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

By Lesley Larkin | Go to book overview

Introduction
Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Racialization: Modern
and Contemporary Black Literature

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.”1 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.2 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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Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Blacks in the Diaspora ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction - Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Racialization- Modern and Contemporary Black Literature 3
  • One - Unbinding the Double Audience 33
  • Two - Speakerly Reading 65
  • Three - Close Reading "You" 93
  • Four - Erasing Precious 125
  • Five - Reading and Being Read 165
  • Epilogue - Toward a Theory and Pedagogy of Responsible Reading 191
  • Notes 215
  • Bibliography 245
  • Index 261
  • Blacks in the Diaspora 279
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