Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies.
Georgina Dodge The Ohio State University
In "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Toni Morrison writes that Herman Melville undertook a dangerous project in antebellum America by questioning white privilege, and she further asserts that challenging white superiority remains a risky venture today. In complete disregard for potential hazard - or perhaps in anticipation of ensuing controversy - the essays in Henry B. Wonham's Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies effectively deflate the arguments of racial purists who would insist upon the sanctity of Anglo-American literary production. In a well-outlined introduction to this indispensable text, Wonham acknowledges the indebtedness of the collection to earlier writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, who called for a desegregation of America's cultural heritage and a recognition of the impact of African Americans upon the national identity. But the essays go beyond a one-sided investigation of cultural appropriation and show the ways in which black and white cultures influence and borrow from one another.
Criticism and the Color Line begins with Morrison's 1989 article, published here for the first time in a book collection, which establishes the theme of the text by challenging critics to speak the unspeakable in the realm of American literary criticism through the unveiling of the black presence within canonical works. The collection ends with Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "Interrogating 'Whiteness,' Complicating 'Blackness': Remapping American Culture," which provides a thorough overview of books and articles from a variety of disciplines from 1990 to the present that challenge the concept of canonical American literature as "white" and African American literature as "black." Fishkin's essay serves as a well-documented bibliography and more: From the social and political construction of whiteness to the classification of Jews as black and the appropriation of the word bambi (the Disney deer) from Bantu languages, Fishkin provides succinct and intriguing examples from the works examined.
The remaining essays in the collection present a delightfully diverse response to Morrison's opening challenge. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy's "Reading Black, White, and Gray in 1968: The Origins of the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery" explores literary representations of slavery through an analysis of the problematic production of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and the conflict that followed the novel's appearance. Rushdy shows how Styron imagines a Nat Turner significantly different from the Turner described in historical documents as part of a strategy of containment similar to that of nineteenth-century pro-slavery advocates who sought to assuage white anxieties by dismissing Turner as an aberrant religious fanatic and by constructing the "Sambo" image of slaves as happy, carefree beings dependent upon their masters. Styron's failure to consider available historical evidence in his depiction of Turner, which he publicly presented as the "true" record, as well as the lack of collaborating resources such as slave testimony and folklore, led to the 1968 publication of John Henrik Clarke's William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Rushdy identifies the appearance of this text as a critical turning point in the contemporary production of slavery in fiction. More recent novelists such as Ernest Gaines, Sherley Anne Williams, and Ishmael Reed incorporate the slave's oral witnessing of slavery to challenge homogeneous written histories that omit the slave's experience.
The recognition of a black voice within the political arena is the subject of Dickson D. Bruce, Jr.'s "Black and White Voices in an Early African-American Colonization Narrative: Problems of Genre and Emergence." Bruce explores the creation of the 1826 "Memorial of the Free People of Colour to the Citizens of Baltimore," a joint product of free black Baltimoreans and the white-led American Colonization Society which illustrates the interplay between black and white rhetorical traditions. In an effort to authenticate black authorship of the document, white leaders of the Colonization Society presented the black voice in a position of authority removed from its typical location at the margins of society. The implications of this literary tactic upon national concepts of both black and white identities are, as Bruce notes, of continued importance today.
The remaining contributors to the collection address the intersections, mergings, and collisions of black and white cultures and literatures through a variety of approaches: The use of the sentimental and homoeroticism in Frederick Douglass's writing is analyzed by P. Gabrielle Foreman; Teresa Goddu focuses upon the importance of race in the Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe; Eric Lott revisits blackface minstrelsy in Mark Twain's life and writing; and Carla L. Peterson explores the impact of African American culture and musical traditions on the works of Gertrude Stein. Parallel movements in literature on both sides of the color line is the topic of several essays: Herman Beavers investigates the stylistically similar manipulations of visual details in short stories by Douglass and Melville; the boundaries of ethnicity in writings by Horatio Alger, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright are explored by Peter Carafiol; and Henry B. Wonham studies shared psychological foundations in Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness and the work of William Dean Howells. Cultural intersections across genders are examined in essays by Jeffrey Steel, who looks at the political role of mourning in the literature in Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other female writers of the nineteenth century; Todd Vogel, who analyzes Anna Julia Cooper's repackaging of social criticism within white patriarchal rhetoric; and Robert S. Levine, who explores the impact of increased exposure to African American culture on the writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Together, these essays form a cohesive package of criticism that will provide directions for future readings across the color line as well as between and within numerous other social and cultural constructs. The work of challenging artificial and actual barriers has just begun, and the project of incorporating and acknowledging the many voices contributing to an American identity will lead to increased creative exchanges within this country that will inevitably extend beyond national borders.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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