Often when people focus on black South literature, they rightly concentrate on the creative writers, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and so forth. However, I think it’s also useful, in fact, essential to extend a little and point out the significance of southern-born black scholars and white scholars who write about black writers. Beyond just the literary artists, those scholars have been vital in advancing the importance of the black South in scholarly discourses.
Consider this short list of just 11 academics, scholars:
William Andrews, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Thadious Davis, Joanne Gabbin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Maryemma Graham, Trudier Harris, Karla Holloway, bell hooks, Deborah McDowell, and Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
In different ways, they’ve had a really large, extended influence on the shape of scholarship on southern black literary and cultural studies. Many of those scholars have collaborated on anthologies and reference materials. For instance, Andrews, Baker, McDowell, and Gates all served as editors for The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997, 2004). Andrews and Harris served as editors for The Oxford Companion of African American Literature (1997) and The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology (1997).
Graham and Ward collaborated on the creation and evolutions of the Project on the History of Black Writing (1983); they were among the co-founders of the Richard Wright Circle (1990), and co-editors of The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011).
Gates, who was born in West Virginia, and bell hooks, who was born in Kentucky, aren’t always defined as southerners or black southern scholars, but the South appears as a notable recurring region in their memoirs and autobiographical works. bell hooks has spent her career referencing her childhood in Kentucky, and in 2004, she returned to the state to take a job at Berea College. Memoirs or autobiographical writings by Baker, Harris, and McDowell, also testify to the scholars’ notable upbringing in the South.
The story of black South literary studies is also a story of positioning. Ward taught for more than 30 years at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and then taught another 10 at Dillard University in Louisiana. McDowell has been at the University of Virginia since the early 1990s; Holloway has been at Duke since the early 90s; and Andrews at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1996. During their time at these institutions, the scholars have worked with countless students, conference organizers, and fellow scholars on black South-based literary projects.
In addition to Graham, Joanna Gabbin has been a major organizer, most notably coordinating the Furious Flower Poetry conferences in 1994 and 2004. In 1999, she founded the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison.
Oh, and they’ve collectively produced a tremendous body of scholarly writings on the South. Andrews is viewed as a leading scholar on slave narratives, many of which are based in the South. Davis and Harris have each published considerable work on 20th century southern black writers. Ward has produced and presented on Richard Wright and southern black poets. Graham is a long-time specialist on Margaret Walker. I’ve documented more of the scholars’ contributions here.
I want to be clear that there are far more than these 11 scholars who’ve shaped black South literary studies. The late Blyden Jackson and others preceded them, for instance; they have many contemporaries, including Bernard Bell, Daryl Dance, J. Lee Greene, Gloria Wade Gayles, Donna A. S. Harper, Lovalerie King, R. Baxter Miller, John Lowe, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, to name just a few. Then, another generation of scholars addressing the South has emerged and is emerging, so the work continues.
Having said all of that, when it comes to my own understanding and positioning in the field, I’ve been indebted to several scholars whose works have concentrated on what we might call black South literary studies.
• A Notebook on Black South Literary Scholars