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The Futures of African American Life Writing

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 1, Summer 2012
pp. 1-18 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Published in the Fall of 1986 and edited by William L. Andrews, the last a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue devoted to African American life writing captured a unique moment in the history of the fields of African American studies and autobiography studies. Like several edited and single-author books on African American life writing published in the 1970s and 80s, the discussions in the 1986 special issue explored, with very few exceptions, the dynamics of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century African American autobiographical expression.1

A number of the key texts included, referenced, and/or reviewed within the 1986 special issue quickly became seminal works in the field. In fact, three books still consistently impact discussions in African American studies. Andrews’s To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 remains required reading for any serious study of African American autobiography. Scholars exploring the contents of Olaudah Equiano’s or Gustavus Vassa’s 1789 Narrative and eighteenth-century African American autobiography still reference Angelo Costanzo’s Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography. Charles T. Davis’s and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Slave’s Narrative as well continues to provide invaluable information for anyone writing on the most popular and frequently celebrated genre of African American life writing.

In more recent investigations, however, scholars have consistently pointed to the 1980s as a defining moment in the history of African American autobiography and literary criticism. Yet, further contextualizing the legacy of this period has allowed contemporary critics to highlight the presence of inherent preferences in this period of criticism along with the interpretive problems that grew out of these biases. Frances Smith Foster and Kim D. Green, for instance, have recently argued that Davis’s and Gates’s The Slave’s Narrative, Andrews’s To Tell a Free Story, and Deborah E. McDowell’s and Arnold Rampersad’s edited book, Slavery and the Literary Imagination, “promoted the personal narratives by enslaved and formerly enslaved writers as the ur-genre, and the archetypal movement of African American literature to be from slave South to free North” (49–50). For Foster and Green, this preference has clouded the field’s understanding of the origins of African American literature along with the diverse literary texts written by African Americans that were published prior to the Civil War, even though several scholars have offered alternative literary and cultural histories on this period in recent years.

Unlike Foster and Green, who focus on African American literary and autobiographical texts published prior to the Civil War, Andrews, in essays following the publication of his influential To Tell, has outlined shortcomings in the field’s understanding of post-Civil War African American autobiography. Specifically, Andrews has insisted that the privileging of antebellum African American life writing in the late 1970s and 80s has obstructed our ability to appreciate African American autobiography published after the Civil War on its own terms (“African-American” and “Toward”).2 More crucially, the measuring of post-Civil War slave narratives by the characteristics found in antebellum slave narratives, Andrews holds, further prohibits recognizing identifiable patterns of revision in the representations of the self throughout the history of African American autobiography.

To a certain extent, the interdisciplinary essays in this special edition of a/b may be understood as a body of work that responds to the respective critiques of African American autobiography and literary criticism published in the 1970s and 80s. First, taken together, the essays refuse to privilege one historical period as they attend to African American life writing from the early nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries. Second, many of the essays expand the field’s understanding of the types of African American life writers who have engaged in the act of exploring the self. Instead of only celebrating the language of the former Southern slave who acquires literacy and, eventually, freedom in the North, the contributors write about the acts of self-presentation performed by an Arctic explorer, a famous performer and public intellectual, multilingual African Muslims, transracial adoptees, and even a savvy, technologically literate entrepreneur/blogger/Hollywood producer.

At the same time, the other essays...


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