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  • Love in the Black Arts MovementThe Other American Exceptionalism
  • Keith D. Leonard (bio)

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Keith D. Leonard

Callaloo © 2012

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In the last paragraph of her essay “Standing in for the State: Black Nationalism and ‘Writing’ the Black Subject,” Wahneema Lubiano identifies literary criticism as what she calls the “site of possibility” for the articulation of the best version of the Black Nationalist subject. I think she is right. After providing a trenchant critique of the homophobia, masculinism, and misogyny of what she calls the “romanticized Black Nationalist subject,” Lubiano concludes that, “the idea of a ‘black nation’ (with or without territorial sovereignty) is black America’s popular consciousness of its own being.” Effectively recuperating the best implication of Black Nationalist subject formation, Lubiano points out that this “consciousness,” with all of its flaws, “makes resistance coherent—both within the minds of individual black Americans and the strategizing of black American political groups.” Though that Black Nationalist subject has too often been imagined too simply as a macho male subject, this pursuit of self-conscious “coherence” through that subject has actually produced what Lubiano also points out to be, in literary criticism, “the ‘elsewhere’ (in Raymond William’s sense)—the site of possibility with all of the tensions of and marginalizations of any fought-over terrain” (Lubiano 162, 163, 164). Reminding us that, even in its most domineering formation, this Black Nationalist subject is a fought-over terrain, Lubiano opens a space not just for the kind of critique that she offers in most of her essay, but also for reaffirmation of its best possibilities. And it is this terrain of possibility that I want to explore.

I want to follow Lubiano’s lead in part by amending her argument to suggest that Black Arts Movement literature more than its or our literary criticism inhabits—sometimes in spite of itself—the most liberating part of this terrain. While literary criticism illuminates this liberation, which is why Lubiano emphasizes it, we must remember that literary production at the time did some of the work Lubiano is crediting primarily to criticism, namely articulating the multiplicity of romanticized nationalist selves that both include and exceed the dominant and domineering masculinist one. In particular, literary texts appealed to and produced emotional as well as intellectual constructs of this subject and I contend that it is the affective formulations that challenged this masculinist subject from within. I think that we can illuminate how neither the Black Nationalist subject nor the nation it is meant to express is wholly constituted by political strategy or critique alone and therefore not entirely limited by the masculinist self that is this political posture’s ideal. Rather, at least in the art of the Black Arts Movement, emotional unity, affective identification—dare I say love?—constitutes the central radicalism of this subject, and thus constitutes its new terrain. It seems to me, in short, that much art of the Black Arts [End Page 619] Movement posits a more open and flexible Black Nationalist subject by constituting its radicalism through its heart.

To attend to this heart means attending to the innovative literary forms—rather than the political manifestoes—which articulate this affective self which is at least as important as masculinism in rendering nationalist political claims coherent. What makes black people exceptional enough to constitute their own nation, in other words, is the feelings developed in response to their social condition as those feelings are instantiated and conveyed in their art. Some of the best work of such major figures as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Ed Bullins, and such writers as Michael Harper, Lucille Clifton, and Ntozake Shange who were peripheral to the movement’s urban centers, managed to transform the narrow, closed, and divisive masculinist Black Nationalist subject into a more bohemian, open-ended and inclusive version predicated on intimacy rather than on masculinized self-assertion. Moreover, this affective communalism—again, dare I call it love—was also posited as one of the defining characteristics of the culture of this black nation, becoming as much the alternative radicalism of Black Nationalism as its more explicitly articulated social...