Best African American Essays and Fiction 2009

The books were behind schedule. But as they now hit the shelves, ink barely dry, their timing appears impeccable. While the country celebrates the inauguration of Barack Obama, its first black president, two book series provide a platform for the diverse viewpoints and talents of blacks.

“It turned out to be quite extraordinary that they are coming out at this particular time,” says Gerald Early, Washington University professor. “I don’t think most of us were thinking a year ago that he was going to be president.”

Early, professor of English literature and African and African-American studies, and director of the university’s Center for the Humanities, is series editor of the new annual anthologies Best African American Essays and Best African American Fiction.

Although the books got the green light well before Obama was even the Democratic nominee, and they had an original publication date of early fall, Early doesn’t mind the January rollout: “I do think there is more of an interest in things African-American.”

And yet, what are those things? Pretty much anything a writer wants. Not only do the essays and fiction deal with a variety of topics, some of which have little to do with race, the label “African-American” itself is rather fluid.

Early chose a broad definition. He writes in the introduction that for the collection, “an African American is any person of color from anywhere in the recognized African Diaspora who lives in the United States either temporarily or permanently, who writes in English, and who is published by an American-based publisher or in an American-based publication.”

In addition, a few of the essays chosen for the debut edition were written by non-African-American writers about African-American subjects. So Andrew Sullivan describes Obama’s flaws, tics and importance, while Benoit Denizet-Lewis asks whether “you can be white and ‘on the down low.'”

Some of the black writers are well known: James McBride contemplates hip-hop; Thomas Sowell defends police who pull over black drivers; Jamaica Kincaid describes the conflicting feelings she had about Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Other writers will be less familiar to some readers: Emily Raboteau details a visit to Israel, where she visits an old friend and looks for “black folks” at a reggae club in Tel Aviv.

In the fiction collection, young adult works from Jacqueline Woodson and Walter Dean Myers are included. Not all of the selections are short stories; many are excerpts from novels.

Early writes that he wants the fiction anthologies to bring the best fiction to a wide variety of readers and to draw attention to some of the lesser-known sources of African-American writing, including the Internet. The volume will try to offer writing that has “a feeling of immediacy, of urgency, that helps us understand the way we live now.”

Early acknowledges that some people bristle at being pigeonholed: But African-American writing “still exists as a marketing category. Some African-Americans like it, some don’t. “I firmly believe that African-American writers are a unique cultural and political group in the United States,” he says.

But Early doesn’t intend for the category to be narrow. “I don’t want people to make assumptions based on my skin color,” he says.

Born in 1952 in Philadelphia, Early earned his doctorate from Cornell University. A consultant for several of Ken Burns’ documentaries, including those on baseball, jazz and World War II, Early also has written books and essays on topics from boxing to fatherhood. He and his wife, Ida, are the parents of two adult daughters and are awaiting the birth of a grandchild.

Early has edited several anthologies, including Ain’t But a Place: An Anthology of African American Writing About St. Louis.

What may surprise readers is that there has not been an annual “Best” African-American writing until now. “A lot of people thought there would not be enough material to sustain it year after year,” Early says. These new anthologies should help expose readers to not only “serious, solid black writing,” but spur more material, he says.

Guest editing the inaugural essay anthology is Debra J. Dickerson, whom Early calls an old “sparring partner.” Dickerson was reared in St. Louis and her first book, the memoir An American Story, said the city of her youth was “too hard” and segregated with “Negro-free zones.”

Early publicly criticized her second book, The End of Blackness but he says in Best African American Essays that he cannot think of a better current nonfiction writer to get this series off the ground: “She is the last of the great fighters.”

Popular novelist E. Lynn Harris, who chose the fiction selections, was eager to include excerpts from novels (such as Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and young adult fiction, Early says. The next collections will be guest edited by Randall Kennedy (essays) and Nikki Giovanni (fiction). Early hunts down published pieces and then forwards them to the guest editors to make their selections.

“Sometimes you tend to underestimate people in your own group,” Early says. “You get discouragement from people in your own group.”

Many readers who know black authors mostly through urban lit stories of drugs, sex and crime may have their eyes opened with these new anthologies, Early says: “They will learn there is some better stuff. “

RATING 8 / 10