“Blackness” and the Sclerosis of African American Cultural Criticism
When Judith Stein assessed African American historical analysis in the mid 1970s in “Of Booker T. Washington and Others: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States,” she observed that because “dominant American historians have used formal categories—accommodation and militance, self-help and protest—to describe the course of black history” they have described “black movements as mechanical successions of protests against racism and withdrawal into self-help.”1 This analytical formalism, Stein averred, “only mystifies the historical process,” guaranteeing that the answer to any question about why these protests failed to achieve their aims would always be the same—”racism.” “In essence,” Stein noted, “the explanation is advanced before the investigation is conducted. Racism is reified, divorced from the concrete and complex experiences of social groups in particular circumstance.” Stein countered that a “study of black politics…limited to men and movements seeking purely racial goals” was insufficient. To “understand black history, one must examine the principal social forces affecting black people concretely and in historical time.”2 She continued:
Because blacks interacted with other workers and other social classes, the historian must analyze specific social and class relationships, and not be satisfied with general statements about broad social changes as backdrops for Afro-American history. To understand the era of Booker T. Washington, one must first examine the whole pattern of social forces affecting blacks after the Civil War, not only the racial manifestations.3
The result of Stein’s undertaking was one of the two best (Michael West’s The Education of Booker T. Washington is the other) accounts of the ascendance of Booker T. Washington and the long-term consequences of the consolidation of the regime that made possible his rise. Challenging what was (and unfortunately, too often still is) the prevailing view that during this period “poor whites were the sources of proscriptions against the blacks” and that “the ‘better whites,’…were allies of black people,” Stein demonstrated that southern planter and industrial elites confronted the Populist insurgency with a campaign of disfranchisement that relied on rewriting or passing new laws, rewriting state Constitutions, vicious and biased journalism, and outright intimidation and violence, thereby shaping the terms of politics and cultural practices for the next several decades. Disfranchisement was decisive. She writes:
By removing the lower class from politics, disfranchisement had enormous effects upon subsequent black and white political movements. It encouraged among northern blacks petit-bourgeois notions like Du Bois’s “talented tenth.” Although northern blacks personally possessed more rights, they were basically proposing solutions for all the black people, nine-tenths of whom were southern. The prevalent northern ideologies, like the southern, were based upon appeals to the ruling elements of society. Whereas Washington tried to persuade whites of their self-interest, Du Bois appealed to their sense of justice and morality. Although Washington urged blacks to build up racial enterprises and Du Bois to fight for constitutional rights, both positions fused in practice. The two leaders perceived their roles as elevating a passive population.4
Stein was not, in her analysis, concerned with sifting out literary production from the larger domain of cultural activity to which she refers. However, her observations about the politics of that moment not only illuminate the patterns of black literary writing and commentary that emerged in response to the political dynamics that led to disfranchisement and to the imposition of Jim Crow throughout the south, but they also help explain the major strain of scholarly analysis of literary and cultural production regarding race at the current moment. This strain, which encompasses the writings of such prominent scholars as Daphne Brooks, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Jr., Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, Jr. and others, attributes the ongoing overrepresentation of African-descended Americans among the poor, the incarcerated, the politically weak, and the chronically ill not merely to racism as such, but rather to an amorphous but abiding “blackness/antiblackness” deriving from slavery but enduring, insistently, across the century and a half following the Civil War. Hartman, for example, asserts that
If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.5
In the same vein, Christina Sharpe aligns her work with “those scholars who investigate the ongoing problem of Black exclusion from social, political, and cultural belonging; our abjection from the realm of the human.”6
The postulated effect of insisting on black exclusion as the basis for constituting modern political, cultural, and social life is to invest the most downtrodden with the power to call the existing order to account. As Anna Julia Cooper remarked in 1892, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’”7 The far-reaching implication of such a claim is that the work of social justice can be deemed complete only when the formerly excluded speak up to ratify that order’s claim to comprehensive justice.Cooper’s presumptionwas that the qualitiesmeriting inclusion into the polity—gentility, intellectual achievement, piety, moral uprightness, and the like—were as likely to be embodied by black women as by women or men from any other social group, and that only an immoral but corrigible prejudice prevented whites from acknowledging the fitness of black women, and the Negro race as a whole for equality.For Cooper,the terms of social worth produced by the existing order were, when considered in their ideal form, andabsentracialprejudice, more or less sufficient to encompassthe hopes and desires of all black Americans.Of course, as legions of African Americanist scholars have noted, Cooper’s politics were a politics of uplift that assumed the bulk of her recently freed compatriots would enter the polity only via their deference and willingness to model themselves on their social betters, who were, unsurprisingly, people like Cooper herself.
In many respects, however, those contemporary scholars who inveigh against antiblackness can be seen as attempting to radicalize Cooper’s “when and where I enter” dictum with the idea that true entry into the political and social life of western nations, were it ever to occur, would require or precipitate an absolute reimagining of the social-political order. Indeed, for some, even such reimagining marks a bridge too far. Sharpe, for example, sees, blackness as an “ongoing and irresolvable abjection” rather than as the effect of political and social practices that might be contested successfully. Blackness, she suggested is best apprehended not as an imposed condition but “as a form of consciousness.”8
Against this recent turn, a consideration of Stein’s account of the political economy of racism in the waning decades of the 19th century provides a welcome tonic. By making clear that the political consciousnesses of freedmen extended well beyond racial goals, Stein’s work establishes several key points. First, any attempt to speak on behalf of those black freedmen—laborers and farmers who built the Colored Farmer’s Alliance that enabled the Populist insurgency to mount a serious challenge to capitalism during this period—that simply overrides such sentiments as those expressed by the black Texan Populist R.H. Haynes who declared “The colored people in the rural districts will affiliate with any party that is against monopolies, in the interest of the poor men,” 9 in favor of discounting in advance the significance of political and social affiliation with people recognized as members of different races, does not represent the views of these individuals but, rather, imposes on them the supposed wisdom of the scholarly observer.To be sure the defeat of Populism was catastrophic, enabling the imposition of the Jim Crow that affected much of black political life in the ensuing decades.But the material and psychic investment in this politics was real.Its defeat affected the social and political consciousnesses of black and white Americans alike, but it did not determine them absolutely.
Secondly, Stein’s analysis of the regime of race relations that derived from the imposition of the Jim Crow regime highlights the dominant form of politics supported by that regime, namely (as we have seen above), a politics, “like Du Bois’s ‘talented tenth’” that was “based upon appeal to the ruling elements of society.” Notwithstanding that those making such appeals were lodged, for the most part, in situations that differed significantly from those for whom they purported to speak (as Stein notes, in the early Jim Crow era most spokespersons “northern blacks [who] personally possessed more rights” the “nine-tenths…[who] were southern), they nonetheless felt authorized to proffer “solutions for all the black people.” While Stein foregrounds the appeals to white elites from their black counterparts, part and parcel of this politics was the desire to consolidate the black elite itself as a leadership cadre for the race—to cultivate a sense of racial responsibility and solidarity within the group. That we are encouraged to label as traitorous and cowardly the decision of the protagonist of James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, to succeed by passing as a white businessman rather than accepting the responsibility of becoming a race leader distils this sensibility.
The readiness to hand of a fictional example for this sensibility highlights another key point: A politics based upon appeals to the ruling elements of society was a politics in which the writing of literature could assume an outsized role in the political situation of black Americans in terms of its presumed capacity to move, persuade, and impress potentially sympathetic whites who occupied positions of influence and power and to encourage, console, and inspire the nation’s black citizens. And while this literature would foreground the problem of how best to represent the relations between educated and semiliterate blacks (alongside that of representing relations between the races), often extolling the virtues of the vernacular and cultural expressions of rural southern blacks and, later, their northern, urban counterparts, as the epitome of cultural genius, this literature was not the political voice of the race—which, to the extent it exists as a social reality comprises myriad and often conflicting views and interests—but rather the voice of those whose political legitimacy rests on the perception that they truly represent and speak for a race. The politics of the laborers and farmers of the Populist movement was not a politics premised on producing a race literature. The politics of black elites, however, as will be elaborated below, virtually required it. Further, although the raison d’etre of this literature lay largely in its commitment to contesting the practices and presumptions of the Jim Crow regime, the perceived authority of its precepts and formulas rested, paradoxically, on the political silencing of those for whom it spoke.
Before elaborating further the literary dimensions of this history, it will be helpful to highlight some of the consequences of the race relations regime. As Stein and Adolph Reed, Jr. have demonstrated, postbellum black life political consciousness was “shaped by the experiences of slavery, emancipation, and especially Reconstruction.”10 Political participation itself had produced and reproduced forms of affiliation, affecting relations among former slaves; between former slaves and white farmers and laborers; between former slaves and former masters; between former slaves and free northern blacks; and between northern and southern whites. Stein writes, “The new Republican party, through its Union League clubs, united polity, society, and economy to protect and enhance black labor and lives.”11 The point here is not that southern blacks began thinking politically only in the wake of emancipation but rather that conditions attendant upon emancipation necessarily played a role in how former slaves viewed themselves racially. In seeing themselves as Republicans, southern blacks asserted a racial identity that also stressed interregional and cross-class and interracial identifications as necessary to realizing their visions of what was necessary to secure prosperity and independence. As a result, as Stein points out, the “decline of Republican politics was a crucial blow…to collective politics” as it had been developing in the south.12 This blow, however, did not destroy the possibility for collective action for black farmers and laborers. Reed adds,
black political engagement was not restricted exclusively to racial issues. In the late 1870s blacks in Virginia aligned with white workers and small farmers in the proto-populist Readjuster Party that elected a governor and a U.S. Senator. In the 1880s, membership in the radical Knights of Labor included roughly 60,000 blacks. In the 1890s, the Colored Farmers Alliance, black expression of the Populist insurgency, had 1,250,000 members, and in 1894 an interracial Populist-Republican Fusion alliance won statewide power in North Carolina as well as in several municipalities in the state and was re-elected by a larger margin in 1896. In New Orleans in 1892 black workers participated with whites in a general strike that withstood employers’ and white supremacist politicians’ efforts to break their solidarity through racist agitation.13
Participation in all of these movements and activities betokened a mode of racial identification for southern farmers and laborers less dependent upon and less in line with the needs and views of black elites. Such alliances were significant enough to affect the political programs of black elite brokers, including Booker T. Washington, the architect and enforcer of the race relations regime. Stein observes that the embrace of Populism by the very population that he proposed to uplift via his Tuskegee program “forced Washington to address agrarian problems more directly than in the previous decade.”14 Likewise, the recognition among black elites that the Republican Party was proving less efficacious than before in determining the horizon of political action for black southern workers and farmers demanded responses. By 1895, when it became clear that “the most effective means to struggle against discriminatory practices, disfranchisement, and racism—all of which affected prosperous black southerners as well as the poor—was Populism,” black republicans joined forces with Populists. The results were palpable: The places where “black Republicans succeeded in challenging racial practices” were those places where they had allied “with the party challenging capital,” namely, Populism.15
Although the rise of disfranchisement would shift the center of gravity of political activity for the nation’s black population by effectively removing southern black farmers and labors from politics, it was, in part the initial attractiveness of a class politics to black laborers and farmers in the south that encouraged black elites to proliferate calls for a race literature. For example, Henry Clay Gray’s 1891 article in The New York Age titled “Office of Distinctively Afro-American Literature,” bespoke a growing sense among blacks with literary or journalistic ambitions that the moment called for developing a literature that would enhance racial unity. Gray observed, “We all hear a great deal about ‘race pride,’ ‘race unity’ and the like; but in spite of us we cannot escape observing that, for the most part, we are bound together by a mere rope of sand—aimless talk. A distinctively Negro literature is alone the cable of infinitely superior quality and tension which can bind the race into one coherent, materially helpful and heroic people.…Literature is more than talk…its essence actualizes ideals and ennobles motives. Thus there can be no such things or facts as ‘race pride’ or ‘race unity’ where there is nothing made of a distinctively race literature.”16 Gray’s sentiments were echoed across the decade in the writings of such figures as Frances E.W. Harper, Sutton Griggs, J. McHenry Jones, and the aforementioned Anna Julia Cooper. In Jones’s 1896 novel, Hearts of Gold, which centers on the trials and tribulations of relatively accomplished “Afro-Americans” during the early Jim Crow era, one of the central characters, an enterprising newspaper man named Clement St. John, asks rhetorically, “Is not a race literature just as necessary as a race church, club, or school?”17
While earlier in the century, such terms as race literature, Negro literature, or colored literature were used comparatively rarely and more likely, when they did occur, to designate books about blacks rather than books by blacks, Negro literature in the 1890s came to mean literature by blacks that could be seen as speaking for blacks as a corporate entity in the manner described in Grady’s New York Age article. That disfranchisement accounted largely for this shift is attested to directly in Sutton Griggs’s novel Imperium in Imperio when one of the novel’s co-protagonists, Belton Piedmont, declares to an all-black assembly, “There is a weapon mightier than [the sword and ballot]”:
I speak of the pen. If denied the use of the ballot let us devote or attention to the mightier weapon.…[It] would be a worthy theme for the songs of the Holy Angels, if every Negro, away from the land of his nativity, can by means of the pen, force an acknowledgement of equality from the proud lips of the fierce, all conquering Anglo-Saxon, thus eclipsing the record of all other races of men, who without exception have had to wade through blood to achieve their freedom.18
Griggs, as I have argued more extensively elsewhere,19 took the fact of disfranchisement as reason to approach black politics as a decidedly literary affair and in so doing bestowed upon black elites the responsibility of crafting a program to advance what they saw as the best interests of the race as whole. While Griggs, unlike many of his fellow literary writers, remained in the south, his politics was, like theirs, at once an exhortation to fellow black elites to devote themselves to the race as a whole and an appeal to elements of the south’s ruling class to recognize that their own wellbeing required collaboration with people like him. In the words of one character from his final novel, Pointing the Way, “The one thing needed in the South is political co-operation between the better elements of whites and the Negroes.”20
Black literature, as it emerged, then, was not itself the terrain upon which southern blacks and their more elite northern counterparts contested views of the race. Rather it was an extension of the way that black elites sought to promulgate the phenomenon of a race interest in response to shifting and fracturing alliances. It would be up to these elites to determine which politics could best provide blacks a way forward, and literary texts were one of the venues in which they debated among themselves the visions of racial alliance and affiliation they believed would be most efficacious for race progress. A novel like Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) made a point of insisting on the nonradical disposition of the black workers even as it acknowledged that a desire for black literature was not among the chief demands of the freedman. So, while one the novel’s prominent characters assures a white interlocutor that unlike northern immigrant workers, “the negro is not plotting in beer-saloons against the peace and order of society. His fingers are not dripping with dynamite, neither is he spitting upon your flag, nor flaunting the red banner of anarchy in your face” the novel’s eponymous heroine makes little headway in impressing on the novel’s vernacular characters the value of literary reading.24 Iola Leroy’s assumption that Aunt Linda, a woman of status among the community of freedmen, will have come to recognize the value of reading literature is proved erroneous. Asked by Iola why she hasn’t learned to read, Aunt Linda responds matter-of-factly, “sence freedom’s com’d I’se bin scratchin’ too hard to get a libin’ to put my head down to de book.” When Iola presses her case further by asserting literature’s capacity to provide companionship and succor in times of loneliness, saying, “it would be such company when your husband is away, to take a book,” Aunt Linda remains unpersuaded, saying, “Chile, I ain’t got no time ter get lonesome. Ef you had eber so many chickens to feed, an’ pigs squealin’ fer somethin’ ter eat, an’ yore ducks an’ geese squakin’ ‘roun’ yer, yer wouldn’t hab time ter git lonesome.”25 Thus, while Harper as an author trumpeted the importance of black people telling their own stories, she also acknowledged such a program was a top-down affair. Disfranchisement, despite being vigorously opposed by elites (even as some individuals, including Harper, expressed a willingness to countenance some qualifications on the right to vote), lent further credence to the idea that a literature could define and represent a race. “The imposed silence of the disfranchised farmer permitted others, black and white to speak for them.”26
As Adolph Reed and I have noted elsewhere, black studies scholarship on the whole has been plagued by “the temptation to attempt to speak on behalf of the political and social needs of some ‘black community’ outside the academy.” 27 Declaring themselves responsible to this community, which is in no way positioned to ratify the propositions being put forth on its behalf, while disdaining the professional norms prevailing in the academy as inherently biased against the beliefs and practices necessary to carry out their work, many black scholars have been able to operate in a zone of relative unaccountability in which the narrative recounting of their own experiences and thoughts are treated as paradigmatic of “the race.” Against this state of affairs Reed and I have called for scholarly approaches that focus instead on the way “that the study of the evolving discourses of politically articulate black Americans has provided an important conceptual anchor for the black studies field for most of its own history,” shaping “the main lines of public debate of political, social, and cultural ideas and strategies through which dominant notions of common black American identity and agendas have been constructed and pursued.” And if this admonition seems to entail turning away from non-elite concerns, our contention was precisely opposite. The field’s failure to scrutinize systematically “the sedimented premises of elite debates” had resulted in their naturalization as “background assumptions” which were then ascribed to a putative black community as authentic, organically-derived sentiments.28
Over the last two decades, however, the prevailing winds of black scholarly inquiry have shifted in a direction counter to that sketched out by Stein, Reed, and me. From the standpoint of “blackness” and “antiblackness” any attempt to approach black political and cultural activity dialectically in terms of “the whole pattern of social forces” and not merely the “racial” ones affecting black people is rendered inoperative from the outset by a stipulation that, to quote Frank B. Wilderson, III (who is prominently cited by scholars in this vein), “Blackness, refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality.” In Wilderson’s view, “modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology” in which blacks “stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world.30 Although Wilderson tracks the emergence of this condition of blackness to a particular historical moment, he sees the problem in transhistorical terms, asserting that “chattel slavery, as a condition of ontology and not just as an event of experience, stuck to the African like Velcro.” Indeed, “Velcro,” fails to convey the degree of adhesiveness Wilderson has in mind here as he draws “a distinction between the experience of slavery (which anyone can be subjected to) and the ontology of slavery, which in modernity (the years 1300 to the present) becomes the singular purview of the Black.” In his view the entire “race of Humanism (White, Asian, South Asian, and Arab) could not have produced itself without the simultaneous production of that walking destruction which became known as the Black. Put another way, through chattel slavery the world gave birth and coherence to both its joys of domesticity and to its struggles of political discontent; and with these joys and struggles the Human was born, but not before it murdered the Black, forging a symbiosis between the political ontology of Humanity and the social death of Blacks.”31 In essence, what Stein diagnoses as fatal to the enterprise of intellectual inquiry, namely, ignoring the “the dialectic operating between blacks and whites,”32 is refigured by Wilderson not as a failure but as a principle of analysis.
A primary casualty of the formal binarism entailed by an analysis based on antiblackness is the possibility of examining cultural expression as a variety of institutional practices engaged in by particularly situated individuals whose relation to the constituency they seek to constitute and represent is necessarily rhetorical and contestable. Instead, certain events and individuals are treated as paradigmatic of blackness, a condition demanding either acknowledgment, or hostile (or embarrassed) disavowal. Wilderson opens Red, White, and Black by recalling two seemingly abject figures. The first is “a Black woman who used to stand outside the gate [of New York’s Columbia University] and yell at Whites, Latinos, and East and South Asian students, staff, and faculty” accusing “them of having stolen her sofa and of selling her into slavery,” and the second, “a Native American man sitting on the sidewalk of Telegraph Avenue” near the University of California at Berkeley behind “an upside-down hat and a sign informing pedestrians that here they could settle the ‘Land Lease Accounts’ that they had neglected to settle all of their lives” by putting money in the hat. Both figures for Wilderson speak and embody what he calls “an ethical grammar,” which he describes as a demand for the restoration of stolen land and of the “corporeal integrity” that had been “ripped” from the women’s body to secure “the corporeal integrity of everyone else on the street.” This women’s bodily dispossession according to Wilderson had given “birth to the commodity and to the Human,” without giving her in turn either “subjectivity” or “a sofa”.33 Of course, it doesn’t answer here to point out that the woman had not literally been sold into slavery or that none of those passing her on the street had stolen her sofa, because her role in Wilderson’s anecdote (despite its emphasis on corporeality) is figurative—disciplinary, admonitory, and non-dialogic. The only proper response to her demand would be to defer to its legitimacy or to acquiesce in the structure or “grammar” of her address. And to the extent that Wilderson’s argument aligns itself with her ethical grammar, he arrogates to himself the same posture of non-relationality to his readers. He writes, “My analysis of socially engaged feature film insists on an intellectual protocol through which the scholarship of preconscious interests and unconscious identifications are held accountable to grammars of suffering—accountable, that is, to protocols of structural positionality.”34 The abstraction, “structural positionality,” replaces attention to the historical specificity of actual black political actors.
In addition to the work of Spillers, Wilderson relies heavily on the concept of “social death” or “social alienation,” derived from the work of Orlando Patterson. Indeed, for Wilderson, Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death so convincingly “demonstrates how and why work, or forced labor, is not a constituent element of slavery” and that “the Slave is not a laborer but an anti-Human,” that the book’s assertions require virtually no further argumentation, placing the burden of proof instead “on the one who argues there is a distinction between Slaveness and Blackness. How, when, and where did such a split occur?”35 Wilderson is hardly alone among scholars of African American cultural expression in treating Patterson’s concepts of “social death” and “natal alienation” as historical givens. As the historian Vincent Brown suggests in a 2009 article in The American Historical Review, although the “concept of social death is a distillation from Patterson’s breathtaking survey—a theoretical abstraction” that cannot “explain the actual behavior of slaves” and has been criticized by other historians for this limitation, it has, since the late 1990s reemerged as a touchstone in the study of slavery among a host of prominent scholars who “extend social death beyond a general description of slavery as a condition and imagine it as an experience of self.”36 Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, and Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora are three of the works on which Brown focuses, but the list could easily be extended to include, aside from the aforementioned book by Wilderson, work by Fred Moten, Jared Sexton, Daphne Brooks, Sabine Broeck, and Christina Sharpe.37
Perhaps tellingly, even Brown’s criticism of Patterson’s influence on studies of slavery accepts rather than questions the assumption that analysis of black history and culture must proceed from within the domain of what has been designated as blackness. For Brown the chief problem with Patterson’s account of social death is not its severing of any dialectical relation between the enslaved and the societies in which they were forced to labor, but rather its severing of the enslaved from any “meaningful links to the past,” by which he means something like overlooking the capacity of slaves “to enshrine the political importance of ancestry, mourning, and commemoration in [their] struggle against social alienation.”38 Having cautioned against the interpretive consequences of forgetting that social death/alienation is at best a theoretical abstraction, Brown then treats it Patterson’s concept as if it were the basis for social motivation by the enslaved. What further facilitates Brown’s apparently inadvertent retransformation of Patterson’s “exposition of slaveholding ideology” into “a description of the actual condition of the enslaved” is precisely the shortcoming that Stein descries in post-Civil Rights historical scholarship: an assumption that the only activities among blacks that merit political scrutiny are “movements seeking purely racial goals.” In Brown’s case, this assumption cashes out as the pursuit of “a politics of belonging, mourning, accounting [for the life and death of fellow slaves], and regeneration.”39 Brown’s confining of politics to matters of affect and expression (rather than, say, deliberation and decision-making) is also symptomatic of a presumption of racial community or unity across space and time as the condition or telos of black political activity. Opening his review by recounting an incident aboard the slave ship Hudibras when enslaved women insisted on commemorating the death of a particularly esteemed woman, Brown asks that we consider this event as exemplifying “a politics of history, which connects the politics of the enslaved to the politics of their descendants.”40 From such a perspective, differences and disagreements within black populations fail to signify as “real” political conflicts that reflect competing visions of how economic, social, and cultural life ought to be organized, taking a distant backseat to expressive activities asserting the value of black humanity against a centuries-old project of dehumanization or antiblackness.
It follows necessarily from this analytical predisposition that the very idea of historical change in considering the status of blacks from slavery through emancipation and into the present gets severely attenuated. The reality that social change, however profound, is never absolute and always contested (and that even partial victories can be turned into defeats) gets taken as a reason not only to acknowledge the ongoing need for struggle to realize the idea of true human freedom, but also to find within the very conceptualization of freedom the implacable logic of further domination. Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection is illustrative. Proceeding as if the only available analytical options are adopting “the grand narrative of freedom, with its decisive events and incontrovertible advances” or a “common sense” view stressing “the similarities and correspondencies [sic] of slavery and freedom,” Hartman opts for the latter, viewing any attempt at periodization as an attempt “to assert absolutist distinctions between slavery and freedom.”41 In Hartman’s view, although “the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the institution of slavery, the vestiges of slavery still acted to constrict the scope of black freedom. It proved virtually impossible to break with the past because of the endurance of involuntary servitude and the reinscription of racial subjection. Rather, what becomes starkly apparent are the continuities of slavery and freedom as modes of domination, exploitation, and subjection.”42 At issue here is not a project of ideological critique dedicated to understanding the conceptual limitations of the ideas and beliefs that people have about how political and social life ought to be organized, but rather a project that sees the disfranchisement of virtually all of the nation’s southern black population and the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s as almost a predetermined outcome of an ontological commitment to antiblackness among whites.
The formal binarism that undergirds Hartman’s analysis enables her to bypass the fact that the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments enabled political and social interactions that were not possible under slavery, interactions that challenged prevailing social and political arrangements in ways that required response. Such a challenge was possible only because as Stein points out, “the difference between a discriminated-against free person and a slave was enormous. The ending of slavery placed a boundary, imposed by the national state, on the variety of treatment consistent with American ideology. Slave status was now outside the boundary. Because the only people who were slaves were blacks, the national definition of citizenship simultaneously redefined blacks.”43 By foregrounding abstract, theoretical debates about the scope of the 13th Amendment (for example, pondering “whether universalism merely dissimulates the stigmatic injuries constitutive of blackness with abstract assertions of equality, sovereignty, and individuality.”44 ) at the expense of attending to the actual decisions and interactions of those affected by it, an analysis like Hartman’s overlooks the way that, however narrowly or expansively the 13th Amendment was construed by those debating its meaning, its passage was consequential, and the actual unfolding of events in the south in the latter portion of the 19th-century followed from the fact that the nation’s black population were no longer slaves. To see the rise of Jim Crow as primarily an expression of the continuities between slavery and emancipation is to miss the entire story illuminated by Stein’s analysis.45
Another apparent casualty of the formal binarism entailed by an analysis based on blackness/antiblackness has been the capacity to understand literature as an artifact of institutional, historical, and material practices, and not the relatively unmediated expression of some pre-existing group or community and their experiences. In the 1890s the problem was not that those who advocated for African American literature lacked an appropriately complex formula for representing the multiple social realities of the nation’s black population (although as I’ve suggested above, the depictions of social relations in many of these texts did leave a lot to be desired). Rather, the problem was that the politics required to achieve justice for most black Americans at the turn of the century was offered through Populism, which had been defeated by the late 1890s, and not a politics of black literature, which was emerging in conjunction with that defeat. In other words, the call for an African American literature as a social imperative was implicated in the process whereby the problem of labor exploitation, the solution of which required challenging capitalism, was transformed into “The Negro Problem,” for which the proposed solution was good race relations.
Were literary scholarship to come to terms with the historical reality that a politics in which literary production could play a disproportionately large role was also a politics leveraged on the political silencing of the black southern laboring population, scholars in the field would have to embrace an analysis that recognizes the propositional and constitutive nature of appeals to race. Races are not simply “there” to be represented. Rather, as Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields have argued, races are conjured through discursive and social practices (for which they have coined the neologism “racecraft”) that transform “racism into race, disguis[e] collective social practice as inborn individual traits…[and] entrench…racism in a category to itself, setting it apart from inequality in other guises.”46 Particularly noteworthy for Fields and Fields is that those committed to social justice are often as likely to contribute to racecraft as are those who are happy with the world inequality has made.47 By way of conclusion, a recent issue of the journal American Literary History (for which I sit on the editorial board), titled “What is Twenty-First-Century African American Literature?” can serve as an example.48 The issue’s programmatic introduction, written by Stephanie Li, takes the ongoing-ness of African American literature as a given, declaring that the task on hand is primarily, if not solely, matter of denomination: “What then will we call the current era of African American literature?”For Li, lurking within this challenge is the problem of comprehensiveness—how to determine what “unites this diverse outpouring” and how “to think through African-American literature of these momentous early years of the twenty-first century,”without repeating the exclusions, both intentional and inadvertent, that plagued such efforts, including the “patriarchal assumptions and virulent homophobia undergirding demands for Black Power,” or the failure to acknowledge generational, ethnic, socioeconomic and other differences.The solution Li proffers rests on treating literary expression and black political identity as isomorphic.She insists,
African American literary history affirms that there is no separation between the demand for social change and sublime expressive culture. As [Toni] Morrison reminds us, “the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” Twenty-first-century African American literature, in this respect, seconds the urgency, vision, and hope that we associate with the Black Lives Matter movement.49
At issue here is not whether a significant number of contemporary black writers align themselves with or endorse the phenomenon of Black Lives Matter, but rather that Li proceeds as if BLM were an expression of the sensibility of the race as such. For Li, and many of the other contributors to the volume, sentences such as “Blackness in the twenty-first century is inseparable from acknowledging and confronting the dead” 50 spring readily to the tongue, notwithstanding the fact that, as Cedric Johnson has recently pointed out, “The sheer size of the black population today should in and of itself render such talk of ‘black self-organization’ and ‘black sentiment obsolete. At nearly 46 million, the black population in the US is greater than the population of Canada, three times the size of the population of Greece, and slightly larger than the combined population of Oceania (i.e., Australasia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia).”51 To presume that this vast population must have a literature, one must first craft these millions of people as a race, and in doing so one must, as Fields and Fields observe earlier, entrench “racism in a category to itself” such that an antiracist politics and the literature attending it, can emerge as the solution. On cannot deny the importance of redressing the injustices that gave rise to BLM, but a broad analysis of the conditions that have led to disparities in police shootings reveal that attributing this injustice to race is inadequate. Adolph Reed has recently pointed out,“high rates of police killings [are] the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.”52 A literary project committed to producing new racial narratives will necessarily come up short here both analytically and expressively.The task at hand, then, is not to try to produce an African American literature adequate to the current moment, but to recognize that any attempt to limn the contours of an African American literature—however one tries to define it—cannot escape being the incoherent, class-inflected project that such an effort has always been.Only through such a recognition can those scholars who hope to help us understand literary texts written by black authors avoid succumbing to the temptation to remake what is best left behind.