Can(n)on Fodder: Afro-Hispanic Literature, Heretical Texts, and the Polemics of Canon-Formation

By DeCosta-Willis, Miriam | Afro - Hispanic Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Can(n)on Fodder: Afro-Hispanic Literature, Heretical Texts, and the Polemics of Canon-Formation


DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, Afro - Hispanic Review


The recent publication of Edward J. Mullen's Afro-Cuban Literature: Critical Junctures and of Richard Jackson's Black Writers and the Hispanic Canon has brought the question of canon-formation, however belatedly, into the area of Afro-Hispanic Studies. Although the word "canon" comes from the Greek kanon, which means a measuring rod or rule, and although early church fathers appropriated the term to refer to a body of sacred texts, the concept of a literary canon gained currency in the 1930s with the emergence of the New Critics, a group of White, Southern men who defined Literature (with a capital "L") within a very narrow and restrictive aesthetic context. The emergence of Black, Feminist, and Gay Studies in the 1970s initiated what are commonly referred to as the "culture wars," ideological campaigns that have affected major institutions of literary production, including the academy and the publishing industry. In the past decade, critics of African American literature have entered the battlefield with the publication of anthologies and studies such as Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Loose Canons and "Canon-Formation, Literary History and the AfroAmerican Tradition: From the Seen to the Told." In a provocative review of the Norton and Riverside anthologies, published recently in the College Language Association Journal, however, Chester J. Fontenot, Jr. demonstrates convincingly that critics such as Gates and Cornel West challenge canon-formation as an elitist and exclusionary practice at the same time that they participate in the act of privileging texts in their respective fields.

The studies above, including those of Mullen and Jackson, raise important questions. What canon are we talking about? To the formalist critics the canon consists of a set of Great Books, texts that begin with Homer and end with James Joyce. With the opening of the canon in the 1970s, however, literary critics have created other canons-for example, those of Caribbean, Latin American, and even Latino literature-as writers and scholars seek to establish and formalize specific literary traditions. Mullen makes it clear in his sixth chapter, "Shaping the Canon: The Flowering of Afro-- Cubanism," that he means the Latin American canon of literature. Jackson, however, does not clarify what he means by the "Hispanic Canon," which could refer to selected works of hispanophone writers in Africa, Spain, the Caribbean, Central, and South America, although he mentions, in passing, the names of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The second question that we might ask is: By whose authority is a canon established? In his illuminating study of the relationship between literary production and canon-- formation, John Guillory indicates that canons are created not by individual "authorities," but by institutions such as the academy, where syllabi, curricula, and anthologies assure the dissemination of chosen texts. Mullen's detailed examination of anthologies of Cuban and Latin American literature published since 1834, for example, provides concrete data about the history of canon-formation with respect to Blacks.1 He notes that the works of only four Afro-- Cuban writers (all poets)-Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes (Placido), Juan Francisco Manzano, Nicolas Guillen, and, most recently, Nancy Morejon-have been included in mainstream anthologies. As we suspected, the creation of anthologies is a history of exclusion, of tokenization rather than canonization. Given this history of exclusion and tokenism, I come to my third question: Why is it necessary for us to insist on inclusion in the country club of Latin American literature? It is more valuable to continue our work in the barrio: teaching, writing, researching, translating, publishing, and conferencing. I share the opinion of Langston Hughes, who wrote:

We ... Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. …

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