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Race and Blackness in Premodern Arabic Literature  

Rachel Schine

The signal works of poetry that prominently feature racialized Blackness in early Arabic literature (c. ad 500–1250) include works composed by authors of Afro-Arab heritage as well as by Arab authors who satirized and panegyrized Black subjects. These poets include the pre-Islamic author ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād and the ʿAbbasid-era figures al-Mutanabbī and Ibn al-Rūmī, and thus reflect the shift, across an extensive timeline, from a local, Bedouin poetics to a self-styled cosmopolitan, courtly aesthetic characterized as muḥdath, or modernist. The works are situated not only within the changing conventions of genre, but also within an arc that traces the emergence of new race concepts and racialized social institutions in the transition from the pre-Islamic era to Islam and from the early conquests to ʿAbbasid imperialization. Critical instances of these works’ intertextual movements demonstrate how racial logic accretes in various Arab-Muslim textual traditions, showing how poetry intersects with popular epic as well as high literary geographical, ethnological, and commentarial corpuses. As verse moves across a myriad of later literary forms, its context-specific representations of racial difference are recontextualized and received in ways that contribute to a broader transregional and transtemporal discourse of racialized Blackness.

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Brown/Brownness/Mestizaje  

Franco A. Laguna Correa

The representation of both individuality and collectivity in Latina/o literatures can be understood in terms of racial representation as well as in relation to colonial and neocolonial Weltanschauungen or worldviews. The colonial past of Spanish/Latin America imposed economic and biopolitical conditions based on a casta system that assigned different levels of humanness and determined the life expectations of human beings depending on a racial structure of signification that placed skin coloration and racial phenotype at the center of the colonial biopolitical order. Within the US context, this structure of racial signification has historically relied on the conceptualization of Brownness as a starting point to access the overarching terms of mestizaje/miscegenation, which through the early stages of the formation of the Latina/o literary canon have been both racial and literary tropes that have distinguished the coming-of-age process of Americanization—without losing their ties to Latinidad—of Mexican Americans/Chicanas/os, Puerto Ricans/Nuyoricans, Dominican Americans, U.S. Central Americans, and Cuban Americans, among other communities with cultural and ethnic links to Spanish/Latin America. Although since the first decades of the 20th century mestizaje became in Spanish/Latin America a synthetic racial category that underscored dark Brownness as the result of the racial intermix between Spanish and Indigenous people, the historical development of the term mestizaje hasn’t had the same connotations among U.S. Latina/o communities. Mestizaje in the United States, instead, has been read mostly in relation to Mexican Americans and Chicana/o collectivities, with a geopolitical focus on Mexican American people from the Borderlands. From approximately 2010 to 2020, the emergence of the term “Latinx” has shed critical light upon historically erased collectivities that in both the United States and Spanish/Latin America have been placed within the racialized boundaries of Blackness. Thus, the biolegitimization of “Afrolatinx” and “Afro-Latin American” communities not only has acquired an identity politics signification but has also entered the literary imagination of new Latina/o literatures. Departing from this critical perspective, the maintenance of the Latina/o literary field requires the development of an organic engagement with the political and cultural signifiers “Latinx” and “Afrolatinx,” as each of these terms brings into the Latina/o literary realm the continuous exploration of racial, gender, and national identity fluidity among Latina/o communities.

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Early African American Print Culture  

Eric Gardner

Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices. But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.

Article

Race and Renaissance Literature  

Dennis Austin Britton

There is no single understanding of race to which everyone subscribes; it is a protean concept, accommodating various notions of human difference at the historical moments in which they emerge. Literary texts therefore do not represent a singular racial epistemology shared among Renaissance authors, readers, and audiences; rather, they demonstrate conflicting views about race, how it is determined, and what it tells us about individuals and groups of people. Scholars of Renaissance literature have explored what concepts of race do in specific cultural contexts, and the various ways racial differences were represented and understood before the advent of racial science in the late 17th century. Renaissance usages of the words race, raza, razza, and their linguistic equivalents denote, in their most benign sense, genealogy and lineage. Usages of these terms, nevertheless, locate individuals within genealogical and biological networks and insist that such networks are important to social organization. Race works as a tool for social organization that justifies varied types of domination, and in the Renaissance it drew from and informed established discourses of power—primarily religion, gender, and class. The concept bares vestiges of the word’s original definitions, asserting that certain aspects of identity are inheritable and inalterable, and then uses those aspects of identity to naturalize social hierarchies—White over Black, Christian over non-Christian, European over non-European. Race thus is a concept that intersects with cultural, somatic, sexual, and religious difference, and the Renaissance may be understood as a moment when race competes for dominance as a system of classification, justifying the rights of individuals and groups to rule over, disenfranchise, violate, and enslave others.

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Postcolonial Fiction, Oceans, and Seas  

Kritish Rajbhandari

While Pan-Africanist and Pan-Asianist movements from the early to mid-20th century sought transnational alliances against Western imperialism, anti-colonial nationalisms during the late 20th century emphasized national independence and sovereignty and forged notions of culture and identity based on land and territorial belonging. Hence, the territorial nation as the primary site of anti-colonial struggle emerged as the dominant scale of critique within the field of postcolonial literary studies. However, the transnational turn in the humanities has also brought into focus aspects of postcolonial fiction that look beyond colonial and national boundaries. Postcolonial writers and critics have turned to the ocean and the seas for alternative spatialization to challenge land-based methodologies overdetermined by nationalist and area-studies paradigms. Scholars have theorized different spatial scales for ocean-based criticisms drawn from geographical, historical, and cultural contexts. In all three of the world’s major oceans, the sea has been a site of imperial interpellation as well as a traumatic passage into slavery, servitude, and exile. Scholars of the Black Atlantic have contributed oceanic frameworks that center the sea and the ship as the locus for Afro-diasporic experiences, whether as a fluid foundation for a transnational community, as a site of collective memory, or as an abyss of the Middle Passage that continues to structure Black lives globally. Writers from the Indian Ocean and Pacific regions have similarly sought to recuperate alternative maritime histories and indigenous epistemologies that contest the narratives of the ocean as an empty space claimed by Western imperialisms and globalization. Scholars of ocean-oriented postcolonial writing have emphasized horizontal modes of relations, such as Afro-Asian connections in the Indian Ocean or indigenous-indigenous connections in the Pacific. Postcolonial fictions often deploy forms of magical realism, speculation, pastiche, and fragmentation to convey the absences and silences in the historical archive and alternative epistemologies and ontologies of the colonized. These texts revisit the sea voyages of the past from the perspectives of the enslaved, indentured, and colonized subjects, enabling ways to rethink narratives of globalization from the periphery. They include fictions that depict littoral regions and communities as a site of physical and cultural permeability between the land and the sea, undermining territorial or ethnic exclusivism. While some novels are diasporic narratives reflecting on transoceanic migrations, whether forced or voluntary, undertaken in the past, others depict the perils of sea journeys undertaken by present-day migrants in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. Certain fictions also engage with the impacts of continuing militarization of world’s oceans, such as the construction of military bases and nuclear tests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Still others draw on indigenous knowledge to shed light on the tenuous relationship with the ocean while depicting impacts of global warming and climate change on the precarious existence of both human and nonhuman beings of the sea.

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Circumventing Racialism through mulataje  

José F. Buscaglia-Salgado

Mulataje is a neologism, reclaimed in 2003 in Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean by José F. Buscaglia-Salgado. Prior to this reclamation, the term was used sparingly and in a very limited way to refer to “racial mixing” in societies that were predominantly composed of Afro- and Euro-descendants in the Caribbean and Brazil. As such it was simply an adaptation and a synonym of mestizaje, used in the context of the Afro-diasporic populations of the Atlantic World. Conceptually reformulated, in its current acceptation, mulataje identifies a counterhegemonic culture that, since the earliest times in modernity, has moved against all colonialist calculations aimed at the possibility of moving beyond and leaving behind all things racial. As a most fundamental practice of being and of knowing informing individual self-conception and social action in the modern colonial world, mulataje speaks to the movements, great and small, individual and collective, that have attempted to outmaneuver all racial codes and racialist conventions as they have informed the distribution of labor and the allocation of natural resources and political rights past and present. Ultimately, the movement of mulataje points to the possibility of dethroning race as a valid and privileged category of knowledge.

Article

Hayden, Robert  

Christopher Buck and Derik Smith

Robert Hayden was made poet laureate of Senegal in 1966 and ten years later became America’s first black poet laureate. He was acclaimed as “People’s Poet” early in his career, but he was largely ignored by the American literary establishment until late in life. In his poetics of history and his nuanced representations of black life, Hayden’s art showed that the African American experience was quintessentially American, and that blackness was an essential aspect of relentlessly heterogeneous America. As he figured it in his late-in-life poem, “[American Journal],” national identity was best metaphorized in “bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans / hard hat yarmulka mini skirt.” Hayden’s archetypal efforts to demonstrate the kaleidoscopic quality of both black and American identity produced an art that transcended propagandistic categories of race and nation, and pathed the way for a large cadre of late 20th and early 21st century poets who, like Hayden, understand themselves to be simultaneously black and American, but ultimately human.

Article

Race in Performance  

Sean Metzger

How are race and performance implicated within one another? Performance understood as theatrical practice extends back to antiquity before modern understandings of race emerged. Moreover, performance as a larger field of inquiry extends far beyond theater and includes embodied spatial practices, live events that hinge on communitas, patterns of behavior, as well as the presentation of certain abilities ranging from sports to rhetoric. Given such broad associations, performance can become a vehicle for the instantiation of race. Race—as psychic, material, and social processes of human differentiation—reveals in turn certain dynamics of performance; for example, the recourse to and privileging of human agency in discussions of performance frequently leaves uninterrogated the very category of human often thought to animate it. What are the relationships among humans, animals, objects, and technologies? What performs and what can be made to perform? Any attempt to think about how race and performance are bound together raises questions about populations and identificatory actions and feelings. Race in performance suggests how individuals and groups take shape within larger structures of power and suggests the kinds of contradictions and improvisations that might be enacted within said systems. Such dynamics hinge on efficacy, pleasure, and/or discomfort.

Article

Black Women Readers  

Mary I. Unger

Black women readers have innovated various literacies—oral, textual, visual, and digital—as a way to validate their lived experiences, bond with one another, and lobby for their personal and collective agency. During the 18th century, black women made use of both vernacular and print cultures as strategies of survival and emancipation. Throughout the 19th century, they used reading for racial uplift in institutions such as the black press, the black women’s club movement, and literary societies. Moreover, they documented these acts of reading in cultural artifacts such as scrapbooks, which gave them the ability to manipulate print culture in deeply personal and political ways. Throughout these endeavors, black women readers deployed various literacies—reading both “aright” as well as “rogue”—to assert their agency in the era of print. In the 20th century, black women’s reading became even more professionalized in the role of editor, a position that facilitated the circulation and promotion of black women’s writing; this effort became even more urgent toward the end of the century when black feminists formed consciousness-raising groups and established new academic disciplines that depended on the recovery, anthologizing, and reading of black women’s writing. At the same time, from the postwar era through the end of the century, black women readers emerged as a significant reading demographic, courted by publishers who recognized them as a profitable consumer base. Into the 21st century, black women readers have turned to online and digital spaces in which to continue the tradition of reading for liberation and unity. In this way, the act of reading has also provided for black women a way to negotiate their relationships to American culture, each other, as well as themselves.

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Sri Lankan American Literature and Culture  

Dinidu Karunanayake

Despite the prominent work produced by Sri Lankan American writers Michael Ondaatje and Rienzi Crusz since the 1970s, Sri Lankan American literature and culture has maintained a doubly marginalized position in Asian America due to the historical disregard of South Asian America and the dominance of Indian America. Literary and cultural work by writers and artists of the first and second generations reveal how Sri Lankan America is, to use Rajiv Shankar’s phrase, “a part, yet apart” of the South Asian American milieu as well as postcolonial Sri Lankan studies. First-generation writers initially reflect on the common diasporic theme of nostalgia for the land of origin, but their larger body of work is not directly related to “Sri Lankan” topics. For instance, Ondaatje, who gained prominence as a “Canadian postmodernist,” kept Sri Lanka largely peripheral in his early poetry until his 1982 memoir Running in the Family. However, after the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), presaged by the state-sanctioned pogrom of Tamils known as the Black July riots of 1983 that occasioned a second wave of immigration to North America, the volatile political background at home and the national “betrayal” by the Sinhalese Buddhist government became a major thematic motif for Sri Lankan American writing. Indran Amirthanayagam’s 1993 poetry collection The Elephants of Reckoning reveals a new responsibility embraced by the diasporic writer—to recognize that “the dead have tongues” and to pose the question: “What are they saying?” Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) reiterates Amirthanayagam’s position, becoming a blueprint for a new generation of Sri Lankan American writers and popular cultural artists invested in social justice vis-à-vis not only race, ethnicity, and citizenship but also politics of gender and sexuality. Second-generation Sri Lankan American writing such as V. V. Ganeshananthan’s novel Love Marriage (2008) experiments with new archival forms by mediating traumatic “inherited memories” of the civil war, pointing to the future directions of the Sri Lankan American literary and cultural terrain.

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The Reception of African American Literature in Prewar and Postwar Japan  

Keiko Nitta

Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy provided the Japanese with the first known opportunity to observe a major American performing art inspired by black culture: the minstrel show. The “Ethiopian entertainment,” held on the USS Powhatan, presented “Colored ‘Gemmen’ of the North” and “Plantation ‘Niggas’ of the South” to shogunate officials four times in 1854. While this performance initiated a binational cultural exchange, the 1878 tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was an epoch-making event; the group’s successful concerts, given in three cities, offered Japanese audiences their first opportunity to appreciate genuine African-American artistic pieces—spirituals, distinguished from blackface minstrelsy. The Japanese attitude toward African Americans at this initial stage was a mixture of pity and wonder. A growing self-awareness of Japan’s inferior status vis‐à‐vis Western nations, however, gave rise to a strong interest in slavery and racial oppression. The popularity of studies focused on American race problems since 1905, including multiple versions of the biography of Booker T. Washington, attests to prewar intellectuals’ attempt to define the position of the Japanese people by both analogy and contrast with African Americans. In the meantime, a partial translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), serialized from 1897 to 1898 in a liberal paper, the Kokumin, and a translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in 1921 paved the way for Japan’s introduction to the New Negro literature, the first major body of black writings gaining in popularity in the American literary market in the 1920s. Successive publications of works by W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes in translation in the 1930s generated a distinctive artistic backdrop comparable to the American Jazz Age. Various authors of the era—from novelists to haiku poets—learned about literary motifs informed by blackness and began to elaborate their own racial representations to delineate the affectional substructure of modernity. Even though World War II briefly disrupted the expansion of the Japanese literary imagination through the creative inspiration of African Americans, a translation of Richard Wright’s Native Son within the year of the original publication (1940) signifies the persistence of interest throughout the war period. Indeed, defeat in 1945, resentment over the subsequent U.S. occupation, coincident remorse for their country’s imperial aggression, and anger at its eventual rearmament following the Korean War, in conjunction, reoriented postwar authors toward the development of black characters in diverse works over the following four decades. In addition, the civil rights movement facilitated studies in African-American literature in universities from the 1960s onward. Today, African-American literature is one of the most popular areas in English departments in Japan; one can find virtually every subject from the slave narrative to rap music in undergraduate course syllabi.

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Black Arts Publishing and the Politics of Design  

Kinohi Nishikawa

The Black Arts movement heralded an important turn in the history of African American literature. Between 1965 and 1975, a loose confederation of African American poets, playwrights, artists, and intellectuals set out to remake the world in their own image. Fed up with what they considered to be the oppressive logic of Euro-American cultural standards, these practitioners theorized and executed a program of black aesthetic self-determination. Contemporary critics followed suit, emphasizing Black Arts’ conjoined investments in nationalist politics and radical poetics—the discursive level at which the movement reshaped African American letters. That remained the dominant way of understanding the movement until the early 21st century, when scholars began examining Black Arts’ publishing networks and institutions, or the material conditions for creative expression. Since then, scholars have shown how the movement’s effort to redefine the black voice was achieved through a concomitant effort to redesign the black text. Their research has pointed to the need for historicizing the politics of design in this moment of literary transformation. For Black Arts publishers, the work of photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers was important not only for bringing specific literary texts to life but for inviting everyday readers into a robust, race-affirming literary culture.

Article

Women and Writing in Spanish America from Colonial Times through the 20th Century  

Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio

As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.

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African American Children’s Literature  

Brigitte Fielder

African American children’s literature includes a broad array of writing for Black children in the United States. The genre necessarily crosscuts the “children’s literature” and “African American literature” genres. Although Black children have always read literature not intended for them, and scholars have rightly addressed the negative effects of racist depictions on Black child readers, definitions of this genre have most often prioritized writing for children written by African American authors. African American children’s literature is a broad and rich field, with a history originating as early as the 18th century; it includes Black writing addressing children and literature of the present, engaging forms from oral and folkloric traditions to printed books and ranging across a variety of literary genres. Emerging alongside the dominant prioritization of white children and white authors in mainstream publishing, writers of literature for Black children have worked against structural difficulties that continue to leave African American depictions and authors underrepresented in proportion to the country’s Black population. African American children’s literature has also necessarily contended with the preponderance of anti-Black racism in US popular culture, including in white children’s literature. Thus, African American children’s literature has often addressed issues of racial representation and racism in addition to (and often intertwined with) the wide variety of other topics included in this œuvre.