African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books


Author’s Response

Dale E. Peterson
Amherst College

Note: Presented at the “Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books” Symposium, Amherst College, October 27, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by the author and the Trustees of Amherst College. All rights reserved.

     First, I would be remiss not to acknowledge my own good fortune. I have been blessed with two receptive readers who both sympathize with my book’s fundamental ambition and also understand its argument. Given the unconventional nature of the particular cross-cultural comparison I have explored, a comparison that suggests structural parallels between a white majority European culture and a black minority culture within a dominant white nation, one might more reasonably expect to encounter resisting readers.

     Second, I want to acknowledge that these two readers, unknown to them, were sources of encouragement during my long march toward completion of the book. Nancy Ruttenburg is one of the few American academics I could look to as a fellow traveler in comparative Russian-American cultural studies; in particular, I want to mention her innovative article, “Bondage and Self-invention in Russia and America” (Slavic Review, 1992), which represented a first inquiry into the effect of the peculiar institutions of slavery and serfdom on notions of agency and identity in American and Russian literary texts. And Valerie Smith’s dissertation and first book, Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative provided a valuable demonstration of how modes of narration could in themselves embody culturally symptomatic postures toward ethnic identity; she helped me read James Weldon Johnson and Dostoevsky’s fictional autobiographies of unresolved bicultural selves.

     Finally (since he is in the audience), let me once again acknowledge the invaluable intellectual companionship of Bob Gooding-Williams without whose encouragment and keen critical perceptions I would not have undertaken close readings of the major doctrinal statements of Crummell, Du Bois, and Alain Locke.

     It might be helpful at this point for me to state as succinctly as possible what I understand my book’s project and aims to have been. Up From Bondage undertakes a comparative investigation of the evolution of the literature of cultural nationalism by Russian and African American intellectuals and artists. It suggests that each intellectual tradition underwent structurally similar phases in making claim to national or ethnic privilege within historic metanarratives. These influential texts display a remarkably parallel evolution from “civilizationist” to ethnocentric to multicultural assertions of Russian and African American cultural particularity. To be frank, my book is also concerned with exhibiting and celebrating through close readings the innovative and often unrecognized narrative sophistication of literary texts that distinctively embody the various phases of this evolving, ever shifting conception of Russian and African American national particularity, or “soul.” A further and perhaps extravagant ambition of the book is to encourage bolder and broader investigations of post-colonial cultures and expressive traditions, inclusive of European as well as non-European peoples who have historically been subject to and resistant to cultural subordination and denigration by a dominant extrinsic civilization.

     In this regard, it is important to insist on the long and surprisingly comparable pre-history that stimulated the formation of North American and Russian compensatory nationalism. As Nancy Ruttenburg rightly observes, the expansionist cultures of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American Republic and of the Russian Orthodox Tsardom were themselves structured in large part by an internalized sense of marginality and consequent specialness. For good reason. The dominant or mainstream American and Russian cultures were reactive to paradoxical European readings of their “manifest destiny.” On the one hand, similar evidence of a Western European denigration of the cultural potential of these huge continental nations can be found in the Commager-Giordanetti anthology provocatively titled Was America a Mistake? and in Larry Wolfe’s major recent study, Inventing Eastern Europe. In the eighteenth century, European science and ethnography confidently predicted the permanent cultural retardation of the vast North American and Eurasian marshy land morasses. This represented, in effect, a type of biological warfare being waged against the outlands of Europe. Furthermore, as early as the sixteenth century, European travelers had already identified Russian culture as exemplary of “Oriental despotism.” See Marshall Poe’s recent study of ninety narratives between 1476–1748 entitled A People Born to Slavery. Yet by the 1840s a European counter-current had developed, most famously in de Toqueville’s prediction of the emergence of two world-dominant “new peoples” on the margins of the European continent. A generation of post-Napoleonic commentators, way in advance of Spengler, had forecast “the decline of the West” and the rise of alternative civilizations in democratic America and despotic Russia.

     It did not take long for American and Russian intellectuals to construct peculiarly parallel triumphalist narratives of national destiny. What had been perceived as the cultural blankness or backwardness of an “uncivilized” environment was transformed into a rhetoric of redemptive belatedness. Thus we see in figures as different from one another as Emerson, Crummell, and the Russian Chaadaev an invigorated sense that those untutored peoples and nationalities destined by historic contingency to emerge late in the march of civilization are privileged to inherit, overtake, and surpass prior stages of universal development.

     That said, I would argue that the phenomenon of bondage, of slavery and serfdom, lent a special doubled intensity to the experience of marginality and latency internalized by the Westernized Russian and African American elites. I would claim, disagreeing somewhat with Ruttenburg, that the Russian intelligentsia and the African American intellectual elite were equally, and equally painfully, separated from their denigrated, debased racial brethren, the enslaved and enserfed masses who were blood of their blood, bone of their bone. Both of these Westernized elites came to realize that literacy itself was a burden, a marker of their own complicity in a discourse that held their brethren in bondage and literally erased from view all evidence of cultural distinctness from the souls of black folk and of the Russian narod.

     As a consequence of this shameful erasure, there developed a rich and subtle literary counterattack launched by this Westernized elite, a tradition of inserting linguistic heteroglossia and hidden dialogisms within standard, recognizable forms of Western literacy. Here one might cite Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk with its double epigraphs of poetry and bolts of black melody hinting at a bicultural and bimodal literacy beyond the competence of the educated contemporary white reader. Or one might mention Turgenev and Chesnutt’s subtle vernacular subversions of standard genres like the ethnographic sketch and the plantation tale—both setting early examples of a type of double-voiced utterance understood differently by tone-deaf masters and by peasants who spoke with forked tongues. Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, certainly knew how to “hit a straight lick with a crooked stick.” One of the great achievements of Russian and African American narrative in the post-emancipation period is precisely this subversive inscription of an alternative and competing literacy into the privileged genres of literature.

     Over time, however, the ideological and literary strategies that asserted the existence of a veiled but hidden cultural distinctness that resided in an “authentic” Russian and African American folk “soul” were eroded by a competing vision—a prophetic sense that Russians and American blacks each constituted an emerging cultural community that could legitimately represent itself as always already bicultural. To be a truly Russian or African American “soul” was to be sole no longer and, significantly, the two great cultural nationalists, Du Bois and Dostoevsky could also be found at the source of this alternative identity, too. “New Negroes” and “Eurasian” Russians came into theoretical, if not material, existence as products of the hyphenated biculturalism also identified as inherently Russian and African American by the nineteenth century’s two greatest investigators of “double-consciousness,” Dostoevsky and Du Bois.

     I am grateful to Prof. Smith for providing a summary of my book’s argument with a crystal-clear lucidity that I could not have managed myself. She does, indeed, rightly notice a remarkable chronological gap or leap in my exemplary texts. My chapters move from Wright’s anti-nativist Black Boy (1945) to Naylor’s sophisticatedly Afrocentric and multicultural praise song, Mama Day. Why, she asks, is there no mention of the richly productive intervening period of literary cultural nationalism that includes the Black Arts movement beyond the Harlem Renaissance? A good question and one that, alas, has two equally lame answers. First, the narrative shape of my argument requires that each chapter juxtapose two comparable texts illustrative of a particular historic turn in the conception and representation of cultural uniqueness. And, quite frankly, I could find no Russian equivalent to a Langston Hughes or an Amiri Baraka. There would seem to be no correlative in Russian literature to the injection of blues or jazz riffs into an urbanized vernacular literary form. This would be worth investigating further, however. Another problem I faced is the disjunction between an increasingly pluralist post-war American society and the ossification of a centrally managed official Soviet literary culture which required the representation of vernacular national communities as proletarians in solidarity with Soviet socialism and Communist internationalism.

     I share with Professor Smith the hope that these two disparate yet parallel traditions of ethnic self-consciousness and cultural expressivity may come to acknowledge one another’s existence more fully. My last chapter on the “crossing over” of Bakhtin’s linguistic and narratological theories into African American literary criticism was deliberately titled “Response and Call.” It is evident to me that Russian scholars of Russian literature are becoming aware of such major African American theorists of literary signifying and auditory prose as Gates and Baker. And Russians are reading Toni Morrison and August Wilson now. The “call” is out for a Russian response and a revaluation of the Russian canon equivalent to what occurred when previously neglected writers like Hurston, Toomer, and Ellison replaced Wright as the epitome of African American literary power and cultural expression.

     Let me close by saying that my book was, at a fundamental level, motivated by an impatience with and intellectual dissent from the ethnic separatism that has until recently dominated literary narratives and academic discourse about post-colonial peoples and their unique indigenous cultural essences. Press a narrative about national privilege hard enough and you will discover a hidden universalism in the making. The new trend toward emphasizing hybridity and border identities as the special domain of an emerging New World civilization based on mestizaje or creolité is a reiteration in different dress of the Russian and African American visionary cosmopolitans of the 1920s. Careful, attentive cross-cultural comparison is what promises to keep utopianism and claims of ethnic privilege in proper multicultural perspective.

Copyright © 2006 The Trustees of Amherst College and
African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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