Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Of the black male children born in the United States during the “Negro Nadir,” the period of the ascendancy of Booker T. Washington and his eloquent espousal of vocational training for black people and the strict separation of the races in all things social, how many attended Brown University? How many attended Harvard University? How many were graduated from both? Reflection on these questions makes clear what a tiny minority within the African American community is represented in the family of the narrator of High Cotton. Drawing, it seems, on his own family history, the author is exploring a subject matter that hitherto has been largely neglected in African American literature.

He is also clearly distancing himself from the tradition of protest in African American fiction. This is not to say, of course, that Pinckney is in any way an apologist for racism and the injustices generated by racism. For him, art is not propaganda, and the novel is not a weapon. Every black American man must learn what it is to be black, American, and a man, and must study how, indeed whether, these three components of the self can relate to one another. A novel such as High Cotton, apart from the formal satisfactions it may offer, can make some contribution to understanding these questions.

Of the African American novelists who have preceded him, Pinckney seems closest in spirit to Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) also...

(The entire section is 419 words.)