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The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance.

The Bounds of Race brings together a collection of papers that originated at a Cornell University conference hosted by Dominick LaCapra. Fifteen years ago, few social historians would have read a book of essays written mostly by literary critics. But in the intervening years literary, or more broadly, cultural criticism has taken an historical turn and history has taken a linguistic turn. Many historians are now interested in questions of how to read texts, how canons of literature (in the broadest sense) are formed, and in what ways social formations, such as race, gender and class, are connected to cultural production and reception.

The essays in LaCapra's book are uneven in quality and vary considerably in methodology and focus. What coherence the book does possess is largely due to a selection of topics that fall within relatively limited boundaries. While gender and class are not ignored, race is the central concern of the book's authors. Except for a concluding essay on Britain's culture of colonialism, all of the essays examine various aspects of the African cultural experience in Africa itself or the western hemisphere.

Starting the collection with "The Master's Pieces: On Canon Formation and the Afro-American Tradition" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was an excellent decision. Gates skillfully addresses highly contested issues of literary theory through a mix of autobiography, political argument, and literary history. The main purpose of the essay is for Gates to justify constructing a canon of African-American literature. He claims that critics on the Right oppose the creation of multiple American literary canons and critics on the Left fear that "the very idea of the canon is hierarchical, patriarchal, and otherwise politically suspect". Gates asserts that the earliest commentators on an American canon noted the originality of the African-American cultural contribution, specifically in the form of slave narratives, and that black poetry was already anthologized by the 1840s. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the black liberation movement of the 1960s, there were further attempts to define the canon of black American literature. In the course of considering previous efforts to define a distinctive black literary canon, Gates makes several insightful comments about criteria for canon formation and the way in which the choices made in each era were consonant with the social and political context. A full-blown history of black literary canon formation, which this essay suggests is nearly within our grasp, would be a welcome contribution to the social and cultural history of the African-American experience. By the end of the essay, Gates has convincingly established that the attempt to define a black American canon is theoretically sound, as well as politically desirable.

"Moving on Down the Line: Variations on the African-American Sermon" by Hortense J. Spillers is an imaginative, though sometimes abstruse, essay that demonstrates the validity of Gates' argument. Basing her work on a study of manuscripts of Afro-American sermons from 1782 to 1917, Spillers finds the preachers helped create a community, shape a complex historical memory, and instill a sense that suffering will eventually give way and there will be a "'good time coming'". She argues that unlike the great European churches built to inscribe hierarchy within the consciousness of the faithful through the majesty seen by the eye, the visually more democratic African-American church has focused on the Word being delivered to the ear of the faithful. Therefore, while Spillers displays a dizzying mastery of the methods of post-structuralist and feminist textural analysis, she ultimately shifts her focus from written texts to the spoken words, full of repetition, delay, and rhetorical power.

The book's next two essays argue that race has been crucial to the shaping and distortion of modern science and American politics. "Appropriating the Idioms of Science: The Rejection of Scientific Racism," by Nancy Leys Stepan and Sander Gilman, focus on the ways in which Jews and African-Americans tried to counter scientific theories of racial inferiority between 1870 and 1920. Others, such as George L. Mosse and Stepan Jay Gould, have already written about scientific racism. What makes the essay by Stepan and Gilman innovative is its exploration of the resistance to that racism by minority group writers. In "The Color of Politics in the United States: White Supremacy as the Main Explanation for the Peculiarities of American Politics from Colonial Times to the Present," Michael Goldfield presents an essay on the time-worn topic of "American Exceptionalism." Goldfield rejects psychological and cultural explanations for racism, instead insisting on the primacy of economic factors. To "prove" this he provides an eighteen-page history of three centuries of race and labor relations in America. The main authors cited, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx, indicate that this essay's greatest value is as a synthesis of classic texts.

In a more intellectually sophisticated essay, "Out of Africa: Topologies of Nativism," Kwame Anthony Appiah provides a critical tour de force that probes the identity of African literature and African literary criticism. No one who is interested in the vexing issues raised by cultural nationalism should miss reading this essay. With great subtlety, Appiah examines the inadequacies of nativism and shows the profound difficulty in constructing a post-colonial discourse that gives true value and agency to the African subject.

Two case studies of texts about black women follow. "Autoethnography: The Anarchic Style of Dust Tracks on a Road," by Francoise Lionnet, analyzes Zora Neale Hurston's 1942 autobiography. Lionnet finds parallels between the African-American writer Hurston's views and style and that of the anti-colonialist author Frantz Fanon. Both writers found that tradition, or ethnic memory, is a better basis for building a future than the embrace of a racial identity and the desire for revenge. Lionnet goes on to explore the complex means by which Hurston reworked cultural forms to provide a new, yet compelling account of African-American traditions. Anne McClintock investigates the story of a black South African woman told to and written by a white South African woman in "'The Very House of Difference': Race, Gender, and the Politics of South African Women's Narrative in Poppie Nongena." Like Lionnet, McClintock also focuses on a new literary form, a book that is autobiography, biography, novel, and oral history. The political implications of the narrative's form and public reception, both with regard to race and gender, are explored by McClintock in a thorough manner.

Stephen Clingman's essay on South African fiction, "Beyond the Limit: The Social Relations of Madness in Southern African Fiction," uses a brief survey of colonial and post-colonial literature to prove a point. Clingman argues that the experience of madness always accompanied European colonialism. By using a literary rather than psychiatric definition of insanity, it is not surprising he finds that a madness endemic to Southern African social relations produced a similar madness in the country's fiction. Clingman's treatment of the theme of madness in Southern African novels is interesting. However, his account of their social context, despite incorporating the observations of Foucault on madness and Mosse on nationalism, will probably seem too attenuated to most historians.

In "The Subversive Poetics of Radical Bilingualism: Postcolonial Franco-phone North African Literature," Samia Mehrez studies two Arab writers who dispute both French cultural hegemony and the claims of traditional Arabic culture. The Tunisian Albert Memmi wrote criticism and fiction that focused on the construction of colonial identity and the difficulties in forging a new, postcolonial identity. Mehrez faults Memmi for failing to subvert the French language and forms in which he writes, thus remaining "caught in the enchaining colonial relationship". In contrast, Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi advocates a "radical bilingualism" and creates a difficult-to-read French/Arabic hybrid voice that, according to Mehrez, indicates the emergence of a true postcolonial culture.

Jose Piedra also analyzes the importance of language domination to the imperial project. His essay, "Literary Whiteness and the Afro-Hispanic Difference," starts with an explication of the importance and implications of the work of Antonio de Nebrija, publisher of the first modern European grammar. Piedra claims that "Spanish grammar became the colonial pretext for the assimilation of otherness and others". Hence a multiracial empire could be unified through linguistic uniformity; to use Spanish well was to be Spanish. Piedra concludes with an examination of Afro-Hispanic writers of the colonial period. Some of these authors became prominent because of their investigation by the Inquisition. Inquisitorial records yield a fascinating story of resistance to the racial and social differences concealed by an official doctrine of literary whiteness.

The last work in this book, Satya P. Mohanty's "Drawing the Color Line: Kipling and the Culture of Colonial Rule," investigates the quite different topic of British colonial culture. Mohanty explains that the process of "racialization," or drawing a color line, was essential to colonial rule in India. Kipling's children's tales are shown to be exemplary instances of how colonial cultural and racial identities are created. Mohanty's additional examination of Baden-Powell's Boy Scout movement, European mythology about the American frontier, and a modern Indian novel, although often interesting, yields a disjunct essay that is too diffuse in focus.

One concludes The Bounds of Race with a heightened awareness of the complex issues involved in deciphering various ideologies of race. The essays by Gates and Appiah are well-written and wide-ranging theoretical explorations. Most of the others, although devoted to more limited topics and using specific sources, will not be easily ready by historians impatient with intricately constructed sentences and the jargon of deconstructionism. However, for those interested in new approaches, this volume provides a stimulating introduction to a growing field of scholarship, the study of the social and cultural construction of race.
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Author:Wright, David C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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