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BOOK REVIEW ONJockeying For Position By Skewing Our Tradition: Anthologies and Canon Formation
by Kalamu ya Salaam
The Vintage Book of African American Poetry
Edited by Michael S. Harper & Anthony Walton
Giant Steps--The New Generation of African American Writers
Edited by Kevin Young
Perennial, An Imprint of Harper Collins
Some people love anthologies--they are a good way to introduce a wide range or cover a specific genre, period or grouping of authors. Others hate anthologies--they misrepresent the whole of a given subject because of the particular biases and agendas of the editors and too often give a woefully incomplete or misleading representation of included authors. The Vintage Book of African American Poetry
and Giant Steps--The New Generation of African American Writers
fall squarely in the middle of this debate. Each of them has glowing strengths and glaring weaknesses.
The Vintage Book
is the weaker of the two mainly because there are too many factural errors. Vintage is a venerable press--where were their fact checkers and proof readers?
Surely, the Vintage book will be seriously considered for classroom purposes. The head notes, resultantly, will be accepted by literally thousands of students as statements of fact, however:
*"With the posthumous appearances of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley
in 1793, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a volume of literature." Wrong. Wheatley's book, Miscellaneous Poems
(which was the basis for the reprint twenty years later) was the first book published by a Black person who lived in the United States but the book was published in London in 1773. Perhaps the editors meant the 1793 edition was the first book printed in the United States, but if so, they don't make that clear. Phillis Wheatley is claimed as an African American writer but she was in fact a British subject and was published prior to the founding of the United States. Moreoever, there is a real legal question as to whether she ever became an official citizen of the then newly formed United States.
*"During the Vietnam War, Kaufman fell into a prolonged silence..." Kaufman did not "fall into silence" but rather took a vow of silence as a protest against the Vietnam War. Why did the editors obfuscate instead of highlight Kaufman's politics? The head note also asserts "Kaufman wrestled as well with literary convention in a way that can infuse his work with a startling tension." That's an odd slant on Kaufman because he did not write down the majority of his poetry; most of his work was transcribed from performances and tapes by his wife and other friends. Reveling in creating neologisms, employing music, references and structures, and stylistically adapting surrealism in the oral delivery of his poetry, if Kaufman were alive today, he would be considered a quintessential performance poet rather than a text poet tussling with the conventions of the page.
*Amiri Baraka did not begin "his literary career under his original name, LeRoi Jones." Baraka's "original" (i.e. birth) name was Everett Leroy Jones. According to his autobiography, "...after my first year at Howard I spelled my name with a capital 'R' and an 'i' on the end. LeRoi."
*Haki Madhubtui was not "raised primarily in Chicago." He was reared in Detroit and moved to Chicago when he was sixteen.
*Toi Derricotte was born in 1941. The head notes give both 1940 and 1941 as her birth year--a proofreader should have picked up that discrepancy.
But more troubling than factual errors such as those cited above is the grossly uneven number of pages devoted to each poet. Why have two poems (4 pages) from Haki Madhubuti and one poem (4 pages) from Sonia Sanchez, juxtaposed against 5 poems (6 pages) from Joseph Seaman Cotter, Sr. and four poems (5 pages) from Marilyn Nelson. Is the inference that Cotter is more important than Madhubuti and Nelson is more important than Sanchez?
While every poet is obviously not of equal weight, why is there such a disparity between allotments to two poets (Madhubuti and Sanchez) who have been a major influence on the tradition of Black poetry, especially given that this is a survey of the whole African American literary tradition? There is no Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni or Ntozake Shange, but we do get relatively unknown writers. Are we surveying the field or are we making judgements about the quality of influential writers? Additionally, why include Derek Walcott, who is a Caribbean writer, among 50 African American writers? Are the editors suggesting that Walcott stands in the same position vis-a-vis the African American poetic tradition as does Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica?
Moreover, given that this book is obviously aimed at the educational market, why is there only a "selected" bibliography in which some poets receive a full listing of their poetry books and others an incomplete listing? Again, for a Vintage series, a complete bibliography is to be expected if the press is serious about making a scholarly contribution to the Black literary tradition.
The main strength of the Vintage anthology is the representation it gives to seminal pre-sixties poets: Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks. A chronologically broad range of work is included for the aforementioned poets and the head notes argue persuasively for each poet's importance.
A "best of Black poetry" book would be welcomed. Rather than encase the selection of seminal poets within the context of an alleged broad survey, why not give us a well-researched, critically annotated (with full bibliographies) anthology of major Black poets? Give us your list, argue your case and be done with it.
While it does not have the obvious factual errors that plague the Vintage book (except the typo in the introduction which list "Charles Powell" as the editor of Calloloo
when it should have been Rowell), Giant Steps
is also skewed. The Vintage book focused solely on poetry, Giant Steps
includes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry; so clearly we are getting only a sampling of the next generation--but actually, this is not really a selection of young writers because all of the 26 writers are in their thirties or just turned forty except for Terrance Hayes and Natasha Tarpley, who both are 29. The work in Giant Steps
is uniformly strong but like the Vintage book it is equally narrow in its short list, especially of poets.
Here is where the question of canon formation comes in. Are we really to believe that the only post-sixties Black poets worth "reading" are MFA graduates? Whether intentional or not, every post-1960 poet in the Vintage book and all of the poets in Giant Steps
are academically trained MFA grads.
The African American poetry tradition has always consisted of two trains running; one formally trained and adhering to Euro-centric literary conventions and the other poets who gravitated toward Black oral and aural traditions with a heavy use of the vernacular. I am not arguing against the writers included but there needs to be a wider selection, especially since the resurgent popularity of Black literature in general and Black poetry in particular is largely predicated on the popularity, influence and work of writers who do not appear in either of these anthologies.
For example, four-time national Slam champion Patricia Smith is not included in either the Vintage anthology or Giant Steps
. Why not? Could it be because the editors were not looking in that direction even though "that direction" (i.e. the spoken word movement) laid the groundwork that created the current market for these anthologies?
I am not arguing for a longer, short list of writers to anthologize, but rather for a more diverse short list, and for selections that are a more accurate correspondence of the contemporary reality of the Black literature scene. And, if not diversity and accuracy, then at least let the editors state straight up: we choose the people we like, we are arguing for the academic. Don't even pretend to survey a genre (African American poetry in the Vintage case) or a time period ("the next generation" in the Giant Steps
case). While both anthologies are composed of very good writing, neither adequately fulfills its stated mission as a truly representative survey.
I doubt that the average reader or, for that matter, the average English professor would have any way to know the limitations I have cited. While I am overjoyed that these anthologies were published, I am deeply concerned that we are witnessing a deliberate (even if unconscious) skewing of the African American literary tradition.
Are these anthologies literary brown bag parties?
Among African Americans, there used to be a set of light-skinned Blacks who excluded from their circle any Black person who was darker than a brown-paper bag. This was an intra-racial color-caste bar. When we focus mainly on graduate-level poets, is this not a class-based bias that is just as pernicious?
The African American literary tradition is much broader and much more politically oriented than these two anthologies would lead the uniformed reader to believe. I respect the right of the editors to select what they consider the best by whatever criteria they choose to use, but don't throw a rock and hide your hand. Don't pretend to represent the whole and put forth only one part. There are two trains running through the African American literary terrain and it does a disservice to both for one to pretend that the other does not exist or is not worthy of inclusion in the canon of literary greatness.
New Orleans writer Kalamu ya Salaam is founder of Nommo Literary Society, a Black writers workshop; co-founder of Runagate Multimedia; leader of the WordBand, a poetry perfomrance ensemble; and moderator of e-Drum, a listserv for Black writers and diverse supporters of their literature. He is a 1999 Senior Literature Fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. His latest book is The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement (Third World Press). Salaam's latest spoken word cd is My Story, My Song. Salaam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOOK REVIEW ON
The Ebony Tree by Maxine Thompson
"The Ebony Tree" by Maxine Thompson is a unique book. Written in poetic prose, "The Ebony Tree" focuses on family dynamics. It pays particularly close attention to mother-daughter relationships. The book opens with Jewel being called upon by her children while she moves up the street toward her family's home -- chores at hand, not a hint of rest. Hers is a demanding life. So too it would be. She is a mother raising her children in the 1950s. "The Ebony Tree" allows its readers to look inside Jewel and her family's circle. Witness how they relate to, build up, hurt and love one another. It is a book full of humanity's many paradoxes. Set in a time when little boys were preferred over little girls, "The Ebony Tree" exposes the pain a little girl experiences as she watches her mother give her dreams up to chores and tiredness. . . . to mothering so many children as a poor woman the most she gives her growing daughter is a prayer for her young life to be much different than her own. Highly Recommended.
About the Author:Maxine Thompson graduated from Wayne State University. She has worked as a Child Protective Services social worker. She wrote her first novel, "The Hidden Sword", when she was 16. She won honorable mention in Ebony magazine's first writing contest. In 1996 she won a PEN award. She was awarded outstanding achievement awards in 1995 and 1997 from Writer's Digest. She is online at The Ebony Tree.
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