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Designs of Blackness

Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America, 25th Anniversary Edition

by A. Robert Lee (Author)
©2020 Monographs XII, 342 Pages
Open Access

Summary

Across more than two centuries Afro-America has created a huge and dazzling variety of literary self-expression. Designs of Blackness provides less a narrative literary history than, precisely, a series of mappings—each literary-critical and comparative while at the same time offering cultural and historical context. This carefully re-edited version of the 1998 publication opens with an estimation of earliest African American voice in the names of Phillis Wheatley and her contemporaries. It then takes up the huge span of autobiography from Frederick Douglass through to Maya Angelou. "Harlem on My Mind," which follows, sets out the literary contours of America’s premier black city. Womanism, Alice Walker’s presiding term, is given full due in an analysis of fiction from Harriet E. Wilson to Toni Morrison. Richard Wright is approached not as some regulation "realist" but as a more inward, at times near-surreal, author. Decadology has its risks but the 1940s has rarely been approached as a unique era of war and peace and especially in African American texts. Beat Generation work usually adheres to Ginsberg and Kerouac, but black Beat writing invites its own chapter in the names of Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman. The 1960s has long become a mythic change-decade, and in few greater respects than as a black theatre both of the stage and politics. In Leon Forrest African America had a figure of the postmodern turn: his work is explored in its own right and for how it takes its place in the context of other reflexive black fiction. "African American Fictions of Passing" unpacks the whole deceptive trope of "race" in writing from Williams Wells Brown through to Charles Johnson. The two newly added chapters pursue African American literary achievement into the Obama-Trump century, fiction from Octavia Butler to Darryl Pinkney, poetry from Rita Dove to Kevin Young.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: 25th Anniversary Edition
  • 1 Reclamations: The Early Afro-America of Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Olaudah Equiano and David Walker
  • 2 The Stance of Self-Representation: African American Life Writing, 1850s–1990s
  • 3 Harlem on My Mind: Fictions of a Black Metropolis from The New Negro to Darryl Pinckney
  • 4 Womanisms: The Novel 1860s–1990s
  • 5 Richard Wright’s Inside Narratives
  • 6 War and Peace: Writing the Black 1940s
  • 7 Black Beats: The Signifying Poetry of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman
  • 8 Acting Out: The Black Drama of the 1960s, the 1960s of Black Drama
  • 9 Equilibrium Out of Their Chaos: Modernism, Postmodernism and Leon Forrest’s Witherspoon-Bloodworth Trilogy
  • 10 Under Cover, Under Covers: Performing Race from William Wells Brown to Charles Johnson
  • 11 Into the Twenty-First Century: Fiction’s Continuities and Variations
  • 12 Into the Twenty-First Century: Poetry’s Voice and Echo
  • About the Author
  • Index

cover

About the book

Across more than two centuries Afro-America has created a huge and dazzling variety of literary self-expression. Designs of Blackness provides less a narrative literary history than, precisely, a series of mappings—each literary-critical and comparative while at the same time offering cultural and historical context. This carefully re-edited version of the 1998 publication opens with an estimation of earliest African American voice in the names of Phillis Wheatley and her contemporaries. It then takes up the huge span of autobiography from Frederick Douglass through to Maya Angelou. “Harlem on My Mind,” which follows, sets out the literary contours of America’s premier black city. Womanism, Alice Walker’s presiding term, is given full due in an analysis of fiction from Harriet E. Wilson to Toni Morrison. Richard Wright is approached not as some regulation “realist” but as a more inward, at times near-surreal, author. Decadology has its risks but the 1940s has rarely been approached as a unique era of war and peace and especially in African American texts. Beat Generation work usually adheres to Ginsberg and Kerouac, but black Beat writing invites its own chapter in the names of Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman. The 1960s has long become a mythic change-decade, and in few greater respects than as a black theatre both of the stage and politics. In Leon Forrest African America had a figure of the postmodern turn; his work is explored in its own right and for how it takes its place in the context of other reflexive black fiction. “African American Fictions of Passing” unpacks the whole deceptive trope of “race” in writing from Williams Wells Brown through to Charles Johnson. The two newly added chapters pursue African American literary achievement into the Obama-Trump century, fiction from Octavia Butler to Darryl Pinkney, poetry from Rita Dove to Kevin Young.

“A. Robert Lee dazzles us once again with his knowledge of many different literatures. He has set a high standard for those who are bound to one tradition. Designs of Blackness is a very cogent examination of African American literature.”

—Ishmael Reed

“A. Robert Lee is remarkable writer, erudite and readable at once. Not only are we given a scholarly, comprehensive account of African American literature, we are given it in language that reveals a passionate commitment to the subject.”

—David Dabydeen, University of Warwick

←viii | ix→

Acknowledgments

Friendships, conversations and much correspondence with any number of the writers in this study remains a necessary debt. I thank them all, and especially remember those no longer alive, among them Chester Himes (1909–1984), Harold Cruse (1916–2005), James A. Emanuel (1921–2013), John A. Williams (1925–2015), Ted Joans (1928–2003), and Leon Forrest (1937–1997) whose death occurred as this book was being completed and whose companionship will always stay with me. Other considerable debts are owed to Clarence Major, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed, H. Nigel Thomas, Caryl Phillips and the late Maria Mootry. Several, to my great advantage, were willing to have been the subject of BBC, PBS and other interviews with me

The good fortune of a career that encompasses the University of London (1960–1965), fulltime appointments at the University of Kent in the UK (1967–1995) and Nihon University, Japan (1996–2011), and Visiting Professorships at a dozen campuses in the USA – Princeton and Northwestern to the University of Colorado and the University of California, Berkeley, has afforded any number of first-hand encounter from within the roster of multicultural American writers. They include Gerald Vizenor, Betty Bell, Kimberly Blaeser, Linda Hogan, Jim Barnes, Carter Revard, John Yau, Kimiko Hahn, Mitsuye Yamada, Gary Pak, Karen Tei Yamashita, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alurista, Carmen Tafolla, Tino ←ix | x→Villanueva, Kazuko Shiraishi, and the late Patricia Clark Smith and Louis Owens (1948–2002).

Likewise scholars working in the multicultural field have been generous with relevant advice and exchanges. I thank John G. Cawelti, Barbara Fields, Wilfred Samuels, Amritjit Singh, Robert E. Washington, Nell Irvin Painter, Epifanio San Juan, Alan Velie, Joe Lockard, Shamoon Zamir, Fritz Gysin, Michel Fabre, Helmbrich Breinig, Walter Göbel, Hans Bak, Wolfgang Binder, Theo D’Haen, Ole Moen, Werner Sollors, Rocío Davis, Deborah L. Madsen, Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Carme Manuel, Ling-chi Wang, Yu-cheng Lee, Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Shoko Miura, Lane Hirabayashi, Cynthia F. Wong, and the late Eric Mottram, Laurence B. Holland, Harold Beaver, Joseph F. Skerrett and Gunter Lenz.

At the time of writing Designs of Blackness I incurred yet other debts: fellow contributors to my essay-collection Black Fiction; Studies in the Afro-American Novel (1980), Donald J. Ratcliffe, then of the University of Durham and editorial mainstay for my Black American Fiction since Richard Wright (BAAS Pamphlet, No. 11, 1983), and past editors of Black American Literature Forum (now African American Review) and the UK’s Journal of American Studies. I was grateful for permission to have been able to rethread past writing from Vision Press, VU Press, Rodopi, Salem Press, St. Martin’s Press, and Bowling Green Popular Press.

For its part, Pluto Press in London deserves credit and my appreciation for taking on the project at the outset, courtesy of Anne Beech, Roger van Zwanenberg, Robert Webb and Lisa Jolliffe, and thereafter conducted from the distance of Tokyo.

Latterly, as Lang AG has followed Pluto Press, I need to express every thanks to Meagan Simpson as Acquisition Editor, Jacqueline Pavlovic as Production Manager, and Divya Vasudevan of Newgen for their great support in helping bring this anniversary edition into being.

My obligation to students in Europe, America and Japan deserves its own paragraph; I offer it unreservedly

Above all, I owed at the time a debt of life, and Spain, to Josefa Vivancos Hernández. I still do.

←0 | 1→

Introduction: 25th Anniversary Edition

Perspective and Memoir

Readers coming to African American authorship in the Obama-Trump century well might be moved to re-consider the vast literary genealogy that has led to its emergence. The contemporary generation of, say, Jasmyn Ward and Colson Whitehead in fiction, or Natasha Tretheway and Kevin Young in poetry, gives ready evidence of new departures. At the same time light understandably continues to focus on the litany of names who make up the prior literary canon, nineteenth-century slave texts to the work of 1920s New Negro and Harlem literati, Richard Wright to Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston to Ralph Ellison. Critique and scholarship, especially in the wake of the 1960s as the decade of black cultural nationalism, has given matching show and tell. Both the original and 25th anniversary editions of Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America belong in the evolution of these reckonings.

A study begun in the mid-1990s, published in 1998 in London, and several years out of print and prepared for re-issue in 2020 by Peter Lang just before the Black Lives Matter movement, might risk looking rather too much of its time of writing. But the accounts on offer of African American literary voice, and its successive periodizations, I hope continue to stand. Certainly the ambition, maybe the over-ambition, of the original book was not only to recognize the timeline of African American writing but the huge creative variety of its “designs ←1 | 2→of blackness.” As half-title, moreover, “mappings” was meant to indicate interpretation not only of comparative eras but genres, a willingness to cross-refer where necessary, thereby differentiating the book from existent single-focus histories of fiction, poetry, theatre, autobiography, or individual author-portraits.

It now takes its place, with later chapters as due updates, alongside quite subsequent literary-critical developments. These, serendipity perhaps, connect back into the approach taken in Designs of Blackness. In this respect Lawrence P. Jackson offers a situating retrospect in The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics 1934–1960 (2010).1 Since 1960, and its decade, studies have gone on to speak of neo-formalism, a return to aesthetics. Two recent accounts give pointers.

Kenneth W. Warren in What Was African American Literature? (2011) seeks to free the black text from being held inside the pre-emptive loop of combating Jim Crow and giving vent only to dissent.2 Aida Levy-Hussen in How To Read African American Literature: Post-Civil Rights Fiction and the Task of Interpretation (2016) examines black texts for how “therapeutically” they mediate past trauma or conversely have been put at one or another distance for exactly that reason.3 Both these accounts re-draw attention to literary dynamics, the need for a return to reading practices that precisely value “design,” the tactics of imagination by which Afro-America has voiced community and self-story.

Race and the vexations it arouses for life in America has never stayed quiet, whether politics, culture, class, sexuality, education, sport, or to immediate purpose, literary authorship. In the Obama to Trump succession it has found latest momentum. A black liberal president, a maverick white nationalist president: the contrast could not be starker. Mention, ironically, gets made of “post-race” America, as though the presence of a black middle-class signals duty done. Yet that has happened as stop-and-search arrests and police killings disproportionately persist for the African American community. Much has changed, but much has not as Black Lives Matter at this time of writing has dramatically given evidence.

Change of historical context there evidently has been, whether in the wake of the 1960s of Selma and King’s “I Have a Dream,” or the 1990s of the L.A. police arrest and beating of Rodney King, or the white power march through Charlottesville in 2017. What has not changed is the sheer inventive power, the myriad forms and range of focus in African American authorship. Across the gamut of texts available, furthermore, it has not always been an obligation to remain America-centered. James Baldwin sets the blighted love-story of Giovanni’s Room (1956) in France. Rita Dove puts a range of international geographies into view in a poetry collection like Mother Love (1995).4 These different points of imaginative ←2 | 3→compass acknowledged, however, it again needs to be said that the black-written text continues to enter an American national context in which the historic levers of race and with it caste and “colorism” still weigh, the ever persisting current.

Designs of Blackness so gives its emphasis to the literary-creative imagining of black experience. In no way is this to downplay the reality, the very memory, of offense and defense by which African Americans have been obliged to negotiate the hand given by the nation’s Atlantic and continental history. An attentive eye and ear to the different idioms, literature’s articulation of the lives lived within, often enough against, and just occasionally beyond, that history, remains as pertinent as ever.

***

What led to the writing of Designs of Blackness and why, two and a half decades later, is this re-issue to be thought timely? In one sense, the answer might be obvious: here was, and remains, the literary record of one of the most profound human experiences in American history, from Dixie to Harlem, slavery to the modern city, a vast unfolding concourse of people, migration, region, event, self-expression and remembrance. Throughout, there have arisen galleries of oral and written text, story and poem, song and sermon, inerasable and compelling acts of literary creation.

Yet at the time of first undertaking Designs of Blackness much of the critique, black or white written, often seemed to underplay the specific imaginative fashioning of a given individual work. For my own part, the more I read in the tradition, the more it seemed that African American literature for all that it inevitably drew from historic racial fault-lines, or the damage done by each reductive binary and stereotype, actually constituted a vast, unfolding imaginarium.5

Black community calls for redress, however important, or the resort to the one or another ideology during successive epochs, could not impose the only touchstones in taking on the literature. Yet emphasis upon imagining itself as pivot and sway was to risk the charge, however imperfect, that formalism trumped centering on the history actually lived and breathed and from which each page was taken. Remembrance of the inherited context from the 1960s, and in whose immediate aftermath Designs of Blackness written, requires due opening note.

***

Addison Gayle, Jr., in the Introduction to his essay-collection, The Black Aesthetic (1971) had issued a symptomatic call to arms.

Details

Pages
XII, 342
Year
2020
ISBN (PDF)
9781433180187
ISBN (ePUB)
9781433180194
ISBN (MOBI)
9781433180200
ISBN (Hardcover)
9781433179532
DOI
10.3726/b17130
Open Access
CC-BY
Language
English
Publication date
2020 (November)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 342 pp.

Biographical notes

A. Robert Lee (Author)

A. Robert Lee, formerly of the University of Kent, UK, was Professor in the English Department of Nihon University, Tokyo, 1997–2011. His publications include Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a and Asian American Fictions, which won the American Book Award in 2004.

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Title: Designs of Blackness