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Best African American Essays: 2009

A nonfiction collection examines African-American concerns in the Obama era.

By Darryl Wellington / February 18, 2009



Initially, it’s a jolt to see the names of two old sparring partners together on the same book cover. Guest editor of the first of an annual series of Best African American Essays: 2009, Debra Dickerson is best known for having written the conservative-leaning, black bootstrap-line manifesto, “The End of Blackness.”

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The culture critic – and the series editor – Gerald Early resoundingly panned her book in 2004. But here the two are working together. It’s a healthy sign of eclecticism when the two primary forces behind a project can put aside past feuds and, for the sake of a well-rounded collection, agree to disagree.

Early and Dickerson both provide introductory essays to this wide-ranging and thoughtful compendium. They don’t waste space airing their differences – and the beauty of this collection is that they don’t need to.

Instead of cat fighting, Early and Dickerson ponder some of the larger questions surrounding this project.

Who speaks for black America?
Should this be an annual collection of nonfiction exclusively by black writers, or a collection of essays on social issues involving the black American population?  And how relevant is a collection of essays that isolates black America – especially at a time when the president of the United States is a biracial man sworn to fairly govern us all?

For Early, the answers lie in appreciating the diversity of opinion that has always characterized dialogue within black communities, even during segregation.

“I cannot remember a time when black folk did not fuss, cuss, quarrel, and remonstrate with one another (and with whites) about their condition, about the world, about why we are here and about what it all means,” he writes.

He also briefly addresses the question, “What is an African American?”

The annual series will use a broad definition, he decides, guided by his personal acknowledgement that, “I have learned over the years as much about African American life from non-African Americans writers as I have from African Americans.”

Dickerson’s case for the necessity of this anthology emphasizes the unique perspectives of minority members living in a country where the majority have historically ruled.“We at the margins hunger for glimpses of ourselves in the cultural viewfinder,” she writes, “for proof we leave footprints in the earth, footprints that will stay visible in the millennia to come.”

In keeping with her belief that the literary essay is, at its best, a personal medium, Dickerson stayed away from essays heavy on polemics. You will not find in this collection the kind of statistically driven dissertations which reduce African-Americans to a sociological problem.

Instead, she writes, “Blacks are human; and all humans are narcissists, enamored of their own existence and frustrated as hell not to be acknowledged as the fascinating creatures we most definitely are.”

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