Writer and playwright James Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, receiving acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head, as well as essays like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time.
Writer and playwright James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. One of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works. He was especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America.
Baldwin was born to a young single mother, Emma Jones, at Harlem Hospital. She reportedly never told him the name of his biological father. Jones married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin when James was about three years old.
Despite their strained relationship, Baldwin followed in his stepfather’s footsteps — who he always referred to as his father — during his early teen years. He served as a youth minister in a Harlem Pentecostal church from the ages of 14 to 16.
Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon.
Baldwin published numerous poems, short stories and plays in the magazine, and his early work showed an understanding for sophisticated literary devices in a writer of such a young age.
After graduating from high school in 1942, he had to put his plans for college on hold to help support his family, which included seven younger children. He took whatever work he could find, including laying railroad tracks for the U.S. Army in New Jersey.
During this time, Baldwin frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American. After being fired from the New Jersey job, Baldwin sought other work and struggled to make ends meet.
On July 29, 1943, Baldwin lost his father — and gained his eighth sibling the same day. He soon moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood popular with artists and writers.
Devoting himself to writing a novel, Baldwin took odd jobs to support himself. He befriended writer Richard Wright, and through Wright, he was able to land a fellowship in 1945 to cover his expenses. Baldwin started getting essays and short stories published in such national periodicals as The Nation, Partisan Review and Commentary.
Three years later, Baldwin made a dramatic change in his life and moved to Paris on another fellowship. The shift in location freed Baldwin to write more about his personal and racial background.
“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly…I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both,” Baldwin once told The New York Times. The move marked the beginning of his life as a “transatlantic commuter,” dividing his time between France and the United States.
‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’
Baldwin had his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. The loosely autobiographical tale focused on the life of a young man growing up in Harlem grappling with father issues and his religion.
“Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father,” he later said.
In 1954, Baldwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He published his next novel, Giovanni’s Room, the following year. The work told the story of an American living in Paris and broke new ground for its complex depiction of homosexuality, a then-taboo subject.
Love between men was also explored in a later Baldwin novel Just Above My Head (1978). The author would also use his work to explore interracial relationships, another controversial topic for the times, as seen in the 1962 novel Another Country.
Baldwin was open about his homosexuality and relationships with both men and women. Yet he believed that the focus on rigid categories was just a way of limiting freedom and that human sexuality is more fluid and less binary than often expressed in the U.S.
“If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy,” the writer said in a 1969 interview when asked if being gay was an aberration, asserting that such views were an indication of narrowness and stagnation.
‘Nobody Knows My Name’
Baldwin explored writing for the stage a well. He wrote The Amen Corner, which looked at the phenomenon of storefront Pentecostal religion. The play was produced at Howard University in 1955, and later on Broadway in the mid-1960s.
It was his essays, however, that helped establish Baldwin as one of the top writers of the times. Delving into his own life, he provided an unflinching look at the Black experience in America through such works as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961).
Nobody Knows My Name hit the bestsellers list, selling more than a million copies. While not a marching or sit-in style activist, Baldwin emerged as one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement for his compelling work on race.
‘The Fire Next Time’
In 1963, there was a noted change in Baldwin’s work with The Fire Next Time. This collection of essays was meant to educate white Americans on what it meant to be Black. It also offered white readers a view of themselves through the eyes of the African American community.
In the work, Baldwin offered a brutally realistic picture of race relations, but he remained hopeful about possible improvements. “If we…do not falter in our duty now, we may be able…to end the racial nightmare.” His words struck a chord with the American people, and The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies.
That same year, Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. “There is not another writer — white or Black — who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South,” Time said in the feature.
Baldwin wrote another play, Blues for Mister Charlie, which debuted on Broadway in 1964. The drama was loosely based on the 1955 racially motivated murder of a young African American boy named Emmett Till.
This same year, his book with friend Avedon entitled Nothing Personal, hit bookstore shelves. The work was a tribute to slain civil rights movement leader Medgar Evers. Baldwin also published a collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man, around this time.
In his 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Baldwin returned to popular themes — sexuality, family and the Black experience. Some critics panned the novel, calling it a polemic rather than a novel. He was also criticized for using the first-person singular, the “I,” for the book’s narration.
Later Works and Death
By the early 1970s, Baldwin seemed to despair over the racial situation. He had witnessed so much violence in the previous decade — especially the assassinations of Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — caused by racial hatred.
This disillusionment became apparent in his work, which employed a more strident tone than in earlier works. Many critics point to No Name in the Street, a 1972 collection of essays, as the beginning of the change in Baldwin’s work. He also worked on a screenplay around this time, trying to adapt The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley for the big screen.
While his literary fame faded somewhat in his later years, Baldwin continued to produce new works in a variety of forms. He published a collection of poems, Jimmy’s Blues: Selected Poems, in 1983 as well as the 1987 novel Harlem Quartet.
Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France. Never wanting to be a spokesperson or a leader, Baldwin saw his personal mission as bearing “witness to the truth.” He accomplished this mission through his extensive, rapturous literary legacy.
Born on this day in 1891, Zoe’s Neale Hurston. On this 132nd anniversary of her birth, check out this incredible resource from the Library of Congress , audio recordings of Hurston talking about her research. Just amazing stuff:
“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”
– Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen
Zora Neale Hurston knew how to make an entrance. On May 1, 1925, at a literary awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine, the earthy Harlem newcomer turned heads and raised eyebrows as she claimed four awards: a second-place fiction prize for her short story “Spunk,” a second-place award in drama for her play Color Struck, and two honorable mentions.
The names of the writers who beat out Hurston for first place that night would soon be forgotten. But the name of the second-place winner buzzed on tongues all night, and for days and years to come. Lest anyone forget her, Hurston made a wholly memorable entrance at a party following the awards dinner. She strode into the room–jammed with writers and arts patrons, black and white–and flung a long, richly colored scarf around her neck with a dramatic flourish as she bellowed a reminder of the title of her winning play: “Colooooooor Struuckkkk!” Her exultant entrance literally stopped the party for a moment, just as she had intended. In this way, Hurston made it known that a bright and powerful presence had arrived. By all accounts, Zora Neale Hurston could walk into a roomful of strangers and, a few minutes and a few stories later, leave them so completely charmed that they often found themselves offering to help her in any way they could.
Gamely accepting such offers–and employing her own talent and scrappiness–Hurston became the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century. Over a career that spanned more than 30 years, she published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, and several essays, articles and plays.
Born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. Her writings reveal no recollection of her Alabama beginnings. For Hurston, Eatonville was always home.
Established in 1887, the rural community near Orlando was the nation’s first incorporated black township. It was, as Hurston described it, “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
In Eatonville, Zora was never indoctrinated in inferiority, and she could see the evidence of black achievement all around her. She could look to town hall and see black men, including her father, John Hurston, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could look to the Sunday Schools of the town’s two churches and see black women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the Christian curricula. She could look to the porch of the village store and see black men and women passing worlds through their mouths in the form of colorful, engaging stories.
Growing up in this culturally affirming setting in an eight-room house on five acres of land, Zora had a relatively happy childhood, despite frequent clashes with her preacher-father, who sometimes sought to “squinch” her rambunctious spirit, she recalled. Her mother, on the other hand, urged young Zora and her seven siblings to “jump at de sun.” Hurston explained, “We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
Hurston’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end, though, when her mother died in 1904. Zora was only 13 years old. “That hour began my wanderings,” she later wrote. “Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit.”
After Lucy Hurston’s death, Zora’s father remarried quickly–to a young woman whom the hotheaded Zora almost killed in a fistfight–and seemed to have little time or money for his children. “Bare and bony of comfort and love,” Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. Once gone, those years were never restored: From that moment forward, Hurston would always present herself as at least 10 years younger than she actually was. Apparently, she had the looks to pull it off. Photographs reveal that she was a handsome, big-boned woman with playful yet penetrating eyes, high cheekbones, and a full, graceful mouth that was never without expression.
Zora also had a fiery intellect, an infectious sense of humor, and “the gift,” as one friend put it, “of walking into hearts.” Zora used these talents–and dozens more–to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, befriending such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and popular singer/actress Ethel Waters. Though Hurston rarely drank, fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, “When Zora was there, she was the party.” Another friend remembered Hurston’s apartment–furnished by donations she solicited from friends–as a spirited “open house” for artists. All this socializing didn’t keep Hurston from her work, though. She would sometimes write in her bedroom while the party went on in the living room.
By 1935, Hurston–who’d graduated from Barnard College in 1928–had published several short stories and articles, as well as a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine) and a well-received collection of black Southern folklore (Mules and Men). But the late 1930s and early ’40s marked the real zenith of her career. She published her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937; Tell My Horse, her study of Caribbean Voodoo practices, in 1938; and another masterful novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in 1939. When her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942, Hurston finally received the well-earned acclaim that had long eluded her. That year, she was profiled in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography and Twentieth Century Authors. She went on to publish another novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, in 1948.
Still, Hurston never received the financial rewards she deserved. (The largest royalty she ever earned from any of her books was $943.75.) So when she died on Jan. 28, 1960–at age 69, after suffering a stroke–her neighbors in Fort Pierce, Florida, had to take up a collection for her February 7 funeral. The collection didn’t yield enough to pay for a headstone, however, so Hurston was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973.
That summer, a young writer named Alice Walker traveled to Fort Pierce to place a marker on the grave of the author who had so inspired her own work. Walker found the Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery at the dead end of North 17th Street, abandoned and overgrown with yellow-flowered weeds.
Back in 1945, Hurston had foreseen the possibility of dying without money–and she’d proposed a solution that would have benefited her and countless others. Writing to W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she called the “Dean of American Negro Artists,” Hurston suggested “a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead” on 100 acres of land in Florida. Citing practical complications, Du Bois wrote a curt reply discounting Hurston’s persuasive argument. “Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness,” she’d urged. “We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored.”
As if impelled by those words, Walker bravely entered the snake-infested cemetery where Hurston’s remains had been laid to rest. Wading through waist-high weeds, she soon stumbled upon a sunken rectangular patch of ground that she determined to be Hurston’s grave. Unable to afford the marker she wanted–a tall, majestic black stone called “Ebony Mist”–Walker chose a plain gray headstone instead. Borrowing from a Jean Toomer poem, she dressed the marker up with a fitting epitaph: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”
August Wilson had a magnificent ear. His supreme gift as a playwright was for transforming African American vernacular into crystalline poetry onstage. His sense for language was also evident in how he chose to be known. Growing up in the largely Black, poor, and working-class Hill District of Pittsburgh, dreaming of the sort of literary glory enjoyed by his idols Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, the young man must have known that “Frederick Kittel Jr., Great Black Writer” somehow didn’t have the right ring to it. At the age of 20, he rejected being the namesake of his father, a white, German-born, alcoholic baker who was, the playwright would later recall, “a sporadic presence” in his life. “August” was originally his middle name. “Wilson” was the maiden name of his Black mother, Daisy. Put the two together, and you had a moniker exuding steadfast wisdom, a name with gravitas, a name commensurate with its owner’s audacious ambition.
In the early 1980s, August Wilson embarked on a theatrical decathlon of his own design, aiming to write 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, that would reflect African American culture “in all its richness and fullness.” The time frames of the plays did not unfold chronologically. Take, for example, three of Wilson’s best: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in 1927) was followed by Fences (set in 1957), which was followed by Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in 1911). Collectively, the 10 plays would be called both the Pittsburgh Cycle and, perhaps more aptly since one of the works is set in Chicago, the American Century Cycle. Between 1982 and 2005, Wilson worked steadily, averaging a play every two and a half years. The tenth and final play in the Cycle, Radio Golf, premiered five days before his sixtieth birthday. Mission accomplished, he died of liver cancer six months later.
The plays are remarkable in both the depth of their historical exploration and their breadth of tone. The most emotionally wrenching are the two that take place earliest in the century. For many of the characters in Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, slavery is a living memory and the Middle Passage an ancestral trauma that returns in nightmarish visions that, horrific as they are, can lead to a redemptive “washing of the soul.” Meanwhile, two of the plays set later in time border on satire in their caustic wit. In both Two Trains Running (set in 1969) and Radio Golf (set in 1997), Black folks strive to make it in America’s capitalist game only to find that, for them, the rules are subject to constant color-coded changes.
Wilson was showered with accolades, among them two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony, two Drama Desk, and six New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. Even in his lifetime, the literary establishment was carving out his space on the Mount Rushmore of American Dramatists, alongside the monumental figures of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Toni Morrison, in her foreword to the published text of The Piano Lesson (set in the 1930s), praised the epic grandeur of Wilson’s oeuvre and his genius for evoking the beauty of Black American speech—even while acknowledging “respectful reservations” that some critics had expressed about some of his plays: “their length (too much), a plethora of deus ex machina devices (ghosts; characters who live for centuries; sudden, senseless death) and sermonizing instead of storytelling.”
It is rarely noted today, but, in the last decade of his life, Wilson came to be seen—in the eyes of America’s theater establishment—as something a bit more fierce and troubling than a benign Broadway griot conjuring the history of his people onstage. In June 1996, at the peak of his fame and influence, Wilson gave a speech titled “The Ground On Which I Stand” that shocked and appalled prominent arbiters of the dramatic arts in America. Proudly proclaiming himself a “race man,” Wilson offered a blistering critique of “cultural imperialism” in the theater world and made a bold, blunt call for Black self-determination in the arts. Nine years later, in Radio Golf, Wilson would ridicule ambitious African Americans of the Clinton era who surrendered their principles for “a seat at the table” with high-status whites. With this speech, Wilson, who had been welcomed and fêted more enthusiastically than any other Black playwright, effectively knocked the table over. In his foreword to the text of Jitney (set in 1977), the always-iconoclastic Ishmael Reed wrote that Wilson wanted to distance himself “from the neo-cons and neo-liberals who had claimed him as a member of their ranks.” As a character in an August Wilson play might put it: Them white folks thought he was they boy. But he wasn’t studying them.
Wilson’s insistence that African Americans “have control over our own culture and its products” explains why it has taken several decades for any of his plays to make the journey from stage to screen. A compelling film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiered on Netflix in December, arriving four years after a superb adaptation of Fences. Both films showcase illustrious Black talent in front of and behind the cameras. A generation ago, Wilson’s demand for Black artistic independence led some to call him a “separatist”; his stance was considered at best unrealistic. Today, he seems more like a visionary.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I sensed that a lot of older white theatergoers I spoke with felt a bit virtuous about attending August Wilson plays. They would say, “I loved The Piano Lesson” with the same sort of self-regard as the dad in Get Out when he declares he would vote for Obama a third time if he could. Seeing an August Wilson play wasn’t just a great night out at the theater—it was an edifying anthropological excursion.
“Don’t never let nobody tell you there ain’t no good white people,” the former slave Solly says in Gem of the Ocean. But good white people are hard to find anywhere in the Century Cycle. In a cumulative dramatis personae numbering in the 70s, I counted a grand total of four white characters onstage, and all of these are men with dubious motives. Of the countless offstage white characters mentioned, they are overwhelmingly cheats, murderers, and rapists, or, as is the case in Jitney, in which a young white woman falsely accuses her Black boyfriend of rape, deadly liars. The widespread white villainy in the plays either did not register with Wilson’s white admirers or did not trouble them. After all, he wasn’t writing about people like them, was he?
At some point in every one of the 10 plays, Black characters engage in a debate that could be boiled down to Personal Agency vs. Systemic Racism. Are they masters of their own destiny or eternally limited in their aspirations by the legacy of slavery? Sometimes the conflict is roiling within a single character. In Two Trains Running, a restaurant manager named Memphis rails against Black Power activists “talking about freedom, justice and equality and don’t know what it mean. You born free. It’s up to you to maintain it.” Yet this same character had to flee the South when a gang of white men wanted to take over land he had bought and paid for. “Got home and they had set fire to my crop,” Memphis recalls. “To get to my house I’d have to walk through fire. I wasn’t ready to do that.”
It’s possible that the “neo-cons and neo-liberals” that Ishmael Reed invoked did not absorb the complexity and ambiguity of the debates among Wilson’s characters when they claimed the playwright as “a member of their ranks.” But for Black Americans, even success is often stigmatized. In March 1996, August Wilson sat at the wooden table in the dark void of the Charlie Rose Show set. “Some have said,” the host drawled unctuously, “that, in a sense, your success keeps other Black playwrights in the shadows,” as if it were somehow Wilson’s fault that he had been anointed the Chosen One by the theater establishment. Wilson looked dismayed by the suggestion and said, “I don’t understand the logic behind that.” Three months later, he would offer a more full-throated response on the situation of Black dramatists in America.
“I am what is known … as a ‘race man,’” August Wilson declared in his keynote address to the Theatrical Communications Group national conference at Princeton University, in June 1996. “That is simply that I believe that race matters—that it is the largest, most identifiable, most important part of our personality.” This pronouncement came after he had, earlier in the speech, cited among his influences, “Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” two names that Wilson certainly knew would raise the hairs on many an American neck.
He then turned to his métier. “If you do not know, I will tell you,” Wilson said. “Black theater in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital … it just isn’t funded.” In the theater world, financial resources were “reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture.” As a remedy, he called for the creation and funding of institutions that would be dedicated exclusively to African American works: “We need theaters to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use. Without theaters we cannot develop our talents.… We need some theaters.”
Wilson went on to criticize the sort of white theatergoers who flocked to his plays, saying “the subscription audience holds theaters hostage to the mediocrity of its tastes, and impedes the further development of an audience for the work that we do.” He added: “While intentional or not, it serves to keep Blacks out of the theater. A subscription audience becomes not a support system but makes the patrons members of a club to which the theater serves as a clubhouse.” Finally, for good measure, Wilson slammed reviewers, most of whom had lavished praise on his work. “A stagnant body of critics,” he said, “operating from the critical criteria of 40 years ago, makes for a stagnant theater without the fresh and abiding influence of contemporary ideas.… The critic who can recognize a German neo-Romantic influence should also be able to recognize an American influence from the blues or Black church rituals.”
The speech was instantly controversial. Perhaps no one was more offended by it than Robert Brustein, then director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard and drama critic for, ahem, The New Republic. In “The Ground On Which I Stand,” Wilson called out Brustein for suggesting that theatrical institutions were lowering their aesthetic standards in their zeal to produce more culturally diverse works. Wilson stated that “works by minority artists may lead to a raising of standards and a raising of the levels of excellence, but Mr. Brustein cannot allow that possibility.”
Brustein and Wilson went at it in a series of written exchanges in American Theatre magazine. Criticizing the playwright for employing “the language of self-segregation,” Brustein said, “I fear Wilson is displaying a failure of memory—I hesitate to say a failure of gratitude” for the support his work had received in the theater world. Wilson responded: “To suggest that I owe a debt of gratitude to the theaters that have done my work is to suggest my plays are without sufficient merit to warrant their production other than as an act of benevolence.”
The Brustein brouhaha culminated in a public debate at New York’s Town Hall in January 1997, an event that the chattering classes greeted with an excitement usually reserved for Ali-Frazier prizefights. The moderator, Anna Deveare Smith, had to ask for order in the crowd after Brustein mocked Wilson for considering himself “African” and said that the playwright had “probably the best mind of the seventeenth century.” Wilson replied: “These are some of the most outrageous things I’ve ever heard.” After that, the evening got really contentious. You can listen to excerpts of the debate on YouTube.
“The Ground On Which I Stand” was most widely attacked for the opposition August Wilson expressed in it to nontraditional or color-blind casting. “To mount an all-Black production of Death of a Salesman,” he declared, “or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”
Wilson did not mention that he had, in fact, written a brilliant African American retort to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It’s called Fences, and the parallels between the two plays are fascinating. Instead of Miller’s lowly Willy Loman, Wilson presented a Black Everyman, the sanitation worker Troy Maxson. Willy is unfaithful to his wife and has a difficult relationship with his athlete son. Ditto for Troy. Both plays end with bittersweet eulogies. And both plays were immediately appreciated, each winning both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. But Troy Maxson’s American journey is profoundly different from Willy Loman’s, his travails inextricably intertwined with his race. And Loman and Maxson have strikingly opposite views on life. Take, as just one juicy example, Willy’s obsession with being “well-liked.” He tells his sons: “Be liked and you will never want.” By contrast, Troy advises his son: “Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you.”
When Paramount Pictures approached Wilson about buying the film rights to Fences, the playwright had a fundamental request, one he used as the title for an op-ed piece he published in TheNew York Times in 1990: “I Want a Black Director.” As Wilson recounted in the article, his wish was “greeted by blank, vacant stares and the pious shaking of heads as if in response to my unfortunate naiveté.” Wilson even turned down “a well-known, highly respected” white filmmaker. “White directors are not qualified for the job,” he insisted. “The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of Black Americans.” August Wilson stuck to his guns. And when he died 15 years later, none of his plays had been turned into movies.
Today, Wilson’s decision to hold out is reaping luscious fruit. In 2010, Denzel Washington starred in a Broadway revival of Fences, bringing a febrile energy to the role of Troy Maxson, reimagining James Earl Jones’s original, more somber, and seemingly definitive portrayal. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, approached Washington about a film adaptation. At last, Wilson would get his Black director. Arguably the all-time biggest Black star of stage and screen, Washington had won his first Oscar for playing a runaway slave turned Union soldier in Glory and had incarnated Malcolm X. He had portrayed not only action heroes but also (Hooray for nontraditional casting!) Richard III. The film version of Fences that he starred in and directed is a master class in “opening up” a piece of theater. With clever changes of settings and dynamic camera work and editing, Washington made the stagiest of dramas thrillingly cinematic. He also respected the cultural integrity of Wilson’s work. The playwright’s estate has entrusted him to produce film versions of all 10 plays in the Century Cycle.
The second film adaptation, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, features Viola Davis in a bravura performance as the title character, “the Mother of the Blues.” Davis has become the preeminent interpreter of Wilson’s women. She won her first Tony Award for playing the fiery Tonya in King Hedley II (set in 1985) and nabbed a Tony and an Oscar for her portrayal of Troy’s wife, Rose, the most soulful of the wounded warriors in the Maxson family battleground, in Fences. In addition to her towering talent, Viola has the most expressive pair of eyes in American cinema since that other dazzling Davis: Bette.
Wilson’s demand for Black artistic independence led some to call him a “separatist.” Today, he seems more like a visionary.
Most of the film’s action takes place in a Chicago recording studio on a sweltering day in 1927. Ma Rainey and her four-man band are scheduled to record several tracks, including the song that Wilson took as the title of his play. As in all of Wilson’s Cycle, the script is bursting with sublime language: boasting and jiving, tall tales and philosophical debates, angry clashes and painful confessions, all rendered with an uncanny eloquence that is uniquely African American. Wilson garners tremendous suspense from the power struggle between Ma Rainey and the two white men who are ostensibly in charge of the recording session. Throughout the long, hot afternoon, the blues singer wages a battle for both her artistic integrity and her personal dignity. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she says of her manager and the record company chief. “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them.”
The leaders of the Ma Rainey creative team embody August Wilson’s vision of Black self-determination in the arts. The film’s director, George C. Wolfe, began his long and distinguished theatrical career with the piquant satire The Colored Museum and the musical drama Jelly’s Last Jam, about jazzman Jelly Roll Morton. The screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, was a frequent Wilson collaborator. While remaining faithful to Wilson’s text, they have added a prologue and an epilogue to the film version that only enhance the power of the work. The casting of Glynn Turman as the pianist Toledo will warm the hearts of Black film lovers who have revered the actor since his role in the 1975 classic Cooley High. Finally, after portraying such Black icons as Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and the superhero T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman capped his career with a scorching performance as the trumpeter Levee, his last appearance on-screen before his tragic death at 43.
By insisting on a Black director for a movie adaptation, August Wilson proved himself to be as much of a badass as his Ma Rainey, who knows that, aside from her talent, her greatest power as an artist is the power to say “no,” and to keep on saying it, until she gets exactly what she wants. As producer of the Century Cycle, Washington has approached an array of acclaimed Black directors, including Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, to helm future adaptations.
Thanks to the movies, people worldwide will get to discover August Wilson’s extraordinary poetry, grounded in the intensity of his listening to his Black elders in Pittsburgh. In his introduction to Seven Guitars(set in 1948), he paid tribute to his mother, Daisy, saying that the everyday content of her life was “worthy of art.” During that heated Town Hall debate in 1997, an audience member asked August Wilson about his mixed racial heritage, in effect, raising the specter of Frederick Kittel Sr. The playwright’s response was swift and to the point: “My father was German. What about it? … The cultural environment of my life is Black. I make the self-definition of myself as a Black man, and that’s all anyone needs to know.”
Jake Lamar is the author of a memoir, six novels, and a play, Brothers in Exile, about the relationship between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes. He lives in Paris.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
Now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had to travel a rocky road to immortality. Initial reviews ranged from positive to condescending to downright hostile, as many in the African American literary community bristled at Hurston’s rejection of the Harlem Renaissance and W.E.B. Du Bois’ Uplift agenda. A decades-long wilderness period in which both the novel and its author fell into obscurity ended with the establishment of several Black Studies programs in universities across America in the 1970s and 1980s. This, coupled with a growing black feminist movement, spearheaded by activist writers like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, helped create a space in which Hurston’s work could be rediscovered. Walker’s 1975 essay, ‘Looking for Zora,’ in which she chronicled her search for Hurston’s unmarked grave, was a particularly significant part of this effort.
83 years on from its publication, we take look back at some of the original reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“Whether or not there was ever a town in Florida inhabited and governed entirely by Negroes, you will have no difficulty believing in the Negro community which Zora Neale Hurston has either reconstructed or imagined in this novel. The town of Eatonville is as real in these pages as Jacksonville is in the pages of Rand McNally; and the lives of its people are rich, racy, and authentic. The few white characters in the book appear momentarily and incidentally. The title carries a suggestion of The Green Pastures, but it is to this extent misleading; no religious element dominates this story of human relationships … The only weak spots in the novel are technical; it begins awkwardly with a confusing and unnecessary preview of the end; and the dramatic action, as in the story of the hurricane, is sometimes hurriedly and clumsily handled. Otherwise the narration is exactly right, because most of it is in dialogue, and the dialogue gives us a constant sense of character in action. No one has ever reported the speech of Negroes with a more accurate ear for its raciness, its rich invention, and its music.”
“Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction … Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes. Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears … The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’ the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”
“This is Zora Hurston’s third novel, again about her own people–and it is beautiful. It is about Negroes, and a good deal of it is written in dialect, but really it is about everyone, or least everyone who isn’t so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory … The story of Janie’s life down on the muck of Florida Glades, bean picking, hunting and the men shooting dice in the evening and how the hurricane came up and drove the animals and the Indians and finally the black people and the white people before it, and how Tea Cake, in Janie’s eyes the ‘son of Evening Son,’ and incidentally the best crap shooter in the place, made Janie sing and glitter all over at last, is a little epic all by itself. Indeed, from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible.”
“It isn’t that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better. In execution it is too complex and wordily pretty, even dull—yet its conception of these simple Florida Negroes is unaffected and really beautiful … Through these chapters there has been some very shrewd picturing of Negro life in its naturally creative and unself-conscious grace … If this isn’t as grand as it should he, the breakdown comes in the conflict between the true vision and its overliterary expression. Crises of feeling are rushed over too quickly for them to catch hold, and then presently we are in a tangle of lush exposition and overblown symbols; action is described and characters are talked about, and everything is more heard than seen. The speech is founded in observation and sometimes wonderfully so, a gold mine of traditional sayings…But although the spoken word is remembered, it is not passed on. Dialect is really sloppy, in fact…And so all this conflict between the real life we want to read about and the superwordy, flabby lyric discipline we are so sick of leaves a good story where it never should have been potentially: in the gray category of neuter gender, declension indefinite.”
“And now, Zora Neale Hurston and her magical title: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s story should not be re-told; it must be read. But as always thus far with this talented writer, setting and surprising flashes of contemporary folk lore are the main point. Her gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humor keep her flashing on the surface of her community and her characters and from diving down deep either to the inner psychology of characterization or to sharp analysis of the social background. It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly — which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplication!”
This is a special episode that was the result of an impromptu study group which focused on Robin DG Kelley’s interview entitled “Solidarity Is Not A Market Exchange.” Kelley shares reflections on Thelonious Monk, jazz, appropriation, empathy vs. solidarity, Afro-Pessimism and Black Feminism, vanguardism, mutual aid, sociality, and responds to the “What time is it on the clock of the world” amid a global pandemic.
In Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, the word “nigger” appears exactly once, in a sentence that describes a queer artist feverishly at work. Miss La Trobe is in charge of putting on a pageant representing the procession of English history for an assembly of villagers on a beautiful summer’s day. With a phonograph at her disposal as well as a grab bag of costumes and a troupe of amateur actors, she runs around behind the stage trying to get everything in order, a depressingly familiar image of a woman laboring to restore the dignity and history of her community—and being rewarded, for the most part, with little to no recognition. Indeed, this is why the word is used: “Miss La Trobe had vanished,” Woolf writes. Where did she go? “Down among the bushes she worked like a nigger.”
Woolf’s usage reflects a disturbing if common colloquialism of its time. With the brutal shadow of slavery still darkening the horizon, the equation of blackness with unremunerated labor was as much an ordinary piece of mental furniture in the cultivated coterie of Bloomsbury as it was in the rest of the Western world. But Woolf’s description indicates something else as well: Miss La Trobe may not be a black woman, but by using the word, Woolf nonetheless forces her readers to confront the figure of the racialized outcast, a figure still prevalent in a society benefiting from the resources and exploited labor of millions of colonized people around the world.
Woolf always used the novel as a means for acute social criticism—to dilate those moments of moral complicity and complacency found in the daily lives of middle-class Westerners. Her celebrated style brought ordinary syntax into ever-closer contact with the layers of consciousness that operate just below our cultivated personalities, turbulent areas of inner life where the stability of human character and morality breaks down and creates, as Zadie Smith put it recently, “grave doubts about the nature of the self.” Woolf’s faith in this moral power of fiction allowed her to wager that the lived quality of a black person’s experience, however dimly apprehended, was not ultimately divorceable from the deepest self-understandings of white people.
Woolf, in other words, dared to insist that there are “other” people in our midst; all around us (and within us) are hidden facets of humanity. Virtually everything in our society encourages us to deny, repress, disavow, distort, or irreparably damage that truth, which is, of course, one of the main goals of racism. Part of this invisibility is the result of a social system beyond any individual’s making. But Woolf’s point is that the perpetuation of this invisibility is our collective responsibility. To make us safe from the abjection of living in a society built on the foundations of violence and stratification, we assure ourselves that such a status belongs only to a well-defined stranger. The power of great fiction to challenge that common sense lies only partially in reflecting our lives to us like a mirror; a great deal more resides in its capacity to dispossess us of our preferred assumptions, plunging us into knowledge like photographic paper into its chemical bath, revealing, even against our will, all the gray areas we find inconvenient, unpleasant, even impossible to acknowledge
Today we almost take for granted the idea that a powerful eruption of racial blackness in a novel should be obviously worthy of comment. But of course, that hasn’t always been the case. Our reading practices and habits are shaped by, among other things, our education, and the systematic examination of race in literary texts was still a relatively new concept well into the 1990s. At one time I, too, might have casually glossed over the page on which it appears. But by the time I started reading Woolf, Toni Morrison had made her powerful argument in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination for us to pause and consider precisely how racial eruptions like this occur throughout modern literature.
Since its publication in 1992, Playing in the Dark has become a seminal reference work for literary studies in the academy and a regular presence on syllabi. The book has helped transform the way many general readers consume the West’s so-called canon, offering searing dissections of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and teaching a generation of literary scholars how to read for the “Africanist presence” in texts that otherwise pretend not to be concerned with race.
With Playing in the Dark, Morrison changed the rules of the game, effectively recasting what we see when we look back to figures like Woolf and to writers of the present and future like Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, and Angela Flournoy. “All of us are bereft,” Morrison writes, “when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes.” Although we focus, for good reason, on Morrison’s novels, which will endure far into the future as great works of art, her essays opened up new worlds as well: As is seen from the range and depth of moral insight collected in her last book, The Source of Self-Regard, her essays bequeathed to us a mandate to see and speak clearly, in particular about the ways in which otherness persists in almost every facet of life—a responsibility we need to acknowledge more than ever in the present.
Taking the full measure of Morrison’s recent passing—comprehending all that she has done to change what we read, how we read, and who we read—will be the work of subsequent generations. Arguably, no single writer has done more to shape the direction of American fiction in the past 50 years, and no writer has set the bar for achievement in the form of the novel higher than where she left it in 1987 with her masterpiece Beloved. As with Pilate, the fierce outsider and moral conscience who guides the plot of Song of Solomon, it never occurred to Morrison to ask for the proverbial seat at the table. Instead, she pulled the entire table over to her side of the room.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison began her revolution in American literature from within the gates of the lettered city. A graduate of Howard University, class of 1953, she went on to Cornell, where she studied modernism and wrote a thesis on Faulkner (already a major figure in American letters) and Woolf. It was a pioneering choice for a thesis in the 1950s, when Woolf had not yet been canonized and many of her books were out of print.
With her degree in hand, Morrison embarked on a teaching career, first at Texas Southern University in Houston and then at Howard, where she remained for seven years and met her husband, Harold Morrison. That marriage ended in 1964, and she was forced to leave academe to support her two children with a job editing textbooks for Random House. Her confidence and formidable talents as an editor got her noticed, and after an opening appeared in the company’s trade division in New York City in 1967, she became the first black woman to occupy a senior editorial position in the publishing industry.
Toni Morrison’s time at Random House was productive. She used her position to irrigate the literary and cultural landscape with new voices from the Black Arts Movement and with the icons and political champions of black power and black feminism, publishing Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, the still underrecognized Henry Dumas, and the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.
Morrison’s most daring and experimental project at Random House was The Black Book, which gathered stories of black life across history and created a remarkable and mesmerizing commonplace book from it—something in between W.E.B. Du Bois’s cherished dream of an Encyclopedia Africana and Stéphane Mallarmé’s vision of “the Book” as a repository in which all that has ever been attains its preordained legibility.
In these years, Morrison began to write, publishing The Bluest Eye in 1970, Sula in 1973, and Song of Solomon in 1977—works of uncompromising vision, assured in their purpose and crackling with passionate urgency. Each was groundbreaking in its own way, combining the power of black oral tradition with the authority of folklore, communal memory, and a feminist consciousness.
Morrison did all of this fearlessly, no matter the costs that came with forcing American culture to come to her and her people. She composed her novels, edited her books, and published her literary criticism knowing that she could write circles around her critics—and often did. No one has gone to bat for William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner since. The genuflecting esteem and towering fame accorded to writers like John Updike and Norman Mailer have never recovered. Others played a role in this too, but Morrison’s critiques were hard to look past, and the due respect accorded to female novelists white, black, and of every other shade owes something to her epochal impact on the “literary field,” as Pierre Bourdieu would put it. That Morrison will always be read first and foremost as a novelist is, of course, as it should be. But the tremendous impact of her fiction and her very public career as a novelist have tended to eclipse her contributions as a moral and political essayist, which the pieces gathered in The Source of Self-Regard help correct. Taken together with What Moves at the Margin, her first volume of nonfiction, as well as Playing in the Dark and The Origin of Others, her 2017 collection of lectures, this final book brings Morrison the moral and social critic into view.
In her essays, lectures, and reviews, we discover a writer working in a register that many readers may not readily associate with her. Rather than the deft orchestrator of ritual and fable, chronicler of the material and spiritual experience of black girlhood, and master artificer of the vernacular constitution of black communal life, here we encounter Morrison as a dispassionate social theorist and moral anthropologist, someone who offers acute and even scathing readings of America’s contemporary malaise and civic and moral decline in an age defined by the mindless boosterism of laissez-faire capitalism.
In essays like “The Foreigner’s Home,” one almost hears echoes of Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulated life under late capitalism and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as she examines the disorienting loss of distinction between private and public space and its effect on our interior lives. The politicization of the “migrant” and the “illegal alien,” Morrison argues, is not merely a circling of the wagons in the face of “the transglobal tread of peoples.” It is also an act of bad faith, a warped projection of our fears of homelessness and “our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging” reflecting the anxieties produced by the privatization of public goods and commons and the erosion of face-to-face association. Our lives, Morrison tells us, have now become refracted through a “looking-glass” that has compressed our public and private lives “into a ubiquitous blur” and created a pressure that “can make us deny the foreigner in ourselves.”
In other essays, one finds Morrison venturing bravely into the tense intersections of race, gender, class, and radical politics. The essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” written in 1989, offers a retrospective attempt to make sense of the fractures within the 1960s and ’70s left, to understand why a set of interlocking liberation struggles ended up splitting along racial, gender, and class lines. One can’t help feeling a wincing recognition when Morrison writes of “the internecine conflicts, cul-de-sacs, and mini-causes that have shredded the [women’s] movement.” On top of racial divides, she asserts, class fissures broke apart a movement just as it was coming together, exacerbating “the differences between black and white women, poor and rich women, old and young women, single welfare mothers and single employed mothers.” Class and race, Morrison laments, ended up pitting “women against one another in male-invented differences of opinion—differences that determine who shall work, who shall be well educated, who controls the womb and/or the vagina; who goes to jail, who lives where.” Achieving solidarity may be daunting, but the alternative is “a slow and subtle form of sororicide. There is no one to save us from that,” Morrison cautions—“no one except ourselves.”
Even as her essays ranged widely, from dissections of feminist politics to the rise of African literature, from extolling the achievements of black women (“you are what fashion tries to be—original and endlessly refreshing”) to the parallels between modern and medieval conceptions of violence and conflict in Beowulf, they came together around a set of core concerns about the degradation and coarsening of our politics as we cast one another as others and how this process often manifests itself through language.
This is particularly true of the essays included in The Source of Self-Regard, which give their readers little doubt about the power of her insights when she trains her eye on the dismal state of contemporary politics and asks how the rhetoric and experiences of otherness came to be transformed by the rise of new media and global free-market fundamentalism into a potent source of reactionary friction. Despite the fact that some of these essays are now several decades old, Morrison’s insights are still relevant. For example, her gimlet-eyed description of the cant of our political class in the essay “Wartalk,” that “empurpled comic-book language in which they express themselves.” Or her warning against “being bullied” by those in power “into understanding the human project as a manliness contest where women and children are the most dispensable collateral.” Or her chiding of the “commercial media” in the run-up to the Iraq War for echoing the uninterrogated lines of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Journalists, she insisted, must take up the cause of fighting “against cultivated ignorance, enforced silence, and metastasizing lies.” They are not supposed to contribute to it.
The sheer quantity of her speeches and essays testifies to Morrison’s power as a moral and social critic. But this does not mean she left literature entirely behind in her essays. In fact, the greater part of The Source of Self-Regard is dedicated to her applying her moral and political insights in the arena of art as well. Fiction writers are not always the best readers of their own work or others’. (It’s only natural that they have their blind spots.) Yet Morrison proves to be a literary critic of the highest order, besotted with the intricacies and pleasures of textual interpretation and with their political and moral import and enviably providing such close readings of her own work that we are sometimes left wondering whether there is anything else for us to really say.
that makes them spoken, heard, in this context, because one expects words to read in a book, not numbers to say, or hear. And the sound of the novel, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes harmonious, must be an inner-ear sound or a sound just beyond hearing, infusing the text with a musical emphasis that words can do sometimes even better than music can. Thus the second sentence is not one: it is a phrase that properly, grammatically, belongs as a dependent clause with the first…. The reader is snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign…snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense.
Reading her pieces on literature, one immediately recognizes that, for Morrison, literary criticism was also an art, the essay another vehicle for conveying her moral and political insights. Her skills as a writer of nonfiction are one and the same as her powers as a writer of fiction. For her, both the essay and the novel can undo the work of individuation foisted upon us by modern society; they can bring “others” into contact and remind us of our common humanity.
Sometimes this larger project of humanization can show itself in the choice of a single word, like the solemn weight and subtle inflections of the adjective “educated” as it describes Paul D’s hands in Beloved as he and Sethe fumble toward the beginnings of a new life eked out within the living memory of enslavement. Other times it expresses itself in a lyrical outburst that captures a fleeting moment of self-fashioned freedom, a world of possibility momentarily gleaned from an otherwise desperate circumstance, as in this passage from Jazz:
Oh, the room—the music—the people leaning in doorways. This is the place where things pop. This is the market where gesture is all: a tongue’s lightning lick; a thumbnail grazing the split cheeks of a purple plum.
Finding those places where things pop is the central task of her humanism, which she calls, in the titular essay of the new collection, the act of “self-regard.” Self-regard, Morrison insists, is the process in which we recover our selves—in which we once again become human. It means experiencing black culture “from a viewpoint that precedes its appropriation”; it means seeing humanity after the veil of otherness has fallen. By stirring people into prideful expression, self-regard can help us see through the literalism and literal-mindedness that centuries of racist thought and practice that has prevented us from being better readers of our lives and, in turn, others’.
Humanism is not much in vogue these days. The urgency of our moment has impressed upon us other, more specific political programs. Yet the quiddity of Morrison’s writing ultimately is just that. Her humanism is not restricted, as it is still often taken to be, to a tradition solely refracted through a small circle of men whose taste for classical learning, preference for moderation and reform, and disposition to kindliness and optimism helped them weather late medieval Europe’s brutal religious and tribal warfare. For Morrison, humanism is a tradition of self-regard, confident and open to all that is worth knowing, but one that draws its special strength from the historical experience, community, and values possessed and refashioned by those Africans driven into the holds and shipped across the Atlantic while Erasmus and Thomas More exchanged their letters on the duties of conscience and friendship.
Morrison’s humanism, therefore, is something made of far loamier and more challenging conditions of dispossession and natal alienation that only make the project of humanization all the more pressing. “It was there I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita,” as the mother in her novel A Mercy, known to the reader only in her Portuguese form of address, “a minha mãe,” puts it, and it is in these conditions that humanity is also recovered, where “language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song” take on new meaning.
Morrison has always written out of this black humanist tradition. The battle over the meaning of black humanity has consistently been central to both her fiction and her essays—and not just for the sake of black people but also to further what we hope all of humanity can become. This is a humanism informed by Anna Julia Cooper, who insisted on the education of black women and the affirmation of their “undisputed dignity” as vital to any meaningful realization of social justice. It is the determination of Mary McLeod Bethune, who told a doctor who advised her in 1941 to slow down her relentless administrative and philanthropic activism, “I am my mother’s daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.” And of Sojourner Truth, who, when advised that the meeting house in Angola, Indiana, where she was to speak was going to be burned down, replied, “Then I shall speak upon the ashes.”
Although her writings remain far less well-known, one of the contemporary thinkers who most resemble Morrison in this respect is the philosopher Sylvia Wynter, who has, as it happens, called for a “re-enchantment of humanism” that would complete the work of Erasmus and his circle by breaking out of the paradigm that understood his intellectual and ethical virtues to be the special property of bourgeois European men over all the other inhabitants of the globe. While humanist, it seeks to effect a revolution in ethics and perspective that is sensitive to the natural world around us. Such a humanism knows that those who endured slavery are some of the best people to consult on questions of social and political freedom.
This humanistic bent is especially evident in one of Morrison’s most important essays included in the collection, “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations.” Its ostensible subject is the apocalyptic way we regard the future of human life—a future that is unquestionably at risk of being foreshortened—but its real targets lie elsewhere. What Morrison takes issue with is the pronoun at the center of the appeal for action:
Political discourse enunciates the future it references as something we can leave to or assure “our” children or—in a giant leap of faith—“our” grandchildren. It is the pronoun, I suggest, that ought to trouble us. We are not being asked to rally for the children, but for ours. “Our children” stretches our concern for two or five generations. “The children” gestures toward time to come of greater, broader, brighter possibilities—precisely what politics veils from view.
Morrison wants us to think in more general terms: for humanity itself. Our inability to do so—to envision, plan, or imagine a deep future for the human race—is evidence, she worries, of a larger bankruptcy in our present culture, which cannot summon a sense of what we would do even if we could safely guarantee that kind of longevity. To have such an attitude toward the future we would need a common mission, some cultural pattern of vitality with which to fill the empty stretches of time to come—in short, we would need a humanism. “It will require,” she concludes, “thinking about the quality of human life, not just its length. The quality of intelligent life, not just its strategizing abilities. The obligations of moral life, not just its ad hoc capacity for pity.”
There is a speech not included in The Source of Self-Regard that should have been: Morrison’s 1995 convocation address to the students of Howard University on the 128th anniversary of its founding. In it, she apologizes for not dwelling on “the sweetness and the beauty and the conviviality” of the old days and instead traces Howard’s long history of perseverance in the face of a nation openly hostile or skeptical (often both) to the notion of educating black people in the liberal arts.
Turning to the present, Morrison warns her listeners that this struggle is far from over. There is, she insists, a creeping fascism in the midst of American culture that relies on the construction of “an interior enemy” for “both focus and diversion.” Do not, she commends her audience, trust any one political party to combat this drift toward creating others out of neighbors. It will make no difference who is in power if, in the end, we are interested only in building a bunkered future, a siloed desert without social intercourse and mutual conversation, a world with quantified convenience but no qualitative conviction that can help us transcend the otherness imposed on all of us.
Making a homeland worth keeping, for Morrison, is centrally about this: It requires a deep mutuality—a solidarity that can’t be achieved by cutting any group or individual out but that looks past difference to find a shared sameness. As Morrison told another gathering of students, this time in 2013, “We owe others our language, our history, our art, our survival, our neighborhood, our relationships with family and colleagues, our ability to defy social conventions as well as support these conventions. All of this we learned from others. None of us is alone; each of us is dependent on others—some of us depend on others for life itself.”
To read Morrison today is to remember all over again how badly we need the rogue sanity found in her essays and speeches as well as her novels. Sometimes this rogue sanity consists of bright new ideas, but many other times it is just very simple things, very old ideas that we already know and should already understand but that magnify under Morrison’s glass. As Morrison puts it in her penultimate collection of lectures, The Origin of Others, “The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image, and experience.”
Our country is not now and never has been as noble as Morrison’s work insisted we could be. In this sense, she wrote for the future—for the young readers who are only now taking their first steps into the classroom and the public library, gazing at the shelves searching for answers to as yet unknown questions. This generation will pull down those books and feel with enviable freshness that inordinate beauty and vitality we hold dear. They may find themselves, as we so often have, echoing Morrison, who said in praise of James Baldwin at his funeral, “In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.”
Race for Profit uncovers how exploitative real estate practices continued well after housing discrimination was banned. The same racist structures and individuals remained intact after redlining’s end, and close relationships between regulators and the industry created incentives to ignore improprieties. Meanwhile, new policies meant to encourage low-income homeownership created new methods to exploit Black homeowners. The federal government guaranteed urban mortgages in an attempt to overcome resistance to lending to Black buyers – as if unprofitability, rather than racism, was the cause of housing segregation. Bankers, investors, and real estate agents took advantage of the perverse incentives, targeting the Black women most likely to fail to keep up their home payments and slip into foreclosure, multiplying their profits. As a result, by the end of the 1970s, the nation’s first programs to encourage Black homeownership ended with tens of thousands of foreclosures in Black communities across the country. The push to uplift Black homeownership had descended into a goldmine for realtors and mortgage lenders, and a ready-made cudgel for the champions of deregulation to wield against government intervention of any kind.
Narrating the story of a sea-change in housing policy and its dire impact on African Americans, Race for Profit reveals how the urban core was transformed into a new frontier of cynical extraction.
It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color. Tar is the closest I can think of, yet her hair don’t go with the skin. It’s different—straight but curly, like the hair on those naked tribes in Australia. You might think she’s a throwback, but a throwback to what? You should’ve seen my grandmother; she passed for white, married a white man, and never said another word to any one of her children. Any letter she got from my mother or my aunts she sent right back, unopened. Finally they got the message of no message and let her be. Almost all mulatto types and quadroons did that back in the day—if they had the right kind of hair, that is. Can you imagine how many white folks have Negro blood hiding in their veins? Guess. Twenty per cent, I heard. My own mother, Lula Mae, could have passed easy, but she chose not to. She told me the price she paid for that decision. When she and my father went to the courthouse to get married, there were two Bibles, and they had to put their hands on the one reserved for Negroes. The other one was for white people’s hands. The Bible! Can you beat it? My mother was a housekeeper for a rich white couple. They ate every meal she cooked and insisted she scrub their backs while they sat in the tub, and God knows what other intimate things they made her do, but no touching of the same Bible.
Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can we avoid being spit on in a drugstore, elbowed at the bus stop, having to walk in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk, being charged a nickel at the grocer’s for a paper bag that’s free to white shoppers? Let alone all the name-calling. I heard about all of that and much, much more. But because of my mother’s skin color she wasn’t stopped from trying on hats or using the ladies’ room in the department stores. And my father could try on shoes in the front part of the shoe store, not in a back room. Neither one of them would let themselves drink from a “Colored Only” fountain, even if they were dying of thirst.
I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale like all babies’, even African ones, but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute, because—just for a few seconds—I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn’t do that, no matter how much I wished she hadn’t been born with that terrible color. I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace. But I was scared to be one of those mothers who leave their babies on church steps. Recently, I heard about a couple in Germany, white as snow, who had a dark-skinned baby nobody could explain. Twins, I believe—one white, one colored. But I don’t know if it’s true. All I know is that, for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home.
My husband, Louis, is a porter, and when he got back off the rails he looked at me like I really was crazy and looked at the baby like she was from the planet Jupiter. He wasn’t a cussing man, so when he said, “God damn! What the hell is this?” I knew we were in trouble. That was what did it—what caused the fights between me and him. It broke our marriage to pieces. We had three good years together, but when she was born he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger—more than that, an enemy. He never touched her.
I never did convince him that I ain’t never, ever fooled around with another man. He was dead sure I was lying. We argued and argued till I told him her blackness had to be from his own family—not mine. That was when it got worse, so bad he just up and left and I had to look for another, cheaper place to live. I did the best I could. I knew enough not to take her with me when I applied to landlords, so I left her with a teen-age cousin to babysit. I didn’t take her outside much, anyway, because, when I pushed her in the baby carriage, people would lean down and peek in to say something nice and then give a start or jump back before frowning. That hurt. I could have been the babysitter if our skin colors were reversed. It was hard enough just being a colored woman—even a high-yellow one—trying to rent in a decent part of the city. Back in the nineties, when Lula Ann was born, the law was against discriminating in who you could rent to, but not many landlords paid attention to it. They made up reasons to keep you out. But I got lucky with Mr. Leigh, though I know he upped the rent seven dollars from what he’d advertised, and he had a fit if you were a minute late with the money.
I told her to call me “Sweetness” instead of “Mother” or “Mama.” It was safer. Her being that black and having what I think are too thick lips and calling me “Mama” would’ve confused people. Besides, she has funny-colored eyes, crow black with a blue tint—something witchy about them, too.
So it was just us two for a long while, and I don’t have to tell you how hard it is being an abandoned wife. I guess Louis felt a little bit bad after leaving us like that, because a few months later on he found out where I’d moved to and started sending me money once a month, though I never asked him to and didn’t go to court to get it. His fifty-dollar money orders and my night job at the hospital got me and Lula Ann off welfare. Which was a good thing. I wish they would stop calling it welfare and go back to the word they used when my mother was a girl. Then it was called “relief.” Sounds much better, like it’s just a short-term breather while you get yourself together. Besides, those welfare clerks are mean as spit. When finally I got work and didn’t need them anymore, I was making more money than they ever did. I guess meanness filled out their skimpy paychecks, which was why they treated us like beggars. Especially when they looked at Lula Ann and then back at me—like I was trying to cheat or something. Things got better but I still had to be careful. Very careful in how I raised her. I had to be strict, very strict. Lula Ann needed to learn how to behave, how to keep her head down and not to make trouble. I don’t care how many times she changes her name. Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.
Oh, yeah, I feel bad sometimes about how I treated Lula Ann when she was little. But you have to understand: I had to protect her. She didn’t know the world. With that skin, there was no point in being tough or sassy, even when you were right. Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired. She didn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh and try to trick her. I once saw a girl nowhere near as dark as Lula Ann who couldn’t have been more than ten years old tripped by one of a group of white boys and when she tried to scramble up another one put his foot on her behind and knocked her flat again. Those boys held their stomachs and bent over with laughter. Long after she got away, they were still giggling, so proud of themselves. If I hadn’t been watching through the bus window I would have helped her, pulled her away from that white trash. See, if I hadn’t trained Lula Ann properly she wouldn’t have known to always cross the street and avoid white boys. But the lessons I taught her paid off, and in the end she made me proud as a peacock.
Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019), known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she gained worldwide recognition when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 and went to graduate school at Cornell University. She later taught English at Howard University and also married and had two children before divorcing in 1964. In the late 1960s, she became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. In the 1970s and 1980s, she developed her own reputation as an author, and her perhaps most celebrated work, Beloved, was made into a 1998 film.
In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Also that year, she was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
Source: Sweetness | The New Yorker – KOLUMN Magazine
Letter from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, 1868
Source: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Rochester, August 29, 1868
Dear Harriet: I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way.
You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.
Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony for your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.Your friend,Frederick Douglass
The son of sharecroppers, Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, near Baton Rouge. He attended school for little more than five months out of the year. But that was more education than his family before him had received. He would say later in life that his ear for the stories of his elders was developed as he wrote letters for adults who couldn’t read or write.In the late 1940’s, at the age of 15, his family moved to the northern California city of Vallejo, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.
He told interviewer Lawrence Bridges that in California he could do something that had been forbidden in the South: visit a library. Gaines later attended San Francisco State University.
His early writing earned him a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.Gaines returned to Louisiana in 1963, inspired by James Meredith’s bid to enroll in the then-all-white University of Mississippi. He took it as a sign that the South was changing and that he could be a part of that change.”As I’ve said many times before, the two greatest moves I’ve made was on the day I left Louisiana in ’48, and on the day I came back to Louisiana in ’63,” he would later tell an interviewer.