Book Reviews

Article excerpt

Book Reviews

Dis' or Dap: The Essentialism Rout 1

Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993. Paperback. 346 pages. $19.95.

duCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Hardcover. 204 pages. $39.95.

James, Joy and Ruth Farmer, eds. Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe. New York: Routledge, 1993. Paperback. 293 pages. $15.95.

At the height of the Black Arts Movement of the Sixties, its detractors signaled their disaffection and distance from the philosophy of the movement by describing its creative productions as "puerile," "subjective," and "parochial," signifying lack of intellectual depth, superficiality, and naivete. However, individuals who disparaged the movement in these terms had to engage its thinkers on some level-often within the pages of such publications as Hoyt Fuller's Negro Digest (later Black World). These debates now serve as a historical record of an intellectual movement. Contemporary strategies for disparaging and disavowing others situated as "wrong-headed" thinkers is to tar them with a very long-handled brush. In fact, most scholars who disparage these "others" frame their own work around such issues, thereby positioning it as a viable alternative. Now, instead of Black Arts Movement, the pejorative is often "Afrocentricism" inserted in the discourse a safe distance from the expressed heartfelt desire for oppositional thinking, engagement, and analysis. The final impression suggests that Afrocentricism is, of course, essentialist.

Used to disparage scholarly thinkers from Luce Irigaray to Molefi Kete Asante, essentialist labeling has become an academic exercise in name-calling. Recognizing that essentialist/anti-essentialist posturing is an empty exercise, feminist scholars have engaged in scholarly debate around what constitutes essentialism. 2 Similar engagements must take place among African American scholars.

Acute necessity for such dialogue is evident in the three texts considered here. Written by African American authors who announce their race via dust jacket covers or "stance" - the latter, of course, is especially evident in Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe (Joy James and Ruth Farmer) - these works all offer differing views of essentialism, though this is not their central focus. In Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism by Michael Eric Dyson and in The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction by Ann duCille, concern about monocentricism and monolithic praxis is signaled early. In the introductions to their "Cultural Studies" enterprise, both Dyson and duCille are emphatic about the need for an anti-essentialist, non-monolithic stance in scholarly treatment of African American culture production. They see Culture Studies as the discipline most useful for this alternative approach. And, in fact, by positioning themselves in this manner, they also raise questions about how their work differs from the essentialist and monolithic praxis they critique.

To his credit, while expressing concern about what he terms "racial essentialism," Dyson tells where essentialist praxis inheres. He finds racial essentialism permeating every aspect of life from the ivory tower to the street; he finds essentialism in "literary critical theories that attempt to mine the conceptual riches of blackness as sign and symbol"; he finds it in philosophical arguments intent on rebutting the denial of humanity to Africans and African Americans by tracing racial identity to a unitary cultural source in Africa (ironically Dyson seems to be implying that an African genesis would prohibit humanity), Dyson even finds essentialism in everyday criticisms of "crossover music and in black films that aspire to an archetypical representation of black life" (xx). …