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, 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.”(, 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.