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Catherine John's Clear Word and Third Sight: Folk Groundings and Diasporic Consciousness, which celebrates diasporic links, is an important contribution to the growing field of postcolonial studies. John argues for a distinctly black diasporic culture, an understanding of what blackness means, not as it is seen through the lens of the colonial master, but as blacks really are. As John puts it, "If the exclusionary and oppressive nature of colonialism has told us who we are, then these conversations [that took place at the first International Conference of Negro Artists and Writers 1956] were attempts to figure out who we were" (16). John's central thesis and the textual analysis are anchored in some of the ideas that emerged from the proceedings of that conference but more so from the Negritude movement and the later works of Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Leopold Senghor.
John courageously undertakes a topic that is generally unpopular among contemporary academics: the notion that there is an essential "blackness," a black culture that is shared by blacks on the African continent and throughout the diaspora, a common worldview, set of mores and values that demarcate people of African descent from other peoples, particularly Europeans. John sets the context for her discussion in her introduction. She writes: "Increasingly heated exchanges have occurred concerning the notion of 'authenticity' as it relates to definitions of 'culture' and 'cultural identity.' These debates [End Page 235] have become most heated around two discursive practices related to blackness, characterized as 'Afro-centric' or 'African centered' . . . or antiessentialist or hybrid" (3). John explicitly aligns herself with the Afro-centric/African-centered school.
Undoubtedly, this is, at the very least, a challenging argument to navigate, and its success depends largely on constant dodging of the temptation to fall back into the kind of binary discourse that facilitated colonialism in the first place. Slippage into this temptation is, as John's text demonstrates, inevitable. John discusses several examples of cultural continuity and for the most part offers convincing evidence that there are at least certain shared cultural beliefs, values, and practices among blacks across the diaspora. These include a respect for the spoken word; a belief that there are other (valid) ways of knowing that defy "rationality"; and a sense of community, an interiority that connects the individual to the group. Yet there are moments when the writer falls prey to the temptation to romanticize African culture, and the anxiety to prove that this essential blackness exists results in an eliding of some other complicating issues such as the wide variety of gender constructions that exist in Africa.
A commendable feature of Clear Word and Third Sight is the proof-of-the-pudding approach that John takes in making her argument that there is a shared black culture. John supports her thesis with reference to an impressive range of writings from North America, Africa, and the Caribbean. Her engagement with Zora Neale Hurston's work, particularly the essay "Characteristics of Negro Expression" and her analysis of texts from different locales within the Caribbean do much to advance her argument that there are certain African cultural retentions that continue to inform the lives of people of African descent and impact their creative output.
John's discussion of negritude is one of the strengths of this text. Her grounding of the argument regarding a shared culture among blacks across the diaspora in the negritude movement is both timely and strategic. John recourses to some of the central criticisms of negritude, chief among which is René Ménil's view that negritude is anti-intellectual, dominated by essentialism, and is ahistorical and against progress (21). John rightly points out the Eurocentric worldview that underpins Ménil's critique and turns to Aimé Césaire who sees negritude as a movement that sought to accept one's blackness and celebrate the culture that predates colonialism.
Her discussion of the relationship between colonialism and gender identity is another example of John's appropriate selection of some facets of the...