Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing is one of the best anthologies I have read in a long, long time. Not only is it well-written, interesting, and important, it’s also extremely relevant to my field of study, my profession, and my passions.
A collection of 25 essays written between the early 1800s and the early 2000s, this anthology of Black writers’ perspectives on reading and writing is a lament for the struggles of those excluded from the literary world and a celebration of the power of that world.
The early essays move readers through the literary journeys of some of the most influential Black authors at the turn of the 20th century. Kept from reading and writing by practice and law, Blacks often learned in secret, protesting their restrictions and then using their newfound power to tell the world the truth about slavery and racism. This section on the Peril of Reading reveals the revolutionary power of words to communicate truth and effect change by excerpting works from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, Up From Slavery, The Souls of Black Folk, and Twelve Years a Slave. Writing is activism.
The middle section, on the Power of Reading, contains 13 essays from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Toni Morrison, to name a few. This is a much broader cross-section of authors and topics than part 1 and attempting to effectively paraphrase them in their entirety is just not possible, nor would it communicate the breadth of force these essays possess.
I was particularly interested in Hurston’s “Books and Things” as I had just finished teaching her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of the topics the students discovered in researched discussion was Hurston’s contention that books by Black authors did not have to be about the Race Problem and that Hurston received quite a bit of flack for that belief and her practice of it. This essay touches on that theme and I was quite pleased to be able to share it with my students – despite the fact we had moved on to our next novel by that time. 🙂
The third section focuses on the Pleasure of Reading and Writing, featuring authors such as Junot Diaz, Roxane Gay, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The final selection is an interview with Barack Obama on his relationship with reading. My favorite essay here is “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who so beautifully argues the necessity of multiplicity and diversity in stories.
I teach American Literature since 1865 and while I missed the opportunity this time around, I will definitely be using these essays – possibly this entire book – the next time this class is on the schedule and I am fortunate enough to teach it.
Finally, I want to share with you this section from Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s essay:
“What makes these books special – “classic” – however, is something else. Each text has the uncanny capacity to take the seemingly mundane details of the day-to-day African American experience of its time and transmute those details and the characters’ actions into something that transcends its ostensible subject’s time and place, its specificity. These texts reveal the human universal through the African American particular: all true art, all classics, do this; this is what ‘art’ is, a revelation of that which makes each of us sublimely human, rendered in the minute details of the actions and thoughts and feelings of a compelling character embedded in a time and place.”