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Monday, January 25, 2016

Black critics and Chinese Questions

Black Critics and Chinese Questions /Notes for a Dialogue with Wang Yukuo, November 2014


Q1. The biggest difference between critics of the last century and those of today  is one of attitude. The critics of the early twentieth-first century  are more adamant in  exploring theory.  Their interests are  diverse, diffused, and quaintly speculative. Many of them  are passionate about creating new critical histories in order  to escape the confines of a History which bids us to represent " the Race" or African Americans as an ethnic group. They are more interested in representing "the American" or some variety of existential diversity. They reject the sense of obligation that was evidenced by the critics of the early twentieth century. Some of the contemporary critics might find the very  idea of obligation to be antiquated if not offensive. They seem to be more interested in the nature of change than in the probabilities of continuity.  They are interested in discontinuity, in change as a series of ruptures or breaks with what is past , breaks that ordain bold explorations of the present, breaks that minimize the chore of remembering . They want to account for what is occurring now much more than they want to document the critical postures of one hundred years ago.

We are speaking , of course, in generalizations.  It would be most unfair to suggest that the young critics are bereft of a sense of history or that they do not know of the critical struggles of earlier critics.  Some of them know a great deal about such history.  Some of them do not. The critics  are not unified ; they do not rally around a single purpose. They have chosen  to focus their intellectual energies on 21st century problems of how literature functions now, especially in the United States or in the African Diaspora or in global contexts.

In sharp contrast to these critics, those who wrote about Negro literature (American Negro literature) in the early years of the 20th century felt obligated to give legitimacy to works by black writers.  They had to convince a majority white readership that Negro literature was indeed literature rather than some scribbling to be laughed at or dismissed as inferior efforts to put words on paper. They worried about how well the Negro writing conformed to white criteria for art. Such agonizing is not part of our contemporary scene.  And when it does appear , we are surprised by the tyranny  of theory .What matters today is how craft and techniques represent  the constantly changing modern, post-modern, and post-whatever sensibilities shared by artists and critics from many ethnic groups. The preoccupation of 20th century critics with justification has become a subject for historical recovery.

The difference between 20th- and 21st-century  critical roles must be examined in terms of attitudes about responding to cultural situations.  It is most instructive that in the United States a few critics think it is possible to write post-racially about  literature that has racial properties.


Q2. The assumption that black writing must have racial properties  is primitive. It totally ignores how much of African American writing is focused on the Self, the psychology of the Self, on dealing with all the existential issues of life that are not strictly racial and social. A considerable portion of black writing is devoted to pure aesthetics, particularly in the genre of poetry. That is to say, the writers experiment with language as language and with the power of language to manipulate and multiply our perspectives on everyday life. If one has only read the exceptionally small number of black writers who are listed in the CNKI, one makes ill-informed assumptions.  One has simply not explored enough black literature.


Q3. To uproot is not to eradicate. The Africans who survived the Middle Passage and recombined their ethnicities did not undergo a kind of science fiction brain surgery that erased all memory of African cultures.  Indeed, the fact that we speak of African/European hybridity indicates that something African remained in the mixture.  So, it is really a matter of our studying how displaced peoples forged new cultural and literary traditions and how those new traditions have been very influential in shaping modern transnational ideas about culture. Historians have done better work in helping us to understand what Paul Gilroy named the Black Atlantic than have many literary critics.

Q4. African American scholars have been dealing the influence of technologies on criticism and scholarship for more than a decade. Consider how such social networks as Twitter, Facebook, and Rap Genius have incorporated bits and pieces of literary discussion; how the emergence of digital humanities has encouraged more work with digitizing older African American texts so that one can use diverse software to crunch information and highlight previously little mentioned characteristics of traditional texts. Alondra Nelson is the  acknowledge pioneer in Afrofuturist theory, and her writings on AfroFuturism are seminal. A good place to start exploring how much new technologies have begun to reshape critical discussion is the Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 4 (2014), which was edited by Howard Rambsy II, one of the leading scholars who is thoroughly committed to using new technologies. I must note that only those scholars and critics who have fairly easy access to the most powerful technologies can truly take advantage of them.


Q5. In my opinion, the most distinctive feature of black writing is a continuing investment in the histories of the United States of America and in the multiple levels of those histories. Examine Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage; James McBride’s novel Good Lord Bird, which is a comedic treatment of John Brown’s abolitionist mission; Brenda Marie Osbey’s History and Other Poems, an exploration of Creole impact on history in a small portion of the American South; August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the 20th century mainly from the angle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Other ethnic American literatures also invest in history, but African American literature does so with greater deliberate passion.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

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