Charles Johnson, editor: Anthology of Black American Literature (Chicago Quarterly Review, Volume 33, 2021)

Novelist Charles Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990, Dreamer, 1998 – a fictional examination of the final years of Martin Luther King, Jr.,) has guest-edited an anthology of African American literature as a special edition of the Chicago Quarterly Review, featuring twenty-seven poets, storytellers, essayists, and artists, each dancing to his/her own drummer, a “cornucopia of creativity by some of the best artists at work in America today,” Charles Johnson writes in his Editor’s Note.

Let us take a look at some of the contributors, black voices old and new.

Three (self)portraits. In Remembering Stanley Jeffery Renard Allen paints a fascinating, complex and critical portrait of maverick essayist and cultural critic, the late Stanley Crouch (1945-2020), his jazz criticism a.o., especially Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (2013). Let us also recommend Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006).

Otherwise, this reader is ambivalent about this self-proclaimed ‘hanging judge’ (the title of his first book of essays from 1990 is Notes of a Hanging Judge). For even as he can be insightful and generous as in his review of Charles Johnson’s novel Oxherding Tale (1982), Allen will agree that Crouch could be too quick with his rope when it came to writers he did not like, such as Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman – two of Jeffery Allen’s favorites –, Amiri Baraka, and others.

The author of three books of fiction, beginning with Rails Under My Back (2000), Jeffery Renard Allen is at work on several projects. His second book of stories, Fat Time, will be out in 2022.

Afrofuturism author Steven Barnes – the author of more than thirty novels of science-fiction and fantasy, including the NAACP Image Award winning In the Night of the Heat (2008), written with his wife and partner, Tananarive Due – in Rudy, an autobiographical essay, offers a moving portrait of a boyhood being bullied by schoolmates, the worst of his tormentors a boy named Rudy.

Describing himself as “a smart-mouth without the muscle to back it up, or legs fast enough to outrun the insulted,” he had his defenders and linemen, too: ”Leave the little brother alone!”  

Among his teachers there was a Mrs. Elaine Otterness, the first adult who believed he could be a writer. But there was also the first grade teacher who put him in the slow reading group because of his skin color. And Barnes quotes poet and essayist Adrienne Rich in an epigraph that reads in part:

“When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul … to resist this void, this nonbeing … and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

Steven Barnes holds a black belt in karate, writing and martial arts interests he shares with Charles Johnson. His next book will be a graphic novel co-written with Johnson to be published in 2022.   

Another kind of portrait is scholar (see Index to this website) and novelist John McCluskey, Jr.’s 2018 interview by phone with now ninety-one year old jazz pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal.

John McCluskey, Jr. remembers first listening to Ahmad Jamal “over and over again” on the 1958 trio album Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing in Chicago, with his signature tune, Poiciana.

From a career stretching over six decades McCluskey in the intro to the transcript of his interview also mentions Ahmad Jamal’s work with a larger group on Ahmad Jamal à l’Olympia, recorded live at a concert in Paris on the occasion of Jamal’s 70th birthday with “the formidable George Coleman on tenor saxophone”: “The closeness of the trio is apparent throughout, but the interplay between the piano and horn is especially dazzling in Night Has a Thousand Eyes and My Foolish Heart.

The interview itself is predictably rich on the history and anecdotes about “America’s classical music,” jazz, Ahmad Jamal lamenting that you have to go to Europe to hear even jazz greats like Duke Ellington regularly on the tube: “We’ve got this great culture, and we’re about to blow it.”

Still writing close to ninety (“I want to expand my book”), Ahmad Jamal wants to do more with the human voice, “one of the most important instruments in the world,” as on Marseille (2017),  featuring both an instrumental as well as vocal versions of the title tune by two different voices. 

The author of two novels, Look What They Done to My Song (1974) and Mr. America’s Last Season Blues (1983), John McCluskey, Jr. is at work on a series of contemporary and historical short stories, one of them printed in this anthology. He is the editor of The City of Refuge: The Collected Stories (1987, revised and expanded edition 2018) of Harlem Renaissance writer Rudolph Fisher. 

Old(er) voices. Among other well-established black voices featured in this anthology Rita Dove (Playlist for the Apocalypse, 2021) and Clarence Major (Sporadic Troubleshooting, forthcoming 2022) – see Index – contribute new poems, while editor Charles Johnson’s Night Watch is a short story on two brothers having chosen different paths to “cross America’s racial minefield” and their chance meeting at a short-staffed hospital’s recovery room at a time of the current highly politicized corona virus pandemic and deadly confrontations between African Americans and the police.  

Veteran poet and Jimi Hendrix biographer David Henderson (De Mayor of Harlem, 1970, Neo-California, 1998, and Obama Obama, kindle edition 2012) with two strong new poems, Brother Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe” – yes, him too) and Citizen Sandra Bland DOA Before Justice, continues the contemporary debate on the death of black Americans at the hands of police officers.

Poet Cyrus Cassells (The World That the Shooter Left Us, forthcoming 2022) will surprise his readers with an excerpt, Doctor King’s Queens, from a manuscript for a novel, his first; Louisiana Poet Laureate Mona Lisa Saloy (Second Line Home, 2014, reissued 2021) offers two more prose poems on New Orleans’ unique creole culture; and E. Ethelbert Miller (The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller, 2016) contributes new haiku-like poems. (Miller was important to the E-Channel project published in The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson (Dzanc Books, 2015), interviewing Johnson online on a wide range of topics within science, technology, the arts, philosophy, religion, sports, politics and race on an (almost) daily basis during the year 2011 – highly readable).

New(er) voices. From the back cover of the anthology we get this alphabetical list of writers and artists not mentioned above, young or not so young, but new to this reader:   

Arthur Burghardt, Louis Chude-Sokei (the editor of The Black Scholar in Young Americans deals with his Biafran, African, and African American identities in an excerpt from his 2021 memoir Floating in a Most Peculiar Way), Aaron Coleman, celeste doaks, Rachel Eliza Griffiths (whose 2020 hybrid collection of poetry and photography, Seeing the Body, have made it to a Danish bookshop in Copenhagen), Peter J. Harris, Le Van D. Hawkins, Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert, E. Hughes, Jamiel Law, Yesenia Montilla, David Nicholson (in the witty and brilliantly written that’s why darkies were born playing riffs on classics like Huckleberry Finn, Gone with the Wind, and Casablanca), Delia C. Pitts, Sharyn Skeeter, Clifford Thompson, and Jerald Walker.

… Stayed on Freedom. New to me, professor and Tibetan Buddhism scholar Jan Willis, the last contributor to this anthology, is not new – far from it. Seventy-three years old as of this writing, she has been a published writer since 1972. Her 2001 autobiography, reissued 2008 as Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist – One Woman’s Spiritual Journey, and Dharma Matters: Women, Race and Tantra, Collected Essays by Jan Willis from 2020 are perhaps her most popular works.  

Her essay … Stayed on Freedom (2020), taking its title from the gospel song “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus” revised by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s to end: “.. with My Mind Stayed on Freedom,” is a meditation on the meaning of “freedom,” especially what it has meant, means, and could mean for black and brown people in America. 

The essay is both political and personal. Jan Willis calls herself “a child of the Jim Crow South and the early marches for civil rights,” marching in 1963 – at fifteen – with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham, where police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor infamously fire-hosed and sicced his dogs on the demonstrators, sending not only Dr. King but youngsters like Jan Willis to jail.

Travelling through the South researching family history and genealogy she found that the U.S. census material only after 1870, after the Civil War (1861-1865), listed African Americans by name. Until then blacks, mostly the property of slave owners, were listed only by age, sex, color (black/mulatto) and specific infirmities. As non-persons. Willis: “My heart broke, again and again.”

Her essay offers a veritable history of U.S. constitutional law from the original Constitution of 1789 counting black non-voters as three fifth of a person only to determine how many seats a slave state should have in the House of Representatives, to the post-Civil War amendments, the 13th (1865) abolishing slavery, the 14th (1868) on citizenship and equal protection under the law, the 15th (1870) granting African American men the right to vote (women, black or white, had to wait till 1920).

But for every step forward, Jan Willis demonstrates, there have always been a backlash. Thus the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as the first African American president in the history of the United States was followed by the election of Donald Trump, the moral collapse of the Republican Party after losing in 2020, and new efforts by Republicans to prevent black people from voting.