TONY COX, host:
Today marks the end of our series on the black literary imagination. All this month, NEWS & NOTES resident bookworm Farah Jasmine Griffin has offered up her picks for the shortlist of America's most influential black writers ever.
Now there were only six slots. Six, so it's more than likely she left off one or more of your favorites, but I doubt you would disagree with the folks she did choose - Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Herston, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
And now, Griffin gives us her last pick, the only writer on the list still alive to wear the NEWS & NOTES crown.
Professor FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN (English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University; Director, Institute for Research in African-American Studies): The last author in my selection of the most influential African-American authors said of James Baldwin that he gave her a language to dwell in. Fortunately for us, she has given all of us a language to dwell in and what a beautiful language it is.
The last author is Toni Morrison, winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison is a towering cultural figure, a major intellectual and a highly influential writer, editor and curator.
No African-American writer, and few American writers of any race, has shared the kind of status that she occupies. Her novel "Beloved" was selected by the New York Times as the best book of the 20th century. This, her best-known novel, has rightly received a great deal of attention, and its famous "Sermon" by Baby Suggs is often quoted by people as diverse as Oprah Winfrey and former President Clinton. Morrison's body of work constitutes a kind of epic portrayal of black life in the United States, one that is only rivaled by August Wilson's cycle of ten plays documenting African-American life in the 20th century.
One of my favorite Morrison passages comes from her novel "Song of Solomon." In it she describes a farm owned by Macon Dead I. It's a farm she says that, quote, "color their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon."
(Reading) You see, the farm said to them. See? See what you can do? Never mind you can't tell one letter from another. Never mind you're born a slave. Never mind you lose your name. Never mind your daddy dead. Never mind nothing. Here, this here is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling, it said. Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage and if you can't take advantage, take disadvantage.
We live here on this planet, in this nation, in this country, right here, nowhere else. We've got a home in this rock, don't you see? Nobody starving in my home, nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home, you got one too. Grab it, grab this land, take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brother, shake it, turn it, twist it, beat it, take it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, multiply it and pass it on. Can you hear me? Pass it on.
Toni Morison, "Song of Solomon."
COX: That was Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University. You can find all of her choices for the most influential African-American writers and weigh in with your own at our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.