Commonwealth Prize winner, part time ‘Ninja, and General Purveyor of Awesome Lawrence Hill writes on the state of black literature (in a white system) for Bookforum.
Is it a problem that many of the most famous and enduring fictional accounts of African Americans have been penned by whites? After Styron released his Pulitzer Prize–winning Confessions in 1967, some African-American writers were so incensed that just a year later they retaliated with the essay collection William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. I think that Styron, Twain, Stowe, and Lee wrote valuable books that deserve to be read and understood within the body of literature exploring the black experience in America. However, I do deplore that voices by African-American and African-Canadian writers continue to be crowded out of the picture. True, W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and, more recently, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World have been duly embraced, as have Alex Haley’s astoundingly resilient Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But the average elementary or high school student in the United States or Canada who wants—or is told—to learn something about black culture and history is more likely to begin and end his or her reading with Twain and Lee than with any of these African-American writers.
One way to interrupt this trend—whether unconscious or deliberate—of ignoring African-American writers is to incorporate memoirs into the body of Civil War literature. In its transparency and vitality, the African-American memoir has the power to reach out and grab readers and hold them chapter after chapter. A great slave narrative, for example, offers the drama of fiction and the cutting edge of historical fact.