Biography 26.4 (2003) 750-755
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[I]t is worth remembering that one of the implicitly creative functions of art in the U.S.A. (and certainly of narrative art) is the defining and correlating of diverse American experiences by bringing previously unknown patterns, details and emotions into view along with those that are generally recognized.
—Ralph Ellison, "The Little Man at Chehaw Station"
You change/transform a culture by changing the hegemonic cultural narrative.
—W. Lawrence Hogue
Writing "The Little Man at Chehaw Station" in 1977, Ralph Ellison carries us from train depots to parlor music lessons to tenement basements crowded [End Page 750] by debates on the divas of the New York Metropolitan Opera, in an exchange as intimate and affective as it is urgent: "connoisseurs" take many forms, and represent diverse cultural, class, and racial communities. In his refusal to privilege one kind of expert over another, a refusal that points to democracy's greatest democratic possibility—that many may learn and consume, that the custodians of our cultural centers are as much custodians of the arts as are the critics in the mezzanine—Ellison argues that the fields of knowledge over which expertise may be earned are as diverse as their experts. And perhaps more importantly, he demonstrates the presence of, while commanding respect for, a range of intelligences.
While W. Lawrence Hogue's The African American Male, Writing, and Difference similarly demands an accounting from cultural critics, his emphasis lies with a different set of "little men and women hidden behind the stove": the underread, undertheorized, and frequently undervalued work (cultural or otherwise) of "subaltern" African American artists, and an equally subaltern set of black experiential histories (36, 39). Hogue crafts not merely a literary but a cultural history that substantively engages African American experimental, postmodern, voodoo, blues, and queer fictions in the political context of a post Post-Civil Rights era, and attends to those who occupy Ellison's "lower frequencies." And though Ellison's metaphor may be read by some as already inscribing the beginnings of an insidious racialized sociology, in fact it is in its musical registers that meaning resonates and must be preserved: for to speak of the lower registers is not to necessarily pathologize, but as Ellison insists and as Hogue's project effects, it is to call attention to those who have been placed beyond the range of hearing, and consequently beyond the range of witness, by the pathologies of racial ideology. Lacking Ellison's bluesian dialectics, but bearing a similar set of critical cultural and political concerns, Hogue's The African American Male, Writing, and Difference demands a different set of aesthetics, an expanded set of black histories/Histories, a reevaluation of the African American literary canon—all conducted through a revisionist polycentrism that yields to the possibility of parity in difference. Deploying post-colonial, post-structural, African American cultural, and feminist criticism, Hogue retheorizes the status of, and crisis within, the African American literary canon and African American History, and demonstrates their shared relation to the sociopolitical concerns of African Americans; their complicity in the failures of the Civil Rights movement; and their role in the insidious racial politics of the black middle class.
Hogue's "Preface" begins autobiographically, situating himself in relation to the project at hand and its stakes—the state of African American literature and history vis-à-vis the black middle class. It is a maneuver that [End Page 751] squarely and strategically locates him within the very literary genealogy he intends to deconstruct and dismiss: the African American literary tradition that begins with the emancipation narrative, a narrative whose grounds include the problematic of racial uplift. He is worth citing at length:
At this stage in my life and career, I am told by the racial uplift narrative that I should...