An African-American Canon

The Hardest Part: Deciding Which Writers to Include

by Fernando Quintero

"When I was growing up, books were my friends. When I didn't have friends, I had a book. I think that books open windows to the world for all of us. Reading Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was the first time I encountered a book about a person who looked like, sounded like and felt like myself. It was transforming to know that the life I was leading and could relate to so well was considered important enough to be written about."

-- Oprah Winfrey

To accompany a review of "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature," a landmark book celebrating more than two centuries of African-American writing, the Los Angeles Times asked a number of distinguished black Americans to name the works by African-Americans that most moved or influenced them.

As a contributing editor of what has become the best-selling of the Norton anthologies--staples at colleges and universities worldwide--Berkeley African American studies professor Barbara Christian said the hardest part of her job was deciding which writers to include in the first "canon" of African-American literature.

Under the general editorship of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, professor of African-American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the latest of the Norton anthologies brings together the works of 120 writers from 1746 to the present.

"I saw copies of it at Costco. It hit me then that many of these writers would finally get an audience outside the academy."
Together, they represent the sweeping scope of African-American vernacular literature, poetry, drama, short fiction, novels, slave narratives and autobiography.

Christian, who wrote the introduction and selected the works for the chapter titled "Modern Literature Since 1970," said the period represented "an explosion of different points of view" even more vast than the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

"It was a learning experience for me to look at the shape of the period, which included everything from science fiction to post-modernism. There are gay writers, mystery writers and avant garde writers," said Christian.

"In the modern age, the African-American experience means many things to many different people."

Along with Angelou, Christian included works by such black writers as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, Terry McMillan, Rita Dove and Walter Mosley.

Christian added that UC is well-represented in the anthology. In addition to Christian, Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and Afro-American studies at UCLA, and Frances Foster, former professor of English at UC San Diego, also serve as period editors.

The anthology also contains works by Berkeley African American studies professor June Jordan and UC Santa Cruz literature professor Nathaniel Mackey.

The anthology begins with a section of spirituals, gospel, blues, work songs, jazz, rap, sermons and folktales.

An audio companion compact disc is available separately and includes the powerful oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, a rendition of the work song "Rosie" by inmates of the Parchman Farm Penitentiary, Mahalia Jackson's moving gospel version of the spiritual "Soon I Will Be Done," and jazz cuts by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and others.

Christian said the anthology also helps validate the black vernacular, which was at the center of the recent Oakland school board controversy over "Ebonics," a proposal to use black English as a tool for teaching standard English.

"It is part of a literary tradition that would have been impossible to leave out of the anthology," said Christian.

"My wish is that students throughout the country can see how the language can be used creatively and constructively."

With the rate at which the books are selling, Christian may just get her wish.

The first printing of 30,000 copies sold so quickly that a second run of 20,000 was ordered.

"I saw copies of it at Costco," said Christian.

"It hit me then that many of these writers would finally get an audience outside the academy."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail