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  • The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture
  • David G. Nicholls
The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture. Edited by Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Pp. 390. $39.95.

Anthologies have long played an important role in African American literary and cultural studies. Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925) and Addison Gayle’s The Black Aesthetic (1971) both served as critical conjunctures for literary and cultural activity in their respective eras. In recent years, collections of critical essays have served to define the utility of a particular theoretical approach for the interpretation of black literature. In the 1980s, important anthologies of feminist criticism (notably, Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women [1989] and Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition [1985]) and of post-structuralist inflected vernacular criticism ( Black Literature and Literary Theory [1984]) brought new energy to the analysis of texts authored by African Americans. Now, in an era characterized by a return to historicism in literary and cultural studies, a new anthology has emerged in which theoretical speculation and historical research alike inform the interpretive act. The Black Columbiad itself defines the current moment in African American studies. [End Page 160]

For many critics today, this moment is informed by a renewed interest in the complicated work of historical analysis within a widening web of contingencies. This work is exemplified by Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), which developed a transnational context for the study of black literatures, and Kenneth W. Warren’s Black and White Strangers: Race and American Realism (1993), which sets out a transcanonical context for understanding the mediation of race in American and African American realist aesthetics. The Black Columbiad explores the African American “discovery” of America through thirty-one essays ranging in historical focus from the slave trade to the present. The book is international in two senses: its frame of reference for studying black culture is primarily transnational rather than national, and its contributors hail from Europe, Africa, and North America (the book originated as an American Studies conference held in Seville, Spain). The Black Columbiad’s internationalism encourages its contributors to address new contexts for the study of black culture, including, for example, the reception of jazz in Czechoslovakia. This book mostly avoids the provincialism of American discourse on black culture: while many American critics have been preoccupied with the topic of identity politics in the academy, only Ann DuCille’s “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity: Discourse and Dat Course” revisits this topic’s familiar impasses and frustrations. The Black Columbiad successfully charts a course for discovering the global contingencies of African American cultural formations.

The book is divided into three major sections, in chronological order. The first, “Conceiving Blackness,” collects essays on the slave trade, the antebellum era, and beyond. In their introduction to this section, the editors define their focus as “the complex and often contradictory processes of transmission that characterized and still characterize the perennial struggle for inventing African Americanness or blackness out of interactions with disrupted forms of Africanness” (11). This formulation of the problem differs from studies of African “retentions” and from the positing of inherent continuity (through “race”) of African and African American subjectivities. The essays here represent the best available collection of work on the Middle Passage. Isidore Okpewho’s “The Cousins of Uncle Remus” carefully engages and critiques John Roberts’s From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom (1989), showing that Roberts’s study assumes a continuity between African American folktales when historical evidence demonstrates that African and African American folktellers selectively revised and adapted tales to respond to the social conditions of the New World. Genevieve Rabre’s study of festivals in antebellum black culture repeats Okpewho’s formulation of cultural hybridity, arguing that “festive performances . . . became a matrix for the ‘invention of culture’ where traditions from many regions merged” (53); her essay provides a richly detailed portrait of the social meanings of such festivals. Other essays in this section address slave narratives, slave trials, and early African American authors such as...