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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Race Across Borders: Transnationalism and Racial Identity in African-American Fiction, 1929-1945

  • Author(s): Agbodike, Kanayo Jason
  • Advisor(s): JanMohamed, Abdul R
  • et al.

Race Across Borders: Transnationalism and Racial Identity in African-American Fiction, 1929-1945, examines four African-American literary texts that employ transnational themes and aesthetics as a means of resisting a logic of racial essentialism that governed the production and reception of black literature in the United States during the early 20th century. I examine the ways in which Dark Princess by W. E. B. Du Bois, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Banjo: A Story Without a Plot by Claude McKay, and If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes employ various formal and stylistic techniques to critique and reconfigure the dominant codes of racial identity that shaped their context. I argue that each of these texts exemplifies a conflict between a nationalist mode of racial representation and a transnational orientation that destabilizes received notions of race. Whereas the cultural field in which interwar African-American novels were situated involved a manifest nationalist topography which reproduced a racially divided polity, these texts inscribe transnational forces that disrupt the racial underpinnings of the 20th-century American national narrative. Because of the hegemonic status of the nationalist framework, the critique of that framework tends to appear in the formal aspects of the novels rather than their explicit contents.

The first chapter considers how Dark Princess explores the intersections between African-American and anti-colonial politics by way of the story of a romantic relationship between an African American man involved in local politics and an Indian woman involved in an international Third World liberation movement. I consider how the juxtaposition of national and transnational forms of solidarity within the text is paralleled by a tension between naturalism and romance in its formal economy. While the techniques of naturalism tend to characterize the parts of the novel that represent national and racial politics, the parts that imagine a transnational anti-colonial movement draw on the codes of literary romance. Through this utopian gesture, the novel gives shape to the conflict between national and transnational perspectives on minority politics without offering a clear resolution to that conflict. The second chapter challenges dominant critical interpretations of Their Eyes Were Watching God, which construe the novel as a written representation of African American oral tradition. While such readings are illuminating, they overlook significant aspects of the text's racial thematic by emphasizing how it presupposes racial forms of identity. Although the novel does reproduce such forms, I argue that it simultaneously resists them, particularly in some of its more marginal characters and moments, and that it is precisely through the representation of dialect speech that these hidden resistances become visible.

The third chapter examines McKay's use of the aesthetic concept of the sublime in articulating the problematic gulf separating modern Blacks from metropolitan culture and society. In Banjo the sublime mediates between these terms rather than the rationally free subject and a causally determined Nature. Banjo differs from the mainstream European realist novel by denying the teleological narrative of reconciliation as unsuitable to the concerns of a radically excluded black collective. By taking as his protagonists an international band of black vagabonds based in the cosmopolitan French port city Marseilles, McKay imagines an alternative to the grand narrative of national identity. The final chapter focuses on notions of embodiment and psychological affect within Himes's narrative of thwarted integration. Simultaneously foreclosing on both a successful outcome for such a project and the death of the protagonist, the novel moves towards an ambivalent and open-ended reflection on the possibilities of social transformation. In light of this ambivalence, I view the brief but frequent points at which the protagonist identifies with marginalized Mexican-Americans and Japanese-American internment-camp prisoners as moments that both disrupt the received black/white binary as a schema for American social reality and contrasts a trans-national anti-colonial solidarity with racial nationalism as an alternative mode of political agency.

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