By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
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.
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