- "Are We There Yet?":Archives, History, and Specificity in African-American Literary Studies
Some 30 years after being initiated by the Black Power and Black Studies movements, African-American literary studies is a thriving field that has come to full maturity. The field, however, offers us a methodological paradox: while many of its practitioners focus on "excavating" African-American literary archives, particularly from the earlier periods, others simultaneously deconstruct the concepts of racial particularity—including notions of "blackness"—without which the search for the archives might not have begun. Methodologically, the field encompasses reprinting and reinterpreting long out-of-print and forgotten texts, in combination with textual and contextual analyses that recover the instability and contingency of racial discourses across space and time. Both these impulses spring from, even as they have transformed, US literary nationalism, by exploring, even as they contest, the contingencies and myth-making of US literatures.
When I invoke the field's archives, I mean to move beyond the 1970s and 1980s additive process of canon building with which most of us today would associate the pioneering (and interpretive) work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert Stepto, or William Andrews. Today's efforts to identify African American-written texts of different genres run in many directions at once; one direction looks back for continuities, to be sure, between texts from the prehistory of African-American literature (portrayed by some as the not-quite-Jurassic, pre-Harlem Renaissance age), to those of [End Page 304] the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This thread follows a more or less genealogical impulse to identify and locate a so-called African-American "tradition" that coheres around certain genre and ideological continuities and that often links texts sharing a counter-hegemonic status; a status in which the subalternity of African-descended peoples is evoked, resisted, or appropriated. In this search, locating, reprinting, and reinterpreting texts written by African Americans, who held a tenuous and precarious status in US print cultures, makes visible the contributions that African Americans made, not only to US cultural production in general, but also specifically to the production of knowledge in the US academy. We could say we see this transformative potential in the current popularity of black abolitionists' writings—like those of Frederick Douglass—in literature courses and departments.
Simultaneously, however, another thread concerns itself with the discursive formation of racial particularity more generally, and in terms of literature specifically, this thread interrogates the idea of "African-American" as a modifier of literature that projects fictive notions of a uniform "tradition," or as early institutionalizations of black studies proposed, of "The Black Experience." Recognizing in true post-structuralist fashion that the nominality and significance of "blackness" points to the mutually constitutive nature of binary forms of racial difference like "white" and "black," these scholars combine methods from feminism, new historicism, and cultural studies to historicize the ways in which race was understood at any one particular location and moment, and in any one particular text. In other words, for scholars in the US academy who are interested in a cultural-literary, as opposed to sociological, study of African-American texts, the search centers on historically situating race as an uneven and paradoxical cultural formation that intersects with a range of discourses, rather than assuming any single individualizing construct for racialized "identity." The efforts of these scholars, many of whom also perform archival work, focus on outlining the specificity of discourses that historically have been associated with race, whether race was ascribed to authors or was constitutive of texts themselves. Examples of this trajectory for the nineteenth century would include Eric Sundquist's To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993), Robert Levine's work on Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass, and Eddie Glaude's and Patrick Rael's work on the reform work of northern black elites.
Today, these multiple impulses exist within a field increasingly oriented toward a spatially expanded analysis of African-American cultural practices in a broad sense that includes the Americas and the Atlantic world. This field frames notions of [End Page 305] "blackness" in the New World as founded on the dispersal of Africans...