Monthly Archives: February 2009

Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” for February 26, 2009

 

Alice Walker

Alice Walker

 

The thrust of Walker’s essay is relatively simple to understand, and is made most explicit when she states, 

What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time?  In our great-grandmothers’ day?…How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write?  And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist.

Walker wants the readers to consider how the will to artistically create is ineluctably linked to the will to survive, especially for those in society who have historically been denied any and all expressions of freedom, including creativity.  It is within this link between survival and creativity that Walker opens up a new way in which to think about artistry, specifically the artistry of African American women, by considering the smallest efforts at preserving momentary “beauties” as herculean efforts at maintaining humanity.  Under her perspective, survival itself becomes an act of artistry.

She uses Phillis Wheatley as an exemplar of this mode of artistry as survival, survival as artistry.  Her use of Virginia Woolf’s notion of “a room of one’s own” effectively contextualizes the creative will of African American women as embodied by Wheatley, and makes explicit the power of that will.

How can we apply Walker’s idea to the broader notion of an African American literary tradition?

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Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” for February 24, 2009

(NOTE:  THERE IS A CHANGE IN THE SYLLABUS FOR THE READING FROM WITHIN THE CIRCLE FOR THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2009.  WE WILL NOT BE READING HORTENSE SPILLERS.  INSTEAD WE WILL BE READING ALICE WALKER’S “IN SEARCH OF OUR MOTHERS’ GARDENS.”)

Smith’s main point in this essay lays a foundation for the explosion of both Black feminist critical theory and the creative writings of Black women in the 1970s and 1980s.  Her argument exposes the flaws of considering literature through either the exclusive lens of race, as Black literary criticism tends to do, or the exclusive lens of gender, as predominantly White feminist criticism tends to do.  She suggests that it is  Black women who are in the best position to create an effective criticism that provides an integrated consideration of the roles played by race, gender, class, and sexuality in literature.  She argues that this critical move is necessary not only for the impact it will have on literary criticism generally, but also to offer a deeper understanding of the literature of Black women specifically.

When black women’s books are dealt with at all, it is usually in the context of black literature which largely ignores the implications of sexual politics. When white women look at black women’s works they are of course ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of racial politics.  A black feminist approach to literature that embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of black women writers is an absolute necessity.  

She wraps up her essay by doing a “Black feminist” reading of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.  Her application of Black feminist criticism in this instance, while relatively interesting, seems like a confusing way to demonstrate the efficacy of Black feminist criticism, especially when she states “What I have tried to do here is not to prove that Morrison wrote something that she did not, but to point out how a black feminist critical perspective at least allows consideration of this level of the novel’s meaning.”  In the end, is it the opportunity for consideration that Smith finds important, or the meaning?

How do you think that Barbara Christian’s argument against “the race for theory” might respond to Smith’s proposition?

 

Barbara Smith

Barbara Smith

  

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Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” for February 19, 2009

 

Barbara Christian

Barbara Christian

 

My objection to the race for theory, as some readers have probably guessed by now, really hinges on the question, ‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?’ 

Christian’s essay is concerned with disrupting the hegemony of literary criticism, what she terms “the race for theory,” with its power to marginalize literatures, artists, and readers.  Her critique centers around two main points.  The first is that literary criticism has become an ends unto itself and has seemingly abandoned literature as the focus of its endeavor.  She says, “Due to this new orientation, works (a word which evokes labor) have become texts.  Critics are no longer concerned with literature, but with other critics’ texts, for the critic yearning for attention has displaced the writer and has conceived of himself as the center.”

Her other main point is that literary criticism has the power to determine that which is “valuable,” which creates the potential for creative artists to stifle their organic creative tendencies and replace them with moves that adhere to critics’ definitions of literature that is “valuable” and “worthy.”  Especially for women writers and writers of color, Christian sees literary criticism as reproducing social inequities by denying the dynamic nature of difference, and the power of difference to empower both writers and readers.

Perhaps because those who have effected the takeover have the power (although they deny it) first of all to be published, and thereby to determine the ideas which are deemed valuable, some of our most daring and potentially radical critics (and by our I mean black, women, Third World) have been influenced, even co-opted, into speaking a language and defining their discussion in terms alien to and opposed to our needs and orientation.

Though she is critical against the hegemony that has been created around literary criticism, she is not against the use of theory as ways to deconstruct structures of power.  “Let me not give the impression that by objecting to the race for theory I ally myself with or agree with the neutral humanists who see literature as pure expression and will not admit to the obvious control of its production, value, and distribution by those who have power, who deny, in other words, that literature is, of necessity, political.” Instead, she objects to theory that excludes through languages and forms which obscure conditions instead of confronting conditions.

For I feel that the new emphasis on literary critical theory is as hegemonic as the world which attacks.  I see the language it creates as one which mystifies rather than clarifies our condition, making it possible for a few people who know that particular language to control the critical scene — that language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, of black women, of Latin Americans, of Africans, began to move to ‘the center.’

What do you see as the relationship between Christian’s argument and Henry Louis Gates’ argument?  What would your response be to Christian’s question “For whom are we doing what we are dong when we do literary criticism?”

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext,” for February 17, 2009

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates’ essay is an early example of the critical movement within literary studies known as Post-Structuralism.  Though it is difficult to define post-structuralism in concise terms, it does operate on several important assumptions:

1.  The author’s intent, as tenuous as it is, is secondary to the meaning that a reader perceives.  Post-structuralism rejects the idea that a literary text has one, singular purpose, meaning, or existence.  On the contrary, post-structuralism declares that each different reader creates a new and individual purpose, meaning, or existence for a given text.

2.  No meaning is stable.  With the reader displacing the author as the primary point of inquiry, the author is, in post-structuralist terms  “destabilized” or “decentered,” and as a result, so too is meaning.  Without the author being centered, post-structuralists focus on different sources of meaning (e.g. readers, culture and cultural norms, other literary texts).  These alternative sources are neither authoritative or consistent.

3.  The only way to begin to critically understand meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and systems of knowledge which produce the illusion of a singular meaning.

For Gates’ part, he is applying post-structuralist theory to African-American literary traditions in an attempt to liberate notions of “Blackness” and, by extension, Black art, from essentialism both in form, “Black is…,” and intent, “Black art is propaganda.”  He is trying to combat what he calls “a posture that belabors the social and documentary status of black art.”  In other words, he wants to reject the ideas that: 1) black art shows the “truth” of black life, and 2) that because black art is assumed to “document social realities” is must always be politically directed.

He painstakingly goes through many historical, literary, and critical examples to trace both transformations and flaws in the understandings and reception of African American literatures leading to his argument for destabilizing constricted notions of what is “black” and what is the purpose of “black art.”  He states:

Ultimately, black literature is a verbal art like other verbal arts.  “Blackness” is not a material object or an event but a metaphor; it does not have an “essence” as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity.  Even the slave narratives offer the text as a world, as a system of signs.  The black writer is the point of consciousness of his language.  If he does embody a “Black Aesthetic,” then it can be measured not by “content,” but by a complex structure of meanings.

And he concludes with the heart of his argument when he says:  “Literary images, even black ones, are combinations of words, not of absolute or fixed things.  The tendency of black criticism toward an ideological absolutism, with its attendant Inquisition must come to an end.”

How does Gates’ essay directly respond to critics like DuBois, Wright, Neal, and Fuller?

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Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement,” and Hoyt Fuller, “Toward a Black Aesthetic” for February 10, 2009

 

These two essays from 1968 offer a window into the ideas that provided the foundation for the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The Black Arts Movement, as Neal states in his essay, was seen as “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.”  Though the term “Black Power” had been used by Richard Wright in the 1950s to describe the liberation struggles of African nations, the notion of “Black Power” as used here originates in 1966 from two leaders within the civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC — pronounced “snick”), Stokley Carmichael and Willie Ricks.

The Black Power movement was largely characterized as a Black nationalist movement, emphasizing racial pride and the creation of Black political, cultural, and economic institutions that would be able to promote collective community interests and Black autonomy.  As the aesthetic reflection of the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement has been the only American literary movement to have social engagement as an essential element of its aesthetic.

Neal’s essay serves primarily as a primer for the Black Arts Movement, outlining its purpose and necessity, and presenting examples of artists who were creating literature centered on these explicitly political aims.  Perhaps the most insight we get into the Black Arts Movement from the essay is when Neal quotes his fellow Black Arts poet, Etheridge Knight:

“Unless the Black artist establishes a ‘Black aesthetic’ he will have no future at all.  To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to live.  The Black artist must create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or purify old ones); and along with other Black authorities, he must create a new history, new symbols, myths and legends (and purify the old ones by fire).  And the Black artist, in creating his own aesthetic, must be accountable for it only to the Black people.”

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Hoyt Fuller’s essay provides more of a critical examination of the motivations, logics, and imperatives behind the creation of a Black aesthetic.  He begins by saying that “Just as black intellectuals have rejected the NAACP, on the one hand, and the two major political parties on the other, and gone off in search of new and more effective means and methods of seizing power, so revolutionary black writers have turned their backs on the old ‘certainties’ and struck out in new, if uncharted, directions.”

He focuses much of his discussion in responding to criticisms waged against the idea of a Black aesthetic, and by extension, the idea of a Black Arts Movement.  Of special interest to Fuller is the problematic ways in which notions of “universalism” have been used against Black art as a way to legitimate its marginalization.   “‘Certainly,’ the argument might proceed, ‘to be important, writing must have universal values, universal implications; it cannot deal exclusively with Negro problems.’  The plain but unstated assumption being, of course, that there are no ‘universal values’ and no ‘universal’ implications’ in Negro life.”

The most powerful of his statements about the paradox of universalism is his comment on the poem by Joseph Bevans Bush.  He says:  “If the poem lacks the resonsances of William Shakespeare, that is intentional.  The ‘great bard of Avon’ has only limited relevance to the revolutionary spirit raging in the ghetto. Which is not to say that the black revolutionaries reject the ‘universal’ statements inherent in Shakespeare’s works; what they do reject, however, is the literary assumption that the style and language and the concerns of Shakespeare establish the appropriate limits and ‘frame of reference’ for black poetry and people.” (emphasis added)

Think about the ways in which Fuller’s argument is continuing a conversation with earlier arguments, especially Schuyler, Hughes, and DuBois.

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Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” for February 5, 2009

 

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

 

“Historically this is but a part of the larger conflict between older, dominant groups of white Americans…and the newer white and nonwhite groups…over the major group’s attempt to impose its ideals upon the rest, insisting that its exclusive image be accepted as the image of the American.  This conflict should not, however, be misunderstood.  For despite the impact of the American idea upon the world, the ‘American’ himself has not (fortunately for the United States, its minorities, and perhaps for the world) been finally defined.  So that far from being socially undesirable this struggle between Americans as to what the American is to be is part of that democratic process through which the nation works to achieve itself.”

 

In his essay, Ellison seeks to address an aspect of this struggle over American identity, who shall construct it, who shall claim it, and what it tries to hide.  He considers the ways in which African Americans have held a symbolic role in white America’s imagination.  In looking at the part that has been played by literature in the fortification of this role he states, “Despite their billings as images of reality, these Negroes of fiction are counterfeits.  They are projected aspects of an internal symbolic process through which, like a primitive tribesman dancing himself into the group frenzy necessary for battle, the white American prepares himself emotionally to perform a social role.”

He focuses on the distinction between the writing of 19th century America and 20th century America, specifically on the examples of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner and the respective ways in which they used black characters as means through which to construct white humanity.  As Ellison says, African Americans became “a human ‘natural’ resource who, so that white men could become more human, was elected to undergo a process of institutionalized dehumanization.”

Ellison touches on several significant points as he builds his argument, including the social character of art.  His concern with this aspect of art is that notion of “freedoms” involved in the creation and reception of art.  Ideally, both the artist and the audience should have the freedom to connect to works from their own positions.  “This is because it is not within the province of the artist to determine whether his work is social or not.  Art by it nature is social.  And while the artist can determine within a certain narrow scope the type of social effect he wishes his art to create, here his will is definitely limited.  Once introduced into society, the work of art begins to pulsate with those meanings, emotions, ideas brought to it by it audience and over which the artist has but limited control.”  It is in this way that art, and specifically literature for Ellison, becomes a significant social agent.

Ellison concludes with three concise points regarding the tasks of American writers both white and black.  Consider his conclusion in conversation with Hughes, DuBois, Wright, and Morrison.

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Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” for February 3, 2009

In “Blueprint for Negro Writing” Richard Wright outlined what he saw as the imperative role of black writing in the development of the status of blacks in the United States.  He argued that, historically, black writing had spent too much energy arguing for the humanity of the black race and not enough on articulating  useful directions for the collective consciousness of black masses.  Openly critical of the works that defined the Harlem Renaissance, Wright comments:

“Rarely was the best of this writing addressed to the Negro himself, his needs, his sufferings, his aspirations.  Through misdirection, Negro writers have been far better to others than they have been to themselves.  And the mere recognition of this places the whole question of Negro writing in a new light and raises a doubt as to the validity of its present direction.”  

Characterizing the history of “Negro writing” as one which had created two distinct cultures, that of the unrecognized black masses and that of an elite, DuBoisian “talented tenth” class, his primer envisioned a literature that would take its cue from the black workers’ movement and incorporate a Marxian attitude to serve black interests beyond the limited ones of the black bourgeoisie.  He specifies the contending forces within black communities:

“One would have thought that Negro writers in the last century of striving at expression would have continued and deepened this folk tradition, would have tried to create a more intimate and yet a more profoundly social system of artistic communication between them and their people.  But the illusion that they could escape through individual achievement the harsh lot of their race swung Negro writers away from any such path…Today the question is:  Shall Negro writing be for the Negro masses, moulding the lives and consciousness of those masses toward new goals, or shall it continue begging the question of the Negroes’ humanity?”

Wright sought a more inclusive and egalitarian mode of cultural production that would utilize the creative resources from all classes of African Americans and result in broader change in both the material and social conditions of African Americans.  Though explicitly advancing a Marxist philosophy, at its heart, Wright himself seemed to remain ideologically loyal to American democratic idealism.  Wright asserts that the view African American writers needed to embrace was one “of society as something becoming rather than as something fixed and admired.”  Only in this way, reasoned Wright, would African American writers break away from the impulse to demonstrate their equality through artistry, an impulse which had contributed to the survival of the status quo by nominally elevating the black middle class, while changing little in the social, political, and economic reality of the larger black underclass.  Wright felt as though the potential for social change was being squandered by the failure of the African American artistic community to link the future of the black masses to their own.

 

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

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