Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Thulani Davis is a respected journalist, dramatist, and poet. Her articles have appeared in such highly respected publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, and American Film. Her libretto for the opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and her adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1948 The Caucasian Chalk Circle have earned her widespread critical acclaim in operatic and theatrical circles. Her first novel was 1959.

Overall, the novel has received positive reviews, being favorably compared with the works of James Baldwin and Carson McCullers. Critics have found correlations between Davis’s first novel and the works of a more established contemporary writer, Toni Morrison. Both Morrison and Davis have chosen to address social issues by filtering them through events centered in small African American communities. These communities ultimately become microscosmic studies of national and social concerns.

In addition, 1959 is often praised for its fusion of the historic and the fictional. The use of the juvenile narrative voice places the novel within the tradition of the female bildungsroman. Drawing upon her own experience as an African American who grew up in the era she is writing about, Davis has created a synthesis of autobiography, history, and fiction. As a work of fiction and as a social document, 1959 addresses a multitude of issues, including civil rights on a broad scale and the psychological implications inherent in the civil rights struggle on a more personal level. Davis has presented an affirming view of the African American experience. The story of Willie Tarrant and her community serves as a testament to the power of the community that bands together. The endurance and fortitude of the people of whom Davis writes had been tested and tempered.