Book Reviews

Book Review – The Cambridge History of African American Literature

THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE.  By Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011.

9780521872171jkt.qxd“New Frontiers: Cross-Currents, and Convergences: Emerging Paradigms,” the title of Madhu Dubey’s and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg’s chapter in the newly published Cambridge History of African American Literature (CHAAL) (2011) could well serve as the subtitle for the entire edition. For it communicates the terrains, scope, methods, applications, and ultimately the contributions this innovative and original work makes to the study of African American literature. Comprised of newly published essays by leading and emerging scholars in African American literature, CHAAL chronicles four hundred years of black writing and cultural production across multiple genres of writing (e.g., fiction, drama, and poetry) as well as across multiple physical, social, and ideological terrains.  Since constructing a literary history is at the center of this project, editors Maryemma Graham and Jerry Ward, Jr. carefully articulate the basis upon which this text articulates such a history. Given the enormity of this task, Graham and Ward importantly acknowledge the challenge and inherent limitations of constructing a comprehensive study.

As they challenge readers to consider the dynamic interactions from the social, political, and economic factors that shape the creation, production, distribution, and reception of black writing, they also remind us that the very task they have set forth—to construct a literary history—is as Mario J. Valdés and Linda Hutcheon posit “unavoidably interpreted in the light of the present and that literary historians create meaning by ordering and shaping stories about texts and contexts” (1). Texts and contexts as well as dynamism and recovery emerge as prominent paradigms upon which CHAAL orders and shapes a narrative of black writing; unravels the evolving nature of literary traditions and ultimately literary history; and maps “the story of the existence and complex structure of African American literary acts and artifacts” (4). CHAAL creates a complicated and by no means unified portrait of African American literature that “comprises orature (oral literature) and printed texts simultaneously,” advocates movement across disciplinary boundaries, illuminates the dynamism of interactions that shape black writing and its meaning, and underscores African and African American agency and authority (1, 3).

CHAAL is divided into three distinct parts. The first two parts, which represent the majority of the text, progress chronologically. Chapters focusing on the sonoric African origins of black orality, the development of early black print literature, and the diversity of antebellum and postbellum black writing comprise part 1. One of the many strengths of CHAAL emerges in the ways its chapters clearly reflect the vision, framework, and concerns articulated by its editors. Exploring the evolution of early black writing, Philip Gould cautions against the indiscriminate categorization of early black print in order to forcefully create a tradition of continuities. Detailing historical and ideological frameworks, he foregrounds the impact of natural rights philosophy and sentimentalism on early black discourse. Vincent Carretta marks the emergence of a canon. Like Gould, Carretta explains that early black writing is not easily categorizable, noting that these works were often multi-generic and their authors also assumed a range of “available identities” (54).

Joycelyn Moody demonstrates CHAAL’s emphasis on African and African American authority and agency as well as the importance of orature and literature as simultaneous sites of analysis. She draws upon black feminist scholarship to articulate “black resistant orality” as a framework for understanding “blacks’ subversive testimony dictated to print literature interlocutors.” Black resistant orality, she posits, expressed by Sojourner Truth and others emerge from an “African American expressive tradition that asserts the black self verbally or otherwise-performatively (136,137). Mark Sanders narrows the distance between postbellum and New Negro artists, explaining how they faced similar “dilemmas, and indeed pursued many of the same agendas” (220).  Like Moody, Sanders identifies postbellum artists’ rhetorical strategies within a tradition of black resistant discourse.

Part 2 in CHAAL offers equally important critical observations, approaches, and recovered texts and writers for an engaged and nuanced study of African American literature. Chronicling the evolution of black literature and literary history in the twentieth century, these essays highlight diversity within African American rhetorical and narrative strategies, multiple geographical terrains as critical sites of black cultural production, and the necessity for identifying writers as both artists and critics. Emily Bernard’s essay presents an expanded geography in the exploration of the New Negro Movement. Noting how and why attention is often centered on Harlem, she invites readers to consider Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia as equally important sites. Even as Bernard underscores a national expansion in the study of black cultural and literary activity, she reminds readers of the diasporic dimensions of the New Negro movement. While Bernard focuses on recovering places, Sabine Broeck attempts to recover writers like William Gardner Smith, Albert Murray, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. Expanding our notion of the period, she enjoins readers to consider how readership and criticism shape canon formation and ultimately affect “[t]he selective enshrinement of some authors and their works, and the public and critical disregard of others” (374). Madhu Dubey and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg conclude part 2 with their examination of postmodern black writers and the writers’ engagement with Duboisian double-consciousness. While many have situated the 1970s as a period of renaissance in black women’s writing, Dubey and Goldberg underscore its importance as the beginning of black postmodernism.

Part 3 directs readers’ attention to scholarly practices and the marketplace, seeking to offer what Graham and Ward assert is a “corrective to conventional literary history histories” (14). Giselle Liza Anatol’s essay draws attention to the marketplace surrounding African American children’s literature, while Candice Love Jackson enjoins scholars to critically examine “popular” African American literature. Jackson focuses on a range of popular fiction from pandering literature, Christian fiction, relationship fiction, black gay/lesbian fiction, and black erotica. Lawrence Jackson’s essay examines the formation of literary criticism by black artists and scholars. Like Broeck, his examination of Baldwin and Ellison reminds readers to situate black artists in multiple contexts, namely as cultural and literary critics. As in many other chapters, Jackson introduces scholars and artists like J. Sanders Redding and Edward Bland as critical voices often overlooked and understudied.

CHAAL is a useful resource for graduate students and scholars who want to move beyond a conventional history of African American literature.  Numerous chapters within the collection not only make reference to current scholarship, but nod to earlier anthologies, while also pushing readers to situate black writers and their works in new ways. Certainly with a project this large there are omissions, which the editors acknowledge. While CHAAL mentions black science fiction (see Harris and C. L. Jackson), it would have been wonderful to see a more extensive treatment of black fantasy, comics, and science fiction, areas that are receiving more scholarly and popular treatment.

In its reframing of black discourse, introduction of new paradigms, and charting of new geographies, this collection represents an important and necessary addition to any collection of African American and American literature.

Folashade Alao, University of South Carolina

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Discussion

One thought on “Book Review – The Cambridge History of African American Literature

  1. New Frontiers is the best.
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    Posted by karen20121 | December 28, 2012, 9:47 pm

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