Mercy, Mercy Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties

By James C. Hall | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
MOURNING SONG

ROBERT HAYDEN AND THE POLITICS OF MEMORY

The power to impose a shape upon oneself is an aspect of the more
general power to control identity—that of others at least as much as
one's own.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT, Renaissance Self-Fashioning1

What is always torn off, as it were, to construct a public, believable
discourse? …The “tearing off,” Nietzsche reminds us, is simultane-
ously an act of censorship and of meaning creation, a suppression of
incoherence and contradiction.

JAMES CLIFFORD, “On Ethnographic Self-Fashioning”2

To be a good liar you got to have a good remembrance.

ROBERT HAYDEN3

In a recent essay,4 Kimberly Benston argues that the predominant critical schools of “blackness” and “universality” have led us to an intellectual dead end.

Unless we shift the ground from underneath a criticism erected on
such contraries, locating our discussions at some juncture of ideologi-
cal and aesthetic concerns …we will fail to perceive the poetry's own
dynamic lesson of its upheaval, that it is not an inevitable object but
rather a motivated, constructed, corrosive, and productive process.
(167)

The subversion we stand to lose, Benston suggests, is the parodic potential of a tradition which dramatizes attempts to limit notions of African-American and American selfhood. African-American poetry is “a performative activity that sees itself in struggle with other practices” (182). Critics should avoid the false choice between “schools” (or between aesthetics and ideology) and instead direct their energy toward the literature's ability to complicate our understanding of self and society. “African-American poetry”—both the creative activity of poets and the ordering activity of critics— is often radically

-39-

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