This is no mere literary anthology. It's a history, a cultural statement and a new way of looking at the African American tradition. Song lyrics weave themselves through the poems, around the stories, under the essays and beyond the non-fiction articles. Where else could anyone find the rhetoric of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the old down home Virginny blues of Jimmy Reed?
This has the speech that Jesse Jackson gave to the Democratic convention in San Francisco in 1984. I was there. It was a big moment at the time but I didn't recognize it as an historical event until I found it printed here.
The book itself feels like the typical blues song. We Rhythm and Blues kids used to call it a 12 bar blues. This is a song where the first two lines were repeated and then came the summary. In section IV, the subtitle reads, "Play the blues, play the blues for me." Section V repeats the same words. Section VI has the summary line: "No other music'll ease my misery." I can put these words to the standard 12 bar blues tune in my mind.
Hill delicately reaches back to the lyrics from spirituals, prison songs, rural blues, ragtime and back to slave work songs and their African origins. She advances the music through R & B into Avant-Garde Jazz and Rap and Hip Hop. The book contains a CD with songs and speeches.
The music entices us into the literary content. There's more here than the usual fiction, drama, poetry and essays. I found sermons, toasts, prayers, and folktales, both slave and African. Readers may be unfamiliar with some of the classifications -- Conjure tales, Griot's chant, haunt tales and "Call and Response."
We follow the history of a people through the writings of slave poets, the abolitionist orators, the fugitive slave narratives, preacher tales, and the voices of reconstruction. It continues through to contemporary fiction and non-fiction writers.
It's not an easy book to read because every time I look for one idea, I get distracted by selections like, "Sketches from a Black-Nappy-Headed Poet," or "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane."
I confess, I know more about the music than the literature. This book draws me in with artists like Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf, Oscar Brown, Jr., Public Enemy and Ice T. After I'm involved, I'm learning about Phillis Wheatley, David Walker, Frances Watkins Harper and Sojourner Truth.
I'm afraid that if I were to ask the average American high school student to name three African American literary figures, he or she would say: Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughs and then stop there. Some might add Alice Walker. This text puts those writers in their place and, given the wealth of content here, they occupy a small place compared with all who surround them.
I came upon this book as I was participating in the Urban Dreams Program, a federal project to train high school teachers in computer technology. Pat Hill spoke to our group. She impressed us all with her spirit, her knowledge and her comprehensive understanding of the African American tradition. To the degree that I've been positively influenced by her dynamic presence, I caution the reader of this review to be aware than I may have elevated her book higher than if I had not seen Hill in person. Other than that, this book is one of my personal favorites which will never be loaned out to anyone, ever. So please, my friends, don't even ask.