Today a student asked me when I first became interested in African American literature. I told her, "When I was 16." I was hanging around high school after class--and not practicing a sport that day, for some reason--and I found James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time at the back of a classroom. I began reading it, and I couldn't believe how powerfully the writing confronted America's perpetual problem with race. I couldn't believe how good the writing was, even though I didn't have the terminology to describe what made it so good.
Oddly enough, I attended a suburban high school that was ethnically diverse. Mexican-Americans had been living in the town/small city (not far from Sacramento) for generations, many of them working for the railroad. Some of their families were the most venerable ones in town. Also, several African American students were in my graduating class, most of them from military families who lived at a nearby base. My lab-mate in "physical science" was one of them, we played football together, and we've kept in touch down through the years. He used to tease the hell out of me, and he still does at reunions.
The high school wasn't racism-free, of course, and I know I was especially oblivious to much of what the Black students must have had to endure, but social commerce among ethnicities was the rule, not the exception. So-called brown, white, and black students not only took classes together but were friends and were on teams and in clubs. Comparatively, at least, the high school seemed like an oasis in a nation deeply afflicted by racism and its effects, and in our freshman year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.
I'd always been drawn more to rhythm & blues and "soul" music than to much of the rock and pop on the airwaves. When I first heard Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," I could hardly believe my ears; it was just better and more interesting than any pop song I'd ever heard. I loved Motown records, too--and still recall that purple label on the vinyl. "Ain't that peculiar?"--as Marvin Gaye sang. I think the music enhanced my interest in African American literature.
Although I studied chiefly British literature in graduate school and wrote a dissertation on British poets from the 19th century, I kept up my reading of African American literature over the years, and eventually I wrote a book on Langston Hughes, and then another, and that led to work on The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, which I edited with David Macey. It was a massive project--5 volumes--and much more work than we envisaged--but what an honor to be invited to edit it. Now that the volumes have been in print for a couple of years, thoughts of the constant work, deadline-missers, and endless details fade, and the fortune of having been asked to edit the thing shines brighter.
Among my favorite African American writers, in addition to the prolific, multifaceted, well known, but still under-rated Hughes, are Baldwin, of course--one of the greatest essayists in the English language, and no slouch at novels (Giovanni's Room and Another Country are my favorites, but If Beale Street Could Talk is a real sleeper); Rudolph Fisher (The Conjure Man Dies is a splendid detective novel--Denzel, if you're listening, turn it into a film); Rita Dove (she uses all the tools in the poet's toolbox); Sonya Sanchez (home-girls and hand-grenades is a fine book, with some extraordinarily inventive haiku, of all things); Countee Cullen (some of his lyric poems are perfect, including the perfect sonnet, "Yet Do I Marvel"); June Jordan (poet and essayist); and Elizabeth Keckley, once a slave, then a professional seamstress in D.C. who worked for the Lincolns and became very close to Mrs. Lincoln; Keckley's autobiography Behind The Scenes is fascinating, even as it was forced to adhere to some literary conventions of the era. I like some of Baraka's poetry and his essays on the blues and jazz.
Of course, there's no arguing with Ralph Ellison's monumental achievement in fiction, Invisible Man, one of the finest novels the U.S. has produced. Alice Walker's The Color Purple is terrific, and Morrison has joined the pantheon of great world writers. My favorite of hers is Solomon's Song.
One of numerous blessings that came from working on the encyclopedia was the chance to spend time with the work of writers who haven't been in the limelight. Lewis Alexander wrote some superb lyric poems, Ann Petry and Dorothy West some fine fiction, Chester Himes some great crime fiction, August Wilson's drama, and on and on. . . . Today in class we read compelling poetry by Angelina Weld Grimke and Anne Spencer. . . . . But this is merely to glance at a massive reservoir of literature--so much autobiography, drama, poetry, and fiction that even with 5 volumes available to us, we couldn't include all the writers and topics we wanted to include. I know they call February Black History Month, but secretly, I think of it as African American Literature Month because I'm selfish and "litero-centric," to coin a bad term, and it all started with the serendipity of finding Baldwin's book on a shelf at the back of a classroom. I'm sure glad I wasn't running wind-sprints for basketball or colliding with someone in the outfield that day.