IN APRIL 1984 a former student of mine came to my office specifically to discuss James Baldwin's essay "On Being 'White' . . .And Other Lies," which appeared in the April 1984 issue of Essence magazine. 1 This very bright young woman was bothered because she knew that if she only marginally understood the essay, then many of "our people"--to use her phraseology--the ones who read Essence but who have not read some of Baldwin's other works, would not understand the essay. I still have trouble believing that the response I gave this young woman came from my mouth as I heard myself say that James Baldwin writes like James Baldwin. "How is he supposed to write?" I asked the student, whom my emotions told me I was failing. Her response was simple. She said, "He is supposed to be clear."
I realized that I was trapped by my own contradictions and elitism, while I agreed that if a reader is familiar with Baldwin's previous essays, particularly his "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind," the major piece in The Fire Next Time, he or she would better understand how Baldwin thinks, how he shapes his ideas, his thought and feeling patterns--his Baldwinian sensibility. As the student stared at me, I realized that she and I--the student and the teacher--had exchanged places. For she was teaching me--implicitly reminding me of all those times when I cajoled and coerced her away from narrow and provincial interpretations of the literary work and preached of the responsibility of the writer to his or her audience.
As we discussed the contents of Baldwin's essay, I was intellectually paralyzed by thoughts of the intricacies of the relationship of the writer to the audience, by the historical interrelationship between literature, class, values and the literary canon, and finally by my frustration as to how all these complexities augment ad infinitum when the writer is a Black American. For in the first works of Black American literature the responsibility of the writers to their audience was as easy to deduce as it was to identify their audience. The slave narratives, most of the poetry, Clotel, and Our Nig were all addressed to white audiences with the explicit aim of denouncing slavery. This concentration on the relationship of Black Americans to the hegemony, to mainstream society, continues to this day to be the predominant issue in Black American literature, despite the change in focus we find in some of the works of Black women writers.
With Black American literature particularly, the issue of the responsibility of the creative writer is directly related to the responsibility of the literary critic. As is the case with James Baldwin, the most influential critics of Black literature have been the creative writers themselves, as evidenced also by W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, and Ishmael Reed. In his essay "Afro-American Literary Critics: An Introduction," found in Addison Gayle's landmark edition of The Black Aesthetic, Darwin Turner pinpoints why up to the 1960s a number of Black literary artists were also critics. Turner explains, "When a white publisher has wanted a black man to write about Afro-American literature, the publisher generally has turned to a famous creative writer. The reason is obvious. White publishers and readers have not been, and are not, familiar with the names and work of black scholars--the academic critics. Therefore, publishers have called upon the only blacks they have known--the famous writers." 2 After the 1960s, however, a group of literary scholars who had not begun their careers as creative artists emerged.
The 1960s mark a subtly contradictory change in Black academia reflective of the same contradictions inherent in the social, economic, and political strife that affected the lives╩of all Black Americans. Organizations like SNCC and CORE; the work of political figures╩like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Julian Bond, Huey Newton, Medger Evers, Martin╩Luther King, Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad; the intense activity of voter registration╩drives, sit-ins, boycotts, and riots, the Black Arts Movement; and the work of Black╩innovative jazz musicians together constituted a Black social force that elicited affirmative╩action programs and the merger of a select number of Blacks into American mainstream╩society. This merger embodies the same shift in Black consciousness that Alain Locke described in 1925 in The New Negro where he suggested that the mass movement of Blacks from a rural to an urban environment thrust a large number of` Blacks into contact with mainstream values. He wrote:
A main change has been, of course, that shifting of the Negro population which has made the Negro problem no longer exclusively or even predominately Southern.... Then the trend of migration has not only been toward the North and the Central Midwest, but cityward and to the great centers of industry--the problems of adjustment are new, practical, local and not peculiarly racial. Rather they are an integral part of the large industrial and social problems of our present-day democracy. And finally, with the Negro rapidly in process of class differentiation, if it ever was warrantable to regard and treat the Negro en masse it is becoming with every day less possible, more unjust and more ridiculous. 3
Ultimately, black literature is a verbal art like other verbal arts. "Blackness" is not a material object or an event but a metaphor; it does not have an "essence" as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity.... The black writer is the point of consciousness of his language. If he does embody a "Black Aesthetic," then it can be measured not by "content," but by a complex structure of meanings. The correspondence of content between a writer and his world is less significant to literary criticism than is a correspondence of organization or structure, for a relation of content may be a mere reflection of prescriptive, scriptural canon, such as those argued for by Baker, Gayle, and Henderson....4
Interestingly enough, Locke's attenuation of race as a dominant issue in the lives of Blacks in the 1920s and Gates's rejection of race, reflecting periods of intense critical change for Black Americans, point to their own class orientation that ironically results from social changes provoked by racial issues. In their succinct but thorough histories of Black American literary criticism, Houston Baker, Jr. in "Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of Afro-American Literature" 5 and Darwin Turner in the already cited "Afro-American Literary Critics: An Introduction" inadvertently corroborate Richard Wright's assertion that "expression springs out of an environment." Prophetically describing the direction of Black literary expression, Wright predicted in 1957
. . . an understanding of Negro expression cannot be arrived at without a constant reference to the environment which cradles it. Directly after World War II, the United States and Soviet Russia emerged as the two dominant world powers. This meant a lessening of the influence of the ideology of Marxism in America and a frantic attempt on the part of white Americans to set their racial house somewhat in order in the face of world criticism.... The recent decision of the United States Supreme Court to integrate the schools of America on a basis of racial equality is one, but by no means the chief, change that has come over the American outlook. Naturally this effort on the part of the American nation to assimilate the Negro has had its effect upon Negro literary expression.... the mode and pitch of Negro literary expression would alter as soon as the attitude of the nation toward the Negro changed. 6
Consequently, Black American literary critics, like Black creative writers, saw a direct relationship between Black lives--Black realities --and Black literature. The function of the creative writer and the literary scholar was to guide, to serve as an intermediary in explaining the relationship between Black people and those forces that attempt to subdue them. The denial or rejection of this role as go-between in some contemporary Black literary criticism reflects the paradoxical elements of Alain Locke's assertions and the implicit paradoxes inherent in Black poststructuralist criticism: for the problem is that no matter how the Black man merges into American mainstream society, he or she looks at himself from an individualistic perspective that enables him or her to accept elitist American values and thus widen the chasm between his or her world view and that of those masses of Blacks whose lives are still stifled by oppressive environmental, intellectual phenomena. When Professor Gates denies that consciousness is predetermined by culture and color (66), he manifests a sharp break with traditional Black literary criticism and strikingly bears out another of` Wright's prophetic pronouncements made in 1957 when he said,". . . the Negro, as he learns to stand on his own feet and expresses himself not in purely racial, but human terms, will launch criticism upon his native land which made him feel a sense of estrangement that he never wanted. This new attitude could have a healthy effect upon the culture of the United States. At long last, maybe a merging of Negro expression with American expression will take place" (104-5).
If we look at the most recently published works of Black literary criticism and theory--Joe Weixlmann and Chester Fontenot's edition of Studies in Black American Literature: Black American Prose Theory, Volume 1 (1984), Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s edition of Black Literature Literary Theory (1984), Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory ( 1984), and even Michael Cooke's most recent Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy (1984)--we witness the merger of Negro expression with Euro-American expression. For the modes of execution in all these works, with the exception of Professor Cooke's ground-breaking study, prompt the same response that my student felt when reading Baldwin's essay in Essence.
Following the same methodological strategies characteristic of the works of Northrop Frye and poststructuralist critics like Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Geoffrey Hartman, Black poststructuralist critics have adopted a linguistic system and an accompanying world view that communicate to a small, isolated audience. Their pseudoscientific language is distant and sterile. These writers evince their powers of ratiocination with an overwhelming denial of most, if not all, the senses. Ironically, they challenge the intellect, "dulling" themselves to the realities of the sensual, communicative function of language. As Wright predicted, this merger of Black expression into the mainstream estranges the Black poststructuralist in a manner that he perhaps "never wanted, "in a way which contradicts his primary goal in adopting poststructuralist methodology.
Although the paradox embodied in this estrangement holds quite true for the white poststructuralist critic as well, its negative effects are more severe for the Black scholar. Structuralism in mainstream culture is a reaction to the alienation and despair of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century existentialism which "spoke of isolated man, cut off from objects and even from other men, in an absurd condition of being. "8 In order to demonstrate the common bond that unites all human beings, structuralist thinkers--philosophers, linguists, psychoanalysts, anthropologists, and literary critics--use a complex linguistic system to illuminate "the configurations of human mentality itself" (79). Structuralism, then, "is a way of looking for reality not in individual things [in man isolated] but in the relationships among them" (4), that is, in the linguistic patterns that bind men together. Yet, ironically, the idea that the words on the page have no relationship to an external world and the language used-the unique meanings of words like code, encode, sign, signifier, signified, difference, discourse, narratology, and text--create the very alienation and estrangement that structuralists and poststructuralists attempt to defeat. Hence I see an inherent contradiction between those values postmodernists intend to transmit and those perceived by many readers. In the September 1983 special issue of Critical Inquiry, Professor Barbara H. Smith's comments on the classic canonical author can analogously illuminate how values are transmitted through literary theory as well. She says simply, "The endurance of a classic canonical author such as Homer . .. owes not to the alleged transcultural or universal value of his works but, on the contrary, to the continuity of their circulation in a particular culture." 9 Thus, in adopting a critical methodology, the Black literary critic must ask himself or herself: "How does a Black literary theorist/critic gain a voice in the white literary establishment?" Moreover, despite Professor Smith's and the poststructuralists' attenuation of values, the Black literary critic should question the values that will be transmitted through his or her work. The Black critic must be ever cognizant of the fact that not only what he or she says, but also how he or she writes will determine the values to be circulated and preserved over time once he or she is accepted by mainstream society, if this acceptance is his or her primary goal. Despite writers like John Oliver Killens, John Williams, Gayle Jones, Naomi Long Madgett, and Ann Petry, who are seriously overlooked by the white mainstream, the most neglected aspect of Black American literature concerns the issue of form or structure. I agree fully with Professor Gates when he says that social and polemical functions of Black literature have overwhelmingly superseded or, to use his word, "repressed" the structure of Black literature. l0 But I must part ways with him when he outlines the methodology he uses to call attention to what he refers to as "the language of the black text." He says, "A study of the so-called arbitrariness, and of the relation between a sign, of the ways in which concepts divide reality arbitrarily, and of the relation between a sign, such as blackness, and its referent, such as absence, can help us to engage in more sophisticated readings of black texts.'' 11. It is insidious for the Black literary critic to adopt any kind of strategy that diminishes or in this case--through an allusion to binary oppositions--negates his blackness. It is not a fortuitous occurrence that Black creative writers for nearly two hundred years have consistently addressed the ramifications of slavery and racism. One such ramification that underpins W. E. B. Du Bois's essays and Langston Hughes's poetry and that emerged undisguised in the 1960s is the issue of Black pride, self-respect as opposed to self-abnegation or even self-veiling.
The Black creative writer has continuously struggled to assert his or her real self and to establish a connection between the self and the people outside that self. The Black creative writer understands that it is not yet time--and it might not ever be possible--for a people with hundreds of years of disenfranchisement and who since slavery have venerated the intellect and the written word to view language as merely a system of codes or as mere play. Language has been an essential medium for the evolution of Black pride and the dissolution of the double consciousness. For as evidenced by David Walker's Appeal, Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," Richard Wright's Native Son, the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, and most recently by Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, the Black writer recognizes that the way in which we interpret our world is more than a function of the languages we have at our disposal, as Terry Eagleton asserts.12 Even though Innis Brown in Margaret Walker's Jubilee cannot read or write, he understands clearly--he interprets quite accurately--that he has been wronged when his white landlord attempts to collect from Innis money for services Innis has not received. And though he too cannot read or write, Jake, Milkman's grandfather in Morrison's Song of Solomon, dies rather than surrender his land to the whites who shoot him. Shared experiences like these can bond a people together in ways that far exceed language. Hence what I refer to as the "poststructuralist sensibility" does not aptly apply to Black American literary works. In explaining that an essential difference between structuralism and poststructuralism is the radical separation of the signifier from the signified, Terry Eagleton presents what I see as the "poststructuralist sensibility." He writes, "... nothing is ever fully present in signs: it is an illusion for me to believe that I can ever be fully present to you in what I say or write, because to use signs at all entails that my meaning is always somehow dispersed, divided and never quite at one with itself. Not only my meaning, indeed, but me: since language is something I am made out of, rather than merely a convenient tool I use, the whole idea that I am a stable, unified entity must also be a fiction" (129-30). For the Black American--even the Black intellectual--to maintain that meaningful or real communication between human beings is impossible because we cannot know each other through language would be to erase or ignore the continuity embodied in Black American history. Pushed to its extreme, poststructuralist thinking perhaps helps to explain why it has become increasingly difficult for members of contemporary society to sustain commitments, to assume responsibility, to admit to a clear right and an obvious wrong.
Yet we can only reluctantly find fault with any ideology or critical methodology that seeks to heighten our awareness and cure us of the political, elitist, and narrow pedagogical and intellectual biases that have long dictated what we teach as well as how we teach. Interestingly enough, discussions such as Barbara Smith's "Contingencies of Value" and Richard Ohmann's "The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975,'' l3 and even Robert E. Scholes's "The Humanities, Criticism and Semiotics'' l4 all echo some of the ideas espoused at length by the Black theoretician Larry Neal, by poets like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and Haki Madhubuti, and by scholars like Addison Gayle and Stephen Henderson. All of these writers have given continuous attention to how the needs and values of the hegemony have attempted to dictate the subject matter of the Black American writer and to determine whether a writer is published at all. To my knowledge only Sonia Sanchez and perhaps Gwendolyn Brooks have met this dilemma by having their works published exclusively by Black presses. This act implicitly suggests their response to the issue of their intended audience and to the question of their attitude toward their acceptance by the intellectual mainstream.
It is no accident that the Black poststructuralist methodology has so far been applied to fiction, the trickster tale, and the slave narrative. Black poetry--particularly that written during and after the 1960s-defies both linguistically and ideologically the "poststructuralist sensibility." According to Terry Eagleton, "most literary theories . . . unconsciously 'foreground' a particular literary genre, and derive their general pronouncements from this" (51). Equally as telling as their avoidance of Black poetry is the unsettling fact that Black American literary criticism has skipped a whole phase in the evolution of literary theory. The natural cycle organically requires that one school of literary thought be created from the one that goes before. For just as structuralism is a reaction to the despair of existentialism, post-structuralism is a reaction to the limitations of the concepts of the sign. "The post-structuralist attitude is therefore literally unthinkable without structuralism." l5 Consequently, the move in Black American literature from polemical, biographical criticism to poststructuralist theories means that these principles are being applied in a historical vacuum.
Since the Black creative writer has always used language as a means of communication to bind people together, the job of the Black literary critic should be to find a point of merger between the communal, utilitarian, phenomenal nature of Black literature and the aesthetic or linguistic--if you will--analyses that illuminate the "universality" of a literary text. Rather than being a "linguistic event" or a complex network of linguistic systems that embody the union of` the signified and the signifier independent of phenomenal reality, Black creative art is an act of love which attempts to destroy estrangement and elitism by demonstrating a strong fondness or enthusiasm for freedom and an affectionate concern for the lives of people, especially Black people. Black creative art addresses the benevolence, kindness, and brotherhood that men should feel toward each other. Just as language has no function without man, the Black literary critic is free to go beyond the bonds of the creative writer. For we have many thoughts that we have yet no words for, particularly those thoughts that remain in an inchoate state. It should be the job of the Black literary critic to force ideas to the surface, to give them force in order to affect, to guide, to animate, and to arouse the minds and emotions of Black people.
1 James Baldwin, "On Being 'White' . . . And Other Lies," Essence, April 1984, pp. 90-92.
2 Darwin Turner, "Afro-American Literary Critics: An Introduction," in The Black Aesthetic,ed. Addison Gayle (Garden City, N.Y., 1971), p. 66.
3 Alain Locke, "The New Negro," in Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present, ed. Arthur P. Davis and Saunders Redding (Boston, 1971), p. 276.
4 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext," in Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto (New York, 1979), p. 67; hereafter cited in text.
5 Houston A. Baker, Jr., "Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of Afro-American Literature,"Black American Literature Forum, 15, No. 11 (Spring 1981), 3--21.
6 Richard Wright, "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," in White Ma~, Listen! (Garden City, N.Y., 1964), pp. 103-4; hereafter cited in text.
7 Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto (Urbana, Ill., 1979).
8 Robert E. Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven, 1974), p. l; hereafter cited in text.
9 Barbara H. Smith, "Contingencies of Value," Critical Inquiry, 10, No. I (Sept. 1983), 30.
10 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Criticism in the Jungle," in Black Literature and Literary Theory,ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York, 1984), pp. 5-6.
11 Gates, "Criticism in the Jungle," p. 7.
12 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, 1~3), p. 107; hereafter cited in text.
13 Richard Ohmann, "The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1970," Critical Inquiry, 10, No 1 (Sept. 1983), 199-223.
14 Robert E. Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation (New Haven, 1982).
15 Josué V. Harari, "Critical Factions/Critical Fictions," in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Tosué V. Harari (New York, 1979), p. 30.
Rather than being a "linguistic event" or a complex network of linguistic systems that embody the union of the signified and the signifier independent of phenomenal reality, Black creative art is an act of love which attempts to destroy estrangement and elitism by demonstrating a strong fondness or enthusiasm for freedom and an affectionate concern for the lives of people, especially Black people .
It may seem to you that I'm acting confused
When you're close to me.
If I tend to look dazed
I read it someplace, I've got cause to be.
There's a name for it,
There's a phrase that fits.
But whatever the reason
You do it for me--oh, oh, oh
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
What's love but a secondhand emotion?
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken
Tina Turner, "What's Love Got To Do with It?"
lyrics by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle
I HAVE STRUCTURED my response to Joyce Joyce's "The Black Canon" in two parts. The first section of this essay attempts to account for the prevalence among Afro-Americans of what Paul de Man called the "resistance to theory.'' 1 The second section of this essay attempts to respond directly to the salient parts of Professor Joyce's argument. While the first part of my essay is historical, it also explains why literary theory has been useful in my work, in an attempt to defamiliarize a black text from this black reader's experiences as an African-American. This section of my essay, then, is something of an auto-critography, generated by what I take to be the curiously personal terms of Joyce Joyce's critique of the remarkably vague, yet allegedly anti-black, thing that she calls, variously, "structuralism" or "poststructuralism." Apparently for Joyce Joyce, and for several other critics, my name and my work have become metonyms for "structuralism," "poststructuralism," and/or "deconstructionism" in the black tradition, even when these terms are not defined at all or, perhaps worse, not adequately understood. (While Houston Baker generously acknowledges my influence in his remarkable work Blues Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, 2 let me state clearly that our relation of influence is a reciprocal one, in which each stands as "ideal reader" for the other.) These terms become epithets where used as in Joyce Joyce's essay, and mostly opprobrious epithets at that. Just imagine: if Richard Pryor (and his all-too-eager convert Michael Cooke) have their way and abolish the use of the word nigger even among ourselves, and black feminists abolish m_, perhaps the worse thing a black person will be able to call another black person will be: "You black poststructuralist, you!" What would Du Bois have said? !
I must confess that I am bewildered by Joyce Joyce's implied claim that to engage in black critical theory is to be, somehow, anti-black. In fact, I find this sort of claim to be both false and a potentially dangerous--and dishonest--form of witch-hunting or nigger-baiting. While it is one thing to say that someone is wrong in their premises or their conclusions, it is quite another to ascertain (on that person's behalf) their motivations, their intentions, their affect, and then to imply that they do not love their culture, or that they seek to deny their heritage, or that they are alienated from their "race," appealing all the while to an undefined transcendent essence called "the Black Experience," from which Houston Baker and I have somehow strayed. This is silliness.
Who can disagree that there is more energy being manifested and good work being brought to bear on black texts by black critics today than at any other time in our history, and that a large part of the explanation for this wonderful phenomenon is the growing critical sophistication of` black readers of literature? Or that this sophistication is not directly related to the fact that we are taking our work-the close reading, interpretation, and preservation of the texts and authors of our tradition--with the utmost seriousness? What else is there for a critic to do? What's love got to do with it, Joyce Joyce? Precisely this: it is an act of love of the tradition--by which I mean our tradition--to bring to bear upon it honesty, insight, and skepticism, as well as praise, enthusiasm, and dedication; all values fundamental to the blues and to signifying, those two canonical black discourses in which Houston and I locate the black critical difference. It is merely a mode of critical masturbation to praise a black text simply because it is somehow "black," and it is irresponsible to act as if we are not all fellow citizens of literature for whom developments in other sections of the republic of letters have no bearing or relevance. To do either is most certainly not to manifest "love" for our tradition. Before I can respond more directly to Joyce Joyce's essay, however, I want to examine the larger resistance to (white) theory in the (black) tradition. 3
Unlike almost every other literary tradition, the Afro-American literary tradition was generated as a response to allegations that its authors did not, and could not, create "literature." Philosophers and literary critics, such as Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel, seemed to decide that the presence of a written literature was the signal measure of the potential, innate "humanity" of a race. The African living in Europe or in the New World seems to have felt compelled to create a literature both to demonstrate, implicitly, that blacks did indeed possess the intellectual ability to create a written art, but also to indict the several social and economic institutions that delimited the "humanity" of all black people in Western cultures.
So insistent did these racist allegations prove to be, at least from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, that it is fair to describe the subtext of the history of black letters as this urge to refute the claim that because blacks had no written traditions, they were bearers of an "inferior" culture. The relation between European and American critical theory, then, and the development of the African and Afro-American literary traditions, can readily be seen to have been ironic, indeed. Even as late as 1911, when E. Casely Hayford published Ethiopia Unbound (the "first" African novel), that pioneering author felt compelled to address this matter in the first two paragraphs of his text. "At the dawn of the twentieth century," the novel opens, "men of light and leading both in Europe and in America had not yet made up their minds as to what place to assign to the spiritual aspirations of the black man; . . . Before this time," the narrative continues, "it had been discovered that the black man was not necessarily the missing link between man and ape. It had even been granted that for intellectual endowments he had nothing to be ashamed of in an open competition with the Aryan or any other type." 4 Ethiopia Unbound, it seems obvious, was concerned to settle the matter of` black mental equality, which had remained something of an open question in European discourse for two hundred years. Concluding this curiously polemical exposition of three paragraphs, which precedes the introduction of the novel's protagonist, Casely Hayford points to "the names of men like [W.E.B.] Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, [Wilmot E.] Blyden, [Paul Laurence] Dunbar, [Samuel] Coleridge Taylor, and others" (2) as prima facie evidence of the sheer saliency of what Carter G. Woodson once termed "the public [Negro] mind." 5 These were men, the narrative concludes, "who had distinguished themselves in the fields of activity and intellectuality" (2), men who had demonstrated conclusively that the African's first cousin was indeed the European, rather than the ape.
That the presence of a written literature could assume such large proportions in several Western cultures from the Enlightenment to this century is even more curious than is the fact that blacks themselves, as late as 1911, felt moved to respond to this stimulus, indeed felt the need to speak the matter silent, to end the argument by producing literature. Few literary traditions have begun or been sustained by such a complex and curious relation to its criticism: allegations of an absence led directly to a presence, a literature often inextricably bound in a dialogue with its potentially harshest critics. 6 Black literature and its criticism, then, have been put to uses that were not primarily aesthetic; rather, they have formed part of a larger discourse on the nature of the black and his or her role in the order of things. The integral relation between theory and a literary text, therefore, which so very often in other traditions has been a sustaining relation, in our tradition has been an extraordinarily problematical one. The relation among theory, tradition and integrity within the black literary tradition has not been, and perhaps cannot be, a straightforward matter.
Let us consider the etymology of the word integrity, which I take to be the keyword implied in Dr. Joyce's essay. Integrity is a curious keyword to address in a period of bold and sometimes exhilarating speculation and experimentation, two other words which aptly characterize literary criticism, generally, and Afro-American criticism, specifically, at the present time. The Latin origin of the English word integritas connotes wholeness, entireness, completeness, chastity, and purity; most of which are descriptive terms that made their way frequently into the writings of the American New Critics, critics who seem not to have cared particularly for, or about, the literature of Afro-Americans. Two of the most common definitions of integrity elaborate upon the sense of wholeness derived from the Latin original. Let me cite these here, as taken from the Oxford English Dictionary: "1. The condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting; undivided or unbroken state; material wholeness, completeness, entirety; something undivided; an integral whole; 2. The condition of not being marred or violated; unimpaired or uncorrupted condition; original perfect state; soundness." It is the second definition of integrity--that is to say, the one connoting the absence of violation and corruption, the preservation of an initial wholeness or soundness--which I would like to consider in this deliberation upon "Theory and Integrity," or more precisely upon that relationship which ideally should obtain between African or Afro-American literature and the theories we borrow, revise, or fabricate to account for the precise nature and shape of our literature and its "being" in the world.
It is probably true that critics of Afro-American literature (which, by the way, I employ as a less ethnocentric designation than "the Black Critic") are more concerned with the complex relation between literature and literary theory than we have ever been before. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is our increasingly central role in "the profession," precisely when our colleagues in other literatures are engulfed in their own extensive debates about the intellectual merit of so very much theorizing. Theory, as a second-order reflection upon a primary gesture such as "literature," has always been viewed with deep mistrust and suspicion by those scholars who find it presumptuous and perhaps even decadent when criticism claims the right to stand, as discourse, on its own, as a parallel textual universe to literature. Theoretical texts breed other, equally "decadent," theoretical responses in a creative process that can be remarkably far removed from a poem or a novel. For the critic of Afro-American literature, this process is even more perilous precisely because the largest part of contemporary literary theory derives from critics of Western European languages and literatures. Is the use of theory to write about Afro-American literature, we might ask rhetorically, merely another form of intellectual indenture, a form of` servitude of the mind as pernicious in its intellectual implications as any other form of enslavement? This is the issue raised, for me at least, by the implied presence of the word integrity in Joyce Joyce's essay, but also by my own work over the past decade. Does the propensity to theorize about a text or a literary tradition "mar," "violate," "impair," or "corrupt" the "soundness" of a purported "original perfect state" of a black text or of the black tradition? To argue the affirmative is to align one's position with the New Critical position that texts are "wholes" in the first place.
To be sure, this matter of criticism and integrity has a long and rather tortured history in black letters. It was David Hume, after all, who called the Jamaican poet of Latin verse, Francis Williams, "a parrot who merely speaks a few words plainly";7 and Phillis Wheatley has for far too long suffered from the spurious attacks of black and white critics alike for being the original rara avis of a school of so called "mockingbird poets," whose use and imitation of received European and American literary conventions have been regarded, simply put, as a corruption itself of a "purer" black expression, privileged somehow in black artistic forms such as the blues, signifying, the spirituals, and the Afro-American dance. Can we, as critics, escape a "mockingbird" relation to theory, one destined to be derivative, often to the point of parody? Can we, moreover, escape the racism of so many critical theorists, from Hume and Kant through the Southern Agrarians and the Frankfurt School?
As I have argued elsewhere, there are complex historical reasons for the resistance to theory among critics of comparative black literature, which stem in part from healthy reactions against the marriage of logocentrism and ethnocentrism in much of post-Renaissance Western aesthetic discourse. Although there have been a few notable exceptions, theory as a subject of inquiry has only in the past decade begun to sneak into the discourse of Afro-American literature. The implicit racism of some of the Southern Agrarians who became the New Critics and Adorno's bizarre thoughts about something he calls "jazz" did not serve to speed this process along at all. Sterling A. Brown has summed up the relation of the black tradition to the Western critical tradition. In response to Robert Penn Warren's line from "Pondy Woods" (1945), "Nigger, your breed ain't metaphysical," Brown replies, "Cracker, your breed ain't exegetical." 8 No tradition is "naturally" metaphysical or exegetical, of course. Only recently have some scholars attempted to convince critics of black literature that the racism of the Western critical tradition was not a sufficient reason for us to fail to theorize about our own endeavor, or even to make use of contemporary theoretical innovations when this seemed either useful or appropriate. Perhaps predictably, a number of these attempts share a concern with that which, in the received tradition of Afro-American criticism, has been most repressed: that is, with close readings of the text itself. This return of the repressed --the very language of the black text--has generated a new interest among our critics in theory. My charged advocacy of the relevance of contemporary theory to reading Afro-American and African literature closely has been designed as the prelude to the definition of principles of literary criticism peculiar to the black literary traditions themselves, related to and compatible with contemporary critical theory generally, yet "indelibly black," as Robert Farris Thompson puts it. 9 All theory is text-specific, and ours must be as well. Lest I be misunderstood, I have tried to work through contemporary theories of` literature not to "apply" them to black texts, but rather to transform by translating them into a new rhetorical realm. These attempts have been successful in varying degrees; nevertheless, I have tried to make them at all times interesting episodes in one critic's reflection on the black "text-milieu," what he means by "the tradition," and from which he extracts his ' canon."
It is only through this critical activity that the profession, in a world of dramatically fluid relations of knowledge and power, and of the reemerging presence of the tongues of Babel, can redefine itself away from a Eurocentric notion of a hierarchical canon of texts, mostly white, Western, and male, and encourage and sustain a truly comparative and pluralistic notion of the institution of literature. What all students of literature share in common is the art of interpretation, even where we do not share in common the same texts. The hegemony implicit in the phrase "the Western tradition" reflects material relationships primarily, and not so-called universal, transcendent normative judgments. Judgment is specific, both culturally and temporally. The sometimes vulgar nationalism implicit in would-be literary categories such as "American Literature," or the not-so latent imperialism implied by the vulgar phrase "Commonwealth literature," are extraliterary designations of control, symbolic of material and concomitant political relations, rather than literary ones. We, the scholars of our profession, must eschew these categories of domination and ideology and insist upon the fundamental redefinition of what it is to speak of "the canon."
Whether we realize it or not, each of us brings to a text an implicit theory of literature, or even an unwitting hybrid of theories, a critical gumbo as it were. To become aware of contemporary theory is to become aware of one's presuppositions, those ideological and aesthetic assumptions which we bring to a text unwittingly. It is incumbent upon us, those of us who respect the sheer integrity of the black tradition, to turn to this very tradition to create self-generated theories about the black literary endeavor. We must, above all, respect the integrity, the wholeness, of the black work of art, by bringing to bear upon the explication of its meanings all of the attention to language that we may learn from several developments in contemporary theory. By the very process of "application," as it were, we recreate through revision, the critical theory at hand. As our familiarity with the black tradition and with literary theory expands, we shall invent our own theories, as some of us have begun to do--black, text-specific theories.
I have tried to utilize contemporary theory to defamiliarize the texts of the black tradition, to create a distance between this black reader and our black texts, so that I may more readily see the formal workings of those texts. Wilhelm von Humboldt describes this phenomenon in the following way: "Man lives with things mainly, even exclusively--since sentiment and action in him depend upon his mental representations--as they are conveyed to him by language. Through the same act by which he spins language out of himself he weaves himself into it, and every language draws a circle around the people to which it belongs, a circle that can only be transcended in so far as one at the same time enters another one." I have turned to literary theory as a "second circle." I have done this to preserve the integrity of these texts, by trying to avoid confusing my experience as an Afro-American with the black act of language which defines a text. On the other hand, by learning to read a black text within a black formal cultural matrix, and explicating it with the principles of criticism at work in both the Euro-American and Afro-American traditions, I believe that we critics can produce richer structures of meaning than are possible otherwise.
This is the challenge of the critic of black literature in the l980s: not to shy away from literary theory; rather, to translate it into the black idiom, renaming principles of criticism where appropriate, but especially naming indigenous black principles of criticism and applying these to explicate our own texts. It is incumbent upon us to protect the integrity of our tradition by bringing to bear upon its criticism any tool of sensitivity to language that is appropriate. And what do I mean by "appropriate"? Simply this: any tool that enables the critic to explain the complex workings of the language of a text is an "appropriate" tool. For it is language, the black language of black texts, which expresses the distinctive quality of` our literary tradition A literary tradition, like an individual, is to a large extent defined by its past, its received traditions. We critics in the 1980s have the especial privilege of` explicating the black tradition in ever closer detail. We shall not meet this challenge by remaining afraid of, or naive about, literary theory; rather, we will only inflict upon our literary tradition the violation of the uninformed reading. We are the keepers of the black literary tradition. No matter what theories we seem to embrace, we have more in common with each other than we do with any other critic of any other literature. We write for each other, and for our own contemporary writers. This relation is a sacred trust.
Let me end this section of my essay with a historical anecdote. In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent member of the Haitian literary movement called "La Ronde," made of his death a symbolic, if ironic, statement of the curious relation of the "non-Western" writer to the act of writing in a modern language. M. Laforest, with an inimitable, if fatal, flair for the grand gesture, calmly tied a Larousse dictionary around his neck, then proceeded to commit suicide by drowning. While other black writers, before and after M. Laforest, have suffocated as artists beneath the weight of various modern languages, Laforest chose to make his death an emblem of this relation of indenture. We commit intellectual suicide by binding ourselves too tightly to nonblack theory; but we drown just as surely as did Laforest if we pretend that "theory" is "white," or worse--that it is "anti-black." Let scores of black theories proliferate, and let us encourage speculation among ourselves about our own literature. And let us, finally, realize that we must be each other's allies, even when we most disagree, because those who would dismiss both black literature and black criticism will no doubt increase in numbers in this period of profound economic fear and scarcity unless we meet their challenge head-on.
That said, let me respond to the salient points in Joyce Joyce's essay. Joyce Joyce's anecdote about the student who could not understand Jimmy Baldwin's essay "On Being 'White' . . . and Other Lies" is only remarkable for what it reveals about her student's lack of reading skills and/or training. Let me cite a typical paragraph of Baldwin's text, since so very much of Joyce Joyce's argument turns upon the idea of critical language as a barrier of alienation between black critics and "our people":
. . . Without further pursuing the implication of this mutual act of faith, one is nevertheless aware that the Jewish translation into a white American can sustain the state of Israel in a way that the Black presence, here, can scarcely hope--at least, not yet--to halt the slaughter in South Africa. And there is a reason for that. America became white--the people who, as they claim, "settled" in the country became white--because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle--or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men--from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians--became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women. l0We are not exactly talking about the obscure or difficult language of Fanon or Hegel or Heidegger or Wittgenstein here, now are we? Rather than being "trapped by [her] own contradiction and elitism," as Joyce Joyce claims she was, and granting this student her point, Joyce Joyce should have done what Anna Julia Cooper or Du Bois would have done: sent the student back to the text and told her to read it again--and again, until she got it right. Then, she, a teacher in training, I presume, must serve as an interpreter, as mediator, between Baldwin's text and "our people" out there. (Would the superb and thoughtful editors of Essence, by the way, publish an essay their readers could not understand? Perhaps the anecdote is merely apocryphal, after all.) Next time, give the child a dictionary, Joyce, and make her come back in a week.
To use this anecdote to conclude that Baldwin (and, of course, we blankety-blank poststructuralists) has abnegated "the responsibility of the writer to his or her audience" is for a university professor to fail to understand or satisfy our most fundamental charge as teachers of literature: to preach the responsibility of the reader to his or her writers. Joyce Joyce, rather regrettably, has forgotten that the two propositions are inseparable and that the latter is the basic charge that any professor of literature accepts when he or she walks into a classroom or opens a text. That's what love's got to do, got to do with it, Joyce Joyce. How hard are we willing to work to meet our responsibilities to our writers? What would you have Jimmy Baldwin do: rewrite that paragraph, reduce his level of diction to a lower common denominator, then poll the readers of Essence to see if they understood the essay? What insolence; what arrogance! What's love got to do with your student's relation to Baldwin and his text? We should beg our writers to publish in Essence and in every other black publication, from Ebony and Jet to the Black American Literature Forum and the CLA Journal.
The relationship between writer and reader is a reciprocal relationship, and one sells our authors short if one insists that their "responsibility," as you put it, is "to be clear." Clear to whom, or to what? Their "responsibility" is to write. Our responsibility, as critics, to our writers, is to work at understanding them, not to demand that they write at such a level that every one of "our people" understands every word of every black writer without working at it. Your assertion that "the first works of black American literature" were "addressed to white audiences" is not strictly true. The author of Our Nig, for example, writes that "I appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders.'' ll How much "blacker" can an author get? No, even at the beginning of the tradition, black writers wrote for a double or mulatto audience, one black and white. Even Phillis Wheatley, whose poetry was the object of severe scrutiny for those who would deny us membership in the human community, wrote "for" Arbour Tanner, Scipio Moorehead, and Jupiter Hammon, just as black critics today write "for" each other and "for" our writers, and not "for" Derrida, Jameson, Said, or Bloom.
It is just not true that "the most influential critics of black literature have been the creative writers themselves." Rather, I believe that our "most influential critics" have been academic critics, such as W. S. Scarborough, Alain Locke, Sterling A. Brown, Du Bois (a mediocre poet and terrible novelist), J. Saunders Redding, Darwin T. Turner, and Houston A. Baker, among others (though both Brown and Baker are also poets). "Most influential" does not necessarily mean whom a white publisher publishes; most influential, to me, means who has generated a critical legacy, a critical tradition upon which other critics have built or can build. Among the writers that Joyce Joyce lists, Ralph Ellison has been "most influential" in the sense that I am defining it, while Hughes is cited mainly for "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Wright mostly for his two major pieces, "The Literature of the Negro in the United States" and "Blueprint for Negro Literature," while almost none of us cites Du Bois at all, despite the fact that Du Bois was probably the very first systematic literary and cultural theorist in the tradition. Rather, we genuflect to Du Bois.
I am not attempting to deny that creative writers such as Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed have been remarkably important. Rather, I deny Joyce Joyce's claim that a new generation of academic critics has usurped the place of influence in the black tradition which creative writers occupied before "the 1960s." The matter is just not as simple as a "shift in black consciousness" in the 1960s, similar to that caused by migration in the 1920s, which Joyce Joyce maintains led to "the merger of a select number of blacks into American mainstream society" and, accordingly, to our "exogenic, elitist, epistemological adaptations." No, I learned my trade as a critic of black literature from a black academic critic, Charles Davis, who made me read Scarborough, Locke, Redding, Ellison, Turner, and Houston Baker as a matter of` course.
This is a crucial matter in Joyce Joyce's argument, though it is muddled. For she implies (1) that larger sociopolitical changes in the 1960s led to the crossover of blacks into white institutions (true), and (2) that the critical language that I use, and my firm belief that "race" is not an essence but a trope for ethnicity or culture, both result from being trained into a "class orientation that ironically result[s] from social changes provoked by racial issues."
There are several false leaps being made here. In the first place, what Joyce Joyce erroneously thinks of as our "race" is our culture. Of course I "believe in" Afro-American culture; indeed, I celebrate it every day. But I also believe that to know it, to find it, to touch it, one must locate it in its manifestations (texts, expressive culture, music, the dance, language, and so forth) and not in the realm of the abstract or the a priori. Who can argue with that? The point of my passage about our language with which Joyce Joyce takes such issue is that for a literary critic to discuss "the black aesthetic," he or she must "find" it in language use. What is so controversial, or aristocratic, about that? As for my "class orientation," the history of my family, whether or not we were slaves or free, black or mulatto, property owners or sharecroppers, Howard M.D.s or janitors, is really none of Joyce Joyce's business. To say, moreover, that because I matriculated at Yale (when Arna Bontemps and Houston Baker taught black literature there, by the way) and at the University of Cambridge, I became a "poststructuralist" is simply illogical.
This claim is crucial to Joyce Joyce's argument, however, because of her assertion that "middle-class black men" adopted "mainstream [white] lifestyles and ideology" with great intensity after the "integration" of the 1960s. This dangerous tendency, her argument runs, culminated in 1979 with my oft-cited statement about a black writer or critic being the point of consciousness of our language. I am delighted that Joyce Joyce points to the significance of this statement, because I think that it is of crucial importance to the black critical activity, and especially to the subsequent attention to actual black language use that is apparent in much of our criticism since 1979.
Why has that statement been such an important one in the development of Afro-American literary criticism? Precisely because if` our literary critics saw her or his central function as that of` a "guide," as Joyce Joyce puts it, or as "an intermediary in explaining the relationship between black people and those forces that attempt to subdue them," she or he tended to fail at both tasks: neither were we as critics in a position to "lead" our people to "freedom," nor did we do justice to the texts created by our writers. Since when have black people turned to our critics to lead us out of the wilderness of` Western racism into the promised land of freedom? If black readers turn to black critics, I would imagine they do so to learn about the wondrous workings of literature, our literature, of how our artists have represented the complex encounter of every aspect of black culture with itself and with the Other in formal literary language. Who reads our books anyway? Who can doubt that Black Fire, the splendid anthology of the Black Arts edited by Larry Neal and LeRoi Jones, has sold vastly more copies to black intellectuals than to "our people"? l2 Let us not deceive ourselves about our readership.
Joyce Joyce makes a monumental error here, when she offers the following "syllogism":
1. The sixties led to the "integration" of a few black people into historically white institutions.
2. Such exposure to mainstream culture led to the imitation by blacks of white values, habits, and so on.
3. Therefore, black people so educated or exposed suffer from an individualistic perspective that enables him or her to accept elitist American values and thus widen the chasm between his or her world view and that of those masses of Blacks whose lives are still stifled by oppressive environmental, intellectual phenomena."
Joyce Joyce arrives at t is syllogism all because, I think, we can see important structures of meaning in black texts using sophisticated tools of literary analysis! As my friend Ernie Wilson used to say in the late sixties, "Yeah, but compared to what?"!
Let me state clearly that I have no fantasy about my readership: I write for our writers and for our critics. If I write a book review, say, for a popular Afro-American newspaper, I write in one voice; if I write a close analysis of a black text and publish it in a specialist journal, I choose another voice, or voices. Is not that my "responsibility," to use Joyce Joyce's word, and my privilege as a writer? But no, I do not think that my task as a critic is to lead black people to "freedom." My task is to explicate black texts. That's why I became a critic. In 1984, I voted for Jesse Jackson for President: if he stays out of literary criticism, I shall let him continue to speak for me in the political realm. (He did not, by the way, return the donation that Sharon Adams and I sent him, so I suppose that being a "poststructuralist" is okay with Jesse.)
And who is to say that Baker's work or mine is not implicitly political because it is "poststructuralist"? How can the demonstration that our texts sustain ever closer and sophisticated readings not be political, at a time in the academy when all sorts of so-called canonical critics mediate their racism through calls for "purity" of "the tradition," demands as implicitly racist as anything the Southern Agrarians said? How can the deconstruction, as it were, of the forms of racism itself (as carried out, for example, in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry by black and nonblack poststructuralists) not be political? 13 How can the use of literary analysis to explicate the racist social text in which we still find ourselves be anything but political? To be political, however, does not mean that I have to write at the level of diction of a Marvel comic book. No, my task--as I see it--is to train university graduate and undergraduate students to think, to read, and, yes Joyce, even to write clearly, helping them to expose false uses of language, fraudulent claims and muddled argument, propaganda and vicious lies from all of which our people have suffered just as surely as we have from an economic order in which we were zeroes and a metaphysical order in which we were absences. These are the "values," as Joyce Joyce puts it, which I hope "will be transmitted through [my] work." Does my work "negate [my] blackness," as Joyce Joyce claims? I would challenge Joyce Joyce to demonstrate anywhere in my entire work how I have, even once, negated my blackness. Simply because I have attacked an error in logic in the work of certain Black Aestheticians does not mean that I am antiblack, or that I do not love black art or music, or that I feel alienated from black people, or that I am trying to pass like some poststructural ex-colored man. My feelings about black culture and black people are everywhere manifested in my work and in the way that I define my role in the profession, which is as a critic who would like to think that history will regard him as having been a solid "race man," as we put it. My association with Black Studies departments is by choice, just as is my choice of subject matter. (Believe me, Joyce, almost no one at Cambridge wanted me to write about black literature!)
No, Joyce Joyce, I am as black as I ever was, which is just as black as I ever want to be. And I am asserting my "real self," as you put it so glibly, and whatever influence that my work has had or might have on readers of black literature establishes a connection between the self and the people outside the self, as you put it. And for the record, let me add here that only a black person alienated from black language use could fail to understand that we have been deconstructing white people's languages--as "a system of` codes or as mere play"-- sine 1619. That's what signifying is all about. (If you don't believe me, by the way, ask your grandparents, or your parents, especially your mother.) But enough, Joyce Joyce. Let me respond to your two final points: first, your claim that "the poststructuralist sensibility" does not "aptly apply to black American literary work." I challenge you to refute any of Houston Baker's readings, or my own, to justify such a strange claim. Argue with our readings, not with your idea of who or what we are as black people, or with your idea of how so very many social ills can be traced, by fits and starts, to "poststructuralist thinking."
Finally, to your curious claims that "black American literary criticism has skipped a whole phase in the evolution of literary theory," that "one school of literary thought [must] be created from the one that goes before," and that "the move in black American literature from polemical, biographical criticism to poststructuralist theories mean[s] that these principles are being applied in a historical vacuum," let me respond by saying that my work arose as a direct response to the theories of the Black Arts Movement, as Houston Baker demonstrates so very well in the essay that you cite. Let me also point out politely that my work with binary oppositions which you cite (such as my earlier Frederick Douglass essay) l4 is structuralist as is the work of several other critics of black literature in the seventies (Sunday Anozie, O. A. Ladimeji, Jay Edwards, and the essays in the black journal The Conch) and that my work as a poststructuralist emerged directly from my experiments as a structuralist, as Houston Baker also makes clear. No vacuum here; I am acutely aware of the tradition in which I write.
Was it Keynes who said that those who claim to believe in common sense are merely in the grip of another theory? Joyce Joyce makes a false opposition between theory and humanism, or theory and black men. She also has failed to realize that lucidity through oversimplification is easy enough to achieve; however, it is the lucidity of command which is the challenge posed before any critic of any literature. The use of fashionable critical language without the pressure of that language is as foolish as is the implied allegation that Houston and I are nouveau ideological Uncle Toms because we read and write theory.
Neither ideology nor blackness can exist as an entity in itself, outside of` its forms, or its texts. This is the central theme of Mumbo Jumbo, for example. But how can we read the text of black ideology? What language(s) do black people use to represent or to contain their ideological positions? In what forms of language do we speak, or write, or rewrite.~ These are the issues at the heart of Joyce Joyce's essay.
Can we derive a valid, integral "black" text of ideology from borrowed or appropriated forms? That is, can an authentic black text emerge in the forms of language inherited from the master's class, whether that be, for instance, the realistic novel or poststructuralist theory? Can a black woman's text emerge authentically as borrowed, or "liberated," or revised, from the patriarchal forms of the slave narratives, on one hand, or from the white matriarchal forms of the sentimental novel, on the other, as Harriet Jacob and Harriet Wilson attempted to do in Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl (1861) and Our Nig (1859)?
How much space is there between these two forms through which to maneuver, to maneuver without a certain preordained confinement or "garroting," such as that to which Valerie Smith alludes so pregnantly in her superb poststructural reading of Jacob Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl? l5 Is to revise, in this sense, to exist within the confines of the garrote, to extend the metaphor, only to learn to manipulate the representation of black structures of feeling between the cracks, the dark spaces, provided for us by the white masters? Can we write true texts of our ideological selves by the appropriation of received forms of the oppressor--be that oppressor patriarchy or racism--forms in which we see no reflection of our own faces, and through which we hear no true resonances of our own voices? Where lies the liberation ln revision, where lies the ideological integrity of defining freedom in the modes and forms of difference charted so cogently by so many poststructural critics of black literature?
It is in these spaces, or garrots, of difference that black literature has dwelled. And while it is crucial to read closely these patterns of formal difference, it is incumbent upon us as well to understand that the quest was lost, in a major sense, before it had even begun simply because the terms of our own self-representation have been provided by the master. Are our choices only to dwell in the quicksand or the garrote of refutation, or negation, or revision? The ideological critique of revision must follow, for us as critics, our detailed and ever closer readings of these very modes of revision. It is not enough for us to show that these exist, and to define these as satisfactory gestures of ideological independence. In this sense, our next set of concerns must be to address the black politically signified, and to urge for our writers the fullest and most ironic explorations of` manner and matter, of content and form, of structure and sensibility so familiar and poignant to us in our most sublime forms of art, verbal and non-verbal black music, where ideology and art are one, whether we listen to Bessie Smith or to postmodern and poststructural Coltrane.
But what of the ideology of the black critical text? And what of our own critical discourse? In whose voices do we speak? Have we merely renamed the terms of the Other? We as critics must turn to our own peculiarly black structures of thought and language to develop our own language of criticism, or else we will surely sink in the mire of Nella Larsen's quicksand, remain alienated ill the isolation of Harriet Jacob garrote, or masked in the received stereotype of the Black Other helping Huck Honey to return to the Raft again, singing "China Gate" with Nat King Cole under the Da Nang moon, standing with the Incredible Hulk as the monstrous split doubled selves of mild mannered white people, or as Rocky's too-devoted trainer Apollo Creed, or reflecting our balded heads in the shining flash of Mr. T's signifying gold chains.
As Tina Turner puts it:
I've been taking on a new direction?
But I have to say
I've been thinking about my own protection
It scares me to feel this way.
Oh, oh, oh,
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
What's love but a sweet old-fashioned notion....
1. See Paul de Man. "The Resistance to Theory," Yale French Studies, No. 63 (1982), 3-20.
2 Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago, 1984).
3 Fuller versions of this section of my essay appear in my "Criticism in the Jungle," in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York, 1985), pp. 1-24 and "Writing 'Race' and the Difference It Makes," Critical Inquiry, 12, No. 1 (Autumn 1985), 1--20.
4 J. E. Casely Hayford, Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation (London, 1911), pp. 1-2; hereafter cited in text.
5 Carter G. Woodson, "Introduction," The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800-1860 (New York, 1969), p. v.
6 I have traced the history and theory of this critical debate in my ~lal k Letters and the Enlightenment, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
7 David Hume, "Of National Characters," in The Philosophical Works, ed. Thomas Green and Thomas Hodge Grose (Darmstadt, 1964), III 252 n. 1.
8 Sterling A. Brown, Lecture, Yale University, 17 April 1979.
9 Robert Farris Thompson, Indelibly Black: Essays on African and African-American Art(forthcoming) .
10 James Baldwin, "On Being 'White' . . . and Other Lies," Essence, April 1984.
11 Harriet Wilson, Our Nig (Boston, 1859), p. i.
12 Black Fire An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, ed., Larry Neal.
13 See Critical Inquiry, 12, No. I (Autumn 1985).
14 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself," in Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto.
15 Valerie Smith, "'Loopholes of Retreat': Architecture and Ideology in Harriet Jacob Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," paper presented at the 1985 American Studies Association meeting, San Diego.
In Dubious Battle
Houston A. Baker
WHILE IT MAY be true that one sometimes has a choice of weapons (even if they are forged or invented on the spot), it is also true that one seldom has the luxury of choosing where one's battles are going to be fought. In the realm of Afro-American literary criticism there seems recently to have occurred a correlation between an increase in available weapons and nonce embattlement. Within the past month (August/September, 1985), for example, I have found myself in conflict with other Afro-American critics. (The fact that both were Afro-American women may be altogether fortuitous. In any case, my response is not directed toward a group. It is directed against specific conservatisms, misjudgments, and errors.) The grounds on which these recent conflicts occurred did not seem to me particularly appropriate for battle, and I found myself, ironically, defending what I have considered a desirable expansiveness, diversity, originality, and, yes, complexity in the Afro-American critical and theoretical arsenal.
The first instance of unexpected embattlement was at a conference in August of 1985 when a black woman suggested that everything I had just said about the need for a new problematic surrounding investigations of the Harlem Renaissance was misconceived. Refusing to grant my claim that traditional definitions were inadequate, she insisted that we should confine the Harlem Renaissance to four years (1925-1929) and allow the significance of these years to be evaluated only through study of what she called "the artists," meaning, in her case, self-declared poets, playwrights, and novelists and not blues singers, dancers, musicians, graphic artists, painters, sculptors, book illustrators, intellectuals, popular political leaders of genius, and the like. Well, there we were--before an almost exclusively white audience with a black speaker (myself) who was urging a view of Afro-American modernism directly in opposition to traditional claims about the "failures" of the Harlem Renaissance and the "limitations" of black artists--under attack by a black woman who wanted traditionally defined contours and contents of what she thought of as Afro-American "art" left intact. Now what was especially surprising about this embattled moment was the fact that just a year prior to my presentation, the questioner herself had set forth an explication of a well-known Harlem Renaissance novel that flew directly in the face of traditional definitions. Implicitly, she suggested at a 1984 session of the English Institute that no one could comprehend the Harlem Renaissance if his or her critical orientation remained narrowly "artistic" and if his or her political focus remained exclusively assimilationist. Why, then, were we In dubious battle? I think the explanation becomes apparent after a survey of the second embattlement.
The day before I left to deliver my "Harlem Renaissance Revised" lecture at the English Institute, I received a note from the editor of New Literary History informing me that he had accepted an essay on Afro-American literary criticism by a black woman critic who "mentioned" both my work and that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Would I care to respond? My first reaction was pleasure on discovering that the journal had opened its pages willingly to Afro-American critical concerns. My second reaction was bafflement. I could not fathom why I was being told by the editor of a journal that has, throughout its history, been relentlessly Euro-American that both mine and Professor Gates's critical positions were under siege in the same essay by an Afro-American woman whose work New Literary History had endorsed through the act of acceptance.
I knew that if I chose (as, obviously, I did) to comment on the essay, I would, perforce, occupy a surprising and totally unanticipated battlefield--one that could not possibly have been dreamed of, say, five years ago. After reading Professor Joyce Joyce's "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism" on my return from Cambridge, however, I realized there was scarcely any choice but to take up arms. For on reading the work, I found the following errors and misstatements:
1. Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925) is a critical document that calls for an "attenuation of race" as a criterion in the growth, development, and progress of Afro-American culture. ("Race" is, of course, the signal criterion for Locke in both his introduction to The New Negro and in many of the essays by the more than thirty contributors to the volume.)The list of errors could be multiplied. (Professor Joyce, for example, suggests that the intended "audience" for Our Nig was white. Harriet Wilson, author of the novel, quite explicitly directs her work to "my colored brethren universally.") Rather than continue the list of errors, however, I want to suggest, quite simply, that the embattled moment that has produced my foregoing selected list should never have occurred. The battle is altogether dubious and unprofitable. For it is impossible to believe that an essay focused on Anglo-American criticism as dreadfully flawed by factual mistakes as Professor Joyce's work on Afro-American criticism would have been accepted or printed by a major critical or theoretical journal. Why, then, was her essay accepted and published by New Literary History?
2. Richard Wright's "The Literature of the Negro in the United States" 1957) is "prophetic" in its suggestion that "Negro" expression and general American expression will soon merge. (It is, on the contrary, Wright's second prediction in his essay--that is, that there may occur a "sharp turn toward strictly racial themes" in Negro expression--that is prophetic of Afro-American literary and critical concerns of the 1960s and 1970s.)
3. Our Nig (1859) is a work that addresses itself to "slavery." (The novel is set in the North and concerns itself, to be sure, with the brutal conditions of labor--but not with slavery.)
4. The "first" works of Afro-American literary creation are slave novels and narratives. (Ah, alas poor Phillis Wheatley and the 150 years of Afro-American expression preceding Clotel!)
5. Structuralism is a movement that originated to combat the alienation and despair of existentialism. (Surely, there is ample reason to think of, say, Marx, who is scarcely postexistentialism, as a structuralist if the structuralist position is conceived of in its generally accepted linguistic orientation. Structures of "mind" are not invented ab nihilo as a solace for alienation. Rather, they are posited ün the basis of a prior linguistic model that augurs such structures. If one perceives the possibility of adequately explaining complex phenomena--such as language--in systematic ways on the basis of a minimal set of clear and distinct units, then one would seem to have a powerful theory in harmony with Occam's razor. Structuralism thought it had achieved such a theory.)
6. The "phases" of literary criticism are "organic" and "evolutionary." Hence, Afro-American critical ontogeny must recapitulate Euro-American critical phylogeny. (How strange to assert that Afro- American criticism should return, first, to the limited province of structuralism before its practitioners "advance" to the liberating vision of poststructuralism.)
7. There is a "mainstream" of American culture defined exclusively by white American norms, standards, practices, criteria, institutions, and so on. The counterpart to this "mainstream" is--to invoke Chenweizu's formula in The West and the Rest of Us--"the rest of us." (Like myths of "self and other," redeemed "master" and irredeemable "slave," the myth of an exclusively white mainstream into which Afro-Americans can "merge" by choice is utter and patent nonsense --a fiction perpetrated by rich Anglo-American males and rejected out of hand by most Afro-Americans from 1619 to our multi-ethnic, multidimensional, and complex present.)
8. The "primary goal" of "poststructural literary critics is to gain a voice in "mainstream" institutions, and, hence, to merge "nonracially" with a majority culture. This "güal" is in harmony with Locke's "attenuations of race," Wright's prophecies, and structural realities (mainstream vs. "other") in the United States.(The compounded errors of Professor Joyce noted so far reduce the terms of her "goal" ascription to a misleading and erroneous assertion that no serious journal or scholar would ponder for more than an instant.)
The most charitable explanation is that the journal's editors were victims of a too casual reader's report. A less charitable, and, I think more accurate view, is that many people share Professor Joyce's essential animosity toward recent modes of critical and theoretical discussion that have enlarged the universe of discourse surrounding Afro-American expressive culture. Their animosity springs from the fact that the new critical and theoretical modes marking investigations of black expressive culture so clearly escape the minstrel simplicity that Anglo-Americans have traditionally imagined and assigned (and that some Afro-Americans have willingly provided and accepted) as the farthest reaches of the black voice in the United States.
What Professor Joyce calls "poststructuralist" critics are, in reality a group of spokespersons who move across both ethnic and gender boundaries and who have decisively relinquished the role of simpleminded, conservative spokespersons on behalf of a putatively simpleminded expressive culture. They have seized initiative by formulating suggestive theories of Afro-American expressive culture that bring their work into harmony not with a mainstream, nor with an academic majority (both of which remain wedded to an old literary history), but with an avant garde in contemporary world literary study. What Professor Joyce seems to object to most vehemently is a new so~nd, one that seems to her "unclear." She is joined in her distress, I am sure, by many would-be masters and aspiring mistresses of the "good old days" when a profound black critical utterance wa.s h~l~l t(l sound like the following revelation: "For the negro, reality is real (reality: whatever controls yr/thought processes; controls yr/pure & UŹlpure actions). Black people's reality is controlled by alien forces.'
Alas, the days when such injunctions were predominant (and very much needed) are past. Life has become more complex in a decade of` rabid conservatism, reduced material resources, actual starvation, and religiously inspired bigotry. Fortunately, critics and theorists of Afro-American expressive culture have, likewise, become more complex, realizing that assertions of a "noble savagery," sensually humanistic delightfulness, and monosyllabic clarity of Afro-American expressive culture achieve nothing but a pat on the head and a reinforcement of a Howellsian minstrel sensibility in the academy. William Dean Howells, of course, wrote at the turn of the century that "appetite" and "emotion" (the only ethnic variables he could discover in Paul Laurence Dunbar's work) marked the range of the Afro-American mind.
In the context created by the toregomg remarks, let Ine IOCUS IOr a moment on Professor Joyce's essay and on the question posed by Professor Deborah McDowell at the 1985 English Institute. Both responses to the sound of my criticism and theory--which are, admittedly, informed by poststructuralism but scarcely confined to that province alone--seem to me to represent what I can only call a new black conservatism, one that ironically derives from black women critics. I say "ironically" because in the world of avant-garde literary study today, it is possible to think that black women, above all others perhaps, should be in the vanguard of one of the most exciting areas of literary criticism and theory in the United States.
I refer, of course, to the conjunction between the CoIll~l ll~ o1 lt~llllnist criticism and Afro-American literary and expressive cultural study marked by the attention that such authors as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Zora Neale Hurston and others have recently received. How, one might ask, in a day when there is such an abundance of opportunity for theoretical daring and critical inventiveness by black women critics can one such critic urge or suggest to anyone that the Harlem Renaissance comprised a period of four years' duration? And how, in an era when all conventional myths of an unequivocal division between fictive and ordinary discourse, between "metaphors of everyday life" and "artistic metaphors," are being exploded can a black woman critic suggest that evaluations of the Harlem Renaissance should be based only on the work of` literary "artists"? Further, how can a black woman critic like Professor Joyce be (in her words) "intellectually paralyzed" by questions of the relationship between writers and their audiences in an era that has witnessed the production of more high caliber critical and theoretical work on this topic than on perhaps any other? And why should she fail to realize that it is precisely because there has been such high caliber work and because critics and theoreticians whom she labeled "poststructuralist"
Afro-Americanists have read so very much of it and applied it to Afro-American expressive culture that she should have been able to offer a much better and far more informed response to the student who asked her about Baldwin? All that was required for an adequate response--one rendered without tears, shame, or recourse to ethnic ratiocination--was reading. She had only to be well read in contemporary literary criticism and theory. (Incidentally, one might say as a purely readerly aside that if there is a single Afro-American writer who has made himself indisputably clear on the question of the black writer's "social responsibility" to communicate with the masses, or to be limpidly "clear" in his creative writing, it is James Baldwin. Professor Joyce might simply have referred the student to the Cleaver/Baldwin exchange of a few years back and then gone on to point out that in his role as a concerned citizen and Afro-American activist Baldwin served as a principal spokesperson of the civil rights movement in America.) Now, there is no evidence in "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism" that Professor Joyce has read either European and American poststructuralists, or Afro-American poststructuralists. The only hint that she has taken up the current universe of discourse surrounding Afro-American expressive culture is her misappropriated quotation from Gates's "Criticism in the Jungle," which she thinks is a denial of race, but which is, in reality, a statement of the difficulties encountered by non-Western spokespersons who utilize Western languages.
The non appearance of battlefields is the result of a combination of white ignorance, black willingness to tread conservative/minstrel paths, and a multi-ethnic fear in the academy of new and difficult modes of critical and theoretical study. The rewards of dubious battles that occur on such fields are scant. They are scant, that is to say, for Afro-Americans and Afro-Americanists who are dedicated to the comprehension of an enduring, salvific, and structurally unique African sound in the Americas. The spoils of such skirmishes are however, more profitable for those who possess no such dedication.
For example, to execute voluntarily an about-face and pronounce Afro-American expressivity of short duration and limited "artistic" success may result in favors from those in power. Further, to publish a grossly erroneous attack on Afro-American literary criticism in a journal traditionally devoted to Euro-American points of view and directed to a white audience could, I suppose, be profitable in an academic world where any attack whatsoever on anything Afro-American whatsoever is taken as a valuable sortie.
White ignorance was signaled (in the skirmishes described in the present discussion) by all of those blank white faces at the English Institute. Those faces showed no trace of understanding about the Harlem Renaissance not only because they were ignorant of the avant-garde secondary sources and critical methods invoked, but also because they did not have a clue about the primary sounds, voices, and Afro-American expressive products being analyzed. Further white ignorance is signaled by the acceptance of an essay on Afro-American literary criticism replete with misstatements, errors of fact, and misinterpretations by a quite fine "white" journal il literary criticism and theory.
Finally, there are the disciplinary I ears o~ the --new- to ~e contended with in the dubious battles of August/September, 1985. I do feel that conservatives--black and white alike--are right to feel animosity and apprehension before what is so glibly (and, so often, without even the barest modicum of reading) labeled "obscurantist," "murky," or "pretentious" poststructuralism. My understanding of the finer work of poststructuralism traces its inception to a French Hegelianism that provokes a thoroughgoing critique of Western philosophy and its privileges (such as colonialism, slavery, racism, and so on) and privilegings. Indeed, the towers of an old master~ are more resonantly toppled by a poststructuralist critique--which discounts notions of God, Self, History, and the Book in the service of a new interpretive economy--than by any other operative intellectual position (in the 1980s) that I can readily call to mind. It seems to me that a reading and appropriation of the efforts in philosophy, political economy, psychology, and popular culture of poststructuralist thinkers such as Derrida, Althusser, Lacan, and Baudrillard could well lead one to hear the sound of poststructuralism as a note in clear harmony with, say, the freedom cries of millions of blacks in South Africa bent on a new and revolutionary existence. If critics and theorists would hear this sound as such where Afro-American expressive culture is concerned, however, there is no recourse for them but the willing relinquishment of an old minstrelsy and the abandonment of an all too prevalent laziness and complacency. Frankly, I believe the sound is worth hearing. It has been, and will continue to be (if we are not undone in dubious and time-consuming battle with compradors) the political and academic heralding note of a new and liberating future.
"Who the Cap Fit": Unconsciousness and Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston
A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Joyce A. Joyce
WHAT LIFE HAS TAUGHT ME
I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH
THOSE. WHO WANT TO LEARN....
UNTIL THE PHILOSOPHY WHICH HOLDS
ONE RACE SUPERIOR AND ANOTHER INFERIOR
IS FINALLY AND PERMANENTLY DISCREDITED
. . . UNTIL THERE ARE NO LONGER
FIRST CLASS AND SECOND CLASS CITIZENS
OF ANY NATION
UNTIL THE COLOUR OF A MAN'S SKIN
IS OF NO MORE SIGNIFICANCE THAN
THE COLOUR OF HIS EYES
. . . UNTIL THEIR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS
ARE EQUALLY GUARANTEED TO ALL,
WITHOU T REGARD TO RACE
. . . UNTIL THAT DAY,
THE DREAM OF LASTING PEACE, WORLD
CITIZENSHIP AND THE RULE OF INTER-
WILL REMAIN BUT A FLEETING ILLUSION
TO BE PURSUED, BUT NEVER ATTAINED--
AND UNTIL THE IGNOBLE AND UNHAPPY
REGIMES THAT NOW HOLD OUR BROTHERS
IN ANGOLA, IN MOZAMBIQUE, SOUTH AFRICA
IN SUBHUMAN BONDAGE, HAVE BEEN
TOPPLED, UTTERLY DESTROYED,
UNTIL THAT DAY THE AFRICAN CONTINENT
WILL NOT KNOW PEACE.
WE AFRICANS WILL FIGHT, IF NECESSARY,
AND WE KNOW WE SHALL WIN
AS WE ARE CONFIDENT IN THE VICTORY
OF GOOD OVER EVIL, OF GOOD OVER EVIL.
Speech by HIM Haile Selassie 1, sung by Bob Marley and the Wailers on Rastaman CelebrationIN THE FALL of 1985 when Professor Ralph Cohen, editor of New Literary History, wrote to me explaining that he had invited Professors Baker and Gates to respond to my essay "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism," I knew that my two Black colleagues would not respond with either geniality or comradeship. Yet, I must say--to use E. M. Forster's words from Howards End--"premonition is not preparation." Although I was quite aware that Baker and Gates assume positions as vanguards of Afro-American literary criticism, I would never have guessed that their "dubious" and "honest" replies would resound with misogynist paranoid, elitist, and paternalistic signs. Nonetheless, rather than engage in a defensive battle ("nonce embattlement," to use Baker's term), I choose here (as in the essay itself) to respond to the real issues at hand--most of which were left untouched in Baker's response--and to elaborate upon points left undeveloped previously. ~or I believe strongly that the words of Haile Selassie's speech, as they are sung by Bob Marley and the Wailers, embody the philosophy and the power needed for an overall, orchestrated surge of energy--economic, political, social, personal, and intellectual--to counteract the abusive, binding, numbing effect of the historical oppression of Blacks around the world. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the spiritually impoverished predicament in which Black America finds itself than Tina Turner's song "What's Love Got To Do with It?" and its accompanying video. This song represents the denial of love and the degeneration of values that begin with self-love and are reflected in the way one human being responds to another. This song suggests to our young people not only that sex for sex's sake (like writing for writing's sake or "the 'free movement' of writing itself") is a legitimate or healthy attitude, but also that the biological satisfaction the sex act brings is the ultimate fulfillment, the most they should hope for in an intimate relationship with another person. And equally insidious is the video that flaunts the Black woman ~IS sex object for Black men and white men, as Turner, with bleached stylishly unkempt hair suť,rgestive of the white blond (all signifying aside) and wearing a tight leather skirt and Jacket and very high heels that accentuate her shapely legs, struts down the street. This video and the song lure our young people into the world of glamour, rapacity, and ignorance. Unaware that they are being manipulated, the young Black women who imitate Tina Turner manifest the self-hatred and self-denial widespread among contemporary Black Americans. The philosophy of which Marley sings urges Blacks around the world--not just Rastafarians--to bond in a concentrated effort to destroy the effects of mental slavery, the evidence of which is reflected in Turner's song and video. It is this idea of bonding together that meets the most resistance, embodied in such comments as "Why do I have to call myself Black?" and "Why can't I just be a person?" Amusingly enough, in his editor's introduction to the Critical Inquiry issue "Race," Writing, and Difference, Gates provides the intellectual, quasi-scientific, literary counterpart to these questions when he says, "Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction. When we speak of 'the white race' or 'the black race,' 'the Jewish race' or 'the Aryan race,' we speak in biological misnomers and, more generally, in metaphors.'' l He might as well have said, like Turner, "What's Race Got To Do with It?" Turner's song and video and the Gates passage attest to the prevalent, malevolent, unconscionable, illusionary idea that race and (it goes unsaid) racism have ceased to be the leading impediments that thwart the mental and physical lives of Black people at all levels of human endeavor.
Turner's song and Gates's use of it as an e~ ld~ll dllU l~lCl~lll fasten on the lack of commitment suggested by the song and also typify the poststructuralisl sensibility. The salient contradictions and distortions inherent in Gates's and Baker's responses to my essay beg the question--not of the nature of their critical discourse, but of its purpose. A close reading of their responses reveals that neither of these men can read. For they both--and Baker embarrassingly so--overstate their cases against what they see as my errors and misjudgments. Perhaps, in the past few years, they have used the obfuscating language and ideas of Derrida, Barthes, Paul de Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Althusser, Bakhtin, and others to cloak their difficulties. In Baker's case, I fear, the problem is much worse than an inability to read. His distortions of what I wrote and his more serious warping of what took place at the English Institute are, simply put, unethical. After a number of inquiries, I learned that the question posed was not directed to Baker, but to any one of the three panelists--Baker himself, Eleanor Traylor, and Arnold Rampersad--during the question and answer session (see the second paragraph of` Baker's "In Dubious Battle"). Therefore, the question was not a direct response to Baker's assertion of a "need for a new problematic surrounding investigation of the Harlem Renaissance," nor was the question aimed at refuting his "claim that traditional definitions [of the Harlem Renaissance were inadequate." Since the three panelists all had presented various definitions of the Harlem Renaissance, set its boundaries at different places, and chosen to talk only about male writers of the Renaissance, Professor Deborah McDowell asked any member of the panel to address the implications of their definitions of that Renaissance and of modernism in relation to the study of Black women writers, some of whom were among the most prolific of the period. Baker, in this case the self-appointed vanguard of the panelists, took it upon himself` to respond first to McDowell's question. Her question--like my essay--was not intended as a personal attack on Baker.
His distortion of this incident follows the same pattern as his warping of the issues in my essay. In his paraphrasing of my comments on Alain Locke, he completely ignores the quotation I use wherein Locke himself addresses the Negro's ascent into the middle class and the effects of this upward mobility in society's treating "the Negro en masse," in other words of looking at the entire group as a race of people who identify with each other and respond to the world in much the same way. Moreover, I am sure Baker is familiar with Zora Neale Hurston's castigation of Alain Locke's middle-class notions, with the class and ideological conflict between Du Bois and Garvey, and with the sexist conflict between Langston Hughes and Hurston, all of which serve as prototypes and historical references for the interchange that now takes place between him, Gates, and myself. I am amused that both Baker and Gates cite what they see as a factual error in my saying that Our Nig concerns itself with slavery and that it was addressed to a white audience. Although I clearly grouped Our Nig with the slave narratives, most of the poetry, and with Clotel in referring to the intended audience for Black American literature at its beginnings, I see no essential reason for taking issue with the inclusion of Our Nig~ nor the exclusion of Phillis Wheatley. What emerges here is that Gates and Baker have two standards for judgment, one by which they judge and adopt the ideas of European and American white males and the other by which they adjudicate the work of Black women. They allow the one group greater latitude for metaphorical language than they do the other.
Their trivializing retorts and their total neglect of the real issue surrounding my reference to Our Nig, Clotel, and the slave narratives --"the issue of the historical interrelationship between literature class, and values" and of "how all these complexities augment ad infinitum where the writer is a Black American"--are akin to the tone of their unconscionable contortion of my opening allecdote about my student's confusion with Baldwin's article in Essence Magazine. My student would never have responded by skirting the central issue. Contrary to what Gates writes, the emphasis in my recounting of the conversation about Baldwin between me and my student was not on Baldwin's abnegation of his responsibility to his audience, but rather on my responsibility to the student. This peculiar warping that characterizes Gates's paraphrasing typifies the strategy he employs throughout his response. My emphasis was not on Baldwin's relationship to poststructuralist obscurantism, but on my own evasiveness and elitism, which shared a kinship with poststructuralist methodology. Thus Gates's question "What would you [meaning me] have Jimmy Baldwin do?" is a willful contortion of my point. What I wrote clearly suggested that if my student were having trouble with Baldwin, then it was indeed my responsibility--the responsibility of the critic/teacher--not to ask an elitist question, but to elucidate Baldwin for her and to refer her to further readings as Gates and Baker are corroboratively quick to point out.
Gates not only contrives his retort, but he also unnecessarily dilates it, still failing to give attention to the connections among literature, class, and values, the triad that obviously spurred my use of the anecdote. Instead of responding forthrightly to this question which has a direct bearing on the future of Black literary critical discourse (and perhaps on all critical discourse), he imagines that my argument is with Baldwin. Gates says, "The relationship between writer and reader is a reciprocal relationship, and one sells our authors short if one insists that their 'responsibility,' as you [meaning me] put it, is 'to be clear.'" He continues, "Our responsibility, as critics, to our writers, is to work at understanding them, not to demand that they write at such a level that every one of 'our people' understands every word of every black writer without working at it." Again quite amusingly, this comment contradicts Gates's later assertion that "if I [Gates] write a book review, say, for a popular Afro-American newspaper, I write in one voice; if I write a close analysis of a black text and publish it in a specialist journal, I choose another voice, or voices." Perhaps Gates needs to elaborate upon a definition of voice and upon the need for a change of voice if, as he stated earlier, the reader's responsibility is to work at understanding our writers and if we should not demand that a writer write at "such a level that every one of 'our people' understands every word." What Gates stumbles on here is the most forbidden fruit of poststructuralist thinking--the truth of the matter.
Of` course, it is necessary that a writer address his or her words t~, an audience and that he should have a clear understanding of that audience's- sensibility or history. If the relationship between the writer and reader is reciprocal, as Gates says, why does he then avoid elaborating- uphill the relationship between the critic and the reader? Unfortunately, Gates stops at maintaining that the responsibility of the writer is to write, that his task is to explicat~ Black texts, and that he is not deceived about his readership. Again the pertinent issue that Gates avoids involves two questions: For what reason does the critic write? And who exactly is his readership? By referring to Larry Neal and LeRoi Jones's "splendid" anthology Black Fire, Gates cunningly leads us "black intellectuals" to believe that his own work shares the spirit, ideology, and purpose of Black Fire. However, those of us (Black and white) who understand that Larly Neal's life long work was to destroy that "white thing" within us can only be taken aback at any hint of a comparison between the works in Black Fire and Gates's "The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey," "Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext," and "Editor's Introduction: Writing 'Race' and the Difference It Makes." 2
To illustrate, I shall contrast a passage from Neal's "And Shine Swam On" at the end of Black Fire to one from Anthony Appiah's "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" (which Gates as editor endorses by inclusion in "Race," Writing, and Difference). The juxtaposition of the passages illustrates the vastly different attitudes toward the issue of race and the purpose of Black literary discourse that separate contemporary, quasi-scientific, alienating analyses from the best earlier Black literary criticism. Neal writes," Our music has always been the most dominant manifestation of what we are and feel, literature was just an afterthought, the step taken by the Negro bourgeoisle who desired acceptance on the white man's terms. And that is precisely why the literature has failed. It was the case of one elite addressing another elite."
But our music is something else. The best of it has always operated at the core of our lives, forcing itself upon us as in a ritual. It has always, somehow represented the collective psyche. Black literature must attempt to achieve that same sense of collective ritual, but ritual directed at the destruction of useless, dead ideas... Finally, the black artist must link his work to the struggle for his liberation and the liberation of his brothers and sisters.... He will be furthering the psychological liberation of his people, without which, no change is even possible.
The artist and the political activist are one. They are both shapers of the future reality. Both understand and manipulate the collective myths of thr race. A philosophy professor at Yale University, Antholly Appiah very painstakingly writes, "I can now express simply one measure ot the extent to which members of these human populations we call races differ more from each other than they do from members of the same race. For example, the value of J [a genetic variable] for Caucasoids--based largely on samples from the English population--is estimated to be about 0.857, while that for the whole human population is estimated at 0.852. The chances, in other words, that two people taken at random from the human population will have the same characteristic at a locus, are about 85.2 percent, while the chances for two (white) people taken from the population of England are about 85.7 percent. And since 85.2 is 10() minus 14.8 and 85.7 is 100 minus 14.3, this is equivalent to what I said in the introduction: the chances of two people who are both Caucasoid differing in genetic constitution at one site on a given chromosome are about 14.3 percent, while, for any two people taken at random from the human population, they are about 14.8 percent. The conclusion is obvious: given only a person's race, it is hard to say what his or her biological characteristic will be, except in respect of the "grosser" features of color, hair, and bone...."4 After getting through this passage, we can only breathe a thankful sigh of relief. In fact, we are so appreciative at having come through the experience that we do not become angry about being told, in such a dilated fashion, what most Black people have always known: that the division of mankind into races is a biologically unsound contrivance.
Certainly, W. E. B. Du Bois was aware o~ this ~act. Yet, L)U ~OlS, like Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, and others, grapples with various strategies in combating the inane, illogical concept and ramifications of race. Not one of them uses his or her intellectual energy to rationalize him or herself out of what is dubbed "the Negro race." Instead they use their energies--in different ways--attempting to bring out the psychological and economic liberation of Black people. Their lives and the nature of their work answer Gates's question as to what I would have the Black critic/teacher do: merge ~he roles of critic and political activist, as stated by Neal in the passage cited above and by Sonia Sanchez in "The Poet as Creator of` Social Values." 5 This goal does not necessarily have to be accomplished by marching in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. It certainly cannot be achieved by the casual, gratuitous mentioning of South Africa at the end of` Baker's response, nor by Gates's wasting a vote on Jesse Jackson, knowing that he was neither the Democratic nor the Republican nominee.
Meaningful political involvement, in the case of the Black critic especially, demands that we give "presence" to the text, that we deal with the question of values, that we distinguish clearly between indigenous values (those that serve our own best interests) and alien ones (those that do not serve our best interests), and that we remain mindful, as Eugene Goodheart puts it, that "the value and interests [which] determine discourse (in its possible variety) emerge from a combination of character (temperament, disposition) and history (circumstance, experience)."6 In other words, the literary critical activity is not free of personality and history, as the deconstructionists would have us believe. Neither should literary critical involvement be free of commitment, especially in the case of the Black critic. The poststructuralist sensibility in its claim that to acquire knowledge is impossible, its emphases on fragmentation, plurality of meaning, selflessness, and indeterminacy only exacerbate the Black critic's estrangement from the important social, political, economic, and, maybe most importantly, the psychological forces that shape Black culture and that are responsible for what Neal refers to as a collective psyche. Gates is absolutely incorrect when he implies that the Black critic writes for the Black intellectual, not for our people. The young (and old) Black intellectuals in my graduate and undergraduate classes, whose psyches I play a role in shaping, are indeed our people. They, in turn, are raising children (our people) whose consciousness these students shape and who may some day read and be influenced by our work. Significantly, our Black colleagues around the country are also our people.
Black critics then have the opportunity to influence the very complicated human network that makes for change. They do this by using their skills to show the need for political bonding between Black people around the world. Instead of inundating our works with superfluous, contrived references to fashionable scholars and philosophers who have decided that literature and life no longer have meaning and thus that existence is a game, the Black American critic--merely and significantly because he or she lives in a powerful country--should be at the vanguard of a worldwide Black intellectual movement in much the same way as Du Bois, Wright, and C. L. R. James were. Aimed at showing the shared experiences of` Black peoples, the Black creative process could link the critic's vision to the world outside. Critics could, for instance, use the South African social worker Ellen Kuzwayo's autobiography Call Me Woman and Bessie Head's novel A Question of Power as "signifiers" for "Si,ť~11ified" cultural, political, sexist, and mental conditions that work as "SigllS" to connect the lives of South African and American Black women. 7 Such an endeavor would be far less contrived and far less farfetched than Baker's legion of superfluous allusions and Gates's glorification of nothingness in "The Signifying Monkey."
Because I do not "defamiliarize" myself from a piece of Black literature by using postmodern or poststructuralist jargon, and because I fancy that I can think for myself, Gates and Baker suggest that I do not know the differences among structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction and that my knowledge appears at best "murky," "muddled," and "pretentious." Although the appearance of Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction and Chant of Saints stimulated my interest in contemporary literary theory, ironically it was the 1984 publication of Gates's Black Literature and Theory which recharged my energies, motivating me to read persistently and widely.ff The more I read, the more dismayed I became. For I do not understand how a Black critic aware of the implantations of racist structures in the consciousness of Blacks and whites could accept poststructuralist ideas and practices. This dilemma reveals an unsettling paradox. Both Gates and Baker maintain that Black literature is as viable a literature as that of any other group and thus that Black literature also merits close readings. Yet the peculiar dilemma is that the reason Black literature has not received the benefits of close analyses lies in the inferior status given Black Americans and anything we produce. Our literature confronts this issue of imposed inferiority quite aggressively on a multitude of levels. Baker and Gates skirt the issue in different ways, but achieve the same results. Gates implies that he, like the monkey in the tree, signifies upon his readers and thus subverts their ideas. The question arises, however, as to the need to subvert the Black intellectuals, especially those who bought Black Fire, a "radical"/"antiwhite" Black text for its time and ours. Baker, on the other hand, in his conclusion to Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature says, "My project is a minute beginning in the labor of writing/righting American history and literary history." 9 We can only question then the reasons for the contradiction between the intended aim of Blues, Ideology and the semantic disjunctions that typify the essays in the text. In fact, I cannot fathom why a Black critic would trust that the master would provide him or her with tools with which he or she can seek independence. For, to use Audre Lorde's phraseology, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.'' 1
Although I am well aware that I have in no way addressed all of the charges of ignorance and ineptness made against me by Gates and Baker, I would like for the remainder of this response to attend to the idea that I am hostile toward or resistant to theory and to answer the question "What's Love Got to Do with It?" I hope to show that my views of Black literary criticism are inextricably and unembarrassingly tied to my identity as a Black person and that Gates's and Baker's responses are, by nature, inextricably related to an absence of identity. Thus, the central issue here is identity. In his "In Dubious Battle," Baker questions why a journal like New Literary History would begin its attention to Black literary criticism with such a "dreadfully flawed" essay as my own. His answer is that the "journal's editors were victims of a too casual reader's report" and that "many people share Professor Joyce's essential animosity toward recent modes of critical and theoretical discussion that have enlarged the universe of discourse surrounding Afro-American expressive culture." Again, a contradiction emerges. If New Literary History has not previously opened its pages to issues of Black critical discourse, is it not now time that its editors do so, since "critics and theorists of Afro-American expressive culture have, likewise, become more complex," to use Baker's own words? The truth of the matter is that, as I have shown from the outset, Baker continuously distorts issues and unscrupulously overstates his case. Black American critics are not by any means the only scholars who question the usefulness of poststructuralist thinking and methodology. I refer Baker to Eugene Goodheart's The Skeptic Disposition in Contemporary Criticism and to Howard Felperin's Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory. Felperin writes:
... it is deeply ironic, to say the least, that the yearnings for a quasi- or pseudo-scientific discourse, which we have seen at work in all the dominant theoretical discourses, and which aim at attracting to themselves some of the supposed cultural prestige and centrality of science and technology--as a result of the disastrous side-effects of their long cultural hegemony--are themselves losing the prestige and centrality they have so long enjoyed. And it is no less ironic that the search for a quasi-scientific or theoretical "ground" in which the various schools hope to found their practice seems to turn up only an infinitely varied ~roundlessness.ll
Of course, the most obvious weakness in Baker's and Gates's charges of my hostility to theory is the illogical position that to refuse to accept poststructuralist meaninglessness is to be resistant to theory. I must admit straightforwardly at this point that I question whether Baker and Gates really believe what they write. For instance, in Blues Ideology, in which Baker revises the commonly cited "Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of` Afro-American Literature," Baker says, "The negative results of` reconstructionism include an unfortunate burdening of the universe of discourse surrounding Afro-American expressive culture with meaningless jargon and the articulation of a variety of lamentably confused utterances on language, literature, and culture" (90). This comment proves to be quite startling to any reader who even glances at the pages of Blues, Ideology.
The entire collection is suffused with poststructuralist jargon in its use of words like code, binary opposition, decentering, signifying, absence, intertextual, and difference. Moreover, the strategy Baker employs throughout the volume heavily embodies--despite what he refers to as his "interdisciplinary" approach--a poststructuralist methodology. Obviously then, it is rather difficult to discern Baker's position toward Black literary criticism from what he says. We can depend only upon our analyses of the unmistakable patterns that emerge. 1 would like now to move to Gates's charge of my resistance to theory, and then end with my own theory on the merger between love and the Black literary critic. As I have already said, Gates too overstates his case to the point of being illogical. A glaring leap in logic accompanies the comment "I must confess that I am bewildered by Joyce Joyce's implied claim that to engage in black critical theory is to be, somehow, antiblack." Consistent with the air of superiority which pervades his "Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom," Gates makes at least two errors in logic here. The first is to maintain that his mode of critical theory is Black critical theory and the other is to maintain that my objections to his analyses of Black literature suggest that he is antiblack. A significant difference exists between being "not" Black and being antiblack. Of course, the real issue, the one that Gates refuses to let surface, and I might add a very old one, concerns whether being a Black person who writes about Black literature makes one a Black critic, especially if blackness is a trope, as Gates would surely argue. He clearly understands that my answer to this question is an emphatic "No." Rather than grapple with this issue (that is almost as old as Black literature itself), Gates attempts to distort it. If we know that the idea of race divisions is ludicrous, then we understand that to refer to a craftswoman or man as a Black critic begins with, but extends far beyond (or beneath), skin color. For the Black writer/critic, blackness has always been--until very recently and except for the few exceptions that can always be expected--a matter of perspective, commitment, involvement, and love-bonding.
My argument, then, is not with Gates's "propensity to theorize," but with the nature of his theorizing. Although literary theory by nature is esoteric and thus removed from the mundane functions of our daily lives, a serious need for purpose underscores much of what is presently being published. My call in "The Black Canon" is not one that I cloaked behind terms such as "ontogeny" and "phylogeny," but one that questions this move of Black criticism away from transcendence and interiority and, consequently, purpose. Neither Gates nor Baker elaborates upon my point that a natural, integral relationship does exist between Euro-American literature--Eliot's and Stevens's poetry as well as Beckett's plays and Barth's fiction--and Euro-American critical theory. Among the most modern of the novels written by Black writers--works like !Click Song, The Salt Eaters, and Tar Baby--only Reed's relatively early Mumbo Jumbo shares a striking "decentering," "playful" affinity with Beckett and Barth. Stated again, poststructuralist methodology imposes a strategy upon Black literature from the outside while a direct relationship exists between Ellro-American literature and its criticism. How can the extraneous alien poststructuralist practices serve as the "prelude to the definition of principles of literary criticism peculiar to the black literary traditions"? What is the source of` this relationship that makes Black literary traditions "related to and compatible with contemporary critical theory"? I have so far nowhere come across the answers to these questions.
Finally, Gates and Baker agree (since they are "ideal readers" for each other) that they are "spokesperson who move across ethnic and gender boundaries and who have decisively relinquished the role of simple minded conservative spokesperson on behalf of a putatively simpleminded expressive culture." These embarrassing words imply that those Black literary critics who worked to provide what is now the foundation of Afro-American literary criticism and whose ideas have been subsumed and reshaped by Gates and Baker are simpleminded. These final comments water the seeds that I have planted throughout this essay: While Black American literature and its criticism are rooted in an allegiance to Black people, Baker and Gates have "relinquished" that allegiance. The first sign manifests itself in the hostile, war-like, ungracious nature of their responses to my essay. Although Baker goes so far as to suggest that Deborah McDowell should not have challenged him (the vanguard) in a "mixed" audience, he has, as we can deduce from his language, no hesitation in attempting to make me appear mindless and backwards in the eyes of white society. He himself brings up the issue of the readership of New Literary History. Both he and Gates broke the most important code of the signifying tradition: they failed to attack by subversion (to speak in such a way that the master does not grasp their meaning). They failed to demonstrate love and respect for a Black sister. They do not understand that Black political involvement can be achieved even in the ivory towers of academe as well as on the streets and that an interrelationship exists between the two. Political involvement, the commitment to struggle for the movement of Blacks into all strata of society, means that neither should have censured New Literary History for accepting the work of a Black sister. They should have been committed to strategies for revision rather than to the proliferation of their individual ideas and to the protection of their egos. As literary critics, they should have been committed to the future of a Black American criticism that gains its strengths through challenges and trials rather than through censorship and bravado.
This critical skirmish, I fear, shares a relationship with the light that took place during one of this year's 1986 NBA Championship games. When Ralph Sampson, a Black player for the Houston Rockets threw a few punches at white Celtics player, Jerry Sichting, Dennis Johnson, a Black player for the Celtics, interceded and began to punch Sampson and pull on his jersey. What might be even more important than Johnson's reasons for exacerbating an already terrible situation is the picture that highlighted the event in The Washington Post the following day (June 6, 1986). The picture shows Dennis Johnson and Ralph Sampson--the two Blacks--scowling and perhaps even growling at each other ferociously. This photograph totally distorts the nature of the situation (the real issue) which caused the fight. Analogously, Baker and Gates not only distorted my ideas, but responded as if the ideas had no foundation in Black American literature, criticism, or history. Eugene Goodheart's comments on deconstructive play relates metaphorically to the analogy between Dennis Johnson, Baker, and Gates: "An overflowing play that expresses the fullness of life is the freedom beyond the rules of the game. When that conviction disappears the game ceases to be an occasion for personal expression, it becomes instead a mechanism to be disassembled and examined with detachment" (16~). It is the power of language that we should depend upon in literary discourse to maintain a balance between play and game. If the game requires conviction and that we remain ever mindful of our interaction with others and of the effect language has on us, then the critic has the same responsibility in the literary game as the referee in an athletic competition. For the power of the critic's language has the same effect as the authority and integrity of the referee: to attempt to influence and interpret experience in a direction that leads to the brotherhood of man (as Bob Marley sings). And, of course, the cap of responsibility is all the heavier if the referee/critic is Black.
1. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Writing 'Race' and the Difference It Makes," Critical Inquiry, 12, No. I (Autumn 1985), 4; hereafter cited in text.
1 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "The 'Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey," in Black Literature and Literary Theory (New York, 1984) 285-321 and "Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext," in Afro-American Literature. The Reconstruction of Instruction, ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto (New York, 1979),
3 Larry Neal, "And Shine Swam On," in Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal (New York, 1968), pp. 654--56
4 Anthony Appiah, "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race," Critical Inquiry, 12, No. 1 (Autumn 1985), 31.
5 Sonia Sanchez, "The Poet as Creator of Social Values," in Crises and Culture (New York, 1983), pp. 1 - 14.
6 Eugene Goodheart, The Skeptical Position in Contemporary Criticism (Princeton 1984), p.175; hereafter cited in text.
7 Ellen Kuzwayo, Call Me Woman (London, 1985) (London, 1973) .
8 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Black Literature and Theory (New York, l994).
9 Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago, 1984), p. 200; hereafter cited in text.
10 Audre Lorde, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," in her Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Trumansburg, N.Y., 1984), pp.
11.. Howard Felperin, Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory (Oxford, 1985), pp. 203-4.