Contemporary Black Fiction: Voices of Survival and Affirmation


Edited by Gloria Naylor

Little, Brown and Company

592 pp., $24.95

As we move more deeply into a post-literate age dominated by electronic media, our views are determined more by images alone. Last year, televised coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Million Man March on Washington, and Colin Powell's foray into politics gave us larger-than-life portraits of African-Americans as sometimes tragic, sometimes noble, often mundane. This America is a far cry from the one described in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" (1952), whose black protagonist goes largely unseen in a hostile white world.

In the roar of the electronic surround we live in, however, it is difficult to make out individual voices, especially those not cadenced for sound bites. The writers gathered in "Children of the Night" speak more softly than the talking heads of television, yet what they have to say is indispensable.

Editor Gloria Naylor, whose 1982 novel "The Women of Brewster Place" won the National Book Award, proposes that there are only two languages: one of survival, another of affirmation.

She introduces her selections with a speculative scenario in which the first Homo erectus, a creature no longer beastly yet not fully human, goes from grunts and whistles to the first real word, the "no" generated by circumstances that depended so much on negation - of cold, hunger, predators - for survival.

Then at some point on those African plains, and Naylor imagines it to be dawn, that same creature, waking and reaching for some tender shoots, sees a drop of dew change from red to gold as the sun comes over the horizon and utters, not the "no" that negates hunger, but the "yes" that affirms beauty. "And in our present stage of development," Naylor writes, "we are still utilizing only two languages: one of survival and one of affirmation. One reactive, the other active."

Among the "no" voices in this collection we hear such accomplished authors as John Edgar Wideman, whose "Damballah" is the story of an escaped slave desperate for food yet unable to get it in a new and hostile world: "If the whites had not stolen him, he would have learned the fishing magic. The proper words, the proper tones to please the fish. But here in this blood-soaked land everything was different. Though he felt their slick bodies and saw the sudden dimples in the water where they were feeding, he understood that he would never speak the language of these fish. No more than he would ever speak again the words of the white people who had decided to kill him."

Of note also is Howard Gordon's "After Dreaming of President Johnson," a loss-of-innocence story about a child whose bid to cross the color line is stopped by his friend's racist mother; and Ann Petry's "The Witness," a chilling account of an elderly black teacher's humiliation at the hands of white ruffians.

The many affirmative voices in "Children of the Night" suggest there are different ways to say "yes," and these stories demonstrate how far language has progressed since Homo erectus first uttered that simple monosyllable.

The title character in Andrea Lee's "Mother," for example, is a taciturn and authoritarian housekeeper "in the grand old style that disdains convenience, worships thrift, and condones extravagance only in the form of massive Sunday dinners, which, like acts of God, leave family members stunned and reeling."

But after she and her narrator-daughter pay a condolence call following a neighbor's suicide and the child goes out back to play on a swing, the repeated touch of her mother's hands on the little girl's back speaks volumes, "as if we were conducting, without words, a troubling yet oddly exhilarating dialogue about pain and loss."

One of the best crafted stories in this collection, and certainly the most hilarious, is Charles Johnson's "China," the history of long-suffering Evelyn and her crabby husband, Rudolph, a postman with 33 years on the job who claims he has plenty of physical ills to show for it. Rudolph is worried that salting his food or even laughing too loud will bring on a heart attack, but then he and Evelyn see a kung fu movie, and Rudolph decides to become a Shaolin warrior.

He starts making seaweed dinners and doing push-ups, and before long he is practicing his flying kicks by leaping out of a four-foot hole he has dug in the back yard. The story reaches its climax at a tournament in the Seattle Kingdome, where Evelyn sees (or thinks she sees) Rudolph do something just short of miraculous.

Other "yes" voices include the ones we hear in Jess Mowry's "Crusader Rabbit," in which a pair of down-and-outers in a father-son relationship move through the inner city like a couple of gentle urban buccaneers. In Carolyn Ferrell's "Proper Library," a homosexual teen develops a crush on a teacher, thinking, "I am in silent love in a loud body."

One of the most moving stories in this book is Diane Oliver's "Neighbors," which describes a family's sleepless night before the morning on which their first-grader will integrate the local school. As seconds tick by agonizingly, the reader can hear the "no" of survival slowly turning into the "yes" of affirmation. But the story doesn't end at the schoolhouse. It ends in the kitchen, with the mother making breakfast, the first rays of light slipping through the window as she lights the stove. It's a subtle reminder that in our world, too, the sun isn't completely up yet.

Like one of those massive dinners described in Andrea Lee's "Mother," this collection leaves the reader stunned and reeling. Yet in the midst of this plenitude, a single conclusion seems inescapable: that we are all children of the night, and we will remain so until each of us can say "yes."

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