Inside the Black Literary Imagination Our month-long literature series kicks off with a look at African Americans' connection to the written word. How do our personal experiences and history shape what we read?
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Inside the Black Literary Imagination

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Inside the Black Literary Imagination

Inside the Black Literary Imagination

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Audie Cornish. Farai Chideya is away.

Today, we begin a new series here at NEWS & NOTES on a relationship that's been equal parts pain and empowerment. I'm talking about the relationship between African Americans and the written word.

How do our personal experiences and history shape what we read or, for some of us, why don't we don't read at all? What does our writing say about us? Plus, who decides what is and is not considered literature? And it's a lot to unpack, we know. So we're starting today with a little back story.

We've called Jerry Ward Jr., a professor of English and African World Studies at Dillard University and Ted Mason. He's a professor of English at Kenyon College. I should say, too, that both of our guests don't just teach writing, they are writers. Ted and Jerry, welcome to the show.

Professor TED MASON (English, Kenyon College): Good to be here.

Professor JERRY WARD JR. (English and African World Studies, Dillard University): Thank you very much.

CORNISH: We want to get to the role of writing in your lives, but first we're going to start with some history. So, Jerry, let's dig into, who are some of the first African Americans to really present their writing to the public?

Prof. WARD: The first African American would probably be Phillis Wheatley and her book of poems that was published at England, but with a lot of sponsorship from the United States. That is the best-known writer in terms of print. Of course, well, that is complicated by the fact that we really ought to talk about the origins of African-American literature in oration, in the oral tradition, which is simultaneous with the print tradition in this country.

So you have Phillis Wheatley as a beginning and, of course, other poets who followed her. And at the beginning of the 19th century, you have a lot of writing in terms of legal matters and certainly something as famous as David Walker's 1829 "Appeal to the Citizens of the World." And, of course, they - at this time, we also have the rise of the slave narratives, as we used to call them, the narratives of the enslaved either written by those slaves who had some literacy or stories as told to.

So we begin then our tradition of writing of literature with what I call literature of necessity, always trying to prove something. And the latest stages of the origins, people are not trying to prove something so much as to be effective in terms of using the means that was within the culture at that time to get attention and draw attention to wrongs or to matters that needed to be taken cared of.

CORNISH: Ted, what other kind of themes did we see develop during this time and, I guess, a little bit later?

Prof. MASON: Well, I think one of the things that, to add to the very good points that Jerry has made, is it's a literature whose - one of whose primary goals is to establish that the writer actually has a self, has a person, has a mind, has feelings, is, in effect, human. So literacy becomes a way, not only of achieving particular political ends, let's say anti-slavery agitation or post Civil War, agitation for greater degrees of freedom, but it has another aim and that is to say that, you know, I, as a writer, am just as much a human as anyone else, anyone else who has written, anyone else who is reading this. And literacy then plays a very powerful role in establishing the personhood of the writer.

CORNISH: And so what of these themes continue to reappear through generations of black writers?

Prof. MASON: Well, I think...

Prof. WARD: I would...

Prof. MASON: Go ahead, Jerry.

Prof. WARD: I'm sorry.

Prof. MASON: Go ahead.

Prof. WARD: Well, I was going to pick up on your point, Ted, about literacy because I think that is a continuing concern within the literature. And one of the books that is fairly recent is the novel "Push," by Sapphire, which deals with this very poignant issue of literacy, of obtaining the facility in using language. And I think that, very often, we will find, if we read our current literature very carefully, literacy is at the center of it.

CORNISH: So you're sensing that this is still one of, I guess, the obstacles, in a way, as the community or for the community in terms of literature?

Prof. WARD: I wouldn't say it's an obstacle. It's a kind of result of what's happening in the world today with attention being drawn away from the facility to read the printed word and new kinds of talents or capabilities being drawn up so that you read symbols. That's what our electronic world is about. So that when we want to teach literature or we want to encourage people to read literature that is printed, you are coming up against some blocks that you have to help young people, especially, overcome.


Prof. MASON: It seems to me that Jerry is right. The meaning of literacy changes depending upon what historical period you might find yourself in. So that, for instance, it's not that we are turning away from the book - by no stretch of the imagination do I believe that to be true. But I would add that there are other kinds of literacy: symbolic literacy, the ability to sort of talk about not only novels and poetry and plays, et cetera, but film, music, painting, other kinds of visual arts. And those forms may have a broader forum in a way than, let's say, the novel might given the force of technology, things like television and, in fact, radio that we're speaking on right now.

CORNISH: So we've talked about the source of the work, and I'd like to move to the idea of the intended audience. Our early writings - were they for the black community? Were they for mainstream white America? What are we seeing today?

Prof. MASON: Well, I think early on, it's sort of a mixed bag. I mean, if you think about it demographically, you don't have that large a literate black population in the antebellum era. Although there were clearly concentrations of escaped slaves and other who had the capacity to read, and people who had never been slaves, who had the capacity to read. But, obviously, the - given the historical or political, let's say, event of the slave narrative, the audience is going to be typically, sort of white abolitionists. People, who, presumably had a capacity to do something about the wrongs they were reading about in the slave narratives. But the idea of an audience shifts over time. And that's one of the reasons why I find this a very fascinating topic. It depends upon what period of our history we're thinking about.

Prof. WARD: Quite right, Ted. I think that we have a real shift in the audience. When you look at the end of the 19th century, this is the postbellum period, Reconstruction. And the fiction that is written at this time, which is very didactic, is obviously addressed to African-American audiences because the issues that are dealt with and the writing by women and men seemed to be issues about the race.

We - I would say that, in the opening decades of the 20th century, we have a shift that begins prior to the so-called Harlem Renaissance, especially in the work of James Weldon Johnson, who draws attention to the need to address a broader audience and to the matter of craft, particularly in his preface to "The Book of American Negro Poetry," 1922.

Then, with the Harlem Renaissance, obviously, people are participating in modernism or some form of it and are trying to appeal both to blacks, to whites, to other people throughout the world. It becomes more a matter of wanting to be internationally known, to participate in the rich, artistic activities of the time.

CORNISH: And, gentlemen, for you, today, as writers, do you come up against that feeling of, who is my audience? And how do you deal with that? Jerry?

Prof. WARD: Okay. How I deal with it? I've unreconstructed. That means that I still believe in the illusion of a black community and that's a primary audience for which I write. I recognize, of course, that it doesn't exist. I'm not writing to air. I'm writing actually for anyone who wants to read me.

Prof. MASON: I think I would agree. I mean, there is an - I think of it as sort of in terms of multiple audiences. There are audiences of - in the black community, black academics, other people interested in African, African-American literature, and people in general, who are interested to picking -interested, rather, in picking up whatever it is I happen to write. One of the problems, and this is, I suppose, part of the nature of the beast when you are writing is that once you put it out there, you cannot control who's reading it and who's not reading it. And there are lots of audiences. I mean, I - when I'm writing some of my critical material, I think about people like Jerry Ward reading it.

CORNISH: And so, moving forward, what trends are you seeing in black literature as we get to our last few minutes here?

Prof. MASON: I think one of the interesting ones...

Prof. WARD: Okay...

Prof. MASON: Go ahead, Jerry.

Prof. WARD: No, after you, Ted.

Prof. MASON: Okay, one of the interesting things, I think, is the elaboration of different genres, different black writers moving into genres even into romance fiction. And I'm not trying to either advocate or criticize the romance fiction, but I'm thinking of the ability to sort of penetrate multiple markets to create sort of niches for the multiple audiences that are out there. There's not one black audience. If one listens to various kinds of - for lack of a better term -black radio, we discover that there are multiple audiences out there. Not only do they shift according to the time period, as I mentioned earlier, but inside of specific time periods, you have multiple audiences. I think this elaboration is one of the most fascinating things for me.

Prof. WARD: I quite agree. I think it's also becoming, for scholars, quite a problem because you have to deal with the spoken word. And the fact that much of the literature now is on CD or it's actually performed, and you're dealing with matters of performance. You have to deal with these genres, as Ted had said. And I think the genre of romance has entered into the realm of the erotic and is going a little beyond the erotic into soft-core pornography from some of the things that I sample at - on bookshelves in Borders and other places.

And, of course, there is a strand of literature that deals with Christianity that people are not talking about. I have read several novels that are not well advertised where morality, Christianity is very important. So we're getting a rich banquet of work coming from our writers now.

Prof. MASON: And in an interesting way, that last note you mentioned, Jerry, is in - to some degree, maybe you would - let us know if you agree or disagree with this - but to some degree it sort of returns to a kind of moral ground of the late 19th and early 20th centuries where Christian theology became a kind of bedrock. And even earlier, I suppose, into the mid-19th century, becomes the bedrock for political action, particularly as represented in, not only in slave narratives but essays, and the fiction of - of the post-bellum period.

CORNISH: Well, Ted, Jerry, thank you so much for talking about this. There's so much here. Jerry Ward Jr. is a professor of English and African World Studies at Dillard University. He joined us from Audio Works in New Orleans. And Ted Mason is a professor of English at Kenyon College. He joined us from WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.

Before we move on, NEWS & NOTES wants to hear what you're reading, or about the one book you wish you could read again for the first time. Just go to our blog at

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