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Reading Beyond Beloved

According Gene Andrew Jarrett "not all kinds of African American culture are celebrated in February during Black History Month. Consider literature, for example." In his article Misreading authors by their skin: Blacks don’t always write about blacks Jarrett asks readers to take a broader view. Here’s an excerpt:

Unfortunately, literature written by black people but not about black people tends to go unread, undersold, or out of print. This has done a disservice to learning about how prolific and sophisticated our most famous African American authors actually were. It has also prevented us from deepening our knowledge of the most famous examples of African American literature.

For example, "The Wrong Man" and "Freedom" (1926), the two stories
about white women written by Nella Larsen, a famous black woman writer
of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, enabled her to experiment with
literary techniques that would later appear in her two classic novels
about black women, "Quicksand” (1928) and "Passing” (1929).

The themes of dialect and male chauvinism connect Zora Neale
Hurston’s outstanding novel about Janie, "Their Eyes Were Watching
God” (1937) — the role Halle Berry played in the television movie
version recently — and her lesser-known novel about white Florida
"crackers,” "Seraph on the Suwanee” (1948).

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison provides another example in her
obscure short story, "Recitatif," published in 1983. The story has a
twist. One of the main characters is white and the other is black. But
even by the end of the story, you can’t tell for sure who is what.
Eventually, this story — the very first Morrison story published —
laid the blueprint for her seventh novel, "Paradise,” which she
published 15 years later. In this novel, the only clue of the main
characters’ racial identities is the first sentence, where we learn
that among a group of women belonging to a convent, a "white girl" was
shot first.

To call either "Recitatif" or "Paradise” African American
literature in the traditional sense would be a mistake. Neither is
simply about black people. Rather, they are about how people of
different races can share similar experiences and become intimate
friends, but only as long as these people don’t allow racial prejudices
to tear them apart.

So this Black History Month, as much as we might want to celebrate
Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved” — which is indeed
widely taught in schools, widely purchased thanks to Oprah’s Book Club,
and widely known thanks to its movie version — we also might want to
celebrate her other stories, "Recitatif" and "Paradise." If we fail to
do so, we do disservice to the range and productivity of our first
African American Nobel laureate. We are also doing a disservice to the
goal of Black History Month: learn about African American culture in
all its guises.

The full article is available at SFGate.com.

Gene Andrew Jarrett is the author of Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature. He teaches English at the University of Maryland, College Park.