Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Prison Library: Literature and Black Identity

The recent news that the FBI asked for information from the internet archive is further evidence that books are both important ways of transmitting ideas and important signifiers of which ideas readers find important.

It is not just law enforcement that is interested in reading habits, however. We are hearing a great deal about the project of “the history of the Book” these days. It aims to understand the role of books as vehicles of change: how do books contribute to changes in society, how do they help to create and sustain identity.

Sometimes historians look at books, to measure a culture. What does Invisible Man say about the culture of the United States on the eve of Brown? What do Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk say about Jim Crow?

At other times, historians draw inferences about people from their libraries. This post talks about a list of about 120 books on the "black experience" that Judge Don Young ordered to be placed into the Marion, Ohio prison library back in 1972, Taylor v. Perini, 413 F.Supp. 189, 215-19 (D.C. Ohio 1976). What interests me about the list is its potential for mapping the sources of identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What, then, are the books that the judge ordered added? More below the fold.

The Harlem renaissance and its leaders are well-represented: W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk; Richard Wright’s Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Children; James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) along with some other Renaissance-era literature, like Rudolph Fisher’s Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Harlem (1932) and Walls of Jericho (1928)). Situated between the renaissance and the 1960s is Invisible Man.

There is the early 1960s literature that captured the possibilities of the Civil Rights movement: Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land; Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969); King’s Where Do We Go From Here, The Trumpet of Conscience, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), and Why We Can’t Wait; Alan Westin’s Freedom Now! The Civil-Rights Struggle in America (1964); and Howard Zinn’s SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1968). I might also put John Killen’s And then We Heard Thunder (1964), James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968); John Alfred Williams’ The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) in that category–they are situated in a place between the optimism of the Civil Rights era and the later separatism. They ask, with King, what now?

Then there’s the literature that represents the transition to black power, as well as disillusionment with the Civil Rights movement or western society more generally, such as Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) and White Skin, Black Mask (1952); Tom Hayden, Rebellion in Newark; Benjamin Muse, American Negro Revolution: From Non-Violence to Black Power, 1963-1967 (1968); Chuck Stone, Black Political Power in America (1970); Harold Cruce, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967); Louise Meriwether’s My Daddy was a Numbers Runner (1969)). Along those lines, is literature that provides a popular, sociological critique of 1960s society, like Charles Silverman, Crisis in Black and White (1963). And there’s the literature that continued in the late 1960s and early 1970s to seek an answer in more traditional or different places, like Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto (1967).

As you would expect, there are many on black power: Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice; Autobiography of Malcom X; Amiri Baraka, Home: Social Essays (1966); H. Rap Brown, Die N–r Die! A Political Autobiography; Lester Julius’ Look Out Whitey, Black Power’s Gon Get Your Mama; Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. Maybe I’d put Angela Davis, If They Come in the Morning (1971) into this category. And I guess Cecil Brown, Lives and Loves of Mr. Jive-Ass N–r, too. Prison literature, like George L. Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, is surprisingly rare in this collection.

There are a lot of histories: DuBois’ Black Reconstruction; John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom and Reconstruction, Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction; Franklin Frazier’s Negro Family in the United States (1968); Edward Cronon, Black Moses: Marcus Garvey (1960); David Levering Lewis’ King: A Critical Biography; Benjamin Quarrels’ Black Abolitionists, Mr. Lincoln and the Negroes; and The Negro in the Civil War; Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956); C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955); Arthur I. Waskow, From Race Riot to Sit-In (1966); Herbert Aptheker’s Negro Slave Revolts (1943). Along with the histories are other scholarly work that describe and analyze black culture, such as E.U. Essien-Udom’s Black Nationalism (1970); C. Eric Lincoln’s Black Muslims in America (1961); Henry A. Ploski’s Afro USA (1971); Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz (1970); Chuck Stone, Black Political Power in America; and Joseph R. Washington, Black Religion (1964); and other work that collects culture, such as Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Song (1953); Arna Wendell Bontemps, American Negro Poetry (1963).

DuBois’ Black Reconstruction reminds us that there are books on Reconstruction by and for white people and books on Reconstruction by and for black people. Talk about segregation of memory! Jim Crow separated people intellectually, as well as physically and socially.

Of course the classification scheme that I’ve imposed above says a lot about how I view the world of the 1960s and early 1970s, from the vantage of the early twenty-first century. I’m continuing to think about how to classify the books. And as the classifications grow, I find that I want to put books into several categories. It’ll be interesting to see what readers think about the classifications.

There’s a lot more to say about this; prison officials responded that they already had a lot of literature on the black experience in America in their collection. Might be worth comparing the two lists. For example, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery appears on the prison’s list. But nothing like it is to be found on the court’s list of books to be added. One other quick observation: it’s surprising what isn’t in that list. For instance, I would have expected more James Baldwin.

The special master, Vincent Nathan (who used to teach at the University of Toledo Law School), was kind enough to correspond with me about how the list of books was assembled. He remembers that it came from a group of law librarians. The list may, thus, say more about the intellectual interests of librarians than about the needs or attitudes of the plaintiff class. But even then I think it's informative of what people thought ought to be included on a list of the "black experience." Much left to talk about here.

(This post is a repeat of one over at blackprof a couple of years ago.)

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