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Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism.

Victor Anderson. Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism. New York: Continuum, 1995. 180 pp. $22.95.

For nearly a century Du Bois's proclamation concerning the "color-line" and "double consciousness" has provided a vocabulary for social transformation based upon a racial dichotomy. Liberative agendas using this vocabulary have had limited success in achieving their stated goals because they reduce all oppression to the common denominator of race. This approach is problematic, yet it has remained relatively unchallenged. It is for this reason that Victor Anderson's Beyond Ontological Blackness is so timely. Anderson is not the first to question the engaging because it recognizes the web-like structure of African American life while holding in creative tension its demonic and productive aspects. This is done within the context of religious analysis doctrinally free from the Black church. What the reader, I think, will find most provocative is the skill with which Anderson strikes at the heart of African American identity and convincingly calls into question what have been its defining characteristics.

Although centered on the development of five points, the reader will note that Anderson's agenda, using religio-cultural criticism, neatly fits into two categories: life as "blackness" (chs. 1-3) and life as "grotesque" (ch. 4 and epilogue). Moving from the former to the latter, Anderson argues that notions of white superiority and categorical racism have profoundly influenced "America," and that this preoccupation with race has resulted in African Americans' using tremendous intellectual energy to debunk the legacy of modern racism--racial apologetics. Anderson rethinks this internally inconsistent form of criticism and its reified sense of blackness. Pushing beyond racial apologists' limited vision, he seeks to foster an appreciation for Black life as a mosaic--a full range of individually selected and communally nurturing actions, attitudes, stances, objectives, and goals (i.e., cultural fulfillment).

In chapter one Anderson defines religious criticism, cultural criticism, and other terms that comprise the core of his essay's vocabulary. Using critical theorists such as Edward Said and Hans Blumenberg, Anderson leads the reader through a discussion of central issues in modern criticism: religious vs. secular criticism debates and internal inconsistency based upon false dichotomies. And with the larger critical theory debate outlined, he places criticism within the "racialized culture" of the United States by using a racial genealogy reminiscent of Cornel West's approach. By grounding the humanistic sciences in a theory of natural inequality, Anderson argues that figures such as Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson gave voice to a European genius (i.e., spirit of the age) that justified the bloody movement of modernity. He contends that categorical racism and white racial ideology are parts of a long list of exclusionary tactics justifying differentiation of humanity for overt economic, political, social, and spiritual goals. In response to this racism, Black criticism developed a counter-discourse that Anderson labels ontological blackness. Generally, Black apologists refute claims of white supremacy by presenting Black cultural genius--the uniqueness of African American contributions to culture--as the rationale for Black participation in social progress and democratic humanism. Although one might want initially to recognize the appealing quality of this argument with respect to Black survival, Anderson insightfully claims that it is fundamentally flawed because it is predicated upon acceptance of the whiteness--white superiority--Black apologists reject.

Beyond embracing a reactionary identity, ontological blackness also denotes a provincial or "clan-ness" understanding of Black collective life, one that is synonymous with Black genius and its orthodox activities and attitudes. Collective identity so defined creates conflict between the group and the individual because desires and lifestyles at odds with the "party-line" are labeled "non-black." Individuality is lost, and the freedom to "live, move and have one's being" is compromised through obsession with race.

To avoid these dilemmas, African American criticism must be pragmatic enough to subvert all racial discourse and "cultural idolatry," and sensitive enough to appreciate diverse and utopian or transcendent visions of life. When this is done, both the friction between cultural and religious criticism highlighted by Said and Blumenberg and the preoccupation with blackness are resolved. Room is made for a religiously informed cultural criticism. Anderson grounds this new approach in Howard Thurman's theory of radical consciousness and human action, Cornel West's prophetic pragmatism and politics of difference, and the literary criticism of Toni Morrison and bell hooks. He highlights the manner in which these thinkers promote the existential condition of Black people as informed by race, but not limited to race. For them, life is not binary--black and white or communal at the expense of individual choices and rights. So conceived, African American criticism draws from the best of critical theory and has an appreciation for the human impulse toward creative transformation. Cultural fulfillment, not blackness, is normative. The end product is a utopian yet pragmatic vision of life fulfillment--forged in the arena of public (politicized) scrutiny. Beyond Ontological Blackness is, in short, an insightful movement toward African American public and critical theology. Yet the question remains: "What should African American cultural and religious criticism look like when they are no longer romantic in inspiration and the cult of heroic genius is displaced ...?"

Since Anderson is professionally entrenched in religious studies, it is not odd that application of his critical gaze would concretely involve a significant challenge to the Black theology enterprise. According to Anderson, Black theological discussions are entangled in ontological blackness. Accordingly, discussions of Black life revolve around a theological understanding of Black experience limited to suffering and survival in a racist system. The goal of this theology is to find the "meaning of black faith" in the merger of Black cultural consciousness, icons of genius, and post-World War II Black defiance. An admirable goal one would think, but here is the rub: Black theologians speak in opposition to ontological whiteness when they are actually dependent upon whiteness to legitimize their agenda. Furthermore, in a bizarre twist, ontological blackness's strong ties to suffering and survival result in blackness being dependent on these issues, and as a result social transformation brings into question what it means to be Black. Liberative outcomes ultimately force an identity crisis, a crisis of legitimation and utility.

This conversation becomes more "refined" and more "Afrocentric" as new cultural resources are unpacked and various religious alternatives acknowledged. Yet the bottom line remains racialization of issues and agendas, life and love. Falsehood is perpetuated through the "hermeneutic of return" (Anderson uses Edward Said's term), by which ontological blackness is the paradigm of Black existence and sets the agenda of Black liberation within the "post-revolutionary context" of present-day America. By keeping ontological blackness alive, theologians maintain their raison d'etre and the vitality of their enterprise. Within the work of these theologians one ever finds the traces of the Black aesthetic which pushes for a dwarfed understanding of Black life and a sacrifice of individuality for the sake of an illusional unified Black "faith." Implicit in all of this is a crisis of faith, a fear to address both the glory and guts of Black existence--nihilistic tendencies that unless held in tension with claims of transcendence have the potential to overwhelm, to suffocate. How does one maintain this balance? Anderson looks to Nietzsche.

In the final chapter of this book, by thinking through the encounter of European genius and the grotesque, Anderson explores ways to avoid ontological blackness and heroic genius that reduce Black life to race. The former, with its heroic epic, meets its match in the aesthetic categories of tragedy and the grotesque genius revived and espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche. The grotesque genius serves as an effective counter-discourse that enlarges the scope of life to embrace both the" light" and "dark" aspects of existence insofar as it holds in tension oppositional sensations--pleasure and pain, freedom and oppression. Applied to African Americans, the grotesque embodies the full range of Black all expressions, actions, attitudes, and behaviors. With a hermeneutic of the grotesque as the focus of religious and cultural criticism, such criticism is free from the totalizing nature of racial apologetics and the classical Black aesthetic. By extension, criticism and Black theology are then able to address both issues of survival and the larger goal of cultural fulfillment.

Anderson's hermeneutical use of fulfillment and the grotesque is intriguing, thought-provoking, and deserving of additional exploration. Subsequent work on this topic should clarify African American grotesquery, cultural fulfillment, and the nature and applications of religio-cultural criticism. I, for example, assume that Anderson's religio-cultural criticism requires a stronger response to the restricted canon of religious experience of Black religious studies. Recognition, in this way, of African American religiosity outside Christian churches would be an invaluable piece of reconstructive criticism and would serve as a significant step toward fulfillment. It is important that Anderson, whatever issue he next tackles, maintain fulfillment's mosaic structure and fluidity, and that his religio-cultural criticism not succumb to cultural paranoia. My personal queries aside, Anderson has undertaken an important work, and my call for clarification does not bring into question its merit. His analysis of the false basis of Black epistemology is convincing, and both his form of criticism and hermeneutical tool are invaluable. This text is academically rigorous, intellectually creative, and ideologically unsettling in a fruitful way. Beyond Ontological Blackness, in short, is a welcome challenge to existing paradigms. The serious student of African American life cannot ignore it.
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Author:Pinn, Anthony B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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