NC’s African-American Literature
Is North Carolina something special in the realm of literature?
I have been asking myself that question these past few weeks. I think it is. Every Sunday on UNC-TV I interview North Carolina authors about their recent books. And you could never convince me that these folks are not something very special.
But proving it is something else.
If you have been reading my column recently, you know that I waved the flag a few weeks ago when four of six top- selling books on the New York Times’ list had strong North Carolina connections.
Then I reported to you that John Hope Franklin’s autobiography had been named one of the New York Times’ 100 notable books of 2005.
The latest news is that North Carolina writer Hal Crowther’s new book of essays, Gather by the River, has just been selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the criticism category.
These positive news items support North Carolina’s claim to a special place in the literary world. However, each of them has a downside which points in the other direction.
Of the four North Carolina writers at the top of the New York Times bestseller list a few weeks ago, Jan Karon, Patricia Cornwell, Nicholas Sparks and Maya Angelou, only Angelou is recognized by the elite as a true ‘“literary’” writer.
Other than Franklin, no North Carolina author had a book on the Times’ 2005 notable book list.
Finally, Crowther was the only North Carolina finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
So, although we have many exceptional and successful writers, I have a hard time proving that North Carolina is better, literarily speaking, than all the other states.
But I have not given up, and a brand new book has given me some solid help.
The new book, The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature: An Anthology, edited by UNC-Chapel Hill Professor William L. Andrews, collects the works of eight important black North Carolina authors who lived and wrote before, during and shortly after the Civil War.
In a thoughtful, comprehensive, and very readable introduction, Andrews asserts confidently, ‘“No other state in the American South has left a more indelible impression on African American literature before the twentieth-century than has North Carolina. While white writers from the state produced little of lasting literary value before the twentieth century, nineteenth-century black North Carolina engendered poetry, autobiography, fiction, essays, and polemical writing that are still widely read and studied today. These classics by black North Carolina writers helped to form the bedrock of African American literature.’”
The collection includes works by several black writers who will be recognized by many North Carolinians.
George Moses Horton was a Chatham County slave who sold poems for twenty-five cents apiece to UNC students. His first book of his poetry was published in 1829.
Harriet Jacobs, a slave who grew up in Edenton, escaped to the North, where she wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which was published shortly before the Civil War. Of this book, Andrews writes: ‘“Today almost certainly no book by a North Carolinian is read, studied, and discussed more’….’”
Charles Waddell Chesnutt is celebrated as a founder of Fayetteville State University. Born in 1858 to free parents in Ohio, Chesnutt and his family returned to Fayetteville after the Civil War. In 1883 or 1884, at the age of 25, Chesnutt, reluctant to raise his family in the South, moved back to Ohio. The influence of his North Carolina boyhood runs through most of his work. According to Andrews, ‘“Chesnutt was one of only a handful of African Americans who could claim the ear of a national reading audience.’”
The stories of Wilmington’s David Bryant Fulton and David Walker, Raleigh’s Lunsford Lane and Anna Julia Cooper, and Caswell County’s Moses Roper are also well told by Andrews and his co-editors.
Andrews’ persuasive explanation of the importance of these North Carolina authors and his collection of their important works into this accessible volume is a gift ‘— especially for me, the next time I set out to prove that North Carolina is a special place for writers.