- Recent Books on Modern Black Fiction:An Essay-Review
An unnecessary and wasteful internecine battle is being waged by critics of Afro-American literature. As the critical tradition—which can trace its lineage from W. E. B. DuBois and Sterling Brown through Larry Neal and Audre Lorde—reaches a professional maturity of ambiguous value, a substantial number of significant critics have found it necessary to align themselves with camps defined by their support of, or dismay over, "critical theory." Recent essays by Barbara Christian ("The Race for Theory," Cultural Critique), Norman Harris ("'Who's Zoomin' Who': The New Black Formalism," MMLA), and Joyce A. Joyce ("The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism," New Literary History) assail the "theoretical" criticism of Houston Baker, Robert Stepto, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Based in part on substance and in part on style—to accept, momentarily, a distinction ultimately irrelevant to Afro-American discourse—the battle threatens to create a situation in which critics on both sides fail to exploit useful insights generated within the other camp. If we are to remain or to become an actual community—a vision basic to the tradition on which all critics of Afro-American literature draw and to which many belong—we must now confront several basic [End Page 125] questions: will we generate an alternative to the petty, hierarchical, and ultimately irrelevant disputes all too common in mainstream criticism? Will we succeed in constructing a discourse—consistent with the basic values of Afro-American writers from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs through Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison—that can acknowledge diversity by accepting, nurturing, and using the insights of poststructuralists and black nationalists, pluralists and feminists, close readers and cultural historians?
The essays cited above did not instigate the current battle, which has roots both in nationalist attacks on integrationist poetics during the Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s and in several theoretical essays published in Stepto's anthology Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction that attack modes of criticism focusing on "extra-literary" concerns. The success of these attacks, originally intended as correctives for the excess of the Black Aesthetic movement, can be measured by the defensive postures assumed by Harris, Joyce, and Christian, all of whom (rightly) perceive that Gates, Stepto, and Baker occupy positions closer to the center of literary power in the United States. Although the differences between individual positions should not be underestimated, Harris, Joyce, and Christian all criticize the theorists for imposing an inappropriate (continental, academic, Euro-American, abstract) vocabulary on Afro-American materials, for ignoring the political circumstances conditioning Afro-American literature, and (although Christian would probably not endorse this extension) for failing to accept "blackness" as an essence. Related to these substantial issues are a cluster of criticisms focusing on the theorists' styles, which are widely perceived as expressions of indifference to or contempt for the largely nonacademic Afro-American community. Although it frequently remains implicit—at least in print—this criticism is often accompanied by a corollary belief that the theorists, the most influential of whom are based at Ivy League institutions, have created a kind of literary Tuskegee Machine. Supported by the power of mainstream literary institutions such as Critical Inquiry and The New York Times Book Review (which selected Gates rather than a black woman critic to write a major essay celebrating 'black women's literary self-determination), this theoretical machine is seen as excluding or margihalizing critics—especially those based in the Midwest or South—who choose not to employ an acceptably academic vocabulary.
The publication of Gates's first critical book, Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the "Racial" Self, and of Stepto's essay on Charles Chesnutt (to be included in his forthcoming book, Write Me A Tale: Storytelling in the Afro-American Narrative) in Gunter Lenz's fine anthology History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture provides an ideal occasion for reconsidering the antitheoretical positions. An attentive reading of the new work suggests that the antitheorists have a tendency to create "straw men" whose [End Page 126] positions are only distantly related to those actually professed by Gates or Stepto. For example, the oft-reiterated idea...