“For Black History Month-And Every Month”
For Black History Month, I want to look at some of my favorite Black authors: Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, primarily. How does literature help you understand Black “history”? While the stories may be fiction, they are often based on real events, and can bring the reader an emotional understanding of these events in a way that dry historical facts do not.
Toni Morrison, for example, has said that she took her idea for Beloved from a newspaper report (from Cincinnati, Ohio) of an incident of an escaped enslaved person who killed her child so they wouldn’t be forced back into slavery. The whole novel is Sethe’s working out a way to live with her past, but slavery is not just one person’s past, but the past of the whole country. In the novel Morrison writes, “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed.” This is written primarily about the dead baby named Beloved on her tombstone, but it could also be said for the past of the country that the US does not want to claim, the many slaves who helped build the country but were not given human dignity then or now in the story of the US. There is grief for Sethe, but there is grief that this country must confront as well.
Moving from the time of slavery to the time of segregation, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston writes about the meaning of love, of the search for identity. Near the beginning of the novel there is a passage about the birds and the bees that symbolizes love: “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!” (chapter 2). Janie, the main character, searches for a relationship that makes her feel this way throughout the novel. But more than love or a search for an individual identity, there is a characterization of the Black community as an entity. Drawing on her folklore work, Hurston incorporates dialect, as when Janie talks to her friend Pheoby, “Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive… It’s uh known fact Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” (chapter 20). Recreating the original dialect enables the reader to “hear” the Black voice as well as read the story. She also incorporates the stories and community life represented by “mule stories” that the Black community tells about a stubborn mule right up to the point of having a funeral for the mule after he dies. These stories bind the community together, allow for creativity, and provide entertainment all at once. Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God is like visiting a time and place by requiring the reader to think about deep questions of life.
Moving from a female point of view to a male point of view, Ellison’s Invisible Man provides a wide-ranging look at the Black experience in the US in the 1950s. An unnamed narrator searches for his identity, trying out various personas before ending up withdrawing from all community in the Epilogue. The novel depicts various possible strategies for succeeding as a Black man in America in the 1950s. More than that, Ellison critiques each identity, including the narrator’s grandfather who counsels to “overcome [white people] with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16); college president Bledsoe who pretends to be a friend of the Black community but secretly sells them all out to keep his position with the leaders of the white community; Black separatist Ras the Exhorter who calls for violence; and finally the shape-shifter Rinehart who can’t be pinned down to one identity. A reader may be surprised to find how much of this novel, written over half a century ago, still resonates today.
However, no need to stop at these writers when there are so many great Black authors to choose from. A reader could explore Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or one of her poems like “Still I Rise” or Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Parable of the Sower, to name just a few. These writers can touch one’s heart in so many ways. One of the most powerful readings of a poem I have ever experienced was when I witnessed young woman from Uganda, a lesbian seeking asylum in the US due to the danger to her life in her country because of her sexuality, reading “Still I Rise” with conviction and feeling, asserting her confidence in herself and her assertion of her own self worth. Black history is still being written and expressed through this literature.
Dr. MaryLynn Saul is a professor at Worcester State University who regularly teaches History of the English Language, Human Rights, and medieval literature. Her research interests are in Arthurian studies, particularly concerning the character Morgan le Fay, and gender studies.
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