Whiteness is seen by many as the worldwide cultural norm, while all nonwhite cultures are negative, undesirable, and countercultural. In this important book, Crispin Sartwell shows how the writings of African Americans--including slave narratives, autobiographies, and rap music--directly engage that illusion, cutting through it like a laser. Citing Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
, he details the slave narrative as an unabashed document of "language and liberation." With courageous candor, Sartwell, who is white, speaks of the European dualistic conception of race and its role in the historic sexual subjugation of black women. He also uncovers the culturally stifling effects of white sponsorship of black writers in their search for Afro-American authenticity and realism.
In his analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois's writings, Sartwell cites the African American intellectual's relentless assault on the racial fictions of contemporary social science. His critique of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's The Sweeter the Juice uncovers how blacks struggled within themselves to resolve the tension between blackness and whiteness, as articulated in concerns over skin color, hair texture, and ancestry. Zora Neale Hurston's work is remarked upon as "a monument of resistance to all impositions of specific forms of visibility. That she existed and wrote in resistance to white stereotypes of black women is obvious. But she also existed and worked ... in resistance to black stereotypes of the black woman." Although he may possibly overstate rap music's ability to transform racism stereotypes into themes of resistance, Sartwell has produced an important book that deconstructs the notion of white supremacy while affirming the richness and complexity of black culture. --Eugene Holley Jr.
From Publishers Weekly
This latest contribution to "whiteness studies" alternates between being provocative and intelligent and being irritating and repetitive. Sartwell's primary focus appears to be African American autobiography, but just as fascinating to him is his own status as a white scholar attempting "both to inscribe my own racism and to elide it or even destroy it." Thus, this fairly accessible work of criticism tries to be both "autobiographical theory as well as theory of autobiography." It succeeds in neither completely, but offers some cogent insights along the way about the limits of the slave-narrative genre; Malcolm X's attempt to unify and thus empower the African American self; and the "deeply subversive" potential of rap music, a subject white scholars seem never to tire of. But as a writer, Sartwell, a professor of humanities and philosophy at Penn State, Harrisburg, is jargon-ridden ("ejection is ejaculation") and repetitive, often at the same time. He plays at reaching a broader-than-academic audience by offering self-congratulatory comments about identifying with "Malcolm" ("I'm a traitor to my race") and having black body language ("I'd had that since junior high"). He disdains white students who want their texts "pre-chewed," but then assumes statements like "the white man is culture, the black woman nature" are obvious and need no explanation. Ultimately, the primary texts Sartwell addresses are in no way enhanced by this explanatory text, nor will many readers be interested in Sartwell's "obviously problematic" relation to his subject matter.
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