Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 1008-1016
[Access article in PDF]
Tangled Roots: History, Theory, and African American Studies
Lindon Barrett. Blackness and Value: Seeing Double. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. xii + 272 pp.
William J. Maxwell. New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. xi + 255 pp.
The burgeoning of African American studies over the last fifteen years or so continues to bear fruit. Abundant new scholarship can trace its various, tangled roots to 1960s radicalism, to feminist concerns with the disenfranchised, to poststructuralist theory in its concern with margins, and to New Historicism and Cultural Studies. Perhaps the primary slogan for African American studies should be "always historicize," for historical and social concerns are embedded in Black literature worldwide. The two books reviewed here share this emphasis, illuminating the texts they discuss through a careful contextualization. They diverge, however, in their overall approach: Lindon Barrett's Blackness and Value employs poststructuralist discourse, while William J. Maxwell's New Negro, Old Left is organized around a historical framework. An examination of the two works, then, yields clues--if only isolated and unverified by [End Page 1008] broader analysis--to the current methodology of African American studies, and to its sister field, Cultural Studies. Entwined, reacting to each others' growth, both African American and Cultural Studies are intensely historical fields that, paradoxically, saw their greatest growth following the turn to theory.
New Negro, Old Left is primarily a historical study of Communist influence in the Harlem Renaissance, although one often interrupted by a variety of concepts associated with Cultural Studies. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall the relevance of revisiting Communist influence may not be immediately evident. The global vitality of Communism has been effaced; if our current picture is of numerous dupes traveling down a bloody historical dead end, an alternative conception pictures a valiant struggle to make the world a better place. If the work of many members of the Communist Party has been virtually erased, a few scholars, notably Alan Wald, have called for greater acknowledgement and study of the many writers influenced by Communism.
New Negro, Old Left argues that many of the formative writers of the Harlem Renaissance saw themselves largely as cultural agents of the class struggle, and, more broadly, that Marxist influences were crucial in the formation of a modern African American literature: "the successful break with the norms of production in African-American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance was indebted to the revolutionary crisis of the capitalist world revealed and intensified by the Russian Revolution" (23). Maxwell further shows how this upheaval initiated broad cultural changes with long-term repercussions, citing "Communism's rare sustenance for African-American initiative and crossracial adventure" (1). The cast of characters in New Negro, Old Left more than substantiates the role of Communism in the Harlem Renaissance, stretching from the largely forgotten songsmith Andy Razaf, through Renaissance mainstays Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, and into the proletarian-centered work of Richard Wright.
Yet Maxwell's explorations creep beyond the boundaries of his main topic, displaying a flavorful multi-ethnic sensibility. The story of Andy Razaf, for instance, illustrates the gorgeously bizarre confluence of American culture: minstrel and tin pan alley forms intertwine with a Communist message. Perhaps best known for the song "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue," Razaf also penned such lyrics as "Both Lenin [End Page 1009] and Trotsky/They do the Kazotsky/To Sambo's syncopated Russian dance" (53). Overtly Communistic, these words also ironically comment on the increasingly global role of African American musical culture. Maxwell's characterization of Razaf's "fuzzy, multidirectional satire" (55) illustrates a fascinating intertwining of revolutionary doctrine and stylistic eclecticism. Yet class analysis was given primacy over stylistic and cultural matters in the 1920s, a divergence in status deserving further discussion.
Class analysis is most apparent in Maxwell's treatment of Claude McKay, which sways far less into the realm of eclecticism (but then McKay's verse is not notable for cultural improvisation...