African American Literature and Culture Society

AALCS Newsletter

ALA Conference Baltimore, Maryland

May 1997
Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) ca. 1745-1797

Born around 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria, and kidnapped into slavery around the age of eleven, Equiano was taken to the West Indies for a few days before being brought to Virginia and sold to a local planter. Michael Henry Pascal, an officer in the British Royal Navy, soon bought him, renamed him Gustavus Vassa, and brought him to London. Equiano served under Pascal in the Seven Yearsí War (1756-1763), but Pascal reneged on his promise of freedom, selling Equiano into West Indian slavery at the end of 1762. Equiano purchased his own freedom in 1766.

He remained in the employ of his former master, the Quaker Robert King, for a year, making several trading trips to Georgia and Pennsylvania. Between 1767 and 1773, Equiano, based in London, worked on commercial vessels sailing to the Mediterranean and the West Indies, and commented on all the versions of slavery, White and Black, he observed. After joining an expedition to the Arctic seeking a Northeast Passage in 1773, he returned to London, where he embraced Methodism. Soon again growing restless, in 1775-1776 he helped his friend and former employer, Dr. Charles Irving, in a short-lived attempt to establish a plantation in Central America, with Equiano acting as buyer and driver (overseer) of the Black slaves. After returning to London in 1777, he published hostile newspaper reviews of pro-slavery books and argued for racial intermarriage (Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in 1792). He became increasingly involved with Thomas Clarkson, Quiobna Ottobah Cugoana, James Ramsay, and Granville Sharp and others in efforts to help his fellow Blacks, with the project to resettle the Black poor in Sierra Leone, and with the drive to abolish the African slave trade.

Equianoís The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (London, 1789) is a spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative, travel book, adventure tale, slave narrative, economic treatise, apologia, and argument against the transatlantic slave trade. The author supervised the publication and distribution of nine British editions between 1789 and 1794. And during his lifetime (1745-1797) unauthorized editions and translations appeared in Holland (1790), New York (1791), Germany (1792), and Russia (1794). Part of the bookís great popularity can be attributed to the timing of its initial publication at the height of the movement in Britain to abolish the slave trade. Equianoís was the only account by a former slave of slavery in Africa, on the Middle Passage, as well as in the West Indies, North America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Britain. His first reviewers quickly acknowledged the significance of the Narrative, which greatly influenced the development of the 19th Century African-American slave narrative.

Equiano died on 31 March 1797.

-- Vincent Carretta, University of Maryland at College Park

 

From the President: "A Dazzling Daybreak"

Two hundred years after the death of Olaudah Equiano, whose Interesting Narrative of the Life (1789), along with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, helped to signal the genesis of an African American (written) literary tradition, literary scholars stand at the threshold of the twenty-first century, witnessing the successful expansion of the American literary landscape to encompass this heretofore marginalized body of material. For the many scholars who through out the twentieth century labored to resurrect, validate, and celebrate the monumental contributions of African American writers -- from Equiano and Frederick Douglass to Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, and John E. Wideman -- it is an exhilarating and rewarding harvest.

Re-call that this century began with the prophetic voice of Dr. DuBois who, in his now classic The Souls of Black Folk (1905), encouraged all to "listen to the strivings in the souls of the black folk." He boldly proposed that: "by fateful chance the Negro folk song-the rhythmic cry of the slave stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the sea." The folk/oral tradition which he reveres here is now acknowledged as the wellspring of the African American (written) literary tradition.

Re-call Dr. Lockeís demand that "the Negro of today be seen through other than the dusty spectacles of past controversy," as he attempted to lead a "New Negro" Renaissance. Most of all, re-call a young Langston Hughesí valiant declaration that the "younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." Re-call as well the cacophonous resonances heard during the turbulent sixties in the voices of Imamu Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, Mari Evans, and Nikki Giovanni, prophets who, in an effort to "speak the Truth to the people," led a Black Arts Movement to "clean out the world for virtue and love."

At the dawning of the twenty first century we see that the response has been not only the "discovery" of the African American literary tradition (oral and written), but in fact the realization and confirmation, as Morrison notes, that African Americans, "have always imagined ourselves... We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, Ďother.í We are choices ("Unspeakable Things Unspoken...").

The chorus of antiphonal voices found in such recently published anthologies as The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Cornerstones, An Anthology of African American Literature, Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the 18th Century, and Trouble the Water, 250 Years of African American Poetry among others are clear attestations to Morrisonís declaration.

So, too, is the significant place and central role the African American Literature and Culture Society (AALCS) and the several author societies, such as the Toni Morrison Society, Richard Wright Society, and Charles W. Chesnutt Society, have been given in the American Literature Association (ALA) by its founder Dr. Alfred Bendixen and program chairs Dr. Gloria Cronin and Dr. Susan Belasco Smith.

This support has resulted in an international membership, premiere conference presentations--including the five dynamic ones scheduled for this yearís conference--a poetry series: "In the Tradition: Generations of African American Poetry," and noon hour forums on various aspects on African American literature and theory, such as the one scheduled this year to commemorate Olaudah Equiano. Finally, it is also apparent in the selection of "African American Literature" as the subject for this yearís autumn ALA Symposium to be held in Cabo San Jose, Mexico, November 13-16, 1997.

For me, the visible change in our enterprise has not merely resulted in yet another Renaissance, but instead in what must be seen as a true Reformation through which those of us who are committed to the study of African American literature and culture are ushering in the twenty-first century acknowledging Americaís multicultural treasures. Although we must acknowledge the current efforts and significant roles of such warrior critics as Henry L. Gates, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Deborah McDowell, Trudier Harris, Hortense Spillers, and bell hooks, we must preserve and celebrate as well the foresight and contributions of such pioneers as Dorothy Porter, Darwin T. Turner, Richard Barksdale, Charles Nilon, Hoyt Fuller, and John Sekora, to name a few.

As I end my second term as President of the African American Literature and Culture Society, I do so with tremendous pride in the amount of work we were able to accomplish in a relatively short time to contribute to the ongoing, more inclusive metamorphosis in the study of American literature and culture. I remain ever grateful for the support I received from the membership, but particularly the founding members and officers, including Warren Carson, Virginia Whatley Smith, Lee Greene, James Coleman, Marilyn Elkins, Aldon Nielsen, and Anna Everett.

Perhaps Dr. DuBois was correct in asserting that in "good time...infinite reason [would] turn the tangle[d] straight," making not the end or lamentation but the beginning of the celebration of our spiritual strivings.

-- Wilfred D. Samuels, President, AALCS

 

 

Remarks on John Sekora

Memorial Service

North Carolina Central University

February 10, 1997

I am grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to the life and intellectual work of John Sekora, my friend and my colleague in the study of African American literature. John and I never taught at the same university, but we had a commonality of intellectual interests over the years, and we often consulted each other on our various projects. Like many here today, I am a beneficiary of Johnís leadership and Johnís example. To me he will always be a model of what intellectual integrity and social commitment mean in humanistic scholarship.

John Sekora was a scholar of rare breadth of learning and accomplishment. We know him best for his outstanding contributions to African American literary scholarship. But itís worthwhile to remember that Johnís first book is entitled Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought from Eden to Smollett. This book was published in twenty years ago by the Johns Hopkins University Press, one of the premier American presses in the field of British literary scholarship. In 1977 one of the most prominent scholars of British literature wrote of Johnís book: "This learned, illuminating, and well written book throws light on one of the most important ideas in Western culture," namely, the idea of luxury. Had John wanted to, he could have built upon his auspicious first book to make a name for himself as a scholar of British literature.

But for John the path of intellectual investigation and discovery led in a different direction, one that must have seemed curious to many of his Ivy League mentors twenty years ago. Within five years of publishing his book on Luxury, he had team up with Darwin Turner, a distinguished professor of African American literature, to co-edit a book entitled The Art of Slave Narrative. This book did not have the luxury of being published by a famous press like the Johns Hopkins University Press. The Art of Slave Narrative was published by the Western Illinois University Foundation, not by a university press at all. It would have been difficult in 1981 to find a university press willing to gamble on publishing a book of literary and theoretical studies on so unlikely a topic (back then) as the slave narrative. Yet John Sekora and Darwin Turner were committed to this undertaking, and by hook or by crook John got the development officers of his home universityís foundation to supply the funds necessary to publish The Art of Slave Narrative. Johnís persuasiveness in prying loose that foundation money bore witness to his skills as a university administrator, which culminated in his service as a Dean here at North Carolina Central University. But most impressive of all to me, one of the contributors to The Art of Slave Narrative, was that someone had the prescience to create a book on early African American autobiography as an art, not just a document of history but an art, an achievement of letters meriting serious literary analysis and appreciation. The editing of The Art of Slave Narrative represented a major step in the development of African American Literary scholarship. By virtue of its very title, this book emphasized that artistry was not just a quality of the great African American modernist writers -- the Toomers, the Hurstons, the Ellisons, and so on. Artistry, the Sekora-Turner book announced, lies at the roots of African American literature, in the slave narratives themselves. This idea was quite radical, in both senses of the word, in 1982. It was also inspiring to many of us who followed John into this field.

John Sekora wrote a number of early scholarly studies of the slave narrative. These essays and articles are among the most widely cited among scholars of African American autobiography. So highly respected was this work on the slave narrative that John received an invitation from G. K. Hall publishers in Boston to write a literary biography of Frederick Douglass for the canon-defining Twayne United States Authors Series. The fruit of many years of research and of great admiration for Douglass as a thinker and a leader, Johnís book, simply entitled Frederick Douglass, will be must reading for all who are interested in Douglass, his thought and expression, and his place in American as well as African American history. Having been privileged to receive from John a copy of the page proofs of his Douglas biography, which I understand will appear in final book form in the near future, I can say with confidence that this book will inform, teach, and stimulate anyone who takes it up. It will be a widely praised book among Douglass scholars as well.

This brief survey of just a few of Johnís intellectual achievements cannot do justice to the many ways he helped, encouraged, advised, and pointed the way for those of us who were his co-workers. He was a scholar of great erudition; he was also an intellectual activist in the best sense of that word. He believed that the active pursuit of ideas prepares us to become active agents for change in our society. Beyond all the outstanding research, the scholarship, and the teaching, this commitment to creating a more humane university and a more just society is the legacy that John Sekora leaves us all, teachers, scholars, and students alike.

-- William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

 

Memorial to John Sekora

from a former student

 

I knew John Sekoraís resume before I knew the man himself. My dissertation chair and I were sitting around the office wondering out loud who might be a possible outside reader for a study of racial discourse in the work of white poets, when the department head piped up suggesting that a friend of his from graduate school might be good. I had my doubts, until I saw the resume. The name of John Sekora had not come to my attention before, but when I saw his list of publications and activities I knew that here was somebody to reckon with. I met John for the first time at my dissertation defense, not the best of circumstances for any first meeting. John, though, immediately put me at ease and within minutes made me feel as though we were old friends. It was with Johnís encouragement that I sent my unrevised manuscript off to a publisher, and thus my first book appeared when it did largely because John Sekora helped me overcome my own trepidations about the project.

John was always like that. My wife, Anna Everett, and I both owe much to Johnís inspiration. We looked forward to meeting him again each year at the American Literature Association. His papers on the slave narratives were an example to us of a thorough and dedicated scholarship, and we always tried to tell John how much that work meant to us. Those who knew John, though, knew how he always managed to turn praise of his work into encouraging questions about your work. We never left the ALA without extracting from John a promise to send us copies of the essays he presented, bibliographies, illustrations, from rare editions, and he never let us get away without making us feel that our work was a part of his life too.

Anna and I learned that there were others like us around the nation, people whose writing and research had been encouraged by the modest instigations of John Sekora. His scholarship will continue to be a model for many of us. He was simply and unselfconsciously one of the most generous scholars of our time, and he gave himself to education in a way that few of his contemporaries could. We had the good fortune to have made John Sekora happy when we saw him; we had the better fortune to have become better people because we knew him.

-- Aldon L. Nielsen

 

Poet, scholar, artist, activist and archivist, E. Ethelbert Miller stands in a category all by himself, a lone voice crying in the urban wilderness, unshielded and unabashed. His gentle, laughter-filled-always conversational voice, testifies consistently to the raw, unconditional love he has for his culture, family, and humanity.

...I want to yell
join hands demonstrate
free my brothers around the world
free the world around my brothers...

This is more than avocation. Millerís total commitment and sense of mission is evidenced by the more than twenty years he has spent as the archivist-director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, Washington, D.C.; as well as his work as founder-director of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, an important venue for new poets in the D.C. area.

Millerís collected work is a photoalbum filled with vignettes of the collected history of his extended family/friends who occupy a global village that stretches from the Bronx, where he grew up, to Panama, the birthplace of his parents, to El Salvador and South Africa, where he finds and champions the ongoing struggle against oppression and injustice. Voices silently scream or laugh from his poetry, revealing lifeís tensions and ironies which are intricately intertwined throughout his work.

if I had a pass
I could watch the
sunset in Johannesburg
instead I ride the crowded
train
the hot smell of my brothers
mixing with the dust
the coming blackness of the
night
moving ahead of me.

E. Ethelbert Miller will read his poetry Saturday evening, May 24, 1997, in the Baltimore Foyer of the Renaissance Hotel.

 

Bookshelf

 

Ansa, Tina McElroy. The Hand I Fan With. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Bambara, Toni Cade. Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

Burton, LeVar. Aftermath. New York: Warner, 1997.Davis, Thulani. The Maker of Saints. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Everett, Percival. Big Picture. Sant Paulk: Graywolf, Press, 1996.

Kamau, Kwadwo Agymah. Flickering Shadows. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1996.

Mosely, Walter. Gone Fishiní. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1997.

Naylor, Gloria. Ed. Children of the Night. Boston: Litt, Brown and Company, 1995.

Trice, Dawn Turner. Only Twice Iíve Wished for Heaven. New York: Random House, 1996.

Ruff, Shawn Stewart. Go The Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Fiction by African American Writers. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

Tyree, Omar R. Fly Girl. New York: Simon, 1996.

Wideman, John E. The Cattle Killing. New York: Heighten Mifflin, 1996.

 

Non Fiction

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem and Alan Steinberg. Black Profiles in Courage. A Legacy of African American Achievement. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Anderson, Jervis. Bayard Rustin: Troubles Iíve Seen. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Andrews, William. et.al. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Baker, Houston A., Jr., Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg, Eds. Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bogues, Anthony. Calibanís Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C.L.R. James. Chicago: Pluto, 1997.

Boyd, Julia. Embracing the Fire. New York: Dutton, 1997.

Carretta, Vincent. Ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the 18th Century. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Chamoiseau, Patrick. School Days. Translated Linda Coverdale. University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Dyson, Eric Michael. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Demirturk, Lale. Modern Afro-American Novel. Ankara: Gundogarn Publications, 1997.

Gates, Henry L., Jr. Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Black Man. New York: Randorn, 1997.

Gates, Henry L., Jr., et.al., eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Greene, J. Lee. Blacks in Eden: The African-American Novelís First Century. University Press of Virginia, 1996. Winner CLA Award.

Gregoire, Henri. On the Cultural Achievements of Negroes (1808). Translated Thomas Cassirer & Jean-Francois Briere. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Hamblin, Ken. Pick a Better Country. New York: Simon, 1996.

Hatch, James V. And Leo Hamalian, eds. Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Hill, Patricia L., et.al., eds. Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Boston: Heighten, 1997.

Hutchinson, Earl O. The Assassination of the Black Male Image. New York: Simon, 1996.

Major, Clarence, ed. The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-century African American Poetry. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1996.

McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Manís Tribute to His White Mother. New York: Riverhead, 1996.

McMorris, Mark. Black Reeds. University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Nielsen, Aldon L. Black Chant: Languages of African American Postmodernism. Chambridge University Press, 1996.

Porter, Dorothy, ed. Early Negro Writing 1760-1837. Reprinted by Black Classics Press.

Reid, Mark A. Post Negritude Visual and Literary Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Powerful Black Women. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1996.

Smith, Valerie. Ed. New Essay on Song of Solomon. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Tate, Sonsyrea. Little X: Growing Up In the Nation of Islam. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997.

Walker, Alice. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Ward Jerry W., Jr., ed. Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry. New York: Mentor, 1997.

West, Dorothy. The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches, and Reminiscences. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Wright, Roberta Hughes, and Wilburn B. Hughes, III. Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1996.

 

Poetry In Review

 

Trouble the Waters: 250 Years of

African-American Poetry

Ed. Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

New York: Mentor, 1997

ISBN 0-451-62864-0

566 pp. $6.99 (paper)

 

Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry

E. Keith Gilyard

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997

ISBN 0-8156-2731-9

304 pp. $24.95 (paper)

 

In his introduction to Trouble the Waters, Jerry Ward makes the simple, direct and commonsensical observation, one that has been ignored by almost all American literature anthologies when they come to representations of black verse, that "before one canonizes on the literary/extraliterary axis, it seems desirable to represent the variety and difference that actually does exist." The actually existing variety with which Ward troubles the placid waters of todayís multiclti anthology market encompasses such truly troubling poets as Bob Kaufman, Lorenzo Thomas, Tom Dent, Julia Fields, Clarence Major, David Henderson and Harryette Mullen. It seems that, despite what weíve been reading in some other collections, every good bye ainít gone, and it is wonderful to see again an editor willing to restore to view the fullest spectrum of poetry by black American writers.

Unlike its editor, Trouble the Waters is thick and cheap. While any individual reader might quibble about particular selections form a favorite poetísís work, this is undoubtedly the most comprehensive available anthology. All the expected poets are found here, but readers will also encounter poetry by Daniel Payne, Camille Thierry, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, James Edwin Campbell, May Miller, Marcus Christian, Clarissa Delany and Sybil Kein. Raymond Patterson, who found "Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman" long before Henry Gates stopped at thirteen, is represented, as is Ahmos Zu Bolton. Ward has done us all a favor by reprinting some of Harryette Mullenís earlier works, which many have wanted to read again now that she has become better known to a larger audience. Any anthology that attempts to be encyclopedic, as this one does, will leave its audience yearning for more selections by each of the poets, but that is, after all, the point of an introductory book or course, and after reading this volume most will want to rush out in search of more poetry.

One place to look is in Keith Gilyardís Spirit & Flame, a collection that introduces even more new names to a wider readership. Along with poets such as Baraka, Dove, Clinton, Madhabuti,, Troupe and Miller, readers will find recent work by Niama Williams, Demetrice Worley, Christopher Stanard and lamont b. steptoe. Because the ordering is alphabetical, the new (Kevin Young) sometimes appears alongside the more familiar (Al Young) to produce an intriguing lineage of book "to indicate the considerable range of contemporaneity. Gilyard announces his hope in this contemporary African American poetry, a project not attempted in over twenty years." He almost succeeds. The introduction refers to "logistical" problems that limited the space available to him (and all of us who publish know just how limiting those logistics are these days), but that does not quite explain one form of narrowing of the range evident in the collection. Where Ward, despite trying to indicate the range of poetry across 250 years, manages to display aesthetics from the most conservative to the most avant garde, Gilyardís collection, in the guise of mappinga scene that is "vibrant and diverse," cordons off one of the more interesting neighborhoods. Harryette Mullen is missing in action, as is Mark McMorris, Nathaniel Mackey, (and to get out of the M-base) Erica Hunt, Ed Roberson, indeed, almost any poet who seems to have taken the poetic experiments of the sixties (as opposed to thematics) beyond the point where the Black Arts brought us.

Still, for a look at how the "mainstream" of contemporary African-American poetry is flowing, it would be hard to match Gilyardís Spirit & Flame, and it makes a wonderful coda to Wardís Trouble the Waters. ith this much activity on the anthology front, perhaps we will once again see the excitement about poetry among students and general readers that is pretended in films like Love Jones.

-- Aldon L. Nielsen

 

New Books by AALCS Members

 

Demirturk, Lale. Modern Afro-American Novel. Ankara: Gundogan Publications, 1997.

Greene, J. Lee. Blacks in Eden: The African American Novelís First Century. University Press of Virginia. Winner of the 1997 CLA Award.

Nielsen, Aldon L. Black Chant: Languages of African American Postmodernism. Cambridge University Press.