Toward an Expanded Canon of Black Literature
How Some Black Writers Live, and Some Die
Nabokov. Faulkner. Steinbeck. Hemingway. Orwell. Heller. Huxley. Fitzgerald. Vonnegut. Dostoevsky. Camus. Milton. As I dragged my finger from title to title, there was something that connected Lolita to East of Eden to The Plague to A Farewell to Arms to This Side of Paradise, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I surveyed the sea of books, stretching across five or six white plastic folding tables, and watched NYU students grab identical copies, check off titles corresponding to their syllabi’s list of required reading, and pay a man who I presumed was Neptune, god of this sea of books covering a few meters of a city block.
But instead of possessing a chiseled six-pack, biceps shredded into god-like definition, and a full, gray head of hair flowing into an awe-inspiring beard, our Neptune wore a stained, white tank top, holey trousers, and a head bearing a few white strands of hair that no doubt had plans of packing up and leaving within a year. When I saw him, he was peeling dirty singles off a roll of wrinkled bills, making change for the students happy to find what they needed for prices cheaper than Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the NYU bookstore.
“Do you have any John A. Williams?” I asked, scanning his wares, content but unsurprised to find Baldwin, Morrison, Ellison, Angelou, Hurston, and Hughes.
I’d heard about Williams months prior. His plots—a Black man trying to succeed in an industry where he was objectified by men and women alike; a Black writer who uncovers a plan to destroy the civil rights movement; the killing of an unarmed Black youth that prompts a civil rights organization to hire a hit man—all reminded me of my own manuscript, which helped me to understand that the longing for success in a white-dominated industry and struggles endured by my own main character was part of a much larger tradition created by giants. Having finally reduced my To Be Read pile to a few books, I felt that freeing sense of allowance that arrives when we drop all restraint and permit ourselves a new purchase.
Neptune stuffed the bills back into his pocket and stared at me. “John A. Williams? No. You’re probably the first person to ever ask me about John A. Williams, and I’ve been here for decades.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why don’t you carry him?”It’s obvious as to why a Black writer is more prone to death than a white counterpart, and why only a few manage to achieve the longevity they deserve.
He palmed his white-stubbled jaw and shook his head. “Listen, I don’t want to sound racist, or anything like that, because, honest to God, I’m not, but someone like John A. Williams just doesn’t sell. Like I said, you’re the first person since probably the early 1990s to ask about him. And I’m not even sure about that.”
Neptune, who was certainly not a racist despite starting off with every racist’s go-to opener—“I’m not racist, but…”—lamented about how he didn’t carry a host of obscure Black writers, because, simply put, no one either knows or cares enough about them to request them. If a hopeful seeker would somehow find one of these writers among his stagnant sea, he explained, it’d be rare. “It’s a business,” he said, “and I have to go where the market goes.”
Watch closely. This is how Black writers die.
Why do some Black writers live—having their novels turned into films 44 years later, becoming the voice of revolution, and winning the highest literary awards—while others are left to die with their work going out of print, growing thick coats of dust in used bookstores, and becoming nearly extinct? The obvious answer is that some live while others die because their works transcended the times that they wrote in, reaching the holy grail of immortality many writers hope for. But that would be a lie. Anyone who reads The Angry Ones, which Williams published in 1960, can find an unfortunate resemblance between Steve Hill’s plight as the only Black person working at a fraudulent book publisher and what one can only imagine the scant number of Black doctors, lawyers, and engineers in America experience on a daily basis.
No, there is a deeper answer here. And it’s not that the likes of Morrison, Baldwin, or Ellison are more palatable to the average American reader’s tastes; to claim that would be both incredibly ignorant and incredibly wrong. It’s not that their work is more timely, better written, or more deserving of praise.
But I can’t tell you what the exact answer is, because I do not have it. Maybe it’s that a group of American high school teachers got together and compiled a list of go-to books by Black writers that they would teach and rarely stray away from. Classics are classics for a reason, of course. Or, more likely the case, other gatekeepers, from the Neptunes of the world to those who reside at the highest levels of book buying and selling, are choosing to only promote and immortalize a certain type and number of Black writers, and that we, the readers, don’t have as much literary free will as we thought.I wondered just how close I was to missing out on a world of rich Black literature possibly
beyond even the scope of the well-read. But more than feeling wonder, I felt relief. Because once
my eyes had been open, I knew they were never going to be shut again.
It’d be easy to say, “But this is how any writer lives and dies, so let’s not make this about race, buddy.” It would be easy to say that, but this, too, would be wrong. According to a 14-week study conducted by Roxane Gay and an assistant in 2012, where they examined the racial background of every author critiqued by The New York Times in 2011, 90 percent of books reviewed were written by whites. And a survey, conducted by publisher Lee & Low Books in 2015, found that 79 percent of American publishers’ staffs were white. Given this context, it’s obvious as to why a Black writer is more prone to death than a white counterpart, and why only a few manage to achieve the longevity they deserve; the sea in which we’re swimming wasn’t made for us. But the tide is changing, and we press on.
“You don’t know Ann Petry, man? You need to read The Street ASAP. She’s the first Black woman to sell more than a million copies. It’s a classic.”
Months before I encountered Neptune, I was in Warren, Rhode Island. Population 10,000. According to the 2010 census, 94.8 percent white. For two weeks, five Black writers lived in a house dating back to 1833, no doubt temporarily disrupting the town’s demographics. I was one of those five writers. And it was in the kitchen of that house dating back to 1833 that the Rhode Island Writer Colony’s artistic director, Jason Reynolds, spoke those words to me.
The aim of the colony is simple: to provide men and women of color with space and time to write. No workshops. No daily critiques. No distractions. The only rule is that all colonists must have dinner together and that each colonist has to prepare a meal for the others once or twice during their stay. And while you’d think that this barebone requirement would inspire insufficient socialization, you’d be wrong. It was at those dinners, those moments of running into someone in the street or giving each other The Nod in the town’s main coffee shop, that our community was born. And in that community, I was introduced to Black writers I’d never heard of: Williams, Petry, Johnson, Brown, Jones, and others who I would discover were not only as good, or even better, than the Steinbecks of the world, but also other, popular Black writers who have enjoyed a place in the 21st-century American reader’s literary psyche.
“None of what you see today is new,” Jason said to me in a Providence bookstore as he inserted his large hands into the store’s sparse African-American Literature section, handing me Corregidora, Dreamer, The Street, and others. “Satire. Experimenting with how the words are presented on the page. Langston Hughes started a book on its cover, man.”
As I amassed a stack of books no English teacher had ever assigned to any class I’d been in, I wondered just how close I was to missing out on a world of rich Black literature possibly beyond even the scope of the well-read. But more than feeling wonder, I felt relief. Because once my eyes had been open, I knew they were never going to be shut again.
Watch closely. This is how Black writers live.