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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 831-855

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Roots, Breaks, and the Performance of a Black Left Critique

The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. By Brent Hayes Edwards. Harvard University Press, 2003.
To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Post-War New York. By Martha Biondi. Harvard University Press, 2003.
Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals. By Anthony Bogues. Routledge, 2003.
In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. By Fred Moten. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
The weapon of criticism certainly cannot replace the criticism of weapons; material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory, too, becomes a material force once it seizes the masses. Theory is capable of seizing the masses once it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem once it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp matters at the root.
Karl Marx, "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right"

Despite the gloom surrounding academic publishing and research in the humanities, and in the face of "Left melancholia,"1 the good news is that engaged and provocative scholarship of the highest order is evident in four recent books about black radical politics and expressive culture: Martha Biondi's To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Post-War New York (2003); Anthony Bogues's Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals (2003); Brent Hayes Edwards's The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (2003); and Fred Moten's In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003). Especially remarkable is that three of these (Biondi's, Edwards's, and Moten's) are their authors' first books.

Each book responsibly puts pressure on the assumptions and methodologies of the allegedly discrete fields of history (Biondi), political science (Bogues), literary criticism (Edwards), and performance studies (Moten). Biondi's New York Black Popular Front activists, Bogues's Rastafarian historians, Edwards's African students in Paris, and Moten's deconstructive jazz performers and critics wrote, read, and participated in direct-action campaigns that drew upon resources that were unavailable to or unrecognized by their white fellow travelers and missed by the official record. If [End Page 831] scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston, poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, and public intellectuals such as Ida B. Wells and Walter Rodney were underemployed in their disciplines or disenfranchised by the nations that made them fractional citizens, they did their academic and political work by other means. By attending to the programmatic and analytic work behind the manifest accomplishments and interventions of writers, musicians, artists, editors, trade unionists, grassroots activists, (mis-)recognized leaders from Harlem, Paris, other centers, and a wide periphery of the black diaspora, these books show that one cannot any longer choose among professional rigor, creative expression, and political engagement.

Brent Edwards's The Practice of Diaspora makes explicit use of textual metaphors and paratextual commentaries, including a far-flung, always to-be-convened symposium promoted in Nancy Cunard's Negro: An Anthology (1933). In this vein, I would like to open this review by considering the sort of symposium achieved in Cunard's assemblage of texts, which contests the single locus of black artistic and political expression in 1920s Harlem and its characterization as a renaissance; that is, as a recovery and historical analogue rather than an engagement of international aesthetic and political movements. Rather than exhibit poems and essays as an advertisement of the "New Negro," selected with a recognizably American mix of nostalgia for a timeless Africa and petitions for inclusion in an evolving Modernist canon, Negro includes generically complex and cross-disciplinary work by Americans as well as African, Caribbean, Asian, and Latin American writers. This work includes avant-garde poetry, manifestos, edgy analyses, and interested journalism that insists on the intersections of political and artistic freedom. Because of its deliberate approach from the Left, Negro opens onto a wider field of inquiry and performance than can...


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