My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literatureby John Edgar Wideman, John Edgar Wideman
This powerful compilation of African-American literature through the centuries focuses on classic works by notable authors from Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. DuBois. The poetry of 18th-century writers Phillis Wheatly and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave join a chorus of eloquent voices chronicling the black experience in/i>
This powerful compilation of African-American literature through the centuries focuses on classic works by notable authors from Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. DuBois. The poetry of 18th-century writers Phillis Wheatly and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave join a chorus of eloquent voices chronicling the black experience in America. My Soul Has Grown Deep includes such landmark works as A Red Record by Ida B. Wells, a Harlem Renaissance writer; Lyrics of a Lowly Life by the prolific playwright, poet, and novelist Paul Lawrence Dunbar; Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington; and The Autobiography of Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out by the heavyweight boxing champion. Each writer is introduced in an informative biographical essay by editor John Edgar Wideman. New York Times bestselling author John Edgar Wideman is the first author to receive two PEN/Faulkner awards. He has written 13 books, including Brothers and Keepers and Philadelphia Fire.
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Read an Excerpt
IT IS A NEW CENTURY. In The Souls of Black Folk, written as the 19th century ended and the 20th began, W.E.B. DuBois prophesized that the problem for the new/old century we have just escaped would be the problem of the colorline: “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of man in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” To understand if progress has been achieved toward resolution of these race matters, it’s necessary to read backward. Place ourselves in the world as W.E.B. DuBois might have understood it, poised at the edge of the unknown, just as we are today, experiencing the transition from one epoch to another, epochs demarcated arbitrarily by 100-year cycles, as if the unknown, the unfathomable configures itself more accessibly, more transparently at such designated junctures. DuBois attempted to gauge the future by looking backward first. In a meditation optimistically entitled “The Dawn of Freedom,” he begins the Negro’s story in ancient Egypt and brings the tale forward swiftly to concentrate on the last decades of the 19th century, detailing the formation and failure of the Freedman’s Bureau, one of the nation’s first answers-in-progress to the still unresolved question: How should radically unequal, African-descended ex-slaves–impoverished, landless, stigmatized, disenfranchised, without civil rights, lacking formal education, with little or no previous experience of citizenship–be incorporated into a society whose announced creed is democracy, a democracy in theory open and fair that guarantees all its citizens an equal opportunity to compete in the struggle for a decent life?
Are we closer today to answering this question? How can progress be measured unless we reconstruct and reanimate the past? Put another way, the past is eternally with us, present as the arc of our personal experience follows us, fills us, defines us. Doesn’t any step forward depend on invisible footprints anchoring, locating, echoing, connecting, validating the instant motion by rooting it in time? To be visible in time, visible to ourselves, we imagine the unseen, the unseeable, the trail of footprints evaporating behind each step we take. We imagine a narrative, births and deaths, imagine names for immaterial persons, places, things, for lives we may or may not have lived or never lived.
Language is one form of this moving, recycling energy driving us forward by directing us back through its museum of invisible footprints, its archeology of traces. Language is a medium for constructing histories, both personal and collective. Written language conjures an appearance, inscribes for us the invisible, the intangible. Words are dreams. A spectral means of perceiving what things are and what they might be. Words dream history. History is the bed where words sleep and awaken and sleep again and dream. When we read history, we don’t discover some hard, permanent past; we interrogate our present. Jeopardize it, tease it into instability, experience it as one precarious possibility among many possibilities. Reading history permits us to confront what Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man calls the “uncertainties that live within our certainties.”
Writing our stories, writing our lives reveals them as a dream, only as substantial or unsubstantial as the words narrating them. Words resonate and accentuate while they also chip away at each other, just as when we watch a movie or listen to music, the tapestry of one realityscape segues into another. There is no concrete past, no material reality intact, solid, available somewhere for us to dust off and take down off the shelf. History exists as a work in progress, problematic, made up word by word. Even the stories of ancient monuments, like the scattered fragments of Ozymandias, strewn on the desert sand, tell different stories, sing different songs depending on whose words, whose eyes you see them through.
“The past is not simply ‘out there,’ an objective history to be researched or forgotten at will, but lives most vividly in all of us, deep inside, and needs constantly to be given expression and interpretation.” (Richard Holmes, Footsteps, 1985.) The narratives in this book have been gathered to stimulate expression and interpretation. All stories are true and, therefore, none is dispensable, nor impervious to the truth of the others. What should we think of an African American cowboy, Nat Love, who has internalized his white fellow cowpokes’ hate of Indians and Mexicans? Or of Ida B. Wells, a black woman, armed only with her pen and her convictions, who confronted a city full of murderous racists? “You got to go there to know there,” Zora Neale Hurston tells us, and that’s exactly why it’s necessary to travel with these storytellers from the 18th and 19th centuries. Each journey rewards the effort with a unique perspective, an expansion of the possible, an expansion, ultimately, of ourselves. Just as importantly, the narratives enfold and unfold the personal within a context of collective significance, a ground of meaning that supports the idea that we may dream alone but we’re not alone.
The act of expression and interpretation is sharing a dream. If our present lives and former lives didn’t interpenetrate, weren’t interdependent, weren’t mutually empowering, what would interest us about the spilled milk of the past? Shared dreaming of history creates family, clan, tribe, nation, and as the Igbo say, a man without a clan is like a butterfly without wings.
The mythic African bird Sankofu that flies forward with its head tucked backward, the double-faced Greek God Janus, Sartre’s passenger on a train rushing forward down the tracks in a seat facing the caboose are figurations of simultaneity, of time’s mysterious, impenetrable perpetual weave of present, past and future–Great Time. In Great Time, the voices of long-dead witnesses embodied in this collection can enter the present, alter it. The reason for attending to the dead is not an obligatory, obsequious accumulation of facts and figures, nor to acquire some nodding, cocktail party acquaintance with a pantheon of former heroines and heroes. The voices of the dead can be revived through imaginative encounters each reader constructs. Just as the rituals of Haitian voodoo attempt to summon the spirits of powerful ancestors so their wisdom can possess the living, strengthen and guide the living, the point of attending to the dead who speak in this book is life, more life. Examined, expanded life for those who were here before and for us, at this moment, here and now, this moment also and always bedded in Great Time.
THE PURPOSE of my introduction is to enhance the reader’s imaginative encounter with the works of the writers presented in these pages. But that’s almost like drawing a map of a country neither reader nor this writer has seen. A map like all maps, the result of decisions about what to leave out as much as what to include. One conventional strategy for introducing an anthology is briefly describing each selection, sketching its historical, cultural, political setting, detailing vignettes about authors’ lives, quoting scholarly analyses of the work, perhaps a word or two about it original reception or publishing history. Their wide availability on the internet had transformed the value of such information. Facts are less authoritative, less valuable, less hard. They are constantly changing–updated, subjected to revision and challenge. Facts remain pertinent, but setting down frozen packets of data in the permanency of print seems as antiquated and wasteful as the notion of bound encyclopedias. Truth does not reside in information, no matter how it is piled. As information proliferates, it becomes inflated currency, more likely a sign that a point of view is being constructed than a sign that a definitive representation of some subject has been achieved.
A conventional approach — footnoting, attaching rap sheets to each piece of writing and writer–for all its virtues also serves as a form of mediation, endangering the frame of Great Time, the immediacy of spontaneous, improvised, call-and-response between readers and writers of those texts. The entries in this collection (mildly annotated by short biographical profiles of each author) have been chosen because they can speak for themselves, because they stimulate dialogue, because individually and as a group they address the bottom-line issue of survival, the still unresolved question of America’s identity. If we read attentively, listen to the voices preserved here, perhaps we’ll learn how each of us, consciously or not, is implicated, enmeshed in the contradictions, ironies, the precarious successes and heartbreaking, body-crushing failures of a so-called “democracy” in which some are always more equal than others.
Life or death is the bottom line that the narratives address. Life or death not only in the metaphorical sense that prompts images of suffering, rebirth and salvation. Literal life or death in the struggles recorded day by day to escape slavery, a lynch mob, the oppression and enforced ignorance of an unexamined existence in which one’s thoughts and labor are consumed servicing someone else’s life, someone else’s dream. The social deaths of submission or slavery versus the ever-receding promise of emancipation, the hopeless compromise of dependency versus the crisis of independence–these were the stakes during the periods when the narratives in this collection were composed. These issues, these choices and all the uncharted space between we must define and negotiate are still what’s at risk, what we confront as we turn the pages of this book and talk to it while it talks to us.
What is to be the fate of African-descended people in this New World society called America? By living certain kinds of lives and leaving behind a record of them, Sojourner Truth, Nat Love, Ida B. Wells, etc. have forestalled a final answer, a final solution to the conundrum of African-American identity. They are witnesses, fellow sufferers who resisted the bestial otherness inscribed by slavery, resisted social and economic deprivation, resisted the Manichean dichotomies of black and white, the harrowing, internalized doubleness that felt inescapable if you were both a Negro and an American. The writers transcended identities that attempted to determine and circumscribe what it means to be an African-American. To read them reminds us that words can count as much as deeds, that words are deeds, and that you can dream your way through bars your hands can’t bend. Collectively, the authors formulate and keep alive possibilities; individually each reveals the costs and benefits of particular survival strategies, the pain, courage, glory of resistance and subversion, the triumphs of creating a particular path just when darkness and peril appear thickest.
What are the odds against the career of a Sojourner Truth? How did Frederick Douglass escape the systemic degradations and violence that obscured the lives of those many thousands lost and gone who were born like him into slavery? How does the battle Douglass waged relate to the life of James Weldon Johnson, world traveler, artist, sophisticated man about town? What might they say to each other? What would they say about your way, my way of constructing an American identity?
It is necessary to ask such questions because America continues to refuse its Creole identity, its multi-layered, multi-valent, combative, up-for-grabs culture. Denies its stubborn, healthy indeterminacy. Prefers to cling to self-deception. It’s either/or, reductive categories of race. Pretends not to notice (except to condemn or prohibit or manipulate for profit) the continuous cross-over traffic between mainstream and marginal cultures, cross-over producing diversity and a rainbow of skin colors, crossings back and forth and back again that keep the country vital, rigorous, competitive in the world’s marketplace. The nation chooses instead to blind itself systematically to its many colors, doesn’t acknowledge its brutal slide into political and moral repression. Power has been seized by a cynical, wealthy few who manage to convince the majority that everybody benefits from the excess dribbling off the oligarch’s plates and that the system promising these trickle-down goodies is worth preserving by any means necessary. Including discriminatory legislation and policies–drug wars, wars on crime, AIDS, welfare, the juvenile justice system, women’s rights–policies justified by vicious myths of race, gender and class that divide the country and doom a good proportion of its citizenry to second-class or no-class lives.
Obviously the version of America I’ve just drawn is one story of many possible stories, my story of what I find revealed, confirmed when I engage the voices in this collection and blend their testimony with my own experience. Of course other stories could be constructed and that’s the beauty, the utility of this volume: providing witness, direct, first-hand materials for piecing together an account of what happened to Africans who crossed an ocean and found themselves beleaguered strangers in a strange land. Africans whose voices have been muted, mediated far too long. Africans who problematize the question of American identity and American experience as profoundly, provocatively as every other group of immigrants who arrived on these New World shores.
In the preface to her book about the religious significance of food to medieval women, Caroline Walker Bynum claims, “Her work has implications for modern problems and obsessions that will not be lost on many of its readers,” but then hastens to add, “the book is about then, not about now…I intend to reveal the past in its strangeness as well as familiarity.” So DuBois, Dunbar, Equiano strike us sometimes as contemporaries and peers, yet often they also wear the shimmering, impenetrable aura of otherness, disrupt and unsettle our expectations, surprise and frighten us as much as visitors from another planet. Remember, it’s a two-way street. Some of the most instructive insights available here follow from asking the question, what would Jarena Lee or Booker T. Washington think of us?
As I suggested earlier, introducing a collection such as this inevitably involves accounting and perhaps apologizing for what’s been left out. In spite of its 1,300 pages, this collection lays no claim to being comprehensive or exhaustive; it merely samples, ideally in a creative fashion, over two hundred years of writing in English by African-descended people. The pieces chosen for inclusion are the map’s visible contours and should speak for themselves. The main criterion for inclusion is simple: each narrator must tell a good story, one that entertains and instructs. Rather than excerpts from many authors, a few works are presented in their entirety. Most selections have attained “classic” status–they’ve been around a long time, reprinted often, appeared in university classes. Some, Jarena Lee’s narrative, for instance, are relatively unknown. Variety (of point of view, geographical setting, style, genre, date, length, voice) has been sought in order to symbolize the range, the immensely rich potential within the field of African American writing from which these particular examples have been culled.
Though non-fiction seems to dominate and fiction and poetry may appear under-represented, one can argue that in effect all writing fits into a single genre: autobiography. The choice of subject matter or form, the perspective from which writers view their material, are always self-revelatory no matter how conventional a form the author chooses, no matter how cunningly he disguises or dreams his origins and intentions. The inevitable subjectivity, neither good nor bad in itself, is simply a fact the notion of genre tends to override or hide, perhaps so readers can pretend to have their cake and eat it, too: experience the reality of the fake moment without being unsettled by the radical reevaluation of experience that follows from recognizing real and fake are not mutually exclusive categories. Genre functions as a protection against too much reality and/or too little. Not acknowledging the play, the pretense, the lies inherent in any species of writing can be dangerous. Aren’t historians novelists who haven’t come out of the closet?
Though this is a gathering of narratives written for publication and printed for the most part in standard English, they also address the artful, unwritable orality of the folk voice, the Africanized Creole vernacular of American speech, the tension between written and spoken, the cross-fertilization of literate and non-literate, the aesthetic, political and moral issues of “dialect” writing. Oral tradition becomes not so much a missing link in this volume but one more salient dimension of African American culture the narrators express and interpret. To find more extensive representations of the spoken word–that indispensable complement to the written in any literary tradition but especially among African Americans since for hundreds of years learning to read and write, let alone breaking into print, was legally forbidden–the reader should look elsewhere, to folklore anthologies, the WPA ex-slave narratives, to music, preaching and other vernacular arts of black oral culture. Yet the power and beauty of oral tradition is embedded in the style of these written voices–their syntax, rhythms, vocabulary, aphorisms, incorporation of call and response, direct address, the mimicking or quoting of vernacular speakers. In addition the writers praise, analyze, describe the presence and meaning of the folk voice in their communities, in their lives.
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