Writing America Black: Race Rhetoric in the Public Sphere.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Charles Chesnutt had one of his characters comment on how the white press was responsible for the increase in lynchings by referring to "noosepapers." At the end of the century, Clarence Thomas called the televising of his Senate Judiciary Committee hearings a "high-tech lynching." These two comments do differ in a significant way; what for Chesnutt was a painful reality Thomas abused as a facile and politically useful metaphor. But they also both remind us of how African American intellectuals have been consistently critical of what others have called "the violence of representation," in this case the racist violations in and inspired by popular media representation of black Americans.
In Writing America Black, C. K. Doreski takes on the important and ambitious project of exploring the intertextual relationship between mass media and African American literary production. Doreski performs this task by exploring selected moments in twentieth-century African American literary history.
The first chapter of Writing America Black is primarily concerned with Pauline Hopkins's biographical journalism at the turn of the century, the second with the differing journalistic and sociological accounts of the 1919 Chicago race riot, the third with the dialectic between the poetry and journalism of Melvin Tolson, and the fourth with the white journalists and celebrities who contributed to the "If I Were a Negro" column that ran in Negro Digest from 1942 to 1946. The fifth chapter is a study of the development of Gwendolyn Brooks's "verse journalism" in In the Mecca (1968), the sixth of Sam Cornish's Generations (first published in 1964, reissued in a final version in 1971), the seventh of Alice Walker's Meridian (1976) as a "metajournalistic" inquiry into the televising of the Civil Rights Movement, and the eighth of Jay Wright's Soothsayers and Omens (1976) as a collection of poems in which Wright "has invented a simultaneous historical field in which language, culture, and nation are subsumed by the telling of the tale of the tribe."
What gives coherence to these several readings is that almost all of the writers are involved in a journalistic enterprise of some sort or other. Some are journalists (Hopkins, Tolson, Lippmann, Sandburg), some claim to be producing "verse journalism" in their poetry (Brooks), and some are explicitly critiquing media coverage of African American events (Walker). Less successfully integrated into this design are the chapters on Wright and Cornish. Indeed, the only obvious connection in the chapter on the latter seems to be a reference in one of Cornish's poems to "headlines rolled / into fists."
The greatest strength of the volume is to be found in the readings of the specific texts. The author does a good job of showing how Hopkins used the biographies of individuals to make claims about collective racial identity; how Brooks responds to and deforms the polite aesthetic of T. S. Eliot, the democratic vision of Walt Whitman, and the architectural modernism of Mies Van der Rohe; and how Walker stages a deep critique of television in the chronological ordering of events in Meridian. Particularly compelling are those moments when Doreski demonstrates the profound failings in white liberals' commentaries on race and racial subjects. Her readings of Lippmann's and Sandburg's journalism on the Chicago race riot and her engaging readings of those intriguing World War IIera Negro Digest columns in which white liberals fitfully attempted to assume black identity show us in what ways liberal sensibilities become reified and liberal imaginations sterile in those critical moments of conflict between races and na tions.
Two factors somewhat mar this otherwise worthwhile study. First, the book is not always easy to read. At times the prose is turgid, and at other times assertions are assumed rather than demonstrated. For instance, while discussing the Negro Digest columnists, Doreski comments that the "intimate orality" of the columns "bespeaks an impositional hierarchy that is linguistic, social, and characteristic of liberal sensibilities." It is not clear what such an "impositional hierarchy" might be, nor does the author spell out how the oral qualities of the columns exhibit these particular dynamics of a liberal sensibility. To be fair to Doreski, at other times, especially in her discussions of the poetry, her readings are clearer and her premises more carefully demonstrated.
The second problem is the way the book as a whole is framed. From its not especially well-defined title to its final self-assessment--it concludes that it has produced "an eccentric renarrativization of twentieth-century American history" and "constructed a literary history that is illustrative, authenticating, explanatory, and problematic"- Writing America Black makes some grand statements. It seems to me that it would have been better for the author to remain content with having a somewhat loosely organized series of chapters than to try to defend the somewhat haphazard structure with huge claims that the book itself does not and cannot fulfill. The grandness of the claims aside, what Writing America Black does do is modest but important work. It provides insightful readings of some biographical, sociological, and imaginatively autobiographical journalism; and it gives cogent textual analyses of four collections of poems and one novel.
In the end, this is a study that does not fit into any easy category. Its looseness of structure might prove one of its strengths, though, as it exposes the reader to a set of texts that would likely not be gathered together in any other kind of study. Despite the flaws, then, this is a book worth reading because of what it reveals about the tense but fertile relationship between the American news media and African American imaginative writing.
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|Author:||Rushdy, Ashraf H.A.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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