BOOK INTRODUCTIONS

In an ongoing attempt to remain an integral part of the scholarly and cultural conversations that literature can evoke, throughout my career thus far, I have composed the introduction/foreword for several multi-authored reference works and edited collections provided below. Each chapter examines a vital text (or series of texts) in U.S. literature and/or African-American literature that has been vital to documenting the changing social, political, and racial landscape of the larger society. For the table of contents for each volume, click on the book cover; the file will open in a separate window.

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The Harlem Renaissance: The New Negro Intellectual

and the Poetry of the Socio-Political Imagination

published in Critical Insights: Harlem Renaissance (Grey House/Salem, 2015)

In his 1947 essay, “My Adventures as a Social Poet,” Langston Hughes, often described as the “Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance,” declares that “[s]ome of my earliest poems were social poems in that they were about people’s problems—whole groups of people’s problems—rather than my own personal difficulties” (9). Though the Harlem Renaissance is arguably more renowned for its fiction, the poetry, in this sense, is perhaps the most important, speaking to the diverse range of real world social and political issues that contributed to the racial wasteland of the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century. Tied to the era’s black liberation struggle, these poems of the political imagination challenged the racial hierarchy and the limited opportunities for social mobility provided to a growing population of Blacks. At the same time, these works called attention to the history of lynching and racial violence nationwide. In offering a much different perspective on the nation’s increasingly hostile racial climate than cemented in the minds of many citizens of the U.S. by Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) and the heavily skewed media accounts, such poems exposed the stereotypes of the brute and sexually deviant Black figure, in turn highlighting the history of lynching as well as the miscarriage of justice of which many were simply ignorant or willfully unaware.

In honing in on the poetry of the era, we can then begin to highlight the socio-political project proposed by the Harlem literary intelligentsia—those same souls that “have been put out of or barred from quite a number of places, all because of [their] poetry—not the roses and moonlight poems (which [they] write, too) but because of poems about poverty, oppression, and segregation” (Hughes, “My Adventures” 11) that threatened the existing racial order as well as the one-sided propaganda—an issue with which Du Bois is disturbed—that kept that racial order in place. From Langston Hughes to Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen to Claude McKay, these poets evoked the spirit of a tumultuous but also celebratory age, providing necessary insight not always into the New Negro the progenitors of the movement attempted to create but rather into the everyday Negro fighting against an oppressive U.S. culture while celebrating his unique dark-skinned self. This introduction examines the interplay of social forces in the 1900s and the artistic responses through which Hughes, Brown, Cullen, and McKay—just a mere sampling of a much larger poetic tradition—unveil their central critiques.

"To Be Both a Negro and an American, Without Being Cursed and Spit Upon": The Ideological Legacy of The Souls of Black Folk

published in The Souls of Black Folk (Fall River Press, 2016)

Of the leaders of the early twentieth century, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was perhaps the pre-eminent Black intellectual at a time when Black and intellectual were still considered diametrically opposed. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868, Du Bois attended Harvard University in pursuit of a doctoral degree in sociology, ultimately becoming the first African American to ever receive a Ph.D. from the predominantly white university. A historian and sociologist by training and inclination, Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro in 1899 before beginning work on what writers and critics alike consider his most seminal work—a 1903 collection of fourteen essays entitled, The Souls of Black Folk

In this landmark work, Du Bois probed the psycho-social and philosophical dimensions of the American race problem—often referred to as “the Negro problem” in the cultural conversation of the time—that indelibly shaped the social and political landscape of the United States. From its opening words, Du Bois asserted that “[h]erein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” Since then, students and scholars alike in the humanities and the social sciences have continued to read this work, eager to examine Du Bois’ notion of “the color-line” and what it means to be Black in a society built on ideals of equality wherein the African-American people have too long been considered part of an inferior race. This introduction therefore examines the ideological legacy of Du Bois' most celebrated work, tracing its the key ideas that Du Bois puts forth about the race problem in the United States as well as the impact his ideas have had on contemporary scholarship and American life.

To purchase this edition, please visit https://www2.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-souls-of-black-folk-w-e-b-du-bois/1116629258?ean=9781435164161#/.

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"Caught in an Inescapable Network of Mutuality": The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in American Civil Rights Literature

published in Critical Insights: Civil Rights Literature, Past and Present (Grey House/Salem, 2017)

From the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the struggle for independence from British monarchial oppression to the ongoing tension amidst an ever-evolving Black Lives Matter socio-political campaign (2013-present), the people of the United States have been embroiled in a continual fight for civil rights that has ravaged the nation, leaving millions battered from the battlefield to city streets, all in pursuit of the core values that comprise the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. During this journey, the blood of slaves and soldiers ran red like rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins” (Hughes 23), slaking the thirst of growing lands we now know as the United States. Leaders of the emerging women’s rights movement, from Susan B. Anthony to Lucretia Mott to Julia Ward Howe, tackled headfirst the U.S. patriarchal system that effectively relegated women to second class status, denying them the right to vote, to own property outside of marriage, and to make decisions about their own bodies, among a number of other issues (pay inequity, domestic violence, etc.) that are still quite prevalent in the twenty-first century. Discontent with the pervasive racial hierarchy and the notions of white supremacy that limited opportunity for Black men and women, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Medgar Evers, and others marched, too, “present[ing their] very bodies as a means of laying [their] case before the conscience of the local and national community” (King 291). Meanwhile San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk stood alongside gay and lesbian activists at a time of rampant homophobia and institutionalized prejudice against the LGBTQIA community, rallying against a culture that sought to render them invisible. 
 

As we see in these examples, U.S. history is largely defined by a consistent fight against the forces of oppression that disparaged difference, engaging in that dangerous practice of cultural Othering and widespread discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ability. This history is evident in the sting of the whip—that tradition of chattel slavery that literally denied the nation’s Blacks their freedom and humanity. It is evident from Stonewall Inn in Manhattan to the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, where gunman Omar Mateen shot and killed dozens of gay and lesbian residents in 2016, continuing a trend of violence against LGBTQ bodies. And it is evident in the rise of hate crimes against people of Middle Eastern descent post-9/11, such as the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Mesa, Arizona, attacked by Frank Silva Roque—just one in a long line of bigoted men and women enacting violence against “towelheads” (qtd in Lewin) in a society that even today ostracizes non-white individuals. Most importantly, however, it is evident in the literature left behind by writers and activists alike, who recorded not only the history of violence and discrimination faced by minority peoples but also the individual and group efforts to combat that oppression. This introduction therefore examines the ways in which such authors assert the value of marginalized communities, leaving us an important lesson as we continue this fight into the twenty-first century: we must speak up in order to rise.

edited by Christopher Varlack

edited by Christopher Varlack

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"I will have my voice . . . 
I will overcome the tradition of silence."

—Gloria Anzaldúa

"There is no greater agony 
than bearing an untold story inside you."

—Maya Angelou

Contact Dr. Varlack directly via E-mail at cavarlack@gmail.com for inquiries regarding speaking engagements and more.