Friday, February 12, 2010

Essay on Book "Deans and Truants" by Gene Andrew Jarrett

Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature by Gene Andrew Jarrett. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. ISBN: 13: 978-0-8122-3973-7; ISBN: 10:0-8122-3973-3

It is Not Black Enough: Anomalous Texts and U.S. African Writers

In an era when some literary critics and scholars are calling for the end of race as we know it, and arguing that the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States signals a post-racial milieu, Jarrett’s book seems not only timely but also in conversation with an ever-increasing perception of a certain kind of black racial hegemony that marginalizes black artists, critics, and intellectuals who espouse centrist politics that ignore or minimize the impact of race on U.S. Africans. In short, Jarrett’s argument in Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2007) rests upon the sole premise that from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s, certain male writers and critics defined the aesthetic terrain upon which African American writers could create imaginative texts. Jarrett regards these critics as the deans of the African American literary aesthetics, while U.S. African writers who did not toe the aesthetic line are considered truants. Such writers, according to Jarrett, “break the chains of reality by writing anomalous fiction that resisted and sometimes critiqued the conventional restrictions of authentic African American literature to racial realism” [author’s emphasis] (1). Jarrett identifies William Dean Howells, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and Amiri Baraka as the deans. In contrast, he cites that Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the artist Henry Ossawa Turner, George Schuyler, Frank Yerby, and Toni Morrison produce works that classify their texts and themselves as truants. Although Jarrett’s premise appears to be tantalizing, serious fallacies challenge the credulity of his argument that I will examine below.

Early in his treatise Jarrett cites Ward Connerly, who contends that black writers are “racially profiled” (2-3) in the publishing industry and bookstores. Likewise, Jarrett also questions the efficacy of having sections of bookstores exclusively devoted to African American literature. Both statements challenge how the publishing and bookselling industries package as well as market and at times exploit U.S. African writers. This is not a new issue and is not adequately dealt with in Jarrett’s examination of the relations between publishers and U.S. African writers. Nonetheless, Jarrett framing his work with a quote from and reference to Ward Connerly lays the foundation for a project that unjustly accuses certain writers as black ideologues and perpetuates whites as being devoid of race, more human than Africans, and universal, thereby ignoring the realities of the market and the lack of power that U.S. Africans have both inside and outside the publishing industry. Marginalization or “racial profiling” of U.S. African writers by the publishing industry has been grappled with by many writers since the beginning of the African American literary canon. One only has to recall the circumstances of production, the degree to which Phillis Wheatley was interrogated by a court of prominent whites, and the themes and imagery of many poems by Wheatley to recall that African writers, since the nascency of producing texts in the colonies to the present day, have neither dealt exclusively with what Jarrett terms “racial realism” nor have they necessarily maintained control over the aesthetic timbre of their works.

While these insights that initiate Jarrett’s text are controversial and establish the possibilities for an engaged analysis of some of the issues that beset U.S. African writers, he elides these issues by not thoroughly interrogating the power and role of the publishing industry in defining and dictating the production and distribution of texts by U.S. African writers in a capitalist economy. That there has always been a paucity of publishing houses owned and operated by U.S. Africans complicates issues regarding production and distribution, but more importantly this lack also limits the aesthetic possibilities for U.S. African writers also remains undisputed by many U.S. African scholars, critics, book reviewers, and the writers themselves. But this issue is somewhat ignored, or unsatisfactorily dealt with, in Jarrett’s analysis. Further, Jarrett ultimately excludes novels by U.S. African women writers from major concern and examination in his study of racial realism who, I argue, have always constructed subversive and anomalous texts because of their lack of power within the publishing industry and as well as their marginalization within U.S. society. Jarrett dedicates his book to Claudia Tate, a feminist and advocate of recovering and critically assessing the place of black women’s literature within the African American canon, and whose work Jarrett appears to be heavily reliant upon. However, the over-representation of U.S. African male writers in general in Jarrett’s study speaks loudly to the selective nature of his work rather than to the historical accuracy of the literature; or to Jarrett’s desire to trump Tate’s stupendous work.

Jarrett begins his study by examining the historical record and evoking Tate’s study Psychoanalysis and Black Novels (1998). He initiates the historical analysis of African American literature by privileging William Dean Howells as the dean of realism and the person who ultimately determined the parameters within which U.S. Africans writers would aesthetically abide, beginning with Paul Laurence Dunbar, so Jarrett asserts. Jarrett contends that because of Howells, characterology and an author’s phenotype have over-determined whether or not the text is considered black or African American. He evokes Tate’s Psychoanalyis and argues that Tate’s theoretical foundation for her interrogation of anomalous texts by African American writers is unstable because it is based on the readers’ “vague feelings of emotional discomfort” (qtd. in Jarrett 13). In addition to these “vague feelings,” Tate further asserts that her project examines those texts that “do not abide by traditional rules of racial representation and therefore do not make racial politics their centermost concern” (7). Jarrett’s choice to reduce Tate’s precise and complex thesis to one statement suggests his duplicitous and selective reading of her work.

Nonetheless, Jarrett argues that he hopes to accomplish what he claims that Tate does not do in Psychoanalysis by examining the “protocols of race” (here he appropriates Tate’s language) and how the aforementioned deans of African American literature demanded adherence to such protocols by African American writers, thereby marginalizing those texts that did not adhere to such racial protocols. According to Jarrett: "[b]oth traditional and revisionist anthologies of African American literature, however, have kept in place something that continues to authenticate black-authored literature. By clinging to it, they have ignored the history of many black authors, some indeed canonical, who have tried to transcend or write beyond it. That thing is racial realism" (6- 7). Jarrett’s interrogation of what he terms racial realism and anomalous texts by African American writers initiates with examining how Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s photo on the front of his second collection of published poetry Majors and Minors (1895) helped to characterize Dunbar as a true African, unlike Charles Chesnutt, whose phenotype according to Howells, allowed him to be mistaken as something other than an African. Jarrett argues that the purported dean of realism, William Dean Howell’s, seeing Dunbar’s photograph, grasped hold of Dunbar’s allegedly African legitimacy, and perpetuated making phenotype, signifying Africanness, the requisite for experiencing and writing the authentic U.S. African experience. Hence, Howells becomes the arbiter of black literature and Jarrett fails sufficiently to analyze these power dynamics inherent in a U.S. European establishing who is a true African and what the aesthetics for Africanness will be in the black literary imagination. A U.S. European, rather than a U.S. African, incarcerates the literary imagination of a U.S. African as well as the continuous captivity of his humanity. According to Jarrett, in an effort to escape the strictures of racial realism into which Dunbar perceived himself being pigeon-holed by Howells and ostensibly the U.S. European publishing industry, Dunbar wrote and published his first novel, The Uncalled (1898). Jarrett contends that The Uncalled challenges and escapes racial realism in its portrayal of all white major characters, as well as Dunbar’s concentration on regional, rather than racial, culture for the use of dialect. Jarrett argues that Dunbar’s decision to write outside of racial realism has marginalized this novel and prevented literary critics, unconsciously steeped in the discourse of racial realism, from seriously considering the merit of The Uncalled, thereby leaving Dunbar’s first published novel beyond the pale of canonical African American literature. However, what seriously needs to be addressed is not whether Dunbar’s novel is marginalized by contemporary arbiters of the African American literary canon because it reaches beyond the boundaries of racial realism, but whether the novel is a good piece of literature. While the criteria may be subjective, there are basic elements of good literature that remain undisputed. Of course, some of these elements are: does the writer tell a good story? Are the major characters developed? Is the narrative compelling? And does the novel hold readers’ interest? Jarrett argues that early reviews of The Uncalled were mostly positive; therefore, the ongoing marginalization of The Uncalled must be solely attributable to critics’ and scholars’ inability to read and analyze beyond the strictures of racial realism. But Dunbar’s novel has not withstood the test of time, not because it is an anomalous text as Jarrett argues, but rather because it is not representative of being one of Dunbar’s best novels. In fact, Dunbar does not reach his peak in terms of his ability to write a good novel until The Sport of the Gods (1902). Although this novel will qualify as adhering to Jarrett’s conception of racial realism, it is undisputedly a better novel than The Uncalled. For this reason more so than its adherence to racial realism, The Sport of the Gods is canonized.

While Dunbar may have written beyond racial realism in The Uncalled and examined dialect as a product of regional culture, Alain Locke, the alleged dean of the New Negro modernism according to Jarrett, in fact embraced dialect as not only authenticating the language of the black folk, but also as a way to imbue modernism with U.S. African realism. Under Locke, the strictures of racial realism begin to narrow, and visual art becomes subjected to its purview. Initially Jarrett’s position about Locke seems quite plausible given Locke’s primacy in allegedly ushering in the New Negro and Harlem Renaissance. However, one wonders how much more influence did Locke have than W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois not only penned “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), but along with Jessie Fauset he often controlled black writers’ and artists’ access to publication and income as editor of The Crisis magazine. Nonetheless, Jarrett examines Locke’s response to and dismissal of the work of the U.S. African artist Henry Ossawa Tanner because Tanner’s paintings did not support racial realism. Jarrett claims that Locke disregarded U.S. African artists and writers engaging in metropolitanism. Locke classified Tanner as such an artist. Tanner’s images of Europeans and landscape in his paintings as well as his “attraction to American ‘genre’ realism in the early to mid-1890s” in The Bagpipe Lesson (1892-93), The Banjo Lesson (1893), and The Thankful Poor (1894), according to Jarrett, did not merit Locke’s wholesale dismissal of Tanner as a U.S. African painter of merit (Jarrett 83) . Jarrett writes: “Locke’s dismissal of these painting as shallow, if not also stereotypical, neglected their significant racial-political context and themes” (Jarrett 83). Jarrett argues that although Tanner engages in genre painting, he is working against the depiction of the U.S. African as minstrel, therefore adding both dignity and humanity to the image of the African in the late nineteenth century. Yet, an overwhelming majority of the paintings in Tanner’s oeuvre consists of biblical themes portraying Europeans rather than Africans. Jarrett contends that this seems to be one of the major reasons that Locke dismisses Tanner’s contribution to African American art of the period as well as Tanner’s objective to escape ghettoization in order to gain artistic freedom. Jarrett writes: “These paintings ostensibly avoid explicit representations of blacks in order to tell more universal stories of humanity” (86). Here Jarrett posits images of Europeans, rather than of Africans, as “more universal stories of humanity,” thus privileging paradigms that Locke sought to deconstruct and that Jarrett himself seems to be advocating. Or, he is suggesting that it was more politically astute and tactful for U.S. African artists, like Tanner, to cling to a European aesthetic and imagery to garner both critical acclaim and financial reward. Jarrett’s argument regarding Tanner is unconvincing and irrelevant in a critical study about literature. Eventually Jarrett contrasts Locke and Tanner as a way to buttress his argument regarding Locke’s adherence to racial realism despite the fact that it is a matter of historical record that Locke was also charged by Zora Neale Hurston to “knowing nothing about Negroes.”

Yet, if there is a writer from this period whom Jarrett argues takes Locke, and others like Charles Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, to task for their demand of and adherence to racial realism, it is the satirist George Schuyler. Jarrett claims that Schuyler “began an iconoclastic campaign” against Locke and his “ambassadorial status” (93). From his dispersion of calling blacks “lamp-black Anglo Saxons” to his promulgation of cultural monism in the United States, Schuyler’s belief that “color is incidental” (Jarrett 104) is underscored in his essay “The Negro-Art Hokum” (1926), to which Langston Hughes responds in his essay “Negro Art and the Racial Mountain” (1926). Obviously, Schuyler is one of those canonical writers, like Dunbar, whom Jarrett contends has been marginalized because of his attempts to skate the doctrines of racial realism. While Schuyler’s essay “The Negro-Art Hokum” appears in both the 1st and 2nd editions of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the late Nellie Y. McKay, Jarrett is correct that no excerpt from Schuyler’s novel Black No More; Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free (1931) appears in either edition of the Norton Anthology. Finally, Jarrett contends that for Schuyler only class and regionalism demarcate “Negro” culture or American culture, and not race. But race is inextricably and overwhelmingly linked to both class and culture, at least in the United States; and too many U.S. Africans existed within a caste system well into the late twentieth century. Schuyler’s satire of race in Black No More culminates his position about the transience of race, a transience that he detaches from historical, social, and economic realities and one in which only a person of relative privilege could imagine and write. Schuyler’s marriage to a U.S. European woman suggests the unspoken challenges he had with negotiating both the racial realism of his existence as a U.S. African and in his imaginative texts during the 1920s and 1930s in a social climate that made it difficult for interracial marriages to exist without considerable public disapproval. When the critic Dorothy Van Doren negatively reviews Schuyler’s Black No More because “the novel tries to debunk the values that she and other traditionalists of Negro art held so dear,” it is Josephine Schuyler, the wife of George Schuyler, who responds to such criticism arguing that the novel is “an allegory of how the African American novel could cross the taxonomic color line from ‘racial literature’ to ‘national or sectional literature’” (qtd. in Jarrett 108). Hence, it is Schuyler’s U.S. European wife who ultimately voices the place, role, and possibilities for racial, that is, African American literature.

If any of the deans attempts to deconstruct the relations among class, race and culture, no one does this better than Richard Wright, while he simultaneously, according to Jarrett, erects strict boundaries that made it nearly impossible for African American writers who were his contemporaries to breach the tenets of racial realism, although undoubtedly, some did. Jarrett contends that as a result of Wright’s prescriptive in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937) and the subsequent commercial success of Wright’s novel Native Son (1940), two aesthetic camps evolved. These camps consisted of those writers who considered racial realism a handicap towards Americanizing Afro-American literature and those who promulgated the universal possibilities of Wright’s work, especially through his character, Bigger Thomas, who becomes emblematic of all oppressed people. Jarrett argues that Frank Yerby, whom he considers the truant in Wright’s generation of writers, joins the former group. After unsuccessful attempts to enter into the school as a racial realist and embrace the ideologies ostensibly promulgated by Wright, Yerby insists in a letter written to Michel Fabre regarding Yerby’s relationship with Wright “the race problem was not a theme for me” (qtd. in Jarrett 143). “[Yerby’s] first published novel, The Foxes of Harrow, signifies a philosophical turn toward an anomalous aesthetic and away from the racial realism of the period” [author’s emphasis] (Jarrett 144).

Yerby’s insistence on writing anomalous novels that do not examine Africans or persons of African descent as central characters substantiates, argues Jarrett, not only Yerby being excised from the African American literary canon, but also the inattention that critics have paid to his oeuvre. While Jarrett’s claims might have merit, one only has to consider that rarely does popular literature, particularly “costume novels of historical romance” (Jarrett 145), become the fodder of academic canons contemporaneously. Perhaps the jury is still out on Yerby’s oeuvre since Jarrett does not consider broader cultural or political conventions that also transcend race; for instance, a writer’s desire to be economically self sufficient and writing to the market that has historically been perceived as white and middle class. For example, Jarrett fails to consider how Wright’s own aesthetics about racial realism were radically altered throughout his career and is evidenced in his novel Savage Holiday (1954). Not only does Jarrett not address this novel at all, but he ignores the work that Tate does in Psychoanalysis in her analysis of Wright’s anomalous novel and how the novel like Wright’s The Long Dream (1958) “accentuates [Wright’s] personal and unsocialized desire” (Tate 9) . Thus Jarrett’s positioning of Wright as a dean, yet ignoring Wright’s own desire to break out of the tenets of racial realism, makes Jarrett’s argument about Yerby tenuous at best.

Moving from Wright and Yerby’s relationship, the last dean and truant relationship that Jarrett examines is the one purportedly to be between Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison during the 1980s. Jarrett casts Baraka as the omnipotent voice of the Black Arts Movement: an editor, critic, poet, dramatist, and essayist who—along with Addison Gayle, Larry Neal, and Hoyt Fuller— levied a prescriptive for U.S. African art and a Black Aesthetic that not only re-inscribed racial realism, he argues, but also ups the ante. Much ink has been spilled by critics regarding the limitations of the black aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement, as well as the
movement’s and Baraka’s discourses of misogyny, bigotry, and homophobia. That Jarrett would continue to argue the impact of these aesthetics of the late 1960s and 1970s on Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” published in 1983 in Confirmation: An Anthology of AfricanAmerican, co- edited by Baraka and his wife, Amina Baraka, either pronounces Jarrett’s misperception of Baraka’s sphere of influence or Jarrett’s inability to examine, or his ability to ignore, how Baraka himself, by 1983, had begun to repudiate his earlier discourse of racial realism and anti-feminism. In “Recitatif,” Morrison successfully problematizes the use of language that enables readers easily to identify which race the characters are. However, “Recitatif” is neither Morrison’s first nor last engagement with expanding language and images beyond their racial strictures. She also attempts to do this in one of her least critically successful novels, Tar Baby (1981), as Morrison examines class hierarchy within U.S. and Caribbean African communities. Far too many critics ignore the intraracial class antagonisms that exist between the protagonist Jadine and Son, the anti-hero, as if class is not an inherent element in U.S. African literature. That Morrison would expand the Jadine characterology one step further by writing “Recitatif,” which is devoid of language and images that will ensure the main characters’ racial origins for the reader, speaks more to Morrison’s own quest to deconstruct language than it does to her conscious desire to write outside of racial realism, as Jarrett suggests. For by 1983, is it not appropriate to at least entertain the idea that non-Africans are raced, too? Thus to write beyond racial realism in 1983 is to deconstruct race completely and acknowledge the way that race, itself, is not just non-Europeans, but is also a social construct. This seems to be the main impetus of Morrison’s short story rather than her writing beyond racial realism, which only seems to apply to U.S. African writers, black racial characterology, and protocols widely accepted by readers as signifiers of black reality. Although Jarrett employs a very canonical approach in examining the aesthetic power that Baraka wielded during the 1960s and 1970s, to establish Baraka as a dean is also to ignore Baraka’s own delving into writing beyond racial realism during his beat period when he was” heavily influenced by the white avant-garde” (xviii) poets, according to William J. Harris, editor of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991).

Ultimately, Jarrett’s study is about culture. It is also about who exercised influence over, and representation and dissemination of, U.S. African visual art and literature from the late-nineteenth century to the 1980s. Jarrett’s disingenuousness study begins with the emblazoning of the frontispiece of his book with Claudia Tate’s name, to the errors in the endnotes of chapter as well as the incorrect date for Wright’s expatriation from the United States to Paris.1 Jarrett capitalizes on Tate’s premise about the protocols of race, that he dubs “racial realism,” which is so well constructed by Tate, but without the tenacity and perseverance, fine acuity for detail, and superb research that Tate was known for throughout her career. As Tate argues so pointedly:
that the broadly held critical consensus about Negro literature during Wright’s lifetime [are]: race and Negro are mutually signifying; race is the central preoccupation of the black imagination; a nonracial novel is one with white characters; and presumably, only nonracial novels address so-called universal themes” (87) suggests the challenge that U.S. African writers had with negotiating both the breadth of their imaginations and garnering financial recompense, since all of the male writers that Jarrett studies sought to support themselves solely by their pens. What continues to be problematic is the inability to interrogate the impact of economics on the aesthetic choices that Dunbar, Tanner, Schuyler, and Yerby made. I exclude Morrison because she worked full time as an editor for Random House in 1983. And even after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 hercareer as a professor suggests that financial security had not compelled her to remove herself from the everyday world of work in the same way that the aforementioned male writers and artist desired to do. While it is unnecessarily within the purview of scholarship to honor one’s elders, particularly one whom Jarrett purports to have compelled his awareness into how to approach the “anomalous” works of fiction that his study addresses, Jarrett dismisses Tate’s insightful analysis as easily as he ignores the works of Chester Himes (Yerby’s and Wright’s contemporary), as well as women writers like Ann Petry, Zora Neale Hurston, Andrea Lee, and Ntozake Shange who have published anomalous texts, or have iconoclastic approaches to their writings, that continue to beg critical attention. After all, as Houston Baker so succinctly stated nearly three decades ago in The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature (1980) in his analysis of not only black literature but what he terms the “anthropology of art,” that, “[…] art must be studied with an attention to the methods and findings of discipline which enable one to address such concerns as the status of the artistic object, the relationship of art to other cultural systems, and the nature and function of artistic creation and perception in a given society” (xvi). Jarrett’s project fails to satisfy these minimalist criteria. Finally, it is unfortunate that Tate’s death prevents her from responding to Jarrett’s work; however, I am certain that her response would not have been a positive one.

1. Jarrett contends that Wright permanently leaves New York City for Paris in 1946. But according to Wright’s biographer, Michel Fabre, Wright only visits Paris in 1946, and it is in 1947 when he permanently expatriates to Paris with his wife, Ellen and daughter, Julia. See Fabre 313-24.

Works Cited

Baker, Jr. Houston A. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated from the French by Isabel Barzum. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1973.

Harris, William J., ed. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Tate, Claudia. Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.