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It is not that I am unconcerned with the imaginative force of literature, but my focus lies elsewhere; I am con- cerned with questions of aesthetic style as epistemology, as grounds for knowledge production, as the site on which questions of power play out. We need only recall the tussle between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois at the beginning of the twentieth century to note that questions of culture were at the heart of African-American struggles for equal rights. Writers as varied as Chinua Achebe, Pauline Hopkins, and Ama Ata Aidoo invari- ably entangle their aesthetic choices with weighty political and historical questions.

It is my belief that by exploring the deep investment of black Atlantic writers in such literary and aesthetic strategies, we can add to the exciting array of possibilities opened up by transnational studies. To assume that genre is not pertinent to the study of race is to suppose that the minority text exists as itself, without institutional identity or pres- sures. Genre categories frame the expectations both readers and writers bring to a literary text, embedding within themselves a veritable social history of narrative conventions, patterns, and modes of representation.

Symposium: The Sea is History: Art and Black Atlantic Cultures, Session 3

No genre is inherently conser- vative or radical, but insofar as genres and their circulation across various national and transnational literatures can be understood through histori- cist methods of analyzing form, genre analysis can help call attention to both politics and aesthetics at once.

Diaspora is a term notorious for its semantic expandability, often com- ing in to stand in for a host of related terms, including transnationality, cosmopolitanism, transatlanticism, exile, expatriation, postcoloniality, migrancy, and globality. One could also turn to any number of historical moments to track a genealogy of the term, its relation to Jewish concepts of diaspora, or to socialist or com- munist forms of internationalism.

Such a process of nominalization is not my concern here. In sharp contrast to those who would empty the term of its long and muddled history in discourses of racial essentialism, nationalism, or black Zionism and point solely to its emancipatory qual- ities, I would like to keep alive the political indeterminacy and richness of that very history. Often seen as dealing with the eternal rather than the historical, the ontological rather than the political, romance sug- gests a movement outside of the linearity of time and history into the cyclic nature of myth and prophecy.

Romance encompasses multiple resonances, from the medieval quest-romance, to the sentimental or domestic alle- gory of love and marriage, to the heroic narrative of struggle and redemp- tion. As Northrop Frye has suggested, it often involves nostalgia for an idealized past, in part to search for alternatives to the social ideals of the here and now. In thinking of the changing uses and functions of romance, it is worth recalling that the role of literature in black Atlantic societies has long exceeded the aesthetic alone, as literature is expected to carry out the work of both history and prophecy.

My goal, then, in assessing the work of romance in this study is to open up rather than to foreclose interpretive possibilities by attending to the array of meanings encapsulated in the term itself. In suggesting that romance is the paradigmatic genre of diaspora, my point is not to be prescriptive or to invoke some notion of purity of genre. Categorizing modern prose into the genres of realism and romance is, of course, a messy process.

But most often over the twentieth century, the genre that writers have turned to over and again to represent the black diaspora is that of romance. Even writers like Du Bois, to take just one example, whose concerns are largely sociological, philo- sophical, and historiographic, have sought the genre of romance for their representations of diaspora.

My point is also neither empirical nor taxo- nomic: to note the proliferation of non-realist strategies of representation in diaspora literature is not to say very much.

Rather, by elaborating the varied and surprising work black Atlantic writers put romance to, I want to track these strategies to show how they construct a particular relation of diaspora to modernity by creating partitions of time and space, and by suggesting especially that traversing space can equal movement in time. Each writer I look at remakes the form so that it will be adequate to a changing experience of modernity. While nation time links past, present, and future in a march towards progress, dias- pora time emphasizes the breaks and discontinuities in such a movement, recalling the trauma of the Middle Passage and looking forward to the Jubilee.

If, as Tom Nairn suggests, national- ism can be thought of as a modern Janus, facing back into history in order to move into the modern, every nationalist project must invent and codify a tradition. In doing so, it rethinks our understanding of black nationalism in its various guises as imperial fantasy, anti-colonial mobilization, or leftist internationalism.

Romance Diaspora And Black Atlantic Literature Goyal Yogita

While diaspora can imply a cri- tique of the nation as critics contend, it can also infuse and exemplify nationalist longings. Its critique of nation, then, does not work as a dis- avowal alone, but more intimately, as it contains within it its object of critique. Most theorists view diaspora as a frame for knowledge production that is resist- ant or exorbitant to the form of the nation, whether on account of the far-reaching connections across nations that transnationalism assumes, or because of their conceptual entrapment within Enlightenment discourses of progress, reason, and civilization.

Reconsidering nationalism involves realizing that even racialized or messianic narratives stake a claim to universalism by entering modernity as equals. In addition, it would enable us to marshal the theorization of coloni- alism in postcolonial studies together with the theorization of racism in African-American studies. On the other hand, it is equally urgent for American literary studies to take into account the formative role of imperialism and colonialism.


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In American studies, the turn to the transnational comes from a desire to unsettle exceptionalist or isolationist narratives of the nation, to dethrone key tropes of the frontier or manifest destiny, revealing in the process its imperial ventures on one hand and its hetero- geneous borders and multiplicity on the other.

In the postcolonial context, studies of the colonial state, the anti-colonial nationalist movement, and the postcolonial nation-state form the object of study.

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Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature

Another key site from which studies of diaspora have emerged is black Britain, where British cultural studies theorists seek to expose the equa- tion of Englishness with whiteness, by arguing for diaspora over nation as a useful frame for black culture. On the other hand, romantic accounts of Africa also abound in the form of therapeutic Afrocentrism.

Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature asks us to think outside and beyond these dispiriting choices, to return historicity to the encounter of Africa and the West, and to attend to the power and work of imaginative writing. To restore a sense of the vitality, urgency, and sheer creativity of the dialogue among various black diasporic sites, the book seeks not just an acknowledgement of the centrality of Africa but a path out of these bleak choices.

A diasporic methodology necessarily makes us suspicious of origin stories: in what follows, then, rather than a linear narrative, we have a ramifying web with many beginnings and endings , through time, of various uses of realism and romance. Built on the Johns Hopkins University Campus. This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.

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