This summer I assigned myself six canonical works of 20th century African American literature. This was prompted in part by a student last quarter commenting that he had read either Invisible Man or Native Son (I’ve forgotten which) and raving about the book. When he asked whether I had read it I had to confess that I had not. So I decided I had better deal with my deficit in African American literature. Here’s what I assigned myself (with dates of original publication):
- The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston
- Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright
- Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison
- Go Tell It on The Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin
- The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker
I’d previously read The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Dark Princess (1928) by W.E.B. Du Bois as well as Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison.
I’ll comment a bit on this experience and the individual books in future posts. For now let me make a broad observation about one challenge these authors each faced. That is:
How does one write a ‘race novel’ or generally seek to represent a group – with all its trials, heartaches, and hopes – in a single book?
This was a familiar question to me because it is one that Du Bois wrestled with repeatedly in much of his writing. And I saw those same struggles in these works. One approach is to include either a broad cast of representative figures (The Quest of the Silver Fleece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Go Tell It on The Mountain). Another is to walk a single character through a range of representative situations (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Dark Princess, Invisible Man). For me, though, the best works were those that focused intently on a single character or situation in order to convey the raw, stark reality of what race/racism could do – not what it always does, but what it can do – and allow that story to stand in for so many untold others. That is where Native Son, The Color Purple, and Beloved stand out for me.