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Memory's Moral Economies: Grief, Remembrance and Reparative Desire in African American Historical Fiction

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Abstract:

AIDA AHMED HUSSEN, presenter:

Several months before the much-anticipated release of Toni Morrison’s historical novel, _A Mercy_, Charles Johnson, with characteristic irreverence, heralded “the end of the Black American narrative.” In his thusly-titled polemical essay, Johnson calls for a turn away from the historical focus that has characterized both Morrison’s oeuvre, and much of African American literary production more broadly, in the post-Civil Rights period. To date, Johnson laments, African American literature has been over-determined by “the old black American narrative of pervasive victimization”; a stock narrative that he deems as out-dated as it is ubiquitous. By contrast, he urges twenty-first century authors to explore “new and better stories, new concepts, and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting, and unexplored present.”

Johnson’s argument appears to hinge upon the conviction that the historical turn necessarily embraces: 1.) an intransigent commitment to particular formulations of black selfhood, and 2.) a moral economy predicated on vengeful or retributive desire. Yet ironically, his emphatic endorsement of presentism coincides with new currents in African American historical fiction that turn to the past precisely in order to gain a more flexible and holistic vision of identity, race, history, and justice. Here, I am speaking not only of Morrison’s aforementioned text, but also, such critically acclaimed novels as Edward P. Jones’ _The Known World_, Patricia Powell’s _The Pagoda_, and Caryl Phillips’ _Cambridge_ and _Crossing the River_. I am interested in the theoretical tension that arises here, between Johnson’s conviction that history opens the door to a retrogressive politics on one hand, and the position forwarded by a range of contemporary African American authors on the other, that suggests the continuing moral urgency of turning to the past.

This paper will interrogate Johnson’s (Nietszchean) premise that memory constitutively bears resentment, in light of new trends in twenty-first century African American literature. Beginning with a working genealogy of grief, remembrance, and reparative desire in African American historical fiction since the decline of the Civil Rights Movement, I will attempt to chart a collective shift in the representation of traumatic histories and ensuing moral economies. The paper will culminate in textual analyses of two twenty-first century neo-slave narratives (in the broad sense), _A Mercy_ and _The Pagoda_. I will ask of these texts: What kind of moral agency is possible at a historical distance from trauma? Must historical narrative take on a recursive form? And what would the turn to, or foreclosure of, the historical imagination mean for the production of twenty-first century racial politics?
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Hussen, Aida. "Memory's Moral Economies: Grief, Remembrance and Reparative Desire in African American Historical Fiction" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509314_index.html>

APA Citation:

Hussen, A. "Memory's Moral Economies: Grief, Remembrance and Reparative Desire in African American Historical Fiction" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509314_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: AIDA AHMED HUSSEN, presenter:

Several months before the much-anticipated release of Toni Morrison’s historical novel, _A Mercy_, Charles Johnson, with characteristic irreverence, heralded “the end of the Black American narrative.” In his thusly-titled polemical essay, Johnson calls for a turn away from the historical focus that has characterized both Morrison’s oeuvre, and much of African American literary production more broadly, in the post-Civil Rights period. To date, Johnson laments, African American literature has been over-determined by “the old black American narrative of pervasive victimization”; a stock narrative that he deems as out-dated as it is ubiquitous. By contrast, he urges twenty-first century authors to explore “new and better stories, new concepts, and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting, and unexplored present.”

Johnson’s argument appears to hinge upon the conviction that the historical turn necessarily embraces: 1.) an intransigent commitment to particular formulations of black selfhood, and 2.) a moral economy predicated on vengeful or retributive desire. Yet ironically, his emphatic endorsement of presentism coincides with new currents in African American historical fiction that turn to the past precisely in order to gain a more flexible and holistic vision of identity, race, history, and justice. Here, I am speaking not only of Morrison’s aforementioned text, but also, such critically acclaimed novels as Edward P. Jones’ _The Known World_, Patricia Powell’s _The Pagoda_, and Caryl Phillips’ _Cambridge_ and _Crossing the River_. I am interested in the theoretical tension that arises here, between Johnson’s conviction that history opens the door to a retrogressive politics on one hand, and the position forwarded by a range of contemporary African American authors on the other, that suggests the continuing moral urgency of turning to the past.

This paper will interrogate Johnson’s (Nietszchean) premise that memory constitutively bears resentment, in light of new trends in twenty-first century African American literature. Beginning with a working genealogy of grief, remembrance, and reparative desire in African American historical fiction since the decline of the Civil Rights Movement, I will attempt to chart a collective shift in the representation of traumatic histories and ensuing moral economies. The paper will culminate in textual analyses of two twenty-first century neo-slave narratives (in the broad sense), _A Mercy_ and _The Pagoda_. I will ask of these texts: What kind of moral agency is possible at a historical distance from trauma? Must historical narrative take on a recursive form? And what would the turn to, or foreclosure of, the historical imagination mean for the production of twenty-first century racial politics?


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Stereotype Content and the African American Viewer: An Examination of African Americans’ Stereotyped Perceptions of Fictional Media Characters


 
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