Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism.
Duiring the past decade, Aldon Lynn Nielsen has emerged as one of our most useful and valuable critics of twentieth-century American poetry. Elegantly written, intelligently conceptualized, and (for the most part) jargon-free, Nielsen's works accomplish the most important and recently undervalued function of criticism--making writers and their works more accessible to readers. In Reading Race: White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century (1988), Nielsen showed how the color prejudice of their era tainted the consciousness (but did not disturb the consciences) of many whose creative works we still admire. As with more recent revelations by Anthony Julien and Rachel Blau du Plessis concerning T. S. Eliot's antisemitism, Nielsen's book offered a significant challenge to the New Criticism's demand that we separate aesthetics and social ethics. Reading Race demonstrates that what is variously called the Zeitgeist or "dominant discourse" is, in fact, a collective work--not an impersonal fo rce. Similarly, Nielsen's Writing Between the Lines: Race and Intertextuality (1994) explores how a number of American writers--black and white--have managed to create works that disrupt the dominant discourse and provide more liberating alternatives.
Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism further develops perceptions that informed Reading Race. Nielsen is aware that, for many readers (and the anthologists who create standard textbooks), African American literature is thought to be primarily realistic in style and sociological or political in content; avant-garde expressions--despite the obvious examples of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Ishmael Reed--are frequently overlooked. While such a view is more readily apparent in critical attention given to fiction than in poetry, it certainly skews anthologies. Nielsen is acutely aware of the serious political motives that often underlie such compilations and is also concerned that the currently popular critical paradigm of an oral tradition might deflect proper attention due African American literary traditions. "Orature," he insists, "is not opposed to writing; lecture is not opposed to listening." Black Chant, then, proposes a deconstruction of the dominant discourse by demonstrating ho w "conventional wisdom" is subject to cycles of fashion.
Nielsen's focus on avant-garde approaches in African American texts is certainly needed. Indeed, it could be quite plausibly argued that black writers--since Jean Toomer's Cane (1923)-- have been among the most daringly innovative voices in American letters. Conversely, it seems clear that best-selling fiction--including much of the recently successful work by African American women novelists--has shown little change in its satisfyingly pedestrian style and narrative preoccupations since the 1850s. These concerns, as I have stated them here, are beyond the scope of Nielsen's immediate project, yet his work provides insights that are useful in exploring such questions. He carefully notes, for example, that much of the stylistic innovation of African American poets can be termed "racialized improvisations"--a term that might also be applied to the way jazz musicians often treat Broadway show tunes. It should be clear, though, that Nielsen is not endorsing racial essentialism but exploring how aesthetic choices operate.
In addition to matters of style, Nielsen also questions the way critics have treated controversial content. "As the poetry of the 1930s and 1940s written by poets like [Sterling A.] Brown and Melvin B. Tolson clearly demonstrates," he writes, "there had been no real dilution of political statement between the period of the New Negro and the 1950s." Our standard sources of literary history have, of course, recently misrepresented this cultural lineage.
As a brilliantly realized addition to his earlier works, Black Chant allows Nielsen to extend the value of Eugene B. Redmond's' ground breaking Drum voices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976) by focusing long overdue critical attention on some of the groups of poets that Redmond carefully placed in historical context. Nielsen wants to highlight writers who have been "deaccessioned from the steadily constricting canon of black poets available for critical attention and university instruction." Specifically, he offers extended discussions of the writers at Howard University who published Dasein, Russell Atkins's Cleveland-based Free Lance, and New York's Umbra Poets. Beginning in the late 1950s, these and other groups "prepared the ground" for the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s. Nielsen supports this contention by showing how these groups, scattered across the country, demonstrate that the African American community supported a rich variety of local literary activities. Secondly, he shows th at many of these poets were quite involved in exploring aspects of poetry performance and the vernacular oral tradition--aesthetic choices that are now accepted as characteristics of the Black Arts Movement. For those who would more fully understand this movement, Black Chant provides a much needed balance to William L. Van DeBurg's primarily sociological New Day in Babyl on: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (1992). As a work of literary history, Nielsen's book also joins George Hutchinson's The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (1995) and The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988) by Wilson Jeremiah Moses as one of a handful of indispensable guides to the study of twentieth-century African American literature.
When Nielsen turns his attention to the close reading of individual poems--ranging from traditional metrics to the diagrammatic puzzles of concrete poetry-he turns in extraordinary performances. As a practicing poet--his most recent collection is Stepping Razor (1997)--Nielsen brings an artist's insights to his formidable knowledge of literary history. He offers extensive commentary on Gloria Oden, Lloyd Addison, A. B. Spellman, Russell Atkins, Norman H. Pritchard, Nathaniel Mackey, and my own work. Nielsen's assessments of authorial intention are uncannily perceptive and supported by meticulously researched textual evidence. In fine discussions of Amiri Baraka and the little-known Harold Carrington, Nielsen's concern is to draw attention to "poets whose works interrogate what literary society conceives to be blackness, what languages and what forms are critically associated with constructions of cultural blackness." Expressing the wish that such writers--who often produce dauntingly idiosyncratic or stylist ically advanced work--can "get a witness," Nielsen is on hand to provide just that. Further, the careful clarity of his explications will open these works for other readers.
In the second half of Black Chant, Nielsen intends to redress what he disdains as "a critique that inadequately listens to the relationships between script and performance." Black music, as Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) suggested in Addison Gayle's The Black Aesthetic (1971), is "our most advanced form of black art," and poetry is but "another extension of black music." Thus Nielsen focuses on brilliantly fruitful collaborations of musicians with poets such as Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Elouise Loftin. He also investigates how Cecil Taylor (himself a poet), Archie Shepp (yep, he as well), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago successfully incorporated complex poetic texts in their recorded performances. Drawing upon his own experience as a radio disc jockey, Nielsen analyzes these poetry recordings even more closely than the New Critics did the printed page (inasmuch as that school of criticism notoriously ignored certain material aspects of poetic production).
Perhaps the most impressive contribution Black Chant makes is to propose an historical context that effectively functions as an intervention in the current critical discourse of African Americanists. Nielsen wisely and repeatedly scolds us about the type of intellectual Beatlemania that has distorted the face of American literary criticism for the past two decades. Almost any newly translated French or Italian philosopher becomes fashionable, regardless of whether appropriate or not, and is hailed with a fetishistic fusillade of anachronistic footnotes. In the meantime, the theoretical statements of our native critics and artists--those who shared the same sunshine and read the same news reports in the era that the works we study were created--are all but ignored. Nielsen usefully directs attention to the complex and influential ideas of Baraka, Cortez, and Atkins, among others. He also provides the clues needed to make those ideas more accessible to readers of their poetry. An ambitious work, Black Chant su cceeds on several levels and establishes Aldon Lynn Nielsen as an important voice in contemporary criticism.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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