The Emphasis on Embracing One’s Heritage Through Call & Response

The novel Call and Response by Patricia Liggins Hill (the general editor) is an extensive anthology of influential pieces of African American literature. These works of literature strictly emphasize the significance of African American history by implementing cultural aesthetics that were frequently seen throughout the experience of slavery in America. The literature itself includes a variety of diverse formats, such as poetry, essays, speeches, sermons, journals, and spiritual song lyrics. The structure or governing aesthetic of Call and Response relies heavily on the meaning and importance of heritage. In addition, the structure of various works throughout Hill’s novel also displays an extraordinary amount of symbolism, representing both pride and struggle. 

One of the most influential works displayed in Call and Response is “Everyday Use” written by Alice Walker. The work starts off with Mama anxiously awaiting her daughter Dee’s arrival alongside her other daughter Maggie. Unlike Mama and Maggie, Dee was able to escape her impoverished life and instead go to school in Augusta. When Dee returns, she looks completely different, talks differently, and even goes by a new name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo to protest being named after the people who have oppressed her. However, Dee comes home with a secret agenda, which is that she wishes to obtain the family quilts kept by her mother. The quilts were made by Dee’s mother, grandmother, and aunt. They not only have great historical value but cultural significance as well. Dee argues with her mother and claims the quilts would be better kept in her care since Maggie won’t appreciate their unique value and isn’t intelligent enough to properly preserve them. Overall, this work connects to the powerful aesthetic Call and Response attempts to display to its readers, which is the importance of heritage. The audience begins to understand the significance of an individual’s heritage once Dee enters the story. After becoming distraught after concluding that her family’s history deals with the concept of oppression rather than perseverance. Due to this oppression, Dee has made it clear that she desires to reject her own heritage, and instead take on a new one, failing to see the importance her current culture holds. For instance, Dee stated “‘She’s dead,’ Wangero said. ‘I couldn’ bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’”  (Walker, page 1722) From this excerpt Dee makes the reader pose the question to themselves, can the concept of heritage be considered alive or dead? Can it live on for eternity or is it someday forgotten? Specifically, Dee views her African heritage as dead, or a thing of the past and instead of embracing it rejects it for one seen as more favorable. Furthermore, this poem specifically privileges not “high” culture but the cultural production of normal, everyday people. Walker does this by writing a short story about an extremely relatable family, where sibling rivalry is made to seem common and the celebration of African African culture is valued.

Additionally, “Everyday Use” also brings up an intriguing question of whether or not intelligence or education plays a role in appreciating one’s heritage. Dee claims that she would get more use out of having the quilt instead of her sister since she is educated and can therefore appreciate their cultural value more. However, I strongly disagree with Dee’s point of view on the controversial subject and instead, I would argue that education has no correlation to acknowledging heritage. Personally, I have a high school education and am planning on getting my master’s in education in approximately 2 years. However, my older brother decided not to attend college and instead go straight to the workforce right out of high school. However, just because I have received more formal education than my eldest brother does not mean that I can appreciate our Russian heritage more than he is able to. Appreciating your heritage has nothing to do with your intelligence or education, but rather how you embrace the values bestowed upon you by your cultures. This includes participating in special activities or traditions that have a special meaning to you and your ancestors. Therefore, Dee does not deserve the quilt or can appreciate its value more than her sister just because she had the special privilege of receiving an education. Author Alice Walker sends this message to the reader by successfully implementing a cultural aesthetic into her work that stresses the overall significance of heritage.

Furthermore, more instances of cultural aesthetics being prominently displayed throughout Call and Response is in Nikki Giovanni’s poem titled “Ego-Tripping.” The poem is a beautiful sentiment that is intended to shed light and commemorate African American women and their heritage. Giovanni desires not only the audience to know, but African American women themselves, that their extraordinary accomplishments will not be forgotten nor go without recognition. “Ego-Tripping” takes us through the speaker’s life, starting with her birth in the congo line and going through some of her numerous accomplishments such as traveling over the Sahara Desert. Giovanni ends her poem by acknowledging African American women everywhere by saying “I am so perfect, so divine, so ethereal so surreal / I cannot be comprehended / except by permission / I mean…I…can fly / like a bird in the sky…” (Giovanni, page 1560) These empowering lines Giovanni leaves the reader with are meant to celebrate the struggles of not only the everyday woman but the struggles overcome throughout African African history. She desires to remind the reader that although you may face struggles, your heritage and strength as a black woman will guide you in persevering even the most incomprehensible of misfortunes. She reminds her readers that heritage is responsible for bringing us up and making us the strong women that we are today. Similar to “Everyday Use,” this poem specifically privileges not “high” culture but the cultural production of normal, everyday people. Giovanni does just that by making her work extremely relatable to most women and those of African African descent. I personally resonate heavily with Giovanni’s poem and strongly agree that an individual’s heritage plays a strong role in their ability to overcome and become empowered. My heritage as a Russian Jewish woman reminds me every day that I have something to be proud of and regardless of how much I celebrate my heritage, it should always be acknowledged. Therefore the work Call and Response edited by Patricia Liggins Hill does an excellent job in employing a cultural aesthetic for its readers. The major themes of empowerment and self-discovery are used to create this cultural aesthetic and persuade readers to recognize their own roots as well. Hill successfully does this by including powerful works of literature by well-known authors such as Allice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. Both Walker and Giovanni stress the importance of heritage in their work and force readers to ask themselves what role heritage plays in their individual lives. Both authors remind the audience that their roots and heritage is always something that needs to be embraced, never to be ashamed of or hidden.

Starting At the Beginning In Call and Response

When thinking of African American traditions what comes to mind? Before studying and learning more about the subject I wouldn’t have an answer to this question. I can’t even say that I have an exact answer now. Looking directly at a book that is made for readers to educate themselves in the anthology of the African American tradition, Call and Response. It is shown that one of the first subjects or “Calls” that is brought up is about oral tradition and African survivals in folk cultures. 

Reflecting on these observations means that I would have to look further into the title. The title gives readers an idea of what the novel or story will be about before they dive into reading it. Which steams the point of digging deeper into the title in getting closer to why the book is set up in the way it is. Call is defined by Merriam-webster dictionary as: to speak in a loud voice; to announce or read (something) in a loud voice. However, in the sense of the title and the book it is written for, I believe there is a deeper meaning to the one word. On February 9th, 2022, we watched a video in class, called “Moyers Moment” where Bernice Johnson Reagon was talking about her songs and the songs she listens to. Towards the beginning of the video she said, “when you look at the body of songs, you can feel people are talking about things that happened to them every day” (Moyers Moment). If we look at the line in the same sense of the book title, then “Call” means more than talking loudly instead loudly expressing a point that should be made. The “Call” is addressing the situation made present to the readers. Therefore, in this situation the authors believes that readers need to understand the cultural or oral traditions before understanding the rest of the traditions. Similarly, to Reagon, the authors use writing to speak loudly and build up what is happening in the world. Oral traditions are something the authors feels are important for readers to understand before diving deeper. It’s the background knowledge. 

To illustrate the point, I am going to make, I imagine being a teacher to a group of young students where they are learning specifically about African American traditions. In order for the students to get a better understanding of what is yet to come they will need to learn more about African Americans and their cultural. This will give them the tools to grasp the understanding of what is going to be learned. Bringing this back to the book, if you were to look in the table of contents you can see that page one has a headnote labeling “African American History and Culture, 1619-1808”(Call and Response). The authors are building up the traditions by starting at the very beginning. When you start at the beginning you as a person are getting the full background and are learning about where others have gotten to where they are standing today. Knowledge does not start with one person nor does cultural which brings me to back to the point of the first “Call” of the book being about oral tradition and African survivals in folk cultures. 

This book specifically has six authors who all have worked collectively to publish this book which means they all have a story somewhere. They all have something that needs to be said and this book is how that is happening. Reflecting back to 2020, I took an African American Literature class with Professor Nwabara. In this class I just began to start learning about this particular culture and was able to study more about the cultural and what it might look like. We read various books, poems and watched videos to build our learning on the topic. Something I have taken with me throughout my learning and that I made a connection to in the video we watched in class, was how song is one of the most popular ways to speak up. A voice is usually thought of as a conversation and speaking one’s thoughts. However just as actions speak louder than words, songs do exactly that. Songs are used to promote awareness within the communities. I made this connection when watching the Moyers Moment video and heard Bernice Johnson Reagon say, “the power is in this circle”(Moyers Moment).  At the time of the video, she was talking about communities building up together especially in churches, although, it can be seen in Call and Response where a group of people band together to make a difference in the world and have their voice heard to make the difference. 

All of these thoughts lead to the main goal I believe the authors of Call and Response have for the book. If there is no background knowledge being built up there would be no story. Instead, it would just be a story. To clarify my thinking, I will illustrate another scenario, by referring back to the video on repetition and Mount Everest. Even though that video was meant for another reason I am going to be using it to express my thoughts. Imagine the man ready to tell the story to his parents, except he tells the ending, where he climbs the mountain and reaches the top. He does not tell the beginning of the story where it takes him long and hard to make it to the top and how there were many obstacles standing in his way. In the shortened story there is no background and no chance to picture the difficulties on how it took him to get up the hill. Even if as the listener you aren’t able to face everything it adds to the story on how it took him to get to the top. Bringing it back to the book, I believe if the book was not created how, it was, where the first “Call” was about oral tradition and African survivals in folk cultures then there would not be the same effect. As a reader you need to start from the beginning no matter how far to get the picture and watch as the stories develop. If not, you lose a piece of the story, and it would not have the same outcome. This book has a specific method where the first “Call” is then satisfied by a “Response”, if that was taken away then there would be parts missing and it wouldn’t make as much sense. 

ENGL337 African American Literature Essay 1

            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.

The Blend of Aesthetics in “Call and Response”

After reading and reviewing “Call and Response” over the past couple of weeks, I have found that this anthology does not fit one single aesthetic. In my opinion, “Call and Response” falls into three main aesthetic categories: extensive, historical and dynamic. The extensive aesthetic behind this anthology goes to show the visible elements behind the text that work together to form an in-depth book in both the physical and substantial sense. The historical aesthetic supporting this anthology works to emphasize the sequence of time that the book covers. Including works from as long ago as the 1600s, “Call and Response” is able to display the evolution of African American culture as well as the maintenance of traditions and culture. I found that one of the main underlying principles of this anthology is its dynamic aesthetic due to its active nature in offering new ideas and perspectives to a wide range of readers. 

It is clear that just by looking at “Call and Response”, the reader is able to acknowledge the book’s extensive aesthetic. The book’s epitextual elements including its physical weight, the quality of the paper, and the size of the font, all contribute to its overall sense of endlessness. Consisting of over 2,000 pages, the weighty anthology does not care for the time and effort it takes to read “Call and Response” cover to cover, as each page and each selection is important to the book’s final message. In my opinion, the thin and fragile paper living between the covers signify the fragile lives that humans of all races possess, yet risk in order to gain freedom and make meaningful change in their world. In my opinion, the small font size was made that small in order to incorporate a multitude of information from songs, letters, stories, speeches, poems, and journals into the work. Although I do not believe the authors and editors lengthened the book to emphasize the significant messages they wish to convey, I do think that the physical weight and appearance of the book help represent the important ideas mentioned throughout the piece. Paratextual elements, such as the Table of Contents, also support the extensive aesthetic that the book gives off. With a 25-page long Table of Contents, the reader is able to prepare themselves for the immense amount of information they are about to read. I believe this extensive aesthetic I have assigned to “Call and Response” is only a small piece of the larger, more dynamic aesthetic.

The anthology consists of material dating back to the 17th century, which is why I have allocated a historical aesthetic to the book. One of the earlier pieces included in the book that caught my attention was Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson. Banneker was a very intellectual and persistent African American who lived during the 18th century. In 1791, Banneker expresses his disagreement of the statesman’s justifications for racism and slavery to the hypocritcal yet sentimental Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Banneker writes in his letter, “he [one universal Father] hath afford us all with the same sensations… and that, however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or in colour, we are all of the same family, and stanf in the same relation to Him” (Banneker, pg. 159). I believe that when readers read an authentic document personally written by someone who has reflected on their experiences during a crucial period of time, the reader is better able to gain a sense of understanding and respect for the writer. It is always difficult to take yourself back in time and try to understand the unthinkable challenges that people had to endure. However, with personal accounts and historical evidence of such challenges taking place, it allows the reader to obtain the smallest understanding of what another person or group of people went through. It is so unbelievably interesting yet saddening to read and compare historical works that fight for the same freedom, yet are written hundreds of years apart. Martin Luther King Jr. was a brilliant and motivated African American minister and Civil Rights activist. With the power of his voice, Dr. King led nonviolent protests against segregation and in favor of racial pride. Dr. King remarks in his infamous I Have a Dream speech, “one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination (King, pg. 1423). This statement in Dr. King’s speech took me back to Benjamin Banneker, who bravely spoke out for the same, critical freedoms and rights as Dr. King 200 years earlier. “Call and Response” radiates an immense amount of history and calls for the reader to recognize the overwhelming amount of injustice implemented across generations of human beings. 

“Call and Response” has such a dynamic aesthetic as it includes a wide range of different works written by an immense variety of different people. It is comprised of poems, songs, plays, stories, essays, speeches, pamphlets, letters, journals and more. A piece of poetry I appreciated was Sunday Morning Prophecy by Langston Hughes, an respected writer of the 20th century. Hughes recalls an older man who powerfully concluded his sermon with the importance of attending church and beliving in God through both your high and your low moments. A gospel song I valued was Take My Hand, Precious Lord by Thomas Dorsey, who wrote this song after he tragically lost his wife and child from childbirth. This song along with the poem mentioned before both emphasize the importance and reassurance of maintaining faith through hardships. I focused on a short story, Spunk, written by Zora Hurston, a prominent African American female writer of the 1900s. While Spunk tells a story of adultery and vengeance, Hurston also emphasizes Black culture and language. I believe Hurston includes words such as “thass”, “figger”, and “skeered” in place of “that’s”, “figure”, and “scared” in order to reflect her pride and comfortability with this authentic dialogue between her characters. I also reflected on Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes as I found her consistent relationship with Mrs. Lincoln, the President’s wife. I found it absorbing yet disheartening that Keckley’s very much earned and deserved literary reputation also caused her to lose central friendships and endure poor memories. Keckley wrote, “I was awakened…with the startling intelligence that the entire Cabinet has been assassinated, and Mr. Lincoln shott, but not mortally wounded. When I heard the words I felt as if the blood had been frozen in my veins, and that my lungs must collapse for the want of air” (Keckley, pg. 505). I found that these short excerpts from Keckley’s memoir provided by “Call and Response” were chosen very carefully by the authors and editors. Although the anthology is packed with different texts and materials, each historical work serves a purpose and must be respected and analyzed critically by the reader. 

To say that “Call and Response” can be attributed to only a few different aesthetics is an understatement, as I feel that one cannot limit this book into only a few categories. However, the three aesthetics that I have chosen throughout this essay are what I signify as three of the main, broader aesthetics of the anthology. It is important to examine such complicated and informative books through both a physical and literary lens. This is why I found the extensive aesthetic along with the historical and dynamic aesthetics to be an agreeable blend of aesthetics within the text. I also found it extremely useful and essential to analyze “Call and Response” with a readiness to connect major movements, ideas, and cultural traditions.