Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview

Chapter One
HISTORY, CULTURE, DISCOURSE

America's Racial Formation

It is, of course, impossible to fulfill the promise of the title of this chapter. Major works of the past two decades in various fields have undertaken to explore small parts of the topic. Studies of popular culture, the legal system, media, gender, the arts, economics, politics, philosophy, theology, education, housing, and sports have brought race issues to the forefront of the nation's intellectual and popular awareness.1 Race, and particularly blackness, seem to be everywhere, both in structural concerns—policies, offices, practices—and in forms of representation. At the same time, however, we have seen attacks on and suppression of serious discussion of racial matters, especially as they directly affect those who have been the victims of racist and discriminatory practices. Alongside stories of “The New Black Intellectuals,” we have new versions of the Welfare Queen and the Black Beast. It is this dialectic of affirmation and denial, both in social conditions and in ideology, that I wish to briefly explore in this chapter. This pattern of contemporary racial formation is, I believe, central to the work of recent African American narrative artists. The particular focus here is on how the past has been defined within these discursive practices.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in the 1994 edition of Racial Formation in the United States, define “racial formation” as “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (55). They add that “race is a matter of both social structure and cultural representation” (56); more dynamically, “an alternative approach is to think of racial formation processes as occurring through a linkage between structure and representation” (56). Structure encourages and informs racial representation, while representation as ideology validates and shapes a racialized social structure. Such a description implies that race is neither an aberration nor an illusion; it is a deeply embedded part of the social order and the forms of

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