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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.
African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion
Western European mythology and history tend to view spirituality and sexuality as opposite extremes. But sex can be more than a function of the body and religion more than a function of the mind, as exemplified in the works and characters of such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Edwidge Danticat.
Donna Weir-Soley builds on the work of previous scholars who have identified the ways that black women's narratives often contain a form of spirituality rooted in African cosmology, which consistently grounds their characters' self-empowerment and quest for autonomy. What she adds to the discussion is an emphasis on the importance of sexuality in the development of black female subjectivity, beginning with Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and continuing into contemporary black women's writings.
Writing in a clear, lucid, and straightforward style, Weir-Soley supports her thesis with close readings of various texts, including Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Morrison's Beloved. She reveals how these writers highlight the interplay between the spiritual and the sexual through religious symbols found in Voudoun, Santeria, Condomble, Kumina, and Hoodoo. Her arguments are particularly persuasive in proposing an alternative model for black female subjectivity.
Prizewinning African American Novels, 1977-1993
After World War II and well beyond the Black Arts Movement, African American novelists struggled with white literary expectations imposed upon them. Aesthetics as varied as New Criticism and Deconstruction fueled these struggles, and black writers—facing these struggles— experienced an ethical crisis. Analyzing prizewinning, creative fellowship, and artistic style, this book considers what factors ended that crisis. The Ethics of Swagger explores how novelists who won major prizes between 1977 and 1993 helped move authors of black fiction through insecurity toward autonomy. Identifying these prizewinners—David Bradley, Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and John Edgar Wideman—as a literary class, this book focuses on how they achieved imaginative freedom, recovered black literary traditions, and advanced the academic study of African American writing. The post–Civil Rights era produced the most accomplished group of novelists in black literary history. As these authors worked in an integrating society, they subjected white narrative techniques to the golden mean of black cultural mores. This exposure compelled the mainstream to acknowledge fresh talent and prodded American society to honor its democratic convictions. Shaping national dialogues about merit, award-winning novelists from 1977 to 1993, the Black Archivists, used swagger to alter the options for black art and citizenship.
For centuries, Psalm 68:31 "Princes shall come forth out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God," also known as the Ethiopian prophecy, has served as a pivotal and seminal text for those of African descent in the Americas.
Originally, it was taken to mean that the slavery of African Americans was akin to the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, and thus it became an articulation of the emancipation struggle. However, it has also been used as an impetus for missionary work in Africa, as an inspirational backbone for the civil rights movement, and as a call for a separate black identity during the twentieth century.
Utilizing examples from Richard Allen, Maria W. Stewart, Kate Drumgoold, Phillis Wheatley, Martin Delany, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Ralph Ellison, Kay reveals the wide variety of ways this verse has been interpreted and conceptualized in African American history and letters for more than two hundred years.
Religion gave these writers agency and credibility, says May, and they appropriated the language of Christianity to establish a common ground on which to speak about social and political rights. In the process, these writers spread the principles that enabled slaves and free blacks to form communities, a fundamental step in resisting oppression. Moreover, says May, this institution building was overtly political, leading to a liberal shift in mainstream Christianity and secular politics as black churches and the organizations they launched became central to local communities and increasingly influenced public welfare and policy.
This important new study restores a sense of the complex challenges faced by early black intellectuals as they sought a path to freedom through Christianity.
Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture
Using the term "exodus politics" to theorize the valorization of black male leadership in the movement for civil rights, Robert J. Patterson explores the ways in which the political strategies and ideologies of this movement paradoxically undermined the collective enfranchisement of black people. He argues that by narrowly conceptualizing civil rights in only racial terms and relying solely on a male figure, conventional African American leadership, though frequently redemptive, can also erode the very goals of civil rights.
The author turns to contemporary African American writers such as Ernest Gaines, Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, and Charles Johnson to show how they challenge the dominant models of civil rights leadership.
He draws on a variety of disciplines—including black feminism, civil rights history, cultural studies, and liberation theology—in order to develop a more nuanced formulation of black subjectivity and politics.
Patterson's connection of the concept of racial rights to gender and sexual rights allows him to illuminate the literature's promotion of more expansive models. By considering the competing and varied political interests of black communities, these writers reimagine the dominant models in a way that can empower communities to be self-sustaining in the absence of a messianic male leader.
Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination
“A powerful theoretical statement in the emerging field of black queer studies, Extravagant Abjection makes the bold claim that it is necessary to work through and not simply to ‘white wash’ the political, social, ideological, and psychological consequences of what Darieck Scott names ‘black abjection.’ Building upon the insights of the more articulate practitioners of bondage and submission, Sadism and Masochism, Scott’s readings of key texts in twentieth century Black American literature are at once sophisticated, provocative, creative, and indeed titillating. This book will surely become a ‘dark’ classic.”
How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature
Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.
Taking his title from Richard Wright’s poem “The FB Eye Blues,” Maxwell details how the FBI threatened the international travels of African American writers and prepared to jail dozens of them in times of national emergency. All the same, he shows that the Bureau’s paranoid style could prompt insightful criticism from Hoover’s ghostreaders and creative replies from their literary targets. For authors such as Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and Sonia Sanchez, the suspicion that government spy-critics tracked their every word inspired rewarding stylistic experiments as well as disabling self-censorship.
Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.