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Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory : THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE : Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (W.W. Norton & Co.: $39.95, 2,665 pp.)

December 15, 1996|JULIUS LESTER | Julius Lester is a professor in the Judaic Studies department and adjunct professor in the English and history departments at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of more than two dozen books, including "All Our Wounds Forgiven," a novel about the civil rights movement, and "Sam and the Tigers," a new telling of "Little Black Sambo," published by Dial

The story of black America is that of a journey from slavery to freedom. But this change in legal definition describes only the obvious. Less apparent is the journey not yet completed, the journey that blacks and whites must make together. That is the one toward the egalitarian ideal that will be reached only when blacks and whites can look at each other and not see race, but a person first.

It is outrageous that any people on this planet should have to "prove" their humanity to any other group. Yet that is precisely what African Americans have had to do since their involuntary arrival on these shores. Yes, European immigrants were subjected to prejudice, but discrimination against these groups mostly disappeared as successive generations were assimilated into American life. Although there have been native-born African Americans since Colonial times, white superiority persists with preternatural intensity into the closing moments of the 20th century.

One of the weapons African Americans have wielded against racism has been literature. Professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay argue in their introduction to "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature" that "the Anglo-African literary tradition was created" to prove that African Americans were "full and equal members of the community of rational, sentient beings, that they could, indeed, write." They quote the black novelist and poet James Weldon Johnson, who averred 70 years ago that "[n]o people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior."

Unfortunately, Johnson's naive faith has gone unrewarded, but that is not the fault of African Americans. This monumental collection demonstrates that the black literary tradition is long, varied and rich.

It is the seventh in the Norton series of anthologies that are regarded as embodying the literary canon. Designed for use in colleges and universities, it has an accompanying course guide that includes sample syllabi and suggestions on how to use the anthology in teaching. Unique to this anthology in the series is an audio CD with music of some of the poetry in the section on oral tradition.

The book is divided into seven sections, edited by nine academics. Ranging from African American beginnings in this country to the present, it includes the work of 120 writers, of whom 52 are women. Thirteen novels, five plays and one book-length poem are presented in their entirety, including such seminal works as W.E.B. DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folk," Jean Toomer's "Cane" and Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."

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The basis of the African American literary tradition is not the written word but the oral tradition, and it is appropriate that the anthology begins with the poetry found in African American religious and secular music--spirituals, blues, work songs, etc.--as well as the rhythmic and colorful prose of sermons and folk tales. Not only has much African American writing sought to incorporate, use and improvise on these forms, that writing has also plumbed such themes as protest and survival, endurance and transcendence, which find expression in the oral literature.

The written tradition started before the Revolutionary War in the narratives of ex-slaves, anti-slavery essays and speeches, and poetry. The thrust of this early work was understandably an amalgam of pleas to be viewed as members of the human family and to protest slavery and discrimination. Sadly, much of this work is modern in tone and content, such as the 1857 oration of the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who called Fourth of July celebrations "a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery. . . ."

Where the writings from Colonial times through the Civil War were focused on the necessity to end slavery, the period from 1865 to the end of World War I produced the first giants of African American literary, intellectual and political life. Black writing became more varied, ranging from the dialect poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar to the sophisticated novels of Charles Chestnutt to the cosmopolitanism of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois.

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