Academic journal article MELUS

Black Power beyond Black Nationalism: John A. Williams, Cultural Pluralism, and the Popular Front

Academic journal article MELUS

Black Power beyond Black Nationalism: John A. Williams, Cultural Pluralism, and the Popular Front

Article excerpt

In The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973), biographer Michel Fabre was eager to define Wright's cultural ideology for the novelist's newest generation of readers. According to Fabre, Wright sought "to live in a pluri-ethnic and pluri-cultural society in which the minorities would play a significant role" (260). To readers who saw in Wright a prophet of Black Power--more specifically, a separatist black nationalist--Fabre said:

   Instead of hailing him as a pioneer of Black Power, it would
   perhaps be better to regard him as a precursor of what Black Power
   could lead to.... He did not envision a mythical America, totally
   integrated, where enemies would be united in an apotheosis of
   brotherhood. Rather, he saw a possible America where, should the
   Whites give up using Nazi solutions to racial problems, federalism
   would be understood as a more or less peaceful coexistence of
   various ethnic groups and cultures which, since their individual
   values were not denied them, could choose to mix freely of to
   remain separate. (xx)

The pluralism Fabre describes was the prevailing cultural ideology within the antifascist Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s, the left-wing political movement in which Wright came of age as an intellectual. Moreover, this "federalism" actually was among several important ideologies of the Black Power movement and its literary and artistic counterpart, the Black Arts movement, although Black Power and Black Arts typically are located within only the history of black nationalist politics and aesthetics.

The work of novelist John A. Williams, author of The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), and Captain Blackman (1972), reveals that the establishment of a federal American culture was one of the black militant movements' important projects. A writer deeply indebted to Wright, Chester Himes, and other African American radical intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s, Williams often recalled the historical encounter with fascism in order to recover the cultural pluralist possibility represented by the Popular Front. Through this recollection, he challenged the hegemony of nationalism in contemporary black militancy.

Although critics have not discussed this act of historical recovery, they have described Williams as a writer of two eras. Ishmael Reed views Williams, born in 1925, as a "link between the generation [of black writers] born in the 1910s and the generation born in the 1930s" (qtd. in Johnson 85). As Reed explains elsewhere, The Man Who Cried I Am "summed up the Wrightian novel," taking protest fiction "to its huge, crashing conclusion" (11). Writing in the mid-1970s, Black Aesthetic theorist Addison Gayle, Jr., observed that Williams's novels, from The Angry Ones (1960) to Captain Blackman, demonstrated "a steady progression from protest to assertion," from negative social complaint to positive black self-affirmation (277). Similarly, Sigmund Ro argues that while the author's early novels were "conceived within the framework of traditional protest writing," Williams later gave voice to "a profound and lucid wrath superseding the moral indignation of traditional protest art." His novels of the late 1960s and early 1970s offered "passionate eulogies of the race's survival strength and soul beauty" (85, 87). In light of such claims about Williams's mediating role in African American literary history, it is perhaps unsurprising that his novels are so persistently preoccupied with the task of historical witness and that they are all works of realism or experimental historical fiction.

The historical period to which Williams is most urgently drawn is the era of fascism and World War II. Since his college days in the late 1940s, he has written about the experiences of African American sailors and soldiers in the Pacific, where he served as a Navy hospital corpsman from 1943 to 1946. Williams renders the war in Asia as a race war in which black men in a white-supremacist military fought well, though in bad faith, against another people of color. …

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