The Columbiad - the voyage over the ocean blue to the New World - was a journey of "calculation and enslavement" and yet the word has retained its poetic quality and its association with the human spirit, which goes to show the power of white mythology. There were, after all, millions on those ships who never sought the New World and could not share those great white dreams of a land of plenty, a land of freedom. The notion of a Black Columbiad wryly encapsulates this other story.
The book opens with a richly parodic epigraph by Flip Wilson. He has Christopher Columbus seeking an audience with Queen Isabel. "If I don't discover America," he tells her, "there's not gonna be a Benjamin Franklin, or a Star-Spangled Banner, no land of the free, and the home of the brave, and no Ray Charles." The queen panics when she hears "no Ray Charles". She is instantly persuaded. Soon she's "running through the halls of the castle screaming, 'Chris gon' fine Ray Charles. He goin' to America on that boat. What you say'."
The Black Columbiad nicely turns Eurocentric historiography inside out. The idea for this collection was seeded at a conference organised by the European Association of American Studies, held, appropriately enough, in Spain. Introduced and edited by Werner Sollors (Harvard University) and Maria Diedrich (University of Hanover), well-known scholars in this field, it makes stimulating reading, and is for the most part free of untoward academic jargon. In their introductions to the different sections, the editors are disarmingly open about the concerns of the publisher's "anonymous reader". To their credit, they chose to air these discussions rather than suppress the essays.
The book is wide-ranging in scope: from black carnivals in antebellum times to prospects in the year 2000; from African American perceptions of Paris to the subversiveness of jazz in Cold war Europe; from a consideration of the black magician Black Herman in terms of "race hero" to an analysis of the myth of the black rapist and the tangle of tensions between African American criticism and feminist criticism.
The essays discuss cultural issues, film, television and African American literature. There is a thought-provoking article on the fraught relationship in the academy between the currently fashionable "discourse" of postcoloniality ("an exotic, foreign field") and the "dat course" of African American studies ("whose foreignness has become all too familiar"). "Black cupids, white desires" re-examines the racial coding of Casablanca, generally regarded as an unusually liberal Hollywood movie, with its portrait of Sam, the black pianist, as Rick's friend and equal. Not so, argues Robert Gooding-Williams. Sam plays "black cupid" to the central white lovers, and the familiar mythology which equates blackness with sexuality has Sam, as a singer of the hero's love songs, enhancing Rick's sexual aura, without actually making him black - which would be out of the question.
This collection has a refreshingly international perspective. And when you consider the extent to which African American experience has been about migration, dislocation and expatriation, this is as it should be. The editors, who clearly believe in the internationalisation of American studies, surmise (cautiously) that this "may be the most international and transnational collection to date dedicated to African American literature and culture".
The Black Columbiad strides determinedly away from "cultural insiderism", with its emphasis on ethnic difference, a phenomenon which Sollors deplored in a previous book of his, Beyond Ethnicity (1986). In fact, two thirds of the essayists are from Europe. The racial origin of the contributors is not an issue except when they themselves choose to point it out; the notes tell us no more than their academic affiliations.
The Black Columbiad opens up the field; most importantly, it opens up debate. Let there be more work done in this spirit.
Hazel Rowley is senior lecturer in literature and communication, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.
The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture
Editor - Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich
ISBN - 0 674 07617 6 and 07618 4
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £31.95 and £13.50
Pages - 390