Printer Friendly

African-American critical discourse and the invention of cultural identities.

The Negro in the United States who writes books, plays, music, poetry; who dances, sings, paints, acts or performs, designs or creates in any way; who is a critic or a student of history - all of these are today faced with a great racial dilemma. The very fact that we stand on the threshold of more democracy and freedom has posed a cultural problem of a very complex nature. Put in the simplest terms, the problem is this: As Negroes of Afro-American descent, and as writers, artists, creative individuals, whose culture do we develop and uphold - an Afro-American culture or an Anglo-American culture? (Cruse, "Cultural" 49)

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet - not a Negro poet"; meaning subconsciously "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America - this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. (Hughes 175)

Harold Cruse's provocative question about African-Americans' choosing to develop and embrace Afro-American or Anglo-American culture initiated what came to be known as the Cruse-Redding controversy of 1958-59. Writing in an era of entrenched assimilationism, Cruse dared to proclaim the specificity of African-American culture. "The American Negro," he contended, "cannot be understood culturally unless [s/]he is seen as a member of a detached ethnic bloc of people of African descent reared for three hundred years in the unmotherly bosom of Western civilization" ("Cultural" 49). Reckless "integration," according to his diagnosis, had landed the African-American in a "cultural desert: the deracinating despair zone "between two opposing racial and cultural identities - the Afro-American and Anglo-American" (52).

Cruse's quest was not for a naive "return to the source." For even as he established connections between Africa and African-America - for instance, the nascent wave of political decolonization in the former, signaled by the Ghanian independence of 1957, and the budding nationalism in the latter - he emphasized the "Americaness" of the distinctive African-American culture that needed affirmation and invigoration. If culture is the "soul of a race, nation, people or nationality," he argued, the African-American soul had "lost its power of communication," stunted, as it were, by "Caucasian idolatry in the arts, abandonment of true identity, and immature, childlike mimicry of white aesthetics" (53, 56). Since he believed the future to be especially bleak for African-American dominance in U.S. politics or economics, he recommended a profound "cultural rehabilitation and refurbishing" as the only precondition for a proper assessment of problems and strategies and therefore for a "firm grip" on African-American "destiny" (66).

When Cruse published "An Afro-American's Cultural Views," the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 was just four years old. Its effects were yet to be fully absorbed, much less subjected to the kind of useful scrutiny only a critical distance could allow. International fame was emerging for Martin Luther Kin& Jr., the Civil Rights apostle who kept the embers of hope alive with integrationist fuel, and for a while, there seemed to be a consensus - if we see "consensus" as an agreement among those who have the wherewithal to make themselves heard - that "cultural integration," as King had crafted the elegant proclamation a year earlier, was the "promised land" of African-America (qtd. in Cruse, "Cultural" 60-61).

Under these circumstances, the responses to Cruse's essay were predictable. One of the most cited is Saunders Redding's "Negro Writing in America," an address given at the First Congress of Negro Writers, organized by the American Society of African Culture in 1959. To claim a distinctive culture for African-America, Redding stated, is "not only wrong but wrong-headed," a divisive propaganda of negative utility. "There is no question at all of an Afro-American as against an Anglo-American culture" (8), he assured his distinguished audience. In fact, he continued, "The American Negro people are not a people in Cruse's sense of the word" (the sense in which they are "a people" is left unstated). Redding's evidence is the remarkable identity of interests and values between African-Americans and the white world, the homogeneous pursuance by both "Negroes" and "whites" of "a single identity, a oneness of thinking and doing":

... all those factors which come together

to create the fluid complex

loosely called environment have produced

in American Negroes the same

special consciousness and conscience,

the same ethics that they have produced

in white Americans. Values

and value judgments, ideas and ways

of thinking about these ideas, customs,

costumes and manners, images and

symbols - all these and more, both

abstract and concrete, are the same

for Negro Americans and for whites.


According to Redding not only is there no such a thing as "American Negro literature" - or, if there is, as distinct from "American literature," it is "so slight that to be seen it has to be pointed out" - but the ultimate horizon of the writers is the validation of their claim to the "American heritage" (9).

Perhaps we could argue that the certainty and magisterial closure of Redding's conclusions reflect the dominant assumptions of the particular moment regarding African-American identity and difference. But the matter is hardly that simple, if only in its determination to "keep coming back," like the return of the repressed. After all, Langston Hughes, three decades before, had broached a similar problematic in his celebration and suggestion of African-American folk culture as writers' creative resource against the packaged, "standardized" hegemonic culture of America toward which he saw the black middle class and their imitators as determinedly but foolishly bent (176-77).

The Cruse-Redding controversy would "repeat" itself a decade and half later in the form of a symposium titled "The Function of Black Criticism at the Present Time," organized by Houston A. Baker, Jr., at the University of Pennsylvania. This time, Redding had the whole gamut of Black Aestheticians to contend with, but his insistence was still a denial of difference: "The Negro American does not have a separate culture," he wrote in his contribution," Afro-American Culture and the Black Aesthetic: Notes toward a Re-Evaluation" (41). More or less a lone voice now, Redding could hardly make himself heard above the voices of the new consensus.

The accent might be somewhat different, but a similar impulse aimed at negotiating the problematic of difference informs the recent exchange among Joyce A. Joyce, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Baker on the pages of New Literary History. Writing on "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism," Joyce laments what she sees as the deplorable "exogamic, elitist, epistemological adaptations" of the "new" African-American critic - or, in simpler terms, the defeatist "merger of Negro expression with Euro-American expression" in contemporary African-American literary criticism (337,339). This trend, she argues, is not only a denial of one's "race" but also a basic abandonment of the historical point of view and function of earlier African-American writers and critics: the view that there is "a direct relationship between Black lives - black realities - and Black literature" and the duty of "guid[ing], serv[ing] as an intermediary in explaining the relationship between Black people and those forces that attempt to subdue them." This trend which denies and abandons is called "Black poststructuralist criticism," and its leading proponents are Gates and Baker. Like orphans, they have swallowed wholesale the "methodological strategies characteristic of ... Northrop Frye ..., Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Geoffrey Hartman" rather than those of Addison Gayle, Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka (to mention three of the critics approved by Joyce, who is totally silent on differences between the early and late works of Neal and Baraka). It is no wonder, Joyce feels, that the "ratiocination" or "pseudoscientific language" of the "Black poststructuralists" is "distant and sterile." The tragic thing is that they do not realize that they are caught in a paradoxical situation, "for the problem is that no matter how the Black man [sic] merges into American mainstream society, he or she looks at himself [sic] from an individualistic perspective that enables him or her to accept elitist American values and thus widen the chasm between his or her world-view and those masses of Blacks whose lives are still stifled by oppressive environmental, intellectual phenomena" (338-39). The "poststructuralist sensibility," she concludes, "does not apply to Black American literary works" (341-42).

Against Joyce's exclusivist propositions, Gates, in his response "|What's Love Got To Do With It,'" recommends a "truly pluralistic notion of the institution of literature," receptive not only to "any tool that enables the critic to explain the complex workings of the language of a text," but also to the specificity of different literary traditions (351-52). Between absolute autarchy and absolute subservience, Gates sees little choice: "We commit intellectual suicide by binding ourselves too tightly to nonblack theory; but we drown just as surely ... if we pretend that theory is |white,' or worse - that it is |anti-black'" (353). He appropriates contemporary theories "not to |apply' them to black texts, but rather to transform by translating them into a new rhetorical realm" (351).

Baker's response, "In Dubious Battle," follows a similar line. Only a "new black conservatism," he contends, could condemn the contemporary desirable expansiveness, diversity, originality, and yes, complexity in the Afro-American critical and theoretical arsenal" (363). He particularly derides Joyce's "mythical" understanding of intercultural relations in a multicultural society, arguing that "the myth of an exclusively white mainstream into which Afro-Americans can |merge' by choice is utter and patent nonsense - a fiction perpetrated by rich Anglo-American males and rejected out of hand by most Afro-Americans from 1619 to our multi-ethnic, multidimensional, and complex present" (365).(1)

The problematic raised by these debates is one of cultural identity and difference in a multicultural society in which the constituents exist not in a relation of equality but of subordination/domination.(2) From a close examination of the controversies, in both their explicit claims and their subtle inflections, I have extracted what appear to be tendencies toward two discernible discourses of cultural identity. I call these the sacred and profane. Let me clarify these concepts and identify their manifestations.(3)

A basic assumption underlying the sacred conception of cultural identity is that culture is a given totality, separated and separable from other cultures with the exactness of a puritanical slide rule. Culture is not only perceived as an organic unity, but its constitutive elements are taken to be non-contradictory, non-antagonistic, and united by necessary laws - in short, monolithic. This homogeneity, or "unanimism," as Paulin Hountondji calls it, underwrites the category of difference from other cultures - a difference which is then claimed as closed, absolute, and impenetrable. The pursuance of inviolable difference explains why the discourse of sacred identity is replete with vocabularies that reveal organicist longings: fixation with the categories of separation, unity, fragmentation, "in-fighting" and so on. In the terrain of intercultural transactions, parallelism, rather than mutual influence and impingement, is proposed. Endogamy is enthroned and fetishized. Cultural distinctiveness becomes fully fixed, complete, and unnegotiable; it becomes, to borrow from James Clifford, a "boundary to be maintained [rather than) a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject" (344). If, as usually happens, history cracks open this ahistorical conception of cultural identity by way of an intrusion of difference, the sacred discourse merely proclaims "identity crisis," its superstitious character having left it a novice in the tactical art of negotiation, or, it marshals its simplistic binary strategies with sometimes successful but extremely evanescent and circumscribed results.

Profane discourse, on the other hand, insists on the historicity, that is, the "made-ness" of culture and therefore the functional and invented character of every identity. Far from being a given, seamless totality, culture is perceived as a complicated, politic "articulation" of (often) mutually contradictory, even antagonistic elements. And because these elements are governed by a relation of articulation rather than of inviolable suture, they are necessarily mediable. Thus, neither the end result of articulation - "culture" - nor its constitutive elements possess any necessary character. Because culture is characterized by permanent openness, to the extent that culture has as essence, it is a "negative essence." Cultural identity cannot be closed and positive, but exists as essentially fragile and vulnerable, and is constituted as transition, relation, difference, contingence, dispersion (Laclau and Mouffe 93-114). Cultural identity is, thus, not a product but a "complex historical process ... of appropriation, compromise, subversion, masking, invention, and revival" (Clifford 338). According to profane discourse, cultural difference to be a stable otherness. "The pure products," in Clifford's famous phrase, "go crazy" (1).

But in spite of the pervasive privileging of dispersion and contingency, profane discourse subjects itself to its own logic by profaning itself; that is, by admitting "necessity" or privileged elements even as it is neck-deep in the field of contingency. It holds as essentialist illusion and impossibility absolute sacredness or absolute profanity, and therefore eschews both. Both positions erase the very notion of identity by their erasure of the categories of relation with other cultures and the inescapable imbrication of histories. What we have, then, are two essentialisms: an essentialism of the signified (absolute sacredness/God/"I am who I am") and an essentialism of the signifier (absolute profanity/Iago/"I am not what I am"). Hence profane discourse, true to its character, accepts "honorary" sacredness, or partial fixations. This sacredness, in turn, because it is within the profane, loses its divine, ahistorical character and becomes an identifiable, historically expedient rallying point - or, as Laclau and Mouffe would have it, a nodal point (112). Since the nodal point is both historical and within a general regime of the contingent, it stands little risk of petrifying into an absolute. This nodal point or "necessity" articulates or gives the contingent elements a "focus," while the contingent elements constantly challenge and scrutinize the credential of "necessity" to the continued occupancy of the privileged (nodal) point.(4) (If, for instance, we find the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People redundant today, we need contextually to reevaluate the effectiveness of the articulating power of Civil Rights as a nodal point.)

Let us, with some care, identify the several positions of the cited debates on African-American culture.

Saunders Redding's denial of African-American difference, his insistence on "a single identity, a oneness of thinking and doing" as the main impulse of "American life," shows strong affinities with the sacred conception of cultural identity.(5) His assumption of identity as a finished and unnegotiable given makes him see confusion where there is none:

There is confusion, and it is intellectual, ideological and emotional. The confusion, the contradictions and the ambivalence are structured into every aspect of black life in America. Negroes are saying. "We want in." But in the same breadth they are also saying: "We want out." They are saying: "Tear down the walls of segregation," and at the same time: "We want our schools, libraries, museums and other socializing institutions and our businesses in our own Black communities, which we want to control for our own benefit." . . . Even while they sloganize "Back to Africa" and form study groups and forums as the means by which they will reclaim their African heritage, they are saying in the words of perhaps their best known poet, the late Langston Hughes, "I, too, am America." ("Afro-American" 46)

Perhaps Redding is right: There is confusion. It is not, however, in what "Negroes are saying" but in Redding's mode of reading their discourse. Unless the profound implications of an intercultural transaction governed by centuries of relations of domination and subordination escape one, there is certainly no reason that "We want in" should be incompatible with "We want out"; "Our own institutions!" need not be a corruption of "Abolish segregation!" - or "Back to Africa" T-shirts a negation of "I, too, am America" pants.

In spite of whatever factors Redding might see as distinguishing his conception of African-American culture from the conceptions of the proponents of a Black Aesthetic (he calls them "pseudo-intellectuals," and their project a "confusion"), a similar impulse to frazzle and petrify identity unites them. Between integration and separation, in their absolute formulations, one looks in vain for a strategic choice.(6) Between a fanatic willing of homogeneity and a rabid insistence on particularism, the charmed circle of the sacred remains intact.

Joyce Joyce remains securely within this circle. Not only do her essays unabashedly construct a univocal voice for African-American culture, but the construct is then mobilized as the unchallengeable measure of "authenticity" against any threat of internal pluralism. Her uniformitarian quest is identifiable in the anxiety over merging, a word/concept she repeats in a variety of forms. The quest also subtends such key words, phrases, and propositions as exogamic, direct relationship, clear right and obvious wrong, the natural cycle organically requires . . ., communal . . . nature of Black literature ("Black" 337-43), and indigenous values (those that serve our own best interests) and alien ones (those that do not serve our best interests) ("|Who'" - 378).

On the question of "values," take special note of Joyce's conception of indigenous and alien in strict utilitarian terms - a strategy that precludes internal heterogeneity by refusing to imagine that there could be "indigenous values" which may not necessarily serve "our best interests." (Who decides this, anyway?) What we have here is a recommendation for the policing and arrest of indigenous ideas perceived to be opposed to "our best interests." The task of excommunication is made easier because a convenient damning label already awaits such ideas: alien. By the same logic, we are not allowed to imagine whether "alien" ideas could ever serve "our best interests."

We could retrieve Joyce's utilitarian definition and glimpse in it the potential for transcending essentialist labeling of ideas as indigenous or alien by metaphorizing these operational terms. In this case, indigenous values, as values that serve a group's interests, would not necessarily refer to values of the group alone but to values from whatever source which that the group finds useful. Alien values, then, would be values which are deleterious to the group, whether such values are traditional to or produced within the group, or are the values of an "external" dominating force. But Joyce soon disappoints us when she veers away from this hopeful terrain: "How can the extraneous, alien poststructuralist practices serve as the |prelude to the definition of principles of literary criticism peculiar to the Black literary traditions'?" ("|Who'" 382; emphasis added). No longer is the crux of the matter usefulness, but a vapid, sacred "Is it ours?" - even when it is no longer useful. The implications would seem to go something like: Whites may write the most critical, anti-racist texts, but I would rather have this drivel here because it is written by a black, make a bonfire of all the feminist texts written by men, but leave this apologia for patriarchy because it is written by a woman; and so on.

The anxiety for group homogeneity also makes Joyce consistently propose a simplistic but dangerous transparent theory of representation (the National Socialists used it effectively; many reactionary "Third World" governments are currently deploying it against committed reformers and revolutionaries): an axiomatic one-to-one relationship between literature and social reality, between representation and what it represents, between representatives and the represented, between governors and the governed. Here are some of her formulations: "Black American literary critics, like Black creative writers, saw a direct relationship between Black lives - Black realities - and Black literature" ("Black" 338); "the natural cycle organically requires that one school of literary thought be created from the one that goes before" (343); "I do not understand how a Black critic aware of the implantations of racist structures in the consciousness of Blacks and Whites could accept poststructuralist ideas and practices" ("|Who'" 379);" . . . my views of Black literary criticism are inextricably and unembarrassingly tied to my identity as a Black person and . . . Gates's and Baker's responses are, by nature, inextricably related to an absence of identity" (380); "while Black American literature and its criticism are rooted in an allegiance to Black people, Baker and Gates have |relinquished' that allegiance" (382).

Theodore O. Mason's critique of Joyce's "populism" as being "in the service of a general intellectual and ideological conservatism that reflexively criticizes the innovative because it fears the instability of change and the challenge of the new" ("Between" 606) may be apt, but Joyce's main point, in spite of her repeated charges of elitism against the poststructuralists, seems not so much for populism. In fact, she has reservations against the popular, too - witness her attack on Tina Turner. Unlike Gates's and Baker"s "obscurantism," Turner's singing happens to be one of the things "our people" understand, at least by Joyce's own grading of the singer's affective capacities. But what starts out as a promising critique of "popular" culture ends up expressing the old anxiety for unanimism threatened by "alien" ideas: "Tina's songs," Joyce condemns, "also typify the poststructuralist sensibility" ("|Who'" 373). Here, as elsewhere in her essays, Joyce's designedly progressive politics get caught up in limiting and self-defeating formulations. This is the reason that she finds herself unwittingly recycling an already discredited body of Eurocentric discourse, as in her opposition between "senses" (Black) and "intellect" (white, poststructuralist): "Black poststructuralist critics . . . evince their powers of ratiocination with an overwhelming denial of most, if not all, the senses. Ironically, they challenge the intellect, |dulling' themselves to the realities of the sensual, communicative function of language" ("Black" 339-40).

"Only such a single-minded crusade for sacredness and univocalism could explain not only her ignoring the problems with many Black Aesthetic formulations, such as sexism and antifeminism (Baraka 147-53) and the like, but also Joyce's silence on the change of views and candid self-critique effected by two of her authorities, Baraka and Neal, regarding their earlier exclusivist conceptions of black cultural identity. Joyce's assertion that Neal's "lifelong work was to destroy that |white thing' within us . . ." ("|Who'" 376)(7) is simply not true. With Joyce's strategies, we are left with little or no space to account gainfully for the enduring and productive engagement of the expanding tradition of African-American women's writing and critical discourse with other African-American traditions. In other words, by relentlessly excluding rather than trying to understand and work through "internal" pluralism, Joyce precludes any interrogation of demanding issues such as, for instance, the intersection of gender and cultural identity.

On the other hand, Harold Cruse, the post-Black Aesthetic Baker, and Gates seem to be working within the assumptions of profane discourse. Even as Cruse rails against African-American "Caucasian idolatry"' in the cultural realm, he never forgets to emphasize the open constitution of African-American culture, its secular character as a "mixture of African, Indian and Caucasian" ("Cultural" 50). In its accommodation and original synthesis of disparate critical strands, and its concrete anchoring of derived insights within a distinct cultural space - the blues (as matrix) - Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature not only moves, as Kimberly W. Benston writes of the best of recent African-American criticism, "beyond a whites-only theory of literature but [surpasses) the assumed priority of that discourse in the nurturance of literary criticism" (99). Some contextualization is necessary before I examine Gates's work.

The of most previous formulations of African-American difference or specificity is that they usually stop at mere affirmation, or cloak affirmation within claims of some impenetrable (to non-members) "saturated" circle. Larry Neal's promise of a "larger essay" to "tie . . . together" his suggestive outlines of the constitutive elements of a "Black Aesthetic" never materialized ("Some Reflections" 13). The usual scenario is a rhetorical proclamation of aesthetic/cultural difference, followed by a conclusion that leaps into political rhetoric(8):

The problem of the de-Americanization of black people lies at the heart of the Black Aesthetic. . . . To understand this . . . and what must be done . . . is to understand the Black Aesthetic. A critical methodology has no relevance to the black community unless it aids men [sic] in becoming better than they are . . . . The question for the black critic today is not how beautiful is a melody, a play, a poem, or a novel, but how much more beautiful has the poem, melody, play, or novel made the life of a single black man. (Gayle xxii-xxiii)

If African-American cultural difference is hinged on the exigencies of racial solidarity and liberation - political, economic, even cultural, and so on - it is difficult to see where the "difference" lies. The inability to demonstrate, rather than simply proclaim, its difference or "blackness" lies at the heart of Black Aesthetic criticism. As Neal would later indicate, Black Aesthetic "ideas turn out to be updated versions of Marxist literary theory in which the concept of race is substituted for the Marxist idea of class" ("Black" 783). Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual affords us a most penetrating materialist critique of the cultural crisis, yet the constitutive elements of an "Afro-American" culture are not articulated nor is the possibility of inventing cognitive categories from them contemplated. Unlike Cruse, I see the crisis as extending beyond the emptiness of integration, the inadequacies of nationalism, and the general impotence and decadence of the middle class. I borrow V. Y. Mudimbe's term in The Invention of Africa to label the crisis an undue epistemological filiation to the West (x) - or the hegemony of Western cognitive categories, including Cruse's exclusive tool, Marxism. In the context of African studies, Mudimbe describes the operation of this epistemological filiation:

The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual system which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly "Afrocentric" descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order. Does this mean that African Weltanschauungen and African traditional systems of thought are unthinkable and cannot be made explicit within the framework of their own rationality? (19)

For me, it is precisely this epistemological filiation that Gates's work directly confronts.

Articulating a secular notion of identity, Gates argues that coming to terms with the "complex double formal antecedents, the Western and the black" of black literature, requires the sensitivity of a genuine comparativist (Signifying xxiv). The productive awareness, differing from both Redding's denial of difference and the isolationism of the Black Aestheticians, is that, "whereas black writers most certainly revise texts in the Western tradition, they often seek to do so |authentically,' with a black difference, a compelling sense of difference based on the black vernacular" (xxii). To fail to grasp this "mulattoic" constitution or "two-toned heritage" (xxii) is to fall into what Gates defines in Figures in Black as an unstrategic exclusivism - the "the enclosure of negation" - or an equally unacceptable inclusivism, "fated to obey the suggestion of an external milieu for lack of auto-suggestion from within" (54). Hence, Gates's challenge to the critic of comparative black literature is to "allow contemporary theoretical developments to inform his or her readings of discrete black texts but also to generate his or her own theories from the black idiom itself" (58). The process by which this transaction is to be effected is one of "critical signification" (52), a process designed to synthesize (xxx) as well as yield original difference.

In Signifying, he writes: "Naming the black tradition's own theory of itself is to echo and rename other theories of literary criticism . . . . To name our tradition is to rename each of its antecedents, no matter how pale they might seem. To rename is to revise, and to revise is to Signify" (xxiii). The result for Gates is that, while various strands of poststructuralism serve as privileged" points of departure" for his earlier works, in the latest and most seminal, The Signifying Monkey, "they surface primarily as analogies. Analogies, of course, serve to suggest moments of similarity, identity, and even difference within a shared framework of presupposition" (xxiv). Elsewhere he writes on the implication of this for contemporary critical practice:

To attempt to appropriate our own discourses by using Western critical theory uncritically is to substitute one mode of neocolonialism for another. . . . As deconstruction and other poststructuralisms or even an a-racial Marxism, and other "articles of faith in Euro-Judaic thought" exhaust themselves in a self-willed racial never-never land in which we see no true reflections of our black faces and hear no echoes of our black voices, let us - at long last - master the critical traditions and languages of Africa and Afro-America. Even as we continue to reach out to others in the critical canon, let us be confident in our own black traditions and in their compelling strength to sustain systems of critical thought as yet dormant and unexplicated. We must, in the truest sense, turn inward even as we turn outward to redefine . . . in our own images. ("Authority" 43, 45-46; emphasis added)

Gates's appropriation of Esu as the basis for a literary theory is one of the most original attempts in the African-American critical tradition to foreground the "sound within" even as the ears are strategically alert to a multitude of often deafening surrounding voices. His meticulous mapping of the contours of Esu and the trickster figure's transformations in the New World serves, beyond the confined area of literary studies, to link up Africa and its diaspora in a way very few studies have undertaken. The continuities show in the differences, and the differences, in very illuminating ways, underscore the linkages. Gates's work cuts into and shows a pathway against the monopoly of the "Western episteme" in a world in which the intricate connections among discourse, knowledge, and power are becoming clearer than ever (to the great headache of the high hegemons), leading to the awareness that representation of the self by the "other," or tools of representing the self fashioned by the other, no matter how benevolent or dispassionate, can only be a poor substitute for self-representation with self-fashioned tools. Compare Hountondji's warning, in a not too dissimilar context, that, "if theoretical discourse is to be meaningful in modern Africa, it must promote within African society itself a theoretical debate of its own that is capable of developing its theme and problems autonomously instead of remaining a remote appendix to European theoretical and scientific debates" (qtd. in Signifying xx). This is where I locate the enormous political significance of Gates's work.

Of course, the connections between The Signifying Monkey and certain poststructuralisms cannot be denied. In fact, such denials would run counter to the very secular cultural identity proposed by the work. However, to say, as Joyce does, that" |The Signifying Monkey" is "nothingness" or to substitute "Black poststructuralism" for critical specificity - or to claim, as Mason does in a similar criticism, that the essays in Black Literature and Literary Theory "seem caught in the critical backwaters of structuralism, deconstruction, and arid formalism" ("Academic" 48) - is to say too little to be of use. And this "too little" applies to the duo's suggested solutions: for Joyce, promotion of the "brotherhood of man [sic]" ("|Who'" 383) and, for Mason, "return to the authority of the text, and [adopting] an eclecticism of critical methodology" ("Academic" 50). When Mason reviews the Joyce-Gates-Baker exchange two years later, he substitutes a similar "too little" for a full confrontation with the relations of and among discourse, power, and the academic establishment he so well understands:

The field of Afro-American letters is as yet only minimally explored, despite the publication of a vast number of worthy books and articles. . . . As the first step toward a fuller recognition of the useful fluidity and uncertainty occasioned by this condition, I suggest that canon-formation as an enterprise be junked, in favor of more persistent textual and cultural analysis. This type of analysis needs to be conditioned by an appreciation of the advances of theory, but not over-awed by theory. At this point, canon-formation is a reflexive trope too dependent on the dominant mainstream academic tradition, and likely a step or two behind. In its place should come a greater commitment to an ideological, critical, and intellectual independence. ("Populist" 613-14)

What is, and with what do we achieve, a "more persistent textual and cultural analysis"? What are or should be the strategies of "commitment to . . . independence"?

Against the haziness of Joyce's and Mason's critiques, I would raise a more specific dialogue with Gates's work. In his known insistence on the location of the specificity of African-American literary tradition in formal intertextuality - how the texts in their rhetorical structures read and signify upon themselves and other texts in other traditions, and in the repeated articulation of the formalism of his own enterprise as against the "crude sociology" of the Black Aestheticians - Gates erects a series of oppositions: form-content, aesthetics-culture, rhetoric-politics, literary-ideological/political, relation of structure-relation of content," |mau-mauing'" - "intellectual inquiry," and so on (Figures 44). To be sure, the emphasis on form is strategic, and serves major functions: It shows a way out of the Joycean essentialism of Black life = Black literature, and produces illuminating close readings of the rhetorical structures of texts that are indeed outstanding. It also liberates a literary tradition from unstrategic claims of homogeneity and univocalism, as several patterns of intertextuality might be found within a tradition and between a tradition and other traditions. Yet we must ask if the resultant freedom should be at the cost of validating and absolutizing binarisms.(9) For as the phenomenon of The Signifying Monkey in the context of the American academy shows, the rhetorical is little else if not political:

That which unites those of us whose canonical texts differ is the shared concern with theory that arises from these texts. It is here that we are to find common ground; it is here that we can bridge text milieus. It is here that the hegemony of the Western tradition at last can be seen to be the arbitrary and ideological structure that it is. (Figures 58)

What is Gates doing here if it is not a "|mau-muing'" of some sort? What is the entire project if not a political act of articulating a new "regime of truth"? The most interesting thing, however, is that Gates can never hope to get away with the crippling oppositions. As The Signifying Monkey itself makes very clear in its discourse on Esu and the deity's untetherable indeterminacy and open-endedness, whenever there is any attempt to congeal identities - such as could be read from Gates's construction of binarisms - Esu unfailingly lies in ambush, sharpening h(is)er deconstructive arrows. From the text itself, we have ammunition against its complacencies and for its re-visioning. We behold here, then, one of the enabling dimensions of a secular cultural identity.


(1) A few of the critics who have responded directly or indirectly to this exchange include Michael Awkward, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Theodore O. Mason, Jr., "Populist." (2) In a circumstance such as this, the passion for identity (roughly conceived as distinctiveness among groups and sameness within group) becomes the fate of most dominated groups (or minorities, if this term is understood not only in terms of numerical strength but also of access to the controlling power of the social establishment). For a useful introduction to the vicissitudes of cultural minorities in multicultural societies, see Alcock, Taylor, and Welton; Cruse, Plural. (3) In formulating these two "models" of cultural identity, I have borrowed insights from Hountondji, Cabral, Du Bois, Harris, and Laclau and Mouffe. (4) This is the direction of Cornel West's argument when he writes that "Black intellectual work and Black collective insurgency must be rooted in the specificity of Afro-American life and history; but they also are inextricably linked to the American, European, and African elements which shape and mold them. Such work and insurgency are explicitly particularist though not exclusivist - hence they are international in outlook and practice" ("Dilemma" 52) (5) It is important to emphasize that sacred and secular are deployed as categories to indicate the dominant tendencies in the works of the critics discussed, not as compartments into which they are locked with apocalyptic and unappeasable finality. Saunders Redding, for instance, in spite of his now sacred propositions, authored To Make a Poet Black, his distinguished academic history of African-American literature, in 1939. And Joyce Joyce's resort to write critics, such as Terry Eagleton, for ammunition in her sacred black project against whites theory is more than furtive. I find a similar "contravention" in the work of those I list as advancing secular identity, such as Baker and Gates. Compare, as an example, Baker's restrictive formulations in "Caliban's Triple Play" with the open, wide-sweeping cultural dynamism proposed in his important book Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. In reading Baker's "Caliban," the reader will benefit, as I did, from Kwame A. Appiah's illuminating response, "The Conservation of |Race.'" I discuss the sacred strain in Gates's work later in the essay. (6) Some of the leading Black Aesthetic theorists came to this realization later on. For revealing accounts of changes occasioned by such knowledge in the works of Baker, Larry Neal, and Amiri Baraka, ses Baker, Afro-American Poetics. (7) See n6, and also Larry Neal's seminal essay " The Black Contribution to American Letters." (8) Even so, we must not forget the historically profound liberating gesture of the Black Aesthetic: its detachment of the power of truth from a form of hegemony - Western universalism - in which it is lodged. I cite Baker's similar reminder in his review of Stephen Henderson's "saturation" theory of black poetry: "I think the romanticism of Henderson and his contemporaries - like that of romantics gone before who were driven to |create a system or be enslav'd by another Man's' - resided in their metaphysical rebelliousness, their willingness to postulate a positive and distinctive category of existence (|Blackness') and then to read the entire universe under that sign. The predication of such a category was not only a radical political act designed to effect the liberation struggles of Afro-America, but also a bold critical stroke designed to break the interpretive monopoly on Afro-American expressive culture that had been held traditionally by a white minority who set an exclusive and |single' standard of criticism" (Blues 82). (9) In an apparent reference to Gates's work, Cornel West aptly writes: "Recent developments in Afro-American literary criticism that focus on the figurative language of the texts are indeed improvements over the flat content analyses, vague black aesthetic efforts, and political didacticism of earlier critics of Afro-American literature. Yet this new black formalism - under whose auspices Afro-American literary canon formation will more than likely take place - overreacts to the limits of the older approaches and thereby captures only select rhetorical features of texts while dehistoricizing their form and content. It ignores the way in which issues of power, political struggle, and cultural identity are inscribed within the formal structures of texts and thereby misses the implicit historical readings of the crisis that circumscribes the texts and to which the texts inescapably and subtly respond" ("Minority Discourse" 199).

Works Cited

Alcock, A. E., B. K. Taylor, and J. M. Welton. The Future of Cultural Minorities. London: Macmillan, 1979. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. "The Conservation of |Races.'" Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 37-60. Awkward, Michael. "Race, Gender, and the Politics of Reading." Black American Literature Forum 22 (1988): 6-27. Baker, Houston A., Jr. Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988. _____. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984 _____. "Caliban's Triple Play." "Race," Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 381-95. _____. "In Dubious Battle." New Literary History 18.2 (1987): 363-69. Baraka, Amiri. "Black Woman." Raise, Race, Rays Raze: Essays since 1965. New York: Random, 1969. 147-53. Benston, Kimberly W. "Facing Tradition: Revisionary Scenes in African-American Literature." PMLA 105 (1990): 98-109. Cabral, Amilcar. Return to the Source. New York: Monthly Review, 1973. Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Cruse, Harold. "An Afro-American's Cultural Views." 1958. Rebellion or Revolution? New York: Morrow, 1968. 48-67. _____. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967. _____. Plural But Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America's Plural Society. New York: Morrow, 1987. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Three Negro Classics. Ed. John Hope Franklin. New York: Avon, 1965. 207-389. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Authority, (White) Power and the (Black) Critic: It's All Greek To Me." Cultural Critique 7 (Fail 1987): 19-46. _____. Figures in Black. Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. _____. The Signifying Monkey. A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. _____. "|What's Love Got to Do With It': Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom." New Literary History 18.2 (1987): 345-62. Gayle, Addison, Jr., ed. The Black Aesthetic. New York: Doubleday, 1971. Harris, Wilson. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Wesport: Greenwood, 1983. Hountondji, Paulin. African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Trans. H. Evans. London: Hutchinson, 1983. Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." 1926, Gayle 175-81. Joyce, Joyce A. "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism." New Literary History 18.2 (1987): 335-44. _____. "|Who the Cap Fit': Unconsciousness and Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Now Literary History 18.2 (1987): 371-84. Laclau, E., and C. Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985. Mason, Theodore O., Jr. "The Academic Critic and Power: Trends in Contemporary Afro-American Literary Criticism." Culture/Criticism/Ideology. Ed. S. Peterfreund. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1986. 46-60. _____. "Between the Populist and the Scientist: Ideology and Power in Recent Afro-American Literary Criticism or, |The Dozens' as Scholarship." Callaloo 11 (1988): 606-15. Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. Neal, Larry. "The Black Contribution to American Letters: Part II: The Writer as Activist - 1960 and After." The Black American Reference Book. Ed. Mabel Smythe. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1976. 767-90. _____. "Some Reflections on the Black Aesthetic." Gayle 13-16. Redding, J. Saunders. "Afro-American Culture and the Black Aesthetic: Notes towards a Re-Evaluation." Reading Black: Essays in the Criticism of African, Caribbean, and Black American Literature. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. Africana Studies Research Center Monograph 4. Ithaca: Cornell U, 1976. 41-47. _____. "Negro Writing in America." New Leader 16 May 1960: 8-10. _____. To Make a Poet Black. 1939. College Park: McGrath, 1968. West, Cornel. "The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual." Critical Quarterly 29.4 (1987)" 40-52. _____. "Minority Discourse and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation." Yale Journal of Criticism 1.1 (1987): 193-201.

Tejumola Olaniyan, is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia. This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the Langston Hughes Festival Conference held at the City College of New York, CUNY, in November of 1989. Professor Olaniyan wishes to express his gratitude to the Carter G. Woodson Institute for research and travel support.
COPYRIGHT 1992 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Olaniyan, Tejumola
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Homecoming.
Next Article:Hybridity in the Center: an interview with Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Related Articles
Blues, history and the dramaturgy of August Wilson.
Mediating "race" and "nation:" the cultural politics of 'The Messenger.' (magazine)
"Leavin' a mark on the wor(l)d": marksmen and marked men in 'Middle Passage.'
Black and white and read all over.
"1 + 1 = 3" and other dilemmas: reading vertigo in Invisible Man, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and Song of Solomon.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters