Dr Ayan Mondal
Black aesthetics in respect of Afro-American literary criticism has always been a wide subject which morphed into diverse critical tendencies since the blacks gained considerable impetus to resist white hegemony. Not only literature ranging from different Afro-American slave narratives to bold protest narratives, but black-literary criticism as a whole became a distinctive discipline with individualistic critical claims configured through movements like Harlem Renaisance, Black realism, Black Arts Movement, to name a few. However, all the earlier traditions were very clearly dealing with the problematic of self-exclusion since they were ending up recentering the “whites” by constantly talking about white hegemony and only pathetically attempting to reclaim the lost sense of identity and hegemony. In this paradigm of Black Aesthetics, the call of “Whiteness” scholars is distinctively unique because they talk about the ways in which the white position gets defined, articulated and counterbalanced only by its symbiotic dependence on the other. That is to say, the critical whiteness studies scholars talk about a new way of reading texts where the centre gets highlighted using the margin as the vehicle of articulation. The present article tries to trace the entire trajectory of black aesthetics to endorse how “Whiteness Studies” tries to counter and redefine it.
Keywords: paradigm, apologetic. Whiteness, other, black aesthetics.
“Whiteness Studies” burgeoned as a distinctive discipline in Black literary criticism in the US in the 1990s and for the first time foregrounded a systematic analysis of the centre rather than the margin, of the racial subject, rather than the racialized object. However, in doing so it serves to contest and counter the very centrality and privileged subject position of “whiteness” by laying bare how intricately and symbiotically it counterbalances itself against its “other”. The twentieth century in US has been a fertile period of numerous scholarly and critical works on “black aesthetics”, majority of those works attempting to reclaim the lost sense of identity and dignity associated with black life, letters and literary artefacts. This article attempts to trace the trajectory of black literary criticism in the US and to place the new critical field of “Whiteness Studies” in that tradition showing the points of departures and divergences.
The Harlem Renaissance:
The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US Constitution afforded legal protection and security to the Afro-Americans in US, but unfortunately racism continued to exert its dismal influence affecting the social, political and economic lives of the blacks. As a bulwark to resist racism, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1910, but it could hardly suppress the pace and momentum of the forces of racism. As Angelyn Mitchell notes about the conditions of the Afro-Americans in the beginning of the twentieth century:
After proudly serving their country in World War I, numerous African American veterans were the victims of racial assaults. Between1917-1919, scores of innocent African Americans were brutally lynched. During the “Red Summer” of 1919, race riots devastated at least twenty cities in the North and South; racial conflicts eventually gave rise to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1921. Due to the harsh racial and economic climate of the South, many African Americans migrated to the North in search of a better life (Mitchell 3).
Therefore, the unpalatable and bitter living conditions of the South almost pushed most blacks to migrate to the North for social justice, and Harlem, one of the neighbourhoods in New York City, became the new cultural haven for the devastated blacks. Harlem reverberated with fresh insurgence of black spirit, culture, music and literature. This phenomenon, known popularly as the “Harlem Renaissance” gave way to the birth of the “new negro”, keen to give expression to its renewed self. Inspired by the radical protests of W.E.B DuBois, as distinct from the accomodationist and apologetic viewpoints of Booker T. Washington, the writers associated with this movement were Langston Hughes, Alain Locke Jessie Fauset, Jean Toomer, George Scuyler, James Weldon Johnson etc. Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro: An Anthology became the “Bible of Harlem Renaissance”. Locke commented in his essay:
The Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race Leader are not unaware of the New Negro, but they are at a loss to account for him. He simply cannot be swathed in their formulae. For the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life.(Locke 21)
Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” is yet another classic statement of black assertion in the manner of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Hughes’s passage in his essay is worth quoting in this context:
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. (Hughes 59)
The prevalent principles of Harlem modernism were rejection of European cultural standards, recuperation of the ideals of Africa, use of the typical Southern black vernacular, engagement in the rhythms of blues, jazz and the different spirituals and the search for the new rejuvenated “black” self. The BangClash poems of McKay, the ethnographic narratives, fiction and short stories of Zora Neal Hurston, the mixed-genre novel Cane by Jean Toomer created a perfect ambience for the efflorescence of distinctively black ethos and ideas.
The Harlem Renaissance, despite being the first significant landmark that ushered the cultural independence of the blacks, failed due to certain reasons. First, it failed to inaugurate a completely distinct Afro-American movement because it still had strong ties with the European standards. As Mitchell notes-
Perhaps due in part to the influence of an emerging Black Middle Class, the desire for full participation in American life often led Harlem renaissance critics to adopt the critical standards of Euro American culture. The result is that they often viewed Afro-American literature from an evolutionary perspective with the underlying notion that African American literary genius is evolving toward a state of completion and perfection whose ultimate point of reference is “the great tradition” of Western European literary culture. (Mitchell 4)
Second, the Harlem Riot of 18-19 March 1935, which saw a vandalisation of property amounting $2, proved the Harlem Renaissance a failure. One of the prime reasons for the loss of credibility in euphemistically celebrating black experience was the dismal aftermath of the Great Depression that aggravated the conditions of hardship faced by the Afro-American masses.
Afro-American Realism/ Humanistic Criticism and the Protest Tradition
As mentioned earlier, the Harlem Renaissance ended due to the effects of the Great Depression including inflation, unemployment and severe economic crisis. Under such situation, it was held euphemistic and futile to celebrate and glorify the uniqueness of the Black self and to indulge in self-expression through literature and arts. The next generation of writers from 1940 to 1960 started getting more rooted to the existing social forces in a realistic vein and therefore their emphasis was more integrationist and humanist. This ideological shift has been summed up by Mitchell in the following manner:
With both the nationalist and Marxist came the ideological shift from the individual lifting himself above society, i.e., the Harlem Renaissance’s “Talented Tenth” to the idea of the individual adjusting himself to and becoming a part of society and the masses. It was this humanistic/ethical and integrationist emphasis that was to have its day in the 1940s and 1950s as African American ministers, politicians, and sociologists moved into positions of leadership. Pushed by the pragmatism of the Depression, creative writers also became critics as they set the stage for an African American school of protest fiction and humanistic/ethical criticism. (Mitchell 6)
The writers associated with this protest-tradition included Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin who were more or less inclined towards naturalistic writing with indignant contestatory voices against the horrific conditions in the Black ghettoes. Majority of their writings focused on the wretched conditions of the Black populations in the specific ghettos of Chicago, Boston, New York. Richard Wright’s oft-quoted essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing” is considered as a manifesto of this protest tradition. Wright argues in the essay:
The Negro writer who seeks to function within his race as a purposeful agent has a serious responsibility. In order to do justice to his subject matter, in order to depict Negro life in all of its intricate and manifold relationships a deep, informed and complex consciousness is necessary; a consciousness which draws for its strength upon the fluid lore of a great people, and moulds this lore with the concepts that move and direct the forces of history today (Wright 102)
For Wright, therefore, intricate social involvement mattered more than a mere quest for aesthetic satisfaction. Wright, even in his creative writings strongly held his contentions regarding his subject-position as a hard -core realist. In Native Son (1940) he exposed the psychological nuances of the protagonist Bigger Thomas, vividly detailing how the Thomas family suffered deprivation in the Chicago slum area. Bigger ultimately suffers imprisonment and is sentenced to death for killing a white woman. In his memoir Black Boy (1945) he charts his personal experiences as he journeys from the South to Chicago and gradually earns recognition and fame. He even took membership of the Communist party and directly addressed how they led the protesting Negroes in the streets- “on some days I witnessed as many as five thousand jobless Negroes, led by Communists, surging through the streets”(qtd in Sen and Sengupta 253)
Ralph Ellison was fully in agreement with Wright in coalescing aesthetics and protest in the integrationist portrayal of the white society that was robbing the Blacks of their humanity. His critical essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” was, in his own words, “perhaps as much about me as a member of minority as it (says) about literature” (qtd in Mitchell 135). He noted in his essay how unfortunate it was for the Negro that the dominant white American register had gradually dehumanized, distorted and misrepresented him to allow him have a glimpse of himself as an “image drained of humanity”(135). Ellison argues:
The Negro’s body was exploited as amorally as the soil and climate. It was later, when white men drew up a plan for a democratic way of life that the Negro began slowly to exert an influence upon America’s moral consciousness. Gradually he was recognized as the human factor placed outside the democratic master plan, a human “natural” resource who, so that white men could become more human, was elected to undergo a process of institutionalized dehumanization. (Ellison 137)
Ellison goes beyond Wright in his portrayal of the Negro. Whereas Wright’s Bigger remains a tortured and psychologically neurotic character to introspect and think about his situation in objective terms, Ellison’s protagonist in his masterpiece Invisible Man feels how the white society refuses to “see” the Negroes: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…You wonder whether you are simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare…” ( 21). Ellison’s masterpiece and his critical essay had almost shaken the entire tradition upon which the white canon stood. As a “minority writer” he unravelled the white hypocrisies in being oblivious of the rift between ideals and acts in the new nation. Pointing out that “in Europe the writer became the most profound critic of these matters”, in the US “he either turned away or was at best half-hearted in his opposition-perhaps because any profound probing of human values both within himself and within society [as it] brought him face to face with the rigidly tabooed subject of the Negro.” (Ellison142)
James Baldwin’s realism, however was unique and different. He was against Wright’s engagements with the stereotypical representations of blacks that white literature and criticism had always endorsed. Placing Wright’s Bigger as the descendent of Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Baldwin voiced out his strong resistance in his much-acclaimed critical essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”. Arguing against the protest tradition initiated by Wright, Baldwin held that a protagonist like Bigger has to re-invent his own self:
For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry or a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being subhuman and feels constrained therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult-that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization which is real which cannot be transcended. (Baldwin 154)
Wright, Ellison and Baldwin represent a significant landmark in Afro-American criticism because they excelled as much in terms of their creative output as in their critical insights about the principles of their own literary pieces. Mitchell rights argues that they were spurred by two principal motivations. First, they wanted to represent their own socio-political and philosophical ideas informing their own creations. Second, those principles were employed as critical tools to judge and evaluate the works of their compeers. This tendency would outpour in later Afro-American critical traditions including the “Black Arts Movement”, the Afro-American feminist movements, Whiteness Studies etc.
The Debate regarding “Integration”
Mitchell pointed out the “absence of ideological and political consensus” in writers of the “protest” tradition that percolated even in the professional critics. Afro-American critics discussed about this issue in Phylon, a journal founded in 1940 by W E B Dubois. Among other topics, the issue of integration was raised and many argued in favour of integration in literature as creative output confined exclusively to Afro-American life and experience turned out to be unpopular. Critics like J Saunders Redding, Arthur P Davis strongly advocated a change in the literary scenario arguing that Afro-American writers must address objective, universal, human issues even while dealing with their singular and specific experiences as minorities. Redding even cited writers like Margaret Walker, Frank Yerby and Willard Motley to show how their universalist writing paradigm had won the hearts of the white audience and the support of white publishers. Mitchell argues, however that dissenting voices to this “integrationist” drive were nonetheless heard. About the white publishers’ mercenary compliance with the “literature” they wanted to project, Hurston wrote:
Publishing houses and theatrical promoters are in business to make money. They will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negros and Jews because they feel they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension It can then be offered as a study in Sociology with the romantic side subdued. They know the scepticism in general about the complicated emotions of the minorities. (Hurston 118)
The strongest of the voices at this juncture, Zora Neal Hurston’s dissent was, in the words of Mitchell, “to become one of the major concerns of the critics associated with the Black Arts Movement” (Mitchell 9).
Black Arts Movement
Despite the ambience of hope, promise, optimism and the dream of an inclusive society ushered by the Civil Rights Movement from the early 50s, “the social and political issues of the 1960s generated a new literary politics- a Black Aesthetic, an aesthetic of separatism or, as some called it, the Black Arts Movement (1964-1971)” (Mitchell 9-10). The Civil Rights Movement organised several programmes- desegregation of Southern secondary schools, a 381 day total Black Boycott of Montgomery’s buses, and on 28 August 1963, the NAACP led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr organised the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. However, the nation failed to live up to the optimistic dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 60s riots continued in Harlem, Philadelphia, Newatt, Watts, Detroit and the nation was literally shocked by the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Civil Rights Activist, President J F Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Senator Robert in quick successions.
Consequently, young Afro-American statesmen began becoming sceptic of the drives towards integration and inclusivity. Mitchell summed up the sentiments of these statesmen in the following words:
Nonviolence and integration were replaced by such watchwords as “racial separatism”, “self-help” and the already familiar “Black -Power”. African Americans were urged to take control of the political and economic institutions in their communities and to emphasize their destructive contributions to American life and the world at large. (Mitchell 10)
The basic aim, therefore, was the de-Americanization of the blacks and the construction of exclusively black idiom, symbol, rhythm, imagery, syntax, iconography and mythology that would express the quintessential Afro-American experience. Hoyt W. Fuller one of the pioneering exponents of this movement maintained in “Towards a Black Aesthetic”– “Conscious and unconscious white racism is everywhere, inflecting all the vital areas of national life. But the revolutionary black writer, like the new breed of militant activist, has decided that white racism will no longer exercise its insidious control over his work”(Fuller 200). Besides Fuller, Leroi Jones is another strong pillar of the “Black Arts Movement”. In the words of Peter B High- “The anger of Leroi Jones sometimes seems like hate. For a while around 1965, he wrote plays and poetry which openly stated that blacks are better than whites and that whites are evil” (High 22). Don L. Lee summed up some of the common tropes in Black Aesthetics with reference to the black poets of the 60s. In his essay “Toward a Definition: Black Poetry of the Sixties” he provided an extensive catalogue of the black aesthetic parameters based on rhythm, intensity, irony, sarcasm, direction, subject matter and music (Lee 217). Addison Gayle Jr also harped the same tune in “Cultural Segregation: Black Literature and the White Aesthetic”. Gayle argued-“…Black critics must dig beneath the phrase and unearth the treasure of beauty lying deep in the untoured regions of the Black experience- regions where others, due to historical conditioning and cultural deprivation, cannot go”(Gayle 212).
Henry Louis Gates Jr and “The Signifying Monkey”
In The “Blackness of Blackness”: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates characterizes the process of “signifying” as the slave’s trope and elaborates how they have adopted to defamiliarise the tropes of the white masters. He argues:
If Vico and Burke, or Nietzsche, Paul de Man, and Harold Bloom, are correct in identifying “master tropes,” then we might think of these as the “master’s tropes,” and of signifying as the slave’s trope, the trope of tropes, as Bloom characterizes metalepsis, “a trope-reversing trope, a figure of a figure.” Signifying is a trope that subsumes other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the “master” tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis (Bloom’s supplement to Burke). To this list, we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catachresis, all of which are used in the ritual of signifying (Gates, “Blackness of Blackness” 686-87)
Drawing his ideas from the African indigenous tales of the “signifying monkey”, Gates wanted to initiate a new mode of critical discourse that he elaborated in his book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Gates was arguing in favour of a deliberately distorted, contorted representation of speech patterns in the Afro-American literary tradition that would facilitate the purpose of incomprehensibility and indefiniteness of any structured and coherent meaning. Adopting the turns and shifts of the black vernacular, exploiting the trickster role of the Monkey, such speech patterns might project the Monkey itself as the very coveted “technique, or style, or the literariness of literary language…the great Signifier” (Gates TSM 54). In The Signifying Monkey, Gates further elaborates stating:
This set of skewed relationships creates a measure of undecidability
within the discourse, such that it must be interpreted or decoded by careful attention to its play of differences. Never can this interpretation be definitive, given the ambiguity at work in its rhetorical structures. The speech of the Monkey exists as a sequence of signifiers, effecting meanings through their differential relation and calling attention to itself by rhyming, repetition, and several of the rhetorical figures used in larger cultural language games. Signifyin(g) epitomizes all of the rhetorical play in the black vernacular (53).
Why “Whiteness Studies”?
In “Interrogating Whiteness, Deconstructing Race” Anne Louis Keating argues how the presence of “whiteness” came to be erased and obliterated in the US which facilitated the operation of “whiteness” as the unacknowledged standard or parameter against which all ethnic minorities are weighed, measured and judged. Historically reviewing some of the seminal literary and critical disciplines in the US (some of them analysed above), Keating further notes the impossibility of categorizing any discipline as a distinctively “white” one. Keating argues:
Although scholars generally conceptualize the Harlem Renaissance as a “black” literary movement (I suppose because those identified as “Harlem Renaissance writers” were people of African descent), they do not conceptualize Transcendentalism as a “white” movement, even though-to the best of my knowledge-the transcendentalists were all people of European descent. In our “multicultural” era, we have studies of “Chicano” narrative, “Asian American” novels, “Native American” poetry, and so on. But imagine a course or a book devoted exclusively to white-skinned writers (as so many courses and books still are) that acknowledged this fact in its title: Say, “Classics of the White Western World,” “The White American Experience,” or “White Regional Writers”. (Keating 905)
From the Harlem critics to Henry Louis Gates Jr, Afro-American literary criticism has mainly concerned itself with black literature and literary practices, indigenous narratives, cultural appropriations and subversions, explorations of black language and specific vernacular linguistic practices, among other things. If Langston Hughes inspired the Negro middle class to catch a glimmer of their own creativity and beauty turning from the white, respectable books, documents and papers, Richard Wright advocated a new “blueprint” for Negro writing that would accommodate the Negro’s own sufferings, requirements, dreams and aspirations without apologetically pleading with “white America” for justice to be granted. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison in their own ways tried to address how black subjectivity can be celebrated, emphasized and foregrounded. Even the proponents and the practitioners of the “Black Arts Movement” in their radical subversion of Eurocentric standards and ideals were still clinging to the hegemony of white conventions in trying to amend them through black aesthetics. Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey also deals with the problematic of self-exclusion as it assumes the centrality of “white” techniques to “signify” and thereby rebuild and reconfigure a new technique. “Whiteness Studies” in the 1990s takes African American Criticism to a different direction, however, with the pioneering works of Richard Dyer and Toni Morrison that greatly impacted literature, film and culture-studies. This is not to suggest, however, that “whiteness” scholarship did not exist before “Whiteness Studies” explored it in a distinctive discursive manner. In fact, David Roediger in the “Preface” to his anthology Black on White: Black Writers on What Means to be White writes:
The tendency of many writers to believe that “whiteness studies” is a recent creation in which white scholars have pioneered thus runs directly counter to my experience. This volume attempts to show that such studies are part of the long, rich, varied, and unsurpassed tradition of Black thought about white people and whiteness (Roediger xi).
Roediger attempts a systematic anthology categorising the various contours of Whiteness, namely “Whiteness seen through race”, “Whiteness as property”, “The White World and Whiter America”, “Some White Folks”, “White Women, White Men” and “White Terrors”. It is interesting to note that Roediger’s “whiteness” anthology includes even writers belonging to the already established Afro-American critical paradigms, for instance Du Bois ( “The Souls of White Folk (1920) &“Dialogue with a White Friend”(1940) ), James Weldon Johnson(“The Poor White Musician”(1915)) , Langston Hughes (“White Man”(1936)), James Baldwin (“On Being White”(1984), “White Men’s Guilt” (1965)), Richard Wright (“On White Women Workers”(1945)), Ralph Ellison (“A Party Down at the Square”(1940)). However, the term “Whiteness Studies” as dealt with in this thesis, takes the theoretical formulations of Toni Morrison’s essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” (1989) and book Playing in the Dark (1992) where she heralds a very distinctive tradition of Afro-American criticism addressing what constitutes “literary” whiteness.
The newness of “Whiteness Studies” as a critical discipline is its exploration not of the margin, but of the centre. Moreover, what Morrison’s critical initiative addresses is the very functionality of the margin to define and articulate the conventions of the centre. In other words, her thesis claims that if “blackness” becomes so intimately serviceable to articulate literary “whiteness” (in terms of theme, language, character), the very foundation of “whiteness” rests on the forces of the “Other”. In so far as literature is concerned, “Whiteness Studies” in America therefore principally deals with white literatures unlike the preceding critical paradigms and in so doing focuses on that parasitic relationship that disturbs the established “knowledge” about the sanctity and purity of the American canon. In Playing in the Dark Morrison states:
This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed and unshaped by the four-hundred year old presence of, first Africans and then African-Americans in the United States….Moreover such knowledge assumes that the characteristics of our national literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius and power, those views, genius and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States.(Morrison 5)
Summing up the basic premise of her book, Morrison asserts that the very black presence is central to one’s understanding of national, canonical American literature and “should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination”. Morrison’s “whiteness” project therefore searches for the “ghost in the machine” and studies the engagement of the “dark, abiding signing Africanist presence” in so called “race-neutral” canonical American texts.
Major theoretical Assumptions of “Whiteness Studies”
“One of the problems with studying whiteness”, as argued by Brigh methodological impetus to this field by their focused researches on “the ways of White Folks”. In fact, the anthology The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, which is arguably the best one on the diverse yet coherent perspectives on “whiteness”, significantly ushered it as a theoretical discipline. The anthology stemmed from a Conference held in the University of California in 1997 as a response to the socio-political climate of California regarding immigration and race. Marking the fluidity of notions accruing round the category called white, they attempted to define and explore the theoretical ramifications of “whiteness” as a category. They are:
(1) Whiteness as “Invisible” and “Unmarked”- This perspective tries to highlight and bring to the fore the implied hegemony of whiteness operating “invisibly” as a neutral category. This supposed neutrality and normativity of “whiteness” makes it as hyper -visible to coloured people as it is invisible to the whites. It merely acts as a parameter through which all other categories are judged, analysed and measured. The white subject therefore remains “unknowing” and “unseeing”, while it is always “known” and “seen” by people of colour. With this viewpoint, the new drive of Whiteness Studies scholars is to render it visible.
(2) Whiteness as an “Empty” category- Recent researches and enquiries have very distinctively established that “whiteness” has no positive content and it is the vacuum that is always completely filled by what it is not. bell hooks has termed this tendency “eating the other”. It is precisely this position of “whiteness” that has been explored by Morrison in Playing in the Dark where she showed how whiteness is “always already” parasitically dependent on its “Other”. This tendency of looking at “whiteness” as a culturally insular, empty category has been the chief interest of the new-abolitionists who consider and accept blackness as the worthy counterpoint of “whiteness”.
(3)The Structural Privilege of Whiteness/ White Skin Privilege- Exhaustive researches and fieldworks have shown how “white skinned” persons reap more benefits in banks, housing units, educational institutions and even in health sectors compared to their black counterparts. Real estate agents choose whites for the best of housing units, banks prefer whites to black people in terms of granting loans, public schools are mostly attended by students from affluent districts through whose property-taxes the schools ran and even in health sector morbidity and mortality-levels of White Americans were way lesser than their coloured counterparts.
(4) Whiteness in Violence and Terror- bell hooks argues in her essay “Representations of Whiteness” that violent activities like lynching, forced public-shaming, genocide, enslavement have been perpetrated in society with the legitimate ground of White supremacy and power. As a historical legacy of the brutal forces of colonialism and imperialism, violence and terror are deeply rooted in “whiteness”.
(5)Whiteness as the institutionalization of European Colonialism- Many historians have argued that the privileges of “whiteness” in contemporary times are direct outcomes of the imperial history of Europe. The notions of racial inferiority and lack which were given authenticity through “discourse” justified racial subjugation even in the post-imperial/ postcolonial times. The institutionalization of such a discourse further strengthened whiteness and sanctioned its privileges in society.
The new domain of interdisciplinary research that comes under the broader umbrella term labelled “Whiteness Studies” is another attempt to re-investigate the centre-margin relationship with a new focus on the centre to investigate what exactly contribute to its centrality. Postcolonial studies and the other theoretical disciplines like New Historicism and Psychoanalysis which have heavily been influenced by the poststructuralist strategies and interrogations have interrogated the us/other binary at length but the focus in most of the cases has been on the margin’s apologetic stance to question the modes of oppression and violence perpetrated by the centre. The discourse of whiteness is new because it premises itself on the supposed empowered status of the margin already and endows it with the supreme agency in defining and regulating the meanings, parameters and contours of the centre. Morrison’s interrogation is anything but apologetic; it unsettles the very foundation of “white” American literature by constantly making the readers aware of the ways in which Afro-Americanism has been abundantly used as a vehicle to articulate “whiteness”.
Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchell, Duke UP, 1994, pp. 149-155.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage, 2010.
—. “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity.” Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchell, Duke UP, 1994, pp. 134-148.
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Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchell, Duke UP, 1994, pp. 55-67.
Hurston, Zora N. “What White Publishers Won’t Print.” Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchell, Duke UP, 1994, pp. 117-121.
Keating, AnnLouise. “Interrogating “Whiteness,” (De)Constructing “Race”.” College English, vol. 57, no. 8, 1995, p. 901, JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/378620. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
Locke, Alain. “The New Negro.” Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchell, Duke UP, 1994, pp. 21-31.
Mitchell, Angelyn, editor. Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Duke UP, 1994.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Vintage, 2007.
Roediger, David R. “Preface.” Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, edited by David R. Roediger, Random House, 1998, pp. xi-xii.
About the contributor:
Assistant Professor, Dept of English (UG & PG), Bankura Christian College