- African-American Literary Studies and the Legacies of Black Nationalism
During the heyday of the Black Power movement, critic Larry Neal imagined the blues singer as “the voice of the community, its historian, and one of the shapers of its morality” (38). The performer’s “ideas and values are, in fact, merely expressions of the general psychology of the people” (38). Neal understood this vocalist as both repository and expressive medium in the consolidation of a nationalist consciousness that would liberate African Americans from white “ideas and values that finally attack the core” of black “existence” (38). In this regard Neal and his fellow nationalists marshaled vernacular culture as armament in combating the hegemony of a white America. So potent was the era’s nexus of culture and identity that scholars of African-American literature have felt compelled to grapple with its legacy long after the decline of Black Power nationalism. In a particularly influential recasting of Neal’s formulation, Houston Baker, Jr. conjured the image of the blues singer at the crossroads to represent the varied methodologies and discourses that the critic of African-American literature must address. For Baker the singer’s appeal as a trope for critical practice inheres in his voice, which, “like the railway juncture itself” constitutes “a lively scene, a robust matrix, where endless antinomies are mediated and understanding and explanation find conditions of possibility” (Blues 7). Just as the singer offers an interpretive juncture for various cultural contradictions, so the professional critic serves as a way station for heterogeneous discourses that include black vernacular expressive culture, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and so forth. In this revision of Neal’s trope, Baker duly acknowledged his debt to nationalism. [End Page 923] At the same time, his gesture inaugurated a complex negotiation with nationalist ideology that has persisted as one of the most generative yet fraught dialectics in contemporary African-American letters.
Of course the nationalist ideology that Baker so deftly commuted into a strain of professional criticism in the 1980s has been subjected to growing critical scrutiny since that time. Feminists from Paula Giddings to bell hooks have indicted Black Power advocates for fostering a political platform that marginalized women, overemphasized the affirmation of male authority, and thereby compromised the pursuit of black political autonomy. Similarly, Dwight McBride and other queer theorists have been vocal in challenging both Black Power advocates and Afrocentrists for their exclusion of sexual minorities from the broader racial community. With equal vigor Paul Gilroy and the proponents of internationalism have criticized nationalists for conceiving black community through overly restrictive designations of race, culture, and region. Given the pervasiveness of such critiques, it seems fitting that Baker’s most recent book, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era (2008), offers a potent apologia on behalf of the nationalist critical model that he invented. And no less symptomatic of the volatility that currently attends the legacy of black nationalism is Robert Reid-Pharr’s Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual (2007). Reid-Pharr, a scholar who established his critical reputation through a subtle corrosion of nationalist verities, further elaborates such interventions in his new work. Reading these books together, one can glean a story about the fascination that nationalism continues to hold within African-American literary studies and the complicated struggle to define the warrants for a criticism that is not nationalist in character.
When Baker recast the figure of the singer at the crossroads, he did so as an extension of the vernacular theory that he and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pioneered. They posited that black American expressive culture contains an implicit set of theoretical premises that could serve as effective heuristic devices for interpreting African-American literature. Because these privileged expressive forms came from within black American culture, Baker and Gates imagined that they were producing interpretive paradigms more attuned to the cultural specificity of black texts. In...