The novelist Ralph Ellison gave black writers a specific cultural charge. To wit, in Invisible Man: “Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, and record…We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture.” This has been quite the year for black literature, if not for black America. Says CNN writer Gene Seymour: “It has been a terrible year for race relations in America. It was a glorious year for African-American literature.”
Citing a poll, Seymour notes, only 34 percent of Americans think race relations are “good” or “fairly good.” Yet this has not stopped black writers from producing serious literature that intelligently and eloquently explains the black experience, or which carefully excavates the past for stories of heroism, resiliency, struggle, and clarity. Such an outpouring of “innovative, boundary-breaching fiction and non-fiction” rivals another politically contentious and artistically fecund period in American history—the 1960s and 70s, when the Black Arts Movement triumphed. From “Black is Beautiful” to “Black Lives Matter” black writers are “empowered to dream bigger than the rest of society.” Those writers, from National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates to poet Elizabeth Alexander, have given the country new, powerful, imperishable, wondrous words of poignancy and grace to lead America a step further to the promised land, and if not that, at least, to a more perfect Union.