Social Consciousness in Black Literature News & Notes' series on the black literary imagination continues with a look at socially conscious writing. Three accomplished authors talk about infusing the written word with issues of politics and social justice.
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Social Consciousness in Black Literature

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Social Consciousness in Black Literature

Social Consciousness in Black Literature

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Does being a political writer really lead you into a sense of the black literary imagination? We are continuing our series on blacks in literature. We've got some literary alliance to lead our discussion.

Colin Channer's most recent novel is called "The Girl With the Golden Shoes." He's also a professor of creative writing at Medgar Evers College. Also with us, Ishmael Reed, best-selling author, jazz musician and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. His most recent publication "New Eclectic Poems from 1966 to 2006" won the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco Award. And another award winning author Joyce Carol Thomas. Her bestseller "Marked by Fire" won the National Book Award in 1982.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor COLIN CHANNER (Author, "The Girl With the Golden Shoes"; Creative Writing, Medgar Evers College): Oh, great to be here.

Professor ISHMAEL REED (Author; Jazz Musician; UC Berkeley): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So let's start out, Ishmael, with this whole question of politics and the black literary imagination. Does being black imply that you're going to put politics in your work?

Prof. REED: Yeah. Well, I think that's a stereotype. I think that since the beginning of the African-American literary expression, African-American authors have dealt with the variety of subjects and have a range over many emotions and they bring about both the private and the public.

CHIDEYA: So, when you consider your own work, do you consider yourself a political writer?

Prof. REED: Well, some of my writing, of course, has a political edge but I do write poems that are very personal just as many African-American writers do.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me turn to you, Joyce. How do you frame your work? Tell us a little bit about your work first.

Ms. JOYCE CAROL THOMAS (Author, "Marked by Fire"): Well, it comes from a creative source that I think is a little bit different. It's - I dream a lot and my dreams make an impression - if the dreams are very strong, then I begin to write. And I follow that dream. And it becomes the page and, of course, it becomes the story and sometimes a novel, and sometimes a poem.

And I try not to let anything, anybody else says about my work make an impression on me in such a way that I cannot write. And I think that is the struggle for many of us African-American writers. That we have to be true to the gift that we're given, and sometimes, editors may not like what they're reading and say, take that part out. And then you have, of course, a little political battle on your hand. And you have to figure out how to get them to understand what it is that you're trying to say. And often, it happens. I mean, it's pushing for what you want, what you believe and what you think is important to put on the page.

CHIDEYA: So your bestseller, "Marked By Fire," your new book, your latest book, "The Blacker the Berry," you talk about the internal politics of the literary world. Have things changed for you or in general, you think, between those works?

Ms. THOMAS: I think that the publishers are a little more ready to pay attention. When I wrote "Marked By Fire," it did take a while for a publisher to pick it up and to see it. And when the publisher who did pick it up saw it, she kept putting it on the main publisher's desk. And every day when the publisher came in, the editor came in, the lead editor, she'd take it off and the editorial assistant would put it back until finally, she says, okay, I'll look at it. And then she said, oh, I like it. But the title has to go. And the title was "Black Girl In a Manger."

And so they asked me to change the title. And I just looked inside the book and used the same words I had written in the book "Marked By Fire" as a title. So it was a way of kind of understanding that it is important to get the book out and to give in a little bit. But it wasn't really giving; it's just taking another part of the book and using it. So the politics of it can be danced through, I think. But they're still there. The politics is still there.

CHIDEYA: Great story. And Colin, we recently had you on for your new novel -novella, and it does touch very much on issues of class, race, personal exploration of the world. Do you consider "The Girl with the Golden Shoes" a political book?

Prof. CHANNER: It's a very political book. But it's political in the tradition of reggae, which has always seen politics as a complement to entertainment. "The Girl with the Golden Shoes" is a very readable book that explores larger political and social issues.

CHIDEYA: So when you come to a character - Joyce was just talking about being true to the craft - do you come to a character through your imagination or do you come to it with the idea of painting a social narrative?

Prof. CHANNER: Oh, no. I write - I come to it as a character or sometimes I simply see a scene. I think that writers who aim to be political often write books that are not particularly interesting as fiction that might work much better as essays. The - you know, the fiction writer, you know, aims to create this dreamscape into which a reader - into which a reader can enter and have an experience. And there's nothing, I think, as off putting to a reader as a work that is so overtly political that it becomes so heavy and so dense that one can't enter it through the mythic or imaginative space.

CHIDEYA: Joyce, we asked all of you to bring an excerpt from something that really talks about the African-American literary imagination, talks a little bit about social politics and also has to deal very much with creativity. Now, you picked out something for us. Can you read it for us and then talk about it?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

(Reading) Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever in 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.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

CHIDEYA: So what's that from?

Ms. THOMAS: That's from "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that that is political?

Ms. THOMAS: I think it is political because when I look at what happened to her, and what she did with her art, to me it seems very political. She kept on writing even though her publishers stopped supporting her financially. She just kept writing. And so now, we have this wealth of her books that she left us.

CHIDEYA: Her book is probably taught in the majority of colleges in America and yet, she died almost penniless. What does that say about perseverance?

Ms. THOMAS: It says a lot because it was more important to her to write than the money that's important - although, the money would have made her life much easier. And of course, she died penniless in a home. And for people to even know didn't even know who she was and she was buried in an unmarked grave. So -but still, I believe that what she did, the reason it's still here and thesss reason it came back is because she put that work and that effort into it. And somebody found it and said, we've got to listen to this woman. We've got to republish her.

CHIDEYA: I want to reintroduce our topic and the folks that we have to talk about it. We're talking about social consciousness in African-American literature. We've got award-winning author Joyce Carol Thomas, Ishmael Reed, author, jazz musician and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, and Colin Channer, author and professor of creative writing at Medgar Evers College. I want to turn to you, Ishmael, can you give us your selection?

Prof. REED: Yeah, I just want to say before I read the selection, that this question has never asked of white authors. Three of our most important white authors by consensus are Tom Wolfe, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Their works are overtly political. As a matter of fact, disparaging on African-Americans, but they're never called to task for that.

I'll also say that, you know, whether our work is political and it succeeds -depends upon the artist. Claude McKay - excuse me. Yes, Claude McKay wrote a poem entitled, "If I Die" - "If We Must Died," which is a thrilling piece of work, which is a reaction to the 1919 summer riots - Red Summer where African-Americans were assaulted all over the country. Now that poem has stood the test of time because it's a work of art. So I think whether a - political work succeeds depends upon the artists.

CHIDEYA: Oh, Ishmael…

Prof. Reed: I want to read - yeah.

CHIDEYA: Before we move on, I really want to ask you, give me an example of what you feel is disparaging in the works of Tom Wolfe and the other authors you just mentioned.

Prof. REED: Well, Tom Wolfe, in his novels - I think his new novel is called "A Man in Full," which I read. African-Americans sounds as if that they're orangutans in some kind of Stanford Laboratory experiment. They're sub-human and they give sub-human utterances. He has the standby or the stock character, the black rapist that goes all the way back to Reverend Thomas Dixon's "The Clansmen," which became "Birth of a Nation." Saul Bellow and Philip Roth are present Africa-American men as sexual predators and Phil Roth the book about passing, a human…

CHIDEYA: "The Human Stain."

Prof. REED: "The Human Stain." He's disparages black studies, he disparages black history month and he put these putdowns of both institutions in the mouths of African-American women so he can pass…

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to your selection.

Prof. REED: Okay. This is a letter that Mart Delaney(ph) wrote to Frederick Douglass on April 15th, 1853.

(Reading) It is now certain that Reverend Josiah Henson of Dawn, Canada West is the real Uncle Tom, the christened hero in Ms. Stowe's far-famed book of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Mr. Henson is well known to both you and I, and what is said of him in Ms. Stowe's "Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin" as far as we are acquainted with the man and even the opinion we might form of him from our knowledge of his character we know or, at least, believe to be true to the letter.

Now, what I simply suggest to you is that Ms. Stowe and (unintelligible) Jewett & Co. publishers have realized so great an amount of money from the sale of the work doted upon this good old man who's living testimony has to be brought to sustain this great book, and believing that the publishers have realized five dollars to the author is one, would it be expecting too much to suggest that they, the publishers, present Father Henson, for by that name we all know him, with at least $5,000.

CHIDEYA: So, unpack that for us. It's referring to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which has been read different ways in terms of how it portrays the racial experience.

Prof. REED: Well, I wrote a novel entitled "Flight to Canada," which is still in print, it's not like - in which I propose that Ms. Stowe had debuted(ph) lavishly from Josiah Henson's story. And these critics who had about a hundred Ph.D.s between them, had never read this, had never heard of this and said I was making up things.

This is the - goes back to the old thing about appropriation where African-Americans are - merely served as natural resources for white artist.

CHIDEYA: Colin, what have you got for us?

Prof. CHANNER: It's an excerpt from "Laugh in the Dark" by Vladimir Nabokov. And one character says to the next about a writer. I don't know, gentlemen, what you think of Udo Conrad(ph), said Albinus, joining in the fray. It would seem to that he is a type of author with exquisite vision and a divine style, which might please you. And that if he isn't the great writer, it is because he has a contempt for social problems, which in this age of social upheavals, is disgraceful, and let me add, sinful.

CHIDEYA: Do you agree with that assessment about writing?

Prof. CHANNER: To some degree. I think what it does is it puts on the front page an idea of what writers can actually do and responsibility. It reminds me a lot of an interview with Bob Marley, where he was asked, how come he doesn't do entertaining disco music? And his response was, well, you're not going to like my music like all you love Barry White music, you know. It's different people of my music from the people who would love Barry White music.

What Marley was saying is that his commitment to engaging social issues was a part of who he was. And the truth is that, you know, I think Marley has stood the test of time. I've never seen anyone who had Barry White T-shirt in my life.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to point out that all of you are multi-faceted in your creativity and, Ishmael, you have moved into writing jazz. We want to hear a piece that you wrote for David Murray with your lyrics performed by Cassandra Wilson.

(Soundbite of song "Prophet of Doom")

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON (Singer): (Singing) Apollo took me to school but I taught him a thing or two. Never think that because you're a god, every girl who you put out for you. He must have thought I was an easy nymph, someone he could seduce and pimp.

CHIDEYA: That is very vivid. Why did you move into writing music?

Prof. REED: I've been in music for quite a while. As a matter of fact, I learned that recently, through some recent release of albums, I've learned - excuse me - Albert Otto(ph) was the first one to set my stuff to music in 1962, I wasn't aware of this. But I've written songs that Mary Wilson of The Supremes have performed. Bobby Womack, Taj Mahal, Jimmy Scott, Jack Bruce of The Cream, and a number of artists have done my work. They're available on three albums, called "Conjure." "Conjure I," "Conjure II," "Conjure" - no, the most recent one's "Badmouth," just came out.

Now this CD you just played from is David Murray, Cassandra Wilson, and is released by Just in Time Records and we had great ball doing it. I just wrote a song that Taj Mahal recorded again, recently here in Berkeley. And I had my own CD, "The Ishmael Reed Quintet" with Carla Blank on violin, Chris Planas on guitar and Roger Glenn on flute. And that's…

CHIDEYA: It's very prolific. Before we go…

Prof. REED: That's available at

CHIDEYA: We will be sure and put that on the Web. Very briefly, before we go, Colin and Carol, what are you guys up to next?

Ms. THOMAS: I'm writing another novel, it's called "The Healer" and it continues the story of Abyssinia Jackson.


Prof. CHANNER: And - sorry - I'm working on a new novel for publication next year and I'm planning the 2008 Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica.

CHIDEYA: And, Colin, how does that festival deal with social consciousness? You are, first of all, on a - in a place in Jamaica that maybe a lot pf literary lions wouldn't have gone to otherwise?

Prof. CHANNER: Well, you know, Calabash is held three hours from the nearest airport, and what it does is that it's a three-day festival that's being opened to the public, that brings writers - great writers from all around the world, so that people can have a close up and personal experience with literature. And I think that by cultivating a taste for work that is substantive, that this is actually addressing, you know, the issue that we're talking about today.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank all of you for coming on and sharing your life with us.

Prof. REED: Farai, we miss you in California.

CHIDEYA: Well, thank you so much. Well, we've got Colin Channer, author and professor of creative writing at Medgar Evers College. He joined us from NPR's New York studios. We also heard from award-winning author, jazz musician and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, Ishmael Reed. And National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Thomas. They both joined us from the studios of UC Berkeley.

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