Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism

By Damon, Maria | Chicago Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism


Damon, Maria, Chicago Review


Aldon Lynn Nielsen. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

The publication of Aldon Nielsen's Black Chant: Languages of AfricanAmerican Postmodernism is a welcome and signal moment in poetry criticism, and also in African-American literary criticism. Starting right out with an indictment of the narrowness with which "black" sound and writing are construed by white academics (Nielsen powerfully dismantles the patronizing orality/literacy binary which most white academics, even the wellintentioned, invoke to "validate" black literary expression), the book goes on to demonstrate the width and depth, the sophistication and reach, of textual experimentation in post-World War II African-American letters. Simply in this first endeavor-his rebuttal of the glib cliches whereby AfricanAmerican writing is devalued as "writing" by being crudely, and dubiously, valued as its "opposite," "speech"-Nielsen is to be congratulated. While he is not the first to question this division of labor (famously, Derrida; less well-known to mainstream academics are Ronald Judy's, Amiri Baraka's and others' productive troubling of the writing/speaking binary), he demonstrates, throughout the book, how these impositions have occluded the exciting work of Black writers who do not neatly fit prefab expectation of how Blackness is supposed to sound/look on the page. Moreover, his archaeological "salvage work" and the persuasive metanarrative that frames it also rebutts the oversimplifications that abounded in the H. L. Gates Jr.initiated movement that brought African-American literary theory and criticism into the academic mainstream-namely, in order to carve out a space for the "new" and de-nationalized Black literary theory, Gates's early work spent much energy in simplifying and parodying the earlier generation of Black literary critics such as Addison Gayle and Stephen Henderson, attributing to them a biological and cultural-aesthetic essentialism they had never proclaimed. It's about time somebody pointed out that their positions were much more complex and their literary scope far wider than what has been peddled to us as post-war Black poetry and literary thought. …

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