|FROM THE SOIL OF SUFFERING|
March 7, 1997
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, general editors of a new anthology of African American Literature, discuss over 200 years of African American composition, beginning with the poetry by slaves who weren't allowed
JIM LEHRER: Now, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie McKay, the general editors of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. He's a professor of humanities and chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University. She's professor of American and Afro-American Literature at the University of Wisconsin.
DAVID GERGEN: Professor Gates, Professor McKay, this anthology was published, all 2,665 pages, has been the occasion of a great deal of celebration in many circles in American life. Tell us why, what this is all about.
NELLIE McKAY, Co-Editor, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature: Largely because it's about being a very special book. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature brings to the general public for the very first time in American history the entire tradition of African American literature.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., Co-Editor, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature: It was a tradition created by slaves, of all things. In the whole of human history you can search far and wide, and never do the body of slaves create an entire genre of literature, and that's what the African-American slaves did in the United States.
DAVID GERGEN: It's ironic, as someone said, from the soil of suffering can come such great writing.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: That's right.
NELLIE McKAY: Yes.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: And then to take the king's English. We were forbidden from learning to read and write after 1740. A year after this famous rebellion, the Stoner rebellion in South Carolina, the South Carolina legislature passed a statute forbidding literacy training and the use of the drum, two forms of African literacy, as it were. And despite that, black people appropriated the master's language to dismantle the master's house. And that's a great story. And they believed in the principles of liberty and democracy as much, if not more, than their oppressors.
DAVID GERGEN: What I found striking in reading your anthology was to go back to this essay by James Weldon Johnson in 1922 at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, when he talked about the anthology, smaller anthology, put together black poetry, and he made the argument that the purpose, the central thrust of black literature was not just literature, itself, but to achieve civil rights to show that blacks were equal to whites through their intellectual capacities.
NELLIE McKAY: Well, I think that literature has always served more than one purpose. I think it has been used. It began as a source of black people explaining to the rest of the nation that they were--they were people because they were not considered to be the kinds of species that would be able to produce literature like other people. So the writing of the literature begins as a way of proving their own humanity, but beyond that, the literature has also served as a way of expressing that which is, for want of a better word, the soul of the people. It's a way of expressing their own creativity, a way of not necessarily always caring what other people have to say or think but of making themselves who they want to be.
DAVID GERGEN: Your book introduced me to the story of Phillis Wheatley, the young girl who was a slave writing poetry back in the early 1770s and then being tested--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: That's right.
DAVID GERGEN: --by white elders to see if she really knew what she was talking about.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: No one believed that a person of African descent could create imaginative literature. There's a whole discourse, Hume, Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Hagle. All of them said in one way or another that Africans were a different order of being, and they could never possess reason in the same way the Europeans could, and the manifestation of reason of course was writing. So she shows up with this book of poems. Her master takes it to Boston publishers, and no one will publish it, till finally 18 of the most respectable characters in Boston, as they later identified themselves, gave her an oral exam. And she had to prove that she had written them, herself. That is the origins of the African American tradition. It is the most ironic origins.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, Prof. Gates, you more recently have been arguing that an anthology should not be simply one proving that blacks are intellectually equal. That argument, you think, is won. But essentially, you've embraced a different approach here in this anthology. This is more a celebration of differentness.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: That's right.
DAVID GERGEN: As well as equality.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: That's right, both within the written tradition and the unwritten tradition, the African American vernacular. I mean, our main innovation in addition to the length is to include a section on the vernacular which is not an innovation, but to include a CD with the anthology which in that student edition comes affixed to the back of the book--76 minutes of oral literature and songs, jazz, and the spirituals--to show that our literature, like every other literature, had its foundations in the vernacular, in the oral tradition, but that out of that came a mastery of the king's English. And I tell my students not only the king of England's English but Martin Luther King's English.
DAVID GERGEN: And also that vernacular--many have written the jazz, the blues, the gospels, and the other traditions--seem to be very creative and, in fact, are American originals. Some would argue the only American original--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Dvorak said that in 1893. He came here and he said the only thing America has given to the world civilization is its spirituals, at which point a lot of black people started saying, we've got sing those spirituals; we've got to sing those spirituals. And ideas like Johnson's came out of that.
NELLIE McKAY: That's right.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: The idea that we could be free.
DAVID GERGEN: I'm glad it didn't persuade Dvorak not to write--not to write a new world symphony. Let me ask you about female authors because there's been such a flowering of literature by black women authors since 1970.
NELLIE McKAY: There have been a large number of black women writers since 1970. There were--we know historically that there have been large numbers of women for a long time, certainly from the 1920's, but many of these women were never able to get themselves into print. As our society has changed, as women have become more accepted, and I think the women's movement has a lot to do with this, we see many more black women being able to come into--into print and making themselves visible, and the--the consumer, one may say, has been impressed by this, and so it means that many more black women have gotten themselves in print.
DAVID GERGEN: What four or five things would you recommend that are your favorites that you really like?
NELLIE McKAY: That's really a hard question. I think my top favorite would, in fact, be W.E.B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folk. It was one of the first things that I really read and understood the meaning of black history and culture in the way that developed for me as an adult, and it had an awful, awful--it had a wonderful--made a wonderful impression on me in the kind of way in which I can always remember the first time I read it. And I would recommend it to others.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. Professor Gates.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: I would start with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I think my all time favorite like Nellie is The Souls of Black Folk by the great Dubois, but Their Eyes are Watching God is a fantastic novel. It's a novel of becoming. A woman is--a young, beautiful woman is oppressed by a series of males, and also by her grandmother, actually, and is--and finally liberates herself. She falls in love and then tells her own story. She has command of the facts of her life in the form of a narrative that she shares with her best friend, Phoebe, and we're overhearing this conversation take place on her back porch. It's quite exciting.
And then I would also recommend Frederick Douglass's Slave Narrative, because it shows that the blackest thing that you could be in the tradition was literate. The ultimate way to be a black person for Frederick Douglass was to master the ABC's and to master a form of rhetoric that were--that predominated in the 19th century, to demand your freedom. And I think more and more of our young people, instead of spending time thinking about so-called "Ebonics," need to understand the great tradition of literacy mastery that our people manifested through standard English, making standard English our own. That's been very, very important and very political for us. And Frederick Douglass exemplifies that beautifully.
DAVID GERGEN: And showing both of you--in your first response, to go back, pretty far back, because many college students today are raised on Richard Wright, for example, or Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin--my generation--
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: The big three.
NELLIE McKAY: It's easier--it's easier to read the contemporaries, the near contemporaries, than it is to go back. But we're interested that people should understand something also that comes from the back. Where does the tradition begin? Where do we begin to see the quality and the depth of the kind of writing that we now have? Where did it come from? And we can look back to the earlier writers and find it there.
DAVID GERGEN: Have we come full circle? In fact, we're going back to find the roots and celebrating those roots and as a way of understanding ourselves today.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Well, I used to think that our generation would be remembered for being--bringing literary theory into the African American literary tradition. And now I think--I think that that's been important but I think as important, if not more important, is the fact that we are reassembling the tradition. Each generation of scholars of African American studies has had to reinvent the wheel because we didn't control access to the means to pass on our anthologies as reference works, and our generation is spending quite a lot of time producing works like The Norton Anthology, the Oxford Companion to African American Literature, the great encyclopedia Africana, which Dubois dreamed of in 1909 and which we're going to be producing at Harvard. These are things which will provide a common ground, a foundation, a base line of knowledge that students can then stand on, so no one will ever have to do this research again. That's exciting.
DAVID GERGEN: Don't want to take 10 years again?
NELLIE McKAY: No, not at all.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, congratulations to you both. Professor McKay, Professor Gates, thank you both.
NELLIE McKAY: It's a great book I have to say.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: She's the mother and I'm the daddy.
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