Academic journal article American Studies

WEST OF HARLEM: African American Writers and the Borderlands

Academic journal article American Studies

WEST OF HARLEM: African American Writers and the Borderlands

Article excerpt

WEST OF HARLEM: African American Writers and the Borderlands. By Emily Lutenski. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2015.

In West of Harlem, Emily Lutenski brings heretofore marginalized or erased black modernist experiences to the center. As the book's subtitle suggests, there is an intimate connection between African American Writers and the Borderlands. Though the nearly exclusive focus on Harlem as the site of black modernist literary production and identity formation provides a useful center point from which to start, the center cannot hold if striving to do justice to the breadth and complexity of black lives. Indeed, any dominant narrative of blackness-in any era-will likewise occlude, suppress, and deny the great diversity of African American experience. In her rejection of "the idea that the West is anomalous in black history and experience" Lutenski joins the growing ranks of scholars who would disrupt, challenge, and outright refuse monolithic racial and cultural narratives (25).

Rather than anomalous, Lutenski argues, the West played a significant role in shaping the consciousness of the New Negro. What is more, "the borderlands West ... was repurposed as ... dreamscape in the years of the New Negro renaissance" (257). The dream was shared by Ralph Ellison, who argued that black freedom can be found in the American West (5-10). Here the West figures as frontier, as an escape from the blackwhite dialectic, and as liberating geographic space "beyond the North-South binary" of the black diaspora (12). In this West, the African American dream and the American Dream converge, rather than deferring the latter for the advantage of the former. To figure black freedom through geographic mobility, however, introduces a new challenge, and a not unproblematic one at that: "if American culture is to be maintained, new frontiers must be created" (9).

Lutenski's argument, it should be noted, is a cultural one. The book's thesis, to paraphrase its promotional copy, is that borderlands cultures influenced the art of key figures of the Harlem Renaissance in surprising and important ways. In short, one would be mistaken to conceive of African American identity as a monoculture rather than a diverse culture characterized by cultural mestizaje. By recovering the ways in which "Mexico played a formative role in [Langston] Hughes's transnational and antiracist vision" we can better see that "a politics and aesthetics long considered Pan-African" must also "be understood as multiethnic" (27). …

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