sophia in the 1985 film The Color Purple and as Sethe in the 1998 film of Beloved have had significant consequences on how moviegoers connect to the film versions of those movies. The now famous line, “Miss Celie, you told Harpo to beat me” resonates in popular culture as both a connection to Alice Walker’s novel, Spielberg’s film, and Oprah Winfrey’s character, but also, the line serves as a tragic-comedic representation of domestic abuse.
Even outside of acting, Winfrey has played a behind the scenes role in giving black novels second and even third lives. For instance, she served as one of the key producers for the 2005 Broadway Musical of The Color Purple, which earned eleven Tony Awards nominations in its three year stint on Broadway and giving rise to new character representations for wide ranging audiences to consider. Also, she employed the talents of African American playwrights uzan-Lori Parks for writing the screenplay for the television film of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in 2005.  
The multiple reincarnations of African American literature through film, and even plays, have direct connections to the efforts of Winfrey. Serving as an advocate, actress, or financer, she has played a pivotal role in the production and promotion of African American literary art. 

Remixing Literary History With Paul Beatty

[By Crystal Boson]

Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle often serves as a poignant satire about the modern role of the cultural mulatto and the destination of the search for communal bonding and self-identification. The novel blends elements of literary theory’s latest darling, postmodern theory, cultural displacement, alternative African American religion, and popular culture.

An initial focus on the power of basketball as a social lubricant in the lives of Black males shifts attention to elements of racial authenticity, self-identification, and cultural mulattoism. Gunnar Kaufman, the novels protagonist, serves as a weaver of a postmodern tapestry; after rejecting the master narrative and cultural isolation placed onto him by his surfer boy upbringing, he later emerges into the role of a reluctant H.N.I.C.

The novel has an interesting inclusion of the practice of alternative African American religions within the text. Throughout this transfiguration, performative manifestations of voodoo continually present themselves, often facilitating both Gunnar’s and the reader’s navigation through the complicated web of communal bonding and self-identification. The presence and elements of Voodoo serve not only as markers of syncretism and rejection of master texts, but as literary lubricant, emphasizing the complexity of cultural mulattoism, and their simultaneous rejection and acceptance of it.

Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle seeks to emphasize the importance of syncretism, cultural mulattoism, and self-identification in the text. It gives a new face to the growing body of Black Postmodern literature and seeks to refute the notion of performative authentic blackness.

The Great Migration

[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

[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

[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

[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