What we can learn from 200 years of African American women’s wisdom

Courtesy Penguin

We are told that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

As a younger man, I thought the idea that the universe intends to do that well by us was overblown at best. Now I believe it.

In the matter of racial attitudes in America today, it would appear that we have some learning to do. I think our teachers will be many, and include some who are unexpected.

For example, our national leadership is sowing racial and class discord. That’s a teachable moment for our society, now awakening after a 40-year shopping trip to the mall. We haven’t taken care of our national business, and we are getting what we deserve for our inattention to a variety of social matters.

In terms of understanding racial togetherness, teachers are appearing. One is newsguy Chris Hayes, who has given us “A Colony in a Nation” (MV Times, August 10). The MSNBC anchor uses historical fact, research, and shoe leather to argue that America has unconscious, but hardwired, racial attitudes that need to be replaced.

Another is a teacher and closer to home, seasonal resident Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr., a Harvard literati seasoned in the art of public commentary and a PBS filmmaker, has co-edited a book on more than 200 years of African American women writers. Mr. Gates will discuss “The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers” on Friday, August 25, from 7 to 8:30 pm at Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

In this work, Mr. Gates has gathered the writings of 52 African American woman. They are memoirs, biographies, novels, poetry, and essays and they are compelling, jarring stories that let us understand the people, that make us feel them in our bones.

People of good will intend well in their hearts and minds for everybody, but complete harmony requires understanding. And that comes not from Equal Opportunity Employment or the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but from knowing these people of courage and their commitment to freedom. Precisely the kind of people who made America great, to coin a phrase.

If I am waxing passionate here it’s because, after 50 years of writing about our social conflicts, this feels like a moment in which essential change is possible. This book helps the change process.

Consider this title: “The Family Sold at Auction — Louisa Bought by a ‘New Orleans Gentleman,’ and What Came of It.” It’s a two-page piece from a book about Louisa Picquet titled “The Octoroon,” which was published in 1861.

“The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers” is arranged in sections according to timeline and theme, beginning with personal accounts of abolition and freedom, fugitives and immigrants, northern women and the post-war south, women addressing women, and education and social reform.

Mr. Gates and his co-editor Hollis Robbins have put in the academic research, including the unearthing by Mr. Gates of the first novel by an African American woman, in the 19th century. The works included span that century and into the first part of the 20th century.

There are names we may recognize: Sojourner Truth, Hannah Crafts, and Harriet Jacobs, but the complete beauty of this collection is in the work of people and outlets we don’t know. Taken together, the book meets the standard of “classic” literature mused about in Mr. Gates’ essay about the subject of African American classic literature.

He quotes Ernest Hemingway on what constitutes a classic to readers: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel like all that happened to you, and afterward it belongs to you, the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

Mr. Gates is good on his feet. He can be fey, funny, and employs spot-on timing and delivery. He understands the world. Sounds like a good teacher to me.

And remember another promise of the universe: We will be presented with a lesson until we have learned it.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. will talk about his latest book project “The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers” on Friday, August 25, from 7 to 8:30 pm at Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

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