Call and Response: The Inclusion of Art in Text

  While reading through the textbook Call and Response The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, I noticed the ample collection of different forms of art. At first I thought it was just there for fun, but then after the class discussing W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk I went back to my notes and started digging more. The editors chose to emphasize the different sections and topics within the anthology by both juxtaposing the array of media used, while also tying them together with their importance to the culture itself. Therefore, it is imperative for the reader to take in not only the text itself, but also the images, musical lines, poetry, etc. that the editors chose to add in throughout the anthology in order to best understand the culture from an outsider’s point of view.

At the beginning of each section there is a small paragraph describing the period of time as well as the topic that will be covered. Around that text however, is the presence of the art. For example, in the first section of the text titled ‘Go Down, Moses, Way Down in Egypt’s Land’ the editors include both a portrait by Aaron Douglass from James Weldon Johnson’s ‘God’s Trombones’, as well as a line of musical notes titled Listen Lord, My Prayer. (pp. 1) I believe that the editors included this art as a way to emphasize the importance of oral and visual artistic traditions in African American culture. African American culture values these traditions because of the oppression of education during slavery and the lack of black folks being given the knowledge to be able to write or read. This oral tradition allows them to pass on the lessons and knowledge they have gained from their ancestors as well as give hidden advice on how to escape slavery. As Angela Khristin Brown says, “African-American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, gospel music, blues, and rap. This oral poetry also appears in the African-American tradition of Christian sermons, which make use of deliberate repetition, cadence, and alliteration. African-American literature—especially written poetry, but also prose—has a strong tradition of incorporating all of these forms of oral poetry.” (pp. 2, Brown)

Throughout this first section of Call and Response (which is set from 1619-1808 and discusses the conditions of slavery and oppression) the editors sprinkle in lines of music from this time period about these conditions. Examples of this include ‘What Ship is This That’s Landed on the Shore?’ (pp.4), ‘Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?’ (pp. 10), and ‘Oh! de Song of Salvation Is a Mighty Sweet Song’ (pp.19). I believe the editors chose these specific songs due to their lyricism in relation to the topic. In ‘What Ship is This That’s Landed on the Shore?’ The black gospel song is about the transplantation of the African peoples “Although the overwhelming majority of colonial Africans were reduced to this state of perpetual slavery, Africans in the North American British colonies made up only a portion of a larger black population that has been transported as slaves on the Middle Passage to destinations throughout the New World.” (pp.4-5) This song is a testament to the African peoples resilience in such a difficult time in history where they were separated across the globe, but were still brought together in their culture through music. 

The song ‘Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?’ shows the importance of ancestors and black history as a part of African American culture. In order to move on and continue through life in a meaningful way, you must always look back at your ancestors, their lives, and the struggles they went through to have you be where you are. This is complimented very well with the recursive nature of the songs themselves, as well as the editors choice to consistently go back to the music and art of the time throughout the anthology. “As Olaudah Equiano explains in The Interesting Narrative in Africa the spoken word, music, and dance were at the center of a communal and profoundly religious way of life. Most Africans believed that spirits lived in all things- in plants, in trees, in animals, and even in stones, as well as in people. All things on earth were connected by a life force that tied people to people and people to things. Most Africans also practiced ancestral worship. They believed that a person’s soul survived after death and that they could reach the souls of their long-dead ancestors.” (pp. 10) In accordance with this way of ancestral worship, you would look back on and ask for guidance from your ancestors and their lives that led to your birth. The repetition of the music itself, as well as the music appearances throughout the anthology really pushes the importance of this belief.

Lastly, the song ‘Oh! de Song of Salvation Is a Mighty Sweet Song’ is a celebratory song speaking of both the song itself being powerful to black folks, as well as the meaning behind the song. Singing of freedom and salvation from slavery. The inclusion of this music reminds me of both the video we watched with Bernice Johnson Reagon, as well as W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The inclusion of this music was intentional and impacts the way a reader interprets the text around it. With the intentional placement of the music, I am reminded of the impact Beth mentioned at the one version of The Souls of Black Folk being published without the musical lines, thus accidentally changing the meaning of the text’s interpretations.As with the video we watched in class, Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke of music being just a way to get to singing, and that singing was the way to bring people together in a meaningful way. “I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song.” Music has a way of both staying the same and changing with the times. The notes and music itself stays exactly the same but the meaning behind it shifts with the culture itself. Much like Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke of devotional songs such as “This Little Light Of Mine” shifting and being used as “Freedom Songs” during the Civil Rights Movement. With each piece of knowledge gained from both the images and musical lines, the reader is better equipped to interpret the text itself in a deeper way. Art is not made in a vacuum, it is impacted by the history and culture around it.

Call & Response: Folk Aesthetic and Repetition

    The anthology of “Call & Response,” written by various authors, is a massive 1,000 page collection of various essays and stories, placed into the format of just what the title states: a call and a response. Although contributed to by dozens of different authors, the anthology expresses some clear cut ideas on cultural “aesthetics” through the content contained within, as well as the structure of the anthology itself. 

    One of the biggest ideas of culture this anthology reinforces is the idea of this casual, or personal culture. The idea that culture is found in simple places, and isn’t exclusively something high or artful. The simplest way this was shown to me was in the first call of the book: the call for deliverance. This section was entirely made up of various oral works, such as the idea of the shout (31). The format of the shout was that the “leader” would sing a single stanza twice (the walk), before the chorus would sing the shout. This and other examples authors brought up provided a clear and simple image of what people wanted; what “the call really meant.” I think this was why this anthology was arranged this way; immediately show the reader what is meant by the idea of the call, and in a sense “show off” one of the most important aesthetics in the anthology. By placing this much simpler form of culture, one thats much more personal to a group and already familiar to a reader, it gave me a good entrance point to the book. It also provided some necessary cultural background for me. While the readings as a whole helped, the section descriptions of slavery and oppression provided at the start of the call provided some insight for the basis of what was to come in later sections. Particularly, the line “the weak must assert themselves against the strong…” on page 18 put the whole section into frame for me. The idea that the culture from Africa was not dead, the idea that “power” could be reobtained, and that enslaved persons knew this gave everything I read in this section proper meaning.

    The story of “Everyday Use” that we explored in class also reinforced some of these ideas of a “folk” aesthetic; that culture comes from the everyday person. Right off the bat, we know our narrator isn’t some highly educated “high society” type of person. She admits to not having an education, her house is described as being smaller, and the story is riddled with small clues that tell you the kind of background this person comes from (1721). However, she and her family still exemplify a facet of culture in a way; the passing down of ideas. In particular, a quilt is passed down from the narrator’s mother, however, it still shows the concepts of culture. It was also a link we made in class, however, I wanted to point out the concept of repetition also being important to culture as a whole. As discussed earlier and in the section also mentioned earlier, much of African folklore could be seen in the culture of enslaved persons, and this is sort of a repetition as well. I would argue this concept also ties in with the concept of cultural nationalism. As defined by Wilson Center Digital Lab, cultural nationalism is the concept of using culture to cement a place in society. This is in a way breaking up that repetition, but also using it to one’s advantage as well. As discussed in classed, when things repeat in culture, it morphs slightly, or is seen in a different context due to the previous cycles. In Everyday Use, the quilt being passed down will have a different meaning for each of its owners, just as culture will have a different meaning in each time period for the people who are a part of it.

    The format of the book was also something I wanted to discuss. I think it’s a highly effective way to organize the writing. At a surface level, it separates the anthology into “eras” of sorts, which makes it easy to approach and for the reader to relate to their knowledge of existing history. But again, I relate it back to this idea of repetition, and I think the organizers (possibly unintentionally, although I won’t doubt their competence) structured it in a way so that we could see this sort of cycle. The book starts out with a call, and that call has a response. At first, the call is the oral traditions and their     meanings, and the response to that becomes the call for independence. This call and response loop of a problem arising, and the response being the sort of “acting” on that call, that problem. The fact that there is always this new call, and always the need for a response, is a good way of exemplifying the struggles this book details. 

    All in all, I think Call & Response presents a very humble sort of idea of culture, and uses it to support the ideas and concepts of cultural nationalism. The concept of repetition was also very important to the anthology, and helped exemplified the necessity for these responses.


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. 

Call and Response – Essay 1

Now more than ever, history is crucial in learning and creating in the world we live in today. So much of American history revolves around the over representation of white people and dehumanization of minorities. Laws are created and communities unite, but after so many efforts into creating a truly equal world, one comes to accept the reality. History, America’s history specifically, has made it near to impossible to see each other as equals. But is that really what should be strived for anymore? Would it be enough to antone or reparate the generations of pain caused? A good definition for this is found in Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity’s book, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” reparations are defined as “acknowledgement, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice”. They state that we live in an America “that is unable to acknowledge and confront persistent racial inequality” leading to the pattern of racial injustices with African Americans we still see today. I think about this definition often when reading our texts.

Call and Response, The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited by Patricia Liggins Hill, preaches and petitions for simply an understanding. While reading through Call and Response, I found the theme of unity and memory shining through the most. In Elsa Barkley Brown’s African-American Women’s Quilting states “I do not mean that white or male students can learn to feel what it is like to be a Black woman…I believe that all people can learn to center in another experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need of comparison..”. It’s not necessarily equality, but empathy. Brown goes on to say “African-American women’s quilting… provides us with the framework..” to achieve it when color strips are different than the colors in the blocks or designs representing unpredictability and movement, change. I believe that we live in an American deceptive to change. We welcome it but at the same time we are conditioned and untrusting of what hasn’t conformed to the “norm”.

This is what I mean when I talk about over representation of white people in history, especially white men. You see it in propaganda from the early 1900s and in the higher power and authority during that time. When the United States was founded, it arose the contemporary concept of “race,” tied to the evolution of the terms “white” and “slave.” In the 1500s, Europeans established the terms “race,” “white,” and “slave,” and they brought these ideas and perspectives to North America. The words, on the other hand, do not carry the same connotations as they have now. Instead, the demands of a thriving American society would change the meaning of those words into new conceptions. 

In Suzan-Lori Parks’ An Equation for Black People she says “The bulk of relationships Black people are engaged in onstage is the relationship between the Black and White other”. She goes on to say that it is “high drama” but she also wonders “if a drama involving a Black people can exist without the White presence.”. This got me thinking as well, it simply takes one to unfairly disregard the other. She quotes from Toni Morrison’s Black Matters, “the presence of the White often signifies the presence of the Black…reduces Blackness to merely a state of non-Whiteness.”. In this equation the “Blackness” is people whose lives have consisted of “reactions and responses to the White ruling class.”  Parks emphasizes history as a crucial element in understanding African-American literature and art including daily confrontation of the White ruling class. 

I believe that there is a fine line between History and memory. Both equally coincide with each other to create stories to learn from, not to be repeated. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, she repeats a phrase at the end of the book, “this is not a story to be passed on” and at the beginning “deliberately buried but not forgotten”.  These phases from Beloved, speak volumes to the story’s message as a whole “this is not a story to pass on” and unclaimed recollections of servitude, painful experiences of exploitation and abuse that the protagonists deliberately strive to bury and forget but can’t. This also speaks to the more ignorance rather than “memory” of slavery and racism in America. Beloved tells its story through memory as it switches back and forth between past and present giving history its purpose. To compare and reflect, not to repeat. Despite their efforts to suppress their memories of slavery, the characters are haunted and tortured by them. Memory is constant, concrete, and inevitable in this work, and history stems from that.

 In W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, He presents a question that, in my opinion, has a collective element. “Why did God make me an outcast and stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all..”. He goes on to say “…walls strait and stubborn to the whitest..” commenting on white ruling and  “..but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of the night..” commenting on the struggles of conforming to what white people would see as normal. He calls it “double-consciousness”- a sense of looking at yourself through the eyes of others and measuring your highs/lows to others successes/failures. There is no standard or expectation without this. Du Bois continues to state that he would not “Africanize” America because there is so much we have to learn from one another and therefore African American “blood has a message for the world”. History is memory, moments lived and remembered. 

All around I believe the undergird principles that guide this collection are the guiding principles that undergird Call and Response presentation African American tradition are as follows: unity, pride, and history as memory. Pride in that there is a refusal to conform to the white-washing American lifestyle. As if to erase the generational suffering of African Americans, with the white American lifestyle since many are under the assumption that African Americans, and minorities in general, would be better off. Would they? Who knows? But one thing is for sure that we cannot disregard a culture because it is simply different. Back then, and even today, African Americans had no choice but to unite and stick together as a community collectively suffering under the ruling of White people. The permanent psychological and emotional trauma that African Americans face is a harm that they bear collectively. Sharing their memory and pain creates a larger picture.

Call and Response: An Anthology of Perspective

While voraciously glancing through the many pages that make up the Call and Response anthology, I was pleasantly surprised to see a wide range of literacy organized throughout. I began thinking about the collaborative writing style and differing aesthetics showcased throughout the book. Aesthetics, by definition, are methods used to promote or educate readers about important artistic expression in society, and that is exactly what I think the authors and editors for this anthology were aiming for. Everyone knows that literature is one of many art forms and can be represented through poetry, short stories, song lyrics, etc. and all of these and more are included in this collection. The main aesthetic of Call and Response as a whole anthology seems to be focused on the differences between the individual authors in terms of aesthetic. This begs the question, is the main aesthetic of the anthology truly one aesthetic?

            The title of this book, Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literacy Tradition, suggests that these authors are members of a common cultural community that are working together to educate their peers, similar and dissimilar to themselves, on the past, present, and foreseeable future of the culture in question: African American culture. One of our first reading assignments for this course was the short story, “Everyday Use.” The problems that are presented in this story really work through a common struggle people have with shifting cultural values. Dee, Mama, and Maggie are all struggling with opposing thoughts on how blankets made by an ancestor should be used to keep their heritage alive. Dee has gone off to college and has learned so much about Black culture that she feels that she is right when she says the blankets should be hung on the wall of a common space for all guests to admire. Mama and Maggie do not have any level of higher education and are working physically to support themselves instead, and they strongly believe that the blankets will be honored through use in their home for typical blanket purposes (keeping warm, etc.). Neither is necessarily wrong or right; it’s all about perspective. Thinking about present day, a lot of people are struggling to figure out how to best represent their ancestors in today world. Some have decided on pushing back on what history thinks of their culture and have started fresh with their own newfound knowledge and understanding of their culture, others are still living like their ancestors lived before them trying not to change a thing. Then, there are others still that have decided on combining old and new aspects of their culture’s values and making them feasible to their daily lives. Again, none of these options is the “right” one. Everyone comes into life with their own ability to see, think, and feel different aspects of the world around them. This short story really shows different perspectives in the anthology and begins proving that the overall aesthetic of it is a unique mixture of many perspectives.

            Besides short stories, Call and Response also includes poems, songs, sermons, and author/editor biographies before their designated section of the anthology. “A Sermon,” found on page 194, is a sermon that was preached on June 24, 1789, in Boston and it reads: “Roman xii. 10. Be kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love, in honour preferring one another.” This sermon is of few words but has a big impact on the general population at this time, especially in the Black community. At this point in history, slavery was still a huge part of everyday lives, and this sermon speaks clearly to the members of all communities alike to open up their hearts and love one another under the words of God. Regarding perspective, this sermon can be looked at from different perspectives when using a historical lens. There is truly perspective in everything. Having this sermon included in Call and Response allowed authors and editors to provide multiple literacy outlets for African American voices to be heard.

            Music is an aspect of African American culture that serves as an outlet for feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and one of the many songs included in Call and Response is “Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Negro National Anthem” (796). One section of this song resonated with me throughout my journey of flipping through the anthology reads “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, / Out from the gloomy past, / Till now we stand at last / Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast” (796). This song as a whole speaks volumes to what life was like back in 1900 when James Weldon Johnson first wrote and performed the song. This song was so popular during this time in history that the NAACP adopted it on February 12, 1900. It was bittersweet for me to see this song in the anthology because I have knowledge of the time period and the struggles that the Black community had to face due to the ignorance of the white majority, and I am glad that society is actively working on making a change in how people of different cultures and backgrounds are treated in modern society, but it hurts me to think that we were ever in a place where treating people less than human was acceptable. This piece of literature, even though it is presented in song format, helps readers of the anthology gain knowledge and understanding of important historical events that help develop different perspectives on African American cultural values.

            The book doesn’t just enlighten its readers about only the good or bad, hardships or triumphs, past or present. It is an envelope that allows for all views, old and new, to be explored. This compilation of literature was created for readers to think, feel, and beginning to better understand what it is like to be a member of a culture that is made from so many different pieces, and our goal is to try to fit the pieces together to create an image of the past, present, and future of African American culture in literacy and beyond.

Call and Response: Rhythm and Identify Unifying a Culture Together

Looking deep into the content we’ve learned and discussed thus far within this course, our reading and learning of the Call and Response anthology has educated me in a lot of different facets outside of my current knowledge behind African American culture  a handful of my peers were also intrigued by the influence of music impacting African American culture, but I felt that the video presentation of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon was a perfect visual representation of the magnitude music has upon one culture.  Through the readings we’ve been analyzing and learning from, the visual presentation told us a lot about how impactful music can really be, whether it be the composition in which it was written, the rhythm, the contagious energy of uniting those beside you, and allowing you to be heard in an area of silence and isolation.  This is displayed through history itself in protests, church, and other events that unites a culture and bands together which is a beautiful sight and a solid representation of it’s impact, especially when referring to its transition into literature.

When we refer to the Title ”Call and Response”, one could acknowledge the nod to the world of music, as call and response in music terms refers to a solo demonstration of a certain phrase, while the response is the ensemble following up with that next phrase.  Similar to that representation, call and response is enabling unity, and telling a story about heritage and culture to the audience, giving the audience the response.  I found that Call and Response and the texts we’ve read thus far truly garner an aesthetic approach versus belletristic.  The content being explained and taught relies heavily on the anthology and the response of the reader.  With a greater focus on the presentation of the culture and experience more than the literature aspect of all of it.

For a reference, if we look at Barkley Brown’s African American Women’s Quilting, we get visual, and foreign linguistic demonstration on how quilting is a good portion of African American culture and its definition to its respected heritage.  We can identify this in the text where it states, “Wahlman and Scully argue that African-American quilters prefer the sporadic use of the same material in several squares when this material could have been used uniformly because they prefer

variation to regularity” (Brown, 923).  The key word that speaks for itself is variation over regularity, that each color, knit, and patch has its own individual identity and makes its unique to any other culture existing.  It’s supported later in the text where it describes the off-beat patterning that reflects the multiple rhythms and patterns within a controlled design.  I found this information  fascinating as rhythm seems to be a prominent factor in this culture’s congruence.  We can see in the visuals how scattered the creativity is within each square in the quilt, with different shapes almost defining each person’s story behind its creation.

This outside text supports the idea of identity being a big factor into the governing aesthetic in the Call and Responses anthology.  Each distinct individual detail reflects the identity of African American culture and what it means to be a part of it, and spreading awareness and unity along with it.  When reading through Call and Responses early subtopics, oral traditions were a dominant aspect of African American cultures and explained above, whether it be voiced through dance, song and basic oral discourse.  This can be explained in Call in response where it explains, “There, and in otherwise secret and forbidden gatherings, they could exchange stories about African life, create new lore about their American experience, and express these reflections in dance and song.  Usually, they sang two types of songs—religious and secular—although one kind of music was not necessarily exclusive of the other” (11).  We learned about the anguish and brutal torture slavery brought to innocent African American lives; with that being said, this type of musical discourse was so pivotal to this culture and helped each person involved tell their story and unify each other together, which is powerful in it of itself.  

Chiming into the spiritual significance that influenced and built on African American culture, biblical narratives shed light on instances of hardship that are shared and amongst many.  In an excerpt from Banna Kanutes Sunjata, we get an instance of a similar story between Sunjata and a heroic biblical figure like Moses.  While this excerpt talks about the conflicts experienced by Sunjata, this is immediately followed up by Go Down, Moses which is displayed to tell a similar story with a biblical approach, to empathize the multiple instances of religion being parallel with the situations and lives of those going through pain, struggle, and injustice.  From my perspective, these excerpts were very emotional, yet hard for me to understand and comprehend by its language and presentation.  Ultimately this is something I’ve never particularly read before.  I don’t find myself as invested with religion currently, but that doesn’t mean understanding one’s religion or beliefs is not possible.  However, I strongly value the way of telling a story and the influence religion can bring to storytelling and the culture itself, which I love.

The Call and Response approach to our studies of African American Culture is very insightful, as there are multiple instances of music and rhythm that are huge compositions to the body of African American culture.  I found that rhythm itself is not just tempo, harmonies and an ensemble but rather the flow and spreading of unity identity to a culture enriched in emotional and vivid stories and experiences that are individually special that gain more significance when told and passed to those engrossing in learning or being apart of the history of the culture itself.  There is and still a lot that I honestly don’t quite understand but that’s ok.  Being open minded and hearing and reading the stories and history, is what is expanding and growing my knowledge about the culture itself.  I found the spiritual, musical, oral, and artistic foundations of this culture so distinct that separates its importance from any culture I’ve learned about so far.  The rhythms we’ve heard and learned is only destined to change over time and the more I engross myself in the history of the culture, the more I will find the rhythm to change and shine.

Call and Response: The First Call

In the first section of Call and Response that we had to read as a class (pages 1-68), it was said that this would be the first “call” in the book. I am here to argue that there are actually two calls and one response within these pages. The first call happens between pages 1-18. This first “call” was meant to be a call of information. It was meant to inform people about where African culture is found in Euro-America and how it got there. Here, the authors talk about the origins of the oral African tradition. This includes sections on “African proverbs,  Folk Cries, Work Songs, Spirituals, and Folktales” (Hill 1-18). The main idea that the authors discuss in this section is how there are “African proverbs and slave proverbs” (Hill 11-12). These proverbs are two very different things as African proverbs grew their roots only though African culture and slave proverbs grew their roots in Euro-American culture. Although, slave proverbs have been proven to have African origins as well as Euro-American origins. In fact, J. Mason Brewer did a comparative study that showed that “black people brought at least 122 proverbs directly from Africa” (Brewer 11-12). What this means is that African Americans combined African tradition with the hardships that they had to face from enslavement in the Americas to create their own culture in “the New World” (Hill 12). This section goes on to explain how these proverbs have been found in work songs, spirituals, and folktales told by African Americans. It is within these songs that African culture can be found. Predominantly in the way that the words to these songs are spoken, and the emotion that begs for the need of freedom within those words that are said. Therefore the first call was about information on African oral tradition and was meant to set up the first response of the book.

The first response in this section occurs between pages 19-27. Here, we find some answers about African literacy and how writers incorporated ideas from oral tradition in their writing. Specifically, this is a response to the call of freedom that was found in all of the African American work songs and spirituals found on pages 1-18. In this response, we can find examples of African American scholars who “articulated the theme of freedom in a variety of ways” (Hill 19). These scholars took the traditional African oral stories and wrote them in a way for people to have an understanding of African culture as well as the enslavement way of life. The freedom aspect found in many of these scholars’ writings was found in the way they wrote about enslavement. These writers not only wrote about the need for freedom from slavery, they also wrote about the need for freedom from Euro-American views on life. This response to the first call is monumental in the understanding of how African tradition has not faded away due to Euro-American ideologies. It is important to note that even African American writers who were “free”, as well as enslaved writers during their time all, agreed that African culture needed to be brought to life in their writing. Whether it be personal accounts that they had to embark on or stories that they had heard from fellow African Americans, the response stayed the same. The need to keep African culture alive through their writing was of utmost importance to them.

            These writers influenced the last call in this section. This call is a more detailed version of the original call that occurred on pages 1-18. This call takes place from pages 28-68. This section goes into further detail about the proverbs in the songs, what they mean and how they first came about. It is in this section that you can find song examples from every category mentioned earlier. These songs get broken down to show what type of spiritual or folk cry it is and how they differ from one another. In this section, the “call” is meant to be a call of understanding. To help people understand the different types of songs that were sung by African Americans as well as the meanings behind those songs. This is done so that people who aren’t familiar with this genre of music are able to educate themselves on what these songs are and the meaning behind them. This last call starts off by comparing slave proverbs to African proverbs and how although they look significantly different, the meaning doesn’t change. For example, the slave proverb “distant stovewood is good stovewood” and the African proverb “distant firewood is good firewood” have the same meaning that “things look better from a distance” (Hill 29). This is just one example to show the differences between the two proverbs. This section goes on to show the songs and how there are calls and responses within the songs that African Americans sang as work songs, spirituals, and cries. The calls in the songs are the leader of the song singing the first verse and then the response is the chorus singing in an echo back. So, the idea of call and response being found in African American tradition is not so uncommon as seen in their singing. For example, on page 33 of Call and Response, the work song “An Old Boat Song” is sung like this:

“(Lead Singer) We are going down to Georgia boys, (Chorus) Aye, Aye. (Lead Singer) To see the pretty girls, boys. (Chorus) Yoe, Yoe.”

This song shows how African American songs and phrasing often act as a call and response to the experiences they have had. Going on in this section of the final call, more examples are found of how work songs, spirituals, and cries have this type of leader and chorus methodology about them. The examples found in the final call for this section create an understanding of how African oral tradition has become a part of songs and folktales. It is through songs and folktales that we are able to understand and respect a culture that has survived many hardships throughout the decades.

Call & Response: A Dynamic & Empowering Anthology

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.

Works Cited

Belles-Lettres. Belles-Lettres Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2022, from

Brown, E. B. (1989). African American Women’s Quilting. Signs, 14(4), 921–929.

Cultural Nationalism. Omeka RSS. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2022, from

Hill, P. L. (1999). Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. The Mississippi Quarterly, 53(1), 111.

Cultural Nationalism and Other Aesthetics in Call and Response

The publication of Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Tradition celebrates the traditional feature of African American culture and art.  The selected works provide an expansive look into the African American aesthetic for both members within that community and for those outside of it looking to learn about its facets.  From an observational perspective, Call and Response honors the tradition most commonly felt as the interactive experience between a group’s leader initiating a “call” and the group’s “response” to that call. The tradition has roots in African folk celebrations, evolved through oral tradition into gospel spirituals and refrains included in church traditions. The art form carried through sermons to musical innovation and political activism in ways that cultivated a deep connection between members of the community through the collective experiences. The artistic aesthetic is compelling to examine in literature.

  The aesthetic of a book or specifically an anthology feels very representative of the topic or subject matter that the book is dealing with. To present the information in a certain visual or organizational manner, according to the editor’s curated choices, can have a great deal of influence on the reader’s perception, potentially as much as the text itself. Patricia Liggins Hill chose to offer the collection of call and response as a naturally  very interconnected act, so the emphasis put on that in the title of the anthology, and in the structure of the myriad texts used, evokes a sense of intimate unity.

The governing aesthetic of Call and Response  provides a comfort in repetition through familiarizing the reader and audience with the meaningful message of a specific piece. Just as in the lived experience of culture, the aesthetic of the anthology is an amalgamation of the things that make up the African American tradition. The literature which adheres most closely to the Call and Response tradition comes as a result of the communal response to trials and tribulations of an oppressed people and may show a broad spectrum of emotion and reactions to their circumstances, but shares the plain fact that they are in response to the same collection of influences. Though some of the pieces are not necessarily written with an attempt to fit into the rigid parameters of sophistication that some view as a belletristic style, they do achieve an elegant purity. The songs, poems, and stories included in the anthology feel as though they were meant to be written as raw representations of the emotions behind them, the result is equally as beautiful.

The goal of the anthology and the individual poems, texts, along with more of the included material adequately fits into a cultural nationalist aesthetic. The concept nationalism can at times have a negative connotation depending on the context, but in this case, the literature fosters an opportunity for the expression of cultural pride as a call to ascendance for an oppressed people. Even the pieces that may not have been written with the express intent of cultural nationalism contribute to an overall sense of it simply by their inclusion. The structure and title of the anthology itself play into a cultural nationalistic aesthetic. Organizing the contents of the book into sections of calls and responses, though they may not literally be direct calls or responses to each other, builds into a larger metaphorical purpose. Each selected work seems to offer a new and different feature of the African American tradition.

The short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is an example of the importance of heritage and its presence in this anthology serves to underscore a theme of interconnectedness as strength. The quilts in the story serve as a tangible piece of the family’s culture. The narrator and her daughter, Dee, disagree over what can be classified as appropriate use of the quilts. Dee argues that the quilts ought to be preserved, while her mother and sister, Maggie see them as fit for everyday use. The mother’s argument is that if through using the quilts as actual quilts and not for decorative purposes, Maggie can make more. The conflict that is worked through in the story balances the ideas of preserving and treasuring the relics that a culture is built on, and of building up and bringing new things into a culture as time goes on. Through the narrative, there is a sort of call and response between the mother and Dee in each of their understandable perspectives. Their dialogue, through this mechanism, gives voice to the urgency of both the preservation and innovation of culture.

In the subsection of the first “Call” titled “The Shout,” the concept of the walk and shout is demonstrated. The song that is included as the example of walk and shout is “‘Ligion So Sweet,’’ in which the lead singer would “sing the single stanza, or walk, twice; then the chorus would begin singing the shout,” (31). The walk consists of the same phrase, “Keep a rollin’ down de fountain” three times followed by “Oh, de ‘ligion so sweet!” once. The shout repeats “Oh, de ‘ligion–oh de ‘ligion / Oh de ‘ligion –so sweet!” (31). The refrain invites the audiences to reflect on the comforting power of religion as a sustaining faith in the redemption of future simpler times. In the next section, titled “Work Songs and Other Secular Music,” a song called “Walk Around de Heavens” is included as an example. This song sees a similar level of repetition as the first and revisits the theme of spiritual meditations for a community engaging in the visualization of an eternal reward past suffering.

The name and organizational structure of the anthology pays clear homage to these literal examples of call and response in the music of the African American tradition. The emotional aesthetic of the book is built around a lyrical rhythm and cadence that honors this central theme in the culture it represents. The purpose of collecting such a vast array of pieces is to tell a story of a rich, powerful, and fascinating culture that demands to be studied and appreciated. 

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.