Essay 1 – African American Tradition and the Guiding Principles of Call and Response

Everyone has a story to tell. In telling these stories, oftentimes, there is a shared sense of understanding and connection to one another based on shared experiences or feelings. While reading through Call and Response, The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited by Patricia Liggins Hill, this idea becomes increasingly apparent. In an anthology so vast, what molds the works together? Or more specifically, what is the Call and Response anthology’s governing aesthetics? Where do its guiding principles lie in its particular presentation of the American American tradition? Though the detailed answer in its entirety may exceed the limits of a short paper, the conclusion lies in the basic principles of togetherness, pride, and resilience – all of which make a harmonious blending of aesthetics, including cultural nationalism and folk aesthetic.

While reading through the works in Call and Response, the element of togetherness is one of the most striking. Looking primarily at the poetry in the text, this idea is one that is underlying throughout. A key example of this is found within Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones)’s piece entitled “SOS”. In this poem, Baraka writes, “Calling all black people, man woman child / Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in” (2-3). Though this poem is brief, it is effective in its nature, serving as an announcement to all black individuals to come and gather where the speaker stands, and urging them to “come / on in” (Baraka 6-7). Though the speaker does not explain the urgency behind their tone, or why their audience must come to join them right away, it is evident that there need not be an explanation – for the togetherness and unity that the speaker professes is enough to gather their desired audience. It is an audience that the speaker knows will understand whatever it is they have to say based on shared experiences and understanding of one another without saying exactly why or how. The inclusion of the word “all” in “Calling all black people” (Baraka 2) aids in the development of this idea – that all must gather, all shall join, all shall be there for one another in this time of need. A similar sentiment is brought forth in Carolyn Rodger’s work, “Poem for Some Black Women”. Rodger begins her work by expressing that she is “lonely” (1) but follows this idea by expressing that “we know each other’s miseries / too well” (6-7). The piece is very repetitive in nature – using the phrase “we” throughout the work, such as “we are / lonely women” (Rodger 8-9), “we live in fear. / we are lonely. we are talented, dedicated, well read” (Rodger 11-13). This constant repetition of “we” allows that sense of community and togetherness to come forth. Rodger does not write for herself, she writes for all hard-working, fearful, yet confident black women who have a united sense of trying to “make too much sense out / of the world” (Rodger 46-47). This idea of togetherness and unity is a common link connecting the works found in Call and Response, and is also the reason that one of the underlying aesthetics of this textbook is a folk aesthetic – one that privileges the cultural production of ordinary, everyday individuals who seek a similar sense of belonging and hope in times of worry or pain. That feeling of togetherness and unity is one that is universal – not only meant for the “higher” class society or those who are more privileged in life. Unity is for all, and Call and Response encompasses that.

Yet another guiding principle of Call and Response is found in the idea of pride. An author no stranger to pride within this book of texts is Lucille Clifton – brought about in her work “what the mirror said”. This poem is seemingly directed at the reader, as the speaker informs them: “you a wonder / you a city / of a woman” (Clifton 2-4). This entire poem exudes the confidence and pride of a black woman bestowing it upon another black female-identifying individual as she reminds them that they are “not a noplace / anonymous / girl” (Clifton 14-16) and instead, they are filled with worth and dignity. The reader is not just someone to be forgotten or brushed away – they are “some / damn / body!” (Clifton 19-21) with a heart, a voice, a soul to be praised. They have worth and deserve to be prideful in themselves. This idea of pride is included in another one of Clifton’s poems, “homage to my hips”. This poem speaks of a black woman’s confidence and pride she had in her body, specifically her hips, as she writes, “these hips / are free hips” (5-6) and “these hips are mighty hips / these hips are magic hips” (11-12). She even claims that her hips can “put a spell on a man and / spin him like a top” (14-15). Her confidence in her hips is unwavering – going hand in hand with her pride to be a woman and her pride to be black. She makes it known that her hips “don’t like to be held back …. / have never been enslaved” (Clifton 6-7). Her hips hold a great sense of strength and confidence for her, and also play into the element of freedom – for that is exactly what her hips grant her.

Perhaps the most vital principle present in the works of Call and Response is that of resilience – being the capacity to recover from difficulties; strength. Resilience is an ever-present element of African American literature, most notably in poets such as Maya Angelou in her celebrated work “Still I Rise”. The entirety of “Still I Rise” follows the speaker of Angelou’s poem explaining that despite the trials and tribulations of her life, she emerges stronger than ever. Although she knows that others want to see her “broken / bowed head and lowered eyes” (Angelou 13-14), she claims that “You may kill me with your hatefulness, / But still, like air, I’ll rise” (Angelou 23-24). Angelou’s speaker exudes resilience in the fact that she does not let anything stop her from rising back up each time she is pulled down by those who wish to see her fail and wither. She even calls back to her family’s ancestry as she writes “Bringing gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise”. She finds herself rising above all of the hate that her family has endured and that she had endured, personally, as a black woman, determined to emerge “into daybreak that’s wondrously clear” (Angelou 37). Audre Lorde’s poem “Coal” reveals a similar principle in the idea of resilience, as her speaker explains that they were in “the total black … / from the earth’s inside” (Lorde 2-3) – equating the color of their skin to where they originated from with the line “I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside” (Lorde 25), before continuing that they are now a “jewel in the open light” (Lorde 26). Despite being kept from the light for so long, the speaker showed resilience just as Angelou’s speaker did, waiting for their moment to burst into a ray of light reflecting off of them and speak their voice once and for all. This ideal is also reflected in Lorde’s poem “Solstice” in which she writes, “I will eat the last signs of my weakness / remove the scars of old childhood wars / … / I shall be forever” (Lorde 27-32). Once again, Lorde demonstrates her resilience despite the “wars” she had lived through as a black woman. She speaks of the skin of her past and how she shall “shed it / like a monitor lizard” (Lorde 23-24) to reemerge stronger than before, rising from a past of hurt. Keeping this in mind, it can be noted that this element of Call and Response can be seen in the aesthetic of Cultural nationalism – a way in which marginalized individuals are able collectively to live in their shared experiences through self-expressive forms. This can be seen through resilience, as time and time again black individuals have endured horrendous treatment and yet, persevered and remained remarkably strong and still rose about the hate that rained down on them.

Overall, the guiding principles that undergird Call and Response’s particular presentation of the “African American tradition” follow three basic elements – togetherness, pride, and resilience – all while harmoniously blending the aesthetics of cultural nationalism and folk aesthetics. The texts included in Call and Response are vast and all individual in their own right, though, after reading through a plethora of works, it becomes apparent that these principles mentioned previously are what universally guide the text and remains to be the underlying factor in each of them. These poems spoken of bring forth ideas of unity, strength, and the ability to stand true to what is right after rising above the tribulations they had to overcome. The poems play off of one another – a response to a call of strength and power – through the editor’s conscious structuring of the anthology in this call-and-response format in which, poet after poet, these principles of togetherness, pride, and resilience reemerge again and again through the different perspectives and stories being told by the authors. Though everyone has their own story to tell, it is the underlying elements of unity and togetherness that make these works so remarkably profound.

Works Cited:

Patricia Liggins Hill. (2009). Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Houghton Mifflin.

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