Speech and Power

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Anthologists are critics—potentially among the most influential. Out of a chaos of texts they create order: something called “Victorian literature” or “the African American essay.” They shape that order by what they include and what they exclude, but also by the introductions and transitions and notes that frame their selections.

Misgivings about Gerald Early’s project begin with the title, with its trendy Foucauldian emphasis on power (compare the Toni Morrison-edited anthology, RACE-ING JUSTICE, EN-GENDERING POWER), and are reinforced by its lengthy subtitle, so pretentious as to seem self-mocking. Even so, one is hardly prepared for the convoluted style of Early’s introduction, “Gnostic or Gnomic?” Here, for example, is Early musing on the “discomfort and disjuncture” of the “bourgeois elite” that has produced most black art: “A significant portion of the artistic energy of this elite is generated by the uneasy and poorly synthesized realization that its replication does not wholly coincide, or only seemingly so, with its attempts in the art marketplace to act as a cultural broker and mediator and with its self-interests in that mediation and its relative powerlessness in that marketplace.” Got that? With such writing, all too common in academia today, Early squanders a valuable opportunity to frame his anthology in a memorable way.

As for the range of Early’s selections, the jury will have to remain out until volume 2 of the anthology is published. This first volume includes pieces by famous figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin, but also wonderful finds such as Kimbal (Stroud) Goffman’s “Black Pride,” which Early describes as apparently her only piece to appear in a major publication (she died in 1946 at the age of forty-one). Contemporary writers are generously represented, among them Manning Marable, Shelby Steele, Gayl Jones, Cecil Brown, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Darryl Pinckney, David Bradley, and Maya Angelou.

This volume groups essays under various subheads: “On Being Black,” “Harlem U.S.A.,” “Boxing.” A section called “On Being Subversive” includes essays on blacks and communism. The last four sections comprise “Portraits” of figures as diverse as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jelly Roll Morton, Alice Walker, and A. Philip Randolph. Early has collected some exceptional essays and some that are merely representative of a period, an attitude, a movement. He hasn’t performed the critical and imaginative act that makes certain anthologies indispensable.