This post is about two books that make me think about my inherited relationship to literacy. Recently I have been reading Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing, edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Such a book is emotionally charged for me because it represents a convergence of cares and studies and values: 21st century manifestations of ancestral struggles; my own journey to uncover my interior world and manifest a writing voice; my love of reading and learning; and why literacy work is important for me.
When we think about ourselves reading and writing for pleasure and empowerment, it’s easy to forget that for more than 200 years it was not only illegal for enslaved black people in the United States in many southern states, but also punishable by death. Anti-Literacy Laws also meant that whites could be punished by fines, floggings, and imprisonment for teaching blacks to read in a number of states before and during the American Civil War.
In the Foreword to Stephanie Stokes Oliver’s Black Ink, Nikki Giovanni shares her [radical re-imagining] of the origins of the first Black American “writing:” it came from a mature black woman in the hole of a slaveship. Giovanni writes: “She knew she needed to say something to her people, though there is no such language as “African.” So she reached into her soul and began a moan. And that moan was picked up and carried forth. By the time the ship reached what would be called America, those on that ship had one thing in common: a song.” Giovanni goes on to make the case that the first Black American writing was rendered in song and spoken shared stories.
Formerly the editor of “Essence” magazine and founding editor-in-chief of “Heart & Soul” magazine, Stephanie Stokes Oliver gifted us with Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing in 2018. In it, she has selected excerpts from essays, memoirs, and autobiographies of 25 black luminaries who explain their own labors and joys associated with reading and writing.
Reading this volume has reminded me of a wonderful book that I found and reviewed back in 2013. It’s called The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing, edited by Marita Golden. In this book – published in 2011 – Marita Golden actually interviewed 13 writers about their formative encounters with reading and writing. At the end of each interview are books which that writer recommends to others. This book is a gem that I feel has gone unmined so I am reprinting my mini review of it, here.
This book came out in 2011, but I just discovered it. Hallelujah! Book lover, esteemed author and editor of several books, educator, and co-founder of the [Zora Neale Hurston]Hurston/[Richard] Wright Foundation—Marita Golden is the interviewer and editor of this collection of 13 writers from the African diaspora talking about how reading and writing have impacted their lives. (In the introduction Marita Golden writes about her own background as a reader and writer, and shares her list of influential books, so you’re actually getting 14 perspectives—not just 13).
Most of the writers are African American, some of mixed heritage, one is Nigerian, and another, Haitian. Some are historians and journalists, while others have written plays, fiction, memoir, and poetry. I love the diversity represented, here. I wasn’t familiar with four of the writers, so I look forward to reading their work in the future.
Each writer’s section opens with their photograph and closes with a list of their book recommendations—and their lists are as diverse as they are! (However, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon was recommended by three different writers; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart are mentioned by two). I was very moved and inspired by this book.
Before [the late] Don Cornelius brought “Soul Train” to the masses, many of us in the black community had never seen the bulk of our favorite singers and musical groups on television because “mainstream” programs weren’t hip to them or they weren’t invited for other reasons….This book fills a similar void, in that, while many of these writers have published extensively, they haven’t often been included in anthologies of writer conversations/interviews.
Similarly, I was reminded that it wasn’t long ago that people could complete K-12, earn a college degree, and be considered “educated” without having ever read anything by or about non-white people!
Have you ever thought about your own literacy in a personal way? What type of literacy did you inherit? What people and books have shaped your reading and writing life?
In “Black Joy on Television: The Cultural Legacy of Soul Train,” Stephen Deusner writes that Soul Train “created a platform for black artists and presented black culture—fashion, dance, politics—in a positive light.”
Did you miss this post: “Memory Of First Reads?”