While the title of the latest issue of American Literary History, “What is Twenty-First-Century African American Literature?” is meant as a provocation to understand and define the key elements of a new literary period, there is an easier way to answer the question. Eighteen years into our new century key texts have already emerged as canonical. What is Twenty-First-Century African American Literature? Answers to this question, including those explored in our special issue, must grapple with texts like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Teju Cole’s Open City, Toni Morrison’s Love among a growing list of others.
Beyond the established canon it is important to consider the future of the genre. Though she does not appear in any of the essays collected here, Jesmyn Ward will surely be at the forefront of future discussions of Twenty-First-Century African American Literature. Last month she quietly won her second National Book award for Fiction for her third novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. I say “quietly” because although the news made book review headlines, the significance of this achievement was easily lost in the political tumult of the day. Ward is the first woman to receive the prestigious prize twice. And the first African American to do so as well. She now joins the ranks of two time winners like Saul Bellow and William Faulkner.
Ward’s fictional Bois Sauvage, the setting of all her novels, has garnered many comparisons to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County though Ward’s most powerful literary influence is Toni Morrison. Like Beloved, Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is a ghost story but where Morrison’s Sethe is haunted by the traumas of slavery, Ward’s characters are haunted by its legacy born through the criminal justice system and the multi-layered abuses of imprisonment. These weighty issues are captured through the journey of thirteen-year old Jojo to Parchman Farm prison to retrieve his white father. Leonie, Jojo’s drug addicted mother, orchestrates the trip as a desperate escape from her dying mother and her failures to nurture and protect her children.
Thirty years past Morrison’s neoslave masterpiece, Ward has crafted a novel of the neoslave experience. Sing, Unburied, Sing is emblematic of many of themes and ideas explored in our special issue. Terror infuses the text in casual encounters with law-enforcement; Richie, a ghost from Parchman prison embodies much of the black grotesquerie while Jojo and Ward alike refuse the trap of tragedy.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a book deeply invested in past histories, allowing us to re-read Morrison’s Beloved with new clarity. “This is not a story to pass on” that novel concludes. Ward’s characters, alive to the legacies of past traumas, both systemic and intimate, embody that story. They live in the paradox of Morrison’s declaration, both passing on a story of horror and injustice and yearning for something else.
Feature image credit: Books by Emily, Public Domain via Pexels.