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Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual, Jermaine Singleton. University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, Joseph R. Winters. Duke University Press, 2016.

Hope Draped in Black and Cultural Melancholy, like many other black studies texts, allow "melancholy" to gain a new kind of resonance; the word itself begins to soundlike the mood of a black interior. …

The turn to melancholy in recent African American theory and literary criticism has been steady in these early years of the twenty-first century. Recent texts such as Joseph Winters's Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress and Jermaine Singleton's Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual are as generative as such earlier treatments of melancholy and race as Anne Cheng's The Melancholy of Race (2001) and Stephen Best's "On Failing to Make the Past Present" (2012). Hope Draped in Black and Cultural Melancholy, like many other black studies texts, allow "melancholy" to gain a new kind of resonance; the word itself begins to sound more like the mood of a black interior than the residue of Freud's pathologizing of melancholy that he sets apart from what he saw as healthier acts of mourning. In "On Failing to Make the Past Present," Best argues, "If Beloved incites melancholy, A Mercy incites mourning" (472). As opposed to a linear progression from melancholic texts to postmelancholic texts, how might melancholia be too excessive to be contained? Winters and Singleton take us to the excess of African American melancholy.

The force of Best's eye-opening essay "On Failing to Make the Past Present" is his sheer refusal to accept the idea, naturalized through certain readings of Beloved, that we as readers can know the pain endured during slavery through a storytelling that lets us bump into the past. In Beloved, Toni Morrison writes, "It's when you [End Page 799] bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else … and what's more, if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you" (36). Best develops a critique of melancholia as he emphasizes that the real difference between Beloved and A Mercy is the move in the latter from the stasis of melancholia to the ambivalence of a space of "abandonment" (473). Aida Levy-Hussen takes us to a next step in How to Read African American Literature: Post-Civil Rights Fiction and the Task of Interpretation (2016), where we can reread Beloved as depicting, through Denver, the "inassimilable remainder"—the need to move on—that has always clung to the psychic hold of slavery rather than a naturalizing of melancholia (97). The beauty of her critical study is its attention to how and why African American literature can often make readers experience what can be understood as a transhistorical identification with slavery and its afterlife. Kenneth Warren and others have critiqued the "temporal collapse" that happens when "what was" is imagined as "what is" in relation to images of slavery and the afterlife of slavery in contemporary African American literature and the treatment of the past in contemporary black studies at large. Levy-Hussen focuses on why artists create and readers feel this temporal collapse. As opposed to a current trend to simply be offended by African American "fantasies of historical identification" with the past, she opens up crucial new and necessary space for understanding how "literary and critical interest in fantasies of historical return" are profoundly generative (19).

Levy-Hussen suspends judgment about the "therapeutic reading" that seems to make the past the present, offering us key new questions such as what it means when "other kinds of stories" (not about slavery and its afterlife) become the inassimilable remainder. The unresolved, unsettled, inassimilable tension of past and present, she argues, is the pulse of contemporary, post–Civil Rights movement African American literature.

This focus on unresolved grief is the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 799-807
Launched on MUSE
2017-11-22
Open Access
No
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