#kaitreadsforcomps #3: Black Literature leading into and during the Civil Rights Movement

Follow me as I get ready for my doctoral qualifying exams one text at a time... 

Follow me as I get ready for my doctoral qualifying exams one text at a time... 

In this reflection, I will talk about:

  • A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
  • If He Hollers, Let Him Go by Chester Himes (1945)
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
  • Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)
  • Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes (1955)
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)
  • The Dead Lecturer by Amiri Baraka (1964)
  • Dutchman by Amiri Baraka (1964)

These texts stretch from 1945-1959. While that doesn’t seem so long ago (my dad was born in ‘36, my mom in ‘60), we have to remember that schools were only desegregated in 1954 (the year my dad graduated from high school). This means that the first four texts were written prior to Brown v. Board, which constantly boggles my mind.  

When I first started reading A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945), I was amazed at how different the poems are from what I expect of the era. They're very original and dealing with sensitive topics that I wouldn't have expected in 1945. There’s even a poem discussion abortion. I can see how her poetry must have influenced the later writers and also the philosophy of the Civil Rights movement.

If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) is the better of the two texts I read by Chester Himes. I like it more than Cotton Comes to Harlem, mostly because, although I do find it dark, it makes more actual sense. The writing is very good, but I find that it's far too dark for me to enjoy. The constant sexual aggression seems to be blamed on his constant fear and hatred of white people (understandable), but I don't think that's an acceptable reasoning. Then again, this seems to be a theme of later texts as well, so perhaps its part of the genre. I’m not sure how I feel about it.

I think that Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952) is probably my favorite of these texts. The writing is excellent and there are really interesting ideas presented. The idea of a person’s invisibility because of not fitting into the status quo and what he describes as the ache of “the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world” (4) are ideas that seem to transcend the literary moment in which Ellison is writing. "I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to wake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them, there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers." (5)

As a former minister, I found Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953) to be an interesting text. I have studied in the past the ways that the Catholic Church acted as a colonizing power of Latinos and it seems that Christianity as a whole did the same to all people of color. The dichotomy between the positive and negative impacts of Church on the culture is certainly one that will be discussed again and again in Black literature. I can see that Baldwin influenced that here.

To save time and also get the true experience, I watched the 1961 version of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959). Unfortunately, it’s an abbreviated version of the play, but I really did enjoy it. I know there are a few characters that were left out of the movie.

One thing that I appreciated about Raisin in the Sun was the exploration of what it was like for black families who saved up money to buy homes and ended up finding houses in their price range in traditionally white neighborhoods. The audacity of the spokesman from the HOA made me so angry I wanted to turn the movie off.

Amiri Baraka’s 1964 collection of poems, The Dead Lecturer, and his fiction, Dutchman, continue the themes discussed before. Dutchman specifically reminds me of If He Hollers, Let Him Go and Go Tell it on the Mountain.

For last, I have left the semi-nonsensical (except symbolically) Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes (1955). I say semi-nonsensical (and I’m being generous) because the whole plot revolves around some stolen money being hidden in a bale of cotton in Harlem. Of course, there would not be a bale of cotton in Harlem and if there were, it would be absolutely the worst and most conspicuous place to hide stolen money. This very important plot point is never explained, a fact that angers me and makes the book basically useless to me. This novel also has a film (1970) and it is because of this movie that I learned the term “blaxsploitation,” which is a really good description not only of the movie, but of the book. I’m not sure exactly who the audience was for this story, but it wasn’t me.

All in all, I enjoyed reading these texts for the first time. I would like to spend more time with Gwendolyn Brooks and Ralph Ellison in the future.