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Hunt and Peck 

Book reviewing, African-American style

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002

Earlier this year, I summarized Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven in the Los Angeles Times Book Review:

In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors (sobbing embrace, my heart fell in my chest) and clumsy similes (like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting times) are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son‘s auto accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come without explication and schmooze substitutes for action . . . . There is too much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn’t a song.

Reactions to my critical rip caused an immediate furor in the African-American community, yet none of the many letters reportedly sent to the L.A. Times were ever published, for who-knows-what reasons. End of story? Not quite. As bizarre punishment for my violation of the unwritten law that blacks not criticize one another in front of whites, I was then not allowed to appear at Eso Won Books, L.A.‘s popular outlet for African-American literature (and pseudo-literature), for the signing of an anthology I contributed to, Griots Beneath the Baobab: Tales From Los Angeles (co-edited by Randy Ross and the Weekly’s Erin Aubry Kaplan). The message?

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Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day African-American writers, no matter their origin, is a minefield of a task complicated by the social residuals of slavery and the shifting currents in American publishing. Into this 21st century, African-Americans are still denied full and open participation in the larger culture. Thus, our books remain repositories for the complaints and resentments harbored against the nation we love, as well as paeans to the courage, fortitude and sacrifice of peers and forebears.

For those who need reminding, books by writers of color were still largely found in the anthropology sections of libraries and bookstores until the civil rights movement was well under way. (The glory rush of pride, wonder and dismay I felt whenever I stood before those sections has never been forgotten.) In grade school, circa 1954, the year “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, works by Negroes were treated as contraband, and confiscated by white teachers or administrators. Outside of home and church, creative writing by colored people did not seem to exist except for those authors who were assigned as classroom reading during Negro History Week (Black History Month since 1976). Of those, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright were invariably our designated spokesmen.

Getting hold of their books, however, was problematic if not impossible and meant leaving the ghetto to visit public libraries, or borrowing from friends or relations -- on one‘s solemn oath to return the precious tome. Few Los Angeles bookstores then featured black literature, even in the sociology section, and few publishers braved carrying more than two African-American authors. Black-owned presses, sans white patronage, led short lives. Books by blacks had even less of a shelf life when reviews -- good or bad -- failed to appear. Good reviews written by whites were the ideal, but bad reviews were welcomed if they generated enough controversy to sell copies. The few black reviewers were usually one of the ranking spokesmen, and between them lay an ideological divide -- those writing for whites and those writing for blacks, with the former receiving far greater attention.

The truths of our daily lives defined the truths for our literature: We were constantly discriminated against, monitored and censored. In defense and support of our writers, book clubs, discussion groups and writers’ organizations emerged -- in L.A., Vassie May Wright‘s Our Authors Study Clubs, the Black Writers’ Guild (later absorbed by the WGAw), and, eventually, the International Black Writers‘ Association and the World Stage in Leimert Park. But the majority of “folks” were reached via the grapevine (a.k.a. “the drum”); word of mouth was the primary news-and-review resource. If gossip, rumor and speculation were its liabilities, it was swifter than radio and TV and -- best of all -- was uncensored by the white establishment. (Any posture resembling that taken by Eso Won made a little more sense in those days.)

In 1963, Arna Bontemps published his American Negro Poetry anthology, which reintroduced older poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and introduced the more racially conscious scions of education, miseducation and self-education that converged in the Muntu Group, or the Black Arts Movement -- Nikki Giovanni, Ted Joans, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), et al. Outside Bontemps’ radar, writers and journalists like Ishmael Reed were making a name for themselves. And by the end of the ‘60s, popular fiction writers like Alex Haley, Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Frank Yerby were reaching audiences both black and white, as a constellation of once-silenced voices exploded into print and onto screen and stage.

Following the August 1965 riots, Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers (Quincy Troupe, Kamaau Da‘ooud) reinforced racial pride and spirited entitlement to unfettered speech. But the price most paid for this newfound freedom was scorching reviews by white book critics, and in having black authors’ work ignored for literary grants and prizes. Knowing they were not exempt from the currents affecting all writers, they became equally adept at playing the literary games of cronyism, favoritism and patronage. Impatient with the racist criticism that truncated their literary careers, they demanded same-race interviewers and reviewers. Supported by the leading black celebrities of the day, and underwritten by a riot-singed loosening of cultural constraints, African-American reviewer-journalists began appearing in the mainstream print media.

Meanwhile, what had begun with Oliver Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), and public school desegregation, resulted in the boon of black-studies programs in American colleges and universities throughout the 1970s. Since then, America has produced the largest educated population in its history, racism aside. New writers have emerged from workshops, MFA and Ph.D. programs via whatever means necessary -- affirmative action, grants, student loans and scholarships. The publish-or-perish mandate of academic life, in tandem with increases in the black middle and under classes, accelerated the outcry for cultural redress. An explosion into print of new kinds of writing to satisfy this boom market followed, meaning an inevitable diversity of black authors across genres -- from Octavia Butler to Walter Mosley to Gary Phillips to Terry McMillan. Simultaneously, a fourth generation of fiction writers, social critics and academics has emerged, along with a burgeoning black avant-garde claiming influences from the Absurdists to the Surrealists, including raphip-hop writers flavored by Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, the Nuyoricans, the Slam writers and acculturated others. The depth and breadth of writing across disciplines by those who identify as African-American is now so staggering it outstrips the available review media.

It is thus incumbent upon any book reviewer to grasp the multifaceted broadening of what was once simply summarized as “The Black Experience,” and it is the duty of the African-American reviewer to accurately portray, critically assess and convey this to potential readers. The ironic complexity of this task, no matter how savvy the reviewer, is best illustrated when the quality of the work produced by black writers is measured against that of whites using the criteria of excellence governing standard English and its genre, Ebonics aside. Ideally, the social context within which the work under review is created should be factored in, but should that be done to the exclusion of evaluating the quality of the writing?

By applying my own standards to Angelou‘s Song, my answer was -- and is -- a resounding “NO!”

All literary criticism, at root, is biased because each reviewer must bring to the act his or her individual world-view and aesthetic sensibility. Each must decide if the social values of a text as a political record are more important than its literary values, which is often the choice with books by African-Americans. But fostering an illusion of excellence where none exists, regardless of the writer or subject matter, is to do a democratic readership the ultimate disservice. Saying amen to the going cultural directives, minus a true analysis, is as morally suspect as any bigoted criticism -- whether done out of guilt, fear, or the desire to compensate the author for the social ills that shaped his or her existence. It is with this understanding that I write whenever I assume the role of reviewer.

In post-911 America, where suspicions and the fear of terrorism now threaten long-coveted individual freedoms, a book review seems rather insignificant until the twin specters of censorship and oppression are raised. What keeps our nation great, despite racism, are those citizens who persist in honoring those freedoms. It is what allows me to voice my expertise, be it praise song, mixed bag or dissent.

Wanda Coleman’s latest books are Bathwater Wine, Mambo Hips & Make Believe and Mercurochrome: New Poems, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award.

  • Book reviewing, African-American style

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