restricted access Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, and: In the African-American Grain, and: Self-Discovery in Afro-American Narrative, and: The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined (review)
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Reviewed by
Charles Johnson. Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. 132 pp. $15.95.
John S. Callahan. In the African-American Grain. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 280 pp. $21.95.
Valerie Smith. Self-Discovery in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. 167 pp. $22.50.
Victor A. Kramer, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined. New York: AMS, 1987. 362 pp. $45.00.

In varying degrees, the four books that comprise this review say more about the challenges involved in finding meaningful ways to discuss African-American literature than they do about their expressed subject matter. For each is wrestling with ways to handle both the socio-political and formal dimensions of AfricanAmerican literature. The wrestling match usually results in the Black Aesthetic being pinned to the mat and labeled an embarrassing noncontender in the world of big ideas. Perhaps the most striking result of the wrestling match is that the subject matter of each book is secondary to its attempt a finding the best way to discuss that subject matter.

Charles Johnson's Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 is fascinating in its attempt to use phenomenology as a basis to ground African-American literary criticism in experience. He uses Husserl's definition of phenomenology, viewing it as a "philosophy of experience" in which we "set aside all explanatory models for the phenomena we investigate, thereby making possible an intuition of the essence of invariant structures of different forms of experience, specifically in the sciences." For me, Johnson's phenomenology is a false objectivity that has the effect of elevating historical amnesia among critics of African-American literature to a philosophical plane that, quite ironically, relegates die intuited black experience of the author/reader to a position of limited explanatory importance.

In its formulations, rhetoric, and approach, Johnson's book is consistent with varying kinds of formalism (by which I mean critical approaches that mock mimetic modes of criticism in preference for intertextuality and a relentless if casual refutation of the Black Aesthetic) that now enjoy preeminence in African-American literary scholarship. The most striking aspect of Johnson's formulations about the world is that it is somehow possible to be born again. And I choose the phrase "born again" because, to my knowledge, the kind of setting aside of prejudices and stripping away of artifice in order to experience what an artistic product has to offer is not supported by any "science." Indeed, if anything, philosophy and science suggest that being, or reality, is an interminant phenomenon, the meanings of which are contingent on any number of shifting patterns. The epistemology that provides the basis for the experience Johnson wants is simple faith, no more or less profound, or intrinsically preferable to the faith of Black Aesthetic advocates who asserted, among other things, that Black is beautiful.

Johnson's discussion of specific writers is divided by gender, a discussion of men first and women second. Phenomenological differences between African-American women and men writers might be a basis for such a division, but the division is not explained in that way; therefore, discussing men in one chapter and women in another seems more convenient than explanatory. His readings of specific authors are more suggestive than thorough or systematic. When he does go into some detail, as he does with his discussions of Clarence Major and [End Page 307] David Bradley, little happens that would help the reader experience these writers in a fresh way. Indeed, he seems most intent on illustrating the extent to which these writers stand on the shoulders of their European and Euro-American predecessors.

For African-Americans in general, and African-American artists in particular, peoccupation with form and precedent is generally a prelude to either subtle or overt deracinations of one's own culture. In Being and Race, the Black Aesthetic comes in for some heavy body blows. He calls it kitsch, and kitsch is defined this way: "In dread of freedom man pretends that the meanings with which he has endowed the world transcends their creator." African-American political and cultural history is in part based on just such an assumption: the...