Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett

Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett

Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett

Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett

Synopsis

What effect has the black literary imagination attempted to have on, in Toni Morrison's words, "a race of readers that understands itself to be 'universal' or race-free"? How has black literature challenged the notion that reading is a race-neutral act? Race and the Literary Encounter takes as its focus several modern and contemporary African American narratives that not only narrate scenes of reading but also attempt to intervene in them. The texts interrupt, manage, and manipulate, employing thematic, formal, and performative strategies in order to multiply meanings for multiple readers, teach new ways of reading, and enable the emergence of antiracist reading subjects. Analyzing works by James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Jamaica Kincaid, Percival Everett, Sapphire, and Toni Morrison, Lesley Larkin covers a century of African American literature in search of the concepts and strategies that black writers have developed in order to address and theorize a diverse audience, and outlines the special contributions modern and contemporary African American literature makes to the fields of reader ethics and antiracist literary pedagogy.

Excerpt

One of the most controversial films of the last five years, Lee Daniels’s Precious (2009) chronicles an abused African American teenager’s development as a reader and writer. Adapted from Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push, Precious’s story was heralded by many critics for its “authentic[ity]” (Ebert) and “grit” (Schmader). Others, however, asserted that the film reinforced racist stereotypes. Armond White called it a “carnival of black degradation,” and Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote that the “popular embrace” of the film had “troubling political meaning.” the debate over the political meaning of Sapphire’s narrative is a powerful reminder that, despite popular claims of America’s postracial status, American racial obsessions are alive, well, and very much on the minds of contemporary artists and critics. This debate also recalls longstanding arguments about how black artists should represent black people, especially where nonblack audiences are concerned. in the case of Push, the debate is, more dizzyingly, about how black writers should represent black readers.

Importantly, the Push/Precious debate is not only about representation. It is also about reception. the responsibility for the circulation or interruption of stereotype applies to both filmmakers and audiences, writers and readers. Assertions of reader agency, made by reader-response, reception-studies, and poststructuralist scholars, are also implicit in many modern and contemporary black literary works. Indeed, many such works respond to concerns about racial literacy and the social politics of reading by, as in the case of Push, writing about reading itself and challenging readers to take social and political action. in this book . . .

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