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Exploring the African American Journey: A New Black Narrative

The African American story is adding a new chapter. Conventional black narratives, that begin in Africa and thrive in America, have long been full of tales of woe: slavery, constraint, a limited ability to move freely in the world.But they are so much more than that, as a Virginia Tech Literature professor points out in her new book.

“I grew up, black and Catholic in a very Southern, very Protestant area. We were one of two black Catholic families who were in the area at the local mission church that was in my community at that time.”

Her mother was the high school librarian and her dad, the second African American extension worker in northern Florida’s Hamilton county. And she would sometimes accompany him on his travels.

So, she heard stories and learned how to read between the lines. At an early age she came to know that the stories of black life, and that, “the experiences of African Americans, of black people, not just in my small community, but across the globe, were varied. And the perceptions that I was encountering, as a graduate student, and later as a professor, and often amongst my students, who presumed certain things about the black narrative and the black story.”

Like that it was too often, limited to clichés, like the classic tale of the run-away slave.

“When we typically think about travelers in African American literuature, we think about the fugitive,  running from slavery, from bondage” is a familiar trope. “Or we think about the migrant, particularly in terms of the great migration. And these are critical moments in African American experience. And they are critical moments in the formation of, of African American narratives.”  But black writers have been breaking out of that narrative, striking out on their own, reading the room and watching American culture and its literature, evolve.

Chandler-Smith’s new book is called The Wanderer in African American Literature.

“The power of wandering is the ability to move yourself, even when movement is physically denied to you, doesn't mean you can't move imaginatively, creatively.”

And this opens the door to a treasure trove of narratives that puts a new perspective on culture and the meaning of ‘difference’ in society. 

“When we encounter ‘difference,’ you know, to see a man sleeping in his car, and for someone to automatically presume that that person is a threat, even though they're not posing any physical threat, not exerting any physical harm, has a lot to do with how they perceive the story.”

And that got her to thinking about what she calls, “The problems of ‘story,’ the presuppositions about being and identity around blackness, that caused these kinds of moments of violence, of racism, of death, of all the things of which I think the nation is starting to grapple with now and having to really take a good look at itself and a seeing reflected back on itself.”

That reflection is coming from more perspectives, more cameras, more marches.

“You know, the debate about all lives matter versus black lives matter, the difficulty, you see people who want to assert that position, obviously surely all lives matter, but as, as the statement goes, right, all lives can't matter until black lives matter. And if you only see black lives through one dimension or through one means that you don't give space or room for different understandings.

The figure of the wanderer is that of a person apart, above or beyond. In her book Chandler Smith examines these issues in books like “The Outsider” by Richard Right, the autobiography of Poet Langston Hughes called, “ I Wonder as I Wander,” James Baldwin and John Edgar Wideman exploring ideas about identity and escape occupying spaces, holding their ground, chanting the new narrative.

“I think there are a lot of people who are out here in the streets who never would have seen themselves maybe even two months ago, being in the midst of these protests, being engaged in this way, not just physically in the act of marching, but also being engaged intellectually, personally, spiritually. People who are in this moment in a way in which they hadn't got to themselves being there before.”

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.