Saturday, May 23, 2020
1987 as a starting point for Contemporary African American Lit?
I was recently writing about the lack of updates for periodizing contemporary African American literature. I'm still thinking through things, but if I had to designate a key year for new developments in black literary history, I'd say 1987.
That's the year that Toni Morrison's Beloved was published, a book that has become arguably the most critically acclaimed artistic work in American literature. Morrison's novel was nominated for a National Book Award. But in early 1988, a group of forty-eight black writers offered a major public letter of support for Morrison and her work, and in April, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Also in 1987, Rita Dove won the Pulitzer for Poetry for her volume Thomas and Beulah (1986). As many commentators noted, Dove was only the second black winner of the prize after Gwendolyn Brooks's win in 1950. Dove's win inspired several emergent poets, including Natashsa Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and Kevin Young.
James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, which marked an end, yes, but also new beginnings. Inspired by the eulogy that Amiri Baraka gave at Badlwin's funeral, poets Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis cofounded the Dark Room Collective.
In 1989, Alexander's poem "The Venus Hottentot" appeared in Callaloo, and in 1990, her volume The Venus Hottentot was published, signaling new developments. Her poem anticipated extended persona projects that would flourish in the twenty-first century. Also in 1990, Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Middle Passage. It was the second time a black person had won the award since 1953, when Ralph Ellison was the recipient for Invisible Man.
So these are some crucial moments that lead me to view 1987 or more broadly, the late 1980s and early 1990s as crucial markers for a new literary period in African American literature.
• When does contemporary African American literature begin?