A wonderful class of graduate students and I have started discussing how history and story intersect. We began with Doctorow’s Ragtime and the movie made from the novel. Next we read August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which the Guthrie Theater produced a year ago. Now my mind won’t shut up: it keeps throwing up all kinds of other examples, amazing episodes and works in and about what is probably the richest, most controversial, continuing story in American history: slavery and its descendents.
It’s rather common knowledge these days that the institution of slavery greatly troubled the founders of the American “experiment” and almost made a compromise impossible. Though the American Civil War was fought over sectional competition, when it came right down to it, freeing African-Americans from bondage was at its heart. President Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “the woman who started a war.” Since then, the story of African Americans enriches and challenges us as individuals and a nation. I can’t begin to enumerate all the episodes of history and the works of imagination that derive from it. But let me at least make a start.
August Wilson’s play is set in Chicago, which with New York became the two great meccas where African Americans headed in the waves of migration that took them out of the increasingly segregated and hostile south–just before and during World War I and World War II. As one student mentioned, Chicago is still one of the most segregated American cities. Yet, out of the Chicago experience many astonishing African-American writers have enriched our culture: let’s start with Gwendolyn Brooks, the great poetic chronicler of the poor, the lively, their tenements, their language, their music. Along with Lorraine Hansberry who wrote the play “A Raisin in the Sun” and a moving memoir, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and Richard Wright (Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, Black Boy), these writers (based in Chicago for at least part of their lives) made the history and story of newly arrived Chicago migrants, their efforts to reach toward that sun of prosperity vivid and compelling. The fact that we have Barack Obama, an African-American president, and his talented and highly educated wife at the head of our country today says a huge amount about individual achievement and group solidarity via Chicago–how through the growth and exercise of political, intellectual and creative power, astonishing individuals can rise to the top. (In these contentious times, I like to remind myself of this!)
On the East Coast, the African-American writers, artists and intellectuals that derive from the Harlem Renaissance and continue today include the poet Langston Hughes, with Gwendolyn Brooks, the two greatest African-American poets of the first half of the 20th century. Then there are a group of fiction writers who extended our awareness of African-American lives well into the mid-20th century: Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son), and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God). The Civil Rights movement brought another generation of African-American writers forward–Maya Angelou, Margaret Walker, ALice Walker, on and on, not to mention the political/religions works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Finally there’s Toni Morrison’s immensely complex and enticing works, my favorite being Beloved. She won the Nobel Prize for literature, perhaps the highest honor the world can bestow.
I’m just touching the most obvious, not really moving far into the last thirty years except with Morrison. Suffice it to say, we are gifted with extraordinary African-American writers, whose courage, desperation, humor, artifice and realism astound and inform. Don’t waste any time: get thee to a library or book store. Read, listen, or in the case of August Wilson, go to the next production of one of his Pittsburgh trilogies, performed by Saint Paul’s leading theater, the Penumbra Theater, which is housed in Saint Paul’s old Rondo neighborhood, which was lovingly described in Evelyn Fairbanks’ memoir, Days of Rondo.