Thursday, August 22, 2013

More on 1970 as a defining year in the history of black literature

For years now, I've been thinking and occasionally writing about 1970 as a defining year in the history of African American literature and thought, so I perked up a little when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., referenced a publication from that signal year in a recent article on The Root. In a brief reflection on for Albert Murray, who passed on Sunday, Gates reminds us of Murray's book The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture (1970). A few different publications, including The New York Times and Washington Post, ran obituaries on the writer, and I was especially pleased to see Gates's voice in the mix given his important profile on Murray, "King of Cats" from The New Yorker in 1996. 

In the recent Root article, Gates notes that:
The Omni-Americans spelled the beginning of the end of the black aesthetic movement's mono-vocal dominance in the debates over black culture, and helped give rise to the modernist and postmodernist artistic practices of writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Leon Forrest, Ishmael Reed, Ernest Gaines, James Alan McPherson, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Alexander and Colson Whitehead, among others, who understood the task of the artist as finding the universal in the particularity of African-American history and culture.
I understand and respect some of  Gates's perspective there, and in particular at this moment, at the time of Murray's passing, we want to celebrate and acknowledge his notable contributions. Full stop.

At the same time, I would differ on a couple of points raised by Gates in that section. For one, Murray's book was published in 1970, and the most widely cited text in black aesthetic discourse was in fact The Black Aesthetic (1971) edited by Addison Gayle. Note that Gayle's book appears after, not before, Murray's work. Although some of the essays in Gayle's collection appeared prior to the book's publication, the term "black aesthetic" only gained wide appeal after the appearance of The Black Aesthetic, a claim that Google's Ngram confirms. (As the graph reveals, the late 1960s/early 1970s represented the beginning, not the end, of "black aesthetic" considerations at least under that label).

black aesthetic, google Ngram

I enjoyed some of the positions offered in Murray's book, but of course, my all-time favorite essay from 1970 is Larry Neal's "Ellison's Zoot Suit," which appeared in a special issue on Ralph Ellison in the December issue of Black World magazine. In addition to offering an eloquent celebration of Ellison's artistic genius and cultural insight and admitting that he (Neal) had, in previous writings, under-appreciated the novelist, Neal makes the case that "What I think we have to do is to understand our roles as synthesizers; the creators of new and exciting visions out of the accumulated weight of our Western experience."

Neal's position was not so dissimilar to Gates's description of Murray's understanding that "the task of the artist as finding the universal in the particularity of African-American history and culture." Unlike Murray though, Neal was a leading force in black arts discourse, and Black World magazine was one of the most high profile venues in the country for African American literary and cultural art. Thus, if there were shifts in the thinking among large numbers of black arts writers, it likely came as a result of Neal, not Murray, though we can obviously learn from both of those wonderful writers.        

A list of publications from 1970

I am a Black Woman by Mari Evans
Cables to Rage by Audre Lorde
Prophets for a New Day by Margaret Walker
We a Baddddd People by Sonia Sanchez
It's Nation Time by Amiri Baraka 

The Black Woman edited by Toni Cade Bambara
3000 Years of Black Poetry edited by Alan Lomax and Raoul Abdul
Dices or Black Bones: Black Voices of the Seventies edited by David Adam Miller
Black American Literature: Essays, Poetry, Fiction, Drama edited by Darwin Turner
Soulscript edited by June Jordan
Black Out Loud: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Americans edited by Arnold Adoff
Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices edited by Nikki Giovanni

Black World special issue on "Ralph Ellison: His Literary Works and Status." (December)

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker

Photographs & poetic prose
In Our Terribleness: Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style by Amiri Baraka and Billy Abernathy

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