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So Far to Go: African-Americans in American Literature

Written by: Beth Fred, Special to CC2K


ImageThis piece started out as a tribute to Black History Month highlighting the work of the African-American community throughout our national history.  I planned to discuss how impressive it is that Frederick Douglass was able to overcome his early life as a slave and write a biography that opened eyes.  Or how significantly Uncle Tom's Cabin contributed to the events that would eventually lead to abolition of slavery.  History is important; without it there can be no future.  But we live in the present, so it too must have it's place.  As I researched for this article, I connected what I've read, what I've experienced, and what I know. 

What I realized is that we, as a society, need a wake-up call.

Toni Morrison has to be one of the most profound writers of American literature.  Admittedly, I found Song of Solomon much too long, but the way her words wrap around the page, the way it's impossible not to become lost in them, the way they carry a melody when read out loud, makes her arguably one of the best writers in the history of American literature.  And the hit movie Precious seems comparable to The Bluest Eye, at least in the plot.  Why, then, was I 20 and a junior in an English program before I discovered Morrison?  It's true the fiction that she writes isn't typically in the genre I read, but neither was most of my assigned reading prior to my junior year.

When I think of African-American writers of today one name comes to mind immediately and without hesitation: Maya Angelou.  This is interesting since I rarely read poetry, but that's the first name to come to mind and I would have to think for a minute to come up with another name.  Steve Harvey writes well known self-help books, but he was on TV first, so would I know his name had it not been for his 90's comedies?  In honesty, I don't know!  There's Sapphire, the author of Push, the novel that the critically acclaimed movie Precious was based on.  She's well known now thanks to movie–although in fairness, that's how a lot of white writers become famous as well.

I have to admit with some shame that perhaps I haven't done enough to influence myself to the world of African-American literature.  But isn't it just American literature?  And why wasn't I exposed to it as early in the education system and in the same way I was exposed to Mark Twain or George Orwell?

I'm a supporter of the unknown author. I try to periodically review an unknown or debut author, because we all have something to say, and most of us are worth hearing.  I found a list of best selling African-American authors today; most of them were names I didn't recognize.  But they are voices that have important and different insights into our world and our culture.

I think Martin Luther King's dream has been reached: we have an African-American President today.  But my dream is that American literature becomes equally open to all of the parts of the whole and adequately represents America in a meaningful way.

Author: Beth Fred, Special to CC2K

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