Karla F.C. Holloway
BookMarks: Reading in Black and White
Thursday, Nov. 30, 7 p.m.
Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh
For Karla F.C. Holloway, the William Rand Kenan Jr. professor of English, law and women's studies at Duke University, the term "book report" is a verb—and describes a literary convention among 20th-century black authors who "book reported" in their autobiographical writings.
Everyone from the titans of African-American letters—including James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston—to more contemporary writers such as Henry Louis Gates and the late science fiction writer Octavia Butler peppered their memoirs with references to the books that influenced their thinking and art.
In BookMarks: Reading in Black and White (Rutgers University Press, $24.95), Holloway discusses the phenomenon she also calls "bookmarking": The ways in which black writers have developed these reading lists to signal that they were the epitome of "race men and women"—supremely literate, entrepreneurial and passionate about the race and its uplift—but also to make a public show, for disbelieving white eyes, of their mastery of the Anglo-American canon.
Time and time again, the 25 authors profiled in BookMarks cite the giants of English-language literature: Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Sir Walter Scott, the Romantic poets—but often list markedly fewer black authors or list them as apparent afterthoughts.
Langston Hughes peppered one of his autobiographies, The Big Sea, with an expansive list that included Paul Lawrence Dunbar (but only for childhood reading) and Guy de Maupassant, as well as German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Elsewhere, Winston-Salem writer Maya Angelou confessed that Shakespeare was her "first white love," claiming a familiarity that, with its overtone of interracial relationships, bordered on transgression.
"The personal just leaked into the book," says Holloway, who tells the stories of her encounters with the reading world—from the cozy window seat in the castlelike Buffalo, N.Y. library where she devoured all manner of tales as a young girl to the brief, illusory pleasure of sharing a good book with her son, Bem, who was incarcerated and shot to death in 1999 when trying to escape Odom Correctional Institution in Northampton County, N.C.
The Independent talked to Holloway about BookMarks and how race is never far in the background for black book consumers.
INDEPENDENT: After reading BookMarks, I was compelled to check out your theory about how black authors incorporate these lists into their autobiographical writings. I started pulling books off my shelves. The first book, Ralph Ellison's essay collection Shadow and Act, had lists everywhere, and so did almost all of the books I looked at. What was the moment that triggered your recognition of this phenomenon?
HOLLOWAY: It's everywhere. I did the exact thing you did. I had noticed it before, but the moment was when I was reading a Michael Eric Dyson essay in The New York Times Book Review. ["Between God and Gangsta Rap," in which the former UNC Chapel Hill professor included Martin Luther King, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Paul Sartre on his own list.]
My question after reading it was, "What was it designed to do for the author's representation of his reading and his interests?" It was more than just autobiography; it was marking himself as a certain type of reader and with particular intellectual interest that was inclusive of a black cultural background, but foregrounded in the piece were his professed interests in a white and European literature. It was so curiously written that anybody interested in books had to notice the design of the piece. So I followed that thread to see if it was just Dyson or a trend in black writers who wrote about their reading. I found the trend.
So are you questioning whether the authors did indeed read the books they reported, or are they editing based on the expectations of their audience?
I don't doubt they read these books. But it's like a film, you select the moments you want to list. Malcolm X's booklist [which included Gandhi, Herodotus and Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted's writings on slavery] was to say, "I'm going to be a great intellectual." And the way to be a great intellectual was to be in the European tradition. But he went wider. I expected people who were race men and women to be more like Pauli Murray [the one-time Durham resident who became the first black female Episcopal priest and co-founder of the National Organization for Women], who used the books to talk about her life. She was telling a story; the others were consciously constructing a list.
After integration, many black teachers and librarians were moved to white institutions, and segregated libraries [like Durham's Stanford Warren] were integrated, if in name only. How did that affect the black community's reading habits?
What we lost with integration was the intimacy between our education and the people who were professionally trained and culturally trained to care about us. Those teachers believed in us, and that is the most important part of a child's development. Today, teachers say, "If a child has no books at home, what can I do?" My question is, "What do we do to help our teachers understand what our children can do, rather than what they can't?"
One of the most interesting parts of BookMarks is the chapter in which you remind us of the Civil Rights movement's efforts to desegregate libraries across the South.
People forget that. It's a crucial moment when people in Louisiana and South Carolina [protested at libraries where they had no or little access]. You think about public space, and you don't think about libraries. People think the Civil Rights movement was about getting the bus or getting work. But people wanted access to libraries, and the people who wanted access to libraries were going to be leaders. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating schools, there was the other Brown decision—1966's Brown v. Louisiana [Quincy Brown, who was denied a book in a white library in Clinton, La., was not related to the Browns in the Kansas case] that gave people the right to stage peaceful protests in libraries. I wanted the reader to know we have had a stake in books since our literacy.
You believe that Oprah's now-defunct book club fits squarely in the bookmarking tradition.
Oprah said, "Guess what? We can read. And we can choose your books for you." She made the mark she wanted to make with "Oprah does the classics" and when she said her favorite books were by Steinbeck and Hemingway. I was at a conference in Aspen and someone asked Toni Morrison, "What does it feel like to be made famous by Oprah's Book Club?" She was very gracious and said, "Well, I did do some books before that."
What are you reading now?
I just finished Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores. But I'm reading Edward Jones' new book, All Aunt Hagar's Children; his prose is like poems. And I'm also reading the book by Judith Rossner that Marita Goldman mentioned in her list, Attachments.