Monday, April 7, 2014

The Norton and the challenge of covering the contemporary period of African American literature

One challenge for "The Contemporary Period" in African American literature is that not enough scholars and bodies of scholarship have yet emerged in the area. In the introduction to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2014), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie Smith note that the editors of each individual section are noted scholars in the respective areas that they cover. That sounds about right for every section.

But who is a specialist on the last 10 to 15 years of works produced by black writers? Cheryl Wall, the editor of "The Contemporary Period" section is definitely a highly regarded scholar on the writers who emerged in the 1970s and who are still publishing today. Her book Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (2005), for instance, examines works by Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker, among others. But Wall is given a tall order for "contemporary," since in The Norton that period is presumably from 1976 - 2014.

There are people here and there who talk about that contemporary author and this one. Yet, I'm not sure we have someone notably recognized for covering  developments and trends in, say, the last 10 to 15 years. If you check out the scholarly journals, you'll notice that there's relatively little research presented on artistic productions produced after 2000 in comparison to what literary scholars cover in the 20th and 19th centuries.

Is 1976 - 2014, a single moment, or is there some notable break during that time period? In The Norton, "The Harlem Renaissance" section is presented as 1919 - 1940, the next section "Realism, Naturalism, and Modenrism" is 1940 - 1960, and "The Black Arts era" is presented as 1960 - 1975.  Those eras are presented as 21 years, 20 years, and 15 years, respectively. By contrast, the "Contemporary Period" is presented as 38 years.

The "Contemporary Period" section is too long. Those previous sections are too short. Or, there's something else going on with periodicity that deserves our attention. Ideally, more rigorous and visible scholarship on the contemporary period, whenever it is, will assist with future efforts to define the time period or periods.&nbsp

A Notebook on The Norton Anthology of African American Literature  

1 comment:

jward said...

Examine the premises involved with dating, naming, and determining the contents of a "period." My own premises are grounded in beliefs about the actual and the real. Establishing a period is an attempt to persuade others that point A to point B in duration has special external and internal qualities; it is an attempt to place a grid of reality over a welter of the actual. It is from this position that efforts to construct periods might begin.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.