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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African American Voices

'A National Idea': Canons, Power, and (Afro-) American Literary Studies

Michael Awkward

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Nations are elaborate social practices enacted through time, laboriously fabricated through the media and the printing press, in schools, churches, the myriad forms of popular culture, in trade unions and funerals, protest marches and uprisings. Nationalism both invents and performs social difference, enacting it ritualistically in Olympic extravaganzas, mass rallies and military displays, flag waving and costumery, and becoming thereby constitutive of people's identities.
Anne McClintock, "'No Longer in a Future Heaven': Women and Nationalism in South Africa", Transition 51: 104.


1The central idea that unites the essays in the recent Homi Bhabha-edited collection, Nation and Narration, is that the term "nation" is best comprehended as subsumed or contained within "na(rra)tion," that, in other words, more than the physical spaces within which it is located, a nation's character is determined by the sum of the sometimes competing stories its inhabitants and observers tell about it. However fabled and seemingly transcendent its meaning may appear, geography — the physicality of the region in which "nation" is situated — generally signifies nothing until an empowered segment of a nationalist "we" reaches a consensus about its mythical and ideological meanings. And what determines that meaning is an official and/or unofficial "constitution" — a term which connotes in this context both a nation's "make-up" or state of health and a "system of fundamental laws and principles that prescribes [its] nature, functions, and limits" (American Heritage Dictionary, 286) — which systematizes and urges the enactment of a national history. In his work on mythic American narratives, Richard Slotkin suggests the usefulness of the term "ideology" — which he defines as "an abstraction of the system of beliefs, values, and institutional relationships that characterize a particular culture or society" (70) — to describe such (un)official national constitutions.

2Until very recently AMERICA, the national sign we use to refer to the ideas and events that have occurred within the spacial borders of the United States and outside of its borders in these States' name, was widely thought by Americans to be indistinguishable from what many now view as a sanitized official history; knowledge of this history's key, wondrous signs represents —in E. D. Hirsch's phrase — an achieved American "cultural literacy." Such fabled national signs, such canonical cultural terms, include: Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary War, 1776, taxation without representation, British Empire, Constitution, War of 1812, Manifest Destiny, Civil War, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Japan, Pearl Harbor, democracy, anti-communism, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Bay of Pigs, and, more recently, Iran, Iraq. All of these terms are invoked typically to demonstrate the veracity of an American reading of itself as "the land of the free and the home of the brave", and are consistent with its originary, mythic narration of beginnings and time-honored intentions.

3However, for many contemporary American citizens, including a number of academically trained investigators, official readings of those terms and of "history" are often considered less persuasive when other events are examined alongside these sanitized materials. Take, for instance, the response of some Afro-Americans to the Independence Day 1986 celebration whose primary locus was one of these privileged American signs, the Statue of Liberty, the site and sight of American immigrant origins. The event — whose focal point was the literal cleansing and reparation of the image of Lady Liberty — signified for resistant Afro-American observers another instance in which, in its false nationalizing of the statue's significance, black historical difference was not seriously considered. While some of the protest centered around the issue of representation (specifically, were enough Afro-Americans and other non-majority people included on Ronald Reagan's list of exemplary American immigrants), to my mind the most important black energies were being devoted to what we might call, with Houston Baker's recent formulation in mind, a deformation of the mastery of the celebration itself. As these protestors against the governmentally-supported myth of beginnings insisted, the signs associated with American origins for a vast majority of Afro-American citizens are not Ellis Island and Lady Liberty but, rather, slave ships and iron forged manacles. Instead of an often doubtlessly dangerous but nonetheless thrilling sea-faring expedition to freedom, our African ancestors were forced onto ships to undergo a violent dispossession.

4Because AMERICA represented for its first black inhabitants the site of a now unimaginable brutality and a virtual loss of personhood, some of their descendants were unwilling to celebrate along with those citizens whose origins more fittingly conformed to the dominant American narrative of immigration and beginnings. These Afro-Americans chose this occasion to remember — and to remind more typically immigrated Americans of — our painful beginnings, our less mythical originary difference. For these citizens, who forcefully rejected the official, unitary history of heroic American settlement, the sign of American cultural literacy "Statue of Liberty" signalled not opportunities for freedom, autonomy, and self-determination, but the nation's theft of black bodies and its denial of those empowering possibilities — in fact, their consistent absence — for many Afro-Americans. The canon of American symbols, then, while meaningful indeed to the nation's citizens, signifies differently to these citizens as a consequence of various historical events and their particular relationship to these events. For many Afro-Americans, canonical signs — symbols of sanitized American canons — are sites not merely of national pride, but of contestation because they represent the non-place to which America has traditionally assigned them.

5Recently, the American higher education system has begun to make a space for alternatives to, for contentious rejections of, a primarily positive narrative of national history. For American literary studies in particular, that space has been occupied by scholars — racial "minorities," feminists, marxists, post-structuralists, post-colonialists, gays and lesbians, etc. — skeptical of that official history who, whatever their often divergent political interests and inclinations, see the rewriting of AMERICA and of other of hegemony's unitary terms as essential for the advancement of knowledge and the creation of a more permanent place for the dispossessed.

6If we can no longer be certain of the signification of such key American phrases as "The Statue of Liberty" and "Ellis Island," neither can we expect that the term "The Canon of American Literature" means the same thing even to scholars of American literary and cultural history whose business it is to negotiate for or determine its contents. Whereas earlier, the term meant for those who employed it the best, the most representatively American, the most aesthetically and thematically distinctive, "canon" now has taken on the militaristic qualities of its homophonic equivalent. One example of the war-like discourse which presently characterizes this debate is found in a recent advertisement for the conservative journal The New Criterion. This ad asks potential subscribers, "Do you sometimes have the impression that our culture has fallen into the hands of the barbarians?... Are you appalled when leading universities abandon the classics of Western thought for the compulsory study of 'third world' propaganda?" (New York Times Book Review, 8/26/90, 23). For traditionalists, then, the battle over the literary canon represents a struggle to maintain the basic qualities and central texts that have long informed their sense of its accomplishments. For anti-or non-traditionalist members of a diverse cultural left, the battles over the canon involve the exposure of the ideological biases and deconstruction of this institutionalized American narrative, the insertion of marginalized voices into this narrative, and the formulation and recovery of traditions of previously suppressed national stories.

7But despite my contempt for the "new" right's old strategy of equating calls for a more inclusive, more representative American canon with barbarism, I feel that for leftist scholars there are aspects of this debate which inevitably lead us down unproductive, dead-end streets. One example of the dead-endedness of certain arguments might be seen in challenges to the continued resuscitation and reinvention of Ernest Hemingway, my metaphor here for a white middle class male canonical American writer. In his most recent version, Hemingway has been transformed from a unrepentant masculinist desirous of geographical and psychic spaces "without women" to one of the culture's most provocative investigators of androgyny, a cunning reinvention which suggests both that Papa's writings have a currency in our time which is centrally concerned with gender formation and that no amount of agitation from the cultural left will erase him from an American literary hall of fame. But the efforts of feminist critics and others to problematize Hemingway have succeeded in an extremely important area: they have altered — or at the very least expanded — the series of questions we bring to bear when we approach his life and work.

8Whether Hemingway's corpus supports this critical movement from a masculinistic to an androgynistic focus — and this type of adaptability, Barbara Herrnstein Smith argues in Contingencies of Value, characterizes canonical texts as much as their putatively timeless "greatness" — will not be determined in the present by a current generation of scholars, but rather by Americanists of the next century and beyond. If contemporary leftist scholars are to help to determine the ways in which literary texts will be read in the future, we must not offer facile dismissals of texts which trouble or fail to conform to our racial, class, sexual, or even nationalist politics. Rather, we must demonstrate, by employing sophisticated interpretive strategies in an equally energetic fashion both for texts that we admire and for those whose politics we abhor, our sense of the qualities — ideological, aesthetic, and otherwise — of such texts according to our own, explicitly defined interpretive politics. For the moment, the question should not be whether certain books should be read, but how they are read. The lasting benefits of American canon debates will be signalled by the establishment of widespread efforts to read Hemingway and others in ways that both examine their visions of America and point out the limitations of these visions so as to demonstrate the necessity of including other historically silenced and marginalized voices in order to move toward a fuller narrative of our nation.


9In her 1988 Tanner Lecture delivered here at the University of Michigan, Toni Morrison puts succinctly her sense of the connections between The Canon and power:

Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature and range (of criticism, of history, of the history of knowledge, of the definition of language, the universality of aesthetic principles, the sociology of art, the humanistic imagination) is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested. (8)

10What we do when we acknowledge the politics, the vestedness, of traditional and contemporary formulations of the American literary canon is to destroy or, at the very least, to undermine the possibilities of a single vision or narrative, as it were, of a United States past, present, and (hopefully) future. American literary studies has come to be characterizable at present by what Sacvan Bercovitch terms a productive "dissensus", by an inability to reach and a general unwillingness to strive to achieve a single, unifying narration about our nation. Until the literary projects of the marginalized are rigorously examined — an examination that is currently under way — no unifying narrative will appear sufficiently persuasive to distinguish it from earlier attempts to define AMERICA in which the perspectives of the oppressed were always already relegated to the dark and unread margins.

11Although he believes that the traditional canon is a construction best understood not in terms of power relations but, rather, as a reflection of a set of privileged texts' moral authority and aesthetic worth, Charles Altieri effectively summarizes the views of many leftist scholars:

If there are no longer any central stories that unify society but only stories defining the desires of distinctive segments within society, then our view of the canon should supposedly correspond to social reality, should perhaps parlay this fragmentation into articulate differences. Canons are simply ideological banners for social groups: social groups propose them as forms of self-definition, and they engage other proponents to test limitations while exposing the contradictions and incapacities of competing groups.

12As an Afro-American literary critic who sees the present as a necessary moment for scholars in my field to engage in the explication of black literary texts as acts of racial "self-definition", I am committed to examining the "articulate differences" that non-canonical voices employ to represent non-hegemonic interests in their struggles to counteract a biased, official United States literary narrative. More importantly for the present discussion, I am interested in the ways in which these differences manifest themselves in and as emerging literary traditions or, for want of a better word, alternative "canons." But I am also self-conscious enough to observe both the benefits of these acts of literary self-definition — mainly, an uncreased presence and power of blackness in the field of literary studies generally — and their limitations. Primarily, I am concerned with the contradictions inherent in theorizing about black "traditions" and "canons," however necessary such tasks are to the establishment of these texts within a departmental discourse historically driven by the possibilities of such continuities, when we are aware that this enabling moment for black texts results in part from our convincing examination of the exclusionary practices which motivate The Canon and, inevitably, all such constructions.

13Without some alteration in our discussion of canons, antihegemonic forces within the literary academy are in danger of institutionalizing a self-contradictory, double voiced discourse, one which empowers us to participate in our own acts of canon formation while condemning others for their devotion to The Canon that helped to shape them intellectually. In this battle for inclusion into the ranks of the departmentally and nationally much-discussed, instead of a rejection of The Canon, whose intellectual and political power, as well as racial and gendered biases, are still generally apparent and whose radical revision will, hence, be gradual at best, we need to continue to work effectively to formulate counter traditions, counter narratives, alternative canons, which collectively will help to shift the ground under the weaponry of American cultural hegemony.


14In what is generally a provocative discussion of the current state of canon debates, John Guillory argues:

A critical practice redressing the injustice of social exclusion must "open" the canon to what is excluded, the non-canonical. Yet the pragmatic struggle moves quickly to an impasse that takes the form of an unreflective annexation of non-canonical works to a hegemonic tradition — a phenomenon of cooptation. It may be possible to defer this impasse by the establishment of alternative canons — canons of the non-canonical — but these pedagogic constructions also do not escape the formal features of canonicity. Rather they suffer the deutercanonical fate of "ghettoized" programs. (3-4)

15In several respects, Guillory's discussion of the motivations for and potential consequences of "opening up the canon" is quite persuasive. Since the paradigm-shifting political unheavals of the 1960s, leftist cultural critics have worked tirelessly — in academic and popular-press essays and book-length studies, in faculty meetings where curricular matters are being discussed, and more privately in cordial and/or heated interchanges with colleagues, and in their classrooms — for inclusion of heretofore suppressed or marginalized literary voices into The Canon. If, as these scholars argued, exclusion was at least implicitly motivated by politics, by the establishment of white middle and upper class male life as normative and universal, then correcting this state of affairs will itself involve the foregrounding and mobilizing of other, anti-hegemonic ideologies. However, Guillory's theorizing of the non-canonical seems not to recognize that the coalitions which have successfully negotiated spaces within The Canon for previously marginalized texts continue to contribute actively to the critical discourse surrounding these texts and to monitor — at times in the form of vociferous critique — the readings of these texts by other scholars whose public articulation fails in significant ways to reflect their own enabling perspectives.

16Guillory's formulations are, however, illuminating in their theorizing about potential implications of the creation of what he calls "canons of the non-canonical." For, in establishing criteria whereby non-canonical texts will be selected for inclusion in or as challenges to a hegemonic Canon, one of the unavoidable consequences will be the development and enactment of a politics of privilege, of a set of selective, exclusionary policies. And certainly, while much of recent leftist critical energy has been concentrated on exposing a white male politics which led directly to the creation of The Canon in/as its mirror image, as virtually indistinguishable from its ideal self, the efforts of many of these scholars have been directed toward "the establishment of alternative canons" themselves necessarily marked by a politics of inclusion and exclusion. When, for example, The Norton Anthology of Women's Literature was published by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in the mid 1980s, the volume precipitated often heated debates within the woman's literary community about categories (does the sign "women writers" — which, according to some of Gilbert and Gubar's detractors, really means "feminist women writers" — actually serve as an illuminating term under which to house the diverse group of artists?), about inclusion (do they use sufficient amounts of texts by women of color, by non-Commonwealth writers, by experimental writers?"), and, more generally and more important for my purposes here, about whether, in Catharine Stimpson's words, "the anthology, ... as a Norton anthology, reestablishes the theory of the canon." According to anti-canonical feminists, "[a] female canon is worse than a male, because feminist criticism was to disarm the canon's brag that a few, select texts have a mandate from art and history" (137).

17In my own field, we are embroiled in similar debates about canonicity, and will be even more hotly engaged in such debates when what we could call a black sibling of the Gilbert and Gubar anthology, "The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature," appears. The entrepeneurial visionary of this project is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose insistence that "[t]he editing of this anthology has been a great dream of mine for a long time, and it represents, in the most concrete way, the project of black canon formation" (44) reflects a keen awareness of the apparently conservative position in which the production of such an anthology places him. In defense of his "dream," Gates writes:

My pursuit of this project has required me to negotiate a position between those on the cultural right who claim that black literature can have no canon, no masterpieces, and those on the cultural left who wonder why anyone wants to establish the existence of a canon, any canon, in the first place. (44-45)

18Gates is able to dismiss quickly the perspectives of the cultural right about a lack in Afro-American cultural production, arguing only that we should appropriate the right's insistence that the teaching of literature is indeed the teaching of values for our own purposes: to demonstrate the interestedness of earlier examples of canon-formation and the necessity of a canon whose first principles are anti-hegemonic in origin and intent. (Gates's views notwithstanding, I believe that some members of the cultural right do indeed believe that there exist legitimate black masterpieces — Invisible Man certainly, Native Son perhaps, and maybe even Souls of Black Folk and Frederick Douglass's Narrative — but feel that these texts draw their informing creative energies and models not from black vernacular and literary forms, as Gates and others believe, but primarily from white modernist and pre-and postmodernist structures and aesthetics). But the perspectives of other members of the cultural left are not so easily dismissed by Gates, and he takes great pains to explain the necessity of acts of African-American canon formation:

Those of us working in my own tradition confront the hegemony of the Western tradition, generally, and of the larger American tradition, more locally, as we theorize about our tradition and engage in canon formation. Long after white American literature has been anthologized and canonized, and recanonized, our efforts to define a black American canon are often decried as racist, separatist, nationalist, or "essentialist"...
... There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well. But the attempts of black scholars to define a black American canon, and to derive indigenous theories of interpretation from within this canon, are not meant to refute the soundness of these gestures of integration. Rather, it is a question of perspective, a question of emphasis. Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition, a tradition not defined by a pseudoscience of racial biology, or a mystically shared essence called blackness, but by the repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi and tropes, the call and response of voices, their music and cacophony. (45)

19A major goal of the current project of Afro-American literary criticism — and, indeed, a primary motivation for the acts of canon formation about which Gates speaks — is to establish Afro-American literature as a vibrant, sophisticated, and illuminating presence within the academy in order to ensure that the most compelling and representative of these texts become a part of what Gates terms "the archive of those texts and titles we wish to remember" (44). Such establishment is not possible, however, without a concentrated act of recovery of lost and forgotten black texts and the development of a series of interpretive strategies that will assist in the investigation of the aesthetic and ideological qualities of these texts.

20White Americanists in the first decades of this century established "American Literature" as a significant category in the discipline of literary studies by identifying what they considered to be the quintessential "Americanness" of, the ideological, conceptual, and aesthetic commonalities between, the works of Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, et al. By examining the ways in which these commonalities reflected an American "constitution," these scholars strove to liberate the output of American literary imaginations from the hegemony of the literature of England. Similarly, Afro-Americanists seek for the texts with which we are concerned a means by which to achieve an institutionally empowering definition and identification; we seek, in other words, the terms by which to describe a liberating "constitutional" black difference.

21Whatever the success of white Americanists in defining an American literary difference, traditional American English departments evidence the hold that the literary output of England has maintained on its former colonies. Such departments implicitly utilize these two national literatures as a system of similarity and difference, where these discourses are viewed both as independent of and intersecting with and influencing one another in what Robert Weisbuch calls an "Atlantic Double Cross." But while English literature's importance to American authors was always already assumed, the question of America's influence on British literary production could not be asked until the American literary project was defined, however imperfectly and imprecisely for some of our purposes now. Until such a definition was formulated, American literature, the product of what Henry James considered a culturally inferior institutional and imaginative geography, was essentially "no-place," even on American shores.

22Afro-American literature currently occupies a similar relationship to a white American canon to that which previously obtained between this now-privileged textual group and English literature. If, as I believe, institutional change is motivated not by the benevolence and vision of those members who occupy its center, but as a result of successful negotiations of power mounted by those who constitute the institution's at-least-somewhat marginalized, the custodians of The American Canon will not permit its radical revision at any point in the forseeable future. But I am patient, because I see such revision as being as inevitable — as intellectually sound and, therefore, unavoidable — as white male Americanist scholars in the early decades of this century must have seen the institutionalization of AMERICA as a site of impressive literary production. We — and in this "we" I include other members of the cultural left in the literary academy — will succeed ultimately and are succeeding locally in our efforts to make the non-traditional visible in American literature departments. We will continue to teach on the margins, in what Guillory refers to as "the ghetto," continue to insist that our departments admit others — faculty and students — committed to similar "marginal" pursuits, continue to bring to the university's attention scholars and writers whose work reflects and illuminates these underread margins. In delineating the "articulate differences" of work on the margins, we are engaged simultaneously in self-definition and national "constitution" expansion, the goal of which is not only "alternative canons", but an altered reading of the meaning of "American literature" and, perhaps, of AMERICA. Such efforts will lead to the increased institutional legitimacy of the American margins — indeed, to a movement from the margins to a position closer to the center which effectively transforms the center's meanings — which will result not from the correctness of our position (although we are convinced of its correctness), but from our ability to amass and mobilize large numbers of the like-minded.

23But if the success of the century's first Americanist literary critics demonstrates the possibility of The Canon's radical revision, the limits of their identification of an American "constitution" ought to be similarly instructive for Afro-Americanists. We need to be expansive in our definitions of an Afro-American "constitution" so that, unlike the originary Americanist narrative, differences — class, gender, regional, educational, etc. — will not be reduced to a position of mere background, to signs of utter placelessness in our newly empowered landscapes. We must not, in other words, be as prescriptive in our definitions of "blackness" in American contexts as these earlier scholars were in their definitions of Americanness which largely excluded us as significant subjects. As we move more and more toward institutional power, we must not forget the dangers inherent in the unavoidable activity of formulating and formalizing "canons." In other words, we must remain aware of the necessity of envisioning expansive geographies.



Altieri, Charles. "An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon". Canons. Ed. Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 41-64.

Baker, Houston Α., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. "The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History". Critical Inquiry 12 (Summer 1986): 631-53.

Bhabha, Homi, ed. Nation and Narration. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Whose Canon Is It, Anyway?" New York Times Book Review (February 26, 1989): 1, 44-45.

Guillory, John. "Canonical and Non-Canonical: A Critique of the Current Debate". ELH 54 (Fall 1987): 483-527.

Lauter, Paul. "Whose Culture? Whose Literacy?" Canons and Contexts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991: 256-71.

Spillers, Hortense J. "Cross-Currents, Discontinuities: Black Women's Fiction". Conjuring,: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Eds. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985: 249-61.

Stimpson, Catharine. "Woolf's Room, Our Project: The Building of Feminist Criticism". The Future of Literary Theory. Ed. Ralph Cohen. New York: Routledge, 1989: 129-43.

Slotkin, Richard. "Myth and the Production of History". Ideoloy and Classic American Literature. Eds. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986: 70-90.

Weisbuch, Robert. Atlantic Double-Cross. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.


Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan, where he is Director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. A graduate of Brandeis University (B. A. 1980) and the University of Pennsylvania (M. A. 1982; Ph. D 1986), he is the author of Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels (Columbia University Press, 1989) and of Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality (University of Chicago Press, 1995), and editor of New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (Cambridge University Press, 1990)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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