Audiography and Black Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth Century America.
Kermeth Mostern's Autobiography and Black Identity Politics builds upon the work of Cedric Robinson and Wahneema Lubiano, among others, by undertaking the ambitious task of delineating the generative role of "marxist ontologies" in the development of key pro-Black and Black feminist political positions throughout the twentieth century. Mostern chooses a markedly literary critical approach, tracking pro-Black and Black feminist figures' production of autobiography out of the dialectic between the presumption that autobiography is necessarily the story of an individual and the fact that racist structures have made it necessary for Black autobiography to speak for the collective. He makes a point of including a chapter on autobiographical theory, even though he identifies the chapter as optional for those not specifically interested in autobiographical theory as such. Mostern's keen analyses of the form, language, reception, and genealogical positioning of texts from W. E. B. Du Bois's autobiographical trilogy t o bell hooks's autobiographical cultural criticism constitute a strong critical base.
The book's scope is admirably broad in terms of the number of figures discussed and the range of political-action programs that they present. In addition to Du Bois, Malcolm X, and hooks, Autobiography also takes up writing by Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Zora Neale Hurston, Angelo Herndon, Paul Robeson, Nikki Giovanni, and Angela Davis. This project is a timely one given the heightened attention to questions about what form something called an autobiography must or must not have, about authorial authenticity, and, perhaps most importantly, about the relationship among autobiography, community, and duty. The recent work of Doris Sommer on testimonyios and Pamela Bordelon on Zora Neale Hurston (and her "lying" about her birthplace) are only two examples of the recent explosion in autobiography studies. Mostern's work is distinctive in its treatment of autobiographies that rarely show up in scholarly debates on Black autobiography, as well as in its highlighting of the structures within an d without the text that make it what it is rather than simply focusing on the (Black) content, the story.
Mostern's work continues the trend of questioning presumptions about who the author is in terms of race, culture, and ideology. Through his readings he rejects the simplistic notion that these texts written by Black authors are somehow naturally Black and progressive (Hurston), obviously anti-Black (the Ex-Colored Man), or always espousing a singular definition of Blackness (Du Bois). Autobiography and Black Identity Politics makes the powerful point that "contrary to many people's assumptions ... self-conscious 'nationalism' has frequently been based on strategic or tactical concerns, rather than so-called 'essentialism.'" In calling attention to the racialization process within the text, to how the texts and/or the autobiographical subjects become Black, Mostern joins his intellectual touchstone, W. E. B. Du Bois (and to some extent Stuart Hall), in the insistence that Blackness is not an always already, but rather a developed strategy for making sense of material circumstances and the determining structur es that have arisen out of a racialization from above.
The text is divided into three parts--"Theorizing Race, Autobiography, and Identity Politics," "The Politics of Negro Self-Representation," and "The Dialectics of Home: Gender, Nation, and Blackness." In the first section, Mostern distinguishes his arguments from those of other writer/scholars, including June Jordan, who, he notes, "helps to obscure what is at stake in the term [identity politics], [and] the ways in which her opposition to identity politics is itself received on the basis of her race and gender." He further situates his work in relation to Sidonie Smith and other feminist critics whose work he identifies as being too focused "on individual subject formation and identificatory flux."
By far the strongest chapter is the one entitled "Malcolm X and the Grammar of Redemption," found in the book's second section. Here Mostern argues that the enduring popularity of The Autobiography of Malcolm X constituted a radical new mode of articulating Blackness because it posited four racial consciousnesses that translate into four different narrative voices and narratives--the hustler, the sexual black man, the gender conscious and/or misogynistic Black man, and the educated and/or transformed Black man.
Mostern's theoretical house, while quite sturdy in the chapters on W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, seems less so in the chapters that center on Ida B. Wells, women in Black Power, and contemporary Black feminist writing. Mostern does go out of his way to incorporate substantive discussions of gender into his theorization of autobiography and black identity politics, a commendable decision. The last two chapters are entitled "The Political Identity: 'Woman' As Emergent from the Space of Black Power" and "Home and Profession in Black Feminism." His discussion of the women, however, at times does not reflect the same focus on the ways in which Blackness is strategically constructed through the narrative form and particular modes of representing the development of subjectivity that is evident in his discussion of the men. Ida B. Wells, for example, is discussed primarily through non-autobiographical writings, primarily in relation to Walter White, and primarily in terms of her exclusion from the genealogy of ant i-lynching thought. What may have been not only more interesting but more in line with the methodology used in discussions of the male writers is teasing out how she delineates an understanding of processes of racialization and the resulting measuring posts of Blackness that her writing will be judged against. The fact that she does not spend much time on her childhood in Crusade for Justice warrants further analysis. A crucial question that remains unexplored is whether she chose strategically to sublimate her individual self in this way because she understood that the story of her young female self may have been devalued in anti-lynching activist circles.
Autobiography and Black Identity Politics is undoubtedly an important contribution to the fields of Autobiography Studies and African-American Studies. The scope of this book, its methodology, and the arguments that Kenneth Mostern posits within it make it a fascinating read for scholars of identity formation in the United States, autobiography, Black Power, and Marxist theory.
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|Author:||Nwankwo, Ifeoma G. K.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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