AMHERST, Mass. – “The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches,” written by Bernard W. Bell and published by the University of Massachusetts Press, has been selected for an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation.
Bell, who earned his Ph.D. through the English Department in 1970, was also one of the founding faculty of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. He is currently an English professor at Pennsylvania State University.
He will formally receive the award on Sept. 4 during the Arts and Soul Festival in Oakland, Calif.
“The Contemporary African American Novel” builds upon Bell’s earlier work, “The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition,” a comprehensive interpretive history of more than 150 novels written by African Americans from 1853 to 1983. The 1987 book won the Distinguished Scholarship Award of the College Language Association and was reprinted five times.
The new volume serves as a sequel and companion to the first book, expanding the coverage to 2001. Bell also refines and extends his interpretive model for reading texts by African American writers, a model based on the vernacular forms of expression of his childhood, the literary theories of Ralph Ellison, and the writings on double-consciousness of W.E.B. Du Bois.
The book begins with a personal essay in which Bell traces the evolution of his thinking about sociohistorical and sociocultural approaches to literature. He goes on to apply these approaches to the work of hundreds of black novelists whose work has been published since 1853. His primary focus, however, is on some 40 novels and romances published between 1983 and 2001, including works by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Albert Murray, Gloria Naylor, Al Young, David Bradley, Leon Forrest and Charles Johnson, as well as the neo-Black Aesthetic novelists Nathaniel Mackey, Trey Ellis, Percival L. Everett and Colson Whitehead. Bell also examines the science fiction of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, the gay novels of E. Lynn Harris, Larry Duplechan and Randall Kenan, and the detective narratives of Barbara Neely and Walter Mosley.