Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Postcolonial Pursuits in African American Studies - the Later Poems of Claude McKay

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Postcolonial Pursuits in African American Studies - the Later Poems of Claude McKay

Article excerpt

There latió nsh i p between postcolonial and African American studies is an uneasy one. The two disciplines have been held apart by institutional, national, and political boundaries, by reservations on the part of individual scholars, and, most importantly, by concerns of theoretical and political incompatibility. In marked contrast to these anxieties, the works and lives of many black writers have ranged fluidly across boundaries of any sort - sometimes because of enforced migration but, more often, it seems, motivated by the cultural and intellectual productivity of such border-crossings. If disciplines are more restrictive in their outlook than the writers they study, however, they run the risk not only of methodological inaccuracy but, ultimately, of jeopardizing their basic legitimacy. In recent years there have been increasing calls for cooperation within both African-American and postcolonial studies. Often, however, these debates remain on a purely theoretical level, hesitant to acknowledge the central importance of writers and other objects of study in the definition of disciplinary aims and perspectives. In the following I want to highlight this importance by outlining the challenges posed to established disciplinary boundaries by the publication of Claude McKay's Complete Poems in 2004. After a survey of theoretical arguments for compatibility and cooperation from the postcolonial and the African American side respectively, I will show the extent to which McKay's later poetry - published for the first time in the Complete Poems - is pervaded by his international perspective and thus makes inevitable an approach that integrates postcolonial and African-American backgrounds.

From a postcolonial-studies perspective, it has been doubted whether African Americans can be classified as a colonial or a postcolonial people: while they have certainly been underprivileged and oppressed, they do not form a colony in the received sense of the term, which would presuppose at least territorial integrity and a lasting link with the mother country.1 Following Frantz Fanon, who distinguished sharply between the legal struggles of the civilrights movement and the "heroic fight" of African peoples against their colonizers, postcolonial critics have warned of diluting the postcolonial paradigm by applying it too widely or even figuratively, which would uproot it from its historical grounds and curb its political drive.2 Also, they have pointed out that by virtue of their US-American citizenship African Americans are part of the first world, of the metropolis rather than the colonial sphere, and thus tempted to neglect the global economic hierarchies central to postcolonial analysis. Gayatri Spivak in particular has warned against subsuming the Third World under First-World topics, settings, and perspectives.3 There have been very similar anxieties on the African-American side, where postcolonial theory, especially of the Bhabha-Spivak variety, is often seen as too abstract, as universalist, or as blind to specifically African-American concerns that run laterally to the axis of colony and metropolis. Speaking for many AfricanAmerican critics, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has expressed his wariness of imposing a "grand unified theory of oppression" on the predominantly local concerns of black Americans. Both Bhabha and Spivak have been criticized for "provincializing blackness" and for playing down the importance of race through their deconstructivist and economic approaches.4

In recent years, however, there has been a shift of focus onto the political and theoretical congruencies between the two disciplines.5 Proponents of a more inclusive conceptualization of their relationship have advanced a number of arguments that can be summarized in four main strands - the first two from the postcolonial side, the other two from the African-American.

(1) The United States is a postcolonial society and should be analysed accordingly. Native Americans are the obvious case in point here: they were the colonized indigenes and the reservation is still a separate space that cannot be easily subsumed under multiculturalist approaches. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.