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The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women's Literature
The "black family" in the United States and the Caribbean often holds contradictory and competing meanings in public discourse: on the one hand, it is a site of love, strength, and support; on the other hand, it is a site of pathology, brokenness, and dysfunction that has frequently called forth an emphasis on conventional respectability if stability and social approval are to be achieved. Looking at the ways in which contemporary African American and black Caribbean women writers conceptualize the black family, Susana Morris finds a discernible tradition that challenges the politics of respectability by arguing that it obfuscates the problematic nature of conventional understandings of family and has damaging effects as a survival strategy for blacks.
The author draws on African American studies, black feminist theory, cultural studies, and women’s studies to examine the work of Paule Marshall, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, and Sapphire, showing how their novels engage the connection between respectability and ambivalence. These writers advocate instead for a transgressive understanding of affinity and propose an ethic of community support and accountability that calls for mutual affection, affirmation, loyalty, and respect. At the core of these transgressive family systems, Morris reveals, is a connection to African diasporic cultural rites such as dance, storytelling, and music that help the fictional characters to establish familial connections.
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.
Memory, Origin, and Discourses in Black Diasporic Cinema
Created at the crossroads of slavery, migration, and exile, and comprising a global population, the black diaspora is a diverse space of varied histories, experiences, and goals. Likewise, black diasporic film tends to focus on the complexities of transnational identity, which oscillates between similarity and difference and resists easy categorization. In Contact Zones author Sheila J. Petty addresses a range of filmmakers, theorists, and issues in black diasporic cinema, highlighting their ongoing influences on contemporary artistic and theoretical discourses. Petty examines both Anglophone and Francophone films and theorists, divided according to this volume’s three thematic sections—Slavery, Migration and Exile, and Beyond Borders. The feature films and documentaries considered—which include Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, The Man by the Shore, and Rude, among others—represent a wide range of cultures and topics. Through close textual analysis that incorporates the work of well-known diasporic thinkers like W. E. B. DuBois, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon along with contemporary notables such as Molefi Kete Asante, bell hooks, Clenora Hudson-Weems, René Depestre, Paul Gilroy, and Rinaldo Walcott, Petty details the unique ways in which black diasporic films create meaning. By exploring a variety of African American, Caribbean, Black British, and African Canadian perspectives, Contact Zones provides a detailed survey of the diversity and vitality of black diasporic contributions to cinema and theory. This volume will be a welcome addition to the libraries of scholars and students of film studies and Africana studies.
New Critical Essays
In Contemporary African American Fiction: New Critical Essays, edited by Dana A. Williams, eight contributors examine trends and ideas which characterize African American fiction since 1970. They investigate many of the key inquiries which inform discussions about the condition of contemporary African American fiction. The range of queries is wide and varied. How does African American fiction represent the changing times in America and the world? How are these changes reflected in narrative strategies or in narrative content? How do contemporary fictionists engage diasporic Africanisms, or how do they renegotiate Americanism? What is the impact of cultural production, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ethnicity on this fiction? How does contemporary African American fiction reconstruct or rewrite earlier “classic” African American, American, or world literature? Authors under study include Ernest J. Gaines, Ishmael Reed, Edwidge Danticat, Octavia E. Butler, Olympia Vernon, Toni Morrison, and Reginald McKnight, among others. These essays remind us that the African American literary tradition is about survival and liberation. The tradition is similarly about probing, challenging, changing, and redirecting accepted ways of thinking to ensure the wellness and the freedom of its community cohorts. The essays identify new ways contemporary African American fiction continues the tradition’s liberatory inclinations—they interrogate the ways in which antecedent texts and traditions influence contemporary texts to create new traditions.
The Living Canon
In this volume, Lovalerie King and Shirley Moody-Turner have compiled a collection of essays that offer access to some of the most innovative contemporary black fiction while addressing important issues in current African American literary studies. Distinguished scholars Houston Baker, Trudier Harris, Darryl Dickson-Carr, and Maryemma Graham join writers and younger scholars to explore the work of Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, Trey Ellis, Paul Beatty, Mat Johnson, Kyle Baker, Danzy Senna, Nikki Turner, and many others. The collection is bracketed by a foreword by novelist and graphic artist Mat Johnson, one of the most exciting and innovative contemporary African American writers, and an afterword by Alice Randall, author of the controversial parody The Wind Done Gone. Together, King and Moody-Turner make the case that diversity, innovation, and canon expansion are essential to maintaining the vitality of African American literary studies.
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.
James Baldwin and the Law
James Baldwin, one of the major African American writers of the twentieth century, has been the subject of a substantial body of literary criticism. As a prolific and experimental author with a marginal perspective—a black man during segregation and the Civil Rights era, a homosexual at a time when tolerance toward gays was not common—Baldwin has fascinated readers for over half a century. Yet Baldwin’s critics have tended to separate his weighty, complex body of work and to examine it piecemeal. A Criminal Power: James Baldwin and the Law is the first thematic study to analyze the complete scope of his work. It accomplishes this through an expansive definition and thorough analysis of the social force that oppressed Baldwin throughout his life: namely, the law. Baldwin, who died in 1987, attempted suicide in 1949 at the age of 25 after spending eight-days in a French prison following an absurd arrest for “receiving stolen goods”—a sheet that his acquaintance had taken from a hotel. This seemingly trite incident made Baldwin painfully aware of what he would later call the law’s “criminal power.” Up to now, the only book-length studies to address Baldwin’s entire career have been biographies and artistic “portraits.” D. Quentin Miller corrects this oversight in a comprehensive volume that addresses and unifies all of Baldwin’s work. Miller asserts that the Baldwin corpus is a testament to how the abuse of power within the American legal, judicial, and penal systems manifested itself in the twentieth century.