We Are Here
A new anthology series preserves the year’s
best African American writing.


Mar|Apr 09 Contents
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Series Editor, Gerald Early C’74
Bantam, 2009.  Hardcover: $23.00;
Paperback: $16.00.

When he started pitching the idea of an annual anthology highlighting the best African American fiction and essays a couple of years ago, Gerald Early C’74 encountered his share of reticent publishers. “The big concern was that there wouldn’t be enough material to sustain the series,” he recalls. “My feeling was, the only way we can really know this is to try it. There’s no use in guessing about whether or not we could do this.”

Lack of material, as it turned out, was not a problem. Once Bantam Books was secured as publisher, Early and his guest editors for the inaugural volumes—novelist E. Lynn Harris for fiction and Debra Dickerson, author of The End of Blackness, for the essay collection—found themselves confronted by a wealth of choices. Culled from publications ranging from Essence magazine to National Geographic, the final selections run through American culture and literary forms as definitively as a collection of essays and stories can. Tender, slice-of-life vignettes appear alongside murder mysteries, and personal essays share space with political commentary emphasizing African American characters and experiences.

Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is an editor, essayist, and cultural critic whose subjects include race, sports (boxing, baseball), music (jazz, Motown), performers (Sammy Davis Jr., Mario Lanza), and his own life as a son and father, among other subjects [“No Other Life,” Mar|Apr 2001]. Currently, he is working on books about Booker T. Washington and African American integration in the military.

In choosing the fiction and essays for the volumes, his goal was not “canonization,” he says, but to offer a sampling of the most intriguing and interesting African American literary contributions in a given year. He views the project as an act of preservation.

“Black people should be trying to conserve every aspect of the culture that they can,” he explains. “They should be archivists, trying to preserve any noteworthy thing that black people have done to make sure it gets studied. If we keep this thing going year after year, it’s like a little archive. After 10 years, you have a kind of record. It would be good for the group to have this sort of thing.”

As a child growing up in a racially mixed working-class neighborhood in South Philadelphia, he developed an affinity for cultural appreciation on its own terms. “My general interests in certain things—sports, the music I was interested in—all that came out of the environment I grew up in,” he says. “I didn’t go into these things having been taught they had any particular aesthetic or cultural [value]. It was because the people around me liked them, so I liked them, too.”

Early is well aware of the danger of narrowed expectations.

“As a black writer, you’re thinking when you write something, ‘Black people will read this and they will think this. White people will read this and they might think x, they might think y,’” he explains. “You’re aware that you’re writing for a dual audience. People are coming to your work with different expectations, different needs. They’re looking for different validation from you.”

The very act of literary creation is a weapon of sorts for African Americans. When literacy was restricted by law or by force, attaining and using it required a mighty effort, which in turn imbued the written word with a certain power.

“I think African American writing was always [driven by] the assertion of African Americans, being in a world that was indifferent or opposed to them, to say, ‘I Am Here,’” says Early. “First of all, the almost Promethean way of getting literacy, the idea that you’re going to steal this thing. Then once you’ve got language, you can assert yourself in the culture and assert that you’re here and that you’re not going anywhere.”

With the advent of Internet publishing, Early hopes that more people will be able to produce their work without dealing with the “gatekeepers of taste,” or having to possess the capital required to self-publish and promote a book. “The more you can break down the gatekeepers out here, the more liberating and democratizing it becomes,” Early says, citing guest editor Debra Dickerson’s suggestion to scour blogs and popular websites for material. “If you can do publishing online, you can get yourself out there in a way far cheaper than a long time ago.”

As a “gatekeeper of taste” himself, Early was careful to present “a balance of new and old voices” in Best African American Fiction, which includes novel excerpts and young adult fiction, as well as short stories. The gate opens even wider in Best African American Essays, where the work of a non-black such as Andrew Sullivan—albeit writing about Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—is featured alongside that of Walter Mosley, Jamaica Kincaid, Michael Eric Dyson, and Obama himself, who contributes a piece on America’s health-care crisis.

In the introduction, Early explains, “I have learned over the years as much about African American life from non-African American writers as I have from African Americans.” Sullivan’s paean to the future president quite fittingly ends the book, which was released just before the historic inauguration.

Obama represented the book’s one mandatory subject category, Early says—despite the fact that most of the essays in the 2009 collection were published in 2007, and that the selection process occurred while the then-senator from Illinois was still campaigning and far from assured of victory. “The trajectory took off by itself,” he says. “It’s funny looking back on it now.”

These anthologies should be important records for everyone, regardless of race, Early suggests. “If there was any group of people who really believed in the United States, it was black people. They were always going around talking about the country should be about what it [said it] was about, equality and liberty.

“Black people have always exhibited a kind of faith in their work that I think is quite remarkable and very important in understanding the United States itself,” he adds. “The demand those people had in their art to express and preserve their own humanity, and the demanding nature that [the country] be what it should be. That it operate as a real democracy, not as a democracy for some and a totalitarian state for others. It was black people who forced the country in many ways to define what it was. When you think about the two big cataclysmic movements in this country, black people were central in both of them: the Civil War and Civil Rights.”

Nikki Giovanni and Randall Kennedy have signed on as guest editors for the 2010 best-fiction and best-essays volumes, respectively. After that, demand will dictate the series’ future, but Early is confident that it will continue to be a strong force for African American letters.

“For me the full effect of this will be felt after four or five years,” he says. “Other publications are given to canonizing; this is meant to be a lived book. I think that over time, people are going to look back and realize it is more important than they thought it was going to be when it first came out.”

—Carter Johns C’07



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