Ethnic Studies - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Ethnic Studies
The Rise of Literary Theory

Ethnic studies, the theoretical study of race and cultural pluralism, began in the us with the work of African American writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. African American studies has revealed the theoretical richness of African American literature and philosophy and shown how contemporary European theories of language, TEXTUALITY, gender, and SUBJECTIVITY can be used to critique discourses of race and racial difference. African American studies is by no means alone in furthering these aims. chicano/a studies has, at least since the 1960s, been building an impressive canon of theoretical works, and Native American studies has more recently started to explore the links between native literary and cultural practices and mainstream Anglo-European theory. In Britain, some of these same developments can be discerned, especially from the 1970s, in part as a response to the presence in the uK of formerly colonized peoples.

Speaking from an African American perspective, W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 articulated succinctly the central issue: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (16). For Du Bois, race and the difference that it marks have a profound effect on the social development of individuals. For if race is a problem, so too is the individual whose race differs from that of the dominant group. “it is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (8-9). Quintessential expressions of this syndrome in literature are Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, novels that depict the alienating and destructive effects of double consciousness on young men growing up black in the US. The problem of double consciousness, however, was not a simple MANICHAEAN one in which an authentic African American experience is opposed to an inauthentic and oppressive Anglo-American norm. For example, in the phenomenon of “passing” the same double consciousness that pits African Americans against the dominant culture is itself

doubled within African American communities, where light-skinned individuals often find themselves in the position of having to choose between a “native” black culture and a “foreign” white one. As novelists and critics alike have shown, both choices create a burden of inauthenticity. The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished in the 1920s and '30s, articulated the specific personal, social, and cultural manifestations of double consciousness in the urban contexts not addressed by Du Bois. As Hazel Carby has shown, the “Talented Tenth” of Northern intellectuals tended to propagate the view of an IDEALIZED rural “black folk.” As a result, there emerged a conflict between middle-class intellectuals, often accused of imitating white middle-class culture, and an emergent radical working class. Especially problematic was the representation of black women, in literature and other social discourses, as the responsibility of professional black men who were obligated to protect them from both dominant culture and their own sexuality. Novelists like Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston defied the stereotypes of black women at the same time that they questioned the responsibility to “uplift” the race.

Du Bois was tremendously influential in defining the terms of debate in contemporary discourse on race in African American studies. However, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has shown, Du Bois confused biological and socio-historical conceptions of race: “what Du Bois attempts, despite his own claims to the contrary, is not the transcendence of the nineteenth-century scientific conception of race - as we shall see, he relies on it - but rather, as the dialectic requires, a revaluation of the Negro race in the face of the sciences of racial inferiority” (25). Contemporary African American studies by and large regards race as a function of ideology, a construction deployed by political and nationalist groups that have inevitably “engendered the seeds of essentialism”: “if ’race' is real, it is so only because it has been rendered meaningful by the actions and beliefs of the powerful, who retain the myth in order to protect their own political-economic interests” (Darder and Torres 5, 12). Critical Race Theory, which developed out of African American studies (particularly the work of Du Bois), similarly approached race as an ideological construct and investigated the ways in which race had become a factor in civil rights legislation and in the legal system. Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman, both legal scholars influenced by the Critical Legal Studies movement, provided initial impetus to the movement in the 1970s, though it soon expanded beyond legal issues to embrace education, public policy, and economics.

The issue of race lay at the heart of a number of projects seeking to “de-essentialize” discourses of ethnicity. One of the most influential of these projects was Martin Bernal's Black Athena, a work that demonstrates the extent to which race is an effect of specific historical conditions. Bernal posits that Africa (specifically Egypt) lies at the center of Western civilization, rather than on its periphery. On this view, racial difference is the result of the “fabrication” of ancient Greek culture. Extensive geological, archaeological, and linguistic analysis led Bernal to argue that the origin of Greece lies in “Egyptian and Semitic cultural areas” and that “there seems to have been more or less continuous Near Eastern influence on the Aegean” in the period during which Greek culture emerged (2100-1100 BCE) (1, 18). His assertion that we must rethink “the fundamental bases of ’Western Civilization' ” and “recognize the penetration of racism and ’continental chauvinism' into all our historiography” (1-2) has been hotly contested by classicists, archaeologists, historians, and other scholars. To some degree, Black Athena is part of a larger “Afrocentric” project associated with the work of Molefi K. Asante. For Asante, Afrocentricity is a general challenge to “established hierarchies” (14); it takes difference as the mark of African identity and consciousness, the mark of a “recentering” of Africa in response to its “peripheralization” by Western cultures. Afrocentricity is not a separatist discourse; it does not argue for the exclusion of other traditions of thought, nor does it designate practices of cultural revival. It is a way of thinking about Africa as central to the development of civilizations and of Africans as important contributors to African and Western culture. “Afrocentricity liberates the African by establishing agency as the key concept for freedom” and “provides the shuttle between the intransigence of white privilege and the demands of African equality” (21, 41). Though it is dedicated to African agency, Afrocentricity seeks to join with other theoretical enterprises that value human freedom.

Chief among these other enterprises were those that sought either to reject or to appropriate and refashion the Euro-American theoretical tradition as the first stage of developing a black literary theory. Of particular importance in this context is Henry Louis Gates’s theory of African and African American literature. Gates builds on Houston Baker's early work, which argues that “Black America” possessed its

“own standards of moral and aesthetic achievement” and distinguished itself from white America by virtue of its commitment to an oral tradition and a collectivist ethos. Additionally, “black American culture is partially differentiated from white American culture because one of its most salient characteristics is an index of repudiation,” especially of Western cultural theory (6, 16). Like Baker, Gates develops a theory of African American literature based on a black vernacular tradition. In The Signifying Monkey (1988), he analyzes various trickster figures found in the literature of Africa (especially of Yoruba cultures) and in the black vernacular of African American slave cultures. He singles out Esu-Eleg- bara and the “signifying monkey,” which can be found in Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean. These figures are bound up with the idea of Signification or Signifyin(g) (capital S), which differs from the poststructuralist conception of signification (lower-case s); in Signifyin(g) the signifier itself becomes the signified in a self-consciously rhetorical performance of language. (On the function of the SIGN, see pp. 181-3.) Black vernacular performances like “the dozens,” which Gates traces to sources in Africa, exemplify this Signifyin(g) practice. As he demonstrates in his analysis of Esu-Elegbara and signifying monkey stories, the PROBLEMATIC of language and of representation is itself the centerpiece and subject of the stories. “Esu is our metaphor for the uncertainties of explication, for the open-endedness of every literary text… . Esu is discourse upon a text; it is the process of interpretation that he rules.” The related trope of the signifying monkey is “the great trope of Afro-American discourse, and the trope of tropes, his language of Signifyin(g), is his verbal sign in the Afro-American tradition” (21). Signifyin(g) is about naming and revising discourse, a process of revision and repetition that works within a black vernacular tradition but also within (and against) a dominant Euro-American one. It is a form of “double voiced” utterance (an idea Gates borrows from M. M. Bakhtin), a “speakerly” text in which parody, pastiche, and a general facility with language permits a negotiation between two discourse communities as well as the creation of a new oppositional discourse. (On Bakhtin, see pp. 115, 157, 184-6.)

Gates’s influence has been powerful, and one result has been to urge African American studies to continue to question the theoretical models it employs. African American Feminism has been especially productive in this regard. Barbara Smith’s Toward a Black Feminist Criticism (1977) anticipated Baker’s call for a black literary theory and drew much-needed attention to writing by African American women. Her groundbreaking work was followed by that of bell hooks, who called white Western feminists to task for failing to address the fundamental problems of race and racism: “Although ethnocentric white values have led feminist theorists to argue the priority of sexism over racism, they do so in the context of attempting to create an evolutionary notion of culture, which in no way corresponds to our lived experience.” In fact, argues hooks, racism is the very means by which white women “construct feminist theory and praxis in such a way that it is far removed from anything resembling radical struggle” (53-54). For Smith and hooks, race is the category that orients thinking about women's experience because it is the “color-line” that dominates individual experience and collective political action. Recent work in African American studies has maintained the focus on race but has developed new methodologies from Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, and Postcolonial Studies. Of particular note are Toni Morrison's work on “constructing social reality” and Hortense Spiller's on race and gender.

The focus on race, ideology, and Cultural Studies defines much of the work going on in Chicano/a studies and Native American studies, particularly in the 1990s, when both fields began to develop strong institutional presences. Unlike African American studies, however, slavery was not part of this focus. Instead, theorists turned to the special problems of foreign conquest and the question of native identity and native rights. As Ramon Saldivar puts it, Native Americans and Mexican Americans “became ethnic minorities] through the direct conquest of their homelands” (13). However, though this important condition differentiates the experiences of these groups from African Americans, whose minority status is the result of slavery and its aftermath, all of them are committed to the same theoretical category, DIFFERENCE. Saldivar agrees with Gates that the Mexican American experience, like the African American, is defined by the interrelationship of two cultures, a “minority” and a “dominant.” His analysis departs from Gates's primarily in its insistence on a form of dialectical materialism. For Saldivar, Chicano narrative “has provided a mediated truth about a culturally determinate people in a historically determinate context.” The function of these narratives differs “from what readers normally expect from literary texts. Not content with mirroring a problematic real world of social hardship and economic deprivation, Chicano narratives seek systematically to uncover the

underlying structures by which real men and women may either perpetuate or reformulate that reality” (5-6). These structures often entail a struggle between the dominant culture and “the opposing group's traditional culture,” a struggle that has come to characterize the “stance of resistance that Mexican American culture develops and its dialectical relationship to both of its original contexts” (17).

Many Chicana feminists also question the dominance of Euro-Ameri- can theory and its tendency to ignore the role of race and racism in the constitution of gender and sexual identity. For Gloria Anzuldua, racial difference must intersect with gender and sexual difference. Moreover, in the analysis of gender and sexuality in Chicano/a contexts, difference is never simply binary, for identity, female and male, is determined by multiple contacts and intersections. To be sure, this is a concern for African American intellectuals, as Du Bois pointed out in his discussion of “the phenomena of race-contact” (120). What differs is the Chicano/a experience of geographical borderlands, spaces of difference that complicate binary structures of knowledge. Contemporary Chicano/a studies regards borderlands as both a concrete sociohistorical context of social action and cultural production and a state of mind characterized by ethnic, linguistic, and sexual HYBRIDITY. “Positioned between cultures, living on borderlines,” writes Saldivar, “Chicanos and their narratives have assumed a unique borderland quality, reflecting in no uncertain terms the forms and styles of their folk-based origins” (24-25). The border is a space of pain and merger, of struggle and communication. “The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country - a border culture” (Anzuldua 3). Anzuldua, like so many other Chicano / a writers, opposes a MANICHAEAN “counterstance” that “locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed.” It is not enough, she writes, “to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions” (78). Anzuldua and Sonia Saldivar-Hull focus on the conflicts between and within dominant, immigrant, and mestizo cultures. “Life as feminists on the border,” writes Saldivar-Hull, “means recognizing the urgency of dealing with the sexism and homophobia within our culture; our political reality demands that we confront institutionalized racism while we simultaneously struggle against economic exploitation” (34). The PROBLEMATIC of race within this context of cultural pluralism and cultural critique intensifies as each new wave of immigration, as each new mestizo formation brings new voices into the dialogue. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, it is difficult to speak of white Anglo-Americans as a majority population (though it is quite easy to speak of them as forming a dominant group).

Many of these same issues can be found in the emergent theoretical discourse in Native American studies. For example, Arnold Krupat's theory of “cosmopolitan comparativism,” which is committed to a form of “cross-cultural translation” (ix-x), in a similar way argues for greater understanding of racial and cultural “contact points.” Building on the work of Gerald Vizenor, Vine Deloria, Jr., and others, Krupat outlines a Native American literary theory that acknowledges multiple perspectives. Krupat isolates three of these. The nationalist perspective frames the struggle for sovereignty within a context of “anticolonial nationalism.” For the indigenous critic, “the source of the values on which a critical perspective must be based” is not the “world of nations and nationalisms” but “the animate and sentient earth” (11). The cosmopolitan perspective is linked to Appiah's notion of “cosmopolitan patriotism,” a sense of transportable rootedness. Krupat elaborates on this notion in his development of cosmopolitan comparativism, which situates Native American literatures “in relation to other minority or subaltern literatures elsewhere in the late-colonial or postcolonial world” (19). Like Gayatri Spivak's “transnational cultural studies,” Krupat's Native American literary theory seeks to transcend the necessarily narrow limits of national and indigenous literatures in order to find a space for the consideration of such literatures in contact with other literatures elsewhere in the world. Its engagement with Western forms of theoretical reflection has been criticized by Elvira Pulitano, whose quarrel with Krupat appears less a matter of the measure of his commitments to the West than one of how he positions himself with respect to those commitments.

Note. on Native American studies and Postcolonial theory, see p. 141.


Anzuldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 1987. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” In “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. 21-37.

Asante, Molefi K. The Afrocentric Idea. 1987. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1. London: Free Association Books, 1987.

Darder, Antonia and Rodolfo D. Torres. After Race: Racism after Multiculturalism. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Vintage Books/Library of America, 1990.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 1984. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.

Krupat, Arnold. Red Matters: Native American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Saldivar, Ramon. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.