Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Curious Cases of Genealogies, Chronologies: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature's Trouble with Black Arts Poets

"We choose what parts of our genealogies are important to us." --Alondra Nelson

I've been looking through the second edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature recently as I assist one of my graduate students as she prepares to teach her first black literature course. She's using the Norton, which I think is a good idea for her and the students she'll teach who are new to literature. Still, as someone who's studied and written about the black arts era, I couldn't help but wince while looking through the table of contents concerning the 1960s and 1970s.

One section, entitled "The Black Arts Era, 1960 - 1975," includes works by Mari Evans, Hoyt Fuller, Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Cade Bambara, and other figures associated with the movement. The subsequent section, entitled "Literature Since 1975," includes works by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. The divide between those writers seems problematic.

Angelou, Morrison, and Walker published major works in 1970; they were in fact part of a number of writers who published works in that defining year. Angelou (b. 1928) and Morrison (b. 1931) are older than 22 of the 26 figures who appear in the black arts section, which raises further questions about the chronological arrangement of the two sections. The black arts section features mostly poets while the "Literature Since 1975" section consists primarily of novelists, suggesting and perhaps over-exaggerating a clear-cut genre-shift.

The table of contents projects the results of tensions and debates among scholars and commentators about the Black Arts Movement without explicitly identifying those conflicts. There appears to be some serious politics at work by separating a Baraka and a Morrison, for instance, even though they are and have remained very much contemporaries. Sure, I can inform my graduate student to assist her students on reading between the lines of the chronology that the Norton presents, but still.....  

Looking over the table of contents and considering the discrepancies had me thinking again on Alondra Nelson's observation about the presence of selectivity when it comes to "our genealogies." Nelson explained that one reason Obama "ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation."

In the case of the Norton, I'm curious about the factors drive us to separate some black writers from other ones. Apparently, chronologies can be as selective in their constructions as genealogies.


Rochelle said...

Your point is well taken, but I think we also have to look at the kind of work the writers produce. Morrison and Baraka are indeed close in age, but thematically, their work feels very different.

H. Rambsy said...

Yeah, it's true, their work feels different. However, although Baraka and Lucille Clifton also feel different they appear in the same section.

Toni Morrison's and Toni Cade Bambara's feels closer together, yet Bambara is tagged as black arts while Morrison is in another section.

Of course, I'm nitpicking a bit. I understand that anthologists are likely under some pressures that cause the false lines to be drawn.