- Being Apart: Theoretical and Existential Resistance in Africana Literature by LaRose T. Parris
Being Apart is, like most of the texts it addresses, formally conservative but conceptually radical. A chronological account of black New World writers' responses to Enlightenment ideas about race, freedom, and personhood, this study follows out a story and a canon well known in Africana studies and familiar to many outside the field—but with a signal difference. LaRose Parris does not primarily describe her Africana subjects in terms of critical reactions to the killing contradictions of Western modernity. Instead she emphasizes prolepsis, speculation, and intellectual community. Writers including David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Kamau Brathwaite are, in her analysis, exponents of a black philosophical tradition that is necessarily located beyond mainstream academic and scholarly venues. However, that tradition is also characterized by its critical engagement with the mainstream and by its internal coherence and rigor. Its exponents mount a concerted resistance to "African negation in Western discourse," the wide range of trivializing and disidentificatory reflexes of white supremacy that Parris usefully designates with the umbrella term "being apart" (8). Rather than making isolated, individual protests against an irresistible enemy, these men collectively refused to "be apart" and their works are most fruitfully examined in light of this shared, multigenerational, liberatory project. For decades it has been commonplace to recognize that Enlightenment concepts of freedom presupposed absolute bondage and entailed a strict racial hierarchy that assigned black people to utter abjection. However, the obvious corollary that the enslaved critiqued the system long before their masters has been little addressed outside black nationalist venues. [End Page 779]
Parris's study can thus be categorized both as an Africana philosophical statement and as literary criticism. With regard to the former, her overall procedure is quite faithful to broader Marxist and existentialist tradition, which has always combined the critique of modernity with creative canonbuilding and a highly literary approach to the phenomenological. Demanding that we see David Walker as a theorist of modern subjectivity is no stranger than so designating Goethe or Job. Moreover, Parris convincingly contends that Walker and other Africana thinkers are not merely commensurate with Continental philosophical tradition but also anticipate several major insights, particularly regarding the exercise of personal freedom and the material character of power. In sum, "the precepts of Marxism and existentialism are vivified . . . in the lived reality of enslaved Africans" (15): to be unfree is to know about freedom's limits, and to be designated as property is to understand how ownership warps human morality.
Across its historical sweep, Parris's work mandates and models a kind of theoretical patience not often extended to Africana authors. Her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century subjects in particular philosophize on the fly because the overall project of vindicating black humanity always took precedence over imbricating themselves in universities or mass media. Therefore, knowing their work as Parris would have us know it requires a certain willingness to read in the interstices and to privilege lived specificity over formal abstraction. We are taught to ask not "What is human freedom, according to so-and-so's formal exposition thereof?" but "What sort of freedom do Douglass's orations presuppose?" This is where literary-critical method becomes essential to Parris's project: meticulous attention to the text is both the only way to hear these writers' philosophies and the ideal means for interrupting their being ideologically coopted by the mainstream. Scholars and schoolchildren alike in the United States today usually think about black freedom without reference to the text, an interpretive procedure that guarantees the obscurity of major ideas. What was freedom to Douglass? Clearly, we tend to assume, Douglass wanted the freedom we have ourselves—that is, an individualistic and dematerialized formal agency that may or may not correspond to the capacity for ethical action. Parris, however, teaches us to reread Douglass's and others' words so as to understand freedom in terms of its stakes and its phenomenology. Her overall description of pre-Emancipation Africana...