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Literature > American Literature > African American Literature

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James Baldwin Cover

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James Baldwin

America and Beyond

Edited by Bill Schwarz and Cora Kaplan

"This fine collection of essays represents an important contribution to the rediscovery of Baldwin's stature as essayist, novelist, black prophetic political voice, and witness to the Civil Rights era. The title provides an excellent thematic focus. He understood both the necessity, and the impossibility, of being a black 'American' writer. He took these issues 'Beyond'---Paris, Istanbul, various parts of Africa---but this formative experience only returned him to the unresolved dilemmas. He was a fine novelist and a major prophetic political voice. He produced some of the most important essays of the twentieth century and addressed in depth the complexities of the black political movement. His relative invisibility almost lost us one of the most significant voices of his generation. This welcome 'revival' retrieves it. Close call." ---Stuart Hall, Professor Emeritus, Open University This interdisciplinary collection by leading writers in their fields brings together a discussion of the many facets of James Baldwin, both as a writer and as the prophetic conscience of a nation. The core of the volume addresses the shifting, complex relations between Baldwin as an American—“as American as any Texas GI” as he once wryly put it—and his life as an itinerant cosmopolitan. His ambivalent imaginings of America were always mediated by his conception of a world “beyond” America: a world he knew both from his travels and from his voracious reading. He was a man whose instincts were, at every turn, nurtured by America; but who at the same time developed a ferocious critique of American exceptionalism. In seeking to understand how, as an American, he could learn to live with difference—breaking the power of fundamentalisms of all stripes—he opened an urgent, timely debate that is still ours. His America was an idea fired by desire and grief in equal measure. As the authors assembled here argue, to read him now allows us to imagine new possibilities for the future. With contributions by Kevin Birmingham, Douglas Field, Kevin Gaines, Briallen Hopper, Quentin Miller, Vaughn Rasberry, Robert Reid-Pharr, George Shulman, Hortense Spillers, Colm Tóibín, Eleanor W. Traylor, Cheryl A. Wall, and Magdalena Zaborowska.

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James Baldwin's Later Fiction

Witness to the Journey

Lynn Orilla Scott

James Baldwin’s Later Fiction examines the decline of Baldwin’s reputation after the middle 1960s, his tepid reception in mainstream and academic venues, and the ways in which critics have often mis-represented and undervalued his work. Scott develops readings of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head that explore the interconnected themes in Baldwin’s work: the role of the family in sustaining the arts, the price of success in American society, and the struggle of black artists to change the ways that race, sex, and masculinity are represented in American culture. 
     Scott argues that Baldwin’s later writing crosses the cultural divide between the 1950s and 1960s in response to the civil rights and black power movements. Baldwin’s earlier works, his political activism and sexual politics, and traditions of African American autobiography and fiction all play prominent roles in Scott’s analysis.

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James Weldon Johnson's Modern Soundscapes

Noelle Morrissette

James Weldon Johnson’s Modern Soundscapes provides an evocative and meticulously researched study of one of the best known and yet least understood authors of the New Negro Renaissance era. Johnson, familiar to many as an early civil rights leader active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an intentionally controversial writer on the subject of the significance of race in America, was one of the most prolific, wide-ranging, and yet elusive authors of twentieth-century African American literature.

Johnson realized early in his writing career that he could draw attention to the struggles of African Americans by using unconventional literary methods such as the incorporation of sound into his texts. In this groundbreaking work, literary critic Noelle Morrissette examines how his literary representation of the extremes of sonic experience—functioning as either cultural violence or creative force—draws attention to the mutual contingencies and the interdependence of American and African American cultures. Moreover, Morrissette argues, Johnson represented these “American sounds” as a source of multiplicity and diversity, often developing a framework for the interracial transfer of sound. The lyricist and civil rights leader used sound as a formal aesthetic practice in and between his works, presenting it as an unbounded cultural practice that is as much an interracial as it is a racially distinct cultural history.

Drawing on archival materials such as early manuscript notes and drafts of Johnson’s unpublished and published work, Morrissette explores the author’s complex aesthetic of sound, based on black expressive culture and cosmopolitan interracial experiences. This aesthetic evolved over the course of his writing life, beginning with his early Broadway musical comedy smash hits and the composition of Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and developing through his “real” autobiography, Along This Way (1933). The result is an innovative new interpretation of the works of one of the early twentieth century’s most important and controversial writers and civil rights leaders. 

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Jazz Country

Ralph Ellison in America

Horace A. Porter

The first book to reassess Ralph Ellison after his death and the posthumous publication of Juneteenth, his second novel, Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America explores Ellison's writings and views on American culture through the lens of jazz music.

Horace Porter's groundbreaking study addresses Ellison's jazz background, including his essays and comments about jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. Porter further examines the influences of Ellington and Armstrong as sources of the writer's personal and artistic inspiration and highlights the significance of Ellison's camaraderie with two African American friends and fellow jazz fans—the writer Albert Murray and the painter Romare Bearden. Most notably, Jazz Country demonstrates how Ellison appropriated jazz techniques in his two novels, Invisible Man and Juneteenth.

Using jazz as the key metaphor, Porter refocuses old interpretations of Ellison by placing jazz in the foreground and by emphasizing, especially as revealed in his essays, the power of Ellison's thought and cultural perception. The self-proclaimed “custodian of American culture,” Ellison offers a vision of “jazz-shaped” ;America—a world of improvisation, individualism, and infinite possibility.

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Jim Crow, Literature, and the Legacy of Sutton E. Griggs

Tess Chakkalakal

Imperium in Imperio (1899) was the first black novel to countenance openly the possibility of organized black violence against Jim Crow segregation. Its author, a Baptist minister and newspaper editor from Texas, Sutton E. Griggs (1872–1933), would go on to publish four more novels; establish his own publishing company, one of the first secular publishing houses owned and operated by an African American in the United States; and help to found the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee. Alongside W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Griggs was a key political and literary voice for black education and political rights and against Jim Crow.

Jim Crow, Literature, and the Legacy of Sutton E. Griggs examines the wide scope of Griggs’s influence on African American literature and politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Contributors engage Griggs’s five novels and his numerous works of nonfiction, as well as his publishing and religious careers. By taking up Griggs’s work, these essays open up a new historical perspective on African American literature and the terms that continue to shape American political thought and culture.

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King Me

Three One-Act Plays Inspired by the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Clinnesha D. Sibley

A trio of short dramas set in the South and spanning 1968 to the present, King Me features compelling characters and relevant themes that examine our ongoing understanding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bound by Blood, #communicate, and Paradox in the Parish richly dramatize three of King’s popular quotes, offering creative methods for teaching history and social studies and setting the stage for inspiring discussions for contemporary theater goers. Readers and audiences will also learn about current civil rights issues such as the Jena Six Case in Jena, Louisiana, while appreciating, or appreciating anew, how King impacted the lives of his own and future generations.

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Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture

W. Jason Miller

Langston Hughes never knew of an America where lynching was absent from the cultural landscape. Jason Miller investigates the nearly three dozen poems written by Hughes on the subject of lynching to explore its varying effects on survivors, victims, and accomplices as they resisted, accepted, and executed this brutal form of sadistic torture.

Starting from Hughes's life as a teenager during the Red Summer of 1919 and moving through the civil rights movement that took place toward the end of Hughes's life, Miller initiates an important dialogue between America's neglected history of lynching and some of the world’s most significant poems.

This extended study of the centrality of these heinous acts to Hughes's artistic development, aesthetics, and activism represents a significant and long-overdue contribution to our understanding of the art and politics of Langston Hughes.

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Legba's Crossing

Narratology in the African Atlantic

Heather Russell

In Haiti, Papa Legba is the spirit whose permission must be sought to communicate with the spirit world. He stands at and for the crossroads of language, interpretation, and form and is considered to be like the voice of a god. In Legba's Crossing, Heather Russell examines how writers from the United States and the anglophone Caribbean challenge conventional Western narratives through innovative use, disruption, and reconfiguration of form.

Russell's in-depth analysis of the work of James Weldon Johnson, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, Earl Lovelace, and John Edgar Wideman is framed in light of the West African aesthetic principle of àshe, a quality ascribed to art that transcends the prescribed boundaries of form. Àshe is linked to the characteristics of improvisation and flexibility that are central to jazz and other art forms. Russell argues that African Atlantic writers self-consciously and self-reflexively manipulate dominant forms that prescribe a certain trajectory of, for example, enlightenment, civilization, or progress. She connects this seemingly postmodern meta-analysis to much older West African philosophy and its African Atlantic iterations, which she calls “the Legba Principle.”

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Literary Sisters

Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis

Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West led a charmed life in many respects. Born into a distinguished Boston family, she appeared in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, then lived in the Soviet Union with a group that included Langston Hughes, to whom she proposed marriage. She later became friends with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who encouraged her to finish her second novel, The Wedding, which became the octogenarian author’s first bestseller.Literary Sisters reveals a different side of West’s personal and professional lives—her struggles for recognition outside of the traditional literary establishment, and her collaborations with talented African American women writers, artists, and performers who faced these same problems. West and her “literary sisters”—women like Zora Neale Hurston and West’s cousin, poet Helene Johnson—created an emotional support network that also aided in promoting, publishing, and performing their respective works. Integrating rare photos, letters, and archival materials from West’s life, Literary Sisters is not only a groundbreaking biography of an increasingly important author but also a vivid portrait of a pivotal moment for African American women in the arts.

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The Marengo Jake Stories

The Tales of Jake Mitchell and Robert Wilton Burton

Written by Jake Mitchell and Robert Wilton Burton, collected and with an introdu

Between 1885 and 1894 The Montgomery Advertiser, The Birmingham-Age Herald, and The New Orleans Times Democrat featured a series of about 80 humorous black-dialect sketches by Robert Wilton Burton, a bookseller and writer from Auburn, Alabama.  According to Burton, these tales were based on various characters in the black community of Auburn, and 36 of them were devoted exclusively to a character called "Marengo Jake."  Probably originally from Virginia, Jake Mitchell was brought to the Drake Plantation in Marengo county as a boy in the 1850's.  After the Civil War, the Drake family moved to Auburn and many former slaves followed, forming a fairly large expatriate Marengo County community.  The theme of the stories, usually related by Jake, centers on the superiority of all things from Marengo County, especially over those in Lee County, in which Auburn is located.

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