BOOKS: Where all the ghetto infamy is coming from

I Was Born A Slave Vols I & II - An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives edited by Charles Johnson & Yuval Taylor Payback pounds 17.99 each

The subtitle of these two hefty volumes says it all: The Library of Black America. In many ways we're dealing with a collection of books within a book. Both volumes weigh in at 800-odd pages but the length of the individual items makes it by no means a handicap to potential readers.

These two anthologies contain texts that read as life stories, self-contained testimonies of events whose documentation is crucial to contemporary American, not just black American, literature. The intense, white-hot emotion of the writing is such that some of the pieces really need time to be fully absorbed but are worth persevering with nevertheless.

Originally available in pamphlet form between the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, the assembled pieces in I Was Born A Slave are striking for their stylistic and thematic diversity; there are accounts of inhumane hardship, thrilling escape and hard-hitting humour. The full gamut of emotions is covered by authors whose tone varies from the indignant to the defiant, the grotesque to the inspirational.

Anyone conversant with slave narratives will recognise the names of William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano. Their historical texts form the bedrock of the first edition and are full of passion and insight - the authors have a distinct sense of the historical weight of their experience, detailing events and their ramifications with great socio-political insight. Equiano tellingly calls his work "The Interesting Narrative Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa The African". This assertion of a non-European ancestry is a remarkably prescient initiative in relation to the identity struggle of subsequent generations of African- Americans.

The second volume centres more or less on the theme of resistance and has several accounts dealing explicitly with escape. I just wonder whether editors Johnson and Taylor might have mixed in some of the subject matter of Volume I to add some light and shade. That might be why the writing of Harriet Jacobs is the highlight of Volume II.

The only female writer in the anthology is remarkable not only for her stylistic verve but also for her tremendously moving and comprehensive panorama of the slave experience. From the shockingly cruel spectacle of New Year's Day (when slaves waited fearfully to see whether they would be hired again for the following year) to touching observations on the extremely complex master-slave relationship, her text is illuminating.

The opening line of "Incidents In The Life of A Slave Girl" reads, "I was born a slave but never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away". It reminds me of black British singer Labi Sifre's revelation that he didn't realise he was black until long after he realised he was gay.

What we have in this well-stocked library is really the birth of African- American writing; the slave narrative, as critics such as James M McPherson point out, is really the foundation upon which all modern black American literature stands. Its continued impact can be felt not just in the direct use of the form by contemporary authors such as Charles Johnson (in the excellent Oxherding Tale) but also in the searing monologues of Nineties hip-hop artists such as Ice Cube. If you want to know where all the ghetto infamy is really coming from, then buy these books now.

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