Black Ink
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Black Ink

Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing

Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Stephanie Stokes Oliver

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eBook - ePub

Black Ink

Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing

Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Stephanie Stokes Oliver

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About This Book

Spanning over 250 years of history, Black Ink traces black literature in America from Frederick Douglass to Ta-Nehisi Coates in this "breathtaking anthology celebrating the power of the written word to forge change" ( O, The Oprah Magazine ). Throughout American history black people are the only group of people to have been forbidden by law to learn to read. This expansive collection seeks to shed light on that injustice, putting some of America's most cherished voices in a conversation in one magnificent volume that presents reading as an act of resistance.Organized into three sections—the Peril, the Power, and the Pleasure—and featuring a vast array of contributors both classic and contemporary, Black Ink presents the brilliant diversity of black thought in America while solidifying the importance of these writers within the greater context of the American literary tradition. "This electric and electrifying collection of voices serves to open a much-needed window onto the freedom struggle of black literature. It's a marvel, and a genuine gift for readers everywhere" (Wil Haygood, author of The Butler: A Witness to History ).Contributors include: Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison, Walter Dean Myers, Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture], Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Terry McMillan, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead, Marlon James, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Colson Whitehead.The anthology features a bonus in-depth interview with President Barack Obama.

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37 Ink


In this era, from the post-Emancipation period through the Civil Rights / Black Power era, writers as diverse as Zora Neale Hurston and Stokely Carmichael had something in common—the relentless pursuit of equality and freedom for all.

Books and Things

I took my nerve in my hand and decided to try to write the story I had been carrying around in me.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) is one of the most beloved and preeminent African American women writers. Her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is still taught in schools and was made into a television movie in 2005.
Born in Alabama, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, where she was influenced by the “tall tales” she heard there. She obtained an associate degree from Howard University and in 1921 published her first short story in the school’s literary magazine, the Stylus. In 1924, she cofounded the campus newspaper, the Hilltop. Hurston went on to graduate from Barnard College in 1928 and later studied for a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University.
As a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hurston was a prolific author of short stories, essays, plays, novels, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Published in 1942 and excerpted here, Dust Tracks gives us the author’s own story of the challenges and triumphs of being a Negro writer.
While I was in the research field in 1929, the idea of Jonah’s Gourd Vine came to me. I had written a few short stories, but the idea of attempting a book seemed so big, that I gazed at it in the quiet of the night, but hid it away from even myself in daylight.
For one thing, it seemed off-key. What I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color. It seemed to me that the human beings I met reacted pretty much the same to the same stimuli. Different idioms, yes. Circumstances and conditions having power to influence, yes. Inherent difference, no. But I said to myself that that was not what was expected of me, so I was afraid to tell a story the way I wanted, or rather the way the story told itself to me. So I went on that way for three years.
Something else held my attention for a while. As I told you before, I had been pitched head-foremost into the Baptist Church when I was born. I had heard the singing, the preaching and the prayers. They were a part of me. But on the concert stage, I always heard songs called spirituals sung and applauded as Negro music, and I wondered what would happen if a white audience ever heard a real spiritual. To me, what the Negroes did in Macedonia Baptist Church was finer than anything that any trained composer had done to the folk songs.
I had collected a mass of work songs, blues and spirituals in the course of my years of research. After offering them to two Negro composers and having them refused on the ground that white audiences would not listen to anything but highly arranged spirituals, I decided to see if that was true. I doubted it because I had seen groups of white people in my father’s church as early as I could remember. They had come to hear the singing, and certainly there was no distinguished composer in Zion Hope Baptist Church. The congregation just got hold of the tune and arranged as they went along as the spirit moved them. And any musician, I don’t care if he stayed at a conservatory until his teeth were gone and he smelled like old-folks, could never even approach what those untrained singers could do. LET THE PEOPLE SING, was and is my motto, and finally I resolved to see what would happen.
So on money I borrowed, I put on a show at the John Golden Theater on January 10, 1932, and tried out my theory. The performance was well received by both the audience and the critics. Because I know that music without motion is not natural with my people, I did not have the singers stand in a stiff group and reach for the high note. I told them to just imagine that they were in Macedonia and go ahead. One critic said that he did not believe that the concert was rehearsed, it looked so natural. I had dramatized a working day on a railroad camp, from the shack-rouser waking up the camp at dawn until the primitive dance in the deep woods at night.
While I did not lose any money, I did not make much. But I am satisfied that I proved my point. I have seen the effects of that concert in all the Negro singing groups since then. Primitive Negro dancing has been given tremendous impetus. Work songs have taken on. In that performance I introduced West Indian songs and dances and they have come to take an important place in America. I am not upset by the fact that others have made something out of the things I pointed out. Rather I am glad if I have called any beauty to the attention of those who can use it.
In May, 1932, the depression did away with money for research so far as I was concerned. So I took my nerve in my hand and decided to try to write the story I had been carrying around in me. Back in my native village, I wrote first Mules and Men. That is, I edited the huge mass of material I had, arranged it in some sequence and laid it aside. It was published after my first novel. Mr. Robert Wunsch and Dr. John Rice were both on the faculty of Rollins College, at Winter Park, which is three miles from Eatonville. Dr. Edwin Osgood Grover, Dr. Hamilton Holt, President of Rollins, together with Rice and Wunsch, were interested in me. I gave three folk concerts at the college under their urging.
Then I wrote a short story, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” which Bob Wunsch read to his class in creative writing before he sent if off to Story Magazine. Thus I came to know Martha Foley and her husband, Whit Burnett, the editors of Story. They bought the story and it was published in the August issue, 1933. They never told me, but it is my belief that they did some missionary work among publishers in my behalf, because four publishers wrote me and asked if I had anything of book-length. Mr. Bertram Lippincott, of the J. B. Lippincott Company, was among these. He wrote a gentle-like letter and so I was not afraid of him. Exposing my efforts did not seem so rash to me after reading his letter. I wrote him and said that I was writing a book. Mind you, not the first word was on paper when I wrote him that letter. But the very next week I moved up to Sanford where I was not so much at home as at Eatonville, and could concentrate more and sat down to write Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
I rented a house with a bed and stove in it for $1.50 a week. I paid two weeks and then my money ran out. My cousin, Willie Lee Hurston, was working and making $3.50 per week, and she always gave me the fifty cents to buy groceries with. In about three months, I finished the book. The problem of getting it typed was then upon me. Municipal Judge S.A.B. Wilkinson asked his secretary, Mildred Knight, if she would not do it for me and wait on the money. I explained to her that the book might not even be taken by Lippincott. I had been working on a hope. She took the manuscript home with her and read it. Then she offered to type it for me. She said, “It is going to be accepted, all right. I’ll type it. Even if the first publisher does not take it, somebody will.” So between them, they bought the paper and carbon and the book was typed.
I took it down to the American Express office to mail it and found that it cost $1.83 cents to mail, and I did not have it. So I went to see Mrs. John Leonardi, a most capable woman lawyer, and wife of the County Prosecutor. She did not have the money at the moment, but she was the treasurer of the local Daughter Elks. She “borrowed” $2.00 from the treasury and gave it to me to mail my book. That was on October 3, 1933. On October 16, I had an acceptance by wire.
But it did not come so simply as that. I had been hired by the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce to entertain the business district of Sanford with my concert group for that day. I was very glad to get the work, because my landlord was pressing me for the back rent. I now owed $18. I was to receive $25 for the day, so I saw my way clear to pay up my rent, and have a little over. It was not to be that way, however. At eight o’clock of October 16, my landlord came and told me to get out. I told her that I could pay her that day, but she said she didn’t believe that I would ever have that much money. No, she preferred the house. So I took my card table and my clothes up to my Uncle Isaiah’s house and went off to entertain the city at eleven o’clock. The sound truck went up and down the streets and my boys sang. That afternoon while I was still on the sound truck, a Western Union messenger handed me a wire. Naturally I did not open it there. We were through at three o’clock. The Chamber of Commerce not only paid us, we were all given an order which we could take to any store we wanted and get what we chose. I needed shoes, so I took mine to a shoe store. My heart was weighing as much as cord-wood, and so I forgot the wire until I was having the shoes fitted. When I opened it and read that Jonah’s Gourd Vine was accepted and that Lippincott was offering me $200 advance, I tore out of that place with one old shoe and one new one on and ran to the Western Union office. Lippincott had asked for an answer by wire and they got it! Terms accepted. I never expect to have a greater thrill than that wire gave me. You know the feeling when you found your first pubic hair. Greater than that. When Producer Arthur Hornblow took me to lunch at Lucey’s and hired me at Paramount, it was nice—very nice. I was most elated. But I had had five books accepted then, been a Guggenheim fellow twice, spoken at three book fairs with all the literary greats of America and some from abroad, and so I was a little more used to things. So you see why Bertram Lippincott is Colonel Bert to me. When the Negroes in the south name a white man a colonel, it means CLASS. Something like a monarch, only bigger and better. And when the colored population in the south confer a title, the white people recognize it because the Negroes are never wrong. They may flatter an ordinary bossman by calling him “Cap’n” but when they say “Colonel,” “General,” and “Governor” they are recognizing something internal. It is there, and it is accepted because it can be seen.
I wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in Haiti. It was dammed up in me, and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish that I could write it again. In fact, I regret all of my books. It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning. Perhaps, it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would get written at all. It might be better to ask yourself “Why?” afterwards than before. Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you. You have all heard of the Spartan youth with the fox under his cloak.
Dust Tracks on a Road is being written in California where I did not expect to be at this time.
I did not come out here to California to write about the state. I did not come to get into the movies. I came because my good friend, Katharane Edson Mershon, invited me out here to rest and have a good time. However, I have written a book here, and gone to work in the movies. This surprises me because I did not think that I would live long enough to do anything out here but die. Friend Katharane Mershon is a mountain goat while I am a lowland turtle. I want to rock along on level ground. She can’t look at a mountain without leaping on it. I think she is ashamed if she ever catches both of her feet on the same level. She cries “Excelsior!” in her sleep. Jack, her husband, told me that the reason he has that sort of smoothed-off look was because she dragged him up a mountain the next day after they got married and he has never been able to get his right shape back again. Well, 1941 was a hard year for me, too. She showed me California. Before it was over, I felt like I had spent two months walking a cross-cut saw. The minute I get to be governor of California, I mean to get me an over-sized plane and a spirit-level and fix this state so it can be looked at without rearing back. EPIC nothing! LEVEL! Level California! And I do mean L E V E L !!!!

My People! My People!

“My people! My people!” From the earliest rocking of my cradle days, I have heard this cry go up from Negro lips. It is forced outward by pit, scorn and hopeless resignation. It is called forth by the observations of one class of Negro on the doings of another branch of the brother in black. For instance, well-mannered Negroes groan out like that when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. Maybe they are not only eating and drinking. The offenders may be “loud-talking” the place, and holding back nothing of their private lives, in a voice that embraces the entire coach. The well-dressed Negro shrinks back in his seat at that, shakes his head and sighs, “My people! My people!”
Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or she be embarrassed? It is like this: The well-bred Negro has looked around and seen America with his eyes. He or she has set himself to measure up to what he thinks of as the white standard of living. He is conscious of the fact that the Negro in America needs more respect if he expects to get any acceptance at all. Therefore, after straining every nerve to get an education, maintain an attractive home, dress decently, and otherwise conform, he is dismayed at the sight of other Negroes tearing down what he is trying to build up. It is said every day, “And that good-for-nothing, trashy Negro is the one the white people judge us all by. They think we’re all just alike. My people! My people!” . . .

Poetry Is Practical

My poems sent me to college.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was best known as a prominent poet and writer of short stories, novels, plays, nonfiction, and books for children. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, his popular character, Jesse B. Semple, commonly known as Simple, symbolized with humor and down-home wisdom the everyday Black man on the opinions and topics of the day. The winner of numerous poetry and writing awards, Hughes served as a columnist for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.
Widely traveled, Hughes wrote about his journeys in his two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. His father tried to encourage him to remove himself from American racism by relocating to Mexico as he had done. Saying he liked being around Negroes, the younger Hughes stayed in the States and held a variety of jobs in Washington, DC, including one with historian Carter G. Woodson, the “father” of Black History Month. This excerpt from The Big Sea tells us how Hughes longed to go to college, and how he wrote his way there.
Working in the steam of the wet wash laundry that winter, I caught a bad cold, stayed home from work a week—and found my job gone when I went back. So I went to work for a colored newspaper. But I only made eighty cents in two weeks, so I quit the newspaper game. Then an old school friend of my mother’s, Amanda Grey Hilyer, who once owned a drug store, spoke to Dr. Carter G. Woodson about me, and Dr. Woodson gave me a job in the offices of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History as his personal assistant.
My new job paid several dollars more a week than the wet wash laundry. It was what they call in Washington “a position.” But it was much harder work than the laundry.
I had to go to work early and start the furnace in the morning, dust, open the office, and see that the stenographers came in on time. Then I had to sort the mail, notify Dr. Woodson of callers, wrap and post all book orders, keep the office routine going, read proof, check address lists, help on the typing, fold and seal letters, run errands, lock up, clean the office in the evening—and then come back and bank the furnace every night at nine!
At that time Dr. Woodson was working on his compilation, Thirty Thousand Free Negro Heads of Families. My job was to put the thirty thousand in alphabetical order from Ab, Abner, on down to Zu, Zucker, or whatever the last name might be—from the first letter of each name alphabetically through ...

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