AFRICAN AMERICAN CRITICISM
(Lois Tyson)
Estudios Literarios 2
U.T.N.-F.R.V.M.
Natalia Destefanis, Francisco Vergara
2012
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Racial Issues and African American Literary History
African American Criticism and Literature
Attempts to Analyze the African American Literary Tradition
Beloved
Activities
Racial Issues and African American Literary History
Until late 1960s
Cultural hegemony of white America.
Virtual exclusion of African American History:
*Slave uprisings during the Middle Passage
*Networks of resistance developed by slaves
*Harlem Renaissance
Key Concepts in African American Criticism
• Racialism: Belief in racial superiority
• Racism: Sociopolitical domination
• Institutionalized Racism: Racist policies and practices
in institutions
American Literary Canon: Eurocentric definition of
universalism
Contemporary Black American Authors
*Toni Morrison
* Nikki Giovanni
*Alice Walker
*John Edgar Wideman
*Maya Angelou
*Gloria Naylor
*Ishmael Reed
*Charles Johnson
*Rita Dove
*Sherley Anne Williams
*August Wilson
*Ernest J. Gaines
Psychological Results of Racism
• Internalized Racism
• Intra-racial Racism
• Double Consciousness (or Double Vision)
“Writing for Whites”
Countee Cullen
“Writing for Blacks”
Langston Hughes
Literary style inseparable from writer’s role as a
member of an oppressed group.
Poetics and Politics
• 18th Cent.: Writing as proof of humanity
• Black Arts Movement of the 1960s:
-Black writers (and critics) have an obligation to help
the race through literary means
-Questioning of Deconstructionism
-Opposition to the notion of “Universality”
African oral tradition of storytelling and folklore
Afrocentricity: Primacy of relationship to African culture
e.g.: Trickster tales
African American Criticism and Literature
Recurring historical and sociological themes
• Reflection of the politics of black American experience.
• Until the mid-twentieth century, black writers had to treat
racially charged subjects carefully or encode them in their
writing
Correcting stereotypes, omissions, and misrepresentations
Prominent Features
• Orality: *Black Vernacular English. Copying the rhythms
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of black speech
*Repeating important phrases. Alternating voices
• Folk Motifs: *Range of character types and folk practices
*Sense of continuity with the African and African
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American past
Character Types
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the local healer
the conjurer
the matriarch
the storyteller
the trickster
the religious leader
the folk hero
Folk Practices
• Singing worksongs, hymns, and the blues
• Engaging in folk and religious rituals as a way of
maintaining community and continuity with the past;
• Storytelling as a way of relating personal and group
history and passing down traditional wisdom
• Passing down folk crafts and skills
• Emphasizing the importance of naming
Attempts to Analyze the African American Literary Tradition
The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates
• He views African American literary history as a history of
relationships among literary texts
• People engage in a folk practice called “Signifying” (the term refers
to various indirect ways of giving opinions about another person)
• A literary application of Gates’s theory: Richard Wright and Ralph
Ellison
Richard Wright
Ralph Ellison
- A naturalist
- Racist oppression
represented in stark
language
- Aim: to describe the
depth of black suffering
- A modernist
- Human experience
represented by ambiguous,
metaphorical language
- He signifies upon Wright by
parodying Wright’s literary
structures
Attempts to Analyze the African American Literary Tradition
Blues, Ideology and African American Literature
by Houston Baker
• He relates African American literary tradition to an African
American folk art: the blues (a form of African American
cultural self-expression)
• Literary texts and blues songs generally have a double theme:
a spiritual theme and a material theme
• The material theme does not refer to escaping from or buying
oneself out of slavery
• It refers to the economic oppression that becomes a form of
bondage
“when personae, protagonists, autobiographical narrators, or
literary critics successfully negotiate an obdurate
`economics of slavery´ and achieve a resonant,
improvisational expressive dignity” (qtd. in Tyson, 392)
African American Women
 They were excluded from or marginalized by the African
American Literary Canon
 They have been represented in literary works as
stereotyped characters
 They have been concerned to portray black women as real
people with the complexity that they have
 According to Washington, black women must negotiate the
requirements of their relationship to the black community
and to women of all races to resist sexist oppression.
Recurring Themes
• Underpaid workers
• Victims of violence and sexual exploitation
• Their community
• White standards of beauty
• Passing for white
African American Women
Black women writers have a revisionist mission to provide
readers with realistic female character types
Washington describes 3 salient types:
• “Suspended woman”
• “Assimilated woman”
• “Emergent woman”
“All these literary devices emphasize the struggle of black
women to assert their own identity” (395)
• Some critics add a fourth type: “Liberated woman”
Recurring Literary Strategies
o A black female character as the
speaker or narrator
o 3rd person narrator: the point-ofview character is also a black
woman
o Imagery associated with locations
within the home
o Imagery associated with their
physical appearance
“All these literary
devices emphasize
the struggle of
black women to
assert their own
identity” (395)
African American Criticism: Insights into Literary Works by White
Americans Writers
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni
Morrison
• She tries to reveal the way in which white texts construct the
`Africanist´ presence in American history
• The term `Africanist´ refers to the denotative and connotative
blackness that African peoples have come to signify and to the
range of assumptions that accompany Eurocentric learning
about these peoples
• The Africanist presence has a negative image
• Whites use black characters as a vehicle for illegal sexuality,
fear of madness, expulsion and self-loathing
Toni Morrison
1931-Lorain, Ohio
The Bluest Eye (1970)
Song of Solomon (1977)
Beloved (1987)
Key Concepts in African American Criticism
Which of the following concepts of African
American Criticism best describes the situation
portrayed in School Daze?
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Internalized Racism
Intra-racial Racism
Double Consciousness
Racialism
Afrocentrism
Institutionalized Racism
The Social Role of the Black Artist (Tyson)
Which of the three following positions might be related to the
opening scene of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X?
• “Cullen (…) believed that black authors should be as free as white
authors to create according to the dictates of their own artistic
inspiration without being obliged to consider the political needs of
their people.” (363)
• “Writing as a form of purely individual expression has been
viewed by many African Americans as a luxury the race could not
afford while so many of its members were oppressed.” (364)
• “Such concepts as “center” and “periphery” are illusory.(…) The
concept of a stable, inherently meaningful cultural identity” must
be questioned. “The “self” is a fragmented collection of numerous
“selves” that has no stable meaning or value except those we
assign to it.”(365)
Works Cited
Duvall, John. The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity
and Postmodern Blackness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Print.
Lee, Spike, dir. Malcolm X. Warner Bros., 1992. Film.
Lee, Spike, dir. School Daze. 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, 1988. Film.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User’s Friendly Guide. New York:
Routledge, 2006. Print.

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