- Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel, and: Charles Johnson’s Fiction, and: Rap Music and Street Consciousness
Three well-written offerings by the University of Illinois Press show a range of approaches to race, identity, and aesthetics. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts such as "race consciousness" "race men," "race women," and "social uplift" have parallels to the characterizations of the contemporary writer Charles Johnson and rap's evocation of "street consciousness." Although rap has been demonized as pop culture, it is a complex art form with global influence.
M. Giulia Fabi's Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel attempts to revive critical interest in the nineteenth-century African American novel, which in its day had some measure of popular appeal as a product of the emerging black middle class. Fabi opens the study with the admission that "Nineteenth-century African American fiction has a bad reputation." She argues that the "critical resistance" to novels before the Harlem Renaissance resulted from the focus on "mulatto" characters and the general theme of "passing," where racial identity is the issue. She acknowledges, however, that reclamation has been achieved by noted black feminist critics, including Claudia Tate, Hazel Carby, Barbara Christian, and Ann duCille (1, 2–3). In addition, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Deborah McDowell, William Andrews, Hortense Spillers, and Frances Smith Foster have been part of the "recovery and reinterpretation"(4). [End Page 219]
Divided into five chapters, the study carefully addresses a series of novels beginning with the fiction of William Wells Brown and Frank Webb and moving forward to such authors as Charles Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson. The opening chapter valorizes "mulatto" characterizations by arguing that they are "subversive" representations. Clotel's various editions show Brown's inclusion of numerous black characters although it is a "passing" novel. In addition, Webb's novels can be viewed for "the ethos of resistance of the black community" (31).
In chapter 2, "Race Travel in Turn-of-the-Century African American Utopian Fiction," Fabi considers novels by Frances Harper, Sutton Griggs, and Pauline Hopkins, arguing their connection to the "extraordinary outpouring of utopian fiction" (44). In Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), Griggs's Imperium in Imperio (1899), and Hopkins's Of One Blood (1902–1903), black and white worlds are "inextricably linked at a more profound level" (48). In chapter 3 Charles Chesnutt's success in The House behind the Cedars (1900) results from the foregrounding of white characters, thus reaching a white readership. Chesnutt's "successful male passer" is an "antecedent" (89) of James Weldon Johnson's narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Here Fabi argues that Johnson "feminizes" the narrator through parody, but it could be posited that Johnson uses realism to show a denial of race. Although Fabi links the novel to Harlem Renaissance works by Fauset, Larsen, and Schuyler, Larsen's Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) does not attempt to pass. Furthermore, the gendering of race pride as "masculine" is arguable, considering the contributions of "race women" writers (104, 105).
The final chapter reviews the literature and challenges the Norton (1997) and Riverside (1998) anthologies of African American literature. The editors in question, especially Gates for the Norton, are said to have marginalized the early fiction (142). Additionally, Fabi accuses sixties Black Aesthetic promoters LeRoi Jones and Addison Gayle Jr. of "masculinist bias" (128), using duCille for support. Somewhat defensive, Fabi is reluctant in her conclusion to admit shortcomings and perhaps needs to support her claim that the novels have "changed the course of American letters as a whole." Nevertheless, her intention to show them as a "foundational moment" is most important (145).
Also raising questions of racial...