Reference Entry

Redding, J. Saunders

Gary Ashwill

in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature

Published in print January 2001 | ISBN: 9780195138832
Redding, J. Saunders

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Taught by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson at his Wilmington, Delaware, high school, J. Saunders Redding earned an advanced degree in English at Brown University (1932) and was a professor at various colleges and universities, including More-house, Hampton, and Cornell. In 1949, his stint as a visiting professor at Brown made him the first African American to hold a faculty position at an Ivy League university. He wrote many books and articles on African American culture and other topics, including To Make a Poet Black (1939), a landmark history of African American literature; No Day of Triumph (1942), an autobiographical account of a journey through southern black communities; and Stranger and Alone (1950), a novel, as well as several more general historical and sociological works. He also edited with Arthur P. Davis an important anthology, Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present (1971).Redding was an exponent of individual achievement as symbol and inspiration for all African Americans. He maintained the classical civil rights posture against segregation, thus opposing both black and white establishment interests in the 1930s and 1940s. Redding explicitly favored the “liberal” W. E. B. Du Bois over the “conservative” Booker T. Washington, and in fact lost his position at Morehouse (1931) because of his “radical” beliefs; yet he was later criticized by such 1960s black nationalists as Amiri Baraka for his opposition to cultural separatism and racial essentialism.Redding's best-known and most influential book is his first, To Make a Poet Black, one of the earliest important works of African American literary criticism. In this book, Redding works to establish a canon of African American literature, from Jupiter Hammon to Zora Neale Hurston, pointedly excluding writers he regards as less central to the tradition. He rejects earlier, simplistic notions of racial identity, such as Benjamin Brawley's theory of “Negro genius,” emphasizing instead what he calls “the pressure of the age,” or social and historical forces, in shaping the racial consciousness and literary careers of the writers he treats in his study.Redding's concern is with the historical development of a black aesthetic, and he evaluates poets and novelists according to their contribution to this development. African American literature, in his view, has always been politically involved, “literature either of purpose or necessity.” Necessity sometimes demands that the writer become a “propagandist,” a development Redding applauds if, as in the case of Du Bois, it is “inspired” by “righteous wrath” and a selfless desire to further the interests of African Americans. Du Bois, in Redding's view, possessed “the rarest gift of all,” the “power of setting forth the abstract concretely.”African American writers also contend with a split between black and white audiences: “Negro writers have been obliged to have two faces,” he writes. Sometimes the “white” becomes dominant, with artistically unhealthy consequences: Redding, for example, deplores the “cheerful, prideless humility” of certain nineteenth-century dialect poets, such as Daniel Webster Davis, who “wrote for a white audience in a way that he knew would please them.” Redding's novel, Stranger and Alone, dramatizes the psychological and moral costs of denying one's racial identity and allowing one's “white face” to predominate. Striving for individual success through rejection of one's people, the novel implies, amounts to a betrayal of oneself, as well as a futile striving against history, “the time on the clock of the world.” In No Day of Triumph, Redding begins with a chapter about his family, then records the results of a journey through African American communities in the South. He ultimately finds value in the lived experience of the community.A similar concern with the language and experiences of the people is evident in To Make a Poet Black, which covers the evolution of literary uses of the black vernacular, from James Edwin Campbell and Paul Lawrence Dunbar to James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. For Redding, the most important development in African American letters of the 1920s and 1930s was not necessarily the better-known, urban-centered writing of the Harlem Renaissance but rather writing, such as Johnson's God's Trombones (1927), that acknowledged its debt to folklore, spirituals, and sermons and preaching. The book concludes with a call for “a spiritual and physical return to the earth.” Aside from his contributions to the development of the African American canon, the lasting importance of Redding's work for black theory and criticism lies here, in his recognition and celebration of the importance of the black vernacular in literary and social history, and in his view of African American literature as a self-contained tradition.

Reference Entry.  771 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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