History and Memory in African-American Culture

Article excerpt

History and Memory in African-American Culture. Edited by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 321 pages. $18.95 paper.

The terms "history" and "memory" have taken on considerable import in recent criticism on American cultures and literatures, with a significant number of critics eliding issues like collective identity and communal "memory" by assigning memory to the personal/individual and history to a category of learned, rather than remembered, phenomena. History, in this paradigm, cannot be recalled, either collectively or individually, but can only be learned. This exaggerated dichotomy between history and memory leaves the individual, classical American (read: Euro-American), alone on the prairie of knowledge, with history as a disembodied force which we pretend to remember but only know through learned means.

Editors Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally, writing in the introduction to this impressive volume, describe the binarily-inclined history/memory climate of scholarly opinion this way: "at least until quite recently, many observers would agree that while history at its finest is a discipline, memory is something else again, something less." Fabre and O'Meally, though, point out what may be obvious: "history" is not the sole domain of "historians." Novelists, musical composer-performers, visual artists in the African diaspora (and surely elsewhere) record their impressions and expressions in the interstices between that distant, hegemonically revered History and their individual positions on the present's horizon. History is far from simply removed from the personal, as David Blight shows in his perceptive reading of W.E.B. Du Bois as a historian who authored Black Reconstruction in America (1935) in part to reveal that since Reconstruction's close the "American historical community had not only subordinated the black experience but had rendered it virtually unknown" (46). Du Bois, who has been credited with configuring the entire modern corpus of "doubleness" discourse in regards to race, becomes in Blight's reading an incisive historiographer worthy of more attention, especially in light of the contemporary lionization of "history."

What this volume makes clear is that memory can by no means be considered separate from history or in any way definitely in contrast to the accepted hegemony of that discipline which heads up so many academic departments and monographs. Popular memory and practices which communalize memory of history are profuse in African American (and Afro-diasporic) traditions, Fabre and O'Meally's collection demonstrates, and this gives fine ground to so much postcolonial theory which seeks to reckon with temporality and the present in its "disjunct and displaced" relationship to the past and future. (1)

This text originates in a Ford Foundation-funded seminar at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Each of the eighteen scholars (including the editors) contributes an essay-transcription of their oral presentations at the seminar's final meeting. This oral-into-written process offers each essay a loose, informal tone and texture that collectively makes this volume highly readable but no less weighty for that readability. The essays' collective range is immense; from segregation in American cemeteries to Katherine Dunham's Afro-Caribbean choreography, with stopovers at the "blues aesthetic" in Aaron Douglass's visual arts and the ideological meaning of Zora Neale Hurston's canonicity. This band of scholars looks plentifully into the history / memory matrix without overtly rebutting the post-Reagan neo-individualist paradigm I've already described, suggesting that the argument is relatively moot. …