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How to Read African American Literature: Post-Civil Rights Fiction and the Task of Interpretation
Aida Levy-Hussen
New York University Press 224Pages; Print, $26.00

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In 2011 Kenneth W. Warren sparked controversy by positing that the demise of state-sponsored segregation had sundered the unity of the African American literary project, effectively bringing it to an end. The very title of the book in which he advanced this claim, What Was African American Literature?, provoked seasoned scholars and first-year graduate students alike to take sides. The ensuing field-wide debate compelled African American literary studies to reckon with its own version of Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum “Always historicize!” At issue then, and still today, is not whether to historicize—Warren and his detractors all agree it must be done. Rather, it comes down to whose historicity one elects to follow.

Since 2011, a handful of critics, including Walter Benn Michaels, Stephen M. Best, and Douglas A. Jones, have published work that generally accords with Warren’s claim. Their line of critique is to reject the idea that past common experience—not only segregation but, more profoundly, slavery—should be a continuous, if not perpetual, organizing principle of black literary and cultural production. Citing Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) as a touchstone, these critics diagnose a troubling yet pervasive nostalgia for conditions that once compelled racial unity as a matter of social oppression. In their view, such nostalgia bespeaks a regrettable state of false consciousness, whereby one’s imaginary relation to group identity can only be achieved by living in the past.

Unsurprisingly, the other side of the debate has endorsed practically the opposite philosophy of history. With far more critics represented on this side, what might be called the field’s commonsense position is to insist on the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in contemporary America. Less an explicit model of periodization than an assertion that race matters in comparable ways across the centuries, this line of critique more or less echoes Beloved’s narrative strategy: namely, identify those connections to the past that bind present-day subjects to the departed and thereby affirm the coherence of the black experience. History, in this account, is what hurt and what continues to hurt.

Aida Levy-Hussen enters into this debate with a sophisticated analysis not only of each side’s critical orientation but also of the entire debate’s investment in the question of historicity. Surveying how both sides in the debate are equally committed to their version of history, Levy-Hussen encourages us to step back from the fray and take stock of the field’s interpretive protocols. She, for one, is not convinced that historicity should be the grounding theory behind the task of interpreting race. The very title of her book, How to Read African American Literature, announces the novelty of her approach. On one hand, it provides an implicit rejoinder to Warren in that it implies there is still an object called “African American literature” to read in the late twentieth century and beyond. On the other, it promises a bold rethinking of the field’s normative claims in that it makes the “how” of interpretation its explicit object of study. For Levy-Hussen, the controversy over Warren’s claim has begged not for a definitive periodization of the field but for a wholesale accounting of the field’s interpretive protocols.

The book is theoretically grounded in Levy-Hussen’s characterization of both sides of the debate. The dominant interpretive mode is described as a “hermeneutic of therapeutic reading,” whereby the “twin gestures of historical reclamation and psychic conversation” align professional criticism with “the fictions of racial remembrance that dominate today’s black literature.” This mode, according to Levy-Hussen, “speaks to the desire to make sense of an unredeemed past and its painful legacy and to locate agency and a capacity for social change in the act of reading.” The interpretive mode associated with Warren, meanwhile, is simply called “prohibitive reading.” Levy-Hussen is careful to point out that...


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pp. 11-12
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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