Race and ethnicity: black formations and representations

Lawrence Grossberg (1993:23), in identifying ‘formations of cultural studies’, identifies ‘a specific [cultural] formation around the biographical figure of Stuart Hall and intellectual and political commitments of Marxism’. Hall’s role in the development of cultural studies can be seen in terms of Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectual’ or Foucault’s ‘specific intellectual’. Hall’s article ‘Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms’ (1980) attempts, as Grossberg (1993:43) notes, ‘to reinterpret the debate between humanism and structuralism, from a third cultural studies perspective’, by attempting to combine elements of resistance and domination. Hall’s work has been increasingly influenced by postmodernism and by a postmodern cultural studies attempt to ‘rearticulate the increasingly transnational context of (post)modernity’ (Grossberg 1993:58). Hall sees potential within a postmodern fragmentation, McRobbie notes, of producing a ‘decentring of consciousness’ which allows him as a black person to emerge ‘divided but more fully foregrounded’. Hall claims, ‘Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed I become centred. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes paradoxically, to be the representative modern condition! This is coming home with a vengeance’ (Hall 1987, cited in McRobbie 1994:27).

It is the position of Hall and other black intellectuals that West (1993) recognises as so strategic for the new cultural politics of difference. As West states,

The new cultural politics of difference are neither simply oppositional in contesting the mainstream (or malestream) for inclusion, nor transgressive in the avant-gardist sense of shocking conventional bourgeois audiences. Rather, they are distinct articulations of talented (and usually privileged) contributors to culture who desire to align themselves with demoralized, demobilized, depoliticized, and disorganized people in order to empower and enable social action and, if possible, to enlist collective insurgency for the expansion of freedom, democracy and individuality. This perspective impels these cultural critics and artists to reveal, as an integral component of their production, the very operations of power within their immediate work contexts (i. e., academy, museum, gallery, mass media).

(West 1993:204)

One of the crucial challenges facing the new cultural politics of difference is the intellectual challenge of how to think about the issue of representational practices in terms of the wider framework of history, culture and society. West contends,

The modern Black diaspora problematic of invisibility and namelessness can be understood as the condition of relative lack of Black power to present themselves to themselves and others as complex human beings, and thereby to contest the bombardment of negative degrading stereotypes put forward by White supremacist ideologies.

(West 1993:210)

West goes on to note that the initial response from the black diaspora was ‘a mode of resistance’ which took the form of a fight for representation and recognition which highlighted issues regarding ‘Black “positive” images over and against White supremacist stereotypes’ (ibid,.). Hall has identified these responses within the context of what he has called the ‘relations of representation’.

Despite the prominence of figures such as Hall and West in these debates, West himself notes that in First World countries the critique emerged not from the black male component of the left but more specifically from the black women’s movement. As West (1993:212) comments, ‘The decisive push of postmodern Black intellectuals toward a new cultural politics of difference has been made by the powerful critiques and constructive explorations of Black diaspora women (e. g., Toni Morrison)’.

Black feminist cultural critics such as Michele Wallace (1993:654) have recognised that, while the role of the black intellectual is an important one in challenging racist stereotypes, ‘the inadequate representations of “race” currently sponsored by both blacks and non-blacks in both “high” and “low culture” also needs to be contested’. Wallace argues for a radical black feminist perspective which she comments could build upon the work of Trinh T. Minhha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Hazel Carby and bell hooks. The strength of such a perspective would be its ability to investigate ‘the interplay of “gender”, “race” and class in Anglo – American and Afro-American culture as they may shape the “production of knowledge”, the structure, content and “circulation” of the “text”, as well as the “audience of consumption”’ (Wallace 1993:655).

It is the potential within such a black feminist perspective based on the intersection of gender, race and class for the establishment of a range of ‘sites of resistance’ and ‘sites of oppression’ that makes such a perspective so powerful. In this regard West (1993:212) notes that ‘the Black diaspora womanist critique has had a greater impact than the critiques that highlight exclusively class, empire, age, sexual orientation or nature’.

Wallace advocates a radical black feminist perspective informed by postmodernist, poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theoretical debates. Such a ‘theoretically engaged stance’ for black feminist cultural theory Wallace (1993:659) sees as challenging the ‘more cautious and skeptical tendencies within African – American literary theory’. In this respect she is critical of the work of the Afro – American literary critic Henry Louis Gates, who she contends ‘fails to portray Afro-American writing as a “minority” literature hotly engaged in an antagonistic dialogue with a majority “white” culture in order to transcend and/ or transform it’ (Wallace 1993:660). She goes on to make the point that the failure is particularly disappointing in relation to contemporary Afro-American literature written by women. Wallace contends that ‘In feminist terms, it is just as important to have a way of talking about The Color Purple’s impact on how racism or sexism is perceived in contemporary culture, as it is to talk about [Alice Walker’s] The Color Purple as a symbolic (literary) resolution of racism’s concrete irresolvability’ (ibid.). She maintains that Alice Walker’s novel provides a perfect example of what was initially a text which proposed ‘a complex rereading’ of Afro-American history and literature but which, in the context of being a bestselling novel and blockbuster movie became something entirely different. While black women’s writing over the last few years has clearly been very successful, it does not present an opposition around either dominant literary canons or dominant representations. Wallace points out that Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved was met with wide critical acclaim in 1987. However, she notes there were no commensurate changes in the status or condition of black women in general. Wallace (1993:662) comments, ‘It is not enough merely to address the dilemma posed by the black female condition in the US or the world as an object of misery and pathos. Black feminism must insist upon a critical oppositional representation of the black female subject.’

The incorporation of deconstruction into any model of oppositional black politics is recognised by Afro-American literary and cultural critics alike. Gates claims:

And, if only for the record, let me state clearly here that only a black person alienated from black language-use could fail to understand that we have been deconstructing white people’s languages and discourse since that dreadful day in 1619 when we were marched off the boat in Virginia. Derrida did not invent deconstruction, we did! That is what the blues and signifying are all about. Ours must be a signifying, vernacular criticism, related to other critical theories, yet indelibly black, a critical theory of our own.

(Gates 1987:38)

West claims that the main aim of theorists working within the new cultural politics of difference is not simply about access to representation in order to produce more positive images, nor is the primary goal that of contesting stereotypes regardless of the fact that contestation is still significant around the issue of stereotyping. West states:

Following the model of the Black diaspora traditions of music, athletics and rhetoric, Black cultural workers must constitute and sustain discursive and institutional networks that deconstruct earlier modern Black strategies for identity formation, demystify power relations that incorporate class, patriarchal, and homophobic biases, and construct more multivalent and multidimensional responses that articulate the complexity and diversity of Black practices in the modern and postmodern world.

(West 1993:212)