A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama

Overview

In this series of interlocking essays, which had their start as lectures inspired by the presidency of Barack Obama, Robert Burns Stepto sets canonical works of African American literature in conversation with Obama’s Dreams from My Father. The elegant readings that result shed surprising light on unexamined angles of works ranging from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Stepto draws our attention to the ...

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Overview

In this series of interlocking essays, which had their start as lectures inspired by the presidency of Barack Obama, Robert Burns Stepto sets canonical works of African American literature in conversation with Obama’s Dreams from My Father. The elegant readings that result shed surprising light on unexamined angles of works ranging from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Stepto draws our attention to the concerns that recur in the books he takes up: how protagonists raise themselves, often without one or both parents; how black boys invent black manhood, often with no models before them; how protagonists seek and find a home elsewhere; and how they create personalities that can deal with the pain of abandonment. These are age-old themes in African American literature that, Stepto shows, gain a special poignancy and importance because our president has lived through these situations and circumstances and has written about them in a way that refreshes our understanding of the whole of African American literature.

Stepto amplifies these themes in four additional essays, which investigate Douglass’s correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe; Willard Savoy’s novel Alien Land and its interracial protagonist; the writer’s understanding of the reader in African American literature; and Stepto’s account of his own schoolhouse lessons, with their echoes of Douglass’ and Obama’s experiences.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Stepto, author and Yale University Professor, debuts a work based on his lectures that juxtaposes the life-changing experiences of Barack Obama with prolific African-American writers, W. E. B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, and Frederick Douglass among them. Composed in two parts and six essays, Stepto begins by drawing from Obama's book, Dreams from My Father, to examine his struggle to find identity as a bi-racial American male while dealing with the absence of his black father. Stepto astutely relates Obama to Douglass by referencing Douglass's historical autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, from 1855, in which Douglass examined identity. Parallels are drawn between the two leaders; both struggled to come into their own as black men among people with little or no concept of black male identity. By juxtaposing Dreams from My Father with a variety of texts, including critical pieces on African-American literature, Stepto illuminates the lasting validity of these classics and their importance to our modern times. (May)
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
No single work was more important in the revolution in close reading that electrified African American literary studies in the 1980s than was Robert Burns Stepto's From Behind the Veil, a work as deeply insightful as it was engagingly written. Stepto reminded us, after Keats, that one dives into the lake not merely or necessarily to swim to the other side, but to enjoy the dive. Let us hope, at the end of another era of reductive thematic (race, class, gender) criticism, that this marvelous book can once again play that salutary role in redirecting readers to the sheer splendors of close reading, reminding us of the pleasures of luxuriating in the language of African American texts.
Washington Post - Jabari Asim
Provocative… Stepto discusses literature about as well as anyone, and it's a genuine pleasure to follow his joyful excursions through Douglass, Du Bois, Morrison and others.
PopMatters - W. Scott Poole
Stepto's incisive analysis involves, for example, a very close reading of how writers from James Weldon Johnson to Du Bois to Obama himself have written about their school day blues, their initiation into racial difference by white classmates… Stepto's willingness to confront the white reader of African American classics becomes, in the end, the great strength of this book… In the introduction, Stepto quotes Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) description of how, in America, African Americans are 'at once unseen and constantly observed.' Stepto's meditations force the white reader, including and especially the allegedly 'color-blind' reader in the Age of Obama, to confront this paradox, this internal security system of America's racial and racist system of control.
John F. Callahan
Robert Stepto's A Home Elsewhere is a tour de force. Literary history and autobiography flow in its pages until one is aware of what Ellison called time's 'nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead.' In his introduction Stepto writes of realizing 'in broad terms that there was a project to pursue that involved being attentive to how we read African American literature at the present moment' of Barack Obama's election. In mid-sentence, Stepto responds to his own call, and his cadenced subtle prose becomes a prose of revelation: 'knowing, and actually being stunned by the fact, that an African American writer is our president.' Reading the chapters on Douglass and Obama, and Du Bois and Obama, I couldn't shake the feeling that all of Stepto's distinguished work as literary scholar (From Behind the Veil) and autobiographer (Blue as the Lake) prepared him in a unique, almost providential way to write this book. A scene of communion opens up in his pages. There stands Douglass, there is Du Bois, there Obama, approaching tentatively until Stepto gallops up, bends down, lifts all three writers upon his back, and, hooves pounding the earth, himself soon becomes a son of Pegasus. All four fly freely through air and sky, the reader borne aloft in the updraft.
Library Journal
This is a collection of essays both timely and classic by Stepto (English, African American studies & American studies, Yale Univ.; From Behind the Veil). Part 1 reproduces the author's 2009 W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard, which consider classic African American writings from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to Toni Morrison's more contemporary fiction. He pulls out themes related to African American and biracial experience such as abandonment, seeking home and community, and inventing black manhood, and explores how these are also presented in President Obama's memoir, Dreams of My Father. Part 2 includes previously published pieces further considering African American literature, as well as Stepto's highly acclaimed essay on "schoolhouse episodes," which relates his personal memoirs of the educational experience. VERDICT Useful to students and researchers in a variety of academic disciplines and of interest to general readers concerned with the African American experience, American literature, and contemporary events.—Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ., Philadelphia
Washington Post
Provocative...Stepto discusses literature about as well as anyone, and it's a genuine pleasure to follow his joyful excursions through Douglass, Du Bois, Morrison and others.
— Jabari Asim
popmatters.com
Stepto's incisive analysis involves, for example, a very close reading of how writers from James Weldon Johnson to Du Bois to Obama himself have written about their school day blues, their initiation into racial difference by white classmates...Stepto's willingness to confront the white reader of African American classics becomes, in the end, the great strength of this book...In the introduction, Stepto quotes Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) description of how, in America, African Americans are "at once unseen and constantly observed." Stepto's meditations force the white reader, including and especially the allegedly "color-blind" reader in the Age of Obama, to confront this paradox, this internal security system of America's racial and racist system of control.
— W. Scott Poole
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674050969
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2010
  • Series: The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures Series , #9
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert B. Stepto is Professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative.
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