NBCC at AWP: Jabari Asim on the Black Critical Tradition


Former NBCC VP Jabari Asim, author of “The N Word,” former deputy book editor of The Washington Post and current editor in chief of Crisis magazine, a preeminent journal of politics, ideas and culture published by the NAACP and founded by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1910, had this to say on the NBCC panel on the transition in literary criticism at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) panel February 1.

Before the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders issued a report in 1968 that led to a new and more colorful kind of newsroom, most African American authors pinned their hopes on being reviewed in such newspapers as the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Daily Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American, and in large-circulation black magazines such as the Crisis, Opportunity, Messenger and, later, Negro Digest. They also found attentive audiences, hospitable forums and valuable feedback in New Masses, The Nation, The New Challenge and other politically oriented periodicals. It was in such pages that black America’s literati sparred, cogitated and in some cases, bloviated. In the process, generations of astute critics rose and helped give voice to the authors clamoring up from Harlem, Natchez, St. Louis and Oklahoma. These important critical voices included George Schuyler, Hubert Harrison, Saunders Redding, Sterling Brown and Margaret Walker.

“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a groundbreaking essay by Langston Hughes, first appeared in The Nation in 1926. W.E.B. DuBois’ “Criteria of Negro Art” appeared the same year in The Crisis. Richard Wright’s calculating and provocative “Blueprint for Negro Writing” appeared in 1937 in New Challenge. The mainstream media, as we now call them, were frequently years if not decades behind such out-of-the-way but deeply committed journals. If not for the alternative and minority press, much of the African American literary output of the first half of the twentieth century would have been consigned to a fate comparable to that of Ralph Ellison’s immortal protagonist: it would have been invisible.

My personal discovery of the black critical tradition began in the library in college. I was shocked and awed by Hoyt Fuller’s “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” in which he dismantled the poet Louis Simpson’s 1963 review of Gwendolyn Brooks in the New York Herald Tribune Book Week. Simpson wrote, in part, Brooks’ Selected Poems “contains some lively pictures of Negro life.” He went on to assert, “I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro. On the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.” Then I went backward to Margaret Walker, whose less-than-charitable and not entirely accurate assessment of the Harlem Renaissance noted, drily, “in the final analysis the audience and the significant critics were white.” I kept going until I reached Alain Locke’s seminal essay, “the New Negro.” “The day of aunties, uncles and mammies is gone,” he declared. “Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on.” I was hooked.

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that I manage to reflect on the fate of the African American writer on a daily basis. For twenty years it has been both my avocation and my occupation. I published my first book review in an African-American weekly, a piece on the great poet and fiction writer Henry Dumas, gunned down by New York subway police in 1968 in a case of mistaken identity. Goodbye Sweetwater gathered his short fiction in a single volume. During my four years as book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, followed by 11 years at the Washington Post Book World, I’ve tried to keep close watch on developments in black writing while providing opportunities for African-American reviewers to show off their critical chops. I tried to make sure that no one could say what Margaret Walker charged so long ago: “in the final analysis the audience and the significant critics were white.”

Now, in some respects, I’m back where I started from: an African-American publication. Such magazines and newspapers are no longer reliable sites of great critical reportage. The Messenger and Opportunity are long gone, and just this week the Chicago Defender announced that will no longer be a daily. Effective Feb. 13, it will move to weekly publication. At the Crisis, we face the same pressures everyone else is wrestling with, including declining ad revenues and the challenge of slicing a smaller pie into increasingly slender wedges. Some publicists with whom I’ve had long professional relationships send me books in the same quantities as they did when I was at the Post, but I’m forced to be even more selective, brutally so. When I was at the Post, I shared my colleagues’ misery stemming from our inability to assign every book we thought deserved attention. Multiply that misery about 50-fold and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like at the Crisis.

I’ve edited two issues since coming aboard in August. In my first issue, I published three reviews, including works by August Wilson, a critical study of Ida B. Wells and a novel by Chris Abani. The next issue I gave the entire review space over to an essay commemorating the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I ran a strip alongside the essay, briefly noting an additional five books, and I also ran a fine feature on commercial versus literary fiction by Eisa Ulen, who presented here today. I wanted to do more but it wasn’t possible.

Our singular, significant blessing is a solid readership of 250,000—and that’s not counting newsstand sales. So far our readers have not suggested that we alter our traditional approach to cultural coverage, which involves focusing on writers and artists of accomplishment without regard for market trends and commercial status. Our informed and passionate subscribers both encourage us and remind us of a fact persuasively expressed by the great critic Sterling Brown back in 1939. Writing in Opportunity, he argued, “Without great audiences we cannot have great literature.”

At Crisis, we’re determined to hold onto the former while doing all we can to advance the latter.—Jabari Asim