In David Nicholson’s “that’s why darkies were born,” we find ourselves inside a reconstruction of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from the perspective of Jim; in a Bedford Falls that is a Black community; seeing Scarlett O’Hara through the eyes of a house slave; and watching piano player Sam as Elsa’s “Casablanca” paramour. The story’s unique form lends itself to playfulness and yet at the core is a deadly serious examination of an American cultural history that has left out, distorted and marginalized an entire population. Nicholson seems to be letting us know that our beloved stories improve, in both historical accuracy and even entertainment value, when the heroes and heroines realign. Or maybe he is just reminding us that somewhere off the page and screen, there is a whole other reality that does not necessarily sync with our sentimental (and wholly white) vision of who we are and how we got to be this way. Then again, it’s just a really fine story: cleverly imagined, well written, entertaining and thoughtful.
In the Chicago Quarterly Review’s “Anthology of Black Literature,” guest-edited by the esteemed Charles Johnson, we get a nice balance of poetry, short stories, essays, novel excerpts, interviews and artwork that share an abiding respect, concern and deep intelligence about a wide variety of Black cultural and societal issues. The contributors come at Black American life in many different ways. There is no explicit theme (other than Black and American), but there is an intensity that runs through the literary explorations. This intensity derives from the subject matter, but more so from the intimacy the authors share with the subject matter. Delia C. Pitts’ narrator begins her short story “Talladega 1925” by letting her reader know that, in her mind, her baby sister’s birth around that time superseded in historical importance the Klan rally that tromped through her neighborhood. It’s one of many examples in this anthology where the storyteller is inside a moment. This up-close quality bumps against truths much more specific and tangible than ordinary prose, even in the simple, nuanced understanding of Black (“darker than any,” “penny-brown complexion,” “custard-smooth skin,” and “with fine, smooth Black skin that stretched across his gleaming skull and over the cords of his neck to disappear under his white collar shirt.”)
There is no singular Black life. Any attempts to pinpoint a definitive commonality gravitate toward cliché, as so many Chicago literary masters—Cyrus Colter, Willard Motley, Leon Forrest, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry and so on, through to the anthology’s editor—have demonstrated time and again. There is, however, a shared history filled with joys and triumphs as well as atrocities and burdens. And, of course, bigotry. Steven Barnes, in his essay, “Rudy,” recounts how being placed in the slow reading group “because of my skin color” had an impact on his life. Johnson, in his short story “Night Shift,” points out “As a young Black man, you were of course always at risk from the moment you were born.” In his poem “Slow Dance,” Clarence Major’s “grandma” remembers, “centuries of human bodies/on rotundas handled by the calloused/hands of rude sellers of human flesh.”
In the pages of this anthology, there is something like solidarity amongst the contributors, who share an appreciation of cultural heroes and a spirited determination to articulate Black life. In doing so, the contributors look at victories that might be sustained and atrocities that might be overcome. Jan Willis, in her article “…Stayed On Freedom” reminds that white men enslaving Black people for their own profit spoke that lofty Declaration of Independence line about all men being created equal. Much of American history, likewise, has been written by and filtered through white, powerful people, outsiders judging the Black condition as one does through a curtain on the other side of the street, the double-paned glass muting any kind of soundtrack. The writers in this anthology are on the right side of the street. Pitts writes, “With its wide streets and deep lawns, our town was beautiful in the fall. Heavy oak and walnut trees darkened the wide sidewalks on the edge of the college campus. The smell of the burning leaves drifted from smoldering piles along the curbs in the front of each house. I never visited the white part of town; I don’t know if it was as beautiful as ours. I don’t figure how it could have been.”
Some of the most poignant and beautiful writing in the anthology, such as Clifford Thompson’s brilliant essay, “Ming Yang Fu, or Seeking Words at Age Thirteen,” tell stories only indirectly related to race. Thompson’s personal narrative, broken into four parts, investigates his own awkward coming-of-age experience. Cliff is an almost socially dysfunctional, scrawny and afraid adolescent, disappearing from problems real and imagined in the pages of comic books and his own efforts to create similar art. He learns to fight, at least a little, but his real breakthrough comes when he reads “Catcher in the Rye,” a story that speaks to him in ways even more profound than the Marvel universe. On the surface, this is a colorblind story, but what the anthology highlights is that there is no such thing—the author is a Black man and as such his experiences are necessary as that.
Of course, this anthology includes equally compelling pieces, like Jerald Walker’s “An American Right” that explicitly investigate issues of race. Walker’s essay successfully straddles the line between a scholarly study and a personal reflection, bringing to bear his own history on weighty, controversial topics like cultural appropriation.
Throughout these pages, we visit or revisit historical moments, real and imagined, such as Booker T. Washington’s aborted fishing trip with W.E.B. Dubois, and an ironic lynching. We dive into current events, like murders at the hands of police, the pandemic, and the politics of Donald Trump. We touch base with pop culture in the form of Fred Sanford and Don Cornelius and Will Smith (not to mention “Dark Gable”), as well as more substantial figures like Charlie Parker and Etta James and John Edgar Wideman. In many cases, the tension or topic resonates with contemporary issues—it’s there below the surface. In other cases, the author makes these connections precisely and studiously, as when Willis tells us that the three big immediate crises—the health pandemic, economic slump and racist police brutality—are part of the same problem. “We are witnessing, some perhaps for the first time, the intertwining and interconnectedness of these various phenomena all together.”
“Anthology” is a fancy-sounding word that means, literally, a “collection” or “assortment.” In literary circles, though, it is presented as something more than just a “Best Of” compilation. The most successful anthologies often strive, through an assortment of writing, to make a greater whole. The collected pieces share a connective tissue; each must add something unique to the larger investigation. We commonly interpret selection into an anthology as an accomplishment, or at least validation of the contributor’s work. In essence, those writers in the anthology are the chosen ones.
The quality of work in this anthology ranges from exquisite to merely competent, though much more of the former than latter. But even the pedestrian writing in this anthology, because of theme or tone or style, manages to work as part of this crazy quilt. The list of contributors, including the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove and National Book Award winner Johnson, is impressive, and even the relatively unheralded writers clearly belong here. This is not, nor is it intended to be, a definitive publication of the best Black voices. Rather, it is an eloquently curated representation of the enormous talent and range working, right now, in the Black cultural community.
For almost a quarter century, the Chicago Quarterly Review, founded by Syed Afzal Haider, has consistently put out a topnotch journal that offers an assortment of new and established voices. The editorial staff and board, including truly outstanding people like Elizabeth McKenzie, Gary Houston, Peter Ferry and John Blades (just to cite a few I know very well), are devoted, smart and passionate. CQR has put out around a hundred issues (give or take: quarterly is an approximate, with some years producing more or less than four), plus a magnificent book (“My Postwar Life,” 2012) of new writing on Japan and Okinawa, edited by McKenzie.
In “Anthology of Black American Literature,” Chicago Quarterly Review has again produced a book that is as important as it is overdue; as thrilling as it is edifying. Ultimately, the success of this anthology, all put together, lies in the fact that it is by Black writers but not exclusively for a Black audience. These timely and considerate pieces are about love, friendship, family, about hopes and fears, as much as about any particular issue. This anthology is a work in which a greater humanity, not yet realized, is the focus, and the sense that we can all do better for one another is a sentiment that trumps even the central theme of race.
“Anthology of Black American Literature”
Edited by Charles Johnson
Chicago Quarterly Review, Vol. 33, 244 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.