April 4, 1997
Remarks for panel “Making Black Literary Anthologies: Past and Present” at University of Wisconsin-Madison symposium “Canonizing African American Literature: Black Anthologies in America 1843-1996”
Memory, according to current thinking in neuroscience, can be talked about as long-term and short-term. In light of the probability of having these two kinds of memory, we might consider The Poetry of the Negro (1949, 1974) edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps as an anthology designed for long-term memory. On the other hand, Black Fire (1968) edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, which did not pretend to ideological neutrality was short-term. Anthologies assist us in remembering and in forgetting. They remain quite essential for the reconstruction of group memory, the architectural work that use pieces of the past to create for the present matter for remembering. The forgotten aspects of literature never come forth as they were. They come through the filter of distance, through the lens of the editor looking toward a future. We editors have to worry about what we help people to remember and to forget.
When I compiled Black Southern Voices (1992) with John Oliver Killens and Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (1997), the notion that I was participating in canon formation did not dance in my head. If people want to see these two anthologies as part of a canon-making effort, they are welcome to do so. Black Southern Voices is Mr. Killens’ anthology; it was his idea; I was called in to help, and completed the work after his death. The anthology was shaped according to his ideas about the social responsibility of artistic voices, and I thank Keneth Kinnamon for saying this morning that the anthology gives credibility to the idea of regional difference. The phrase “social responsibility of artistic voices” (open to multiple disputes and debates) is an accusing finger, eliciting dread among the clerics who have given up hair shirts for the comfort of cardinal red silk. In a nutshell, Black Southern Voices casts some light on the South and the Black South, reminding us of the origins of oppositions, of where everyday opposition is real. With all its imperfections, Black Southern Voices is there for discovery or rediscovery. Perhaps it reminds us of the importance of attending to African American writing in opposition to a narrow attention to literature (as literature is variously defined), a subset of writing.
Trouble the Water only deals with poetry. I was always mindful in making the anthology of Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. Perhaps the anthology has a mission. Perhaps it records a wondrous accident that black poetry addresses so many different audiences at any given time. It reminds people of the rage and sweep and placidity of water, the ineluctable necessity of water. Thus, its title.
As I mentioned to William Andrews yesterday, there is a secret design in this anthology, a call and response pattern based not on textuality or intertexuality so much as on historically (narratively) situated responses. My own vision of African American poetry and poetic tradition is invested in memory. My subjectivity is invested in preservation and in what the poetry induces us to do for a future. The anthology is a sampler. When people complain that something is missing, I hope they will go out and read that something. It was also important in making this book that young people who can spend $150.00 for tennis shoes have it at the affordable price of $6.99.
Perhaps my mission as editor was to wade in the water and to practice a nice Southern madness of helping others to make trouble, so we might all get wet with wisdom.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature