Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition is a cornucopia of the boundless and rich heritage cultivated by African Americans. As this textbook is the first compilation of African American literature created by intentionally using elements of Black culture, the editors methodically organized every aspect. Specifically, through the intergenerational collection of African American voices, Call and Response is constructed using a dynamic blend of aesthetics that pay homage to Black culture, community, and continuity. This blending of the folk and cultural nationalist aesthetics in particular tells stories that are not homogenous but instead reveal the complexity of the African American experience and the pride they all share in it.
When trying to define the governing aesthetic of the collection, I struggled to pinpoint just one. What I did conclude quickly is that Call and Response is not governed by a belletristic aesthetic. Originating from France, belles-lettres are defined in Cambridge Dictionary as “works of literature that are beautiful and pleasing in an artistic way, rather than being very serious or full of information” (n.d.). While I agree that it is beautiful to see the work of my ancestors intentionally compiled, the hundreds of works included are filled with a deep shared meaning. Through the words of each author, emotional and powerful accounts are told that should be regarded as philosophical and informational. For example, Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, included in the Women’s Voices of Self-Definition section of the textbook on pages 1720 to 1725, is more than just a short story about a complicated family. Instead, her work sparks conversations on the Black identity and the effects of generational trauma; not just beautiful and pleasing literature.
While I do not see a belletristic one, I do notice elements of a folk aesthetic. By featuring lesser-known authors in history, it not only gives their work the exposure it deserves but underscores the value of community for African Americans. While history classrooms often teach Black history through a few “diamonds in the rough” that made a change, Black culture is what it is today because of the contributions of many. Therefore, by including the work of not only the James Baldwins, Lorraine Hansberrys, and Fedrick Douglases of literature, the editors are not only privileging high culture.
In addition to the aspects of the folk aesthetic, an eminent nationalist aesthetic is evident in Call and Response. As defined by the Wilson Center Digital Humanities Lab, cultural nationalism is “a way for marginalized people to collectively live in their shared experiences through self-expressive forms” (n.d.) – which in this discussion is in the form of literature. They further conclude that cultural nationalism “gives black and brown people a sense of pride in being people of color in a white-dominated society” (n.d.). This shared, although intricate, meaning of Black culture, tradition, and reason amongst the authors included in the textbook demonstrates this aesthetic and glues their various works together. As an African American woman, browsing Call and Response and seeing the authors and texts I did recognize, I was overwhelmed by a sense of pride. As I identify with the messages and sentiments written, I can live vicariously through the works, further confirming the cultural nationalist aesthetic embedded in the anthology.
Through the blending of the folk and cultural nationalist aesthetics, Call and Response is dynamic and reminiscent of the quilting tradition of Black women. Compared to Euro-American quilting patterns that are “rigid, uniform, repetitious, and predictable” (Brown, 1989), African American women have a tradition of quilting using improvisation by piecing together a variety of patterns and colors inconsistently. This binding of different, diverse elements to create something unique and interconnected is in my view exactly what this Call and Response does. In fact, this quote from author Elsa Barkley Brown’s article “African-American Women’s Quilting” perfectly summarizes the textbook’s aesthetic: “the symmetry in African-American quilts does not come from uniformity as it does in Euro-American quilts; rather, the symmetry comes through the diversity” (1989, p. 923).
Following its title, Call and Response is divided chronologically into sections that either call or respond to issues and aspects of African American history. The first call on pages one to 68 subtitled Origins: African Survivals in Slave Folk Culture, strategically discusses the inception of Black oral tradition. As explained by the editors, “this significant history of the development of that literature, of those who produced the literature, and of the resulting cultural and literary traditions, embraces a rich body of oral and written messages, which have roots traceable back to Africa. Though transported from Africa to the New World in shackles and chains, Americans of African descent retained memories of their African cultural heritage” (1998, p. 2). Furthermore, “the theme of black self-determination, at the very core of the slave narrative, would not only become the genesis of the nineteenth-century black novel, but, subsequently, much of the focus of African American literature as a whole” (1998, p. 4). In other words, as symbolized by the map of Africa’s west coast on the first page of Call and Response, all the works, techniques, and features throughout the anthology can be traced back to this continent. Through word of mouth, enslaved Africans shared stories of the homeland, sang spirituals, and later told their testimonies of slavery. Thus, to begin the literary journey, the editors understood the need to first acknowledge the origins of the culture brought from Africa. As symbolized by the African Sankofa bird, in order to move forward, you have to go back and retrieve what you can from the past. This spirit is clearly emphasized by the editors’ intentional start of the textbook. By first paying respect to those of the past, readers can see how the legacy has been continued while most importantly keeping the original stories and voices alive.
As Lin Manuel Miranda writes in Hamilton, leaving a legacy is like “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Using this simile, Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition is a garden in full bloom as it is impregnated with the works of writers and orators who have undoubtedly left their mark on the Black community and America as a whole. By blending the folk and cultural nationalist aesthetics and mirroring the quilting tradition of Black women described by author Elsa Barkley Brown, this anthology gives a complete retelling of the African American experience. Although not explicitly expressed by the editors, the structuring of this textbook additionally leaves room for its continuation. Released in 1998, over two decades of cultural nationalism from African Americans is missing from this textbook. Therefore, left for us, the African American writers, poets, musicians, and storytellers of today, to carry on, Call and Response can and should continue to evolve just like Black culture does daily.
Belles-Lettres. Belles-Lettres Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/belles-lettres
Brown, E. B. (1989). African American Women’s Quilting. Signs, 14(4), 921–929. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174693
Cultural Nationalism. Omeka RSS. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://digilab.libs.uga.edu/exhibits/cultural-nationalism
Hill, P. L. (1999). Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. The Mississippi Quarterly, 53(1), 111. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A62794196/AONE?u=nysl_oweb&sid=googleScholar&xid=2bf120b0