Q. C.L.R. James saw Richard Wright's Native Son as not just a major literary achievement but also an epochal moment in American cultural history. During your lifetime have you seen any book by an African American author having a similar significance? Are there any texts that can be viewed as "events' in history?
James’s long-standing friendships with Richard Wright and Paul Robeson are evidence of his ability to sustain lasting and productive relationships with people whose ideology ran counter to his own. James and his wife were good friends to the Wrights and James was a central figure in the group of intellectuals Wright was gathering for a publishing project that fell apart due to lack of financial support shortly before Wright’s departure for France.
During the time I was studying with James there was one cultural phenomenon in particular that James saw as similar to Native Son as a signal moment in American history, and that was the Roots miniseries. Neither James nor I had much admiration for Alex Haley. I had always been deeply suspicious of Haley’s “finishing” of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Haley’s many appearances on television and in print interviews while working on Roots had led me along with many others to believe he was undertaking a project of history. My many suspicions about Haley were compounded by the testimony and settlement around his borrowings from Harold Courlander’s not very good novel. I always believed Haley’d borrowed illegitimately from Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and that she might have prevailed if she’d had a better lawyer.
The problems with the book were if anything magnified by the television series, but that didn’t particularly bother James. What was of interest to him, and I think he was right about this, was parallel to what he had seen with the publishing success of Native Son. Whatever the works’ failings, the fact was that as the Roots miniseries unfolded, millions of Americans were avidly tuning in to this story of Africans in the New World and their legacies for our present.
There may be other instances since then, but the one literary work I can think of in immediate response to your question is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I will always believe Song of Solomon to be the greater work, though I much admire Beloved, and my considerations of the book’s reception will always be affected by the open politicking for a PRIZE for Morrison (which lobbying effort I don’t think she had anything to do with). Still, Beloved became canonical almost instantly, something to be enfolded by syllabi everywhere. The book is even taught in high schools, though I have to believe the teachers are either skipping over a couple of passages or just don’t quite grasp what is being described therein. It’s hard for me to think of a book since Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that has had such a wide effect in American general culture. On a list of books that would include Sinclair’s The Jungle and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Beloved rapidly became a touchstone. I know that James would have been fascinated and moved by the reception of this book, which appeared shortly before his death. James had always been an enthusiastic supporter of Morrison. His late essay “Three Black Women Writers” was about Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. I still remember the day when several of us were in a café on Capitol Hill following a talk James had given on his book Beyond a Boundary. I was having a conversation with the person next to me at the table who happened to mention Sula. James’s eyes lit up the way I had seen so many times, as he said, “Did I hear someone mention Sula? That is a remarkable book.” An entire generation since has come of age reading Beloved, a generation that has mostly not read or seen Roots. (Though I note that the name of Kunta Kinte has lived on in the culture, even among those who have never read of him.)
Another book we might see as having had similar historical import is President Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, and I suspect we could make the case that a generation raised reading Beloved was in some ways a generation not only prepared to read Obama’s book, but a generation ready to vote for America’s first Black President. (And yes, you can ignore what Morrison had to say about Bill Clinton in that regard.)