My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature

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9780345455666: My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature
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In this vital and inspiring volume, John Edgar Wideman has brought together the first truly representative sampling of literature by African-American writers in the early centuries of our history. Reaching across periods, styles, and regional borders, Wideman has selected twelve works of genius–some of them celebrated literary icons, others neglected or forgotten masterpieces– and reprinted them in their entirety. The result is a book as thrilling in its passion as it is vast in scope.

Though these selections come from a range of genres (verse, memoir, historical, and personal narrative), they are all, fundamentally, stories of strength and survival. Frederick Douglass’s frank narrative of escape from slavery and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic verse take their place beside lesser-known works like Nat Love’s stirring account of life as a black cowboy, Ida B. Wells’s haunting descriptions of lynchings, and the crisp, compelling adventures of Olaudah Equiano. Wideman prefaces each selection with an illuminating biographical essay.

The fruit of a lifetime’s devotion to the best American writing, My Soul Has Grown Deep will stand as an enduring monument to the depth and beauty of African-American literature.

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From the Back Cover:

My Soul Has Grown Deep is a devastatingly important work that deserves a place in every library and personal collection. This is a provocative anthology that will surely become a classic for anyone who wants a true record of the brilliant black writers and scholars who helped shape America. Wideman has struck gold once again.”
–LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM
Author of Our Kind of People:
Inside America’s Black Upper Class


“No one bears keener witness to stony paths and impassable obstacles of United States black history than John Edgar Wideman. He is an intellectual of the first magnitude.”
–HOUSTON BAKER
Author of Singers of Daybreak:
Studies in Black American Literature


My Soul Has Grown Deep, an appropriately reflective title for the history it encapsulates, is a superb tribute to the efforts of visionary African-American women and men who laid the foundation of the literary/cultural journey of blacks in America. Masterfully conceived, the collection includes a complement of writers, some who are now household names in the academy, others who are only familiar to scholars in the field, and many unknown to readers outside of those worlds. One of the great gifts of this anthology is that it will be welcome to all three groups.”
–NELLIE MCKAY, coeditor
The Norton Anthology of
African-American Literature

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION
IT IS A NEW CENTURY. In The Souls of Black Folk, written as the 19th century ended and the 20th began, W.E.B. DuBois prophesized that the problem for the new/old century we have just escaped would be the problem of the colorline: “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of man in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” To understand if progress has been achieved toward resolution of these race matters, it’s necessary to read backward. Place ourselves in the world as W.E.B. DuBois might have understood it, poised at the edge of the unknown, just as we are today, experiencing the transition from one epoch to another, epochs demarcated arbitrarily by 100-year cycles, as if the unknown, the unfathomable configures itself more accessibly, more transparently at such designated junctures. DuBois attempted to gauge the future by looking backward first. In a meditation optimistically entitled “The Dawn of Freedom,” he begins the Negro’s story in ancient Egypt and brings the tale forward swiftly to concentrate on the last decades of the 19th century, detailing the formation and failure of the Freedman’s Bureau, one of the nation’s first answers-in-progress to the still unresolved question: How should radically unequal, African-descended ex-slaves–impoverished, landless, stigmatized, disenfranchised, without civil rights, lacking formal education, with little or no previous experience of citizenship–be incorporated into a society whose announced creed is democracy, a democracy in theory open and fair that guarantees all its citizens an equal opportunity to compete in the struggle for a decent life?

Are we closer today to answering this question? How can progress be measured unless we reconstruct and reanimate the past? Put another way, the past is eternally with us, present as the arc of our personal experience follows us, fills us, defines us. Doesn’t any step forward depend on invisible footprints anchoring, locating, echoing, connecting, validating the instant motion by rooting it in time? To be visible in time, visible to ourselves, we imagine the unseen, the unseeable, the trail of footprints evaporating behind each step we take. We imagine a narrative, births and deaths, imagine names for immaterial persons, places, things, for lives we may or may not have lived or never lived.

Language is one form of this moving, recycling energy driving us forward by directing us back through its museum of invisible footprints, its archeology of traces. Language is a medium for constructing histories, both personal and collective. Written language conjures an appearance, inscribes for us the invisible, the intangible. Words are dreams. A spectral means of perceiving what things are and what they might be. Words dream history. History is the bed where words sleep and awaken and sleep again and dream. When we read history, we don’t discover some hard, permanent past; we interrogate our present. Jeopardize it, tease it into instability, experience it as one precarious possibility among many possibilities. Reading history permits us to confront what Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man calls the “uncertainties that live within our certainties.”

Writing our stories, writing our lives reveals them as a dream, only as substantial or unsubstantial as the words narrating them. Words resonate and accentuate while they also chip away at each other, just as when we watch a movie or listen to music, the tapestry of one realityscape segues into another. There is no concrete past, no material reality intact, solid, available somewhere for us to dust off and take down off the shelf. History exists as a work in progress, problematic, made up word by word. Even the stories of ancient monuments, like the scattered fragments of Ozymandias, strewn on the desert sand, tell different stories, sing different songs depending on whose words, whose eyes you see them through.

“The past is not simply ‘out there,’ an objective history to be researched or forgotten at will, but lives most vividly in all of us, deep inside, and needs constantly to be given expression and interpretation.” (Richard Holmes, Footsteps, 1985.) The narratives in this book have been gathered to stimulate expression and interpretation. All stories are true and, therefore, none is dispensable, nor impervious to the truth of the others. What should we think of an African American cowboy, Nat Love, who has internalized his white fellow cowpokes’ hate of Indians and Mexicans? Or of Ida B. Wells, a black woman, armed only with her pen and her convictions, who confronted a city full of murderous racists? “You got to go there to know there,” Zora Neale Hurston tells us, and that’s exactly why it’s necessary to travel with these storytellers from the 18th and 19th centuries. Each journey rewards the effort with a unique perspective, an expansion of the possible, an expansion, ultimately, of ourselves. Just as importantly, the narratives enfold and unfold the personal within a context of collective significance, a ground of meaning that supports the idea that we may dream alone but we’re not alone.

The act of expression and interpretation is sharing a dream. If our present lives and former lives didn’t interpenetrate, weren’t interdependent, weren’t mutually empowering, what would interest us about the spilled milk of the past? Shared dreaming of history creates family, clan, tribe, nation, and as the Igbo say, a man without a clan is like a butterfly without wings.

The mythic African bird Sankofu that flies forward with its head tucked backward, the double-faced Greek God Janus, Sartre’s passenger on a train rushing forward down the tracks in a seat facing the caboose are figurations of simultaneity, of time’s mysterious, impenetrable perpetual weave of present, past and future–Great Time. In Great Time, the voices of long-dead witnesses embodied in this collection can enter the present, alter it. The reason for attending to the dead is not an obligatory, obsequious accumulation of facts and figures, nor to acquire some nodding, cocktail party acquaintance with a pantheon of former heroines and heroes. The voices of the dead can be revived through imaginative encounters each reader constructs. Just as the rituals of Haitian voodoo attempt to summon the spirits of powerful ancestors so their wisdom can possess the living, strengthen and guide the living, the point of attending to the dead who speak in this book is life, more life. Examined, expanded life for those who were here before and for us, at this moment, here and now, this moment also and always bedded in Great Time.
THE PURPOSE of my introduction is to enhance the reader’s imaginative encounter with the works of the writers presented in these pages. But that’s almost like drawing a map of a country neither reader nor this writer has seen. A map like all maps, the result of decisions about what to leave out as much as what to include. One conventional strategy for introducing an anthology is briefly describing each selection, sketching its historical, cultural, political setting, detailing vignettes about authors’ lives, quoting scholarly analyses of the work, perhaps a word or two about it original reception or publishing history. Their wide availability on the internet had transformed the value of such information. Facts are less authoritative, less valuable, less hard. They are constantly changing–updated, subjected to revision and challenge. Facts remain pertinent, but setting down frozen packets of data in the permanency of print seems as antiquated and wasteful as the notion of bound encyclopedias. Truth does not reside in information, no matter how it is piled. As information proliferates, it becomes inflated currency, more likely a sign that a point of view is being constructed than a sign that a definitive representation of some subject has been achieved.

A conventional approach — footnoting, attaching rap sheets to each piece of writing and writer–for all its virtues also serves as a form of mediation, endangering the frame of Great Time, the immediacy of spontaneous, improvised, call-and-response between readers and writers of those texts. The entries in this collection (mildly annotated by short biographical profiles of each author) have been chosen because they can speak for themselves, because they stimulate dialogue, because individually and as a group they address the bottom-line issue of survival, the still unresolved question of America’s identity. If we read attentively, listen to the voices preserved here, perhaps we’ll learn how each of us, consciously or not, is implicated, enmeshed in the contradictions, ironies, the precarious successes and heartbreaking, body-crushing failures of a so-called “democracy” in which some are always more equal than others.

Life or death is the bottom line that the narratives address. Life or death not only in the metaphorical sense that prompts images of suffering, rebirth and salvation. Literal life or death in the struggles recorded day by day to escape slavery, a lynch mob, the oppression and enforced ignorance of an unexamined existence in which one’s thoughts and labor are consumed servicing someone else’s life, someone else’s dream. The social deaths of submission or slavery versus the ever-receding promise of emancipation, the hopeless compromise of dependency versus the crisis of independence–these were the stakes during the periods when the narratives in this collection were composed. These issues, these choices and all the uncharted space between we must define and negotiate are still what’s at risk, what we confront as we turn the pages of this book and talk to it while it talks to us.

What is to be the fate of African-descended people in this New World soc...

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