Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

By Daphne Lamothe | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Afterword

By focusing on five authors who portray different sites that represented to them African American culture, I have elucidated the ways that the ethnographic imagination informs New Negro literature, including the introduction of a set of figurative devices derived from anthropology (the construction of the field and the territorialization of culture, the ethnographic eye, and the participant-observer, for example). I have also examined how their identification with dual sites of identification, “native” and ethnographer (in some cases the assumption of such a guise is more figurative than literal), resulted in the emergence of a literary preoccupation with ways of seeing, knowing, and representing African American culture. This is not to say that such questions had never been asked before the modernization and institutionalization of anthropology; rather, I argue that the active exchange of ideas between Black intellectuals and modern anthropologists in the early part of the twentieth century played a significant role in the cast and tenor of such discussions. Ultimately, thinking about ethnography (or about themselves as ethnographers) underscores for Renaissance writers their own positions in relation to the cultures that they represent in writing and as teachers, scholars, and politicians. The ethnographer-academic, in other words, assumes a symbolic role in Black literatures beginning in and extending beyond the Renaissance period, representing hegemonic culture.

A group of texts has emerged in the twentieth century that repeatedly returns to such figures of cross-cultural transit. From Alice Walker’s reworking of Du Boisian paradigms of culture-work and racial uplift in Meridian, to Sherley Anne Williams and Toni Morrison’s depictions of the dehumanizing views and actions of the “schoolteacher” figure in Dessa Rose and Beloved, to Paule Marshall and Gloria Naylor’s fictional rejection of the ethnographer as an adequate bridge between dominant culture and African American communities in Chosen Place, Timeless People, and Mama Day, the figures for crossing cultures and the methods of knowing and understanding difference established during the modernist era continue to exert their influence.

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