Double-Consciousness/Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth Century Black Literature

By Mostern, Kenneth | MELUS, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Double-Consciousness/Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth Century Black Literature


Mostern, Kenneth, MELUS


Double-Consciousness/Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth Century Black Literature. Sandra Adell. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

This book commands the attention of all those interested in the intersection between African American literature and contemporary critical theory. Its significance lies in two different directions. First, it takes seriously the existence of a body of theoretical writing about literature by women and men of the African diaspora since Arma Julia Cooper's 1892 discussion of the reason why Uncle Tom's Cabin is so much greater than all other literary portrayals of African Americans in A Voice From the South. That is, Adell's account, unlike any other work I know by a theorist, takes seriously the work done by Cooper, Du Bois, Senghor, and Cesaire, as well as in more recent times Maya Angelou, Joanne Braxton, Filomina Steady, and Carole Boyce-Davis as work in theory, not merely occasional essays of no theoretical interest. It is clear that Adell admires greatly the work of black literary theorists in the past, not because she sees this work coming together in a single black tradition to which she will now contribute a culminating position, but rather because she takes seriously the work that previous thinkers have done in articulating the intersection between historical methods of reading works of literature and African diaspora literatures.

Second, this is one of only two books yet published in African American literary studies from an accurately argued, orthodoxly deconstructionist critical position--the other being Ronald Judy's considerably less penetrable (Dis)forming the American Canon. (1) It is significant that both of these books extend great attention to positioning themselves against the well known work of Henry Louis Gates, which, though often referred to as "deconstructionist," has been eclectic and limited in its commitment to the implications of deconstructive thinking. And while other African Americanists have been broadly influenced by poststructuralist argument and terminology, only Adell and Judy have presented their work as suggesting the lost-term implications of deconstruction to African American literary studies. Adell is a committed deconstructionist reader who, arguing to African Americans from a particular philosophical perspective, addresses what she takes to be this perspective's implications for the future of black literary theory and black feminism.

One of the key arguments Adell makes with regard to the history of black theoretical writing about literature is that "black literary criticism and theory, like literary criticism and theory in general, relies on the Western philosophical tradition" (3). She contends, citing a litany of famous and not so famous arguments, that the many critics who have accused each other of being too engaged with Western philosophy persistently suppress a simple fact: inasmuch as the notions of literature and criticism arise within the Euro-American academy, and indeed, inasmuch as the culture in which literature is part of the legacy of European intellectual domination, there is no way that literary theory could emerge from anything except some framework already present in Western thought. In this context she is insistent on tracing Du Bois' notion of "double consciousness" to its roots in Hegelian idealism, Senghor's "negritude" to a poor reading of Heideggerian authenticity, and the claims of the Black aesthetic in writers like Joyce Joyce or Norman Harris to an analysis of black culture rooted in Western anthropology and linguistics. Adell does not trace these positions to Western ideas in order to trump these previous writers with a now adequately anti-Eurocentric theory; rather, she does so because she would like to see an end to the finger-pointing so that future black theory can take what it needs from the West without embarrassment. Until this happens, theory that claims authentic blackness produces two problematic consequences: first, it always insists on an ideological program for further black writing; and second, it circumvents the critique of Western theory from the inside which is present in deconstruction. …

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