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Double-Consciousness/Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature.

Sandra Adell, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994. 172 pp. $25.95.

In 1969 writer-critic Albert Murray wrote in his crucial book The Omni-Americans, "There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But . . . the white people are not really white, and . . . black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another."(1) Sandra Adell's Double-Consciousness/ Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature and Craig Hansen Werner's Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse probe deeply and constructively into the dialogic relations between black and white, Afrocentric and Eurocentric articulations of the literary in modern and postmodern periods of thought. Where Adell is concerned to test the limits of critical "double-consciousness" (the double bind) in black literature and literary theory, on the one hand, Werner, on the other, is a meticulous expositor of the relationship between African American culture and its canonical modernist literature, from Charles Chesnutt and the revised plantation tradition to August Wilson and neoclassicism.

Double-Consciousness/Double Bind takes its cue from the white (Western) and black double-voicedness of modern black critical practice implicit, for example, in the "intersection. . . constructed by virtue of [the] name" (3) of Black Aesthetic criticism of the 1960s. This dual inheritance in black literary criticism emerges most conspicuously, according to Adell, with W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903, although in 1892, not many years prior to Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Anna Julia Cooper published "what is arguably the first critical essay on literature published by a black American, 'One Phase of American Literature'" (4), which owed itself to a similar discursive hybridity. Adell demonstrates that Du Bois's enduring metaphysics of "double-consciousness," the governing hermeneutic of Double-Consciousness/Double Bind, emerges crucially from his intellectual engagement with the idealist traditions of German philosophy, namely Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. "The Souls of Black Folk: Reading Across the Color Line," the first chapter in Adell's study, may, however, prove to be less memorable as "the first time anyone has shown in detail how [Du Bois's] notion of 'double-consciousness' emerges from the philosophy of Hegel as . . . articulated in the Phenomenology of Spirit" (8) than as an example of self-reflexive criticism that demonstrates, in its exposition of Du Bois's Hegelianism, the deeply complex, even tricky work of (re)constructing the omnicritical genealogy which is Adell's own double bind. Like the dilemma faced by poststructuralists committed to theorizing African American literature (among whom Adell takes Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker, and Robert Stepto to be most representative), "The Souls of Black Folk: Reading Across the Color Line" is most instructive when, paradoxically, it shows itself mired in the textual system that she observes Du Bois, by necessity, writing through. Interestingly, Adell is, in this connection, less severe on Du Bois than she is on Gates and Baker, whom she faults for their efforts to isolate an "`authentic' Afro-American literary tradition grounded in the black vernacular" tradition which yet relies on "the forms of language inherited from the master's class" rather than the black vernacular culture itself (120, 121). But chapter 5, "The Crisis in Black American Literary Criticism and the Postmodern Cures of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," would seem to reveal a theory and methodology in the critical practices of Gates's The Signifying Monkey and Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature that may be far less removed from Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk than their temporal distance suggests. (Adell's use of both men's full and familial names in her chapter title is brilliantly, if brutally, signifyin(g) in that definitively black sense of the word laid out by Gates. It announces, sardonically, a cousinly familiarity which sees beneath professional pretenses. Don't you get too biggity, boys. I know your Mamas!)

Though, in my judgment, Adell is unduly critical of Gates and Stepto, her challenges to Baker are among this book's most erudite moments. Her rereading of the musical epigraphs which preface each chapter in Souls corrects Baker's assertion that the epigraphic juxtaposition of the Sorrow Songs alongside those poetic or musical fragments that represent the high European arts "displace[s] or deconstruct[s] what he calls Western expressive culture" (26). Convincingly, Adell instead argues that the Sorrow Songs make "no such intervention" into the primacy of Western expressive culture in Du Bois's cultural critique; Du Bois "merely foregrounds the very complex system of interrelationships that makes up his (con)textual field" (27). Here Adell's reading of Du Bois is, in the context of the book's greater point, unmatched. On Baker, as later chapters reveal, Adell is unrelenting. And she avoids the fatal lapses of argumentation in Joyce Anne Joyce's infamous vilification of Baker and Gates in 1987, "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism."(2) "Writing across Lacanian discourse" (60) here and a vaguely Marxist feminism there, Adell understands, where Joyce did not, that she is "necessarily . . . traversed--crisscrossed--by [the] discourses" (130) that jeopardize the "authenticity" of Baker's work ("Theoretically . . . my 'stand' makes me vulnerable to--or . . . obliterates me from--the same kinds of criticisms I've made against [Baker and Gates], for hasn't the pot once again called the kettle black?" [130]).

While discussions of the problems of African American literary criticism under poststructuralism frame Adell's book at the introduction and final chapter, the three intervening chapters on Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire, Richard Wright and Maya Angelou, and black feminist literary theory merit mention here. Unlike the archaeology of philosophical influence that Adell's Du Bois chapter represents, the metaphysical roots of Negritude a la Senghor and Cesaire have been discussed extensively (by Senghor, Frantz Fanon, Abiola Irele, Janet Vaillant, Sunday Anozie, and Christopher Miller, for example). "Reading/Writing Negritude: Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire," therefore, would seem, for Adell, a rather academic recontextualization of the problems and paradoxes of philosophical dialogism between white Western traditions and African ones (which may reflect, in the case of Negritude, a more minimal distance between Senghor and Heidegger, say, or Cesaire and Husserl, than that which obtained between Du Bois and Hegel and Heidegger). Nevertheless, Adell is wise to raise the stakes somewhat by problematizing, however briefly, the critical relation between black traditions, the African and the African American specifically, between Senghor and Richard Wright, with the figure of Du Bois--true to this book's design--mediating.

Perhaps Adell's most expert reading of the black literary text is that of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is a nuanced, familiarly Freudian reading which reminds we who teach twentieth-century African American literature and poetry that Angelou's book contains some of the most evocative, brutal, and poignant scenes in contemporary American literature, scenes which lend themselves easily, as Adell shows, to the critical tugging of race, gender, and psychoanalysis. However satisfying Adell's treatment of Angelou, I concede a certain oddness about its place in a book that is otherwise about criticism, not of it. For those of us who have grown weary of the inordinate, knee-jerk attention to Toni Morrison by liberal white critics especially, however, this peculiarity is of no matter.

Chapter 4, "Seeking the Other Women of (Black) Feminist Literary Critical and Theoretical Discourses," answers, happily, what has been, for this reader, one of the most vexing questions about (post)modern black feminist thought: why has "womanism," as a lexical and ideological corrective to the culturally exclusive significations of "feminism," lost currency (or maybe only its lexical appeal) in black feminist discourse? This chapter's belabored conference accounts notwithstanding, Adell suggests that the favored term "black feminism" bespeaks the problem of "ideological thinking" (103) insidiously, almost imperceptibly, inherited by women of color in the West, which "risk[s] practicing its own forms of [cultural, non-Western] exclusion" (92). Lest the reader be misled, Adell is not antifeminist, as some might misconstrue (at one point she quotes Angelou saying, "I'd be stupid not to be on my own side"). Her challenges to (black) feminism are fair and, given the double-consciousness/double bind thesis of this work, unavoidable. What's more, Adell shows that one does not have to be a polemicist to issue challenges.

If, as Keneth Kinnamon describes it on the book jacket, Double-Consciousness/Double Bind strikes one as irreverently "fearless" at times, part 1 of Craig Werner's Playing the Changes suffers from a distracting defensiveness about its relationship to its "high" theoretical debts. These words frustrate Werner's study before it fully begins: "[B]efore I begin . . . an anecdote explaining a certain hostility toward the theoretical enterprise that may emerge throughout this study . . . . Aesthetic isolation mocks my populist soul" (3-4). Nevertheless, Werner is stronger, more poised and in his element in parts 2 and 3, so as to make Playing the Changes an admirable, indeed indispensable work.

I don't want to exaggerate the effect of Playing the Changes. But it is readily apparent that Werner would rather not admit (in the text proper) how deeply indebted he is to Robert Stepto's seminal work From Behind the Veil in light of Stepto's reputation as, variously, "black poststructuralist," "(new) black formalist," and "reconstructionist"--all designations intended to call into question, though to varying degrees, an "authentic" commitment to the study of black literature. Werner's formulation of the "narrative of endurance," however--the name he gives to that type of Faulknerian narrative that focuses on a fairly static black protagonist, "the `enduring saint,' who is physically enslaved but spiritually free" (30)--is derived (Werner cannot avoid admitting) directly from Stepto's so-called poststructuralist, new formalist, reconstructionist enterprise in From Behind the Veil, the epistemological underpinnings of which Werner claims, in theory, to hold "a certain hostility toward." On the one hand, Werner speaks of "the theoretical dimensions of Playing the Changes" (xviii), while positing his project, in the next breath, "as a series of responses to (as opposed to theoretical interrogations of) a variety of [critical calls]," black and white (xix). This is the tension, the self-conflicted resistance to "theory," absent from Adell's criticism, that vexes part 1, "Afro-Modernist Dialogues." Although Werner's discussion "The Brier Patch as (Post)modernist Myth: Morrison, Barthes, and Tar Baby As-Is" seems little affected by the dilemma (Roland Barthes and Stephen Henderson are managed equally well and with even profit), how much more revelatory could The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka be to understanding the Afromodernist sensibility if Werner pursued the logic behind those points in Baraka's autobiography where "Baraka loses his grounding and relies on theoretical ideological terms that recall the solipsistic abstraction of his Village period" (100), rather than dismissing them as Barakan lapses in what "should be" the voice of one "firmly grounded in, and . . . in advance of, the political and expressive realities of its time" (100)?

However unflattering Werner's critical self-consciousness in part 1, I hasten now to say that virtually all of my early, hopeful expectations of Werner were realized in part 2, "Studies in African-American Poetics," and part 3, "Playing the Changes: Gospel, Blues, Jazz." Werner not only recovers some of the most crucial, if lesser known, writers of Afro-modernism, including Melvin Tolson, Ed Bullins, Etheridge Knight, and Henry Dumas, but his close readings of Knight's poetry, the Black Arts aesthetic of Dumas, and the prosody of Tolson's Harlem Gallery are nothing if not soundly and expertly rendered. Black women writers (Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde in part 2, Morrison in parts 1 and 3), more commonly known than Tolson, Bullins, Knight, and Dumas, are no less crucial to Werner as representatives of the Afromodernist impulse and receive such space in his book as Stepto's critics say should have been constructed in his.

As this book's purpose is, in part, to apprehend the "complexities of innovative Afro-American texts" (xvii) of the (post)modernist period, "Playing the Changes: Gospel, Blues, Jazz" is, to my mind, Werner's most important section. Werner's musicological aesthetic of African American literature brilliantly participates in--plays a change on, if you will--the ensemble of critical voices initiated by Du Bois about the importance of black musical aesthetics for "engag[ing] basic (post)modernist concerns" of life and literature, "including the difficulty of defining, or even experiencing, the self; the fragmentation of public discourse; and the problematic meaning of tradition" (xvii). Situating a "gospel impulse" inventively between that of the blues and jazz on the cultural continuum of modern black expressive sensibilities, Werner's is only the most recent "(re)phrasing" of this musicological study of African American culture.

It is precisely "the problematic meaning of tradition" for black writers (and white writers alike, if Werner's Faulkner is any indication) that makes Double-Consciousness/Double Bind and Playing the Changes seem like two cuts from the same critical cloth. Both bring "two superficially disparate traditions: European-American (post)modernism and African-American culture in both vernacular and 'high art' forms" into such close proximity that the "racialized dichotomy" implied by their erstwhile estrangement is, as Werner writes, "subvert[ed]" (xv). One only hopes that future studies of omnicriticism will recognize the double bind in truly dual terms and tell us in sustained fashion, and at long last, just how much "white" literature owes to "black" thought, anyway.

(1.) Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans. New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1969) 3.

(2.) Joyce Anne Joyce, "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism." New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 18 (1987): 335-44.
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Author:Wallace, Maurice
Publication:Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Words:2218
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