- The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture
Werner Sollers and Maria Diedrich claim—and the list of contributors supports such a claim—that this collection of essays “may be the most international and transnational collection to date dedicated to African American literature and culture.” As such, The Black Columbiad itself represents a “defining moment” in African American criticism. While the field has blossomed since the 1970s and certainly has attracted international interest in countries such as Germany, this volume represents a global flowering of research in African American literature and culture. Contributors range from Italian, German, and French to South African, Czech, and Norwegian. (And yes, there are a few Americans too.)
In their useful and well-written introduction, Sollers and Diedrich contrast the European encounter with America with the African forced experience. The editors center the volume (which was born of a conference on the Black Columbiad in Seville, Spain) around the following questions: “What were the values, the images, and the vocabulary which accompanied our African ‘explorers’ on their terrifying Columbiad? And what were the values, the images, and the vocabulary these people developed in their survivalist endeavors to familiarize themselves with the unfamiliar—to reinvent, rediscover, and redefine American from a black perspective, to endure in and to accommodate themselves to this appalling and attractive New World? How did the extremely heterogeneous group of African pioneers manufacture themselves into African Americans?” The volume takes a very open approach to answering these questions, refusing to canonize any few select “defining moments” but, rather, exploring a wide array of perspectives. As such, the book opens the field up instead of attempting to centralize it. [End Page 831]
The essays in the volume are grouped into three topical sections, each of which is preceded by a brief introductory overview. The first, “Conceiving Blackness,” focuses on the “struggle for inventing African Americanness or blackness out of interactions with disrupted forms of Africanness”; as such, it centers on early negotiations of Africanness and Americanness. Essays here explore, among other topics, folklore, the middle passage, slave trials, and the slave narrative. The second section, “Sources of Modern African American Cultural Authority,” concentrates on defining moments in the early to mid-twentieth century, including work on DuBois, the New Negro, Cane, Hurston, race in Casablanca, and Richard Wright. The third grouping, “Defining Moments Since the 1960s,” includes essays investigating OBAC and the Black Arts Movement, Etheridge Knight, Ishmael Reed, lynching and rape, Toni Morrison and Mark Twain, Gloria Naylor, and African American literary politics since 1976. The volume closes with a piece by Adrienne Kennedy, “Motherhood 2000,” under the heading “Prospects?”
The many essays (to include as many as possible, the conventional length has been shortened for most essays) are quite good. Generally, each is well-researched and historically grounded, offering a creative new reading of an issue or area while building on established criticism. Several essays are of particular value. Ann DuCille’s “Post-Colonialism and Afrocentricity: Discourse and Dat Course,” besides having a great title, offers a very useful comparison of two contemporary theoretical discourses and considers their relation to African American Studies. Michel Fabre’s “Paris as a Moment in African American Consciousness,” although not seemingly in the correct historical section of the volume, draws together the many African American writers and thinkers whose connection to Paris articulated some of the tensions of their lives in America. Josef Jarab, in “Black Stars, the Red Star, and the Blues,” forges some original and interesting links between the emotional and political histories of Czechs and African Americans, traced through the Czech love of African American literature and music. Matgorzata Irek’s essay, “From Berlin to Harlem: Felix von Luschan, Alain Locke, and the New Negro,” convincingly traces the founding liberal race theories behind the Harlem Renaissance to the Berlin Museum’s acquisition of a huge collection of Benin art—a truly extraordinary connection predating Picasso’s interest in African art. David Lionel Smith, in “Chicago Poets, [End...