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Chapter 4 - “Faithful Reflection” and the Work of African American Literary History

from Part II - Racial Citizenship

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2022

John Ernest
Affiliation:
University of Delaware
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Summary

This essay sketches the field of African American literary history from the nineteenth century through two concepts I take from Henry Highland Garnet and David Walker: “faithful reflection” and the “spirit of inquiry.” It asks: What would it mean for American literature and American democracy to represent black citizens faithfully? What would faithful representation mean for racism as structure and ideology? How have black writers theorized, invoked, and used the literary as a form of critical inquiry? Garnet and others ground faithful reflection in a democratic ethos antithetical to the racial capitalism animating U.S. citizenship. The spirit of inquiry assumes the power to ask questions and seek answers, a power often denied the black citizens that literary history often treats as objects of study. It invokes the epistemological and methodological challenges black subjects and Black Studies have historically foregrounded. The history I offer here does not flow chronologically. Instead, I follow concepts that develop asynchronously across time as much as they were revised and revived over time. After grounding the essay’s framework through Garnet and Walker, I trace these complementary practices through Phillis Wheatley’s poetic imagination and literary critical responses that draw on her to visualize black literary history’s generative work.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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