- Black Refusal, Black Magic:Reading African American Literature Now
The twenty-first century has been defined, thus far, by a collection of historical events that each in their respective moments have seemed unprecedented and often utterly disorienting: 9/11's terror attack on US soil in 2001, in response to which African American poet Lucille Clifton wrote "some of us know / we have never felt safe"; Hurricane Katrina and its destructive aftermath in 2005 displacing and transforming hundreds of thousands of mostly black citizens into "refugees," a word choice that collapsed the US South with what has come to be known as the Global South; the momentous election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, for the first time ushering a black family into the whitest of houses and unleashing a racial backlash in the nation that has yet to subside; the related emergence of perhaps the most significant social movement since Civil Rights and Black Power, the Black Lives Matter movement—started by three black women in 2013 and responding in public and systematic ways to police brutality and other state-sanctioned violence against black people; and most recently, a historic election of a different sort, in which businessman and reality-TV fixture Donald Trump garnered an electoral college victory seemingly despite his violently anti-immigrant, antiblack, anti-woman rhetoric. The emerging present moment is, thus, a deeply conflicted and contradictory one, beset both by hope and nihilistic [End Page 779] despair, the splintering and fracturing of community and that community's expansion, an increasing sense of repression as well as new and shifting avenues for resistance.
If literature both reflects and, to borrow from Erica Edwards, refracts its moment, then we might expect that twenty-first-century African American literature is similarly complex and contradictory. As these contributors' essays make clear, there is no single idea, issue, or story that defines our current literary era—only a shared accumulation of upheavals, of dissonances and resonances, that comes together under the rubric (itself contested) of the contemporary. My reading of these essays, then, is as collected signposts, in some cases pointing us forward, forging a critical and aesthetic pathway through the century's apparent chaos, in others, insisting that we look under and around the current moment and its crises in order to better understand how literary artistry is changing and how these changes speak to what has come before. Guided by the brilliant and suggestive content here, I offer in this response my sense of the present black literary landscape, its peril and promise. My thoughts, in what follows, coalesce around four central ideas that these essays, taken together, raise either explicitly or implicitly: audience, form, region, and labor.
The first and perhaps most forthright of these themes—the question of audience—recurs in various ways throughout this volume, ultimately signaling the crucial role played by "the reader" in the contemporary black literary project. If Yogita Goyal's "We Need New Diasporas" implicitly references the critic as audience, several other essays are both more direct and more expansive in their attention to who is reading new black literature and why. Mecca Jamila Sullivan, for instance, in her analysis of contemporary black women writers' interstitial languages, points to these works' crucial engagement with reading audiences of varied backgrounds—black women readers might experience these sometimes untranslatable linguistic moments in a text as instances of familiarity and belonging, while "those without lived experiences of black female otherness" (709) might be challenged to think in new ways. Indeed, all three of the sites of interstitial language that Sullivan identifies—the language of idigay in Love and TALK in Suzan-Lori Parks's plays, as well as the moments of illegibility in Missy Elliott's lyrics—seemingly require audience engagement, including efforts, often bodily efforts, to translate and make meaning. Perhaps not coincidentally, Patricia Stuelke is also writing about Parks, in this case Topdog/Underdog, when she discusses the play's invitation to its (viewing) audience to participate in an affective labor of refusal that might "remake collective life inside and outside the theater" (769). And while Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman's essay seems somewhat less sanguine in...