- Redeeming the Post-Metaphysical Promise of J. Saunders Redding’s “America”
Author of To Make a Poet Black (1939), a comprehensive and systematic study of African American literature from the eighteenth century to the 1930s; Stranger and Alone (1950), a novel in the tradition of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Alice Walker’s Meridian, in that it viciously critiques a historically black college; and The Lonesome Road: The Story of the Negro’s Part in America (1958), an African American biographies-based history of the United States from slavery to the 1950s, J. Saunders Redding was one of the most influential and powerful black academics in the United States from the 1950s through the 1980s, earning him the title of “the veritable dean of Afro-American literary studies” (Gates 1998, vii).1 So influential was Redding during the mid-twentieth century [End Page 217] that Lawrence P. Jackson opens his recent study, The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2011), with a chapter about the African American scholar/novelist/critic that establishes the conceptual framework for the entire book. As Jackson says, “The Indignant Generation is a sympathetic social movement history that charts the overlooked achievement of J. Saunders Redding’s generation in mostly three-year chunks” (2011, 10).
How could someone as accomplished as Redding become, as Jackson rightly notes, “almost totally unknown” (2011, 714) less than three decades after his death? The answer, as I will demonstrate, has something to do with a faulty understanding of one of the central ideas at the core of Redding’s work throughout his entire career, which is his vicious critique and total rejection of metaphysics. From 1942, with the publication of No Day of Triumph, to 1977, with the publication of “The Black Arts Movement: A Modest Dissent,” Redding consistently exposed metaphysics as the primary problem ailing the United States. Ironically, what started as a critique of a white metaphysics of race morphed into a critique of a black metaphysics of race, and in charting Redding’s intellectual itinerary from the forties through the seventies, it is possible to see how and why he formulated a stunningly comprehensive critique of the metaphysics of race, a critique that brilliantly anticipates postmodern theories about race, identity, and nation. However, failure to understand Redding’s searing critique of metaphysics has led noted writers to misrepresent his individual works and intellectual project, and it was this misrepresentation that led to Redding’s marginalization.
For Redding, the United States is sick. As he claims in On Being Negro in America (1951): “There is a deep sickness in the American mind and spirit, and it threatens to infect democracy itself and render it impotent as an ideal. But not only this; the sickness also threatens to make democracy ineffective as an instrument through which the individual can realize his highest self and in co-operation with other selves give zest, richness and meanings to human endeavor” (1962, 135). Writing from the 1930s through the 1980s, it would seem [End Page 218] that Redding would identify racism as the sickness plaguing the United States. But throughout his career, he actually identifies metaphysics as the primary cause of the “American psychological malady” (1962, 42). For instance, in his 1950 study, They Came in Chains, Redding spends considerable time exposing the way the white mind (“the white man’s point of view about the colored man” [1950b, 205]) has functioned to justify its massive program of political oppression and disenfranchisement. At first glance, it would seem that Redding’s focus is more on the historically contingent than the philosophically immutable, for he discusses how the white man derived his racist views “from misinterpreted fact.” Specifically, the white man claimed that the black man “had a different odor, a different speech, a peculiar disposition” (1950b, 205). But such observations led the white man to draw a more universal conclusion about blacks: “The white man was certain that, measured by every index—biological, intellectual, moral—the Negro was inferior” (1950b, 205). Only a couple sentences later, however, Redding identifies that which...