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College Literature 33.3 (2006) 198-203

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Reading Race and Intertextuality from the Abolitionist Era to the Harlem Renaissance

Bennett, Michael. 2005. Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. $62.00 hc. $24.95 sc. 223 pp.
Carroll, Anne Elizabeth. 2005. Word, Image and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. $45.00 hc. 275 pp.

In Michael Bennett's and Anne Carroll's studies of intertextualtiy, we are aptly reminded that multitextual sources—including visual art, material culture, music, photography, postcards, literature, and expository composition—combined in changing a resistant public's mind about race, class and gender during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Both authors demonstrate their interest in an ever-developing academic [End Page 198] field of study: crossing such disciplines as art, material or folk culture, history, race studies and literature to achieve, as Foucault suggested, an archeology of knowledge for new meanings and possibilities. Such works as Bridget T. Heneghan's Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination (2003); Susan Rollins's Gender in Popular Culture: Images of Men and Women in Literature, Visual Media and Material Culture, (1995); Martha Jane Nadell's Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture (2004); and J. Martin Favor's Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (1999) attest to a number of scholars who join Bennett and Carroll in constructing textual dialogues that cross borders among disciplines. Their critiques offer readers a convergence of parallel, contradictory, and synesthetic meanings. Within this intertextual structure, Bennett and Carroll have much in common. Both see generational changes among those advocating different discourses. Bennett observes the displacement of moderate, pro-colonization abolitionists with radical black and white abolitionists advocating an immediate end to slavery. Carroll records the avant-garde, New Negro writers' challenge to older blacks to revise their conservative views of what black writers should publish about black life and identity. Bennett's quote of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's idea that "divergent . . . narratives . . . will proliferate as marginal social groups . . . challenge their culture's traditional discourse" (2005, 4) is also applicable to Carroll's reading of the emerging New Negro writers who wanted more open depictions of black life. Both observe the importance and value of sexual identity theories, suggesting in tandem that limited theoretical perspectives are enriched by wider theoretical approaches to sexual identity. Both writers point out that the abolitionist movement and the New Negro movement respectively were viewed as failures, despite the deep impact they made in revising racist notions of black identity. Although radical abolitionists were perhaps more visibly shut out of the political and social mainstream, the New Negro movement also worked for change by creating its own avenues for communicating with the public.

Bennett readily acknowledges that his book is a family affair. His introduction is insightfully linked to the acknowledgements with the thematic subtext that he is not only the beneficiary of a fluid, hybrid "democracy" of supporters, he has also been granted a personal space to live within a multicultural, multiclass, "gay, straight, and metrosexual" community of men and women because of radical abolitionists who worked to make such spaces possible. While he is careful to pinpoint his thesis, that radical abolitionists generated "racial, bodily, gender, economic and aesthetic" (2005, 2) antebellum era discourses which still exist today, Bennett goes to great lengths to differentiate and characterize radical abolitionists from other groups forming the 1833 American Anti-Slavery Society. He credits Mikhail Bakhtin as the [End Page 199] theoretical lens from which to view the multiple, oppositional voices of radical abolitionists, who demanded "wholesale democratic reform" (4) for slave and free, and conservative abolitionists, who "wanted slavery to end" (4) but did not want blacks as neighbors or as political equals, nor want widespread reform. While favoring the democratic discourse of radical abolitionists, Bennett is careful to avoid declaring that they were free of shortcomings. Differing from Frederic Jameson's view of a negative hermeneutic...


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