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Essays on Race, Family, and History
In 1991, acclaimed poet Kenneth A. McClane published Walls: Essays, 1985-1990, a volume of essays dealing with life in Harlem, the death of his alcoholic brother, and the complexities of being black and middle-class in America. Now, in Color: Essays on Race, Family, and History, McClane contributes further to his self-described “autobiographical sojourn” with a second collection of interconnected essays. In McClane’s words, “All concern race, although they, like the human spirit, wildly sweep and yaw.” A timely installment in our national narrative, Color is a chronicle of the black middle class, a group rarely written about with sensitivity and charity. In evocative, trenchant, and poetic prose, McClane employs the art of the memoirist to explore the political and the personal. He details the poignant narrative of racial progress as witnessed by his family during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. We learn of his parents’ difficult upbringing in Boston, where they confronted much racism; of the struggles they and McClane encountered as they became the first blacks to enter previously all-white institutions, including the oldest independent school in the United States; and of the part his parents played in the civil rights movement, working with Dr. King and others. The book ends with a tender account of his parents in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, which claimed both their lives.
Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893-1933
Commerce in Color explores the juncture of consumer culture and race by examining advertising, literary texts, mass culture, and public events in the United States from 1893 to 1933. James C. Davis takes up a remarkable range of subjects—including the crucial role publishers Boni and Liveright played in the marketing of Harlem Renaissance literature, Henry James’s critique of materialism in The American Scene, and the commodification of racialized popular culture in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as he argues that racial thinking was central to the emergence of U.S. consumerism and, conversely, that an emerging consumer culture was a key element in the development of racial thinking and the consolidation of racial identity in America. By urging a reassessment of the familiar rubrics of the “culture of consumption” and the “culture of segregation,” Dawson poses new and provocative questions about American culture and social history. Both an influential literary study and an absorbing historical read, Commerce in Color proves that—in America—advertising, publicity, and the development of the modern economy cannot be understood apart from the question of race. “A welcome addition to existing scholarship, Davis’s study of the intersection of racial thinking and the emergence of consumer culture makes connections very few scholars have considered.” —James Smethurst, University of Massachusetts James C. Davis is Assistant Professor of English at Brooklyn College.
Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches
In 1987 Bernard W. Bell published The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, a comprehensive interpretive history of more than 150 novels written by African Americans from 1853 to 1983. The book won the Distinguished Scholarship Award of the College Language Association and was reprinted five times. Now Bell has produced a new volume that serves as a sequel and companion to the earlier work, expanding the coverage to 2001. Bell also refines and extends his interpretive model for reading texts by African American writers, a model based on the vernacular forms of expression of his childhood, the literary theories of Ralph Ellison, and the writings on double-consciousness of W.E.B. Du Bois. The book begins with a personal essay in which Bell traces the evolution of his thinking about sociohistorical and sociocultural approaches to literature. He goes on to apply these approaches to the work of hundreds of black novelists whose work has been published since 1853. His primary focus, however, is on some forty novels and romances published between 1983 and 2001, including works by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Albert Murray, Gloria Naylor, Al Young, David Bradley, Leon Forrest, and Charles Johnson, as well as the neo-Black Aesthetic novelists Nathaniel Mackey, Trey Ellis, Percival L. Everett, and Colson Whitehead. In acknowledging the diversity of the tradition of the novel, Bell also examines the science fiction of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, the gay novels of E. Lynn Harris, Larry Duplechan, and Randall Kenan, and the detective narratives of Barbara Neely and Walter Mosley. The result is a book of impressive scope and accomplishment—an essential work for any serious student of African American literature.
Mixed-Race Identity in Modern American Fiction and Culture
The publication of Sanyika Shakur's Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member in 1993 generated a huge amount of excitement in literary circles--New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani deemed it a "shocking and galvanic book"--and set off a new publishing trend of gang memoirs in the 1990s. The memoirs showcased tales of violent confrontation and territorial belonging but also offered many of the first journalistic and autobiographical accounts of the much-mythologized gang subculture.In The Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs, Josephine Metcalf focuses on three of these memoirs--Shakur's Monster; Luis J. Rodriguez's Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.; and Stanley "Tookie" Williams's Blue Rage, Black Redemption--as key representatives of the gang autobiography. Metcalf examines the conflict among violence, thrilling sensationalism, and the authorial desire to instruct and warn competing within these works. The narrative arcs of the memoirs themselves rest on the process of conversion from brutal, young gang bangers to nonviolent, enlightened citizens.
Metcalf analyzes the emergence, production, marketing, and reception of gang memoirs. Through interviews with Rodriguez, Shakur, and Barbara Cottman Becnel (Williams's editor), Metcalf reveals both the writing and publishing processes. This book analyzes key narrative conventions, specifically how diction, dialogue, and narrative arcs shape the works. The book also explores how the memoirs are consumed. This interdisciplinary study--fusing literary criticism, sociology, ethnography, reader-response study, and editorial theory--brings scholarly attention to a popular, much-discussed, but understudied modern expression.
Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction
In Dividing Lines , Andreá N. Williams explores how African American literature in the late 19th century represents class divisions among black Americans. By portraying complex, highly stratified communities with a growing black middle class, authors dispelled popular notions that black Americans were uniformly poor or uncivilized. But even as the writers highlighted middle-class achievement, they worried over whether class distinctions would help or sabotage collective black protest against racial prejudice. Williams argues that the signs of class anxiety are embedded in postbellum fiction: from the verbal stammer or prim speech of class-conscious characters to fissures in the fiction's form. In these telling moments, authors innovatively dared to address the sensitive topic of class differences---a topic inextricably related to American civil rights and social opportunity. Williams delves into the familiar and lesser-known works of Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, showing how these texts mediate class through discussions of labor, moral respectability, ancestry, spatial boundaries, and skin complexion. Dividing Lines also draws on reader responses---from book reviews, editorials, and letters---to show how the class anxiety expressed in African American fiction directly sparked reader concerns over the status of black Americans in the U.S. social order.
A Biography of Class and Color
Dorothy West is best known as one of the youngest writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Subsequently, her work is read as a product of the urban aesthetics of this artistic movement. But West was also intimately rooted in a very different milieu—Oak Bluffs, an exclusive retreat for African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. She played an integral role in the development and preservation of that community. In the years between publishing her two novels, 1948’s The Living is Easy and the 1995 bestseller The Wedding, she worked as a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette.
Dorothy West’s Paradise captures the scope of the author’s long life and career, reading it alongside the unique cultural geography of Oak Bluffs and its history as an elite African American enclave—a place that West envisioned both as a separatist refuge and as a space for interracial contact. An essential book for both fans of West’s fiction and students of race, class, and American women’s lives, Dorothy West’s Paradise offers an intimate biography of an important author and a privileged glimpse into the society that shaped her work.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw both the consolidation of American print culture and the establishment of an African American literary tradition, yet the two are too rarely considered in tandem. In this landmark volume, a stellar group of established and emerging scholars ranges over periods, locations, and media to explore African Americans' diverse contributions to early American print culture, both on the page and off.
The book's seventeen chapters consider domestic novels and gallows narratives, Francophone poetry and engravings of Liberia, transatlantic lyrics and San Francisco newspapers. Together, they consider how close attention to the archive can expand the study of African American literature well beyond matters of authorship to include issues of editing, illustration, circulation, and reading—and how this expansion can enrich and transform the study of print culture more generally.
Published in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia.
This study explores contemporary novels, films, performances, and reenactments that depict American slavery and its traumatic effects by invoking a time-travel paradigm to produce a representational strategy of "bodily epistemology." Disrupting the prevailing view of traumatic knowledge that claims that traumatic events are irretrievable and accessible only through oblique reference, these novels and films circumvent the notion of indirect reference by depicting a replaying of the past, forcing present-day protagonists to witness and participate in traumatic histories that for them are neither dead nor past. Lisa Woolfork cogently analyzes how these works deploy a representational strategy that challenges the divide between past and present, imparting to their re-creations of American slavery a physical and emotional energy to counter America's apathetic or amnesiac attitude about the trauma of the slave past.