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Sandra Adell’s book begins with the quite accurate assertion that contemporary African American literary criticism has ignored or forgotten its reliance “on the Western philosophical tradition.” Using the now almost legendary 1987 debate among Joyce A. Joyce, Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in New Literary History as a point of departure, Adell seeks to “intervene in the debate that was initiated [End Page 136] by Joyce’s ‘The Black Canon’ in order to reflect upon the extent to which twentieth-century black literature and criticism are implicated in the ensemble of Western literature and philosophy.” Using a comparative methodology, including African, African American, and European theorists, Adell charts a course through some of the major theoretical issues in African American criticism and theory in the twentieth century. Beginning with Anna Julia Cooper and W.E.B. DuBois, Adell convincingly demonstrates that “in African-American critical discourses, that textual system is from the beginning strongly Eurocentric.”
Chapter One investigates the metaphysical foundations of DuBois’s concept of double-consciousness, showing its roots in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Chapter Two analyzes how Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire develop the concept of Négritude using DuBois and the “Eurocentric/anthropological/metaphysical tradition in their efforts to establish and ontology of blackness.” Adell also looks at Richard Wright’s and James Baldwin’s interaction with with Négritude and the question of an African American common ground with the African. In Chapter Three, Adell addresses the problems of subjectivity and identity for one who is black and/or female within the context of a racist and phallogocentric symbolic order, reading Wright’s Black Boy and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Chapter Four offers an interrogation of (black) feminist literary discourse and its “illusion” of inclusiveness. Lastly, in Chapter Five, previously published by Diacritics in 1990, Adell offers close readings of books by two of our most prominent contemporary critics/theorists of African American literature: Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey. Adell reveals here that, despite these theorists’ claims to articulate a uniquely African American frame for the literature, they actually engage in a “wholesale appropriation of theories and concepts from the very systems against which they claim to be working.”
In each of her chapters, Adell, with stunning accuracy, outlines how key texts in the discourse are inconsistent with their claims. She reveals how the roots of Négritude lie in France, not only in the language but also in the European interpretation of nature, the world, and beings. She outlines how feminism, despite its claims of inclusiveness, repeatedly handles the “Other” in a matronizing or exclusionary manner and has itself become an almost religious dogma. And she demonstrates how Baker and Gates, in the interest of the black vernacular, actually [End Page 137] employ a methodology derived from structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction, and end up subverting their own intentions.
It might seem from this overview that Adell attacks just about everyone and every theory in twentieth-century African American criticism. It is not popular to say that the Emperor wears no clothes. But to see her critique as a value judgment against black criticism is to miss her very valid point that, despite its protestations to the contrary, much of African American critical discourse draws on the very traditions from which it claims to depart and thereby fails to live up to its premises. Adell hopes that by pinpointing the ways in which the discourse is shaped by the Western masculinist tradition “this study will help to enrich the multiplicity of the debate so that the being of literary blackness will perhaps emerge on its own.” In a field so often focused on “the tradition,” it is important to accurately name where that tradition comes from.
This book is important for anyone teaching African American literary theory and criticism or working with contemporary criticism, for it centralizes the...