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The first major twenty-first century history of four hundred years of black writing, The Cambridge History of African American Literature presents a comprehensive overview of the literary traditions, oral and print, of African-descended peoples in the United States. Expert contributors, drawn from the United States and beyond, emphasise the dual nature of each text discussed as a work of art created by an individual and as a response to unfolding events in American cultural, political, and social history. Unprecedented in scope, sophistication and accessibility, the volume draws together current scholarship in the field. It also looks ahead to suggest new approaches, new areas of study, and as yet undervalued writers and works. The Cambridge History of African American Literature is a major achievement both as a work of reference and as a compelling narrative and will remain essential reading for scholars and students in years to come.
In the twenty-first century, literary histories may achieve a limited degree of comprehensiveness in dealing with a vast amount of literary and cultural data; the idea that they might be definitive is merely tantalizing. We are cautioned to remember, as Mario J. Valdés and Linda Hutcheon have suggested in Rethinking Literary History: A Dialogue on Theory, that “the literary past” – that is, the past of both literature's production and its reception – is unavoidably interpreted in the light of the present and that literary historians create meaning by ordering and shaping stories about texts and contexts; in short, “economic, political, and broader cultural and social perspectives on issues like race or gender must be brought to bear in the constructing of any literary history today in a different way than in the past.” These premises about writing history assume great importance in a project that focuses on the continuing evolution of African American literature, because the subject is intimately related to such matters as the slave trade and the curious institution of slavery in the United States; the forced merger of African ethnic groups into an identity named African American; new forms of verbal expression which are the consequence of contact among Africans, indigenous peoples, and Europeans; struggles for emancipation and literacy; race as a social dynamic, and the changing ideologies that support the American democratic experiment. The writing of literary history, of course, must cross disciplinary boundaries, for it cannot otherwise provide nuanced reports on the indeterminacy of texts.
One hundred and fifty years ago the first known African American novel was published by the fugitive slave William Wells Brown. Brown was as uncertain about the audience for Clotel, a story about American miscegenation, as he was about the kind of text he was creating. He continued to experiment with the form and “test” his audience by publishing variations of the story for a decade. For a people prevented from reading and writing by law, it is not surprising that novel writing and novelists have since become highly valued within African American culture. The very idea of an “African American novel” then and now precipitates an intense debate about the form and function of any belletristic genre. Embedded in the term is a history of achievement and a cultural heritage that raises as many questions as it answers.
The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel presents new essays covering the one hundred and fifty year history of the African American novel. Experts in the field from the US and Europe address some of the major issues in the genre: passing, the Protest novel, the Blues novel, and womanism among others. The essays are full of fresh insights for students into the symbolic, aesthetic, and political function of canonical and non-canonical fiction. Chapters examine works by Ralph Ellison, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, and many others. They reflect a range of critical methods intended to prompt new and experienced readers to consider the African American novel as a cultural and literary act of extraordinary significance. This volume, including a chronology and guide to further reading, is an important resource for students and teachers alike.
The African-Caribbean presence in the United States can be read as a paradox of discrimination: “first, an invisibility (in Ellisonian terms) because the blackness of their skin color, which relegates them to classification as Afro-Americans, which leaves their special needs as immigrants relatively unattended; and second, a double visibility - as blacks to whites, and as foreigners to native blacks.” Literary representations of the dynamics between African diasporic populations in the US - from the erasure and/or collapsing of all cultural differences, to contention between US-born African Americans and Caribbean immigrants, to calls for social and political allegiances - will be the focus of this chapter. Particular attention will be paid to the works of Caribbean-American writers, such as Paule Marshall and Edwidge Danticat.