Addison Gayle & The Power of Literary Criticism

This past Thursday, May 20th, 2010, from 7-9PM I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nathaniel Norment Jr., editor of an important book: THE ADDISON GAYLE JR. READER. Addison Gayle Jr. is perhaps one of the most important literary critics of our time. He wrote primarily about the art within the Black Arts Movement and truly provided an important framework for understanding and analyzing works of art in our time. Probably the most important essay to me was his preface to the book Black Expressions: Essays By And About Black Americans in the Creative Arts. In this preface he writes that ‘the Negro critic should explicate a work of art in terms of its contributions to humanity.’ This is something that I look for in quality criticism. In my attached interview with Dr. Norment, I discussed two critics that do the important work of providing quality literary criticism which, for Gayle, included being well versed not only in the critiqued author’s entire body of work, but also the genre of that work by different authors. In this interview I shared how much Gayle himself has explicated the contributions of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son to humanity by exposing the contradictions of Northern liberal racism. There are three other important literary critics that do the same with other writers’ works. The first literary critic that explicates a work of art in terms of its contributions to humanity is LAVINIA JENNINGS, who wrote a biography of the very important writer ALICE CHILDRESS. In this biography, Jennings writes that in her novels intended for a younger audience, “Childress offers no easy solutions, no contrived happy endings, and no quick fixes to the identity crises confronting her teen protagonists…To Childress’ adolescent readers, these uncertain endings transmit no false security and no life-as-a-fairy-tale interpretations. Each story accepts the reality that the road toward self-hood, adulthood, and acceptance by others is rocky with rejections, disappointments, and failures. But with the personal stamina and adult support, it can be safely traveled” (115). Here Jennings shows that Childress’ contributions to humanity includes showing the importance of having some amount of personal stamina as well as a supportive community. Another powerful literary critic is JOYCE PETTIS who in her discussion of the novels of PAULE MARSHALL, truly shows how Marshall’s works are contributions to humanity by exposing the pitfalls of individualism and materialism in Western Culture. In her book Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction, Pettis writes: “Marshall’s characters illustrate the unlikelihood of spiritual rapprochement for people who are mindlessly captivated by the allure of materialism and enticed by Western values antithetical to their cultural properties. The author frequently appropriates symbols of Western industrialization to suggest the disruption perpetrated on unsuspecting populations”(90). Pettis elaborates (like Barbara Christian in her book Black Women Novelists) on how Marshall’s characters are affected because of this ‘disruption’ and mindless captivation, hence the fates of Vere in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and Primus in Daughters. A third literary critic I think that profoundly fulfills this call by Gayle is SUSAN NEAL MAYBERRY in her book of criticism on TONI MORRISON’S male characters called Can’t I Love What I Criticize? Her description of what Morrison does with her first novel The Bluest Eye is emblematic of what Morrison does in all her novels. Mayberry writes: “The Bluest Eye examines the destructive effects on black males of Western-imposed concepts of repressive sexuality, competitve ownership, physical beauty, and romantic love. It shifts the ‘gaze’ away from the black figures to focus on the white power structures that cause those figures to battle each other for predominance” (16). Here Mayberry exposes how Morrison’s works are contributions to humanity by problematizing these aforementioned Western-imposed concepts. These concepts are further complicated by the trauma that people of color uniquely endured in the West, and literary criticism that fufills Gayle’s call of explaining an artist’s contributions to humanity at the very least helps us conquer this trauma in order to obtain deliverance from the oppressive concepts. Thank you Michael Roux of the University of Illinois Press for my own copy of the Addison Gayle Reader; thank you Dr. Norment for allowing us to read Addison Gayle, and thank you Professor Gayle for pure, unadulterated, life-saving RIGOR. (Photo of the Addison Gayle Reader cover courtesy of the University of Illinois Press) -RF.

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.