Black History Month
Black History Month is an invitation to foster fraternal charity in American culture. To that end, it is a great practice to celebrate Black History Month by becoming acquainted with one new piece of Black literature each February. I have compiled a few of my favorites to provide a point of departure.
2. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Ernest Gaines
3. 145th Street: Short Stories Walter Dean Myers
4. The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander
5. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens Alice Walker
"Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture." -Pope St. John Paul II
In his 1999 "Letter to Artists" Pope Saint John Paul II makes the keen observation, "Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture." JPII's observation highlights the importance of Black History Month as an exercise in reclaiming forgotten voices for our American cultural patrimony.
Black literature, as an art-form, illustrates the very importance of Black History Month. Popular American history often narrows the Black experience to Carver, King, and Parks. Black literature enriches American history with the narratives that have not yet reached the forefront of our cultural consciousness.
Few authors express the Black American experience with the precision and passion which characterize the work of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois wrote prolifically from historical non-fiction about Reconstruction and the history of the NAACP, to fictional satire about racial stereotypes. The Souls of Black Folk provides heartfelt insight into what it means to be a minority in America. Du Bois was a pioneer in his ability to demonstrate the reality of the burden of representation and its effects on quality of life of African-Americans.
Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance , some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way white Americans cannot."- W.E.B. Du Bois
Ernest Gaines (b. 1933) has a unique talent for vividly describing both the male and female experience of the southern plantation. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman depicts the Black matriarch who is the backbone of her family and her community. And Miss Pittman's surrogate son, Ned's, sermon on the river is one of the most heart wrenching monologues in literature.
Alice Walker (b.1944) , best known for her Pulitzer Prize fiction The Color Purple, has mastered just about every literary genre: children's lit, poetry, essay, and literary criticism. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens is a survey of Walker's prose which includes her philosophy on both black and womanist literature. According to Walker, "black writers and white writers seem [to me] to be writing one immense story- the same story, for the most part- with different parts of this immense story coming from a multitude of difference perspectives." Alice Walker is careful not to overemphasize racial difference, nonetheless she maintains that Black female writers are often left out of the literary landscape.
Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014) was one of the few contemporary young adult authors whose project peaked my interest. Before his recent death, Myers was recognized by the Library of Congress and received numerous awards. Myers displayed the beauty of the 21st century Black urban experience in much the same way that Alice Walker captures the rural, southern Black experience. His most famous work is Monster which covers the trial of a Black youth wrongfully accused of murder. My favorite is 145th Street, a collection of short stories about life in Harlem, New York. Myers moves readers beyond stereotypes of drug use and gang activity to the everyday experience of those who call Harlem home.
Michelle Alexander (b. 1967), a civil rights lawyer and professor, has brought the truth about America's war on drugs to the popular media. Through her extensive research and legal experience, she illustrates how the American criminal justice system has truly become a modern day extension of slavery. She provides concrete data that reveals the racial bias that has resulted in the mass incarceration of black males in the 21st century. This non-fiction work is truly a social justice call to action.
So what's the point of Black History Month? Is there truly a significant difference between Black and White American literature? Consider W.E.B. Du Bois's assertion from his essay "Criteria of Negro Art" : "We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance , some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way white Americans cannot."
When Americans dive deep in Black literature we give ourselves the opportunity to see that vision, to broaden our cultural historical perspective. One of the great contributions of Pope St. JPII was to demonstrate how art, in its ability to communicate beauty, truly transforms culture and inspires love. That is the true goal of recapturing Black History: to foster an appreciation of the art that will inspire a sincere fraternal charity in American culture.