Winter 2011

“Obligations to Negroes who would be kin if they were not Negro”

Author
Werner Sollors
Abstract

The 1965/1966 Daedalus issues on “The Negro American” reveal how America's racial future was imagined nearly a half-century ago, and at least one of the prophecies - voiced by sociologist Everett C. Hughes - found its fulfillment in an unexpected way at President Obama's inauguration in 2009. Short stories by Amina Gautier (“Been Meaning to Say” and “Pan is Dead”), Heidi Durrow's novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, plays by Thomas Bradshaw (Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist and Cleansed), and poems by Terrance Hayes (“For Brothers and the Dragon” and “The Avocado”) suggest trends in recent works by African American authors who began their publishing careers in the twenty-first century.

WERNER SOLLORS, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2001, is the Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His publications include Ethnic Modernism (2008) and Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (1997). He edited A New Literary History of America (with Greil Marcus, 2009).

At the present moment there is no one dominant note in Negro literary expression. As the Negro merges into the main stream of American life, there might result actually a disappearance of Negro literature as such. If that happens, it will mean that those conditions of life that formerly defined what was “Negro” have ceased to exist, and it implies that Negroes are Negroes because they are treated as Negroes.
[ . . . ]
If the expression of the American Negro should take a sharp turn toward strictly racial themes, then you will know by that token that we are suffering our old and ancient agonies at the hands of our white American neighbors. If, however, our expression broadens, assumes the common themes and burdens of literary expression which are the heritage of all men, then by that token you will know that a humane attitude prevails in America towards us. And a gain in humaneness in America is a gain in humaneness for us all. When that day comes, there will exist one more proof of the oneness of man, of the basic unity of human life on this earth.

–Richard Wright, “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” (1957)1

Richard Wright, who died in Paris in 1960, was not quoted or mentioned in the special issues of Dædalus on “The Negro American” in 1965 and . . .

Endnotes

  • 1Richard Wright, White Man, Listen! (1957; repr., Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1964), 104–105.
To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now