Gerrit's journey into Black lit

Jeffrey Gerritt, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and editor of the Sharon Herald and New Castle News in Pennsylvania. 

Holding the course syllabus, I stared at the list of unfamiliar writers: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry

Entering my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin with a music major, I had just signed up for an African American literature class to fill an elective.

I wondered if I could cut it. Like many students in the 1980s, white or Black, I had encountered no Black writers in high school English. Like other working-class kids I knew, I had read no literature.

Although my father read newspapers religiously, he told me he had never read a book, having dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. I graduated with a C average, maintaining grades just good enough to stay on the football and track teams.

During my freshman year in college, I had to take remedial English. My grades improved, but I still had read nothing of note.

That changed the following summer, when working in a manufactured homes factory. I picked up a paperback entitled, “Crime and Punishment,” by 19th Century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I bought the book because I liked the title. Once I started reading the psychodrama, however, I could barely put it down. I never knew novels could be so real.

Back on campus that fall, I was ready to take the next step in my literary journey. With Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” in my book bag, I walked into my first class of African American Literature: 235.

About two-thirds of my classmates were Black; the rest were white. Intense debates ensued, often political. I lacked the intellectual confidence to participate. These kids seemed way too smart for me.

Instead, I slouched in the back, looking quite cool, or so I thought, in my Super Fly leather coat.

Despite my classroom reticence, I devoured the books; for every book on the syllabus, I read two or three more by the same author. Whether the raw edge of Ai Ogawa's poetry or the thundering Shakespearian eloquence of James Baldwin, the work of Black American writers conveyed unique insights with an intensity that moved me.

They understood white people, and white society, better than white people did themselves. They sought to transform society, not assimilate. “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house,” Baldwin asked in a 1963 essay.

I heard the blues in Langston Hughes’ poetry; plaintive spirituals in Jean Toomer’s surrealist novel, “Cane;” the furious syncopations of Free Jazz in Amiri Baraka’s prose; and the celebration of rural Southern vernacular in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their eyes were watching God.”

By the end of the semester, I was reading everything I could: Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, French Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, avant garde Irish writer James Joyce, and Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, among many others, became my guides and mentors.

I became interested in philosophy, which eventually became my major. My professor wrote encouraging, sometimes challenging, comments on my papers. His praise gave me a new way of looking at myself and what I could achieve.

I was still playing in a rock and blues band and preparing to become a jazz drummer, but I started to think about writing. I was a horrible writer but determined to get better. I still am today.

Like many wannabe creative writers, I wound up in journalism. In 17 years at the Detroit Free Press, and shorter stints at USA Today, The Blade in Toledo, the Green Bay Press-Gazette and the Palestine, Texas, Herald-Press, I never regretted the choice.

Journalism has taken me around the world, to a bunker in the Gaza Strip and remote mountain villages in Tanzania. It has put me in 50 state prisons and inside the White House. Most important, it’s allowed me to make a difference for people often forgotten.

In 1995, Amiri Baraka, a favorite from my college African American literature class, visited the Green Bay campus of the University of Wisconsin. As a reporter and editor for the Press-Gazette, I covered his press conference, arriving early with a duffel carrying a dozen of his books: poetry, plays, and short stories.

After the press conference, he signed them all. Then we talked for nearly 30 minutes, just us, until someone pulled him away.

I don’t remember if I thanked him for changing my life.

Jeffrey Gerritt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and the editor of The Sharon Herald and the New Castle News in Pennsylvania. Reach him at jgerritt@sharonherald.com.

Gerritt’s guide to the works of Black writers

From the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and into the 21st Century, Black writers have chronicled American life with piercing insight and verve. 

For Black History Month, I've compiled a list of 15 essential works. Like any list of greats, mine is subjective, idiosyncratic and flawed, omitting numerous essential writers, especially women. Nevertheless, it’s a start. In several cases, I recommended an additional companion book. 

1. Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin. Two essential collections by the writer who practically invented the art of the personal essay. No one has done it as well since. 

2. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940).  Bigger Thomas, an impoverished youth from Chicago, murders a white woman, setting the stage for one of the finest novels of the 20th Century.

3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937).  A soulful Southern love story, exploring race, sex, gender roles, and female sexuality in a way that hadn’t been done before.

4. Tales (1967) and The Dead Lecturer (1964) by Amiri Baraka. A collection of impressionistic stories and a book of poems showing the central figure of the Black Arts Movement at his best.

5. Invisible Man byRalph Ellison (1952). This single masterpiece catapults Ellison to the top tier of American writers in the 20th Century.

6. Beloved (1987)and Song of Solomon (1977) by Toni Morrison. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote 11 novels. These two are arguably her best.

7. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, this series of vignettes, many rooted in Southern folk culture, is poetic and surreal.

8. Cruelty by Ai (1973). Ai is indispensable for her raw power and uncompromising honesty. Her poetry inhabits a dystopian world of outcasts, women with crushed dreams, and violent men. 

9. Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry premiered on Broadway in 1959.  Her aspirational play takes its title from the famous poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes.

10. The Sellout byPaul Beatty (2015). A biting, outrageously satirical novel about racism in America that spares no sacred cows.

11. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1990). This collection spans a 40-year career that began in the 1920s. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was often called the people’s poet.

12. The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983.  It is the best known book by one of the nation’s most important writers.  

13. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by journalist Alex Haley (1965), and The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X byLes Payne (2020) A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Payne wrote the definitive biography of Malcolm X.  Like the autobiography, it is essential to understanding one of the greatest human rights leaders of the 20th Century.

14. Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, A Memoir (2019) by Daniel R. Day. From street hustler and dice wizard to Gucci god, Day spins an amazing true life story of tenacity and artistry.

15. Writing my Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor  (2017). Mass incarceration created a generation of black male writers who came out prison and told their stories as only they could. This is among the best. 

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