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Racial Reconciliation in African American Literature Elusive, Harris Says at Lilly

Posted by William Nunnelley on 2011-10-22

Trudier Harris 1Racial reconciliation in African American literature is a reality still to be achieved, literature and folklore scholar Trudier Harris (at left) told the 21st annual conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts meeting at Samford University Saturday, Oct. 22.

            In a lecture entitled “The Terrible Pangs of Compromise: Racial Reconciliation in African American Literature,” Dr. Harris explored how relations between blacks and whites were portrayed in several works of literature during the 20th century.

            “Racial reconciliation presupposes a peacefulness that is hard to envision,” she told the group of about 200 educators from church-related universities around the nation.  “Reconciliation in History, Literature, and Music” is the conference theme.

            “The history of attempts at reaching across black and white racial lines in African American literary representation is a history of compromise that might sometimes—though rarely—approximate reconciliation,” said Harris, the author or editor of 23 books on Southern literature and the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English Emerita at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

            From Charles W. Chesnutt in the 1890s to Sherley Anne Williams and Ernest J. Gaines in the late 20th century, African American writers “explore the various situations in which blacks and whites encounter each other in ways that end more often in violence than they do in renewed understanding,” said Harris.

            “Occasionally, the violence can lead to renewed understanding, but not without substantial cost,” she said.  There are “glimpses of hope, but those glimpses come with a steep, steep price.”

            Harris examined Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and his short story “Fire and Cloud” (1938), Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) and her short story “The Necessary Knocking at the Door” (1971 collection) and Gaines’s short story, “The Sky is Gray" (1968).

            She finally settled on the Gaines story “as one of the more optimistic treatments of the possibility for racial reconciliation,” she said, noting that the two main characters, a black woman and white woman, reach “a peaceful co-existence.”

            While she is “still curious about the overall fate of racial reconciliation in African American literature,” Harris closed by saying the notion of “racial reconciliation for literary blacks and whites on American soil is a wish yet to be realized, a dream yet to be fulfilled.”

 

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