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A Scholar's Conscience: Selected Writings of J. Saunders Redding.

In her introduction to A Scholar's Conscience Faith Berry laments that though To Make a Poet Black and The Lonesome Road still garner critical interest today "during a time of increased African-American awareness and cultural identity, [J. Saunders] Redding's voluminous writings have received little serious attention from contemporary students and scholars" (p. 9). Indeed, though Redding has been dubbed the dean of African-American scholars, he "is largely absent from standard American anthologies integrated for classroom use" (p. 11). Clearly this collection serves as Berry's effort to address such neglect. With a strong emphasis on Redding's versatility as a scholar in the fullest sense, she has selected a series of important excerpts from his works in literary criticism, history, biography, autobiography, fiction, travel literature, and journalism that stand outside Redding's better-known achievement, To Make a Poet Black.

Redding died in 1988, ending a long and distinguished career that began during the last days of the Harlem Renaissance. He lived and wrote through the Civil Rights Movement, the student protests of the 1970s, the Black Arts Movement, up through to the current rise of interest in African-American Studies in the American academy. According to Berry, Redding offered her his "full cooperation" in her preparation of the anthology, and though A Scholar's Conscience was published posthumously, apparently he did read it in its early stages. Consequently the anthology has as much the feel of a memorial as it does the sense of a practical text that gathers together speeches and readings from No Day of Triumph, On Being Negro in America, Stranger and Alone, They Came in Chains, The Lonesome Road, An American in India, as well as articles from the American Scholar and the Baltimore Afro-American. And to round out the survey in A Scholar's Conscience Berry provides readers with an extensive bibliography of Redding's work.

While one might hesitate to categorize Redding's intellectual thinking (even a glance at the anthology demonstrates that Redding defined his own interests as broadly as anyone could), one is nevertheless drawn to his sensitive articulation of what he saw to be the problem and meaning of being an African-American university intellectual. Again and again the excerpts show Redding's attempts to address the significance of academic humanism in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, and especially the significance of African-American Studies for the study of a larger American literature and culture. In considering how these three issues intersect, Redding seems to locate himself in the complex role of intellectual reformer. Such essays and speeches as "The Black Revolution in American Studies," "some Remarks: On Humanism, the Humanities and Human Beings," and his review of Black Man's Burden by John Oliver Killens show Redding working hard to challenge the traditional study of "Man" through an outspoken demand for a humanism that recognizes the political consequences of privileging different kinds of knowledge, a humanism that is not afraid of, indeed benefits from an acknowledgement of difference within the Western tradition (and by "Western" I mean to include the Anglo-American literary traditions in my definition).

On the level of specific practice, as in The Black Revolution in American Studies," Redding asserts that critical, sociological and historical scholarship in the field of African-American Studies must "challenge contemporary scholarship in American Studies with the facts of black Americans' stolen past and contested future" (p. 187). In the same vein, his review of Killens's Black Man's Burden concludes with the demand that "American colored writers ... have to |un-brainwash' the rest of the Western World. They have to make it very clear that the history of Western (white) man is not |the history of the entire human race'" (p.174).

Redding does have his awkward moments of course. Berry claims rather weakly that he "proved himself a male feminist at a time when many men expected women to use typewriters to be secretaries, not authors" (p. 11). True, in his 1961 review of Soul Clap Hands and Sing Redding treats Paule Marshall as a "writer" as opposed to a "woman writer" (perhaps assuming that he gives her the highly problematic compliment of genderlessness), and he is suitably impressed with Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry. Yet the selections on Sojourner Truth and Gertrude Stein are at times incredibly condescending on the very level of gender that Redding takes pains to absent in his discussions of Marshall and Brooks.

If they can forgive Redding his blindness to the politics of writing and gender, some readers might argue today that Redding was a visionary. Yet, as Berry's introduction points out, there was an immense irony in the resurgence of white interest in Redding's work in the 1970s. During this period, Berry reports, Redding found he was increasingly in demand in a climate of racial unrest continuing from the late 1960s, when white administrators were anxious to hire black faculty to increase black representation in an all-white American academy. However, though he may have benefitted professionally from the agitation of black students and intellectuals, Redding held an "open opposition to the |black aesthetic' movement, which ... alienated him from some of its defenders and disciples" (p. 9). Unlike members of the Black Arts Movement, Redding "wrote ... to reeducate a nation about the lives and literature and history of a people who had been erased from standard Americana and often caricatured on stage and screen" (p. 10). According to Berry "[h]is hopes and aspirations for equal opportunity and justice ... always meant assimilation, and he could not understand or accept the call of more radical black voices who retreated from that position" (p. 10).

Not everyone might agree that Redding's point of view is necessarily assimilationist. In any case his 1977 article for Crisis entitied "The Black Arts Movement: A Modest Dissent," clearly articulates his position on the notion of Black Aesthetics:

Negro Americans do not have a separate culture. Although ostensibly communal, their culture derives from and is in a great part defined by their experiences as black people in a predominantly white America. This is not to say that the cultural consciousness and the cultural activities and artifacts of Negro Americans do not have distinctive qualities, which may derive from their African heritage, but these distinctive qualities are not "racial" in the commonly accepted meanings of the term. (p. 213)

This insistence on problematizing the terms "race" and "blackness" may have made him highly unpopular with some black writers and scholars, but in light of current debates about the nature of difference and the bracketing of "race" and "culture" (see for example the recent work of Houston A. Baker, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah), Redding's comments would be relevant to present discussions of multiculturism and cultural studies, as well as African-American literature.

It is precisely this relevance that Berry does not stress adequately enough in the anthology's introduction. Though one is grateful to Berry for guiding this volume into print, there is some disappointment in an opening essay which is rich in background information, but does little to contextualize Redding in light of trends in recent criticism, or to contemplate why there would be a use for Redding today beyond the need to know that he helped legitimize the study of African-American literature. Indeed, Berry merely reveals her own blindspots when she insists that Redding was atheoretical in his approach to American and African-American literature and culture: She calls him "a practical critic in the tradition of Samuel Johnson," a scholar who "was intent on communicating an understanding and appreciation of literature to his readers." All of this is prefaced by her own disdain for black critics who adopt "whatever literary theories are popular ... some of which last only a little longer than an academic semester" (p. 12).

Simply because Redding does not engage directly with the language of New Criticism or Poststructuralism does not mean that he is atheoretical. It should go without saying that all critics employ some kind of theory about the meaning of literary or cultural studies and about pedagogy, or else how could they function intellectually? The mistake Berry makes is to assume that because Redding does not evoke the identical linguistic and critical models used in specific kinds of current "Theory" he is not engaging in a similarly rigorous theoretical critique of language, culture and subjectivity.

Also, Berry offers a less than satisfactory organization of the anthology itself. The table of contents lists a number of general headings to accommodate the variety in Redding's work: Autobiography, History, Biography, Journalism, Politics, and Travelogue. However, very crucial (and equally relevant) literary essays and reviews are unceremoniously lumped into a final "Miscellany" of Criticism, where individual items are not listed for easy access by the reader. In the end, such oversights in the arrangement of the excerpts hinder rather than help Berry in her efforts. Perhaps if she had set out to assess Redding as a literary critic who worked to expand the definitions of literary discourse to include politics, history, biography as well as fiction, then she could have executed a fuller contextualization of Redding for contemporary readers.

It is of course probable that the faults I have outlined in the handling of the material stem not from poor editorial practices, but rather from the very burden this text bears as the first real collection of Redding's writings outside of To Make a Poet Black. Because of all it wants to deliver to the reader, A Scholar's Conscience tries to present Redding with a minimum of sermonizing. In general, despite the anthology's seeming lack of focus, it does contain intelligent selections that reveal Redding to be an intense, opinionated, thought-provoking cultural critic who wrote with a very personal and highly readable style. And perhaps because Berry chooses not to focus on any one aspect of Redding's work, leaving the reader to draw her or his own sense of Redding's place in the American and African-American intellectual traditions, the final result for some might be a feeling of disjointedness, but certainly for others, a sense of intellectual re-discovery.
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Author:Gunning, Sandra
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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