- Essentialism and its Discontents
During the last three decades scholars have undertaken a massive effort to recover previously forgotten or marginalized literary works by African Americans. Ann duCille has no desire to diminish the importance of this achievement. Rather, her central concern in this provocative and engaging book is understanding the ways in which some of the paradigms that shaped these preliminary rescue missions managed to inscribe new exclusions of their own.
DuCille recognizes the value of the theories—such as those of Houston Baker—that helped give impetus to the project of reclaiming neglected writers and texts; indeed, she creatively extends and builds on them. But she is wary of their tendency to promote a brand of essentialism that fails to do justice to the richness and complexity of either the literature or the lived experience that produced it. In particular, she argues that theories about racial authenticity and tradition that helped make it possible to [End Page 142] celebrate some writers and works helped insure that other writers and works were unjustly consigned to oblivion.
Moving chronologically from the 1850s through the 1940s, duCille explores, at each step of the way, some central literary texts, the historical moments they encode and reflect, and what literary critics have made of them. With lively wit and refreshing candor, she historicizes both the fiction about which critics have written and the behavior of the critics themselves. Excluded from the revisionists’ earliest canon of African American literature because of their alleged preoccupation with gender, black women writers were often also excluded from the revisionists’ canon of American women writers “because of their presumed preoccupation with matters of race” (33). When a new wave of revisionists began to frame a canon of African American women writers, duCille argues, some of the key figures examined in her study lost out for the third time around: black-authored books and stories—by male and female writers—centrally concerned with the “‘white’ marriage plot,” and peopled by northern, urban, standard-English-speaking, middle-class, light-skinned characters, duCille tells us, were deemed less “authentically black” than black-authored books centered on decidedly non-middle-class, dark-skinned, vernacular-speaking southern rural “folk.”
According to this model, “the blues—and the kind and quality of black life the form depicts” becomes “the metonym for authentic blackness,” and the most “authentically black” African American woman writer from whom the “tradition” inexorably flows is Zora Neale Hurston (68). “However attractive and culturally affirming,” duCille writes, “the valorization of the vernacular has yielded . . . an inherently exclusionary literary practice that filters a wide range of complex and often contradictory impulses and energies into a single modality consisting of the blues and the folk” (69). She notes:
While Hurston and her southern rural settings are privileged in such a construction, other black women novelists, whose settings are the urban North and whose subjects are middle-class black women, are not only dismissed in the name of the vernacular, they are condemned (along with the critics who read them) for historical conservatism.(68)
On what basis, duCille asks, is one version of black identity privileged as more “authentic” than another? What can we learn from a more historicized and careful reading of writers and works that don’t fit the dominant critical models? DuCille’s The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in [End Page 143] Black Women’s Fiction provides us with one example of the kind of valuable insights that a critical practice of this nature can yield.
DuCille is not the first critic to mine this territory. Claudia Tate’s important book, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (1992), with its groudbreaking discussion of representations of marriage and the family in nineteenth-century domestic fiction, appeared while duCille’s book was in production, and Tate had published a preliminary version of this material in a widely cited article in 1989. 1 But while duCille’s approach...