7 February 12020 is Independence Day in Grenada. It’s also Charles Dickens’ birthday, as well as Oscar Brand’s. In the news I see that Barnes and Noble planned to release a series of classic novels with covers depicting the main characters as members of various ethnic groups—say Dorothy (of the Wizard of Oz) as black or Alice (of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) as Asian. I’m not sure what the logic of this was supposed to be, but I’ve long since grown used to the idea that the covers of books are seldom representative of what’s inside them. There’s even an old proverb to that effect. There was a considerable backlash to this endeavor, with people using idiotic phrases like literary blackface, but the basic point is well-taken. There’s no real need for this sort of reimagining, unless we’re going to tear into the guts of the book and reconceive the story in some different time, place, and culture—to write a different, derivative book, in other words.
But if we’re going to do that, why not release books (in translation if necessary) with stories actually set in those cultures by authors from those times and places? You can’t convince me that such works don’t exist (though I won’t absolutely rule it out)—people have been entertaining themselves with words for thousands of years. In honor of Black History month I would like to recommend ten, or fifteen, or twenty classics written by African-Americans, or members of the African diaspora, or African writers…
But I can’t. This is not a limitation of the material—it is a limitation of mine. Other than Phillis Wheatley, William Wells Brown, and various slave narratives I have read virtually nothing written by African-Americans before the Harlem Renaissance. (Well, okay, there’re W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.) And I personally can’t stand Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, or James Baldwin—I mean to recommend for reading, not as sources of information. Which pretty much reduces me to modern writers like Alex Haley or Maya Angelou. I see the names of what may or may not be classics by African-American writers, as well as works by black British authors and by Africans—but I haven’t read them, or if I have they didn’t make enough of an impression on me to recommend them.
So I’m throwing this out as a challenge to my imaginary readers—those of you who might have some idea of what I will call Black Literature (for lack of a better phrase): what works written before (say) 1950 by Black writers would you consider classics? What would you recommend?