Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

Interrogating "Whiteness," Complicating "Blackness":
Remapping American Culture

February 1992. I hadn't spoken with him in years, but I knew David Bradley would share my excitement, so I dialed his number.1"This may sound crazy," I remember saying, "but I think I've figured out--and can prove--that black speakers and oral traditions played an absolutely central role in the genesis of Huckleberry Finn. Twain couldn't have written the book without them. And hey, if Hemingway's right about all modern American literature coming from Huck Finn, then all modern American literature comes from those black voices as well. And as Ralph Ellison said when I interviewed him last summer, it all comes full circle because Huck Finn helps spark so much work by black writers in the twentieth century."

I stopped to catch my breath. There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then a question:

"Shelley, tell me one thing. Do you have tenure?"

"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?" I asked.

"Thank God." he said. "Look, this stuff has been sitting there for a hundred years but nobody noticed because it didn't fit the paradigm. Whether they wanted to expand the canon or not, they all agreed that canonical American literature was 'white.' And whether they wanted black studies in the curriculum or not, they all agreed that African-American literature was 'black.' Now they'll have to start all over. Think about it."

I did.

In 1993, a year after that conversation, when my book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices came out, I was aware of two or three books published that same year in the U.S. that tilled adjacent fields. The kinds of deep-going changes for which Bradley had argued seemed to be starting to happen. I sensed that my work might be part of a growing trend. But how many isolated academic forays add up to a "trend?" Ten? Twenty? Thirty?

In this essay I will provide a brief overview of over a hundred books and articles from fields including literary criticism, history, cultural studies, anthropology, popular culture, communication studies, music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics and folklore, all published between 1990 and 1995 or forthcoming shortly. Taken together I believe that they mark the early 1990s as a defining moment in the study of American culture.

In the early 1990s, our ideas of "whiteness" were interrogated, our ideas of

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