On Being Black by Charles T. Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” ~ Excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The most important use of the anthology is to draw to the fore those literary passages which have been previously overlooked or otherwise subverted beneath other writings of greater acclaim. Another very necessary application of the anthology is to create a topical umbrella under which a keen eye can be focused on a single motif as it threads itself through a variety of literature over time. “On Being Black” manages to accomplish both of these aspects with magnificent deft, insight and comprehensiveness. The elusive and mutable nature of race and identity in America has provided a complex construct for black people to navigate in comprehending the nature of blackness as a thing that one must circumscribe for themselves and either live within or desperately plot to escape.
The line initially quoted above appears in the “Narrative” as included in the ‘First Stirrings” section of “On Being Black”. Soon after I completed my reading of this anthology, the line reappeared in my subsequent reading of “The Black Panthers Speak” as evidence of the legacy of black resistance flowing between Douglass’ battle with Edward Covey and the Panthers emergence from the black community as a revolutionary political force. In that text, Philip Foner argues that both events are connected by Fanon’s assertion in “The Wretched of the Earth” that only through revolutionary violence could be accomplished the transformation and rebirth of the black personality which had been severely underdeveloped through centuries of violent oppression.
Here lies the critical importance of what this anthology seeks to accomplish in collecting writings on how we have wrestled with the question of blackness over time. As the ways in which race is defined has changed, so has our opinion of the significance of race. As the conditions of oppression either rise or fall, the discussion of blackness is manipulated by forces that are not explicitly racial in nature. Though we must keep in mind that the absence of an explicit racial quality within a condition does not preclude the possibility that said condition can be racially coded including political latitude, class, poverty and community development. This may be shown in our present era of political claw back upon social programs originally created to equalize historical inequities.
The first era charts those initial stirrings of a people yearning for a sense of independence and struggling through literary means to express their intellect (W.E.B. DuBois), work ethic (Booker T. Washington), culture (Paul Laurence Dunbar) and religiosity (James Weldon Johnson). Sometimes we find these moments colliding with one another and raining down upon us at the very same time as in a second set of selections offered from DuBois; “The Song of the Smoke” and “A Litany at Atlanta”. In “A Litany…”, DuBois employs a strident liturgical petition in a cynical retort to black religious fervor as he ponders the hand of God inside of the racial terror being inflicted upon black people crying out at one point “Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God? How long shall the mounting flood of innocent blood roar in Thine ears and pound in our hearts for vengeance?”.
The second era maps those initial breakaways from the emulation of white cultural forms coming with the arrival of the New Negro Renaissance as we hear Alain Locke ushering the era forward with “The Negro’s Contribution” moving as a natural outgrowth of DuBois’ espousal of the “Talented Tenth”. Black dialect is more loosely employed in lengthy mixed poetic and prosaic form as the excerpt from “Kabnis” of Jean Toomer’s “Cane” or Eric Walrond’s short tale “The Yellow One”. Langston Hughes posits an argument that will be continued through the end of the century and live on even in our present with his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” where he states “But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”
The close of the Renaissance idealism ushers in what might be termed a darker period, pun intended. We find America passing through the Great Depression which saw Harlem’s marginal prosperity and nightlife decimated. The few opportunities afforded black Americans by the absent workforce during World War I began to evaporate. Garveyism and the U.N.I.A. were in collapse. The continuing anti-Communist blow back from the first Red Scare suppressed the black intellectual tradition which had flourished in Renaissance writing. Writers who did continue creating literature were largely engaged in New Deal cultural documentation through the Works Progress Administration. We enter a period that I call the Post-Renaissance Vanguard and which Lawrence P. Jackson termed the “Indignant Generation”.
The brutality of black life in Chicago depicted in “Native Son” brings Richard Wright to prominence in the literary world with Bigger Thomas bullying friends into committing a robbery in which he himself was not confident. Ralph Ellison uses the vehicle of an invisible man to contemplate the issues of black culture as a continual stepchild to American indifference with his lead figure navigating through the ways in which he has accepted having his presence ignored by the American majority. James Baldwin would open his career exploring his experiences in the teen ministry and eventual alienation from the institution of the church while simultaneously lambasting its hypocrisy. Melvin Tolson exhibits a fierce mastery of the English language with his erudite poetry reflecting a well traveled understanding of the world. Ellison would also go on to enter another entry in the argument of Negro artistry engaged earlier by Hughes with a missive squarely aimed at Irving Howe entitled “The World and the Jug” where he states “In his effort to resuscitate Wright, Irving Howe would designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician–and for the best of reasons. We must express “black” anger and “clenched militancy”; most of all we should not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities.”
The final era covered in this anthology changes the order slightly with the editors choosing to shift the commentary on black artistry from the anchor position to the lead as Leroi Jones offers his thoughts on “The Myth of a Negro Literature”. In this commentary, Jones makes the case that “Only in music, and most notably in blues, jazz, and spirituals, i.e., “Negro Music,” has there been a significantly profound contribution by American Negroes.” He later goes on to cite Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as the only examples of “serious” Negro writing that was not highly stylized and cultured to be more impressive to the mainstream American sensibility.
Writing in this period finds itself increasingly politicized as the Civil Rights struggle grows more confrontational reaching its crescendo when Stokely Carmichael sounds the call for Black Power. Echoes of Malcolm and Martin linger long after each respective assassination giving rise to a more militant orientation for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the genesis of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Black Arts Movement sweeps through the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast as black authors in each region contemplate and write towards the creation of black aesthetic. Eldridge Cleaver takes a fiery blast at Baldwin’s blackness and masculinity in his “Notes on a Native Son, from Home” which pulses with a certain envious tension. Bayard Rustin finds himself growing frustrated as he expresses in his “Convocation Address” to Clark College on March 5, 1968 that “…Young Negroes are now so frustrated that they are substituting slognanism for analysis. They are examining their navels when they should be examining economic and social programs. They are more concerned with the way they wear their hair and whether or not they are called “black” or “Afro-American” than with developing strategies to solve the problems of housing, poverty and jobs.”
I am of the opinion that the question of race and identity continues to be one of the most critical issues faced by black people in America in this age. I therefore count this as one of the most important books that I have read all year on the basis of the breadth and scope of its content. One is left wanting with each selection to explore a slight bit more, but the editors have given us only so much as we should require to make the necessary connection between the transitions of identity that occur across each era. One necessary criticism that must be noted of this text is again the woeful absence of the black feminine voice. They have much to offer us in perceiving blackness and as happens too often even in anthologies of black diasporic literary movements such as “The Negritude Poets”, men dominate the coverage. This title contains two lone female voices across four eras of writing; Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks. If we are ever to resolve this question of identity, men will not settle the issue alone for we too are possessed of a subtle privilege that may pervade our ability to grasp the full magnitude of the picture. Read this manuscript as a launch pad for it will move your insight in an infinite series of directions before you reach its end.