Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Passing of Our Own Literary Tradition

Besides my reading list for the summer of books I actually do plan to finish, are a hand full of books that I just want to pick up and become familiar with, and maybe at some later date I can actually read them. A few of them are some books my advisor at school suggested that I look at. My advisor, who is an unnatural, horn-rimmed, southern, blond with a Ph.D. from Florida State, has a thing, not just for women writers, but also for Black women writers. She is encouraging me to pursue my graduate studies in African-American literature, and is the one who placed The Bondwoman’s Narrative and Clotel or The President’s Daughter (both slave narratives) in my hand, and both of which she teaches in her American Literature classes. As a bonus she also gave me Ar’n’t I a Woman? by Deborah Gray White, Black Women Writers: 1950-1980 by Mari Evans, and Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers by Barbara Christian.

I was going over “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, an early essay on theory by T.S. Elliot, contemplating what makes a writer traditional. In his essay, Elliot says what makes a writer traditional is a sense of the historical, “which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal…” which is not a blind following of the ways of the immediate generation before us, but that it is a “perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…” I want to cultivate in my writing and study of literature that sense of the historical; from all the literature of the world; from The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer and Beowulf to Song of Solomon, A Prayer For Owen Meany, and Breath, Eyes, Memory. So, with this in mind, I picked up Black Feminist Criticism by Barbara Christian, published in 1985. I thumbed through it’s pages, it’s table of contents which lists a collection of essays on the works of mostly Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, along with other Sister writers; Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I glanced at the back cover, where Christian, looking hip as ever with her TWA (teenie, weenie, afro), and an intriguing gap in her teeth, in the varying shades of a black and white photo. I read her bio and wondered, where is she now? So, I did what anyone with an Internet connection would do: I Googled her.

As what some might call a “late bloomer”, I’m catching up on a lot of reading that I probably should have done in high school. And because I am only now beginning to learn and understand this other planet called English Studies, I feel that there is so much and so many to discover. Sometimes I’m afraid there won’t be enough time for me to catch up. I knew about Endesha Ida Mae Holland who transitioned in January. Her “From the Mississippi Delta” which chronicled her journey from prostitution and poverty to Ph.D. is one of my many inspirations for returning to academia. But, then there was Octavia Butler, and Nellie McKay, whom I’d not known about, but was moved to send a donation to a Lorraine Hansberry Visiting Professorship fund in her name. I’ve felt cheated. These Black women, literary warriors are leaving just when I am able to get my bearings. Then, I Googled Barbara Christian, and the first item was; you guessed it, another obituary. I’ve missed Christian by six years.

My sense of the historical is coming along. I don’t want to be compartmentalized in a literary sub-culture, but as a Black woman writer in the shadows of women, so accomplished and diligent, who may only be recognized by those of us studying them, I can’t help but feel an enormous responsibility to step in, to learn, to teach and to write for our place, as a species and a people, among the literary whole.

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At 6:31 PM , Blogger BLUE said...

not to worry ... if they left words, they are still here. and when you add words, they will still be here.

but i hear you. the ancestors are way too lonely these days, and send for folks faster than we can blink.



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