Between the Lines: Literary Transnationalism and African American Poetics

By Monique-Adelle Callahan | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Translations of Transnational
Black Icons in the Poetics of
Frances Harper

In the introduction to American Literary History ‘s special issue “Hemispheric American Literary History,” Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine pose key questions about the purview of American literature:

What happens to US and American literary and cultural studies if we recognize
asymmetry and interdependency of nation-state development throughout the hemi-
sphere? What happens if we let this recognition of the nation as historically evolving
and contingent—rather than already formed—revise our conceptions of literary and
cultural genealogies? Finally, what happens if the “fixed” borders of a nation are
recognized not only as historically produced political constructs that can be ignored,
imaginatively reconfigured, and variously contested but also as component parts of
a deeper, more multilayered series of national and indigenous histories? (2006, 401)

Though the idea of a nation imposes imaginary boundaries, Levander and Levine challenge the idea of “fixed borders,” suggesting that our cultures and literatures are formed through border crossings. Studies of gender and race help deconstruct the boundaries imposed by a nation-based concept of literary studies. They do so by undoing the perceived fixedness of national histories. The forced migration of Africans into the New World is one example. As the descendants of enslaved Africans began to articulate themselves and project a space for themselves in emerging New World nations, they challenged national and hemispheric boundaries. Michael Hanchard (1994) goes as far as to say that the middle passage, as a “symbol of the forced migration of peoples across the Atlantic and their enslaved labor in multiple colonial and imperial societies” represents a “moment of globalization” (151).1

For African American writers in particular, the scope of “America” extended beyond the national boundaries of North America proper. In his Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), for example, one of the first attempts to document a cohesive African American poetic canon, James Weldon Johnson included references to

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