For centuries, African American history has been repeatedly suppressed, ignored, and undermined in education despite the importance and vast amount of information that can be found within. As stated by Suzan-Lori Parks in her work “Possession,” one of her tasks is to “locate the ancestorial burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.” This statement is referring to the need for African American history to be dug up and expressed through literature, a task that Patricia Liggins Hill and the many other editors also set out to do in her book Call and Response. Call and Response is a chronological anthology of African American literature that places emphasis on both written and oral dimensions of the black aesthetic. The book is guided by a folk aesthetic that shows the cultural production of ordinary people, who despite the hardships, racism, and brutality towards them created a cultural identity for themselves through community that has empowered them by giving them both comfort and a voice to share their stories. Through both a folk aesthetic and the conscious structuring of Call and Response, Patricia Liggins Hill and the many editors of this book were able to convey the beauty of community and African American culture as well as its significance.
In music, call and response is a technique in which a phrase of music serves as the call and that call is answered by a following phrase of music. Call and Response is set up in exactly this way, starting with the call, which expresses the hardships inflicted upon black people and black culture, and then following their response, which shows how they overcame it and continued to empower black culture. This is a continuous theme throughout the book showing how everyday people came together as a group to fight for basic human rights that they weren’t receiving. On page 1354, we see a response to the call for social revolution and political strategies. The major response was the Black Renaissance, which resulted in the rise of newly emerging African intellects, artists, poets, novelists, and dramatists. They began to teach, perform, travel, and turn to black journals that allowed for their independence from commercial publishers who censored their language. This was a time in which black activities and events began to flourish and “for the first time in the nation’s history, black was considered beautiful, and Black Power and black pride were images and attitudes to be celebrated and revered, not hidden and feared.” Vibrant murals were painted outside portraying black hero’s and black goals for everyone to see, powerful images of black heroes were on movie screens, black comedians and actors began to be recognized, black music captured the interest of white people even before the civil rights movement, and big afros and African beads were being embraced; however, these accomplishments were not written about to be marked as a “high culture aesthetic,” but instead quite the opposite.
High culture is commonly defined as cultural objects, material or nonmaterial, that is held in the highest esteem by a culture, and typically looked at as superior. High culture is also usually associated with wealth and those of higher class. The goal of the Call and response isn’t to boost their accomplishments as more important or more valuable than those of Euro-Americans, but instead to show how everyday people, with no special political power, money, or influence, were able to come together as a community to express their shared values and beliefs. This directly reflects a folk aesthetic, which is defined as traditions that root from community and culture. Black traditions and movements have rooted directly from culture and community. We see the Black Arts Movement, originating off the concept of self-determination; the idea of Black Power, beginning from a rallying call for black pride and unity; folktales, which were either based on the belief of native-born Africans to call on African-derived power or the African archetypal pattern; jazz music, originating from an intertwining of European classical music and African and slave folk songs; and Spirituals, which were drawn from native rhythms and African heritage.
Call and Response is effective in using a folk aesthetic to guide the presentation of the African American Tradition because they show the black community as a group of everyday people who had not one powerful influence, but instead several members of the community working towards a common goal. In “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, she mentions how people try to make public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., viewed as either a hero or evil, when in reality, “He needs to be shared as a member of a community.” Call and Response does this by not only writing about several members of the black community, but by also showing their roots, which did not start with any heroic figure, but instead a group of slaves fighting for their lives and freedom.
Going back to the very first call in the book on pages one to sixty-eight, we learn about the development of oral traditions as well as African survival in folk culture. Here we are exposed to the truth of Africans involvement in the exploratory expeditions of the new land and the fact that African Americans arrived as slaves even prior to the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Despite arriving to the new land in shackles, African culture was already being further developed through work songs, folk cries, spirituals, and folktales. Additionally, much of their creations were carried over from Africa and strong connotations of their place of creation can be seen, which is an element of folk culture. I believe this first call was consciously placed at the start of the book to not only begin to unveil the truth about African history, but to also show how even early on, community was a huge factor in the works and art being produced at the time. We can see from this section, that folktales, spirituals, folk cries, and sermons weren’t being created to be popular or well liked, but instead to bring together a group of people who were fighting a continuous battle of oppression. Here we can see that these enslaved people were no heroes, but instead as Reagon says about Martin Luther King Jr.: “A man who did brilliantly with the greatest challenge facing him, he also often operated ordinarily, and at time disappointed others and probably himself.” This same thing can be said for other figures shown in Call and Response such as, James Madison Bell, David Walker, William Wells Brown, Benjamin Banneker, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker, Chester Himes, Sonia Sanchez, and John Edgar Wideman, who all made great strides in their fight for freedom.
One man in particular who embodies the image of “A man who did brilliantly with the greatest challenge facing him” is William Wells Brown. The man who wrote the first African American novel, protest play, travel book, and history of the black soldier in the civil war. He played a huge role in helping pioneer African literature, but he was no lucky or wealthy man. William Wells Brown started from nothing and was very much an ordinary man, living among many other members of the black community as a slave. He managed to escape from slavery by slipping away from his owner’s steamboat that was docked in Cincinnati Ohio in 1834; however, William Wells Brown didn’t manage to make it far alone. He was taken in shorty after by a white Quaker family and helped to safety by Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown. Out of respect and appreciation for their help, William decided to adopt their last name. William Wells Brown is an example of someone who was able to gain freedom and the ability to help pioneer African American literature because of the help of others working towards a common goal. Although Mrs. And Mr. Wells Brown were not part of the Black community, they held the same values and beliefs as William did, acknowledging the wrongs of slavery, and putting themselves on the line to help a stranger make his escape. William Wells Brown was not portrayed as a hero or someone with the ability to escape on his own in Call and Response, but instead as someone who could not only acknowledge those who helped him, but as an ordinary man who was able to overcome a horrible situation and make strides for the Black community in despite of it.
The many traditions, groundbreaking works, and achievements made by members of the black community were not written about in Call in Response to brag about how far they’ve come, but instead to show the community effort and determination it took from an ordinary group of people to work their way up toward more and more freedoms. The Black Renaissance, where we saw African intellects, artists, poets, novelists, and dramatists emerge was just a long awaited and deserved moment for the Black community, as well as only a beginning step to a long battle for equality. Black journals, black heroes in movies, black art, and black music will all continue to emerge in mainstream media and be recognized by the rest of society due to the determination and unity of the Black community. The underlying folk aesthetic of Call in Response is meant to guide us through the reading with the idea in mind that these figures we are reading about are no heroes, but instead everyday people who are trying to make their history and experiences come to light, despite every effort made by society to bury them. Their shared beliefs, values, and pride in their cultural identity is what has taken them this far and is what will continue to empower them to make their voices heard.