The Zora Canon: Essential Books By African American Women
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There's now a list of a hundred of the greatest books by African American women. Zora, Medium's online space for women of color, put the list together and called it The Zora Canon, named, of course, for the great author Zora Neale Hurston. The list includes 160 years of novels, plays, poetry, and it's considered to be the first of its kind.
Morgan Jerkins led the team who put the list together, and she joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome.
MORGAN JERKINS: Thank you so much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Black authors, in general, have been overlooked, of course. Why focus on women in particular for this list?
JERKINS: The reason why we focused on women in particular for this list is because the way in which artists are overlooked is not only compounded by race but also by gender. So black artists definitely do get overlooked, but black women artists, specifically, get overlooked to a bigger extent.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. In your introduction to the canon, you say you've never seen anything like this before, which is kind of really extraordinary to think about. Why do you think it's taken this long?
JERKINS: You know, the publishing industry is still predominately white. And oftentimes, black women's writing is treated as a trend. And so I think it's so important for lists like these to exist so that people really don't have an excuse to say, well, where are these writings? They're here. Black women have always been creating and producing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think it shows?
JERKINS: It - first, it shows the revolutionary spirit of African American women. I mean, we have a list that is spanning 160 years, which means that black - African American women have been writing longer than they have been free in this country. And when you think about those - that time period - you know, in 1859 when "Our Nig," for example, the first novel written and published by a African American woman - that was when it was dangerous to read and write if you were enslaved black person in this country. So it just shows the resistance. It shows the strength. Most importantly, it shows the resilience of black women and our artistry.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the list spans from 1859 - pre-emancipation, as you note - to 2019. Just describe a few of the works that you think were overlooked. And maybe let's go in chronological order, since that's how the list goes.
JERKINS: Yeah. I mean, we can think of in the 1920s, you - "There Is Confusion" by Jessie Fauset. She was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. And that is a story about how ambition and love can often be opponents to one another for these socially mobile African American people. Another is "Corregidora." That's going later in the decade - "Corregidora" by Gayl Jones. Her editor was actually Toni Morrison. And that was a story about how intergenerational trauma plays on African American women when a slave master - a white slave master - was the father of the protagonist's mother and grandmother.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there one of these books that really kind of touched you and made you sort of get in touch with something that, you know - that you hadn't before?
JERKINS: I mean, I think one of them, for example, was "The Red Record" by Ida B. Wells. She was a maverick in terms of journalistic efforts to be writing about lynching in the South and to be a black woman and to stay alive to be able to document that. And when I saw that on the list, I was like, I'm so glad someone put this on the list. And it definitely struck me because of the material, because of even how hard it is to write about a particular subject but to document it itself and just thinking about how - wondering if she was fearful when she published this at all or anything like that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you want people to use this list?
JERKINS: I want people to use this list as a guide or a talisman, if you will, to know that in every single decade from the late - well, the mid - mid-to-late 1800s till now, you have works to choose from. You have plays. You have anthologies. You have scholarly works. You have novels. You have essay collections. You have memoirs. You have coming-of-age stories. And so there is something there for anyone and everyone. And that's how - what I want people to see.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Morgan Jerkins of the online magazine Zora. Thank you very much.
JERKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.