Henry Louis Gates Jr. on What Makes a “Classic” African American Text

“They reveal the human universal through the African American particular: All true art, all classics, do this.”

I have long nurtured a deep and abiding affection for the Penguin Classics, at least since I was an undergraduate at Yale. I used to imagine that my attraction for these books—grouped together, as a set, in some independent bookstores when I was a student, and perhaps even in some today—stemmed from the fact that my first-grade classmates, for some reason that I can’t recall, were required to dress as penguins in our annual all-school pageant, and perform a collective side‑to‑side motion that our misguided teacher thought she could choreograph into something meant to pass for a “dance.”

Piedmont, West Virginia, in 1956, was a very long way from Penguin Nation, wherever that was supposed to be! But penguins we were determined to be, and we did our level best to avoid wounding each other with our orange-colored cardboard beaks while stomping out of rhythm in our matching orange, veined webbed feet. The whole scene was madness, one never to be repeated at the Davis Free School. But I never stopped loving penguins.

And I have never stopped loving the very audacity of the idea of the Penguin Classics, an affordable, accessible library of the most important and compelling texts in the history of civilization, their uniform spines and type and alluring covers giving each text a comfortable, familiar feel, as if we have encountered it, or its cousins, before. I think of the Penguin Classics as the very best and most compelling in human thought, an Alexandrian library in paperback, enclosed in black and white.

I still gravitate to the Penguin Classics when killing time in an airport bookstore, deferring the slow torture of the security lines. Sometimes I even purchase two or three, fantasizing that I can speed-read one of the shorter titles, then make a dent in the longer one, vainly attempting to fill the holes in the liberal arts education that our degrees suggest we have, over the course of a plane ride! Mark Twain once quipped that a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” and perhaps that applies to my airport purchasing habits.

For my generation, these titles in the Penguin Classics form the canon—the canon of the texts that a truly well-educated person should have read, and read carefully and closely, at least once. For years I rued the absence of texts by Black authors in this series, and longed to be able to make even a small contribution to the diversification of this astonishingly universal list. I watched with great pleasure as titles by African American and African authors began to appear, some two dozen over the past several  years. So when Vice President and Publisher Elda Rotor approached me about editing a series of African American classics and collections for Penguin’s Portable Series, I eagerly accepted.

Thinking about the titles appropriate for inclusion in these series led me, inevitably, to think about what, for me, constitutes a “classic.” And thinking about this led me, in turn, to the wealth of reflections on what defines a work of literature or philosophy somehow speaking to the human condition beyond time and place, a work somehow endlessly compelling, generation upon generation, a work whose author we don’t have to look like to identify with, to feel at one with, as we find ourselves trans­ported through the magic of a textual time machine; a work that refracts the image of ourselves that we project onto it, regardless of our ethnicity, our gender, our time, our place.

This is what centuries of scholars and writers have meant when they use the word classic, and—despite all that we know about the complex intersubjectivity of the production of meaning in the wondrous exchange between a reader and a text—it remains true that classic texts, even in the most conventional, conservative sense of the word classic, do exist, and these books will continue to be read long after the generation the text reflects and defines, the generation of readers contemporary with the text’s author, is dead and gone. Classic texts speak from their authors’ graves, in their names, in their voices. As Italo Calvino once remarked, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Faulkner put this idea in an interesting way: “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means, and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” That, I am certain, must be the desire of every writer. But what about the reader? What makes a book a classic to a reader? Here, perhaps, Hemingway said it best: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are fin­ished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you, and afterward it belongs to you, the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

I have been reading Black literature since I was fifteen, yanked into the dark discursive universe by an Episcopal priest at a church camp near my home in West Virginia in August 1965, during the terrifying days of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Eventually, by fits and starts, studying the literature written by Black authors became my avocation; ultimately, it has become my vocation. And, in my own way, I have tried to be an evangelist for it, to a readership larger than my own people, people who, as it were, look like these texts.

Here, I am reminded of something W. S. Merwin said about the books he most loved: “Perhaps a classic is a work that one imagines should be com­mon knowledge, but more and more often isn’t.” I would say, of African and African American literature, that perhaps classic works by Black writers are works that one imagines should be common knowledge among the broadest possible readership but that less and less are, as the teaching of reading to understand how words can create the worlds into which books can transport us yields to classroom instruction geared toward passing a state-authorized standardized exam.

All literary texts suffer from this wrongheaded approach to teaching, mind you; but it especially affects texts by people of color, and texts by women—texts still struggling, despite enormous gains over the last twenty years, to gain a solid foothold in anthologies and syllabi. For every an­thology, every syllabus, every publishing series such as the Pen­guin Classics constitutes a distinct “canon,” an implicit definition of all that is essential for a truly educated person to read.

So much of traditional African American literature, even fiction and poetry—ostensibly at least once removed from direct statement—was meant to deal a fatal blow to the dragon of racism.

James Baldwin, who has pride of place in my personal canon of African American authors since it was one of his books that that Episcopal priest gave me to read in that dreadful summer of 1965, argued that “the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” But surely Baldwin would have agreed with E. M. Forster that the books that we remember, the books that have truly influenced us, are those that “have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet ourselves.”

Excavating the known is a worthy goal of the writer as cultural archeologist; yet, at the same time, so is unveiling the unknown, the unarticulated yet shared expe­rience of the colorless things that make us human: “something we have always known (or thought we knew),” as Calvino puts it, “but without knowing that this author said it first.” We might think of the difference between Forster and Baldwin, on the one hand, and Calvino, on the other, as the difference between an author representing what has happened (Forster, Baldwin) in the history of a people whose stories, whose very history itself, has long been suppressed, and what could have happened (Calvino) in the atemporal realm of art. This is an important distinction when thinking about the nature of an African American classic—rather, when thinking about the nature of the texts that constitute the African American literary tradition or, for that matter, the texts in any under-read tradition.

One of James Baldwin’s most memorable essays, a subtle med­itation on sexual preference, race, and gender, is entitled “Here Be Dragons.” So much of traditional African American literature, even fiction and poetry—ostensibly at least once removed from direct statement—was meant to deal a fatal blow to the dragon of racism. For Black writers since the eighteenth-century beginnings of the tradition, literature has been one more weapon—a very important weapon, mind you, but still one weapon among many—in the arsenal Black people have drawn upon to fight against antiBlack racism and for their equal rights before the law.

Ted Joans, the Black surrealist poet, called this sort of literature from the sixties’ Black Arts Movement “hand grenade poems.” Of what possible use are the niceties of figuration when one must slay a dragon? I can hear you say, give me the blunt weapon anytime! Problem is, it is more difficult than some writers seem to think to slay a dragon with a poem or a novel. Social problems persist; literature too tied to addressing those social problems tends to enter the historical archives, leaving the realm of the literary. Let me state bluntly what should be obvious: Writers are read for how they write, not what they write about.

Frederick Douglass—for this generation of readers one of the most widely read writers—reflected on this matter even in the midst of one of his most fiery speeches addressing the ironies of the sons and daughters of slaves celebrating the Fourth of July while slavery continued unabated. In his now-classic speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1852), Douglass ar­gued that an immediate, almost transparent form of discourse was demanded of Black writers by the heated temper of the times, a discourse with an immediate end in mind: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed . . . a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sar­casm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

Above all else, Douglass con­cludes, the rhetoric of the literature created by African Americans must, of necessity, be a purposeful rhetoric, its ends targeted at attacking the evils that afflict Black people: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

And perhaps this was so; nevertheless, we read Douglass’s writings today in litera­ture classes not so much for their content but to understand, and marvel at, his sublime mastery of words, words—to paraphrase Calvino—that never finish saying what it is they have to say, not because of their “message” but because of the language in which that message is inextricably enfolded.

There are as many ways to define a classic in the African American tradition as there are in any other tradition, and these ways are legion. So many essays have been published entitled “What Is a Classic?” that they could fill several large anthologies. And while no one can say explicitly why generations of readers return to read certain texts, just about everyone can agree that making a best-seller list in one’s lifetime is most certainly not an index of fame or influence over time; the longevity of one’s readership—of books about which one says, “I am rereading,” as Calvino puts it—on the other hand, most certainly is.

So, the size of one’s readership (through library use, Internet access, and sales) cumulatively is an interesting factor to consider; and because of series such as the Penguin Classics, we can gain a sense, for our purposes, of those texts written by au­thors in previous generations that have sustained sales—mostly for classroom use—long after their authors were dead.

There can be little doubt that Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B. Du Bois, and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston, are three of the most classic of the Black classics—again, as measured by consumption—while Langston Hughes’s poetry, though not purchased as books in these large numbers, is accessed online as frequently as that of any other American poet, and indeed profoundly more so than most. Within Penguin Classics, the most popular individ­ual titles, excluding Douglass’s first slave narrative and Du Bois’s Souls, include:

The Interesting Narrative (1789), Olaudah Equiano
My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Frederick Douglass
The Light of Truth (1885–1927), Ida B. Wells
Quicksand (1928), Nella Larsen
Passing (1929), Nella Larsen
Black No More (1931), George Schuyler
The African Trilogy (1958–2010), Chinua Achebe
The River Between (1965), Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The Cancer Journals (1980), Audre Lorde
Sister Outsider (1984), Audre Lorde
Romance in Marseille (2020), Claude McKay

These titles form a canon of classic African American litera­ture, judged by classroom readership. If we add Jean Toomer’s novel Cane (1923), arguably the first work of African Ameri­can modernism, along with Douglass’s first narrative, Du Bois’s Souls, and Hurston’s Their Eyes, we would most certainly have included many of the touchstones of Black literature published before 1940, when Richard Wright published Native Son.

Every teacher’s syllabus constitutes a canon of sorts, and I teach these texts and a few others as the classics of the Black canon. Why these particular texts? I can think of two reasons: First, these texts signify or riff upon each other, repeating, bor­rowing, and extending metaphors book to book, generation to generation. To take just a few examples, Equiano’s eighteenth-century use of the trope of the talking book (an image found, remarkably, in five slave narratives published between 1770 and 1811) becomes, with Frederick Douglass, the representation of the quest for freedom as, necessarily, the quest for literacy, for a freedom larger than physical manumission; we might think of this as the representation of metaphysical manumission, of freedom and literacy—the literacy of great literature—inextricably intertwined.

Douglass transformed the metaphor of the talking book into the trope of chiasmus, a repetition with a stinging re­versal: “You have seen how a man becomes a slave, you will see how a slave becomes a man.” Du Bois, with Douglass very much on his mind, transmuted chiasmus a half century later into the metaphor of duality or double consciousness, a necessary condi­tion of living one’s life, as he memorably put it, behind a “veil.”

Du Bois’s metaphor has a powerful legacy in twentieth-century Black fiction: James Weldon Johnson, in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), literalizes the trope of double consciousness by depicting as his protagonist a man who, at will, can occupy two distinct racial spaces, one Black, one white, and who moves seamlessly, if ruefully, between them; Toomer’s Cane takes Du Bois’s metaphor of duality for the inevitably split consciousness that every Negro must feel living in a country in which her or his status as a citizen is liminal at best, or has been erased at worst, and makes of this the metaphor for the human condition itself under modernity, a tellingly bold rhetorical gesture—one designed to make the Negro the metaphor of the human condition. And Hurston, in Their Eyes, extends Toomer’s revision even further, depicting a character who can gain her voice only once she can name this condition of duality or double consciousness and then glide gracefully and lyrically between her two selves, an “inside” self and an “outside” one.

By delving ever so deeply into the particularity of the African and African American experience, these authors manage, somehow, to come out the other side, making the race or the gender of their characters almost translucent.

More recently, Alice Walker, in The Color Purple (1982), signifies upon two aspects of the narrative strategy of Their Eyes: First, she revisits the theme of a young Black woman finding her voice, depicting a protagonist who writes herself into being through letters addressed to God and to her sister, Nettie—letters that grow ever more sophisticated in their syntax and grammar and imagery as she comes to consciousness before our very eyes, letter to letter; and second, Walker riffs on Hurston’s use of a vernacular-inflected free indirect discourse to show that Black English has the capacity to serve as the medium for narrating a novel through the Black dialect that forms a most pliable and expansive language in Celie’s letters.

Ralph Ellison makes Du Bois’s metaphor of the veil a trope of blindness and life underground for his protagonist in Invisible Man (1952), a protagonist who, as he types the story of his life from a hole underground, writes himself into being in the first person (in contradistinction to Richard Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, whose reactive tale of fear and flight is told in the third person). Walker’s novel also riffs on Ellison’s claim for the revolutionary possibilities of writing the self into being, whereas Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, speaks herself into being. Ellison himself signified multiply upon Richard Wright’s Native Son, from the title to the use of the first-person bildungs-roman to chart the coming to conscious­ness of a sensitive protagonist moving from blindness and an in­ability to do little more than react to his environment, to the insight gained by wresting control of his identity from social forces and strong individuals that would circumscribe and con­fine his life choices.

Toni Morrison, master supernaturalist and perhaps the greatest Black novelist of all, trumps Ellison’s trope of blindness by returning over and over to the possibilities and limits of insight within worlds confined or circumscribed not by supraforces (à la Wright) but by the confines of the imagination and the ironies of individual and family history, signifying upon Faulkner, Woolf, and García Márquez in the process. And Ish­mael Reed, the father of Black postmodernism and what we might think of as the hip-hop novel, the tradition’s master paro­dist, signifies upon everybody and everything in the Black literary tradition, from the slave narratives to the Harlem Renaissance to Black nationalism and feminism.

This sort of literary signifying is what makes a literary tradi­tion, well, a “tradition,” rather than a simple list of books whose authors happen to have been born in the same country, share the same gender, or would be identified by their peers as belong­ing to this ethnic group or that. What makes these books special—“classic”—however, is something else.

Each text has the uncanny capacity to take the seemingly mundane details of the day-to-day African American experience of its time and trans­mute those details and the characters’ actions into something that transcends its ostensible subject’s time and place, its specificity. These texts reveal the human universal through the African American particular: All true art, all classics, do this; this is what “art” is, a revelation of that which makes each of us sublimely human, rendered in the minute details of the actions and thoughts and feelings of a compelling character embedded in a time and place.

But as soon as we find ourselves turning to a text for its anthropological or sociological data, we have left the realm of art; we have reduced the complexity of fiction or poetry to an essay, and this is not what imaginative literature is for. Richard Wright, at his best, did this, as did his signifying disciple Ralph Ellison; Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday achieved this effect in music; Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden achieved it in the visual arts.

And this is what Wole Soyinka does in his tragedies, what Toni Morrison does in her novels, what Derek Walcott did in his poetry. And while it is risky to name one’s contemporaries in a list such as this, I think that Rita Dove and Jamaica Kincaid achieve this effect as well, as do Colson Whitehead and Edwidge Danticat, in a younger generation. (There are other writers whom I would include in this group had I the space.)

By delving ever so deeply into the particularity of the African and African American experience, these authors manage, somehow, to come out the other side, making the race or the gender of their characters almost translucent, less important than the fact that they stand as aspects of ourselves beyond race or gender or time or place, precisely in the same magical way that Hamlet never remains for long stuck as a prince in a court in Denmark.

Each classic Black text reveals to us, uncannily, subtly, how the Black Experience is inscribed, inextricably and indelibly, in the human experience, and how the human experience takes one of its myriad forms in Blackface, as it were. Together, such texts also demonstrate, implicitly, that African American culture is one of the world’s truly great and eternal cultures, as noble and as resplendent as any. And it is to publish such texts, written by African and African American authors, that Penguin has created this series, which I have the pleasure of editing.


For more than seventy-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With nearly 2,000 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as quality translations by award-winning translators.  Since 2008, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has curated a series of African American classics especially for Penguin Classics.  These selected titles of non-fiction, memoir, novels, short stories, and poetry by Black writers reveal the human universal through the African American particular, and explore and respond to the question of what makes a classic. Recent titles in this series include The Portable Anna Julia Cooper and The Mis-education of the Negro. You can find out more here: https://sites.prh.com/african-american-classics.


From THE PORTABLE ANNA JULIA COOPER, edited by Shirley Moody-Turner, Introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. General introduction copyright © 2008 by Henry Louis Gates.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. The author of numerous books, including the widely acclaimed memoir Colored People, Professor Gates has also edited several anthologies and is coeditor with Kwame Anthony Appiah of Encarta Africana, an encyclopedia of the African Diaspora. An influential cultural critic, he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and other publications and is the recipient of many honors, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the National Humanities Medal.

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