Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

Reading Black, White, and Gray in 1968: The Origins of the Contemporary Narrativity of Slavery

The search for what David Bradley and Shelley Fisher Fishkin call an "integrated American Literature" promises to be an exciting project and a worthwhile one.1 It is also going to prove an extremely difficult and long-term project, partly because the new focus on the positive and constitutive interplay of the black and white literary traditions poses some dangers as well promising many windfalls. One danger the project must confront will be that some critics will gloss over the substantial drama of conflict in intercultural literary engagements as they pursue a narrative of camaraderie between African-American and European- American authors and literary lineages. Another related danger is that some critics will use the occasion of this enterprise to develop arguments negating the different material and social conditions within which differently-situated American writers work. In other words, they will assiduously forget the power differential between black and white literary productions and deny the different levels of access black and white authors have to the cultural apparatus which forms the conditions by which literary works are produced, mediated, and received. In order to offset if not prevent these dangers, those of us who seek a more inclusive national literature must forego the desire for an easy resolution or a short-term rapprochement. Instead, we need to seek out the deeper meanings of conflicts in literary history and not forget that it is the social order of our nation, with its fundamental material inequities, that defines and determines the sites of contestation where those conflicts occur in our national literature.

Acting on such an imperative, we can then appreciate Cornel West's insight about what he defines as the pitfalls of canon-formation: that "ideologies of pluralism" which do not reconfigure the fields from which they arise are only strategies for concealing what could be "irresoluble conflict." Instead of hiding the incommensurability of certain clashing discourses and material interests, West advises us to focus on moments of "conflict, struggle and contestation." Focussing on those conflicts will not lead us away from whatever chances there are for an "integrated American literature," but rather allow us to explore one of the constitutive elements of that national literature. Eric Sundquist has recently defined as one of the essential paradoxes of American literature the fact that it is a literature which is "both a single tradition of many parts and a series of winding, sometimes parallel traditions that have perforce been built in good part from their inherent conflicts." The conflicts, in other words, are not moments of regression from an

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