After yesterday’s Blog it occurred to me that I had made a terrible mistake in my listings. I had not included a single African American poet or novelist. I really believe that to understand America a person has to understand issues dealing with African Americans and not just white Americans. So, I decided to make a “Part II” to write about the literature dealing with African Americans. My favorite black poets are Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Both of them came out of the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson is the lesser known one who also wrote Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man besides God’s Trombones. Langston Hughes wrote poems that appeal to kids even today, but I will wait to quote one of my favorites of his poems. My favorite black literature includes Zora Neale Hurston (another figure from the Harlem Renaissance) and Ralph Ellison (who was the next generation down). Though I recognize his importance to black people, I find Richard Wright (author of Native Son and Black Boy and part of the Black Chicago Renaissance) a tad disturbing and couldn’t force myself to read his book. Though I read Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved, I had even worse vibes about her. I am ashamed to admit that I have not read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (though I saw the film), or Maya Angelo’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Waiting on my shelf to be read is Hannah Craft’s The Bondswoman’s Narrative. I truly admire Frederick Douglass’ fight for his freedom and loved all three of his autobiographies. I also love Lalita Tademy–I hope nobody minds my naming such a “minor” author–in the books she read about her family, Cain River and Red River. I look forward to reading Citizen’s Creek. I also read–and modestly enjoyed–Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots.
I know this does not sound like the robust treatment that African American literature deserves. Yet what I never cease to admire in these books is the celebration of the human being to be free. None of these writers is not struggling to be free in a country where traditionally at one time their ancestors were chattel. And this is perfectly personified in a poem that is in textbooks now but always should have been:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I had a rabbi–actually something of a buffoon for the most part–who once stumbled on an idea I found inspiring: freedom is not just an end in and of itself, though it is that. It is also a means, as in when the Israelites demanded of the Egyptians freedom to worship God as the Israelites saw fit. For all that black people have real joie de vivre where freedom is concerned (hence the joy of playing and listening to Jazz), freedom exists to give people the chance to make their dreams come true. That is why I love this freedom-loving poem.
Someday I hope to write a “Writing and Researching Part III” about secular Jewish fiction–alas, to this date, I have read only bits and pieces of it: Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daughters; Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent; Isaac Singer’s The Collected Short Stories; Barnard Malamud’s The Assistant; a few stories by I.L. Peretz; and most of Chaim Potok. Until I know more, I shall not write about it, though…