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Act like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity
     

Act like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity

by Crispin Sartwell, Sartwell
 

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Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X—their words speak firmly, eloquently, personally of the impact of white America on the lives of African-Americans. Black autobiographical discourses, from the earliest slave narratives to the most contemporary urban raps, have each in their own way gauged and confronted the

Overview

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X—their words speak firmly, eloquently, personally of the impact of white America on the lives of African-Americans. Black autobiographical discourses, from the earliest slave narratives to the most contemporary urban raps, have each in their own way gauged and confronted the character of white society. For Crispin Sartwell, as philosopher, cultural critic, and white male, these texts, through their exacting insights and external perspective, provide a rare opportunity, a means of glimpsing and gaining access to contents and core of white identity.

There is, Sartwell contends, a fundamental elusiveness to that identity. Whiteness defines itself as normative, as a neutral form of the human condition, marking all other forms of identity as "racial" or "ethnic" deviations. Invisible to itself, white identity seeks to define its essence over and against those other identities, in effect defining itself through opposition and oppression. By maintaining fictions of black licentiousness, violence, and corruption, white identity is able to cast itself as humane, benevolent, and pure; the stereotype fabricates not only the oppressed but the oppressor as well. Sartwell argues that African-American autobiography perceives white identity from a particular and unique vantage point; one that is knowledgeable and intimate, yet fundamentally removed from the white world and thus unencumbered by its obfuscating claims to normativity.

Throughout this provocative work, Sartwell steadfastly recognizes the many ways in which he too is implicated in the formulation and perpetuation of racial attitudes and discourse. In Act Like You Know, he challenges both himself and others to take a long, hard look in the mirror of African-American autobiography, and to find there, in the light of those narratives, the visible features of white identity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This latest contribution to "whiteness studies" alternates between being provocative and intelligent and being irritating and repetitive. Sartwell's primary focus appears to be African American autobiography, but just as fascinating to him is his own status as a white scholar attempting "both to inscribe my own racism and to elide it or even destroy it." Thus, this fairly accessible work of criticism tries to be both "autobiographical theory as well as theory of autobiography." It succeeds in neither completely, but offers some cogent insights along the way about the limits of the slave-narrative genre; Malcolm X's attempt to unify and thus empower the African American self; and the "deeply subversive" potential of rap music, a subject white scholars seem never to tire of. But as a writer, Sartwell, a professor of humanities and philosophy at Penn State, Harrisburg, is jargon-ridden ("ejection is ejaculation") and repetitive, often at the same time. He plays at reaching a broader-than-academic audience by offering self-congratulatory comments about identifying with "Malcolm" ("I'm a traitor to my race") and having black body language ("I'd had that since junior high"). He disdains white students who want their texts "pre-chewed," but then assumes statements like "the white man is culture, the black woman nature" are obvious and need no explanation. Ultimately, the primary texts Sartwell addresses are in no way enhanced by this explanatory text, nor will many readers be interested in Sartwell's "obviously problematic" relation to his subject matter. (June)
Library Journal
These two books belong to a growing body of work that examines white identity through African American writings. Historian Roediger (Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, Norton, 1994) here collects illuminating views of "whiteness" from black writers ranging from such early figures as the revolutionary David Walker to contemporaries like Toni Morrison. Some of the expected sources are here, including James Baldwin's Going To Meet the Man and Richard Wright's Black Boy, but among several delightful surprises are George S. Schuyler's essay "Our White Folks" and Alice Walker's "The Dummy in the Window: Joel Chandler Harris and the Invention of Uncle Remus." Although the anthology includes a range of perspectives, Roediger has essentially excluded "the more reflexively antiwhite tradition represented (at times) by the nation of Islam, or by Leonard Jeffries's recent writing on whites." This results in some notable omissions, including Malcom X. Still, this is a valubable collection that should go a long way in helping us to understand America's troubled racial relations. Recommended for all collections. Sartwell (philosophy, Pennsylvania State Univ.) analyzes the perception of whiteness in the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Malcolm X, and contemporary rap music. He contends that whites, in seeking to establish their identity as the norm, ultimately render themselves invisible. Furthermore, white identity is typically constructed in comparison with nonwhite identities, often portraying the latter as inferior, he notes. Through the writings of African Americans, Sartwell believes whiteness can be viewed in a more objective manner. At the same time that he seeks to elucidate the texts, he grapples with his own whiteness. In the process, he has presented an engaging though disturbing investigation of the complex politics of identity. Recommended for academic libraries.Louis J. Parascandola, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Campus, NY

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780226735269
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
07/28/1998
Edition description:
1
Pages:
222
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.36(h) x 0.86(d)

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