Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Up until the mid 20th century only four Black literary artists from Delaware rose to any sort of notoriety. Most well known is Alice Dunbar-Nelson who, incidentally, had been one of J. Saunders Redding’s teachers when he was a student at Howard High School in Wilmington and one of those four literary artist to achieve notoriety. Another was Stanford Davis, who was an itinerant poet from the early 20th century in southern Delaware. Davis’ poem “The Voice of the Negro in America” was publicly praise by U.S. President William Howard Taft. Davis’ only book of poetry, Priceless Jewels, was published in 1911 by Knickerbocker Press. Another local poet, Helen Morgan Brooks from Wilmington published three books: From These My Years from 1945, Against Whatever Sky in 1955, and A Slat of Wood and Other Poems in 1976.
One reason J. Saunders Redding would have chaffed at being called a Black literary figure is because he saw that rising above labels was tantamount to his view of the role of Black literary artists in the larger American literary canon in particular, and as an integral part of America’s cultural identity in general. Nevertheless, his few works of literary fiction address the problem of being Black in America, a problem that has unfortunately become a big part of American culture.
J. Saunders Redding was part of an illustrious family. He was born in Wilmington on October 13, 1905. His older brother Louis B. Redding became a lawyer who was a litigant in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The younger brother sought a career in academia, becoming the first Black faculty member at Brown University specializing in literature.
Redding wrote one novel, Stranger and Alone (Harcourt, Brace 1950). In the novel Shelton Howden is a young man who was raised in an orphanage. He knows little more than that his father was white and that his mother was Black. The story begins with Shelton as a student, in the late 1920s, at New Hope College, one of any number of small Black colleges like Spelman or Tuskegee that dotted the southern United States. Its educational philosophy is patterned after Booker T. Washington’s ideas during a time when those ideas were being challenged by the writings and activities of W.E.B. duBois. In Redding’s novel Shelton Howden, in spite of his ambition, in spite of his denigration of the behavior on behalf of the effort to overcome the burden of racism within the Black community around him, can never escape. He grows bitter and more surly until he is lost in time that passes him by.
J. Saunders Redding would never consider himself part of the canon of Black or African American literature in the same way we may have considered Ann Petry, or Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Wright to be part of that canonical sub genre, even though Redding has done much to establish, enhance and maintain the efficacy of it. Redding, who died March 2, 1988, had lived long enough to see the changes in the status of Black Americans.
The great dilemma expressed throughout Redding’s writings, both in fiction and non-fiction, is to examine and extol Black Americans’ contribution to American culture through music, dance, fashion, art and the contribution and subtleties of Black vernacular in literature that depicts the larger American experience through a Black context. If one is to be honest and unbiased, one cannot separate one sector of American culture from another, or from the whole culture. All these perceived sectors are not separate but intimately interrelated. For this reason Redding was considered an “integrationist,” especially during periods in 20th century American history during episodes of Black nationalism, like the Marcus Garvey movement during the post World War I years when lynchings, even on the scale of destroying whole towns like Rosewood, Florida in 1923 and Greenwood, Oklahoma in 1920, had reached epidemic proportions; and then again during the Black Power, Black Panther, Malcolm X era of the 1960s. Redding felt that both, similar in necessity, served to assert, preserve, and maintain strides made from the contributions of Black artists of every discipline, especially during periods like the Harlem Renaissance and the amalgamating power of late 20th century American music.
Redding’s own life and struggles against a prevailing system designed to deprive him of opportunity is reflected in his autobiographical book from 1942 No Day of Triumph (Harper: New York), which includes his account of growing up on Wilmington’s east side, and carries the reader through his struggle to realize his dream of being an important and unique observer of the American scene. In his Preface to No Day of Triumph the American author Richard Wright, referring to the “Talented Tenth,” or the prevailing Black intelligentsia, wrote:
“For a long time this book cried out to be written. I predict that it will rock the Negro middle class back on its heels; I forecast that it will set the 'Talented Tenth' on fire with its anger; I prophesy that it will be as acid poured in the veins of the smug Negro teachers in Negro colleges. No Day of Triumph is a manifesto to the Negro and a challenge to America.”
In an earlier time, Redding may have been considered a member of “The Talented Tenth,” but times, as Wright predicted, have changed. As late as 1970, Redding acknowledged and recognized those changes, perhaps happening too slowly but surely. He advocated the assimilation of Black Studies into American Studies, recognizing the former’s relevance without serving to diminish the contribution of Black culture or the history of Black people in America. He attributed the contribution of academia in the effort, citing works like John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom and Benjamin Quarles’ The Negro in the Making of America, but he also cited more familiar literary works like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
In the forty-five or so years since 1970, progress in the formulation for an all inclusive vision of America has been sure, even though slowed by occasional set backs, and certainly too slow for many. For serving an early and pivotal role in this important advancement in American social and cultural history, J. Saunders Redding was among the giants.