Post-Race: Contemporary Black Writing
- Althea Prince (Author)
Being Black: Essays. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Janet Gabler-Hover (Author)
Dreaming Black Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History. University Press of Kentucky (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Leo Driedger (Author) and Shiva S. Halli (Author)
Race and Racism: Canada's Challenge. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Carmen Cáliz-Montoro (Author)
Writing from the Borderlands: A Study of Chicano, Afro-Caribbean and Native Literatures in North America. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Karina Vernon
After the publication of Against Race, Paul Gilroy’s bold discussion of political culture beyond the colour line, it has become difficult to read the products of black expressive culture or the products of black literary and political conversation without recalling his critique of the terms that have come to shape that conversation. He suggests that if the debate is to move forward, we must reconsider the usefulness of the idea of "race" itself, reminding us that the latter arose from the dubious nineteenth-century science of racial typology. This was the science that studied the various components of the body, its bones, skulls, hair, lips, noses, eyes, feet, genitals and other physical markers for tell-tale signs of "race." Today "race" as a category is becoming increasingly irrelevant, because the very idea of "race" has, as he puts it, "no ethically defensible place." Anti-racist thinking and action have been impeded by a tarnished vocabulary that continues to invoke "race" while at the same time destroying all possibility of moving beyond "race"-bound thinking. Gilroy calls for a new discourse of "planetary humanism" to "restore the dignity that race-thinking strips away." The four books under review, all of which were published in the same year as Gilroy’s Against Race, and all of which are concerned with diasporic blackness, offer a test of the viability and timeliness of Gilroy’s post-race thinking.
The essays in Carmen Câliz-Montoro’s Writing from the Borderlands consider the cultural production taking place on the margins: Chicano writing at the border between the southern United States and Mexico, the African Caribbean minority in Canada, and the literary works of Native North Americans. Some of the authors discussed are well known by now—Gloria Anzaldua, Dionne Brand, Claire Harris, Marlene Nourbese Philip and Tomson Highway—but this study also gives serious consideration to others, such as the poets Alma Villanueva and Art Solomon, the performer Guillermo Gomez-Pena and the playwright Câliz-Montoro, who will be less familiar.
Throughout, Câliz-Montoro emphasizes the transcendent nature of borderland literature. Recognizing that the very categorization of these writers as writers-of-exile is itself a double-edged sword, the first half of the study emphasizes the geo-political realities ofChicano, Caribbean-Canadian and First Nations writers, while the second half tries to transcend this approach. These chapters problematize the racialization of borderland writers who are all too often read "as an extension of wilderness, nature, and its untamed territories."
In an effort to avoid this trap, however, Writing from the Borderlands arguably falls into another. Sidestepping the problematic discourse of race, Câliz-Montoro moves her study in the last chapter into the world beyond language, what she terms "spirit." It is in "spirit," in the "ageless healing essences of myth and poetry," the author argues, that "writers tap into sources of truths that exist beyond the precarious limitations of earthly time and space." Paul Gilroy might be calling for a democratic, counter-anthropological humanism, but what we find in Writing from the Borderlands teeters on the edge of New Age mysticism. Câliz-Montoro looks to First Nations writers and, in Chapter eight, to Vietnamese writer Thich Nhat Hanh, as examples of "a number of cultures that have been producing works of literature whose main objective is to invoke life-giving principles." Writing from the Borderlands suggests one type of humanism we would do well to avoid, as the discourse of mysticism risks relegating First Nations and Black writers to the role of the world’s spiritual tour guides.
More scholarly an approach to myth is Janet Gabler-Hover’s Dreaming Black Writing White. Here, Gabler-Hover tracks the fluctuating racialization of the Biblical figure Hagar in Southern American women’s domestic novels and in the paintings of mid-nineteenth-century America. Readers will likely recall Hagar as the figure in Genesis who gives Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Gilead some of its biblical underpinnings. We recall that in Genesis Hagar is handmaid to the old and childless Sara. The Hagar myth was important to the anti- slavery movement in America because Hagar (widely understood to be black because of her Egyptian affiliations) flees her bondage to Sara and finds refuge in the desert. There, God gives her water and reveals that her son will be a ruler of a great race. Gabler-Hover traces the ways Hagar’s blackness is gradually complicated and ultimately "whitewashed" by the white female novelists and painters in America who, enigmatically, begin to adopt Hagar as a central heroine. Hagar provided white women novelists (who were themselves writing under conditions of patriarchal bondage) with an opportunity to reimagine themselves outside the permissible boundaries of white femininity. Dreaming Black Writing White suggests that "black and white are bonded together by the mechanisms of ’race’ that estrange them from each other and that amputate their common humanity."
If the first two texts in this review demonstrate a changing awareness of how "race" is understood, then the last two are more cautious about celebrating the possibilities of humanist thinking. Race and Racism: Canada’s Challenge, a cross-disciplinary study of the economic and social factors of racism in Canada, suggests that the material conditions that produced race-thinking, namely the systemic oppression of people of colour, are still with us. Editors Leo Driedger and Shiva S. Halli compile essays from a wide range of disciplines: sociology, cultural anthropology, demography and psychology. These essays are not so much concerned with deconstructing the idea of race, but rather with describing and measuring its material consequences and the sufferings it has caused.
Althea Prince’s Being Black bears personal witness to many of the social realities outlined more formally in Race and Racism. As a sociologist, Prince is concerned about the "attitudes toward race and race relations" she has seen in Toronto since the 1960s. But Prince appears to consider "race" as a stable category, while the editors of Race and Racism ask: "The concept of race is difficult to define, and it is difficult to classify, so why do we continue to try?" Being Black relies on essentialist definitions of race. "Black," Prince writes, "is not an ideology; it is the colour of skin." Later she calls blackness "a pigment." Her own black identity she defines as "African," and "that," she asserts, "is not up for debate. That is a given. It is who I say I am." While such personal testimonies are always valuable, Prince’s collection swings into the realm of the solipsistic, thus diminishing the complexities of this discussion, rather than enriching it.
- Breaking Out of the Lens by Deena Rymhs
Books reviewed: Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film by John E. O'Connor and Peter C. Rollins and Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing by Simon Ortiz
- Postcolonial Revisions by Wendy Roy
Books reviewed: Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966 by Margaret Laurence and Nora Foster Stovel and Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain by Peter van der Veer
- The Soul of the World by Catherine Rainwater
Books reviewed: Earth's Mind: Essays in Native Literature by Roger Dunsmore and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America by Gloria Bird and Joy Harjo
- Aboriginal Storytelling by Susan Gingell
Books reviewed: Braiding Histories: Learning from Aboriginal Peoples' Experiences and Perspectives by Susan D. Dion and The Drum Calls Softly by David Bouchard, Jim Poitras, Shelley Willier, and Steve Wood
- Black Emigrant in Canada by Tracy Bains
Books reviewed: A Drifting Year by David Toby Homel and Dany Laferrière, A Plea for Emigration Or, Notes of Canada West by Richard Almonte and Mary A. Shadd, and Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada by Rinaldo Walcott
MLA: Vernon, Karina. Post-Race: Contemporary Black Writing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 125 - 126)
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