Writers testify to the significance of reading and writing in their lives.
In a well-chosen selection of essays by black writers from Frederick Douglass to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and including a candid interview with book-lover and author Barack Obama, former Essence editor Oliver (Song for My Father: Memoir of an All-American Family, 2004, etc.) offers ample testimony to the power of the written word. For slaves coming from disparate African countries, it is likely, writes poet Nikki Giovanni in her foreword, that the first word they had in common was “sold.” Stories, many told through song, evolved from a need to form a community: “We write because we are lonely and scared and we need to keep our hearts open.” Oliver divides the essays, most excerpted from longer works, into three sections: “The Peril, 1800-1900,” represented by Douglass, Solomon Northrup, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois; “The Power, 1900-1968,” which includes Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, stars of the Harlem Renaissance; James Baldwin; Malcolm X; and important contemporary writers, such as Nobel Prize–winning Toni Morrison, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker; and prolific bestseller Maya Angelou; and “The Pleasure, 1968-2018,” which features acclaimed, multiple award–winning writers (several have been awarded MacArthur Fellowships) such as Junot Díaz, Roxane Gay, Colson Whitehead, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Walker reveals that poetry lifted her from suicidal depression. Morrison sees her work as an extension of and “complement” to slave narratives. Gay writes about her love of the Sweet Valley High series of young-adult novels, whose “blond and thin and perfect” characters were models of all she wanted to be. Díaz writes of his despair in Cornell’s MFA program, where lack of diversity among the faculty and “the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race” threatened to silence him. Oliver’s cogent author introductions contextualize each piece, making the anthology an informative overview of African-American literature.
Revelatory, often moving essays by impressive writers.