Call & Response : A Cultural Nationalist Approach

As I first began thinking about African American traditions, I instantly began to think about cultural traditions and values. Perhaps I was right and wrong to an extent. I was right to think that traditions involve cultural values, but I was wrong to think that that was all the word ‘tradition’ had to offer. When looking back at the governing aesthetics of Call and Response, the editors state that it is a Black Aesthetic. I was intrigued and wanted to know and learn more. Upon further research, I determined that the editors note, which states its aesthetic is a “call” to the reason why they’ve put together this book (a response). I came to the conclusion that the editor’s note is a cultural nationalist one. 

There are three distinct motifs that the editors wanted to ensure the reader understands about this book, the first is the antiphonal pattern, the “Theme of the journey of African American people toward freedom, justice, and social equality.”(Hill, xxxiii), and the overall call and response pattern that this book follows.

The term cultural nationalism as found on Encylopedia.com, defines it as referencing “to movements of group allegiance based on a shared heritage as in language, history, literature, songs, religion, ideology, symbols, land, or monuments. Cultural nationalists emphasize heritage or culture, rather than race or ethnicity or institutions of statehood.”(Encyclopedia.com, 2022). When I said I was wrong “to an extent” this is why. I didn’t take into account that any traditions shared could be even more reason for a group of people to want to share with the larger community. This definition relates back to the editors note when they state “It is the first comprehensive anthology of literature by African Americans presented according to the Black Aesthetic, a criteria for black art developed by Americans of African descent”(Hill, xxxiii). I feel that it is important to acknowledge that the first call in relation to this book is because the editors felt as though there was not a book already existing or established that tells the whole truth and story of various African American authors, writers, and artists. While putting together this anthology, there are over 150 authors (major and minor) and of these 150+, about 70+ are female writers (which is less than half). However, the women that are mentioned include Elizabeth Keckley, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, and Harriet A. Jacobs. Now that there is an anthology out there that shares the stories of African American authors, from a cultural nationalist perspective, there is so much more room to learn and expand our ways of learning.

In class we learned about an African American author, Elsa Barkley Brown and read “African American Quilting”. Brown’s anthology helps explain that there is a large majority of people who simply don’t understand the importance of African American culture and in an attempt to connect with the audience, she compares quilts. “In other words, the symmetry in African-American quilts does not come from the uniformity as it does in Euro-American quilts; rather, the symmetry comes through the diversity” (Brown, 924). Brown is taking a cultural nationalist approach towards teaching African American women’s history. In the beginning of her writing she starts off with stating how the most centralized problem in trying to teach or write about “non-white, non-middle class, non-Western persons is how to center our work, our teaching, in the lives of the people about whom we are teaching and writing” and later states “in my own teaching… [I] address both the conscious level, through the material, and the unconscious level, through the very structure of the course, thus, perhaps, allowing my students, in Bettina Aptheker’s words, to “pivot the center,” to center in another experience”(Brown, 921). Brown continues to connect to her audience by sharing experiences, cultural traditions, and history. These are all things that a cultural nationalist does in their approach towards educating a specific set of individuals or persons in order to fully have them be able to comprehend the full experience. 

Another instance in which the editors note demonstrates taking a cultural nationalist approach towards educating their target audience, states, “Unlike other literature anthologies, Call and Response unfolds the historical development of the oral tradition simultaneously with the written literature” (Hill, xxxiii). This is important to note because oral tradition is a distinct tradition within African American literature. Not only does Call and Response utilize this tradition in their work, in fact one of the motifs mentioned in the editors note mentions the antiphonal pattern. Upon researching, for a better understanding of this definition I found that it is “a collection of antiphons, hymns, or psalms sung in alternating parts” (Dictionary, 2022). The book includes a lyric, song, or other musical pieces before diving into the story they’re about to tell as the response. The oral tradition has been used in song, and text to tell the stories of African Americans throughout history. A lot of songs that we know as freedom songs were sung while many were still enslaved. Cultural heritage is kept alive beyond slavery through song, sermon, and other spoken written forms. Another artist that kept the culture alive through oral tradition and also taking a cultural nationalist approach in how they carried themselves was Bernice Johnson Reagon. Reagon reiterates in “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” how critical it is to acknowledge that there is often an ideal image for African Americans to portray in the larger society, but to also find a way to balance their own understanding of their culture and values beyond the greater scope. She further emphasizes that the experience of African Americans is to straddle. She states “We are born in one place, and we are sent to achieve in the larger culture, and in order to survive we work out a way to be who we are in both places or all places we move” (Reagon, 114). Reagon is trying to point out what must feel so obvious to African Americans, but took the time to explain why we can’t simply just celebrate those who speak up, such as Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes. Of course they appear as heroes, but in fact it’s every single African American man and woman who are brave enough to speak up about their experiences. And when they all come together such as the authors and editors of this book, Call and Response; they demonstrate how a cultural nationalist perspective can shape thinking altogether.

It’s quite incredible how it took so long for something as well put together as Call and Response, an anthology of the Black aesthetic.  There are so many great artists, writers and contributors to this book that can finally share their true, authentic stories. The stories that were undermined by others trying to learn and understand their culture in good faith, but ended up studying research conducted by white people who hadn’t had any of those experiences. The cultural nationalist approach truly allows for the editors to ensure that they’re educating in the ways that will benefit the larger community/society. The underlying aesthetic is meant to guide us with stories of those who simply lived through their experiences. The way this book is set up allows for the larger community/society to indulge in the beliefs, values, and pride that African Americans have and to continue hearing their voices and stories that will be shared throughout history.

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.