That seminal 1937 essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing" by the father of modern black fiction, Richard Wright, had a very large influence on my conceptualization of Faith and the Good Thing, a novel in the form of a folk tale that is filled with folk tales, a few of which I adapted from Zen Buddhist stories. But as Ethelbert notes, with my next novel, Oxherding Tale, the "mini-stories" within that philosophical slave narrative are generally drawn from Hindu and Buddhist sources. As an American writer, my personal, philosophical, literary and artistic journey begins in the "ground" of the black American experience, expands to include the warp and woof of Western philosophy, then---as in the case of Jean Toomer--- adds to that the philosophical and religious traditions of the East. Writer Tony Ardizzone once told me, way back in the early '80s, that he saw me as a "transitional figure" in black American fiction. (Transition to what, he didn't say.) Perhaps there is some truth to that. I'll let the literary scholars decide. But let me shift gears for a second or two.
I must confess that the last part of Ethelbert's question makes me feel a tad uneasy. Educators, literary critics and the anthologies they use in their courses have always been fond of organizing literary art in ways that are, say, either thematic or historical. We could "begin," for instance, with slavery and slave narratives, and "end" with the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." But why not begin earlier with tribal life and folklore in African villages before the start of the trans-continental slave trade and end with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s? It all depends, I suppose, on whether one sees black American life and literature as unique to these shores or as part of an African Diaspora, which is the approach taken by the PBS series and its companion book, Africans in America. Personally, I generally tend toward the former way of framing this material, i.e., that there is a unique and distinctive black American experience, but I'll certainly break that mold if the demands of a particular story require that I do. These conceptualizations or ways of shaping the raw material of the "black" experience create a neat and manageable narrative, are heuristic, and help students get a temporary, provisional handle on a large body of complex, ambiguous and often contradictory information.
But let's return to Ethelbert's first question: