For a work to be considered African American literature, does it need to focus on African American characters? Or is it enough for the author to be identified as African American? Jarrett traces the shifting definitions of African American literature and the authors who wrote beyond those boundaries at the cost of critical dismissal or obscurity.
2006 | 232 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Problem of African American Literature
1. Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed
2. We Must Write Like the White Men
3. The Conventional Blindness of the Caucasian Eye
4. The Impress of Nationality Rather than Race
5. A Negro Peoples' Movement in Writing
6. The Race Problem Was Not a Theme for Me
The Problem of African American Literature
"What is African American literature?" People tend to call literary texts African American or "black" whenever they feature African American main characters alongside certain historical themes, cultural geographies, political discourses, or subjectivities defined by "race." Black literary texts are "authentic" when their authors identify themselves or are identified by others as African American. This current definition has determined the way authors think about and write African American literature, the way publishers classify and distribute it, the way bookstores receive and sell it, the way libraries catalogue and shelve it, the way readers locate and retrieve it, the way teachers, scholars, and anthologists use it, the way students learn from it—in short, the way we know it.
The implication that African American literature must be written by and about African Americans neglects the history of African Americans interested in reading and writing literature not "about themselves." Lately, thinkers ranging from Nobel Laureates to scholars have addressed this issue, and suggested that African American literature is a problem. It requires intellectual debate on how literary portrayals or representations of "the race" have factored not only into the creative decisions and goals of African American authors but also into the expectations and experiences of readers.
Ever since the late nineteenth century, the problem of African American literature has divided the American literati into two groups of extreme ideological disagreement. In the first group, de facto "deans" of literary movements wielded enough authority to dictate the critical and commercial conditions for African American literature. William Howells in the 1890s, Alain Locke in the 1920s, Richard Wright in the 1930s and 1940s, and Amiri Baraka in the 1960s and 1970s arbitrated public expectations that African American authors should write authentic literature demonstrating racial realism, which supposedly portrays the black race in accurate or truthful ways. Howells's minstrel realism, Locke's New Negro modernism, Wright's New Negro radicalism, and Baraka's so-called Black Aesthetic shackled the creative decisions and objectives of many African American authors to "the chain of reality," as Walter Moseley once put it.
Such demands for racial realism perpetuated the discrepancy between what the public expected of African American literature and what African American authors intended to write or actually wrote. Frustrated by this discrepancy, certain African American authors tried to break the "chain of reality" by writing anomalous fiction that resisted and sometimes critiqued the conventional restriction of authentic African American literature to racial realism. By featuring main characters that were racially white, neutral, or ambiguous, and by employing genres that disrupted the mutual dependence of racial and realist ideologies, this literature undermined the principles and principals of African American literary schools. Playing truant from these schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar adopted literary naturalism, George S. Schuyler wrote science fiction, Frank Yerby embraced historical romance, and Toni Morrison incorporated postmodernism to unsettle the models of racial realism respectively sanctioned or deemed acceptable by Howells, Locke, Wright, and Baraka.
In examining the differences between traditional and anomalous paradigms of African American literature, I am not calling for the end of African American literature as a category and institution, as problematic as it may have been and continues to be. Nor am I necessarily arguing for the inclusion of anomalous texts in the canon, or the "greatest works," of African American literature, though this book could possibly begin that process. Nor am I proposing, therefore, yet another subjective set of aesthetic and racial-political standards in the name of African American canon re-formation or literary tradition rebuilding. Rather, I hope to explain why, at certain discrete but interconnected moments in history, people tended to judge a book by its author's skin color. I plan to show how such judgments hinged on presumptions about authenticity and racial realism. Lastly, I intend to illuminate the longstanding consequences of classifying, interpreting, politicizing, and assessing the aesthetic value of African American literature based on these presumptions.
Judging a Book by its Author's Skin Color
What does it mean, really, to judge a book by its author's skin color? Is doing so as problematic—if shallow—as judging a book by its cover? Ward Connerly thinks so. In "Where 'Separate but Equal' Still Rules" (2000), the chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute complains that books he and other African American authors have written are being "racially profiled": "The shelving of their books in a special section [called 'African-American Interest'] deprives black authors or 'race' authors of significant sales opportunities, putting them at a competitive disadvantage compared with authors whose books are not ghettoized. But the economic harm pales in contrast to the intellectual and cultural damage caused by the bookstores' version of racial profiling. They have fallen into the trap of thinking that a writer's skin color is a reliable guide to judging the contents of his or her books." My quoting of Connerly at length does not intend to endorse his related legal and political mission to enforce color-blind policies in American education and other institutions of society and culture. Nor does my reference to him at the outset of this book mean that I associate or agree with his political views, which rejects the racial classifications and race-based value judgments central to "affirmative action." Rather, his critique of bookstores provides a succinct and practical example of the problem with presumptuous human and cultural identification.
By the end of this book, it should become clear-and ironic-that we can talk about something that Connerly and Toni Morrison, one of the most celebrated authors of African American literature and spokespersons on the distinctiveness of African American culture, have in common: they desire a cultural world in which race no longer matters. But it should also become clear and more predictable that their common desire diverges into two political directions. Whereas Morrison would agree with Connerly's indictment of racial profiling in bookstores, she would pardon such profiling as part of their historical, political, and sophisticated obligation to preserve and appreciate African American culture. By contrast, Connerly has implied, more irascibly, that the profiling is nothing more than a modern-day superficial demonstration of liberal political correctness.
Though closer to Morrison than to Connerly on this point, I must honestly concede—as many scholars probably would—that the mode of identification of which he speaks is a significant problem. The tendency of bookstores to catalog and shelve a book according to an author's phenotype—among other biological traits supposedly constitutive of racial identity—has frustrated countless African American authors, past and present. These authors have dealt with a cultural market of publishers, editors, and general readers presuming what their texts say or mean, or dictating what the texts should say or mean, on the sole basis of the paratexts. By "paratext," I am referring to Gérard Genette's notion that certain exterior illustrative and linguistic codes "enable a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public." Discrepancies can form between a book's taxonomic label in a bookstore, library, etc., and the author's own identification of the book and its locus of associations, such as his or her identity. Such are the pitfalls of American culture's preoccupation with the authenticity of African American literature.
Turning to a 1996 debate between Katya Gibel Azoulay and Kwame Anthony Appiah begins a more sophisticated discussion of the above taxonomic discrepancy, or "gap." Azoulay examines the "subtext" of Appiah's In My Father's House (1993), in which Appiah "dismisses the validity and viability of any notion of communities of meaning that are based on race-this he views as merely biologizing ideology." Azoulay believes that Appiah fails to account adequately for the problems of identification, including the maintenance of racism and hierarchies of power: "to institute an identity is to assign a social essence (whether a title or a stigma), to impose a name and to impose a right to be as well as an obligation to be so. [ . . . ] There is thus a healthy tension between resisting the imposition of an imaginary identity (including race) and the linguistic limitations within which we can choose to rename ourselves." In response, Appiah acknowledges the perspicacity of Azoulay's critique and follows up with his own description of the "theoretical gap" in racial identification. "If we follow the badge of color," he writes, "we are thus tracing the history not only of a signifier, a label, but also a history of its effects." He goes on to say that "[b]ecause the ascription of racial identities-the process of applying the label to people, including ourselves-is based on more than intentional identification," then "there can be a gap between what a person ascriptively is and the racial identity they perform."
The taxonomic gap of which Appiah speaks has major implications for readers and writers of African American literature. African American literature has undergone an evolving list of labeling, or "dynamic nominalism," in support of its taxonomic order. Without intending to be perfectly comprehensive and chronological, this list, dating back to the turn of the eighteenth century, includes such terms as "Afric' literature," "Negro literature," "Aframerican literature," "colored literature," "black literature," "Afro-American literature," "AfricanAmerican literature," "African-American literature," and "African American literature." The last label, which is circulating today, indicates the terminological gravitation of the taxonomy from racial to ethnic emphasis. It captures the contemporary ethnic intersection of racialism-the doctrine of categorizing the human world according to races-and American nationalism. In general, the labels reflect a specific historical contexts and ideological circumstances in the racial and nationalist classification of authors and their literary texts.
How should one define African American literature, then, while mindful of the potential taxonomic gap and the dynamic nominalism that partially governs it? How does one do so without personally imposing a mythical "one drop rule" on authors or their literary characters, meaning that a drop of African ancestral blood coursing through their bodies makes them black? First of all, one must remain fully aware of the fluidity and contestability of racial identity. In the past, authors have either embraced African American identity or dealt with the public thrusting it upon them, in the latter case sometimes rejecting it. Frank Yerby insisted during one interview, "Do not call me 'black.' That word bugs me. I have more Seminole than Negro blood in me anyway. But when have I ever been referred to as that 'American Indian author'?" A more famous case of an author resisting identification with the African American community is Jean Toomer. Against the wishes of publisher Horace Liveright, who advised Toomer to mention his "colored blood" in the publicity of Cane (1923), Toomer wrote a remarkable sentence in 1923 encapsulating his racial complexity: "My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine." The cases of Yerby, whom I discuss in chapter six, and Toomer force us to consider how authors interpreted, complied with, or overcame the demands of the literary marketplace.
Unfortunately, the historical record of African American authors interrogating the racial identities and literary expectations thrust upon them has had little impact on past and present definitions of African American literature in terms of racial authenticity. Anthologies of African American literature, for example, have belonged to "the collective project, ongoing since the late sixties, of expanding the canon and curriculum of American literature, especially in response to the activism and scholarship of feminists and people of color." Of course, the aim of these collections to teach students about the ethnic diversity of American culture has been admirable and necessary. However, that goal has presumed and promoted an "authentic" version of ethnic literature, in which literary representations of ethnicity must correlate with the ethnicity of their author(s). The cost of defying the essentialist paradigms of ethnic authenticity and realism—or the belief that these qualities are essential or required—has been marginality or exclusion in academic learning and cultural marketplaces.
Indicting the categorization of African American literature in terms of authenticity and reality does not contradict my personal and political desires to move African American voices from the margins to the center of American literary studies. We have already witnessed the movement to institute African American studies as one independent program among several others within multiethnic departments of American studies, or to establish it as a self-running, independent department. Analogously, African American literary studies deserves to make a case for its own set of anthologies claiming independence from yet acknowledging their special place within the larger multiethnic tradition of American literature, or to make a case that it is a distinctive tradition for which American literature is not the sole default rubric. The anthologization of African American literature rightly affirms a collective resistance to cooptation or disenfranchisement by the hegemonic order of racism, particularly the belief in white supremacy that has for over a century rationalized the erasure of African American authors from anthologies of American literature.
Nonetheless, a pattern of canonical exclusion has correlated with certain scholarly and editorial motives that over time have reflected certain ideological tendencies. Anthologies, as I have discussed elsewhere, are one of the most revealing markers of ideological turns in the history of literary scholarship. The kinds of anthologies that appear at a particular historical moment are telling indicators of the kinds of intellectual and political activism that are seeking to redraw or reaffirm the imaginary boundaries of inclusion or exclusion-drawn by publishers, acquisition editors, scholarly editors, and so forth. Determining who and what and why people are reading, these boundaries could correspond to a range of identifications: ethnicity or race (as it pertains to minority authors), gender (women), sexuality (gays, lesbians, bisexual, or transgendered), class (proletarian), or ideology (communist).
The boundaries I am focusing on in this book have appeared within anthologies of African American literature, which not infrequently parallel those within anthologies of American literature or Western literature. Here, certain African American authors are excluded not on the basis of their identities as minorities. After all, anthologies of African American literature often presume that their selected authors at the very least share the same identity. Instead, they are excluded on the basis of what their texts say and how they say it.
In recent memory, scholarly movements have worked to overcome the problems of this approach. Black feminist scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s, Black Queer Studies in the 1990s, and scholarship on science fiction and postmodernism within in the past decade have diversified African American literary anthologies and, in the process, have argued for canon re-formation or literary tradition rebuilding. Now, authors and literary texts that in earlier generations would have been an afterthought have influenced the direction of African American literary studies.
Both traditional and revisionist anthologies of African American literature, however, have kept in place something that continues to authenticate black-authored literature. By clinging to it, they have ignored the history of many African American authors, some indeed canonical, who have tried to transcend or write beyond it. That thing is racial realism.
Differing from previous philosophical and legalistic uses of the term, my usage of "racial realism" refers to the evolution of its twin doctrines, racialism and realism, over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The term derives from what could be called the intellectual field of "Blackness Studies." This field explores the historic assignation of racial essentialism and authenticity to African American authorship and culture, challenges the notion of an African American literary tradition built according to racial iconography, pinpoints the ideological lines stratifying African American communities, and builds new frameworks for theorizing African American intellectualism and culture. In this context, I probe the individual traits of realism and racialism that have permitted their aesthetic, political, and discursive cooperation in African American literary history.
By "realism," I mean not just what Raymond Williams calls "a pseudo-objective version of reality, a version that will be found to depend, finally, on a particular phase of history or on a particular set of relationships." Realism also means a rearticulation of written discourse as representational, ideological, and pragmatic. Louis Montrose has connected representation to ideology. "Representations of the world in written discourse," he writes, "participate in the construction of the world: they are engaged in shaping the modalities of social reality and in accommodating their writers, performers, readers, and audiences to multiple and shifting subject positions within the world that they themselves constitute and inhabit." Conversely, ideology—those spoken and unspoken systems of narratives, values, beliefs, practices, and power relations peculiar to one or more social groups—determines how literary discourse "engages," "accommodates," and "shapes" the world through various formal and thematic strategies.
Amy Kaplan has pushed the paradigm of the "discursive practice" of ideology to "explore the dynamic relationship between changing fictional and social forms in realistic representation." She goes on to say that "[i]f realism is a fiction, we can root this fiction in its historical context to examine its ideological force." Arriving in the late 1980s, this formulation could be called "new historicist," but that would be an oversimplification. Kaplan has not consulted history merely to elucidate the formal properties of literary texts, once a putative goal of new historicism. Rather, she has considered how American literary realism at the turn of the twentieth century was pragmatic, reproducing social reality as much as it had allegedly reflected it.
Racial realism pertains to a long history in which authors sought to recreate a lived or living world according to prevailing ideologies of race or racial difference. Past intellectuals seldom used that term to describe African American literature, though, as I note in chapter three, Alain Locke came closest in 1928 when he called "modernist" African American authors "race-realists." Rather, they employed other words to measure the degree to which literary representations of the race gravitated toward public expectations of realism. The words included "real," "true," "authentic," "objective," "bona-fide," "genuine," "original," "creative," "curious," "novel," "spontaneous," and "vigorous."
Each of these words belongs to a discursive genealogy resembling what W. T. Lhamon Jr. has called a "lore cycle." Holding "current beliefs together in highly charged shorthand," Lhamon writes, lore expresses "a group's beliefs so that the group does not need to weigh and consider all [the] ramifications at any given moment." Lore also increases in "self-authenticating truth" as long as it is used, even if its usages differ in intention. Patterns of lore "sustain complex meaning over time, but they do not enforce the past exactly. Rather the turns of a lore cycle convert the dead hands of the past into living presences that deviate from what went before." Lore cycle can explain the connection of "Jim Crow cultural codes" in nineteenth-century minstrel performances to late-twentieth-century music videos by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney and by MC Hammer. A lore cycle analogously characterizes one of the major discursive tendencies of African American literary criticism: to define authentic African American literature in terms of the code of racial realism.
Of course, one could characterize a host of American ethnic literatures in terms of racial realism, but it resonates in special political ways vis-à-vis African American literature. According to Madhu Dubey, "[p]olitical claims about African-American literature have always depended on realist aesthetics, from the documentary impulse of the slave narratives to the reflectionist principles prescribed by the cultural nationalist program. Black literature could best fulfill its political purpose of bettering the collective condition of the race by telling the truth about black experience." Dubey's claims find support in John Guillory's broader proposition that literature has long imbued textual authenticity with political implications in order to concentrate, cohere, and unify communities, nations, ethnicities, races, and classes. The "sense of representation, the representation of groups by texts," he writes, "lies at a curious tangent to the concept of political representation, with which it seems to have been confused."
The confusion of which Guillory speaks occurs between two kinds of politics, the sort used in "the politics of culture" (a.k.a. cultural politics) and the other in "the culture of politics" (political culture). The first kind refers to the way people acquire, understand, and apply power in their relationships to one another. Power relations underwrite the formation of identifiable patterns of human values, discourses, attitudes, actions, or artifacts. The second kind of politics emphasizes the way these very cultural patterns inform the institutions, organizations, and interest groups of public policy and governmental activity. Across history, African American cultural expressions of racial realism have consistently mediated and encouraged this relationship between cultural politics and political culture in the name of "racial progress." African American authors that wrote texts undercutting this relationship through a literary avoidance or complication of racial realism suffered public criticism for shirking the political responsibilities inevitably bestowed on them as identifiable members of the black race.
What exactly does it mean to undermine or avoid racial realism, however? Indeed, to derive racial realism is also to imply a generic opposite. Some scholars I have encountered over the years have called the opposite "white," as in "African American white-life literature," "African American literature about white people," "white African American literature," or even "white black literature." Others have identified the nature, purpose, or implications of such literature with historic African American figures or with their ideologies, particularly those classified as "assimilationist" or "selling out" their racial souls to the American cultural mainstream. Hence I have heard such terms as "assimilationist literature" and even "the Booker-T.-Washingtons of African American literature." These scholarly characterizations have uncritically equated the ostensible literary absence of blacks with the literary presence of whites. They have also associated this absence with the code words that have historically denoted African American ideological affiliations with self-serving and racist Anglo-American political interests. The terminology says more about its users than it does about the literature itself. It raises more problems than it solves.
Certain literary examples can reveal the conceptual limitations of this terminology. Frank Yerby's first published novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946), focuses not merely on a white man but on an Irishman trying to secure cultural citizenship in antebellum Louisiana. And Toni Morrison disrupts racial codes in her first and only short story, "Recitatif" (1983), at an historical moment when readers and writers were expecting her, as they were expecting other African American women writers, to paint the lives and struggles of African American society and its women in particular. Calling The Foxes of Harrow or "Recitatif" "white" is as reductive as calling African American literature "black." One would be hard-pressed to find anyone calling Anglo-American literature with black main characters-Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), or William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)—"black texts." What, then, is the benefit in uttering the converse? Just as blackness needs a substitute concept that more accurately captures the lore cycle of racial realism in African American literary history, whiteness also needs a substitute concept that provides enough discursive latitude for talking about how and why certain texts by African American writers have avoided or complicated racial realism.
This is not to say that the representational category of whiteness is completely inapplicable or worthless. The field of Whiteness Studies has correctly refuted the notion that whiteness is a "raceless subjectivity," as Peter MacLaren puts it, or an "invisible norm for how dominant culture measures its own civility." Whiteness is instead a construct whose racial politics become visible when examined in terms of the enormous impact of Anglo-Saxon Diasporas on mostly Western conceptions and articulations of race, culture, nation, universality, and normativity. Scholars have recently appropriated and modified these ideas to interpret the aesthetics, typology, ethnology, and psychology of whiteness in African American literature.
This scholarship facilitates my study of George S. Schuyler's Black No More (1931) in chapter four. Science fiction enabled Schuyler to interrogate the normative fixity of whiteness as Anglo-Saxon, socioeconomic privilege, and political power by writing a story in which racial indeterminacy becomes the norm. Examining the implications, in the novel and for the world at large, of science succeeding in "racially" transforming blacks into whites requires the critical sophistication that Whiteness Studies encourages and enhances.
Beyond this paradigm, however, Schuyler's interrogation of whiteness operates within an iconoclastic critique of the cultural norms of the Harlem Renaissance and the racialism of its main arbiter, Alain Locke. Determining precisely how this larger critique specifically bears upon the narrative strategies of Black No More demands theorizing literature as an agency of counter-normativity. The terminology capturing this agency is anomaly.
An anomaly belongs to a taxonomy, which classifies things in established categories. Taxonomy characterizes the theoretical function of anthologies, discussed earlier, to legitimate or de-legitimate texts based on their "value." In two senses, anomalies threaten taxonomies because they contest the very principles used to classify and value texts. According to Bruce Lincoln,
(1) an anomaly is any entity that defies the rules of an operative taxonomy or (2) an anomaly is any entity, the existence of which an operative taxonomy is incapable of acknowledging. In the first case the taxonomy is taken to be normative and the anomaly deviant. In the second the anomaly is judged legitimate; the taxonomy, inadequate, distorting, and exclusionary. Under the terms of both definitions, however, it is possible to see how an anomaly may both pose danger to and be exposed to danger from the taxonomic order in which it is anomalous, just as deviants are considered outlaws when the legitimacy of legal systems is affirmed, but rebels when such systems are judged illegitimate.Anomalies tend to be unclassifiable or ill classified, unappreciated or underappreciated, nonexistent or misrepresented, precisely because taxonomic rules often fail to account for them and because we tend to privilege these rules in establishing norms. From the viewpoint of anomalies, such rules are unfair. From the perspective of those who make the rules, on the other hand, anomalies are problems because they threaten the privilege and legitimacy of the taxonomy. From this distinction I will begin to explain over the next several pages why the existence of anomalies is central to the problem of African American literature, just as it is central to the problem of taxonomies.
This distinction between anomalous African American literature and African American literature featuring white "characters" advances what Shelly Fisher Fishkin has called "transgressive" African American literature. Transgressive texts "violate" critical and commercial norms demanding that "black fiction writers are expected to focus on African-American life in the United States as seen through the eyes of black characters," and that "black novelists are expected to focus on issues of race and racism and are considered suspect when they do not." Racialist approaches to African American literature have often assumed at least three things: African Americans possess the utmost experiential authority in talking about African America, their literature serves as an authoritative expression of their views on race and racism, and the persons, places, and things imagined in this literature automatically earn racially authentic status. For Fishkin, African American literature disrupting such longstanding connections of race to realism tends to be, "as often as not, ignored"-that is, "out of print and out of favor."
But what do we make of how Toni Morrison's 1998 novel, Paradise, defies the conventional readings of American literature by complicating both blackness and whiteness in literary characterization? Morrison has explained the nature of racial ambiguity in Paradise, which refuses to specify the racial identities of the main characters, just as "Recitatif": "The tradition in writing is that if you don't mention a character's race, he's white. Any deviation from that, you have to say. What I wanted to do was not to erase race, but force readers either to care about it or see if it disturbs them that they don't know." The character is white not because of the presence of a racial marker but because of its absence.
In literary history, the lack of racial information—or the under-determination of race—has been just as conventional in defining whiteness as the excess of racial information—or the over-determination of race—has been in defining blackness. Readers, it is also true, have not infrequently projected their imagination of universal humanity as white humanity. Despite this interpretive tendency, however, we must remain open-minded and consider that racially unmarked or ambiguous characters in African American literature are not always or necessarily white. They could also be subscribing to a "critical" universalism in which black racial subjectivity—or the perspective shaped by the experience of self-identifying or being identified as black—subtly inflects their portrayals of general human beings. In this situation, their literary characters and their readers' racial identification of them could easily devolve into miscommunication if the reader is not attuned to such inflections.
If we remain mindful, then, such the potential disagreement between the intentions of an author and the impressions of her or his reader, we can examine not only Morrison's "Recitatif" and Paradise but also Paul Laurence Dunbar's first novel, The Uncalled, whose protagonist is not definitively black or white. We must interpret the novel in terms that extend beyond the racial identities of "characters." We must think about how Dunbar is "transgressing" or "violating" the norms of genre, which here comprise certain historically relative principles of literary form, style, or intention. When Dunbar wrote The Uncalled without the conventional—that is, minstrel-stereotypes of African Americans, he experimented with other kinds of identification, such as cultural regionalism and socioeconomic class, while adopting literary naturalism to convey human difference and a profoundly spiritual story.
The anomalies of African American literature, moreover, possess specific and special meaning. Recently, Claudia Tate's Psychoanalysis and Black Novels has defined novels "indisputably marginal in African-American literary history" as anomalies, "primarily because they resist, to varying degrees, the race and gender paradigms that we spontaneously impose on black textuality." Tate's rhetorical, semantic, and conceptual contexts for traditional and anomalous African American literatures resemble my own, leading to our general agreement on which texts belong to these two main categories. The similarity between the opening questions of her book ("What constitutes a black literary text in the United States?") and mine ("What is African American literature?") symbolizes our mutual concern with how racial and aesthetic politics have influenced the creative strategies and goals of African American authors, and how they have factored into the cultural and academic evaluation of African American texts.
Tate's work and mine differ in terms of methodology, however, and thereby in terms of our theses and conclusions about anomalous texts. Psychoanalysis and Black Novels argues that psychoanalysis—especially Freudian, Lacanian, and object-relations models—enables her to show that "the racial protocol for African American canon formation has marginalized desire as a critical category of black textuality by demanding stories about racial politics." Desire—not merely "sexual longings but all kinds of wanting, wishing, yearning, longing, and striving"—has been repressed in political readings of African American literature, because "it engenders in us what I suspect to be vague feelings of emotional discomfort—anxiety, shame, and/or guilt." Tate's paradigm for anomalies has pivoted on what is more or less a "suspicion" about the relationship between the emotions and the scholarly conduct of African Americanists, who represent Tate's primary audience and presumably the "us" mentioned above.
The psychological and emotional impressions such as Tate's suspicion and her audience's "vague feelings," however, are ultimately subjective and transitory. Without substantial and credible empirical evidence, the existence of these impressions can never really be detailed and proven. Tate has not specifically elaborated on who has experienced such "vague feelings of emotional discomfort," though she has provided plenty of anecdotes to explain the longstanding disagreement between psychoanalytic theory and scholars of African American literature. Such an unstable theoretical foundation prompts us to doubt the stability of the other methodological scaffolds in Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, especially as she designed them to support her interpretations of anomalous texts.
Furthermore, Tate's translation of thematic, stylistic, and rhetorical codes into the respective discourses of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious desire has referred to contemporary psychoanalytic analogies between the novel and the human psyche. But as one book reviewer has noted, Tate's attempts to examine the "personified linguistic structures" of the novel have tended to contradict her more credible efforts—traceable to a previous book about desire, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text and the Turn of the Century (1992)—of "imagining the authors she writes about as real people exercising due control over the products of their imagination." In the case of the authors examined in Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, these are also "real people" who are "working out personal traumas in stories about imaginary people who themselves are working out various neuroses." The methodological confusion between psychoanalysis and psychology has overcomplicated Tate's readings of the anomalous texts. What is more, it has constrained the ideological connection of these texts to their historical contexts of imagination, production, and reception. Limning this latter connection constitutes the alternative approach of this book.
A Theory of African American Literary History
This book presents a theory of African American literary history. It argues that de facto deans presided over literary schools of racial realism—which were the basis of literary movements-from which certain African American authors played truant by avoiding this genre of writing. The anomalous quality of the texts written by truants reflected their existence in a field of power relations in which they competed with deans for the authority to determine what their texts should say or mean. Anomalous texts ultimately demonstrated the extent to which certain African American authors were consciousness of and resistance to the dominant forms of aesthetic philosophy and cultural-political power prevailing during their historical moment.
Leading to diverse forms of African American literature, the texts and contexts of racial realism evolved as African American writers responded to various historical circumstances. The biases of William Howells, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and Amiri Baraka, however, especially limited the nature, range, and effect of African American literature. Their authority was hegemonic—powerful, persuasive, and pervasive. True, their authority was disputable in several intellectual circles, and there were several literary contemporaries who were influential. However, the deans I focus were believed by most readers and writers of their era to be the leaders of schools or movements. The authority of deans did not require continual argumentation or justification. People simply accepted it as a given. Various lay and intellectual communities locally and internationally read, discussed, wrote about, or wrote according to the schools of thought authorized by the deans. The schools limited in various ways the creative strategies and goals of African American writers.
The consequent negative light in which I cast deans does not necessarily correspond with the more intentional "censures of realism by vernacular or blues critics of African-American literature," in the words of Ken W. Warren, who indicts Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s disparagement of racist social-scientific versions of "black reality." Such "detractors," Warren goes on to say, have demanded genres other than realism for the enactment of "social change" in racial politics. In response, Warren has focused on—and thereby redeemed the intellectual value—of realism to decode the racial anxieties of American authors, black and white, in the postbellum nineteenth century. He has also examined the ideological role of race in the discursive constitution of aesthetic and political expressions. Despite their differences, Warren and Gates both have indicated the thematic significance of race and realism alike to African American literary studies. Indeed, this field has always been attuned to the history of readers and writers holding African American literature accountable for addressing social and racial-political conditions. This proposes racial realism as a paradigm for studying the pragmatic accountability of African American literature, despite and because of its checkered past.
My theory of African American literary history seeks to avoid the various conceptual pitfalls that have imperiled the critical thinking of previous historicist accounts of African American literature. Many of these pitfalls have not so much to do with developing literary theories or histories that cover a broad swath of texts. Such a knowledgeable approach draws attention to the role of literary intertextuality in the constitution of "tradition." Rather, the totalizing or generalizing tendencies to which such approaches can easily fall prey have tended to lead to redundancy and reductionism. Wahneema Lubiano has noted that "critics of Afro-American literature feel the need to speak to each other with the uninformed audience constantly in mind, a dilemma that often results in producing criticism that of necessity reinvents certain wheels of our discourse instead of focusing on the complexities of history and interpretation." One consequence of this anxiety over audience is that "[b]ooks written by Afro-Americanists are frequently structured to engage, explain, account for, redefine, or reconstruct a 'tradition.'"
The project of tradition-building in African American literary studies has raised major epistemological issues. Adolph Reed Jr. has noted that since the "disciplinary practice of contemporary literary studies centers on construction and examination of text-based notions of tradition, or canon, it underwrites an approach to intellectual history that [can be] idealist and ahistorical. This approach produces typically 'thin' accounts that emphasize purportedly tranhistorical relations of writers and texts."
By contrast, the object of this book is to interrogate the notions of "blackness" and "tradition," not to concretize them as one monolithic, uncontestable piece; to stay historically-specific, not to generalize for the sake of theorization. The cultural coherence or cohesiveness that tends to characterize literary tradition—from which a theoretically coherent or cohesive canon of "great" texts can emerge—belies the degree to which its aesthetic-cultural value is constantly under pressure, always being contested, both from within and without. The way in which traditions experience ideological struggle and tension, the way they serve as the byproduct or producer of debate between and among groups, is itself a controversial story as worthy of being told as the more hagiographic stories that traditions exist and warrant celebration.
The number of literary movements (four) and authors (eight) examined at length in this book encourages broad claims about historical trends in the nature and implications of anomalies. Anomalies unsettle conventional notions of a distinct African American literature. The literary characterology of race determines how these texts subvert our expectations for racial realism. Characterology means not simply a study of the properties and narrative implications of literary characters. It also delves into how literary characterization elicits certain responses from readers, although it should not be used to homogenize these responses. Characterology, narratology, and the cognitive science of reader-response have long ignored the racial subjects permeating and central to an understanding of literary texts, and have tended to focus on Anglo-American and -British literary texts. Characterology, this book demonstrates, deserves more diverse perspectives attentive to race.
This book intersects characterology with the methodology of literary history. Constructions of the "real" vary from era to era, as do those of race. But anomalous texts in the past have consistently disrupted the literary taxonomies of racial realism by usually (but not always) casting African Americans in minor roles, if they appear at all. At the same time, these texts mark the main characters as racially white, neutral, or ambiguous. In some cases, the texts talk about race in subordinate thematic ways. Schuyler's Black No More, for instance, features a protagonist that turns from black to white in racial phenotype. Morrison's "Recitatif" features two main characters, one black and the other white, but the reader is never certain of the racial identity of either one. In both cases, though, African Americans possess a major role.
Authorial intention—or the reason why certain authors characterized race in certain literary ways—cannot be so easily theorized or generalized. Each author and her/his text must be analyzed on an individual, case-by-case basis. This book hopes to achieve this sort of analytic specificity. It provides the extra attention that the truant authors and their anomalous texts so necessarily deserve. But to repeat, certain trends are discernible. From the perspective of deans, anomalous texts are outlaws. From the perspective of truants, however, these texts are rebels. Truancy turns out to be a conscious effort on the part of an author to indict the authority of certain figures or their institutions of power. Anomalies refer to the literature written by truant authors to contest the authentic exclusivity of racial realism.
Bear in mind that I do not merely want to re-define the word "anomalous" positively to connote resistant agency, so that the phrase "anomalous African American literature" is no longer pejorative. I anticipate a day when this phrase is no longer self-contradictory or oxymoronic, when it becomes simply "African American literature" or, even later, "American literature" or "literature." But anomalies can persuade a beneficial readjustment of paradigms. Thomas S. Kuhn has theorized that "awareness of anomaly opens a period in which conceptual categories are adjusted until the initially anomalous has become the anticipated. [ . . . ] The more precise and far-reaching that paradigm is, the more sensitive an indicator it provides of anomaly and hence of an occasion for paradigm change." In due time and if taken seriously, anomalies can compel African American literary studies to sharpen its rationale for examining or dismissing certain texts.
Historicizing the debate between deans and truants on the idea of African American literature should refer to Katya Gibel Azoulay's idea of a "healthy tension." There is a healthy tension between literary identities imposed on authors and texts, on the one hand, and discourses capable of counteracting this imposition, on the other. My book is designed to document the tensions that existed between Howells and Dunbar, Locke and Schuyler, Wright and Yerby, and Baraka and Morrison.
Chapter one begins by outlining the postbellum historical context of Howells's approach to African American literature. During this period, the racialism of blackface minstrelsy (performed by whites) created a cultural precondition for minstrel realism, a term I coin to define a postbellum phenomenon in which audiences regarded the romance and sentimentality of black minstrelsy (performed by blacks) as racially authentic and realistic. An analogous reaction occurred when Howells reviewed Dunbar's second book of poetry, Majors and Minors (1896), in Harper's Weekly on June 27, 1896. A leader of determining the critical expectations and reading practices of postbellum nineteenth-century America, Howells, in the review, puts Dunbar on the mainstream American literary map as he lauds the "Humor and Dialect" section of Majors and Minors. Howells appreciates the demonstration of minstrel realism in Dunbar's poetic recreation of African American folk language, culture, spirituality, and psychology. Howells's approval and sponsorship of Dunbar's dialect poetry helped to dictate the terms by which subsequent reviewers and literary critics, in the United States and abroad, defined and interpreted Dunbar's dialect poetry as the authentic product of the "pure African type." The racialism of this critical paradigm merged both biological essentialism and cultural essentialism in classifications, interpretations, and aesthetic judgments of African American literature.
I must pause here to say a brief word about the inclusion of Howells in this book. Howells shared the critical discourse of blackness ("entirely black verse from [Dunbar] would succeed") regardless of the fact that he was white. More important than his biological difference, and how this difference translated into a distinctive socio-racial experience and literary prerogative, is the discursive and therefore ideological consistency in his criticism and commercialism of African American literature with those critics of later generations and even of different races. Claudia Tate was mostly correct when she stated that "it comes as no surprise that canonical authors bear a striking resemblance to those who endorsed (or canonized) them." But Tate's idea, particularly the phrase "striking resemblance," must be clarified to account for Howells. This resemblance is primarily ideological and discursive, not so much racial in the biological and cultural senses of the word. For this reason, Howells deserves inclusion in my dean-truant paradigm of African American literary history.
This is not to suggest, however, that just as Howells deserves examination for his impact on African American authors during the 1890s, so too should, say, Carl Van Vechten, another white male critic, deserve mention or analysis for his patronage of African American authors of the Harlem Renaissance. It is not enough merely to influence the careers of African American authors. More important are the specific ways in which the literati associated deanship with a particular figure, and how that prestige instituted structures of thought and feeling around the idea of African American literature.
Howells has almost always been regarded as "Dean of American Letters" since that term was assigned to him in the late nineteenth century, a term which encoded the priority of Anglo-American writers. Yet his influence over American cultural taste extended to, even if it did not entirely dictate the evolution of, African American literary culture. Howells directly affected the specific careers of Dunbar and Charles W. Chesnutt, even if his power did not sit well with the likes of Victoria Earle Matthews and other ideologues of racial uplift skeptical of literary perpetuations of black stereotypes. By contrast, Van Vechten, according to David Levering Lewis, was at best a literary celebrity and enthusiastic patron in New York City, "white America's guide through Harlem, what Osbert Sitwell described as 'the white master of the colored revels.'" He encouraged African American authors (Rudolph Fisher and Nella Larsen, to name but two), but he never reached Howells's status. Van Vechten practically could not, in fact, given the presence of Alain Locke and other eminent "midwives" during the Renaissance. In his era, Howells's status was influential enough to dictate a school of racial realism.
Chapter two examines why and how Dunbar played truant from the Howellsian school of racial realism and published an anomalous first novel in 1898, The Uncalled. This truancy makes sense, first, in the context of Dunbar's subscription to and literary practice of racial uplift ideology, or the doctrine which argued that the folk could be morally, intellectually, and physically (or culturally) "elevated" to the level of civilization. By subscribing to a "New Negro" version of racial realism, Dunbar critiques the minstrel representations of the folk in the so-called plantation tradition of postbellum Anglo-American literature. The racial uplift ideology that motivates this critique also underwrites what Victoria Earle Matthews in 1895 called "Race Literature," a genre of African American literature that was anomalous in two senses: the texts critiqued and resisted minstrel realism, but they were "not necessarily race matter," that is, they did not have to express New Negro realism, per se. The taxonomic and thematic paradigm of Race Literature frames my claim that Dunbar's first novel, The Uncalled, is anomalous for the way it encodes class and regional markers of realism while submerging the conventional markers of racial realism. This does not mean that racialism is absent from the novel. Indeed, its presence corresponds with Dunbar's novelistic exposure of the thematic limitations of Anglo-American local-color writing, whose trademark idealism tended to elide African American histories of racial oppression and conflict. In the end, the novel anticipated the pointedly anti-Howellsian romantic naturalism of Frank Norris.
Chapter three suggests that Locke's status as Dean of the Harlem Renaissance empowered him to promote New Negro modernism as a revision of the retrograde versions of racial realism, discussed in the previous two chapters. Locke's derivation of this supposedly avant-garde cultural genre replicated Howells's racially essentialist discourses of African American biology and culture. Locke's own discourse appropriated ethnic pluralism, which imagined the ameliorative potential of American cultural nationalism in fostering peaceful contact and relations between U. S. ethnic groups. Nonetheless, he still stratified cultures with "color lines" in order to define, interpret, and assess cultural representations of ethnicity. Accordingly, Locke identified Henry Ossawa Tanner as the descendant of a cosmopolitan tradition of African American painters trained in academic institutions in Europe who consistently avoided or complicated representations of African Americans. Tanner's cosmopolitanism and ethnocentric academicism, Locke warned, threatened to lead astray, away from New Negro modernism, the early-twentieth-century generation of African American painters whom he had sought to affiliate with the Harlem Renaissance. In the end, Locke misperceived not only eclectic African American creativity as abominable truancy. He also misunderstood African American critiques of the racial and cultural normativity of "whiteness" as utter, unreflexive, and uncritical self-submission to Anglo-Saxon racial hegemony.
Chapter four shows how Schuyler devised an iconoclastic campaign against the protocols of racial essentialism, ethnic pluralism, and racial realism that underpinned Locke's New Negro modernism. Schuyler's admitted truancy from the Harlem Renaissance included the production of anomalous, if satirical, aesthetic and cultural criticism that sought to expose the fundamental pitfalls of New Negro modernism—namely, the blurring of biology and culture in racialism and the intrinsic chauvinism of the Harlem Renaissance. He promoted cultural monism, which exaggerated the cultural similarities or sameness of blacks and whites at the expense of the historical reality of racism and socioeconomic inequity between the two groups. The result was a philosophical disagreement between his 1926 essay, "The Negro-Art Hokum," and New Negro modernism.
Examining "The Negro-Art Hokum" guides an interpretation of Schuyler's novel of science fiction, Black No More. We learn that the technological "whitening" of blacks so that they could pass as white raises the question of whether racial "passing" involves cultural transformation as much as it exploits biological traits. This intra-narrative exploration of passing, its destabilization of whiteness, and its constitution of an "anomalous moment" within the narrative—a moment when the protagonist exists as neither black nor white yet both-support the novel's meta-narrative suggestion that Black No More becomes a black (novel) no more as Schuyler remains racially fixed. The taxonomic line separating African American literature and something else turns out to be a color line fraught with the problems and politics of applying racial essentialism to literary texts.
Chapter five tracks the radical permutations of New Negro ideology in the literary and cultural criticism of the Dean of the Chicago Renaissance. Through such proletarian, Marxist, communist, and black nationalist doctrines of leftist radicalism, Richard Wright tried to revise Lockean New Negro modernism in order to build a more class-inflected discourse of racial authenticity. This discourse valued the construction of a pragmatist bridge between the working class and the black intelligentsia. Wright's critical discourse of racial realism, which endorsed a sort of New Negro radicalism, resembled Locke's critical discourse in the late 1930s. At this time, the former dean of the Harlem Renaissance self-effacingly recognized the fatal flaws of the movement's cultural leadership and aesthetic philosophy. Locke also hailed the promise of the Chicago Renaissance not to repeat these flaws.
In reviews of his work in the American press, the perpetuation or endorsement of Wright's discourse of New Negro radicalism ended up limiting the commercial opportunities and creative strategies of African American writers. Certain writers broke out of the Wrightean paradigm. They participated in an American cultural nationalism that did not simply celebrate an assimilationist African American aspiration toward Americanness. Rather, they called for a literary aesthetics of universal depictions or avoidances of conventional modes of racial realism to enunciate African American claims to national citizenship. Frank Yerby was one of the leaders of this post-WW II movement toward the American cultural nationality and commercial popularity of black-authored literature.
Admittedly, Wright's postwar life and work complicate the dichotomy this book seeks to establish between deans and truants, racial realism and anomalies. He shows that my attempt at a relatively straightforward, comprehensible model for African American literary history can encounter cases of authorial intention and readerly expectation that resist any analytic flattening his character and career. For example, how do we reconcile Wright's persona in the late 1930s and 1940s and his persona in the following decade, when he wrote the novel Savage Holiday (1954)? There is a clear change in literary philosophy. While working on the novel in the early 1950s, Wright delivered lectures on literature, compiled as White Man, Listen! (1957). The most relevant essay in the collection is "Literature of the Negro in the United States," where Wright describes African American literature according to two philosophic concepts: "entity" and "identity." Entity characterizes works that struggle for entrance into a racially transcendent, universal tradition. Identity pertains to the subjectivity of literature, asserting a worldview colored by a particularly racial-political lens. Although a simplistic binary in many ways, Wright's philosophical differentiation of anomalous and traditional African American literature along lines of entity and identity, respectively, provide insight into the formal strategies of Savage Holiday and the existentialist treatises he was reading on the side while an expatriate in France. The figures of Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger (to whom H. L. Mencken's writings had introduced Wright in 1927 and whose work he revisited more intensively in 1940) as well as French existentialists like Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre (whom Wright began to engage in 1947) were instrumental to Wright's vision of the novel as a "universal" story.
At the same time, Wright imported his vision of the novel from the United States. By the time he left the United States permanently in 1947, African American writers had already begun to grapple with the prospect of racial integration in the post-World War II era. Wright's reconciliation of these two ideologies, the existentialist and the integrationist, in Savage Holiday is a provocative narrative for current scholarly studies of Wright and of African American expatriate novelists in general. Wright's legacy teaches us the importance of extensively referring to letters of correspondence, biographical data, cultural history, and literary criticism to account for the ideological and practical contradictions that easily complicate the dean-truant paradigm. Such contradictions also illustrate, as I elaborate in chapters five and six, that the paradigm breaks down to a certain degree between the postwar 1940s and the Black Arts Movement.
Chapter six explores the comparable complexity of Frank Yerby. According to Yerby's understudied letters and various literary works from the 1930s to the 1950s, his development of ambivalence toward racial representation in African American literature tempts one to characterize his entire legacy solely in these terms. But the details of his early career urge us to think otherwise. The chapter is broken into four contexts of investigation: Yerby's early career as a poet, his shift to short stories in the genre of New Negro radicalism, the failure of his yet unpublished first novel, This Is My Own, and the trend of "costume" novels he wrote early in his career, beginning with his first published novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946). This novel depicts the rugged kind of American individualism that thematically runs counter to the tendency of naturalism, one protocol of Wrightean New Negro radicalism, to deny the individual agency within an environment. In order to make this case, the novel revisits and revises the myths about race relations, African Americans, and the antebellum South. It refuses to resign the reader to the inevitable Southern tragedies of racism, manifested in the national crisis of the Civil War. Yerby's emphasis of American cultural nationality in The Foxes of Harrow connects to the commercial popularity he achieved in the postwar era. At this time, demonstrations of national identity or "American-ness" in "universal," "raceless," "white," or multiethnic African American literature were so widespread that they mark the greatest proliferation of such literature at one definable historical moment. African American writers were embracing American cultural nationalism instead of continuing to wrestle with the stressful relationship, if not the contradiction, between this doctrine and racialism.
Yerby's marginality is especially remarkable, if unfortunate. He is the most prolific and commercially successful writer in African American history, yet his 30 novels of non-black protagonists remain absent from literary anthologies and scholarship. His marginal status forces us, perhaps more than any other writer, to confront the principles of African American literary studies over the past half century. This book is an ideal context to introduce or reintroduce Yerby to readers and to address some of the issues of authorship, racial identity, literary aesthetics, and audience that have surrounded Yerby's work and African American literature.
In doing so, this book raises questions about the longstanding aesthetic devaluation of popular fiction in academic literary studies. This sort of critical elitism has persisted in the field of African American literary studies. "The field of popular fiction is a relatively unexplored terrain in African American as well as American literary history and criticism," according to Susanne B. Dietzel. "In the fields of literary criticism and the teaching of African American literature, for example, scholars and critics alike have restricted their efforts to reviewing, promoting, and canonizing only those texts that fit the prevailing aesthetic and literary standards." As a consequence, a "rigid division" exists between "high and low, or elite and mass culture," and by extension between popular fiction and canonical fiction. Dispensing with such critical elitism and addressing both "the literary" and "the popular," which I elaborate at the end of chapter six, is prerequisite to asserting the legitimacy of popular fiction (such as Yerby's) as evidence for a scholarly argument on (African American) literature.
Based upon this idea, this book suggests that the African American literary demonstration or disregard of racial realism has further influenced how and why these "standards" continue to exist. Making this claim does not necessarily mean that I must henceforth declare whether a piece of anomalous literature is bad, mediocre, or great, and thereby to determine whether its exclusion from the canon is justified or not. Proving that Dunbar's first novel is aesthetically superior to his widely-cited fourth novel, The Sport of the Gods (1902), for example, has little if anything to do with this book. More important is the examination of the historical record of readers judging the aesthetic merits of a literary work according to its avoidance or application of racial realism. That analysis explains why their aesthetic judgments took this form and how discourses of literary criticism reflected and articulated them.
The book closes with a comparative reading of Baraka's introduction to Confirmation: An Anthology of AfricanAmerican Women (1983) and a short story Toni Morrison contributed to the volume, entitled "Recitatif." In light of the fact that men have almost always been anointed deans in African American literary history, I examine the extent to which the historic tension between deans and truants, racial realism and anomalies, dovetails with the historic tension between patriarchs and their discontents, who have mostly comprised black women writing against social and cultural expressions of patriarchy, masculinism, and male privilege. "Recitatif" captures this double tension. The story not only unsettles the fixed notions of racial identity in the Black Aesthetic that Baraka had incorporated into Confirmation. It also depicts strong relationships between women at the expense of conventional hetero-social paradigms in African American literature.
The hermeneutic self-consciousness of "Recitatif," which indeed must be interpreted as a postmodernist trait, coincides with but also pressures the contemporaneous principles of African American literary theory, led in hindsight by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and framed by his notion of the "hermeneutic circle" of blackness. Gates argued that critical valuations of African American literature resorted to introductory meditations on black racial or intellectual authenticity. Though brilliant and useful, this formulation of the hermeneutic circle of blackness obscures the concept's original philosophy about how various assumptions can predetermine readings of texts and why understanding parts of texts presupposes understanding their entireties. Morrison's short fiction marks an amazing dual attempt to critique not only the traditional hermeneutic circle but also the neologistic hermeneutic circle of blackness. In the process it exposes the racial presumptions and interpretive practices often associated with African American literature and identity. "Recitatif" belongs to Morrison's current imagination of a world where she can question racially-inflected hierarchies of human power, celebrate the inclusivity of Americanism, and yet remain sensitive to the history of race and racism in the United States.
The Gender Politics of Deans and Truants
My examination of "Recitatif" reflects my broader interest in the fact that Baraka and most of the previous deans of African American literature have something in common: they are men. Indeed, men have almost always been anointed the de facto deans of past African American literary movements or renaissances. In the century after slavery, patriarchy maintained the supremacy of deans as "father figures," underwriting their acquisition of critical and commercial authority and encoding male or masculine privilege in literary theories and practices of racial realism. Wahneema Lubiano has theorized that "[r]ealism as the bedrock of narrative is inherently problematic. Realism poses a fundamental, longstanding challenge for counter-hegemonic discourses, since realism, as a narrative form, enforces an authoritative perspective." This viewpoint distinguishes between "true" or "false," "concrete" or "abstract" versions of the living world. When held or promoted by a dean, such a perspective can support what Lubiano has called "male cultural and political hegemony." Lubiano uses this phrase to describe the Harlem Renaissance and to situate the writers who have contested it. But it is applicable to other movements in African American literary history.
During the periods covered in this book, African American women writers have written literature indicting the intrinsic gender assumptions of racial realism and their hegemonic implications. At the turn of the twentieth century African American women novelists employed "domestic allegories"—namely, those of genteel love, courtship, matrimony, and family formation-in order to acquire "authority for the self both in the home and in the world," an authority arising from "woman-centered values, agency" and catering to "distinctly female principles of narrative pleasure." The post-Reconstruction circumstances of African American aesthetic and political culture determined the literary production and reception of those novelists. Authors ranging from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline E. Hopkins to Amelia E. Johnson, Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, and Katherine D. Tillman crafted empowering iconography and narratives of black women to critique the dominance of masculine ideology. They also exposed the masculinist causes of social and legal inequities, and proposed alternative social roles acknowledging the interests and importance of women. Such strategies have typified the gender politics of African American literature not only during the post-Reconstruction era but also during the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, and the Black Arts Movement. The reason for such gender-political motives must point to the roles of deans in creating the critical and commercial conditions that African American women writers have found burdensome, restrictive, or counterproductive.
Gender politics are crucial to our understanding of the historical dialectic between deans and truants, racial realism and anomalies. As the following chapters will show, Howells's canon of Afro-Western authors praised only men, ignoring (as many other critics have, then and since) the post-Reconstruction "Woman's Era" of African American literature. Locke's patrilinear genealogy of African American literature anointed mostly men as the ancestors and "youth" of the Harlem Renaissance. Wright's allegation that Hurston represented black folk in retrograde fashion in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) bordered on antagonistic chauvinism. Finally, any discussion of the Black Arts Movement must account for its encoding of masculinism and patriarchy in its apparently gender-neutral discourse of "the people" or "the race," as well as its studies and anthologies of the African American literature.
I must state here that the anomalous texts of Dunbar, Schuyler, and Yerby in some ways perpetuate sexism, or the belief that men are superior to women. Indeed, as much as they are fascinating for their respective critiques of Howells's minstrel realism, Locke's New Negro modernism, and Wright's New Negro radicalism, they mostly adhere to the patriarchal and masculinist conventions of their times. For example, women have little agency in Dunbar's The Uncalled, except for the guardian of Fred Brent, Miss Hester Prime, whose tough-love religious approach to parenting comes across as a pejorative impediment to Fred's self-individuation. The women of Schuyler's Black No More similarly possess little agency. In an era of racial homogenization caused by Black No More, Inc., they are merely procreative spectacles whose racially "pure" or mixed children incite white-male anxieties over female sexuality and miscegenation. Finally, Stephen Fox in Yerby's The Foxes of Harrow becomes an American not only by acquiring wealth through the ownership of land and slaves, but also by encouraging a heterosexist culture of patriarchy, adultery, procreation, dynasty, and violent expressions of masculinity. From these works of fiction, we obviously cannot learn how anomalies have contested the literary norms of both racial realism and gender.
A cursory look at other examples of anomalous African American literature, however, reveals the presence of feminist politics. Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), according to Hazel Carby, "involved a challenge to the literary conventions of the apartheid American society in which Hurston lived-conventions she felt dictated that black writers and artists should be concerned only with representing black subjects." In support of this claim, Hurston wrote a letter discussing her "hopes of breaking that old silly rule about Negroes not writing about white people." At the same time, Hurston's novel "concentrate[s] on complex questions of female sexuality and the sometimes violent conflict between men and woman that arises from the existence of incompatible and gender-specific desires."
The issues of sexuality and gender relations appear as well in other anomalous texts published in the century after slavery. They include Frances E. W. Harper's Sowing and Reaping (1876-77), Nella Larsen's "The Wrong Man" and "Freedom" (1926), Ann Petry's Country Place (1947), and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956). Baldwin's novel has represented what Mae G. Henderson has called "racial expatriation." "Baldwin's flight to Paris and his all-white novel," according to Henderson, "must be regarded as attempts to open the space of black literary expression to subjects and experiences not deemed appropriate for black writers in the 1940s and 1950s." However, the novel asks not only "[w]hat it is to be a (white) American and an expatriate," but also "what it is to be a homosexual and a man."
Respectively, Seraph on the Suwanee and Giovanni's Room reflect the reactions of Hurston and Baldwin to gender and sexual norms, specifically to the roles of patriarchy and homophobia in the degradation of their identities as a woman and a gay man. Patriarchy conspired in the enforcement of heterosexual norms such as procreation and family, while skewing interpersonal power relations in favor of maleness and fatherhood. For these and other writers, patriarchy and homophobia were linked. At the same time, these writers were aware of—to repeat Hurston's words in a letter—"that old silly rule about Negroes not writing about white people." This book not only historicizes this "rule," it remains aware of the political role of gender in why and how people wrote for or against it.