Biographies of black authors broaden the realm of literature







Edited by Henry Louis Gates.


385 pages. $16. There is a debate in this land about political correctness, sacred tradition and how both should influence the assessment of great literature. Out of this heated, if often empty, screaming match have emerged people on both sides who assume the wisdom to tell us what is important reading and what is not.

These are dangerous times for an American mind.

If you haven't been paying attention, the extremist factions seem to line up mostly for or against dead, white, male writers. There are those who have mobilized to save Western literature by preserving the orthodoxy, protecting it from bastardization and mediocrity represented, they say, by the pandering inclusion of works by minority and women writers.

Their opponents believe that the reigning orthodoxy, the traditional canon of mostly male, European writers, is limited -- by racism, sexism and other discriminatory strictures -- and ought to be expanded. Clearly there is room for discussion, but the recent rhetoric is at times stifling and graceless, and in too many cases self-serving.

Then into the arena comes "Bearing Witness: Selections From African-American Biography in the Twentieth Century."

The beauty of this book, edited by Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard humanities professor, is the access it provides to writers not part of the traditional canon of American literature. These are authors who need to be read by a broader audience. The big and small names among black American writers are here: Alice Walker and James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Claude Brown, as well as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Edgar Wideman, Malcolm X, John Hope Franklin, Angela Davis and Amiri Baraka.

There are lesser names, though not lesser talents: Marita Golden, Marita Bonner, Houston A. Baker Jr.

Surpassing any expectation, the 28 autobiographical pieces collected in "Bearing Witness" sketch an enormous portrait of what it means to be black in America, but not just that. There is Richard Wright writing with a fierce simplicity about growing up in the South at the turn of the century, living with the ravages of Jim Crow laws. There is Fannie Barrier Williams, a feminist born in the North in 1855, who writes painfully about the plight of young black women at the end of the 1800s:

"It is a significant and shameful act that I am constantly in receipt of letters from still-unprotected colored women of the South, begging me to find employment for their daughters according to their ability, as domestics or otherwise, to save them from going into the homes of the South as servants, as there is nothing to save them from degradation and dishonor."

In the South and outside of it, there is a lot of degradation and dishonor related here. It is hard to escape victimization as a topic when black people are writing about America, particularly the America of a generation or two ago.

But that's not all. Nearly everyone has shown up here: the angry, the inspired, the reflective, the joyful, the determined, the transformed, the redeemed and the ridiculous.

Apart from the wells of word talent splashed across page after page, there are some truly touching stories, many of them having nothing to do with being black. In a delightful essay about an American childhood, we find out that Alice Walker lost one eye, and how she lost it.

There is always something particularly riveting about personal stories. Maybe it's greater credibility, maybe it's the courage they demand, maybe we want to know whether others are living just like us or not.

For all its pleasures, "Bearing Witness" has drawbacks. There is an Amiri Baraka essay that, to my taste, is disjointed and uninteresting, and a few others that drag on too long. The apparently serious tone applied to the discussion of some ideas -- Good Hair, for example -- are not offensive only because they are so hopelessly ridiculous.

Among my favorite essays is a surprisingly accessible one by Houston A. Baker Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who writes about finding a role model in his freshman English class at Howard University.

Dr. Baker decided that he wanted to be like his literature professor, Charles Watkins. He writes: "He encouraged my ambitions, guided me to fellowships, quieted my doubts, wrote letters of recommendation, and sketched vistas of intellectual work that glowed in my imagination." We should all be so lucky.

It seems more profitable to have broad intellectual vistas sketched before us, as this book does, than to talk about what is and is not great literature. Let me read it and decide.

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