In this reading project assigned by the CNF Journal i forgot that the selections were meant foremost to teach the reader how to be a better writer, which they certainly did. Another imperative was to “diversify the anthology,” and so i cant help but note the critical neglect of black women’s voices.
Let’s break it down: 3 white women, 4 black men, 3 white men. Somebody (not me) could put together a decadal canon of essays by black women in the last two centuries. Now the makeup of this all-black women canon would im guessing feature a lot of essays of a much more polemical nature than the CNF canon i read. The selection had a bias for pieces based on memoir and personal stories, perhaps because that’s where the $ is when it comes to the nonfiction market. Du Bois, James Baldwin and Richard Wright were represented by memoirs although if we included their political tracts as candidates, foundational texts for 20th century black radicalism and general anti-Capitalism as Robinson argued so effectively, it would bust the range of options so wide that i wouldn’t envy anyone who had to pick just one essay for one decade.
Maybe the angry and passionate writing from people like Ida B. Wells or bell hooks or Angela Davis would feel out-of-place along side the chosen pieces, which are very tempered in tone, sometimes as overt strategy like in MLK, Jr.’s “Letter.” But if black women bearing witness to their own life experiences, just as all the other authors in the canon are doing, comes off as “too political,” “too angry,” that isnt their problem.
Around the middle of this reading project i started bookmarking more pieces which might amount to my own attempt to expand the canon, beyond the established range of voices as well as the sub-genre of life writing. Part of the original web page’s project was to show that the essay is capable of reaching the same levels of sophistication and artistry as the other writing practices. This thrilling 1973 essay by Alice Walker, part memory and part literary journalism, shows that an essay can directly impact the literary culture.