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Thursday, Jul 16, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
by Rolland Murray
African American Review (July 2009)

Over the past two decades, a sense of impending calamity has held sway in African American literary and cultural studies. Cornel West frames this period as one of “postmodern crisis” and laments the “decline in [black] popular mobilization and the decline of political participation and the decomposition more and more of the institutions of old civil society ...” (91). Voicing a related concern, Hortense Spillers observes that the locus of black communal life, the segregated enclave, has itself been so radically changed by deindustrialization, desegregation, and the plight of the black underclass that intellectuals must reconsider their understanding of community as an “object of knowledge” (102). These remarks distill the widespread anxieties generated by rapid changes in black life during the post-segregation era. And while few question the warrants for such disquiet, recent work by Madhu Dubey and Kenneth Warren demonstrates that the same heralding of crisis underwrites nostalgic calls for a return to the traditional cultural practices that defined black life during segregation. Dubey and Warren therefore take issue with those intellectuals who venerate black expressive culture—signifying, sermons, blues, jazz, etc.—on the grounds that this tack proves an inadequate response to the social and political ills of the present. (1) Despite the acuity of these critiques, however, they have not addressed contemporary writing that stages the undoing of communal belonging as a potentially generative occasion. In other words, how do we interpret black literature that neither pines ambivalently for the nationalist past nor positions art as a proxy for a communal wholeness that is nationalism in another guise?


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