Today, I have chosen to identify the first lines of six books in our “100 Novels Collection.” Extending the week’s posts on “word play” in African American literature, I have identified these specific lines to point out the similar and dissimilar ways in which black writers open their novels.
Specifically, I want to call attention to how the first lines of each novel set the tone of the events to follow by foreshadowing the identity crisis of each protagonist. Given the tragic history of slavery and the complex social and political relationships black people have endured in America, possibly, these writers opening lines are one possible way in which writers authenticate their fictive lives of black people. Surveying a wide body of literature reveals other commonalities between black writers.
Alice Walker—The ColorPurple
I am fourteen years old.
I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
James Baldwin—Go TellIt on the Mountain
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently:
“Bigger, shut that thing off!”
Toni Morrison—Song ofSolomon
The North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock. Two days before the event was to take place he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:
At 3 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.
(signed) Robert Smith
Zora Neale Hurston—Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For some they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.