W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities
Henry Louis Gates understands that the power to make things happen resides in people, and he is a master at assembling them. Take Harvard's Afro-American studies department, of which he is the chairman. Since his arrival in 1991, when the department was small and struggling, Gates has attracted some of the country's most celebrated black scholars to the Harvard faculty. People sat up and took notice of this critical mass. Now, with the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Gates has repeated that formula. He and fellow general editor Nellie Y. McKay, professor of American and Afro-American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, chose nine scholars to act as period editors, "people whose judgment we trusted, and indeed, admired," says Gates. These nine wrote the introductory essays to each of the seven sections, selected the works, and provided explicative notes. "We were making a pioneering statement about the field," Gates says, "and I wanted to democratize that process as much as possible, so that's why I invited so many people to be editors." Of course, this volume is not the first anthology of African-American literature, but it is the first to bear the Norton imprimatur. That means it will reach a broad market of schools and colleges, an important consideration to Gates, who says, "I'm concerned with institution building."
The anthology begins with a section devoted to the vernacular tradition: spirituals, folktales, sermons, gospel, work songs, blues, jazz, even rap. Some of these works may be heard on a companion audio CD (a first for Norton), including jazz by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the powerful oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the rap of social dislocation as performed by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious five. The other six sections of the anthology are arranged chronologically, and include notable firsts such as Lucy Terry's "Bars Fight" (1746), the earliest known poem by an African American; Victor Sejour's The Mulatto (1837), the earliest short story by an African American, published here for the first time in English; and selections from Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), the first African-American novel. And because "so much of the very best writing has emerged only since 1950," Gates says, there are also many relatively recent works by authors still living.
Had Norton gone looking for someone to edit an anthology of African-American literature, Gates would have been a logical choice. But Gates approached Norton, not the other way around. The idea had been evolving in his mind, he says, since his days as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, in 1973 and 1974, when his supervisor, Wole Soyinka, was preparing an anthology of poems from black Africa for publication. Twelve years later, while teaching at Cornell, Gates found he was a neighbor to M.H. Abrams, "the godfather of Norton anthologies," as Gates calls him; Abrams edited the first Norton Anthology of English Literature, published in 1962. "You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to put two and two together," says Gates, who spent from 1985 to 1987 selling his idea to W.W. Norton, persuading them that they could sell the requisite 30,000 copies a year to students of the 600 people who teach African-American literature courses in this country. "I had to be optimistic and say 'Hey, this thing will sell like crazy,'" says Gates, "but not even I, in my wildest dreams, believed that it would sell like it sold." In Boston, in fact, the anthology sold out. That was in December of 1996, and the attorney general of Massachusetts called Gates in search of two copies to give as Christmas presents. "He wasn't the only one," according to Gates, who reports that Norton sold 72,717 copies in 1997.
The details of editing and publication are of less concern to Gates than the act of publishing itself. "The process of canonization is absolutely necessary, it's rock bottom, it's fundamental," he says. He recalls that many of his deconstructionist colleagues at Cornell said, "Why do such a retrograde thing? We're busy trying to explode the notion of canon formation." Gates doesn't buy those arguments, recalling that in 1976, at Yale, he had to teach Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God from photocopies because it was out of print. "I want it to be impossible for anyone, anywhere, to say they can't teach African-American literature because the texts aren't available," he emphasizes. Yet Gates, remembering that in the 1960s "you could publish anything black," is wary of the current burst of enthusiasm and commercial support for the publication of books by black authors. He attributes the anthology's success to its novelty, to "the growing fascination of the traditional readership--that is, middle-class white people--with black writing," and to the "hunger of the new black middle class for work about themselves."
What follows is an abridged excerpt from Gates's introduction to the anthology.
In the history of the world's great literatures, few traditions have origins as curious as that created by African slaves and ex-slaves writing in the English language in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. In the stubbornly durable history of human slavery, it was only the black slaves in England and the United States who created a genre of literature that, at once, testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge to be free and literate...
African American slaves, remarkably, sought to write themselves out of slavery by mastering the Anglo-American belletristic tradition. To say that they did so against the greatest odds does not begin to suggest the historic proportions that the task of registering a black voice in printed letters entailed. James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, the author of the first full-length black autobiography, A narrative of the most remarkable particulars in the life of James Albert Gronniosaw, an African Prince (1770), and the source of the genre of the slave narrative, accounted for this animosity, as well as the slave's anxiety before it, in the trope of the talking book:
[My Master] used to read prayers in public to the ship's crew every Sabbath day; and then I saw him read. I was never so surprised in my life, as when I saw the book talk to my master, for I thought it did as I observed him to look upon it, and move his lips. I wished it would do so with me. As soon as my master had done reading, I followed him to the place where he put the book, being mightily delighted with it, and when nobody saw me I opened it, and put my ear down close upon it, in great hopes that it would say something to me; but I was sorry and greatly disappointed, when I found that it would not speak. This thought immediately presented itself to me, that every body and every thing despised me because I was black.
The text of Western letters refused to speak to the person of African descent; paradoxically, we read about that refusal in a text created by that very person of African descent. In a very real sense, the Anglo-African literary tradition was created two centuries ago in order to demonstrate that persons of African descent possessed the requisite degrees of reason and wit to create literature, that they were, indeed, full and equal members of the community of rational sentient beings, that they could, indeed, write. With Gronniosaw's An African Prince, a distinctively "African" voice registered its presence in the republic of letters; it was a text that both talked "black," and through its unrelenting indictment of the institution of slavery, talked back....
[Today,] African American literature has been enjoying a renaissance in quality and quantity for the past decade or so, even vaster than the New Negro, or Harlem, Renaissance of the 1920s, spurred on to a significant extent since 1970 by the writings of African American women such as [Toni] Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Gloria Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid, and Terry McMillan, among a host of others. The number of literary prizes won by black authors in the past decade, including Pulitzer Prizes, National and American Book Awards, far exceeds the total number of such honors won by African Americans during the rest of the century. And several times since 1990, as many as three or four black authors have appeared simultaneously on the best-seller list of the New York Times. While the audience for this magnificent flowering of black literature crosses all racial boundaries, black readers have never been more numerous: in June 1996 the Times reported that African Americans purchase 160 million books a year.