Lórenzo J's Highly Scientific African-American Literary Canon
Undergrad at the Mecca was so much fun.
The second semester of my senior year, I signed up for African-American Literature from 1940 to the Present, and the assigned final project was for each student to develop his or her own African-American literary canon - the works we believed were most indicative of whatever we individually thought a black literary canon set out to achieve. My thesis was that the African-American literary canon details a quest for authenticity and self-honesty in the face of a power structure demanding assimilation and acquiescence.
Over two years later, I stand behind that thesis and the works I selected for my canon, but the internet is the internet, so I expect some disagreements on my picks. If you feel so inclined to let me know you disagree, the comments section is open for your convenience. Enjoy.
Woodson, Carter G. The Mis-Education of the Negro. 1933. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 2009. Print.
Contending that education is a foundational cornerstone, Mis-Education finds Woodson vehemently opposed to individuals of African descent receiving the current iteration of Western education. Throughout the course of his work, Woodson repeatedly argues that education in the United States is not tailored for African-Americans, noting it miseducates them both practically and psychologically and forms a sort of self-hatred. In its place, Woodson recommends a new system in which blacks have greater access to historical truth and, as a result, their true identity, creating an educational revolution in which African-Americans are in control of their own teaching and learning without influence from Western supremacy.
Over 80 years later, Mis-Education still details America’s educational system and how that system suppresses people of African descent. The inherent inequity of the system seems to work against it; in a society built upon differentiating the haves and have-nots, it is nearly impossible to craft an educational system that gives blacks and whites equal educational opportunity. From Woodson’s viewpoint, educated blacks have been brainwashed – transformed instead of developed – and that persuasion will only work to hinder generations of blacks to come. Reading Woodson’s take on black education proves both educational and insightful, particularly because his work is still wholly relevant.
Mis-Education needs to be the first piece in this anthology; it remains a clear blueprint for how this system was created, why it continues today, and how it can be fixed. Authenticity and self-honesty cannot be achieved if the school – one of the major sources of socialization – continues to disseminate information that tampers with that process. Without Mis-Education and the lessons it aims to propagate, there is no need for the works that are to follow.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry L. Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. 1311-1314. Print.
Hughes’ 1926 article handles the concept of being normative and “other” in African-America artistry. Hughes begins his commentary discussing a black contemporary who expresses his desire to be viewed simply as “a poet – not a Negro poet.” Hughes goes on to explain this peer’s perception – and the perception of individuals like him – has evolved from a desire to appease the majority, believing their perception is somehow more valid and important than those with whom these artists share an ethnic and racial background. Hughes ultimately asserts that the black artist should never run from his or her identity; neither whites nor blacks might not view some works favorably, but it remains important to be true to who you are.
Written in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, “Mountain” is somewhat peculiar. Based on historical knowledge, it would seem black artists would be embracing their heritage and expressing their authentic selves. “Mountain” proves otherwise, exhibiting how even when black artists were receiving acclaim, they still desired greater, mainstream acceptance that perhaps they should have been shunning. The African-American experience generally should speak to a history that does not appeal to oppressive sensibilities, meaning works that are lauded by the mainstream are likely inauthentic. Ignoring one’s history for white approval, as will be discussed later in the bibliography, comes with a void that the “success” cannot fill.
Hughes uses “Mountain” to outline the importance of racial identity and authenticity, making it an importance piece of this canon and a precursor to the next listed work. Forgoing authenticity and self-honesty remains an issue in black art, and with mainstream press blatantly racializing artistry with universal themes, it can be understood why black artists are hesitant to be pigeonholed. Regardless, the black artist remains important, and Hughes explains just why.
Lee, Spike, dir. Bamboozled. New Line Cinema, 2000. CD-ROM.
Lee’s 2000 film stars Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, a black Harvard graduate working for a television network that is unenthusiastic about his scripts that portray African-Americans positively. Hoping to get fired, Delacroix pitches a modern-day minstrel show to his network, expecting them to immediately express their disgust at such overt racism; however, the network loves the idea, and the show becomes immediately successful upon its premiere. Delacroix begins to enjoy the spoils associated with the success of the show and refuses to renounce it, despite the forces reminding him of the show’s initial purpose. The film closes with Delacroix’s death while he confronts the reality that he helped contribute to the negative black images he once sought to extinguish.
Bamboozled’s theme of racial authenticity permeates the film. His white boss views Delacroix as inauthentically black; Delacroix’s boss declares publicly that he sees himself as blacker than Delacroix. Once Delacroix finds the success that had been eluding him, he essentially loses himself, choosing to obey the power structure. Delacroix may not have been the stereotypical black man, but his experiences cannot be discounted simply because they diverge from the norm. Delacroix essentially sells his soul – and his race – for fortune and fame, only to pay the ultimate price at the film’s end.
As a precautionary tale of the perils of sacrificing self-honesty for assimilation, Bamboozled receives a position in this literary canon. Delacroix begins the film somewhat self-assured, understanding the oppression he endures can be overcome. However, he unfortunately chooses to give into that oppression, becoming a shell of the man he once was. Bamboozled teaches the dangers of compliance to a group that does not and never will have the best interests of minorities at heart.
King, Jr., Martin L. “I've Been to the Mountaintop.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry L. Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. 110-115. Print.
King’s final speech outlines the problem of white supremacy in the United States and offers suggestions for these oppressed blacks to resist the power structure and earn greater self-sufficiency. Whereas “I Have a Dream” is much more racially idealistic, “Mountaintop” has King galvanizing blacks exclusively, supporting black unity and defiance of an unjust system. King speaks of the economic power of African-Americans, noting how seriously blacks could hurt certain corporations by withdrawing their financial support, thereby forcing these large businesses to agree to certain demands. “Mountaintop” is King at arguably his most radical, angry that despite years of work, progress his been minimal.
King’s writings and speeches had always undoubtedly been pro-black; however, his fiery tone and clear message of African-American autonomy were likely more strongly received than his efforts of the early-1960s. King’s status as the figurehead of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement earned him much criticism from African-Americans disenchanted with the idea of nonviolence and forced integration, producing a divide between those who followed King’s sermons and others who chose more radical leaders. Although King still had not ventured as far right as his more extreme peers, “Mountaintop” charters waters King had once been hesitant to enter, making it arguably his most seminal piece.
“Mountaintop” unquestionably deserves a place in any African-American literary canon. King’s message of self-determination permeates his speech, and his shift toward demanding equity instead of equality is a clear acknowledgment that his desire to work with the power structure has been futile. Lessons from “Mountaintop” are still very applicable today, and its service as a blueprint requires its early placement in this particular anthology.
Baraka, Amiri. Dutchman. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry L. Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. 1946-1960. Print.
Baraka’s Dutchman revolves around what it means to be “authentically” black. Clay, the black protagonist, must deal with Lula, the white antagonist, persistently mocking his personality. Ultimately, Clay is forced to defend himself against her cruel assertions, laughing at Lula for questioning his authenticity when her perception of authenticity is problematic itself. Lula perceives Clay’s attempts at assimilation as weakness – an attempt to access a “tradition” he does not belong to – and works to push Clay into becoming an alien, as she views his invisibility as evasion, a means of not irritating the power structure. However, Clay’s invisibility works to keep him alive, a concept Lula is incapable of comprehending.
Dutchman deftly discusses African-American authenticity from the viewpoint of supposedly “liberal” whites who theoretically understand the racial plight of minorities. Still ironically important, Dutchman could almost be read satirically, as the white antagonist asserts her authority over the black man by implying she understands him better than he understands himself. Lula, the symbol for the power structure, co-opts a movement she quite literally cannot belong to, and becomes offended once Clay opposes her fallacious beliefs, just as many have argued modern-day young white people have demanded entry into a culture to which they cannot possibly relate.
Dutchman’s placement in the middle of my canon evolves from its capacity to serve as an example of the demands for assimilation and acquiescence put forth by the power structure. It demonstrates how, often, nothing is good enough; Clay works to remain polished and restrain his anger, only to be told to change his ways of thinking. Dutchman remains remarkably relevant, and its lessons can be taught to African-Americans today.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. 1973. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.
Morrison’s second novel documents the maturation of the titular character and her childhood friend Nel, navigating how the two are divergently raised and, not coincidentally, grow apart as adults. Nel becomes the stereotypical, socially acceptable woman: devoted wife, nurturing mother. Conversely, Sula becomes the independent rebel their hometown, the Bottom, frowns upon, as she refuses to be constricted by societal norms. Viewed quite literally as evil, Sula brings an ironic unity to the Bottom, as the citizens universally hate Sula and all she supposedly represents. A town generally in discord and depression becomes cohesive due to Sula’s sinful presence.
Sula highlights the rigidity of societal norms and their establishment of a power structure that can both be operated by and hinder the minority. Sula’s supposed eccentricities are established in the novel’s early stages, as she comes from a home considered peculiar. This conventional, traditional societal configuration all but forbids Sula to be deviant, and her desire to resist that system makes her an outcast. Sula is undeniably different, but different is not synonymous with weird or unacceptable. Sula’s presence may galvanize the citizens of The Bottom, but the citizens fail – and seemingly have no desire – to allow Sula to become a true member of their society.
Sula belongs in this canon as an illustration of how these oppressive power structures can maintain the laws of conventional supremacy while being operated by individuals or groups who should be defying them. The citizens of The Bottom understand that Sula has no desire to assimilate to their lifestyle, and consequently condemn her for essentially the totality of her life. Sula operates effectively today as a narrative regarding black elitism and black feminism, as Sula’s independence proves consistently contradictory to the gender roles these rigid adversaries refuse to deviate from.
Obama, Barack H. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. 2004. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995. Print.
President Obama’s first memoir finds him recounting experiences of his maturation as an African-American in non-African-American communities. Obama’s interactions with his Kenyan father were largely nonexistent, and the African-American population in his home of Hawaii was tiny, leaving Obama to be raised by his Indonesian stepfather and white mother and grandparents. As he develops, Obama increasingly discovers what it means to be black in America, and ultimately decides to visit Kenya to meet his paternal relatives to reconcile the stark differences between how he was raised and who he biologically is.
Dreams emphasizes the struggles of a young man who recognizes his “otherness,” but has no group of others with whom to bond. Obama craves the capacity to find his authentic self, but cannot without a point of reference to guide him. Although his one black friend in Honolulu introduces him to white supremacy, and books served to educate him, Obama still lacked the real-world model to emulate, leaving him rudderless and directionless. Although he becomes aware of the system of oppression and chooses to combat against it, Obama’s lack of self-knowledge makes that decision pointless until he comes to better understand just who he is.
Obama’s autobiographical journey of self-discovery and, consequently, personal authenticity earns Dreams a place in the canon. Obama’s default position was one of unwitting assimilation; he knew he was different, but he did not know those differences are viewed as means for oppression. Through his memoir, we follow Obama as he learns of himself, his history, and his tools to overpower and defeat a system he was once unaware even existed.
West, Kanye O., and Syleena Johnson, perf. "All Falls Down." The College Dropout. Island Def Jam Music Group, New York, 2004. MP3 file.
The third single from West’s debut album first documents the story of an aimless, nameless college sophomore who appears conflicted by her desires, the dreams her parents have for her, and her current precarious situation. West then discusses himself and his “self-consciousness,” established by his desire to “shine” on a nameless “they,” while lamenting that no matter how high he climbs up the socioeconomic ladder, he will always just be “a nigga in a Coupe.” The song’s final verse has West commenting on the powers that “made us hate ourselves but love their wealth,” with the vices minorities spend their money on ultimately profiting the “white man.”
“All Falls Down” also deals with the hazards of assimilation, with the implicit understanding that the oppressive power structure champions the destructive nature of consumerism. West’s declarations – “I spent $400 on this / Just to be like, ‘Nigga, you ain’t up on this!’” – elucidate a false sense of protection that financial status is, in actuality, unable to secure. Education, success, and the theoretical subsequent ascension in socioeconomic status are supposed to provide greater individual clarity, but, according to West, these constructs further hinder and confuse African-Americans while the power structure “gets paid off of all of that.”
Still pertinent ten years later, “All Falls Down” undoubtedly belongs in this literary canon. West speaks of his self-honesty hoping to push others like him toward their moment of enlightenment. West does not seek to condemn those to whom the song is addressed; he readily admits he is one of the hypocrites he criticizes. Regardless, West understands the idea of having things does not make an individual more empowered, and buying into that idea is precisely what the oppressive regime desires.
Earth, Wind & Fire. "Fantasy." All 'N All. Prod. Maurice White. Columbia Records, Los Angeles, 1977. MP3 file.
EWF’s 1977 masterpiece details a utopia in which unity forever exists and all inhabitants share strong similarities. In an apparent rebuke of the oppressive power structure, EWF paints a picture of an alternate universe of sorts, in which the subjugated can enjoy the freedoms repeatedly denied to them – an “everlasting liberty.” This fantastic cosmos is literally flawless: in this realm, all dreams come true, individuals discover a “new degree” in which to enjoy their lives, and souls enter a permanent state of ecstasy.
“Fantasy” handles the concept of self-realization and authenticity through its embedded construction of an African-American aesthetic. Black as “other” is embraced throughout “Fantasy,” with the group asserting the world “can’t erase [the oppressed’s] fantasies.” “Fantasy” is both an individual and collective experience; it seems to be closed to those unwilling to participate in the united front the realm possesses, but if one agrees to live in concord with the rest of Fantasy’s inhabitants, they then are allowed to enjoy the freedom and liberty Fantasy provides.
As the most feasible solution for true authenticity and self-realization, “Fantasy” serves as the final inclusion in this literary canon. In many ways, it is impossible to avoid assimilation. The creation of an alternate universe, however, in which African-Americans can isolate themselves from the pressures applied by the power structure and actively apply their particular aesthetic can be both therapeutic and beneficial for the mental and social health of black people. “Fantasy” provides a space for authenticity and self-honesty, and although African-Americans may not be able to permanently reside there, “Fantasy” is always available whenever one of us needs some time away.