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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 419-421
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In Authentic Blackness, J. Martin Favor suggests that African American expressive production has always been overdetermined by what he calls "a crisis of authenticity" over who and what shall represent black culture. Therefore, at particular cultural junctures this quandary has been answered by a distinctive yet "limiting" (and even "elitist") response that manifests itself in the formation of a "privileged discourse of blackness" that "places the ‘folk'—southern, rural, and poor—at its forefront." Favor contends that such a discourse reflexively marginalizes the cultural position of the Northern urban black bourgeoisie. He turns to writers of the "New Negro" era (Johnson, Toomer, Larsen, and Schuyler) to observe how their texts produce and trouble this reflex. In [End Page 419] unveiling various voices of the Northern black bourgeois and the kinds of "geographies" they represent, he considers the prospect of challenging and "dismantling" systems of "similarity and difference" that circumscribe being black in the United States.
Favor attempts to destabilize fixed and essential notions of cultural identity. Drawing from the work of such theorists as Judith Butler and Benedict Anderson, he asserts that (geographical) boundaries are imagined and crossed through the affect of performance. While Favor acknowledges the value of essential conceptions of blackness that limit the idea of race within a larger context of community, he goes on to assert that "the signifier ‘black'—along with the signifier ‘white'—is always, already impure because they [these conceptions] are socially constructed and contingent on numerous other factors."
It is debatable whether foregrounding a black Northern voice vis-á-vis the vernacular of the "poor southern folk" within certain scales of value dismantles or reconstitutes elitist and racialized modalities of similarity and difference. Indeed, a parallel logic to Favor's observation about the "always, already" nature of racial signification suggests that Northern urban identity is uncannily produced by its relations of difference and similarity to "the southern folk." In relying on a binary model to build his notion of the black bourgeoisie, Favor delimits the nature of the "folk-bourgeoisie" boundary. This gesture jeopardizes his avowed agenda of "dismantling" the systems of signification that circumscribe the mulitiple identities that comprise "blackness" because it subtly relies upon the cultural differences orchestrated by just such a system.
In the chapter on James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, some of the limits of Favor's interpretative paradigm are manifest. Favor argues that as the ex-colored man moves (impelled figuratively and literally by performance) from the South to the North, "his name is less descriptive of his ability to ‘pass' racially" than it is indicative of the "lost power of an older category of blackness to describe the complexity of at least one African-American subject position." Here one is prompted to consider exactly how older and newer categories of race are being mediated through the figure of (Northern) black bourgeois subjectivity.
This consideration suggests that Favor overstates his case when he speaks of the "lost power." Such power palpably haunts Johnson's Autobiography, which poignantly exposes the ways in which "new surroundings" echo with the atavistic or residual traces of the "already said" of such "older categories." As Favor indicates, part of the thoughtful balancing act that Johnson stages is the process by which traces of older significations of race are adapted into emergent modernist performative places and spaces. A more dialectical reading of forms of newness and oldness in this context would be more in keeping with a project that aims to survey the complexity and diversity of African American culture and history.
At other points, Authentic Blackness effectively executes such a dialectical [End Page 420] reading by underscoring narrative junctures at which emanations of a Northern black bourgeoisie experience overlap with indexes of Southern black rural life. For example, in a chapter on Jean Toomer's Cane, Favor suggests that Toomer merges "geographic...