- African American Literary Studies: New Texts, New Approaches, New Challenges
In the winter of 2010, the publication of five largely unknown stories by Zora Neale Hurston in African American Literary Studies: New Texts, New Approaches, New Challenges, a collection edited by Glenda R. Carpio and Werner Sollors, garnered the attention of the international press. But other materials in this intriguing volume, published as both a freestanding monograph and as a special issue of the stellar German journal Amerikastudien/American Studiesunder the able general editorship of Udo Hebel, are even more interesting than these “new” stories. The contributors demonstrate that interrogating old texts, tropes and themes from new perspectives can be as lively and stimulating as presenting new texts by a canonical writer. [End Page 280]
One of the many strengths of African American Literary Studiesis the plethora of transnational stories that it tells. Another is the riches it draws from recondite archives—often transnational ones—and the testimony it bears to the ways in which mining primary materials can spark new insights into both the present and the past. Transnational archival materials that provide the underpinnings of articles here include the unpublished diary of a sojourn in Mexico written in German by a German American artist who would produce some of the key visual images associated with the Harlem Renaissance (see Frank Mehring’s “The Visual Harlem Renaissance, or Winold Reiss in Mexico”); the unpublished memoir, set in Paris, Morocco, London, New York and elsewhere, of a fascinating woman on whom Nella Larsen largely based a character in Quicksand(see George Hutchinson’s “American Transnationalism and the Romance of Race”); and previously unpublished letters that Zora Neale Hurston wrote from Jamaica and Haiti (see Carla Capetti’s “Defending Hurston against Her Legend: Two Previously Unpublished Letters”). But the book’s greatest contribution is the spirited energy with which contributors boldly challenge some of the dominant paradigms and largely unquestioned assumptions of the field. The result is a thought-provoking volume that deserves the widest possible readership.
Contributors raise key questions about a number of familiar topics—such as the African diaspora, the Harlem Renaissance, and the blues—often pointing out the gaps between how scholars treat a phenomenon or a cultural form and how the individuals responsible for them understood them. For example, George Hutchinson suggests that “the current academic focus on racial diasporas may blind us to forms of internationalism that were also significant in the mid-twentieth century” (695). He reminds us that “[n]ot all internationalists who are black (including Josephine Baker, for example, or Ralph Bunche, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian armistice in the late 1940s) have been primarily committed to what we think of today as black internationalism. Important as diasporic political formations assuredly are, they are not the whole story of black people’s motives for or experiences of internationalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, and a more robust recognition of this fact may lead research in productive new directions” (695). He argues persuasively that “the programmatic delegitimization of any sort of ‘national’ framing of culture, even in the study of earlier periods, may be producing its own blind spots. . . . Insisting that the ‘nation’ is no longer a legitimate frame of reference can only be impoverishing to understanding forms of nationalism, not to mention local political struggles in an era when the nation-state was at the peak of international legitimacy” (695). He reminds us that many “American writers in the twenties, thirties and forties who were literary citizens of the world, well-read in many languages,” were “nonetheless committed to what they thought of as the ‘American experiment’ ” (695–96). His illuminating article should prompt some reevaluations of both black internationalism and the “African diaspora.”
In “ ‘Black Renaissance’: A Brief History of the Concept,” Ernest Julius Mitchell II reminds us that the flourishing of the arts that came to be known as the “Harlem Renaissance” was not...