Editor's Note: To accompany the review of "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature," the Book Review asked a number of distinguished black Americans to name the works by African Americans that most moved or influenced them.
Books usually come to you from other people. At the right moment, you read about something or you're told to wrap your brain around a particular work. In my own case, I wasn't taken by James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who were the first Negro writers I became aware of at some point in grade school. Though I couldn't have called my problem by its name, neither seemed modern to me. Then James Baldwin became famous and I read him, but wasn't initially taken by his style. When I became aware of LeRoi Jones, who was then a writer and not a propagandist called Amiri Baraka, the fire, the voice, the rhythm, the feeling for black American life and for the world at large put the T in thrilling. I read everything I could find, his essays, his poetry, his fiction, his plays. Then, through the poet Jayne Cortez, I was directed to Ralph Ellison, whose "Invisible Man" and "Shadow and Act" showed me the way I wanted to go. After that, Albert Murray was a natural. Ellison and Murray were about either accepting or rejecting those cultural elements and subjects that were important to them and to our modern world. They didn't eat from a few segregated dishes; those boys chose from the entire menu. Their writing and the best of Jones expanded my ambitions. What I'm doing right now leads back more than 30 years to those moments of literary revelation.