American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler, edited by Wai Chee Dimock with Jordan Brower, Edgar Garcia, Kyle Hutzler, and Nicholas Rinehart. New York: Columbia UP. [website] [purchase]
This innovative anthology offers a new way to understand the global forces that have shaped the making of American literature. The wide-ranging selections are structured around five interconnected nodes: war; food; work, play, and travel; religions; and human and nonhuman interfaces. Through these five categories, Wai Chee Dimock and a team of emerging scholars reveal American literature to be a complex network, informed by crosscurrents both macro and micro, with local practices intensified by international concerns. Selections include poetry from Anne Bradstreet to Jorie Graham; the fiction of Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner; Benjamin Franklin's parables; Frederick Douglass's correspondence; Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders; Langston Hughes's journalism; and excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcom X as well as Octavia Butler's Dawn. Popular genres such as the crime novels of Raymond Chandler, the comics of Art Spiegelman, the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, and recipes from Alice B. Toklas are all featured. More recent authors include Junot Diaz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jonathan Safran Foer, Edwidge Danticat, Gary Shteyngart, and Jhumpa Lahiri. These selections speak to readers at all levels and invite them to try out fresh groupings and remap American literature. A continually updated interactive component at www.amlitintheworld.yale.edu complements the anthology.
Refereed Journal Articles
Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition (1901) is overwhelmingly understood as an historical novel. Critics have again and again focused on its journalistic historicity; its ambivalent racial politics; its attitudes towards assimilation, separatism, vengeance, and resistance; and Chesnutt’s alleged biographical identification with various characters. This generalized preoccupation with the explicitly political or historical contours of the novel frequently precludes closer scrutiny of Chesnutt’s formal literary strategies. This paper shirks that tendency by considering The Marrow of Tradition not just as an historical novel, but also as a novel of consciousness. Viewing the novel from the perspective of its representation of consciousness both reframes its historiographical bearing and opens up new ways to understand Chesnutt’s fiction and nineteenth-century African American literature. It argues that the location of black consciousness in the novel is the soliloquy, and demonstrates that the soliloquy should be understood as a form of “embodied consciousness”: a narrative mode endowed with the expressivity of theatrical gesture. It further examines these performative gestures in relation to additional patterns in the novel: first, the destructive circulation of written, material texts; and second, recurring images of corporeality and physical breakdown wherein one’s capacity for speech is endangered. As they are invulnerable to such formal compromise and breakdown, Chesnutt’s soliloquies together produce a counter-archive of vernacular memory and reveal how dramatic form functions in the novel more broadly.
The paper looks anew at Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) by comparing textual divergences between the published novel and an earlier typeset manuscript with Wright’s handwritten revisions from roughly 1939. It argues that the author’s revisions render protagonist Bigger Thomas an icon of global class conflict rather than a national figure of racial tension. By revealing the significant thematic continuities among three theoretical essays that bookend the writing of Native Son, the paper shows how the novel’s restructuring contributed to Wright's ongoing elaboration of a globalist class consciousness, highlighting his desire to produce work that transcended both national and racial categories. Finally, it considers Native Son as a work of “world literature.” By examining “translations” of the novel into various postcolonial or Third World contexts, it argues that the global afterlife of Native Son is not a departure from the localized vision of the novel, but rather the recapitulation of its explicit globalism. The article thereby challenges critical convention dividing Wright's career cleanly into two phases: his American works, and the travel writings of his later self-exile. It emphasizes on the contrary that Wright's worldliness should be traced back through his revision of Native Son and earlier critical essays—ultimately finding his globalist class-consciousness not a late-stage development, but rather a single theme that unifies his entire oeuvre.
This essay examines a longstanding normative assumption in the historiography of slavery in the Atlantic world: that enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants were bought and sold as “commodities,” thereby “dehumanizing” them and treating them as things rather than as persons. Such claims have, indeed, helped historians conceptualize how New World slavery contributed to the ongoing development of global finance capitalism—namely, that slaves represented capital as well as labor. But the recurring paradigm of the “dehumanized” or “commodified” slave, I argue, obscures more than it reveals. My article suggests that historians of slavery must reconsider the “commodification” of enslaved humanity. In so doing, it offers three interrelated arguments: first, that scholarship on slavery has not adequately or coherently defined the precise mechanisms by which enslaved people were supposedly “commodified”; second, that the normative position implied by the insistence that persons were treated as things further mystifies or clouds our collective historical vision of enslavement; and third, that we should abandon a strictly Marxian conception of the commodity—and its close relation to notions of “social death"—in favor of Igor Kopytoff’s theory of the commodity-as-process. It puts forth in closing a reconstituted conceptualization of the slave relation wherein enslaved people are understood as thoroughly human.
This essay tackles a question that has preoccupied Francophone postcolonial studies for several decades—namely, what is believed almost unanimously to be the absence of a Francophone equivalent to the slave narrative in English. My article challenges this assumption by reconciling the legacies of slavery in both the Anglophone and Francophone “arenas” to examine their overlap in the French Creole culture of Louisiana. It focuses on the “other” slave narratives—the ex-slave interviews collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, specifically those from Louisiana, as well as Texas and Arkansas, that were translated from French or Creole, include French or Creole words or passages, or recount the history of French slavery in the United States. These previously unacknowledged texts reveal how the histories of American and French colonial slaveries converged to produce an “unwritten” Francophone slave narrative tradition.
"Wright's Globalism," The Cambridge Companion to Richard Wright. Edited by Glenda Carpio. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, forthcoming.
This essay takes a long view of Wright’s work, arguing that his racial consciousness always extended beyond national boundaries and was forged from a globalist perspective. This outlook is not, as some critics have maintained, a late-stage development in Wright’s career, but rather the predominant theme that unites his oeuvre with a single continuous thread. Wright’s work—including his fiction, essays, journalism, poetry, letters, and unpublished pieces spanning from the beginning of his career in the mid-1930s to his deathbed writings of 1960—crystallizes his globalist imagination even as it shifts registers: from an anti-fascist political solidarity framed by Marxist internationalism, to an affective kinship among formerly colonized peoples expressed through existentialist proto-postcolonialism, and finally to a transcendent poetics in search of universal humanism.
Non-Refereed Journal Articles
This piece considers the appearance of Jesuit missionary Alonso de Sandoval (1577-1652) in Afro-Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella's 1983 novel, Changó, el gran putas, translated into English in 2010 by Jonathan Tittler as Changó, the Biggest Badass. By way of Zapata Olivella, it examines Sandoval's treatise De instauranda Aethiopum salute, which ventriloquizes and refracts the voices of enslaved Afro-Cartagenans. The postmodern surrealist novel revisits and transforms these encounters in the early modern theological text, thereby rendering Sandoval's representations of joyous redemption into duplicity, fugitivity, and resistance.
"On Élie and Eric," Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora 117: 13.
A contribution to Transition's “I Can't Breathe” forum, an online space for responses to the murders of unarmed black Americans by police. My piece, which was chosen for publication in the print edition of the magazine, reflected upon the similarities between the death of Eric Garner in New York City and the death of an enslaved sugar refiner named Élie on the Montagne plantation in nineteenth-century Martinique.
This article assesses the longstanding myths and debates surrounding the supposed African ancestry of German Romantic composer Ludwig van Beethoven. It argues that the “blackwashing” of Beethoven against all historical likelihood is a failed attempt at historical revisionism—while endeavoring to claim Beethoven's genius as a testament to black accomplishment, this recycled and unfounded factoid has had the adverse effect of obscuring the careers and contributions of actual black composers, including Joseph Boulogne de Saint-Georges, Samuel ColeridgeTaylor, William Grant Still. Moreover, this tendency to cast Beethoven as African is mirrored by frequent attempts to “whitewash” the reputations of African-descended composers by referring to them by the names of their white contemporaries (e.g. Black Mozart, Black Mahler). I further suggest that, in order to resolve these conundrums, the classical music canon must be reimagined with race at its center.
"Hurston in the Making," Review of Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave (Amistad/HarperCollins), Public Books, forthcoming.
"David Dabydeen," Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, edited by Franklin W. Knight and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Oxford: Oxford UP, forthcoming. [author copy]
"Edgar Austin Mittelhölzer," Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, edited by Franklin W. Knight and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Oxford: Oxford UP, forthcoming. [author copy]
The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography is a major biographical reference work covering the lives and legacies of notable Afro-descendants from the Caribbean and Latin American, men and women from all eras and walks of life. This groundbreaking resource provides unprecedented coverage of the region through the lives of its people. Biographical records on Afro-Latin American and Caribbean lives are in short supply. Even as new historical scholarship has invigorated the international study of Latin America and Atlantic history, and even as new departments of Latin American Studies have flourished, no large-scale biographical reference work devoted to black subjects in the region has ever been attempted. This is a surprise given the enormous influence the people of these areas have had on history, culture, and technological achievement. The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography (DCALAB) will be published in print with over two thousand in-depth historical biographies of Caribbeans and Latin Americans.