For my family, reading was a unifying activity. My grandfather never missed a copy of The Baltimore Sun and my grandmother’s vanity was covered in books by Zora Neale Hurston, Cornel West, and Lorraine Hansberry. No one in my family holds a formal college degree, and yet our family still cultivated a love of literature and learning. These moments at home with my family shaped my world and showed me that reading was valuable. Even more than that, they showed me that reading Black writers and Black stories was worthwhile and beautiful.
My family history with reading and the broader historical landscape of Baltimore as the city that reads explains my deep love for Black literature and for books like Claudia Tate’s pivotal collection, Black Women Writers at Work. The collection, originally published in January 1983, was recently re-released by Haymarket Books on January 10, 2023. The book is a collection of transcribed conversations facilitated by Tate with some of the most well regarded writers in the Black literary canon.
Tate’s background as a scholar of African American literature and a critic shines in this collection as she crafts masterful questions that allow her collaborators to delve into their writing practices, personal lives, and the psychological aspects of being a Black writer. These questions are in line with larger recurring themes in Tate’s work. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a doctoral degree in English from Harvard University, her scholarly study focused on the Black literary tradition. She was fascinated by the works of Richard Wright, Gayl Jones, and Nella Larsen, alongside psychoanalysis. Tate goes on to extend these lines of thinking in her later monographs: Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (1992) and Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race (1998).
Black Women Writers at Work features conversations with 14 Black writers from across the bounds of literary form. Tate pulls together Black women playwrights, novels, poets, and essayists to compile one of the most textured collections in the 20th century. Writers like Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Morrison share space under one cover thanks to Tate’s editorial creativity. Black Women Writers at Work joins works like The Black Woman, Homegirls, and But Some of Us Are Brave as a landmark Black feminist text featuring the words of some of the most notable literary figures in the tradition. Tate, like her peers Barbara Smith and Toni Cade Bambara, leans into the strengths of collaborative, anthological texts as a means of offering audiences a survey of the period’s contemporary thinkers.
Some of my favorite conversations included in this collection are with Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Each of these writers is admired for their attention to detail, writing practice, and commitment to community. Bambara is famous for her debut novel The Salt Eaters and her work bringing attention to the Atlanta Child Murders of the 1980s. As a peer and friend, Bambara frequently confided in Morrison, who is known for her novels—such as The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Sula—and career as a professor at both Howard University and Princeton. Brooks is the elder poet who rounds out this trio and is the famous author of “We Real Cool”. This poem is Brooks’ most recognizable work and still captivates classrooms, living rooms, and individual readers today.
Bambara’s conversation with Tate is a lesson in considering the world around us as we situate ourselves within its contours. Throughout the collection, Tate inquires about the impact of gender on Black writers’ works. As Tate asks about how experiences of being “black and female” have constituted Bambara’s work, Bambara deepens the conversation by adding details about how her gendered experience connects to her political commitments. Bambara is masterful at connecting her individual experiences to a larger collective organizing effort by discussing how both these experiences of oppression, Blackness, and womanhood are impacted by her living as a Black nationalist. Bambara says, “I’m a nationalist; I’m a feminist, at least that.” This answer also aligns with Bambara’s literary work broadly. Beyond this conversation, Bambara frequently includes characters who are political organizers alongside scenes about community mobilization in her writing. The larger conversation between Bambara and Tate showcases the personal and political commitments that constitute the literary work. This conversation resists the insistence that writers — particularly Black writers deemed hypervisible — be neutral, objective, or universal to contribute worthwhile stories in the marketplace.
Like Bambara and Brooks, Morrison is concerned with the world that necessitates her work as she talks to Tate about Ohio, friendships, and the effect of Western notions on Black art. It’s not shocking that Morrison, who goes on to write Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination in 1992, is concerned with how Western notions of violence, race, and love have consequences for Black writing. On the contrary, it proves how resonant these ideas were in her mind even then (and likely long before). When Morrison tells Tate that “insensitive white people cannot deal with black writing,” she is not being reductive. She does not make this comment to say that racial identity is a matter-of-fact category that limits one’s ability to contextualize an artist’s work. Her statement is much more cutting than that. Morrison is calling the lie of Black inferiority into question and going on to situate white critics, and their criticisms, as one feature of a larger colonial project that cannot deal with Black writing because it has yet to deal with its own insufficient logic about Blackness. In that way, she declares that “the critic is too frightened or too uninformed to break new ground.”
These three conversations, and the 11 others I have not covered here, are important Black literary artifacts. Each offers important insight into the lives, methods, and commitments of writers whose works shifted genres and captivated audiences for decades.