Redding, J. Saunders 1906–1988
J. Saunders Redding 1906–1988
Professor, author, literary critic
Professor and author J. Saunders Redding was a pioneering critic in the field of African American literature. During his long academic career, he published ten books, ranging from literary criticism to fiction to memoir, as well as numerous essays. His best-known works include To Make a Poet Black (1939), a critical literary survey; No Day of Triumph (1942), an autobiographical book about the lives of African Americans in the South; and Stranger and Alone (1950), a novel.
Redding is believed to be the first African American faculty member to teach at an Ivy League university—Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He also taught at several colleges and universities in the South and the Northeast, where he helped to establish African American studies programs. “Both as an educator and as a writer, Redding has been an integral part of the two American worlds—the black and the white,” Arthur P. Davis wrote in From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960. Pancho Savery, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, described Redding as “Afro-American literature’s primary literary historian” as well as its “first great scholar-critic.” According to Savery, “Redding is not solely a pioneer in the field; decades after his initial critical statements were made, his work is still the standard by which others are measured.”
However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Redding came under fire by younger, more radical African American literary critics. He had approached the work of African American writers in the same way that he criticized literature from the Western tradition. Later critics advocated a “black aesthetic,” a special set of criteria to evaluate African American writing. One such critic, Amiri Baraka, was quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as saying that Redding’s views were “basically supportive of the oppression of the Afro-American nation and white chauvinism in general.”
Nonetheless, even critics who disagreed with Redding acknowledged his early contributions to the discipline. Darwin Turner called To Make a Poet Black “the best single volume of criticism by a black,” while Joan R. Sherman was quoted as saying in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Redding was “the dean of Afro-American literary critics.” According to Davis, writing in From the Dark Tower, “Redding…helped to prepare the ground for the black Renaissance of the sixties.”
Born Jay Saunders Redding, Oct. 13, 1906, Wilmington, DE; died March 2, 1988 in Ithaca, NY; son of Lewis Alfred and Mary Ann (Holmes) Redding; married Esther Elizabeth James, a teacher; children: Conway Holmes, and Lewis Alfred II. Education: Brown University, Ph.B., 1928, M.A., 1932; additional graduate work at Columbia University.
Career: Instructor in English, Morehouse College, 1928-31; instructor in English, Louisville Municipal College, 1934-36; head of English department, Southern University, 1936-38; professor, Hampton Institute, 1943-67; fellow in humanities, Duke University, 1964-65; director of the division of research and publications, National Endowment for theHumanities, 1966-69; professor of American history and civilization, George Washington University, 1969-70; Ernest I. White Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Humane Letters, Cornell University, 1970-75.
Selected awards: Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, 1939-40; Guggenheim Fellow, 1944-45, 1959-60; Mayflower Award for Distinguished Writing, 1944; honorary degrees from Brown University and Hobart College.
Member: American Society of African Culture (executive council), College English Association, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Pi Phi.
Redding was born in Wilmington, Delaware on October 13, 1906, the third of seven children. Both his mother, Mary Ann (Holmes) Redding, and his father, Lewis Alfred Redding, had graduated from Howard University. The Reddings lived in a middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood. His father supported the family by working at the postal service, as well as doing various odd jobs during vacations and after his regular work hours. In addition, he was secretary of the Wilmington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and founded the first YMCA for African Americans in Wilmington.
Redding recalled in No Day of Triumph that both of his parents struggled with inner conflicts about their race. His mother was “in rage and tears” when another African American family moved into the neighborhood. Meanwhile, his father was driven by an insatiable need to prove himself to his white neighbors and colleagues. “Surrounded by whites both at home and at work, he was driven by an intangible something, a merciless, argus-eyed spiritual enemy that stalked his every movement and lurked in every corner,” Redding wrote in No Day of Triumph.
As a young child, Redding was educated at home. He first attended school in the third grade. Redding later attended Howard High School which, until 1951, was the only high school in Delaware that would admit African Americans. In high school, he participated in drama, journalism, and basketball, and excelled at speech and debate.
During this time, Redding’s mother died. When he graduated from high school in 1923, at the age of 16, his father sent him to the predominantly African American Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In the Redding family, all of the children were expected to pursue higher degrees. “College education was preordained,” Redding wrote in his entry in Contemporary Authors. Unhappy at Lincoln, Redding transferred to Brown University at the end of his freshman year. Brown University was the alma mater of his older brother, Louis, who would later become Delaware’s first African American lawyer, and a powerful opponent of segregation.
As a student at Brown, Redding decided to major in English, and began his first attempts at writing for publication. “It was at college that I began to give serious attention to writing, not as a career but because I liked it; though heaven knows why, since even then the effort used to tear me apart,” he wrote in his entry in Contemporary Authors. He won several scholarships and prizes in public speaking, and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
After earning a degree from Brown in 1928, Redding joined the faculty of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, as an English instructor. The following year, he married Esther Elizabeth James, a teacher. However, he did not flourish at Morehouse. The administration considered him to be too radical, while he thought the college was much too conservative and pretentious. Redding was fired in 1931. He returned to Brown to pursue graduate work, supported by scholarships and his wife’s earnings. In 1932, he received a master’s degree in English and American literature. From 1932 to 1934, he did further graduate work at Columbia University in New York.
In 1934, Redding accepted a lecturer’s position at Louisville Municipal College in Louisville, Kentucky. The following year, his first son was born. In 1936, the Redding family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Redding served as chair of the English department at Southern University. During his time at Southern, he began working on his first book of literary criticism, which would become To Make a Poet Black.
In 1938 the family moved again, this time to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where Redding became the chair of the English department at the State Teachers College. The following year, Redding published To Make a Poet Black, a survey of African American literature from the 1700s through the Harlem Renaissance. “To Make a Poet Black is really a pioneer work in the field of Negro literature…,” Arthur P. Davis wrote in From the Dark Tower in 1974. “At the time it appeared, very few critics concerned themselves with Negro American literature.” In the book, Redding recognized African American literature as worthy of serious study, while at the same time criticizing most of it for what he considered to be its artistic shortcomings.
In 1941, Redding received a prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship to produce a book about African Americans in the South. To research the book, he traveled through the southern states, interviewing African Americans of all classes. The result was the autobiographical work No Day of Triumph, which received a Mayflower Award. Wallace Stegner, reviewing the book in a 1942 issue of the Atlantic, described No Day of Triumph as “an angry and honest and compassionate book…, perhaps the sanest and most eloquent study of the Negro American that has appeared.” “Most critics consider No Day of Triumph Redding’s best volume,” Arthur P. Davis wrote in From the Dark Tower, “A combination of autobiography and reportage, the work is a brilliant report on the condition of Southern Negroes in the year that it was planned and written.”
In 1943 Redding accepted a position at Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he would be based for more than 20 years. In 1944 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and took a leave from Hampton to begin writing his first novel, Stranger and Alone. The following year, Redding’s second son was born.
Redding continued to work on Stranger and Alone for two more years, after returning to his duties at Hampton. In 1949, on another leave from Hampton, he was a visiting full professor at his alma mater, Brown University. According to historian Henry Louis Gates, by teaching at Brown, Redding became the first African American faculty member of an Ivy League university. In 1950, Stranger and Alone was published. The novel told the story of Shelton Howden, the son of an African American mother and white father, who struggles to fit in to the white world. Although some critics faulted the book’s organization,Stranger and Alone earned praise for its emotional power. The following year, Redding published On Being Negro in America, another autobiographical work. In the book, “Redding expresses the attitude of most black intellectuals of America—their attitude toward integration, toward Communism as a way out, toward the ’deep sickness’ which they found in America…,” Arthur P. Davis wrote in From the Dark Tower. “As a writer I feel that my first obligation is to truth,” Redding remarked in Contemporary Authors. “Since life is tragically short, there is only so much truth one can experience and know about in the wholly personal and intimate way that is necessary to the writer…. Even the little truth that one can know is generally unpleasant, and insofar as I have told the truth in them, my books have not been pleasant.”
During the summer of 1952, Redding traveled to India at the request of the State Department. In India, he lectured about American life, and met with politicians, writers, intellectuals, and journalists. He later wrote about his experiences in the book An American in India, published in 1954.
In 1955, Redding accepted the position of Johnson Professor of Literature at Hampton Institute. Three years later, he published The Lonesome Road, which used the biographies of well-known African Americans to trace the transition from slavery to relative social equality. “He has a real talent for giving life and meaning to historic episodes,” Arthur P. Davis wrote in From the Dark Tower. “Moreover, he has insight into historic characters; he looks at them with the eye of a dramatist, and he brings them alive, emphasizing their peculiarities as well as their outstanding qualities.”
In 1959, Redding took another leave from Hampton, having won a second Guggenheim Fellowship. He took additional periods of leave from 1964 to 1965, when he was a fellow in humanities at Duke University in North Carolina, and from 1966 to 1967, when he served as director of the division of research and publications at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In 1967, Redding published The Negro, an analysis of the role of African Americans in American society. That same year, he resigned his position at Hampton, and continued to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Two years later, Redding was appointed professor of American history and civilization at George Washington University in Washington D.C.
In 1970, Redding became Ernest I. White Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University. In accepting this position, he became the first African American professor in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences. He also published the book Cavalcade, an anthology of African American literature, which he co-edited with A. P. Davis. Redding taught at Cornell for five years, and retired in 1975.
During the 1970s, Redding was a member of the Haver ford Group, an informal circle of influential African Americans, who met to discuss ways of discouraging racial segregation. The group included Robert C. Weaver, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; William Hastie, the first African American federal judge; psychologist Kenneth B. Clark; and historian John Hope Franklin. Redding and other members of the group also worked at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, where they helped to develop strategies for coping with racism.
Redding died of heart failure on March 2, 1988 at his home in Ithaca, New York. He was 81 years old. “Urbane, moderate, scholarly, Saunders Redding, as both writer and person, exemplifies the best of that middle-class background from which he comes and of the classical education which he received,” Arthur P. Davis wrote in From the Dark Tower in 1974. “For three decades his voice has been the voice of protest..but always the cultured voice of a well-educated and wise observer of the American racial scene.”
To Make a Poet Black, 1939.
No Day of Triumph, 1942.
Stranger and Alone, 1950.
They Came in Chains: Americans from Africa, 1950, revised 1973.
On Being Negro in America, 1951.
An American in India: A Personal Report on the Indian Dilemma and the Nature of Her Conflicts, 1954.
The Lonesome Road: The Story of the Negro’s Part in America, 1958.
The Negro, 1967.
Of Men and the Writing of Books, 1969.
Negro Writing and the Political Climate, 1970.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Gregory S. Jay, Gale Research, 1988.
From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, by Arthur P. Davis, Howard University Press, 1974.
New York Times, March 5, 1988.
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