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  • A Response to Xiomara Santamarina
  • Mark Christian Thompson (bio)

Looking back on the still young history of African-American literary studies begs the question: Are we there yet? Xiomara Santamarina's answer to this question brilliantly leads us through the major schools of thought in African-American literary studies, both today and yesterday. We move back in time, to the Harlem Renaissance and further, to the "not quite Jurassic" moment of African-American literature, where we also find, grazing among the other soon to be extinct literary animals, the toothless critical dinosaur-dispositions of today, those canon-formation carnivores that can no longer cut it and that we have been trying to put out to Jurassic pasture for what seems like millennia. Perhaps the best way to do this is not to condemn them to the dustbin of literary-evolutionary history, but to dislocate them from the time-line (yet another allusion to the work of Michael Crichton) by relocating the African-American literary tradition all along those historical ways and routes that cross the black Atlantic and lead to various diasporic ports-of-call. We are traveling through a dimension of time and space, and the next stop is not the twilight zone of criticism. It has become critical that we actually get somewhere as opposed to the nowhere indicated in the question: Are we there yet?

Contributing to this sense of nowhere, which in its turn implies a sense of nonsense, is, as Santamarina says, the fact that "African-American studies, like its umbrella field 'American studies,' appears out-moded and subject to the constraints of US periodization and racial formations, constraints only a comparative analysis can overcome." As far as the idea goes that we shall, through comparative analysis, overcome, well, I will have to come back to that. Neither I nor Santamarina have, I believe, serious issues [End Page 317] with periodization. "Colonial," "Early Republic," "Antebellum," "Post-bellum," or "Gilded Age" indicate to me that when we or future critics move to name the current critical moment, it shall be called the nitpicking age, or maybe the post-nitpicking age. This leaves us with racial formations, a fairly large nit to pick, as well as a tough nut to crack.

In terms of racial formations, we have to this point (and remember, please, that we are not there yet) concentrated on the action of the constitutive gesture, that is, the mechanism of the formation. Genealogies, archaeologies, and any other Foucauldianology we can think of, have all come to our aid in our desperate struggle to dig ourselves out of the very category that defines our minefield of operations. Thus, our seemingly progressive movement into the not only anti-racist but also non-racial space of liberation justifies and undercuts its own effects. Instead of a progressive movement we direct ourselves in a circle, circumventing the very discursive formations we seek to circumscribe. The writing of the black Atlantic turns out to be inscriptions, the exergue, in the sand upon which the water breaks, written and effaced with each passing tide. It is perhaps no wonder that the kids are becoming restless in the cabin and have begun their mantra: "Are we there yet?" As Santamarina rightly points out, we shall never arrive at our destination. [A]s appealing as diasporic modes of identification might be, exploring the specificity of location and temporality—historical, geographic, and gendered—remains crucial to exploring the possibility that intra-racial differentiation, rather than unity, might better describe the primary features of this consciousness. The attempt to recognize and subvert racial formations, to drag them into the light and expose them for the frauds that they are, is in fact a mechanism of racial formations. The unracing of race bolsters the efforts of racial formations in their self-realization, and reinforces their created object. Thus, we should no longer be so concerned about racial formations in deconstructive terms, terms which lead us back to, and re-inscribe us in, the very racial economy, or "nowhere," that we wish to escape. We should be therefore less Derridean, and for that matter Foucauldian, about the matter, and much more Heideggerian, concentrating less on deconstruction...


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pp. 317-320
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