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Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books

 


Response to Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul

Valerie Smith
Princeton University

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.

     I would like to thank David Wills and the other organizers of this conference for allowing me the opportunity to read and reflect upon Dale Peterson’s provocative and fascinating book, Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul. I must confess at the outset that I felt more than a little daunted by the prospect of responding to a book devoted at least in part to Russian literature; I am unfamiliar with several of the Russian literary texts about which he writes, and it has been more years than I care to count since I have read those with which I am familiar. But as it turns out, one need not know all of the texts upon which he focuses to find much of value in Up from Bondage. Professor Peterson establishes his theoretical framework and develops his textual analyses with such clarity and persuasiveness, that I found the connections and distinctions he draws to be fully plausible and comprehensible, the limits of my knowledge notwithstanding.

     In Up from Bondage, Professor Peterson explores ways in which Russian and African American cultural particularity, what he calls “soul,” has been asserted over time in a variety of expressive forms. He is especially concerned with changes in how Russian and African American writers and intellectuals construct and represent cultural nationalist politics. Scrupulously attentive to the differences between the two histories, he nevertheless makes a convincing case about the similarities that link the two traditions. He begins the book with a discussion of Peter Chaadaev, the Russian philosopher and Alexander Crummell, the African American theologian, arguing that these early nationalist theorists considered Russians and African Americans to be poised to complete the “missionary advance of one universal civilization”(7), so long as they denied the value or existence of their indigenous cultures. Both men envisaged a providential future for their people, if they would but rid themselves of what Professor Peterson calls “the inertia of merely indigenous and inherited values” (36).

     In the next two chapters, he explores how early cultural nationalists negotiated their links to the missionary nationalists who preceded them. In his reading of “On the Nature of European Culture and Its Relations to the Culture of Russia”(1852) by Ivan Kireevsky, the main architect of the Moscow Slavophilism, juxtaposed with several of W. E. B. Du Bois’s early speeches and essays, he shows how, like their predecessors, they maintained a prophetic vision of history that privileged what they saw as their people’s messianic role. Yet they differed from Chaadaev and Crummell in their belief in culturally specific essences that distinguished their people from those who had brought about their subjugation. Although Professor Peterson teases out similarities between Kireevsky’s and Du Bois’s positions, he is careful to mark their divergences as well. For while Kireevsky can hearken back to a native culture rooted in a specific place, DuBois is fully aware that because of the inescapable history of slavery and diaspora, “the Negro race could not be reliably measured or unified except as a commonly sensed historic experience of dislocation and tribulation” (58). Through his adroit readings of ideological assumptions, thematic content and strategies of narration, Professor Peterson then shows how Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (1862) and Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) play out these early nationalist tensions and contradictions.

     The next chapter, chapter four, provides an illuminating analysis of the ways in which nationalist claims about the cultural particularity of the “folk” get inscribed in literary forms. Professor Peterson argues that in Notes of a Hunter (1852) and The Conjure Woman (1899), Turgenev and Chesnutt respectively enact the subtleties and indirection that characterize interactions between the dominant and the subjugated. The section on Mules and Men (1935), with which the chapter concludes, posits that Hurston takes this impulse to a yet higher level, performing in its own terms “the mystifications practiced by someone natively schooled in the alternative literacy of the folk’s lore” (8).

     He then introduces an alternative notion of racial “soul” or essence, embodied in the divided, hybrid figures of Westernized Russians and urbanized black Americans. Here he builds the case that Dostoevsky’s underground man and James Weldon Johnson’s ex-colored man are tormented by their failure to transform their biculturalism into a site of productive creativity. By this account, Johnson and Dostoevsky are seen as having modulated the notion of racial soul from a unified, monolithic construct into one characterized by a measure of double-voicedness. They are, in his words, “the first imaginative writers in their national cultures to give full expression to the internal ruminations of a symptomatic postcolonial double-mindedness” (124).

     Gorky and Wright, however, resisted the celebration of a folk culture which they had experienced as oppressive in their own lives. Gorky abhorred the impulse among his predecessors to celebrate Russian submission to injustice, while Wright was contemptuous of what he considered to be sentimentalized representations of black folk culture. Both were, however, endowed with a spirit of rebellion born of their passion for literacy; they embraced the possibilities of missionary socialism in lieu of either populism or nationalism.

     Professor Peterson next addresses the emergence of what he calls multicultural nationalism in the 1920s, a turn that is reflected in texts by N. S. Trubetzkoy and Alain Locke. Interested here in the emergence of diasporic consciousness in both traditions, he argues convincingly that Russian cultural pluralism ironically mirrored the “ ‘chauvinistic cosmopolitanism’ of the Romano-Germanic hegemonic West it opposed” (161). Locke, in contrast, “was open to the construction of a race tradition that would permit the articulation of the many cultural roots and routes of the ‘Black Atlantic’ in modern and hybrid forms” (162).

     The eighth chapter focuses on Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora (1976) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988), two books that situate an island associated with essential cultural practices and values in relation to a mainstream culture that threatens it. Their structural similarity notwithstanding, the community Rasputin creates is finally much more imperiled than the one found in Naylor’s novel. According to Professor Peterson, this may be the case because these two writers appear to revoice the differences we have encountered previously in Up from Bondage. Rasputin’s novel expresses a nostalgia for “a perfectly embalmed, ethnically pure identity from the endangered natural landscape the shields the graves of the ancestral agrarian folk of Russia.” In contrast, Naylor’s “represents the multicolored and multicultural improvisations that must be woven into the shifting kaleidoscopic design of a quilted identity that holds strong over time and through troubles” (185). The book concludes with a provocative epilogue which cogently surveys and critiques the ways in which a range of contemporary African Americanist cultural critics such as Houston Baker, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Hazel Carby, Michael Awkward, and Mae Henderson deploy Bakhtin in their theoretical frameworks.

     As I hope is clear from this brief summary, the book speaks at once to intellectual historians, cultural theorists, and literary critics; Professor Peterson is to be commended for the skill with which he grounds his broader claims in careful close textual analyses. As someone who teaches several of the African American texts about which he writes, I found that his readings spoke productively to those of other critics and taught me new things about works I thought I “knew.” As but one example, I found especially compelling his discussion of The Souls of Black Folk, both because of his attention both to its multivocality, and to the complex process of its composition.

     Up from Bondage is an important book for a number of reasons. First, it makes an important intervention in ongoing, interdisciplinary conversations about racial essences, authenticity and the politics of representation. Throughout history, ideas of blackness have continually been re-invented, quantified, debated, theorized, policed and transgressed. The issue of what constitutes Negro-ness, indeed, “New Negro-ness,” was consistently interrogated during the Harlem Renaissance and was no less hotly contested during the neo-nationalist, post-Civil Rights period. At present, assertions about where essential blackness resides persist, even as they are critiqued by feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and social constructionists, among others. In his book Authentic Blackness, J. Martin Favor rightly seeks to distinguish ideas of racial essence, which operate within the category he designates as “uniqueness,” and ideas of “authenticity.” As he puts it,

The difference between “uniqueness,” that which distinguishes, and “authenticity,” that which privileges distinct features, lies herein: authenticity derives from uniqueness, but it also fixes that uniqueness to a limited range of possibilities. I contend that there are many “unique” forms of African American expression, but the critical fixation on “authentic” forms has generally kept them out of the field of inquiry (153).

Cultural theorists such as Thelma Wills Foote, Stuart Hall, Wahneema Lubiano, Kobena Mercer, Adolph Reed, Jr., and I have challenged discourses of racial essentialism on the grounds that they silence self-critique; distill black culture into its commodity forms; and frequently equate blackness with formulations that are misogynist and homophobic. What I have found especially valuable in recent studies such as Up From Bondage, and Authentic Blackness, is that they historicize notions of racial essence, rather than consolidating them, in order to enable us to consider how they have been transformed over time and in response to cultural changes. Both books, implicitly in one instance and explicitly in the other, prompt us to think about how ideas of racial essence overlap with authenticity politics, and how they are distinct from them.

     Second, Up from Bondage is a major contribution to the burgeoning comparative scholarly literature on black and Russian cultural production. In the past six years alone, the publication of a raft of influential studies such as William J. Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars, James Edward Smethurst’s The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1919–36, Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.’s “Seeing Red”: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919–1925, Keith P.Griffler’s What Price Alliance?: Black Radicals Confront White Labor, 1918–1938, and Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919–1990, testifies to the significance of the Soviet Union and Communism to African American literary and political discourse. Kate Baldwin’s forthcoming study, “Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922–1963,” promises to take this scholarship even further. Baldwin is specifically interested in the period when significant numbers of African Americans were drawn to the Soviet Union because the cross-racial alliance between Russian peasants and African American blacks articulated under Soviet Communism seemed to offer an alternative to the racism and oppression found in the US. She shifts our attention away from Russian-African American involvements on the domestic front and focuses instead on a group of writers who traveled extensively to the USSR, produced important documents while there, wrote major texts about it, received considerable attention while there and had a major impact upon the ways in which the Soviets thought about blacks not only in the U.S., but also throughout the diaspora. For her, uncovering this dimension of black-Soviet relations is central to our comprehension of notions of black radicalism, to our understanding of some of the complexity of black internationalism, and to our understanding of the race politics of the Cold War period.

     Taken together, works such as these tell a story of the multifarious ways in which Soviet era Communist ideologies have contributed to the construction of African American political culture, aesthetics, and ideas of citizenship. But none have undertaken the formidable task, so capably executed by Professor Peterson, of excavating earlier manifestations of the profound connections between Russian and African American philosophical and artistic traditions. Not only do his claims thus make a major contribution on their own terms, but read in conjunction with these other studies they shed new light upon their assertions as well.

     Third, Up From Bondage is a valuable study because of its methodological sophistication. As I have already noted, the book is a model of intellectual history, its claims meticulously grounded in subtle and detailed close readings. It also provides a valuable example of comparatist literary and cultural studies at its best. For Professor Peterson confidently makes claims for the thematic similarities that connect texts from the two traditions, even as he is careful to point out salient differences between them. This talent for reading competing impulses simultaneously enriches his discussions of individual texts as well.

     And fourth, Up From Bondage makes significant interventions in the area of diaspora studies. The book is not primarily concerned with the reasons why and ways in which specific groups migrate from one geographic location to another, topics one often associates with narratives of diaspora. Nor does it always account for direct causal links between ideas or positionalities. But it is very much concerned with, and builds a strong case for, the notion that ideas travel, that they become internationalized, that they are complicated and shaped by the particular histories and conditions of specific communities, and that they in turn enlarge subject positions that might otherwise be read in narrow nationalist terms.

     By way of conclusion, I would like to raise a few questions that came to mind as I read and thought about the book. First, in response to the question as to why the “affinity between Russian artistic and linguistic precedents and African American aesthetic and cultural ideologies” exists, Professor Peterson writes that

The felt imperative to insert subversive inflections into the dominant forms of literacy is an impulse common to all denigrated and colonized populations, . . . . felt with special urgency by groups that have literally been the bound servants of the master’s civilization. (4)

This claim causes me to think about the portability of Professor Peterson’s thesis, and to wonder whether a case might be made for its applicability to the literary and philosophical of postcolonial literary traditions in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent, for example.

     Second, although Professor Peterson makes clear early on that his argument is organized thematically, one can’t help but notice the historical gap between Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, the last text he discusses, which was published in 1988, and the one which precedes it chronologically, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, published in 1945. I found myself wondering how Professor Peterson would account for this leap. How are constructions and articulations of African American “soul” constructed and articulated in the post-War, Civil Rights, Black Arts, and so-called post-Civil Rights eras? What connections might be drawn between those constructions and articulations and the changing politics of the post-war Soviet era? Is it the case, as I suspect, that the site of African American “soul” or vernacular culture has migrated from rural to urban spaces?

     And finally, at each turn in his argument, Professor Peterson posits a Russian antecedent or call and an African American response, amplification or rearticulation. I found myself wondering if that relay always goes in one direction or to what extent evidence exists that might suggest a Russian response to African American cultural theories or practices. I found myself thinking about this particularly in the contemporary period when the power of African American strategies of resistance, cultural theories, and popular cultural practices and strategies of resistance are regularly cited in political and aesthetic contexts around the world.


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