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Re-Visioning African American Autobiography
Crispin Sartwell. Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. x + 212 pp.
Jon Woodson. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999. xiii +202 pp.
For African American subjects historically denied access to public modes of self-representation, writing isn't just about telling a good story. From the slave narratives published during the nineteenth century to the contemporary novel, black authors have been cutting through the culturally imposed layers that naturalize dominant white hierarchies of racialized difference. Such authors as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, for example, employed the testimonial to call attention to ideological systems that justified slavery by coding the black subject as invisible, impure, cultureless, and in need of taming at a white master's hands. While many black writers have chosen to speak out against a history of silence by making visible a "black essence"--the pan-African movement of the '60s, for example--others have sidestepped essentialist categories altogether, seeking relational models that avoid the white vs. black duality. As one can imagine, many writers who deliberately confuse racial binaries have fallen between the cracks, rejected by the [End Page 1004] white mainstream because of their "blackness" and by African Americans for not spouting (and toeing) the black-pride line. Two recent books on African American literature, Crispin Sartwell's Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity and Jon Woodson's To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance, trace how the mimetic impulse in African American letters grew out of this struggle against white fictions and how these often radical writings affected the writers' careers.
For Sartwell, authors as diverse as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, and even rap artist Sister Souljah create truth-telling testimonies that debunk white mythologies of race in their articulation of the particular experiences of the black self. Rather than appeal to universals that dissolve the self à la Emerson, these authors seek to emplace themselves in the particular through the act of detailing their lived experience. The move to emphasize the particular over the universal reveals how whiteness works to survey and objectify black bodies as "the specular negative images of itself [that] abstracts the white person into an abstract knower."
Some autobiographies have taken care not to confuse categories of blackness and whiteness--Douglass's, for example, had to employ the black vs. white dualistic model in order to subjectify his black experience and make the master's violence visible to his abolitionist audience. Meanwhile, and perhaps more usefully in Sartwell's argument, other autobiographers have sought to deconstruct the ways we categorize whiteness and blackness. Sojourner Truth's slave narrative complicates racial codes when she chooses not to engage in traditional forms of resistance, such as appearing lazy. Instead she acquires the master's tools, coming to understand patriarchal power as a construct while also creating a buffer zone to protect her sense of self. Sartwell sees a similar confusion of gender and race categories in Zora Neale Hurston's novels and autobiographic texts. His careful examination of her novels reveals characters whose "radicalness" exists in their quest "to discover a place anterior to the dualized racial taxonomies." For Sartwell, Hurston and Truth aren't black writers who internalize "white specular power" by complicating the black experience, but unracialized authors who resist "all forms of epistemic domination" because they pen narratives that complicate what it means to identify as neither black nor white. [End Page 1005]
Sartwell sees W.E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X resisting and reversing the white hegemonic gaze. For example, Du Bois's "double consciousness" is his simultaneous use of scientific discourse--a discourse Sartwell associates with a racialized European-American ideology--along with particulars that speak to Du Bois's black experience. Du Bois works within the hegemonic system to turn the pseudo-scientific and sociological inquiry back on itself, "objectively" identifying categories...