Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Booksby Max Rodriguez
QBR: The Black Book Review is the preeminent popular showcase for African-American books and authors. In this spirited volume, QBR celebrates the 100 most influential books in black history. Chosen by a blue-ribbon panel of leading scholars, writers, and booksellers, the titles range from 19th century poetry to today's bestsellers. From soul-shaking fiction and brilliant essays to groundbreaking works of history, each is given incisive commentary and showcased with powerful excerpts. The result is vital reading for lovers of literature and lively opinion.
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Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Books
Authors: Max Rodriguez, Angeli Rasbury, Carol Taylor
by Charles Johnson
As we approach a new century, it is difficult to resist the temptation of composing briefs for the best artistic products- novels, poetry, plays, and motion pictures- of the last hundred years, though clearly such selection by its very nature must be provisional and woefully incomplete. Often they become lightning rods for controversy, because at century's end we are still immersed in what many call the Culture Wars. Consider the literary world's flap over the haphazardly selected "100 Best English-Language Novels" compiled by the editorial board of the Modern Library, a canon that included only three black books (Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell It on the Mountain), all of them unquestionably superior and seminal works of art, but written exclusively by males and published before 1955 or, put another way, prior to the civil rights and Black Power movements. It was a statement saying, in effect, that the last half-century of black literary production is unworthy of notice, or that the jury is still out on the enduring value of these texts. Fortunately, this Waspish catalogue soon lost all credibility and was judged capricious once the bungling selection process was revealed (one editorial board member confessed to recommending books he had not read), just as a giggle factor now clings to the "100 Top American Films" announced by the American Film Institute. That much-publicized list included not a single motion picture written, directed, or produced by persons of color. (What? No Charles Burnett? No Oscar Micheaux?)
Thus, Max Rodriguez, publisher of QBR and author of the book in your hands, is dead-on right when he says in his introduction that black Americans still live "within a society that has institutionalized its efforts to relegate blackness to the bottom rung." This book you hold, this "view of the African American literary mind, circa 1999," is a necessary antidote to the nervous tokenism of the Modern Library list, to the aesthetic apartheid practiced by the American Film Institute, and to this culture's intractable resistance to recognizing the contributions of the African Diaspora. But readers will ask, and so must I, the inevitable question: Is QBR's inventory of literary excellence complete, coherent, and consistent?
If I were to sift through black writing in one genre only (novels, say), looking for literary gold, my criterion would be identical to and not differ one iota from that of Albert Murray, who wisely informed us in The Blue Devils of Nada that fine art is distinguished by its "range, precision, profundity, and the idiomatic subtlety of the rendition." With Murray as my guide, I would hunt for books that exhibited and promoted in their readers a refinement of language, perception, and reflection. The majority of authors cited here do just that; they are watershed thinkers like the polyhistor W. E. B. Du Bois, magisterial storytellers like Ralph Ellison, and writers whose works- from slave narratives to con-temporary cultural critiques- have proven to be essential for a firm grasp of both black and American history.
Yet, no list of 100 will please everyone, and some readers will kvetch about the omissions, fine writers, and first-rate, elegant minds who somehow fell through the cracks: groundbreaking science fiction writer Samuel Delany; Pulitzer Prize- winning Poet Laureate Rita Dove; Clarence Major, our magister ludi of literary experimentation; essayist Gerald Early, a craftsman who writes with clarity and astonishing precision; the late Leon Forrest; MacArthur poet Jay Wright; the ubiquitous black intellectuals- the prolific Thomas Sowell from the right and Henry Louis Gates from the left.
I could go on, of course. Whenever we choose to tally books for a new "canon" of black writing, there will be objections, counter-lists, and fungible choices. More important, though, the very enterprise of making a checklist compels us all, as readers, to question the presuppositions and values we bring to literary judgments. It forces us, if nothing else, to define our own aesthetic position. Is a work "essential" because it was a bestseller? (In that case Stephen King and Irving Wallace are essential.) Because it is "political"- i. e., one that jibes with our own political views? Or won a prestigious award? Or do we gravitate toward certain authors because they are celebrities and appear charming, witty, and well dressed under the klieg lights on The Oprah Winfrey Show? Needless to say, none of this has much of anything to do with literary and intellectual achievement, though it does reveal the merely commercial or marketing aspects of contemporary publishing, where too often books are just commodities to be sold- as we sell burritos and toilet paper- and authors are not bellwethers for the life of the mind, but salespersons primarily concerned with profits and the bottom line.
So yes, every list raises interesting questions. Yet what was said in defense of the Modern Library canon- that it briefly galvanized street sales and got more people reading its number one choice, James Joyce's Ulysses- can be said as well for the QBR inventory. If it encourages black people to read, it also serves the goal of achieving black freedom. No, I do not mean this merely in a "political" way (though surely reading these texts serves this end), but rather in the deepest philosophical sense. Look around you. What do you see? We are enveloped, I daresay, by what Saul Bellow in his essay "Culture Now" called "an amusement society, like decadent Rome." Many Americans watch eight hours of television daily- ready-made images they passively receive, even as they consume the endless, often vulgar products of a Hollywood that targets adolescents as its primary audience. In the midst of formulaic entertainment, in a popular culture where "dumbing down" is the rule, reading becomes the most radical of all enterprises.
Open any novel. What is there? Black marks- signs- on white paper. First they are silent. They are lifeless, lacking signification until the consciousness of the reader imbues them with meaning, allowing a fictitious character like Bigger Thomas, say, to emerge hugely from the monotonous rows of ebony type. Once this magi-cal act takes place in the mind of the reader, an entire fictional world appears, redivivus, in his consciousness: "a vivid and continuous dream," as novelist John Gardner once called it, one that so ensorcells us that we forget the room we're sitting in or fail to hear the telephone ring. Put simply, the world experienced within any book is transcendent. It exists for consciousness alone (Bigger exists only as a mental construct, like a mathematical entity). But, as Jean-Paul Sartre describes so well in his classic work, What Is Literature?, the rare experience found in books is the "conjoint effort of author and reader." It is dialectical. While the writer composes his "world" in words, his (or her) work requires an attentive reader who will "put himself from the very beginning and almost without a guide at the height of this silence" of signs. Reading, Sartre tells us, is directed creation. A contract of sorts. "To write is to make an appeal to the reader that he lead into objective existence the revelation which I have undertaken by means of language." Do you get it? I hope so. For each book requires that a reader exercise his orbific freedom for the "world" and theater of meaning embodied on its pages to be. As readers, we invest the cold signs on the pages of Native Son with our own emotions, our understanding of poverty, oppression, and fear; then, in what is almost an act of thaumaturgy, the powerful figures and tropes Wright has created reward us richly by returning our subjective feelings to us transformed, refined, and alchemized by language into a new vision with the capacity to change our lives forever.
This magic rests in your hands, as readers. It is a power to co-create and travel through numerous imaginative and intellectual realms that you can invoke at any time, anywhere. If film is a communal experience, as so many have claimed, then reading is the triumph of individual consciousness and man's freedom. And, despite the issues raised by any list of "essential" books, QBR's evolving canon is a splendid way to begin flexing the muscles of our minds and honoring black literary artists by allowing their too often marginalized contributions to find a place to permanently live within us.
Introduction QBR: The Black Book Review was established five years ago to provide a forum for the critical review and celebration of books that captured our voices, our stories, and our lives. We've taken it as our responsibility and mission to praise and admonish our writers, as needed, and to expose their work to our readers in an unprecedented way.
This book is an outgrowth of that mission. While we have traditionally exposed our readers to the work of our best contemporary writers, for the purposes of this book, it was our intent to gather a consensus on the literature that has most impacted us as a community across the years. Not just the latest flowering of critically and commercially successful literature (although it's good that we continue to develop as a market), but the classics: the works that represent the record of our collective experience. We wanted to find out how important the written history of our experience is to us today. So we asked.
Our request was very simple and straightforward: Name ten books by authors from the African Diaspora that have had the greatest impact on you. We asked everyone. (I know, I know, but we almost asked you.) We asked scholars and historians (they read, too); bookstore owners and book buyers; members of reading clubs and attendees at QBR's literary series. (I even asked my sister.) We drew from this survey a range of books that identified the issues and philosophies that we, as a people, felt were most critical, and that were written by the artists who most eloquently and powerfully presented these issues to the world.
This book, however, is not a statistical journal. What you will find are the results presented in a most informative and, yes, opinionated manner. The editors of QBR gathered the numerous responses, selected the titles most often cited, and supplemented them with our own recommendations. We then categorized those books into sections we believe speak directly to the heart of our matters: Origins, Ancestors, and Memory; Community and Identity; Politics, Nationalism, and Revolution; Soul and Spirit; Sisters' Stories; Brothers' Lives. Our final step was to offer brief commentary on each book, summarizing its plot or thesis, talking about what makes it special, and placing it, whenever possible, within the context of its time.
I have often spoken about the way interest in our books has historically waxed and waned. It would be easy to say that every thirty years since the mid-1800s, the beginning of Reconstruction, there has been a spike of interest in the literary affairs of the "Negro." Following the international interest in Frederick Doug-lass's freedom cry, the writing of Booker T. Washington held sway; Charles Chestnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar were the anointed of the 1900s; Alain Locke ushered in Harlem's New Negro Movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s; Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez slapped! us to consciousness as the Black Arts Movement spread Stokely's fire in the 1960s; Sheharazod Ali's The Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman was the flint, and Terry McMillan's Disappear-ing Acts was the fire of the 1990s commercial renaissance.
In fact, every resurgent period of interest in African American literature corresponds to intense social changes. The Civil War marked the voluntary conscription and arming of a previously enslaved population; the mass migration of a disenfranchised public followed. The development of an urbane African American cultural aesthetic was followed by a call to black power. Today's literature reflects the economic and social progress wrought from Malcolm, Martin, urban unrest, open-door policies, and affirmative action. Accommodation and demand, protest and personal introspection mark this current period of African American literature.
Still, what we hoped to identify within this book were not only the books that serve as the literary landmarks of our social movements but also those critical and illuminating works that, due to the social stillness of the moment, fell quietly from the shelves yet survived by dint of word of mouth alone. We also wanted to add representative books from our brothers and sisters in Africa and the Caribbean, whose experiences have so closely paralleled the experiences of African Americans.
We anticipate that arguments will be made around the inclusion or exclusion of one book or another within this list of the essential one hundred. This, too, is part of our process. For certainly, when one discusses essential African American books, one can easily surpass one hundred.
Still, I would be remiss in not recommending Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love, Wole Soyinka's Ake, Gayle Jones's Corregidora, and Paul Beatty's White Boy Shuffle or Sapphire's Push, both stylistic breakthrough novels of the '90s. These, too, should be enjoyed.
A number of noteworthy books that direct readers through African American literary history can be found in bookstores and libraries. The most recent of those, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, joins the Oxford Companion to African American Literature and Howard University Press's The New Cavalcade: African American Writing from 1760 to the Present, Vols. I and II, as excellent primers to our world in literature. Those anthologies, along with this book, support a strong argument for the recognition of an African American literary canon, a functional canon that serves as a respite- a community safe-house- to which to turn when the going gets rough. Yes, the books in our canon must work as literature, but they must also reach the heart. And they must speak to communal truths.
The Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary definition of canon as "a criterion or standard of judgment" begs the question, Whose standards? What cultural criteria are to be met in order to gain inclusion within the list of books deemed "authoritative"? This will continue as a hotly debated issue, given the continuing shift in the American population, the "browning" of the American classroom, and the increasing number of culturally diverse voices being brought to print. Perhaps it is time to develop a more functional, world literary canon- a more inclusive and accepted body of work that serves cultures individually and nurtures a sense of community globally.
African American literature is the story of the African in the new Americas. It is a history of a people in transition and inner turmoil as we seek, still, to find a place within a society that has institutionalized its efforts to relegate blackness to its bottom rung. Ours, then, is an autobiography of protest and struggle for recognition, of achievement and survival.
Our earliest achievements in public letters and writings, protestations to enslavement, were autobiographical: the slave narrative. Even then, and beyond the telling of their plight, the writing was an attempt at proving an intellectual and moral capability and, by extension, the humanity of the enslaved African. Even the reality of post-Reconstruction and the advent of a covert American apartheid could not dim our urge to freedom.
And so with emancipation, we packed our belongings, knowing that if only the opportunity existed, we would show we were possessed of the will to thrive. To St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and all points north, east, and west, we migrated in search of better lives as free women and men, free to grow as a community, free as individuals to contribute to the ideal that was America. It is from this community history that QBR selects the one hundred most representative books within the African experience in the Americas- books that are significant in that they represent visions and aspirations, or a turning in thought, attitude, or perspective within our evolution as citizens in the New World.
And because they mark the passage of our time on this earth, because they contain our parents' wisdom and ours, because they validate our sense of I am, and because they leave an indelible record of our contribution to the cultures of the world, we deem them essential both to us and to those who follow. We encourage you to create your own personal list of books so that you may pass our selections, along with yours, on to your friends and loved ones. Our compilation of the books with the greatest impact on us will be a project that lasts into the new millennium; we will continue to record these works on our web site (www. QBR. com). We would be honored to post your favorites. E-mail us or reach us by post.
May you read and prosper. We continue . . .
Meet the Author
MAX RODRIGUEZ is the founder and publisher of QBR: The Black Book Review. ANGELI R. RASBURY is a freelance writer. CAROL TAYLOR, a book editor for eight years, has worked with many of today's top black writers.
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