Verbal tiptoe on the margin

On Racial Frontiers - Autobiography and Black Identity Politics
February 18, 2000

Both these books on race are by white men who feel somewhat defensive about this. Both are relatively young academics within "cultural studies" who share an ambivalent attitude towards the academy. Both feel a pressure to say the right thing and are acutely conscious of their daring when they do not. Oddly enough, these books left me wondering about something quite different: the bland conforming effect of the American academy today - an increasingly corporate world in which one "goes on the market", publishes or perishes, and talks the talk.

As a white man and the father of two bi-racial daughters, Gregory Stephens feels compelled to emphasise that his subject is not "black culture" but "interracial contact zones" - the "frontiers of race". Kenneth Mostern, a "white, Jewish American, male radical of working-class origins", writes: "Until African Americans are as well-represented in the teaching of Shakespeare and literary theory, and in Chinese studies, and in physics, and as students in well-funded elementary schools as white Americans are, us white folk have nothing special to be proud of by our presence in African-American studies. We are neither 'good' nor 'bad', but we are 'a problem'." Stephens, a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, was a journalist and successful songwriter before he became an academic, and ideally he would like his book to reach young rappers. Unfortunately, he admits, they will "tune out" when faced with his "academic discourse". Mostern, too, is poignantly aware of a world outside universities. He writes that his book (or what he unfortunately terms its "basic structuration") was influenced by off-campus activism.

"What I am about to say will get me in some trouble in the contemporary academy," he predicts when he dismisses Zora Neale Hurston, popular with feminist scholars today, on the grounds that her autobiography ignores completely black poverty and oppression. His opening argument, in favour of "identity politics" and "some kind of racial essence", is decidedly defensive. Our identities cannot be disconnected from our politics, he writes. In the United States all identification is funnelled first through race. He, as a white man, can make exactly the same political statement as a black woman, but their statements will be received differently.

Unfortunately, the potential feistiness of Mostern's argument is lost in a dense jungle of verbiage. "In this book I trace identity politics through writings about the racialization process by members of the group whose minoritization is key to the structure of all major/minor positioning in the US - those visibly of African descent," he explains at the beginning, and it never gets any clearer. Often his point is simply not comprehensible. What does it mean to say: "Hurston's career is deeply individualizing"? Or: "While I see Du Bois's practice of autobiography as still suggestive for contemporary political analysis, it is clear to me that his practice can only be exemplified and extended in the current period by those writers who further address the genderedness of autobiography." Mostern teaches in an English department.

Stephens's book is a celebration of three men who passionately believed in the interrelatedness of blackness and whiteness. Frederick Douglass and Bob Marley both had a white father and a black mother; Ralph Ellison had mixed ancestors. Their mixed blood certainly affected the way they looked at the world, but whatever the reason for it, it is their cultural hybridity that Stephens admires. He deplores the "binary filters" through which Americans look upon race, and he worries about the black nationalist oppositional thinking that says one is not really "black" unless one is opposed to all things "white". In the atmosphere of "ethnic cheerleading", he writes, if you suggest that diversity includes elements of a shared heritage, you are likely to be asked whose side you are on.

Douglass, the ex-slave who became America's most prominent abolitionist, is taken to be a hero of "black history", but Stephens sees him as a hero in mainstream American history. In his speeches and writings Douglass advocated a transracial "third space." He believed in inclusion, not assimilation. And he insisted that it was not the answer for black people to take over "the master's tools" and use racialised language in an effort to invert traditional hierarchies. To exhort black people to cultivate "race pride" was a premise based on a false foundation. "What is it, but an assumption of superiority upon the ground of race and color?" Ellison has been both sanctified as a "sacred icon" and dismissed as a "race traitor". According to Stephens, both versions entirely miss the point. Ellison belongs to a larger, transracial tradition. His novel, Invisible Man , is a quest for a black and white fraternity. Its nameless hero asserts: "America is woven of many strands Our fate is to become one, and yet many." Ellison himself refused to choose sides. He was as critical of black nationalism or assimilationism as he was of white racism. So is Stephens.

Marley is interesting in that he inherited a Rastafarian tradition that idealised the anti-white and anti-Semitic Marcus Garvey, yet Marley managed to avoid the movement's racist pitfalls. As a mulatto raised in 1950s Jamaica, a British colony completely divided along colour lines, Marley was something of an outcast. But this made him combine black liberation with a multi-racial vision. "Me don't dip on the black man's side nor the white man's side," he said. "I don't have prejudice against myself." His followers were predominantly white.

The reality of the US today, Stephens writes, is that we are moving towards a thoroughly multi-ethnic or even "post-racial" society, in which commonality and difference will have to coexist. He wants Americans to stop denying their inter-racial heritage and move beyond the language of race. Because of his own family, he is deeply invested in this mission, and he brings to the subject both insight and passion, although there are occasional doses of American sentimentality.

Mostern takes racial difference as a given in contemporary American society, and he explores the way black autobiographers negotiate their particular social identifies. Clearly, these two men are drawn to their subject because they too have felt themselves to be on the margins.

Hazel Rowley, a fellow of Radcliffe College, Harvard University, Massachusetts, United States, is writing a biography of Richard Wright.

On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Bob Marley

Author - Gregory Stephens
ISBN - 0 521 64352 X and 64393 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 328

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