An anthology of pertinent African American literature that covers a variety of authors, genres, and historical periods is difficult to come by — and finding one that's affordable is nearly impossible. With those needs in mind, Prestwick House created African American Literature: A Concise Anthology from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison.
Magedah Shabo, editor of this compact, 232-page anthology has agreed to speak about her experiences compiling some of the works of great African American authors, how this project has influenced her personally, and how this anthology will improve literature classes.
This anthology is very concise but contains a great variety of writers. How did you choose the authors and selections for this anthology? What books most influenced your choices?
I designed this book with the goal of covering a wide variety of genres, time periods, and viewpoints, all within the small space of about two-hundred pages. I had noticed that, while there are some excellent African American lit anthologies available, none are concise enough or inexpensive enough to be useful in high school classrooms.
In developing a high school-friendly anthology, I naturally wanted to include some of the canon essentials, like Langston Hughes’s poetry and excerpts from famous works by W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass. At the same time, I also wanted to make this a truly valuable and unique resource by including some pieces that are less accessible to most high school classrooms—works by lesser-known writers like Lucy Terry and Jessie Redmon Fauset, a rarely-published short story by Toni Morrison, and so on.
The short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison is a great example of modern African American literature that is not included in many other anthologies. How did you end up including this story in the collection?
“Recitatif” is a brilliant story, and I’m glad it will be making its way into high schools through this anthology. It was almost impossible to teach this text before we published our collection; in fact, I don’t believe it’s even in print anywhere else at present.
This is a story about two women, one black and one white, whose lives intersect at several points over the course of about three decades. One of the remarkable things about this piece is that you never find out which woman is black and which is white. The characters interact over random fragments of history—the death of Jimi Hendrix, the rise of IBM, desegregation busing—and although the narrative explores racial tensions, it never allows the reader to comfortably consign either woman to a racial category.
The selections in the anthology are arranged in chronological order, and this is the last piece in the book. We begin with Colonial-era poetry written by slaves, and we conclude with this story from the 1980s that seems to question the meaning and legitimacy of race altogether. I thought that was a great way to end the anthology.
What is the general message that ties together the selections in this anthology? What would you like your readers to grasp after reading it?
I wouldn’t say there is any particular message that unifies these selections. I think that our writers’ shared legacies of African American history and culture are reason enough for anthologizing these works together—such a collection gives us personal, artistic accounts of events we usually read about as cold, dead history, and it allows us to compare different points of view on these issues and experiences. But imposing any sort of thematic or ideological unity on such a collection would have required heavy editorializing, if not censorship.
For example, I would never have been able to pair Booker T. Washington with his legendary detractor, W.E.B. DuBois, if we were aiming to present a cohesive message; that would have meant losing one side of a fascinating conversation, and it would have been a misrepresentation of black literature and history.
In short, no, we didn’t attempt to moralize through this book. However, there is a quote on the back cover that I believe will provoke thought and discussion among readers. The quote reads, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” I believe the indictment is, in other words, that the study of black literature is too often performed condescendingly—it’s treated as an act of magnanimity, rather than simply as literary analysis. I think this quote will engage readers with the question of how black literature is and ought to be and studied.
Which selection in the anthology is your favorite and why?
As much as I admire many of the other pieces in the collection, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl stands out to me as a favorite. It’s a nonfiction work, so you can read it for its historical value alone. But on top of that, you get the pleasure of reading a story that has all the suspense and poetry of a romance. There’s even a philosophical side to this piece.
You’ll see the depths of human depravity in some of Jacobs’s accounts, but in the same text you’ll also see glimpses of a sublime grace and mercy shining through some of the characters. It’s quite a rewarding study. We’ve excerpted the book in the anthology, but I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read the entire narrative to pick up a copy. Prestwick House provides the full version of this text in our Literary Touchstone Classic line.
If you could meet one of the authors included in the anthology (living or dead), which would it be and why?
Each one of these authors has lived a remarkable life, but if I could interview only one, I would probably choose Phillis Wheatley. I say that because there seems to be something about literacy that makes living in slavery a particularly maddening experience—Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass both indicate as much in their narratives—and I would love to hear Wheatley’s full, uncensored story, as one who was all at once a scholar, a renowned prodigy, and a piece of property. I imagine she would have had an incredible tale to tell. Unfortunately, unlike Jacobs and Douglass, Wheatley died at a young age and never recorded her full story, so we can only imagine.
How do you think this anthology will improve literature classes? In what ways do you think this anthology will affect modern high school students?
I hope that having access to this anthology will inspire more teachers to tackle some of the great works we’ve included here, including some of those that are perhaps controversial or simply obscure. There’s a wealth of history, creativity, eloquence, and skill on display in this book, and I’m certain it will enrich the educational experiences of teachers and students alike.
What new projects are around the corner for
I’m currently working on a book about reasoning and argumentation. The ability to think clearly and to recognize and interpret different kinds of persuasive techniques is essential to good writing and analysis, and this next book will be focused on sharpening these skill sets. It should be particularly useful for AP Language and Composition classes.