How Does One Call and Respond?

What does it mean to call and respond? I believe that answering this question will provide insight into the governing aesthetic of The Riverside Anthology of African American Literary Tradition: Call and Response. The preface to the anthology provides some context and reasoning behind the structure and title. It describes the anthology as creating African American “antiphonal patterns” which put minds in conversation with one another. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, antiphonal refers to a piece being sung or played by two groups in turn. This may resemble a cadence of back and forth where the second entity waits for the first to finish before beginning their idea. It could also present gumbo ya ya which is defined in Elsa Barkley Brown’s “African American Women’s Quilting” article as a practice where everybody talks at once (925). It could even look like a plethora of choices in presentation and form. This style could be similar to what we examined in Suzan-Lori Parks’ piece “Possession” in which speakers can experiment with different ways of presenting the format of the piece. Ultimately though, the idea of antiphony represents voices in conversation with one another. It presents a multifaceted aesthetic that encourages connections between a variety of ideas and moments. 

The structure of the anthology certainly contributes to understanding its aesthetic. Antiphony produces what the Preface describes as, “Black America’s major cultural art forms that fosters and reinforces a dynamic, artistic, and cultural relationship between the individual and the group” (xxxiii). We see this relationship demonstrated in the section titles provided in the table of contents. In Section II, the “Southern Folk Call for Resistance” is connected to “Northern Literary Response: Rights for Blacks, Rights for Women.” While the “Response” portion incorporates many individual voices such as David Walker, Sojourner Truth, and Maria W. Stewart, all of the voices are part of a group that is in conversation with the ‘Call for Resistance’. In this way, the pieces in each “call” and corresponding “response” relate to one another and capture the idea of dialogue between individual thinkers and group ideals.  

Another way to explain this concept of relationships is depicted in the documentary Bernice Johnson Reagon: The Songs are Free. In this film, Reagan invokes the same principles of individuals within group relationships while describing the importance of “I songs.” Reagan states, “in order to express community, you have to go to the first person plural. And in the black community, when you want the communal expression, everybody says “I.” So if there are five of us here and all of us say “I,” then you know that there’s a group.” As Reagan asserts, the “I song” holds individuals accountable for the promises that they make to a group. I think that recognizing this connection between individual and group is important to understanding the general aesthetic of Call and Response. Not every person presented in the anthology is a scholar or acclaimed academic, but every voice is valued for its own contribution. The variety acts like a hand-stitched quilt where individually every piece may be beautiful but together they form a work of art that makes a powerful statement. 

The quilt analogy is multifaceted because stitching all of the pieces together requires intentionality and deliberate attention to detail. The way conversations are set up is thoughtful and meant to generate a deeper level of thought. Readers are encouraged to draw connections across sections and return to earlier ideas. Elsa Barkley Brown describes this process in  “African American Women’s Quilting” when she asserts “’In jazz, for example, each musician has to listen to what the other is doing and know how to respond while each is, at the same time, intent upon her/his own improvisation” (925). The process of “call and response” requires independent thinking, active listening, and a mix of dissidence and harmony to be truly moving. It also encourages the act of recursion which Dr. McCoy has described it as “moving forward while looping back at the same time.” This recursive process builds on the act of making connections and facilitates the understanding of some more complex conversations. 

Examining the idea of  “call and response” has led me to form the opinion that the anthology privileges the cultural production of ordinary everyday people. In addition to the inclusivity of the antiphonal style, the music element of the book seemed to suggest that the editors wanted the ideas to be accessible to everyone. In the documentary Bernice Johnson Reagon: The Songs are Free, Reagon describes the way that music can act as a force to deeply move people. She states “Songs are a way to get to singing. The singing is what you’re aiming for and the singing is running this sound through your body. You cannot sing a song and not change your condition.” This quote stood out to me because I believe it is true. In my own experiences, being in an environment where everyone is singing together in one place has changed my mood and adjust the way that I am feeling. Therefore, the incorporation of music throughout the anthology might be meant to provide a similar effect. The songs get to emotions that are accessible to all readers but especially readers who have grown up singing them. In this way, the ideas and messages can be understood and interpreted by everyday, ordinary people. 

Ultimately, the anthology has a multifaceted aesthetic that uses antiphony and a “call and response” structure to make the conversations of many different voices accessible to a variety of readers. 

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