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Race and Gender in the Making of an African American Literary Tradition.

Aimable Twagilimana. Race and Gender in the Making of an African American Literary Tradition. New York: Garland, 1997. 206 pp. $46.00.

Billed as an examination of the ways that race and gender have shaped and informed African American literature, this book and its title catch the eye. Further, the scope of this study is ambitious: Twagilimana promises to present "close interdisciplinary readings of early African American texts," including work by Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, and Zora Neale Hurston. However, closer examination of her argument and intent uncover a basic and inherent problem: the tautology at its core. While this study sets out to show the whys and hows of the ideologies of race and gender in African American literary texts, it soon collapses into a study that simply shows that African American literature is racialized--and gendered. I suppose I can imagine a context in which this point needs to be argued, but within African American literary scholarship it seems a given. Who, at this point, needs to be convinced via a recounting of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hear ings, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and Susan Smith's false accusations that a black man killed her children that "American society is not a race/gender-blind society" and that this fact has influenced African American literary production?

The first chapter of Race and Gender, perhaps the most promising, attempts to establish a typology of "the African American text by discussing writing as a performative act" in order to conclude that "the African American literary tradition was created by its own illocution" and is "autogenic." Using Roland Barthes's grammatical categories, Twagilimana determines that the African American narrator, and particularly the slave narrator, by writing "affects himself/herself, the object, and the action of writing, thus making himself/herself the subject matter of writing," all the while staying "within the interiority of his or her action." In this way, it seems, both an African American literary tradition and African Americans themselves are born of slave narratives.

At issue, however, is culture. Twagilimana's argument does not adequately account for African retentions in African American culture. Specifically, with regard to the institution of slavery, she seems to suggest that prior African existence is "erased"--but not completely. For example, her opening image of cultural cannibalism suggests that Africans taken to the Americas lose everything, including name, culture, and ontological determination, but later, there is the suggestion that African "fragments" might be salvaged. This is a discussion I find frustrating, mainly because it needs the help of scholarship it so blatantly ignores. To my mind, E. Franklin Frazier and Melville Herskovits, the only scholars to whom Twagilimana makes reference here, do not have the final word on questions of African retentions in slave culture, much less in African American culture at large. While there is an argument to be made about slavery's erasure of humanness and its invocation of African inferiority, Twagilimana's theore tical speculation needs to be more obviously familiar with post-1950s scholarship in African American social history.

The remaining chapters of this study present specific readings of literary texts. Chapter 2 focuses on Phillis Wheatley's poetry and Olaudah Equiano's narrative(s), intending to show that for both "the ultimate goal is to redeem Africa and the slaves of African origin from the dark corner in which Western imaginations have located them" through abrogating myths and appropriating the master's language. Chapter 3 presents a reading of Frederick Douglass's Narrative, finding that it "thematizes 'knowledge,'" while Chapter 4 uses Alice Walker's essays and Elaine Showalter's theoretical "wild zone" to read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Our Nig. Finally, Chapter 5, "Mules and Women: Hurston's Poetics of Gender and the Redemption of the Tragic Mulatta," focuses on a reading of the character Janie Crawford as a "conventional tragic mulatta who deals with black male oppression." The study ends by declaring that in Their Eyes Were Watching God Hurston has opposed violence with violence; since language, as an instrument of empowerment, has not worked, Janie forcefully resists victimization by killing Tea Cake, and passes this message of resistance along to her friend Pheoby, thus advocating the rise of "a new black woman." Unfortunately, the absence of any concluding remarks makes it uncertain what this means in the larger scheme of Race and Gender.

Reading Twagilimana's discussion of such familiar African American literary texts, I was surprised that the argument she presents engages the work of so few literary critics. I would expect, for example, a discussion of Frederick Douglass's Narrative to acknowledge the work of Robert Stepto or James Olney or John Blassingame or Deborah McDowell. Similarly, I would expect a discussion of Janie's voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God to mention Cheryl Wall or Karla Holloway or Mary Helen Washington or Michael Awkward--or at least to make reference to the absence of Janie's voice in the famous courtroom scene in which Janie is tried for Tea Cake's murder. In sum, Twagilimana seems unfamiliar with the history of the critical reception of the texts she reads, and, consequently, Race and Gender does not successfully place itself within the larger frame of African American literary scholarship.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lewis, Leslie W.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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