What constitutes “blackness” in American culture? And who gets to define whether or not someone is truly African American? Is a struggling hip-hop artist more “authentic” than a conservative Supreme Court justice? In Authentic Blackness J. Martin Favor looks to the New Negro Movement—also known as the Harlem Renaissance—to explore early challenges to the idea that race is a static category.
Authentic Blackness looks at the place of the “folk”—those African Americans “furthest down,” in the words of Alain Locke—and how the representation of the folk and the black middle class both spurred the New Negro Movement and became one of its most serious points of contention. Drawing on vernacular theories of African American literature from such figures as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker as well as theorists Judith Butler and Stuart Hall, Favor looks closely at the work of four Harlem Renaissance fiction writers: James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, and Jean Toomer. Arguing that each of these writers had, at best, an ambiguous relationship to African American folk culture, Favor demonstrates how they each sought to redress the notion of a fixed black identity. Authentic Blackness illustrates how “race” has functioned as a type of performative discourse, a subjectivity that simultaneously builds and conceals its connections with such factors as class, gender, sexuality, and geography.
About the Author
J. Martin Favor is Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College.
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The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance
By J. Martin Favor
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Discourses of Black Identity: The Elements of Authencity
Who is African American? What defines blackness? These are questions to which we often pose "commonsense" responses. Americans—both black and white—invoke racial categories with regularity. More often than not, we have an intuitive sense of who belongs to what group even if we can't exactly articulate why. If we explore these questions with a little more rigor, however, we begin to see that our notions of racial identity are fraught with complexity, contradiction, and paradox.
F. James Davis's 1991 study Who Is Black? offers a historical discussion of how, from colonial times forward, the legal precedent and social custom have helped define blackness along the lines of the "one- drop rule." Yet even (or perhaps especially) the law has been inconsistent about which of us "qualify" as African American. When it comes to attempts to quantify the amount of "black blood" in a person, there is no single standard that defines African American identity in the eyes of the state.
The legal status of blackness, however significant, is no more culturally important than people's everyday lived experience of their own racial identity. A cursory and anecdotal glance at the subject revealsthat—even outside the rules and strictures of the law—the definition of blackness is constantly being invented, policed, transgressed, and contested. When hip-hop artists remind themselves and their audiences to "stay black" or "keep it real," they are implicitly suggesting that there is a recognizable, repeatable, and agreed upon thing that we might call black authenticity. By the same token, one can still hear the epithet "Oreo" being tossed at certain people; generally proffered as an insult, it suggests that such a person is black on the outside but white on the inside. The term is intended to question a person's authenticity regardless of phenotype. A dark-skinned person can be "internally white" while a light-skinned person might have all the qualities of "real blackness." Furthermore, the "Oreo" insult implies that the definition of blackness itself has foundations outside physical pigmentation. In common speech, we see that our notions of African American identity rely on complex, though perhaps not thoroughly examined, intersections of attitude, style, tradition and—most important for this study—class, gender, and geography.
Marlon Riggs's documentary film of 1995, Black Is, Black Ain't is one of the latest efforts by African American artists to examine and question this notion of black authenticity. The title of the film itself points to the difficulty of explicitly defining African American identity in any short-hand fashion; it refuses to delineate the boundaries of blackness even as it invokes the category as truly experienced and, indeed, necessary. There is something out there we call (and believe we "know" to be) blackness, even if it is difficult to say exactly what it is. In his efforts to expand our sense of African American identity, Riggs draws comparisons between himself as a gay filmmaker, feminist scholars, Ivy League graduates, and members of the middle class. What they all have in common is that they are phenotypically black; they also share the fact that they suffer what we might call a crisis of authenticity. They have all been accused of being not "truly" African American. That is, sexuality, attitudes toward gender, and class status have somehow rendered their racial status as African Americans less "real." Again, we must push beyond skin color if we are to discuss who is black and how blackness is defined.
Riggs's film takes pains to point out that these crises of authenticity are not merely contemporary phenomena. African American social and intellectual history is replete with examples of the struggle over the definition of black identity and its corollary of authenticity. The perceived necessity to delineate ideologically and aesthetically that which is most "real" about African American experiences has been a driving force behind social and artistic movements. In the discussion that follows, I will focus mainly on the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement or the New Negro Renaissance. I choose this period between the world wars not because it is either particularly unusual or famous but rather because the artists and intellectuals of the era were especially self-conscious about their (re) construction of African American identity. The very idea of the "New" Negro implies an "Old" Negro who is somehow outdated, inadequate, or insufficient for the new cultural moment; the question of what constitutes blackness has to be rethought and reasserted. A sense of "Renaissance" calls up images not only of the flowering of European culture but also of rebirth, the idea that African American arts and letters must be born anew to reflect the concerns of a new age. Yet even at moments of great cultural achievement, are the redefinitions of racial identity and reconstructions of aesthetics without their discontents? The goal may be more accurately to represent the African American experience, but can there ever be such a thing as the African American experience? How did artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance (or any period) struggle to paint a more representative or authentic portrait of black Americans? Is such an undertaking even possible given the diversity of people one might call African American?
My purpose here is to examine various utterances that g o into the formation of the critical discourse of literary blackness, and to demonstrate that while some utterances may indeed provide fruitful means of examining texts, they may also limit the ways in which one can read African American literature. By privileging certain African American identities and voices over others, the critic of African American literature often restricts too severely his or her scope of intellectual inquiry into the construction of racial identity. Further, certain privileged utterances also pose problems for the artist who creates works dealing with the topic of black identity. I submit that many writers feel the necessity of writing themselves into a privileged discourse of black identity, yet some authors, as they engage in a specific discourse of blackness, also undermine a "natural"— or, more precisely, "naturalized"—sense of African American literary identity by asking pointed questions about the underlying ideologies of "race" and engaging in a sometimes playful, sometimes disturbing destabilization of the black subject.
First I shall consider the critical discourse of blackness that places the "folk"—southern, rural, and poor—at its forefront; how and to what ends did such a discourse come into being? How, then, is the artist to deal with, say, a member of the Northern urban middle class whose relation to questions of everything from economics to orature might be substantially different from his or her "folk" counterpart? Moreover, why are certain utterances —especially those emanating from (a construction of) the "folk"—accorded a greater value, a larger measure of "authenticity," than others? Both Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have touched on these issues at some length. Indeed, both scholars have developed theories of African American literature that are highly invested in specific notions of folk identity.
Baker takes a vernacular approach to the study of black literary history. He writes that he desires to demonstrate "how black narrative texts written in English preserve and communicate culturally unique meanings" through forms of cultural expression that represent black subjects in "black" ways. According to Baker, "Afro-American culture is a complex, reflexive enterprise which finds its proper figuration in bluesconceived as matrix." He further describes the blues as "the performance that sings of abysmal poverty and deprivation," and he goes on to say that "each figuration [of the blues] implies the valorization of vernacular facets of American culture." Baker insists on the antielitist exploration of African American culture; he implies that the best way to understand blackness in America is to scrutinize the lower classes, where, in his view, the most authentic blackness is to be found. Certainly Baker's points are useful in many instances, but does his insistence on a vernacular reading of African American culture and literature neglect some issues of "race" itself? One consequence of Baker's vernacular- centered criticism is to privilege the African American folk and its cultural forms in the discourse of black identity. If the uniqueness of African American culture lies in its folk forms, then the authenticity of folk identity is privileged in the discourse of black identity. This is a powerful model for scholarship, but can it also account for the presence and products of the black middle class? Does this particular vernacular also have r o om for, say, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean and the vernaculars they bring along with them?
Baker's groundbreaking formulation also raises another issue with which a number of Harlem Renaissance authors (and, indeed, African American authors of all periods) struggle, namely, the links between color, "race," and culture. Does a person's racial categorization, the classification of the subject as black, white, or other, necessarily lend a "racial" character to that person's cultural work? Further, how accurately may one describe cultural difference in terms of "race"? Although politics of "race" in the United States have indisputably given rise to specific cultural forms, to what extent are those forms in their origins primarily based on color? In their transmission across generations, do they maintain the imprint of one color, or are they not also greatly inflected by factors such as, class, geography, and gender? Baker's formulation of the African American vernacular begins to get at many of these questions as it acknowledges "racial" culture as always already inflected by class.
Similarly, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has characterized the task of African American literary critics as the study of "the black vernacular tradition ... [in order] to isolate the signifying black difference." The implication is that difference lies only in the vernacular, and that vernacular is a language spoken most often by persons of the folk, or those with a conscious connection to folk culture. Describing his own vernacular theory, Gates writes that "signification is a theory of reading that arises from Afro-American culture; learning how to signify is often part of our adolescent education. That it has not been drawn on before as a theory of criticism attests to its sheer familiarity of form." The implications of this statement for the discourse of black identity are profound. Gates invokes the "common" nature of signification as authority for its use in critical theory. Because signifyin(g), in his vision, marks a certain period in the formation of black identity, that cultural practice may take a central position within that discourse. Indeed, his formulation suggests that "we" does not include persons other than African Americans (unless by some circumstance they were raised in African American culture), privileging in the discourse of identity not only the vernacular but a particularly racial construction of it. Here again the intersection of "race" and culture is significantly inflected by class position. Moreover, Gates's use of "often" has significant implications for the links between color and culture; what is the position of those who did not have signification as part of their adolescent education? Are their culture and their identity somehow less" Afro-" because of their distance from the vernacular? Perhaps not, but their voices may often be less privileged within the discourse of black identity. Emphasizing the unique nature of African American literature, isolating the important singularity that allows us to categorize a work as black or African American, is important, progressive work. Yet returning ultimately to folk culture, or some derivation of it, may also prove problematic because such a strategy never quite destabilizes notions of "race" and difference that can be, and have been, used in the service of political and cultural oppression. The concept of the "folk" as a marker of authentic blackness is a valuable means for understanding African American literary history; it may, however, be even more suggestive when viewed as part of a matrix of possible African American subject positions.
It is important to recognize, however, the political and literary significance of Baker's and Gates's particular discourse formation. The privileging of the folk and vernacular is a pointedly political act in a racialist society. By maintaining the primacy of the folk and folk culture, Baker and Gates, among others, offer resistance to crushing assimilationism and/or naturalization of African American cultural inferiority. Their work is not merely an arbitrary intellectual endeavor, but rather a strategic assertion of cultural pride and political power. They consciously invoke the vernacular in a "deformation of mastery," yet that liberating deformation has pitfalls of its own.
Etienne Balibar, writing about cultures that have promoted racist ideologies, has said the following:
The quest for nationality through race is necessarily doomed, since racial or cultural "purity" is merely the name of this quest, this obsession. Moreover, it always turns out that in actual practice the criteria invested with a "racial" (and a fortiori cultural) meaning are largely criteria of social class; or else they wind up symbolically "selecting" an elite that already happens to be selected by the inequalities of economic and political classes.... These effects run directly counter to the nationalist objective, which is not to re-create an elitism, but to found a populism: not to expose the historical and social heterogeneity of the "people," but to exhibit their essential unity.... the racial-cultural identity of the "true nationals" remains invisible, but it is inferred from (and assured by) its opposite, the alleged, quasihallucinatory visibility of the "false nationals." ... One might as well say that it remains forever uncertain and in danger: that the "false" are too visible will never guarantee that the "true" are visible enough.
Although Balibar here has in mind cultures based on the exclusion of "minorities"— Jews, blacks, immigrants, colonized native populations—we can learn something from this passage about the quest for authenticity and the construction of race within "minority" discourse itself. Indeed, the dynamics of positing authenticity need not differ wildly between a group bent on racial nationalism for destructive, or even genocidal, purposes—anti-immigrant movements, for example—and a group using notions of authenticity to combat racism itself, for instance, certain forms of black nationalism. They both seek to create unity in the face of an "other," and whereas their notions of what constitutes the "elite" will differ, they are both dependent on them. This is not to say that all forms of nationalism are equally beneficial or detrimental. Without nationalism and its corresponding senses of cultural and communal identity, anticolonialist movements might never win the people's right to self-determination and nondomination. So it is not to condemn nationalism as such that I quote Balibar; rather, I point to his formulation because it points to some instructive and occasionally problematic ways in which we imagine ourselves into particular groups based on cultural and racial difference.
Cornel West has suggested much the same thing as Balibar when, in his book Race Matters, he discusses "The Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning." West writes, "Escalating black nationalist sentiments—the notion that America's will to racial justice is weak and therefore black people must close ranks for survival in a hostile country—rests [sic] principally upon claims of racial authenticity." West goes on to discuss the controversy surrounding Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, which publicly raised such questions as "'Is Thomas really black?' 'Is he black enough to be defended?' 'Is he just black on the outside?' "—all questions that will bear a striking significance for the authors in this study, in terms of both their critical histories and their literary fictions. In attempting to answer those kinds of questions, West astutely reminds us that "blackness has no meaning outside of a system of race-conscious people and practices." Given the ideological, class, and gender implications of the Thomas-Hill controversy, we can begin to see how, long after the Harlem Renaissance, the construction of authentic identity—out of largely non-color-related building blocks—remains an issue of fierce debate. After all, the dark-skinned Thomas's color is not at issue. Rather, what is being questioned here is politics, gender, class, and perhaps even Justice Thomas's relationship to some current prevailing notion of the African American folk. That is, is Justice Thomas down with the people in the hood? That West calls the creation of strict notions of authenticity a "pitfall of racial reasoning" demonstrates a need not to reify identity in reaction to oppression but rather to question the assumptions (especially those about purity and difference) that form the foundation of both the oppressor's and the oppressed's identities. Rather than reproducing the system of similarity and difference, we should be seeking to dismantle it.
Excerpted from Authentic Blackness by J. Martin Favor. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Discourses of Black Identity: The Elements of Authenticity 1
2 For a Mess of Pottage: James Weldon Johnson's Ex-Colored Man as (In)authentic Man 25
3 "Colored; Cold. Wrong somewhere.": Jean Toomer's Cane 53
4 A Clash of Birthrights: Nella Larsen, the Feminine, and African American Identity 81
5 Color, Culture, and the Nature of Race: George S. Schuyler's Black No More 111
6 The Possibilities of Multiplicity: Community, Tradition, and African American Subject Positions 137