The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature by Lloyd Pratt (review)
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Lloyd Pratt. The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2016. 200 pp. $49.95.

In The Strangers Book, Lloyd Pratt has written an often engaging, original interpretation of (mostly) nineteenth-century African American men’s writing that challenges received readings and enriches the reader’s understanding by providing new contexts within which to interpret such texts. His methodology may be just as important as his findings. The book also reflects the current zeitgeist: a deep skepticism, due to entrenched racism, most visible in the criminal justice system but far from only there, in the possibility of community beyond racial, gender, and class boundaries and even in the project; an emphasis on difference over similarity; and a retreat into variously defined counter-communities, in reaction to a confrontation with a renewed white heteropatriarchal nationalism. Thus “stranger humanism,” or a reading of African American writings said to promote stranger humanism. What is “stranger humanism”? According to Pratt, in stranger humanism, “people discover their differences from one another, but they are barred from trying to appropriate or penetrate those differences. … This discovery of differences also forms the groundwork of democracy” (2). One’s shared strangerdom, as it were, becomes the ground of respecting one another. As Pratt argues, such stranger humanism is formulated in two bodies of work: Frederick Douglass’s writing and Les Cenelles, the first anthology of African American poetry, published in French in New Orleans in 1845. Pratt’s case for this turns out to be rather complicated (especially in the case of Douglass). It necessitates paying attention to the “literary-formal practices adopted in the writing of these men” which “indicate the centrality of multiparty disclosure and multiparty witness to their vision of stranger humanism” (2). That complication is also one of the strengths of Pratt’s slim but deeply researched volume: he pays attention to the material production of the text, print and publication regimes, readership and implied audiences, typeface and citation mechanisms, historical and institutional context of texts, rhetorical features, philosophical implications, and often all at the same time. Occasionally, that may lead to terminological and conceptual overload, a common vice of literary scholarship—one could refer here to the sometimes awkward existentialist and Heideggerian vocabulary Pratt utilizes, consisting of phrases such as “stranger-with-ness,” “suspect-stranger-hood,” or “stranger-becoming,” but his approach has many rewards as it initiates an original look both at canonical texts as well as texts and textual practices often falling by the wayside, such as strangers books and the reprinting and editing of famous texts.

Pratt’s avowed enemies are a Eurocentric Enlightenment that takes the generic human to be a white man of European descent, “universalizing” his world-view and experiences, and the logic of sympathy and identification which he sees as one of (white) abolitionism’s shortcomings. “Sympathy,” he argues, tends to be condescending, and identification leads to the erasure of the person identified with and her substitution with the identifier. Chapter one, “The Making of Self-Evidence,” argues that reprinting practices of Andrew Jackson’s address “To the Free Colored Inhabitants of Louisiana” by different reprinters utilize the address towards different ends, and ultimately only African American uses of the text serve to make African American [End Page 79] humanity self-evident, in part through engaging in print practices that undermine the idea of a singular author since “[a]uthorial attribution that assigns responsibility, and therefore creative agency, to a single individual follows the framework of transactional selfhood” (43). As is evident from even this quotation, Pratt’s arguments rely on a number of suppositions that become clearer in chapter two, which argues that Douglass’s writing “posits credible experiences of strangerhood as pathways to a democratic community of the human emerging not from identification, but rather from open-ended scenes of encounter” (44). Pratt’s stranger humanism thus has something in common with poststructuralist reading practices and the never-ending cycle of interpretation, and he shows that Douglass rejects a static model of personhood with which one can identify in favor of a vision of ever-changing strangers that should accept and respect each other...