Saturday, February 25, 2012

The greatest 10 years in African American literature

On Thursday, February 23, I gave a talk at the University of Texas at San Antonio about my book The Black Arts Enterprise. To keep things interesting and concise, I spent much of the talk trying to convince the audience that the "greatest 10 years ever" in African American were 1965 - 1976. (That's how great those 10 years were; they lasted longer than 10 years).

The good sisters Sonja Lanehart and Joycelyn Moody invited me to present; and since Moody studies 19th century literature, I was kind of required to offer my strong (ok, and playful) argument that the greatest 10 years ever occurred late in the 20th century, certainly not in her beloved 19th century. Besides, I've attended too many talks where all the claims were primarily tentative (i.e. the scholars saying "I want to suggest.") and not enough of the fun over-the-top exaggerations. I didn't want to bore the students in attendance.      

Why were those years, 1965 - 1976, the greatest ever in African American literary history? Well, for one, never before had there been such a major gathering of poets, past and present. For the first time, you could flip through the pages of individual books and find works by Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Larry Neal, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and even Phillis Wheatley. The writers of the era had the audacity and wherewithal to refer to their activities as a movement, a black arts movement. It was the greatest 10 years ever in the history of African American literature.   

There was an explosion of anthologies featuring  black poetry. More than 60 anthologies appeared between 1968 and 1973, alone. This golden age of anthologies gave a sense of unity and (virtual) community among poets from the late 1700s all the way through the 1970s. The anthologies of the era were the first to consistently make the case that the spirituals and blues lyrics could and should be viewed as types of poetry.  It was the greatest 10 years ever in the history of African American literature.

This was a foundational moment in the production of so many poems highlighting black music, especially jazz and that heaviest of the heavy spirits, John Coltrane. It was a significant moment in the production of black political poems, with the most influential and fiery force being our main man Malcolm

Oh, and consider just some of the novels produced during that time period: Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966); John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am (1967); Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970); Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970); Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972); Toni Morrison's Sula (1973); Gayl Jones's  Corregidora (1975); Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (1975); Octavia Butler's Patternmaster (1976); Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada; Alex Haley's Roots (1976). Morrison's best novel Song of Solomon appeared in 1977, outside my time frame I know, but listen, she had to have written it during the 1970s. It was the greatest 10 years ever in the history of African American literature.     

We haven't even talking about Broadside Press, Third World Press, and Lotus Press. We haven't even mentioned the essays produced by Larry Neal, Carolyn Rodgers, Hoyt Fuller, Sarah Webster Fabio, Baraka, Giovanni, and others, nor discussed Eugene B. Redmond's groundbreaking Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976). And we haven't talked about the large and continuing influence the black arts era has on contemporary African American artistic productions. 

Anyway, even without going into detail on those things, we all know the deal: it was the greatest 10 years ever in the history of African American literature.   

A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

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