The Leading African-American Literary Critic of His Generation: Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his book Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora

By Daniel Garrett

Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora
by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Civitas/Basic Books, 2010

When I heard about Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book Tradition and the Black Atlantic, I was excited: it sounded as if it might be a return to the kind of early work Henry Louis Gates did that had impressed me, and made me think of Gates as a significant literary and cultural figure, someone of generational and iconic weight and value: Black Literature and Literary Theory, Figures in Black, and The Signifying Monkey. In years past I thought his republication series focused on the work of black women writers was rare and important, though I was not inclined to read it, and I had liked some (not all) of the journalism Gates had done for The New Yorker, as well as some of his special projects (a feminist anthology, a global culture dictionary, a web site), but found aspects of his more populist work (defending sexist and violent hip-hop, and doing television programs on genealogy), less interesting, if not dismaying. Gates’s devotion to the realization of W.E.B. DuBois’s encyclopedia project was more than a feather in his cap; it was the whole damn bird in his hands. Those are the kinds of accomplishments I associate with him, even as I expect more.

The short text Tradition and the Black Atlantic comes wrapped in the praise of Gates’s associates, colleagues, and friends: Cornel West, Arnold Rampersad, Paul Gilroy, and Anthony Appiah. Yet, when I got my hands on the one-hundred-and-sixty-three or so pages of Tradition and the Black Atlantic, padded to be longer with notes and index, a work published through Gates’s imprint, Civitas, with Basic Books (Perseus), and I began to read it—I read the book quickly in little more than an afternoon—I thought that the book did have elegance, intelligence, and wit, and that it touched on subjects that once had interested me very much, and still interested me somewhat. In his introduction (page xii), Gates admits, “The four chapters of this book in their original form were written between 1989 and 1992 in an attempt to organize my thinking about the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s and the American ‘culture wars,’ which were raging within and about the academy at roughly the same time…” Tradition and the Black Atlantic is a book written in much of the language of that era, a language inflected with references to deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and political economy that was considered high cultural theory, though it was not particularly connected to high culture—to classical music, ballet, opera, or painting—except that it was used to describe and explore popular English and European (and some American) fiction and poetry that with time and study had begun to be taken seriously as literature; and it became a language used to examine history and modern social issues, especially regarding class, gender, and ethnicity. I always thought such a language made more sense for Europeans, with those hundreds of years of cultural history, with a genuine knowledge of and relation to high culture, much more sense than for most Americans (notoriously moving from barbarism to decadence without reaching civilization); and yet it was easy to see how such an analytical tool—looking at the roots, styles, values, and contradictions in the play of poetry and power—would appeal to minorities who wanted to dissect and reconstruct social identities. Reading Tradition and the Black Atlantic was like listening to old songs, or looking at old photographs; that’s nice, but how directly relevant is it?

Some of the issues in Tradition and the Black Atlantic—identity, how it is experienced, perceived, discussed, and represented in culture and repressed in politics—remain important to one extent or another, but the figures and topics have changed. Gender and sexuality no longer have the same subversive or theoretical charge as they did twenty years ago (discussion of them in society now tends to be very practical, having to do with more women seeming to keep their jobs during the recent economic recession than men, and the fact that more men are taking responsibilities for household chores; and with the momentum for same-sex marriage, which seems to be steamrolling conservative opposition). Ethnicity may be another matter.

Hip-hop, with its partying and crude sexuality, with its materialism and violence, with its misogyny and homophobia, more than ever dominates the black public image, despite Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Wynton Marsalis, Beyonce Knowles, Alicia Keys and the like: hip-hop’s mix of rapping and music, with its sampling of older musical work, gives it a vibrancy of form that makes attractive its frequently reactionary and retrogressive content; endowing it with international appeal, enlarging the embrace of some of the worst imagery ever associated with blacks. Why have critiques of such destructive content had little effect? (Is it that the frivolous and ignorant think of hip-hop as fun and true, and that the educated, like the powerless but aware, receive it as symbolic rebellion?) That, I would love to know; and also, to offer just a few examples in a different direction, I would love to have more commentary on the work of writers such as Percival Everett, Martha Southgate, David Bradley, Henry Van Dyke, Hal Bennett, Carl Phillips and Reginald Shepherd, and the music of Billy Strayhorn, Betty Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Cecil Taylor, Don Byron, Christian McBride, Jessye Norman, Awadagin Pratt, and the films Losing Ground, Sidewalk Stories, Chameleon Street, Eve’s Bayou and, among others, The Great Debaters. The paintings and sculpture of African-American visual artists could use more attention too, as could the better work of certain folk artists in different fields and genres. In England, writer Zadie Smith and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and rock singer Kele of Bloc Party have made their own giant splashes, as had the androgynous singer Ephraim Lewis, before he died; and Ejiofor played a cross-dressing designer in Kinky Boots, and Kele is gay and alludes to that experience in his songs. I do not recall Gates mentioning any of these persons in Tradition and the Black Atlantic. Each year, each decade, offers new subjects, and ever more human and humane content.

Has Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a literary critic and scholar, for instance, made the case for new additions to the literary canon (which is different from anthologizing or celebrating already accepted, revered, or historical writers)? In Tradition and the Black Atlantic Gates writes about Stuart Hall, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer, Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby, as well as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Raymond Williams, Edmund Burke, Fanon, Derrida, and Lacan, in these dated pages that have been augmented with some contemporary asides, attempting to make current comparisons and connections (the election of Barack Obama, the shifting American political landscape, and the resulting anger and paranoia among some citizens are noted: Tea Party, anyone?).

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is concerned with identity and problematic social position and, like anyone, is to be commended for appreciating complicated identities and the tensions among them, though it would be much more fascinating to explore the many examples of people doing diverse, new, and wonderful things. The career of Henry Louis Gates Jr. alone is proof of the good that can be done even in an imperfect world. It could be illuminating to identify the attitudes, ideas, principles, and strategies in successful African-American lives, and to use that as the basis of a progressive social theory (what I see when I look at Barack, Oprah, Jessye, Wynton, Beyonce, and Henry Louis himself is a commitment to craft, cultivation of the self, and thoughtfulness, as well as a sensitive, sensuous response to experience and the finer things in life, much of which translates into adaptability and sociability, with a respectable degree of public responsibility); and the resulting theory could not be any worse that what has been created before, some of which has enlightened us, but none of which has liberated us. Gates himself notes the insights, kindness, and attention to local phenomenon of professor and writer Stuart Hall, to whom Gates dedicates the book Tradition and the Black Atlantic (I suspect kindness registers with Gates because Gates—Skip, to his many friends—himself is kind; and he may recognize it as something both familiar and rare). Gates probes the work of film director Isaac Julien, appreciating the multiplicity of black male identity in Julien’s Looking for Langston, his modernist artistry, his critical politics, and the sensuality and softness of his imagery. Yet, it is impossible for me not to think that Denzel Washington’s career is many times more significant than all the black British film artists Gates writes about, just as James Baldwin—who broke ground in Another Country by simultaneously dealing with art, class, race, gender, sexuality, and the pain, potential, and deceptions of individuality in New York and Paris—is more important than the black British writers Gates salutes. Has Gates considered dedicating himself to a prolonged study of either, and sharing the results? Has Gates written about Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, or Toni Morrison’s Paradise, books that present dynamic black communities, full of connection and conflict? I respect academic work, but I am ambivalent about it too, as many academics have the habit of ignoring much of the broader world beyond the academy, until elements in that world form a controversy or fashionable trend, as had the work of black British artists and thinkers, work with art-house styles and theoretical references. Too often popular culture is ignored, unless it has the aura of the downtrodden and low (that nastiness gets called authenticity), such as with hip-hop. Beauty, when it is popular, is suspect; as are intelligence and eloquence, when they are popular—it can be hilarious to watch an academic demur when a popular cultural figure is cited with respect, the academic’s face averted, and feet moving backward, instinctively achieving distance. However, I am curious, as well, to know more about how Gates sees the larger world, not merely the African-American or black British world. Much of the commentary by Gates in Tradition and the Black Atlantic is sophisticated and suave, and somehow both far-reaching and limited in focus (like fumigating an entire house after seeing a few ants—or putting out a few potted plants and being convinced that one has constructed a garden). I may be guilty of comparable, if less elegant, gestures in these notes, which are not exactly a proper review, page by page, idea by idea. Although now, months after reading Tradition and the Black Atlantic, I could not bear to read the whole thing again, I did look at a few pages that actually said some things—not especially complex, but certainly true—that I consider interesting:

“If Looking for Langston is a meditation on the Harlem Renaissance, it is equally an impassioned rebuttal to the virulent homophobia associated with the Black Power and Black Aesthetic movements in the sixties” (57).

“To the extent that black British cinema is represented as an act of cultural politics, it then becomes vulnerable to a political reproach as elitist, Europeanized, overly highbrow. As a black cultural product without a significant black audience, its very blackness becomes suspect” (64).

“For as we know, the history of African Americans is marked by noble demands for political tolerance from the larger society, but also by a paradoxical tendency to censure our own” (67).

“So the very newest generation of black British cultural critics are brave, resourceful, and dialectical when they seek to recuperate everything that was right about the 1960s movements of ethnicist self-affirmation” (68).

“The hermeneutics of the 1970s killed the author; the politics of the 1980s brought the author back” (74).

“The old leftist critiques of the commodity have a usefully confining tendency: The critiques set up a cunning trap that practically guarantees that the marginalized cultures being glorified will remain marginalized. The authors of these critiques knew just how to keep us in our place. And the logic was breathtakingly simple: If you win, you lose” (78).

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett is organizing an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which awaits publication.