- Demanding Art
Horace A. Porter, ed.
University of Iowa Press
250 Pages; Print, $24.00
Since slavery, African American writings have always been, in one form or another, about the struggle of African American writers to name African American complex and varied humanity and subjectivity, which have been stereotyped and rendered invisible by mainstream American society. Expressing her astonishment at dominant white male writers in the nineteenth century such as William Dean Howells, George Washington Cable, and others for devaluing a unique African American life in the West, Anna Julia Cooper in A Voice From the South (1892) asks how could anyone define the African/African American journey to and existence in the United States as not worthy of poetic portrayal? A group of people who were imported to work in southern fields, they were “[d]istinct in color, original in temperament, simple and unconventionalized in thought.” After two hundred years of slavery, another hundred years of Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation, migration to northern urban centers, the African American still remains human. And despite the laws of apartness, s/he intermingled and intermixed socially, sexually, and culturally with the Natives and the Europeans and produced a new language, new forms of African American subjectivity, African American folklore, the spirituals, the blues, and jazz, and s/he did so under the “severest persecution and oppression,” which did not kill him/her or “even sour [his/her] temper.” Because of his homelessness, dislocation, fragmentation, and decentered-ness, as he held on to some of his African culture, the African American was probably one of the first modern and postmodern subjects in the West. In short, the contradictions, the differences, the Du Boisian “double-consciousness,” the intermixing and intermingling with the rest of the United States, the fluidity, the victimization and self-hatred, the struggle and the resistance, the nationalism, the psychological liberation, and the subsequent flow of life that make up African American life in the West remind one of Derrida’s full elaboration of difference. “Why would he or she not be worthy of poetic portrayal?” as Anna Julia Cooper asks. Why would the literary institutions in American society want to render this unique and these complex life experiences invisible?
In a thought-provoking article, “What is a Minor Literature,” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari define a minor literature as the literature an oppressed minority writes in a major language. Because it has no passion for the code of the majority language, the minor has no desire “to assume a major function in [the majority] language, to offer its service as a sort of state language, an official language,” which has denied it its own validity, its own existence. Rather, for Deleuze and Guattari, the function of a minor literature is to disrupt or decode the majority language’s official or institutional functions and to write itself into existence, to validate its existence. Because they tend to be excluded, repressed, or subordinated in the majority language, the minor language’s history, culture, and social milieu became major concerns in its literature. Additionally, a minor literature is always perceived as political and collective. What a minority writer says or does is necessarily political, even if others are not in agreement. The collective nature of a minority literature is derived from the fact that minority individuals are always treated and forced to experience themselves generically.
Dreaming Out Loud, which deals only with African American novelists, is divided into three distinct parts: “On Becoming African American Novelists,” “On Aesthetics, Craft, and Publication,” and “On Writing Major Novels.” Horace Porter, the editor, is concerned with “how, over a century, very different novelists have dedicated themselves to a demanding vocation that occasionally ends in thwarted expectations and silences but often leads to literary prizes, fame, and good fortune.” He does an excellent job of selecting seminal pieces [End Page 23] across the twentieth century. But reading these various sections, one can easily discern the process by which African American writers produce a minor literature. Throughout the various sections, writers are concerned...