Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt (ed.): Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity and Literature, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, ISBN 1 57806 251 9, 471pp, paperback $26.00.

Years ago, as a student, I began to ask why US literature was not included in the field of postcolonial studies. I had in mind the writing and culture of the US as a former colony, and African American literature and culture as part of the black diaspora. I received a variety of answers ranging from the pedagogically pragmatic (there is too much US literature to include in a module on postcolonial writing so it requires a separate class) to the tautologically baffling (African American literature is part of US literature so it’s not included in the study of postcolonial literature). Now it comes as a relief to have this voluminously inclusive collection of landmark essays in hand – despite the fact that the overwhelming impression is that these explorations represent a beginning rather than a conclusive end to the complexities of the issues.

Inevitably, in a collection of this nature, multiple perspectives are represented and understandably, given the topic, there are differing opinions as to the key issues. Some contributors are concerned to define postcolonial studies broadly so that it encompasses globalisation, power dynamics, economic inequities, and the psychology of dual identification. Others are interested in establishing analogies between US studies and postcolonial studies – applying only ‘metaphorically’ the theoretical apparatus of the latter to the former as a means of moving forward from the quagmire of ‘multiculturalism’ that threatens to devolve into a series of ‘mom-and-pop’ speciality shops in the hybridised mall of America’s new Main Street.

One thinks of the National Book Awards which suggest that most Americans producing significant literature are white and male – and, in contrast, of The American Book Awards established by Ishmael Reed’s Before Columbus Foundation in 1978 to recognise ‘outstanding literary achievement by contemporary American authors, without restriction to race, sex, ethnic background, or genre... to acknowledge the excellence and multicultural diversity of American writing.’ The ABA honourees would offer the contrasting impression that most major US writers are women and/or members of ethnic minorities. What is the ‘real’ American culture, the ‘real’American, the ‘real’ American literature? Can postcolonial studies help answer these questions by providing broadened contexts for US literature of the past and a clearer sense of its identity in the present and future?

The editors’ answer is yes and they open the book by proposing a new frontier marking a crossroads between postcolonial and US studies. This would frame American studies more consciously within a global context (including recognition of diasporic connections), and sketch a new portrait of an ‘American self’ that embraces ethnic diversity founded in the realities of the nation’s history. In the preface and introductory essay, ‘On the Borders Between US Studies and Postcolonial Theory’, Singh and Schmidt broaden the postcolonial purview to apply it to US studies by proposing a focus on border studies, where 'borders may be defined not just as the lines dividing one country from another but also the ways in which difference is deployed across societies and cultures to mark distinctions of power.’ (vii) There is the avenue of connection between these scholarly fields whose interdisciplinarity is taken as an essential given. Boundaries, borders, cross-sections, hybridity, interdisciplinarity: Bhabha, Marx, Spivak, Du Bois, Said, Sollors. Recurring touchstones throughout numerous essays in this collection will succeed in persuading many readers that this conceptual trajectory is inevitable and historically-grounded.

The book’s four sections are loose groupings of essays around general shared concerns. Following the editors’ introduction in Identities, Margins, and Borders is a second section by the same name consisting of essays which seek to establish the conceptual ground of this new hybrid field. The four articles in this section focus on Native American writing (by Arnold Krupat), Black studies (Mae G. Henderson), Chicano/a writing (Rafael Pérez-Torres), and Asian American cultural criticism (Sau-ling C Wong), a cross-section which establishes some benchmarks for major US ethnic populations, but is offered in a way that seems natural and not artificial due to the consistently high quality of the material.

Henderson’s insightful essay reminds readers of a Du Bois anecdote by way of Vincent Harding: Du Bois ‘serves as founder of African American discursivity, posing the question to which all claimants to scholarly authority must provide an answer: "Where, by the way, is this train going?"’ (96) Henderson is among the critics in this book who call for a more comparative or parallel approach rather than the direct application of postcolonial theory to the situation of the US – especially as it relates to African American culture. She proposes a series of questions aimed at discovering indigenous paths of cultural patterns and growth, including one that strikes me as particularly significant for the study of the US in general: ‘How can the parallel of "internal colonialism" postulated by the black theoreticians of the 1960s serve as a model for studying dominant structures of power?’ (98)

The third section is titled Historical Configurations, and includes among its highlights ‘Postcolonial Anxiety in Classic US Literature’ by Lawrence Buell which posits a revelatory reading of Whitman’s use of the Caliban figure; ‘American Masculinity in Historical Novels of the 1890s’ by Amy Kaplan; and an article by Anne Fleischmann on Charles Chesnutt which adopts a similar perspective to Henderson’s: ‘US slavery is not equivalent to British colonialism and the post-slavery migration north... is not the same as the postcolonial worlds of India, Africa, or the Caribbean. Nevertheless, because postcolonial texts and theories deal with intersections of races, classes and cultures, postcolonial theoretical strategies are available as models’ (246).

Contemporary Contestations is the final section: the largest of the four divisions, it reprises the representation of a wide cross-section of US ethnic populations found in Section II. The eight essays here include Lisa Suhair Majaj on the difficulties of establishing Arab-American identity as an expression of race; a related address of images of Indians by Jana Sequoya Magdaleno; and Leny Mendoza Strobel on Filipino American and pan-Asian identity. Bruce Simon’s essay provides an ideal closure in its detailed address of Homi Bhabha’s crucial concept of hybridity that is an essential and underlying idea for much of this book. Simon’s essay concludes by claiming that we can most productively understand hybridisation ‘as an invitation to consider the ways in which cultural politics matters, the ways that global power relations continue to construct the cultural. It would mean taking hybridity as an opportunity to rethink our own responsibilities as we develop new ways of organizing contemporary literary studies.’ (432) In light of the present confusions in the field over just what literary studies consist of, this relatively modest suggestion for one potential route emerges in this collection of essays as a reasonable, viable and worthwhile alternative to consider.

Lauri Ramey,

University of Wales

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