Russia and the Mission of African American Literature

If we call up the most analogous case as a basis of forecast—the torturous way by which the peasant came into Russian literature and the brilliant sudden transformation his advent eventually effected, we may predict . . . the Great Age.
—Alain Locke, “American Literary Tradition and the Negro”

Twice in the twentieth century proclamations of a culturally distinct African American literature were accompanied by generous reference to Russian precedents. Clearly, something already present in the cultural self-awareness of African American intellectuals prepared them to respond to the call of Russian literary forms as they became available in English translation. In 1925 Alain Locke issued the manifesto of the modern Black Arts movement, The New Negro: “We have lately had an art that was stiltedly self-conscious, and racially rhetorical rather than racially expressive. Our poets have now stopped speaking for the Negro—they speak as Negroes.” The first serious assertion of the aesthetic autonomy of African American culture had been announced. Yet this liberating word of the Harlem Renaissance was uttered with a sideward glance at the fluency of Russian artists speaking to the world in compositions built upon folk idioms. Locke cited the example of his brilliant contemporary, the author of Cane, the experimental book of 1923 that poetically distilled the pungent essence of the Southern slave culture:

For vital originality of substance, the young Negro writers dig deep into the racy peasant undersoil of the race life. Jean Toomer writes: “Georgia opened me. There one finds soil, soil in the sense that the Russians know it—the soil that every art that is to live must be imbedded in” (51).

Originality of substance (later known as black soul) was understood to reside in the undersoil of rural vernacular culture, that same submerged cultural layer that Russian artists had successfully turned into literate rows of print and musical notation.

Alain Locke’s aspiration to bring into being a recognizably black aesthetic was largely realized in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Once again, however, a powerful assertion of the particularity of African American cultural expression had been aided and abetted by a Russian precursor. The manifesto of this new New Negro movement was Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s influential 1988 critical study, The Signifying Monkey. The premise of its argument is that African American speech necessarily constructed itself as a “double-voiced” discourse that signifies covert meanings not recorded in the lexicon or diction of standard literacy: “Free of the white person’s gaze, black people created their own unique vernacular structures and relished in the double play that these forms bore to white forms.” Significantly, this practice of African-American “signifyin’,” as Gates conceives it, is best described in the terminology of a Russian thinker:

The process of semantic appropriation . . . has been aptly described by Mikhail Bakhtin as a double-voiced word, that is, a word or utterance . . . decolonized for the black’s purposes “by inserting a new semantic orientation into a word which has—and retains—its own orientation.” Signifyin(g) is black double-voicedness.

Why should there have been so strong an affinity between Russian artistic and linguistic precedents and modern African American aesthetic and cultural theory? That story takes us back to the earliest acquaintance of African American readers with the “father of Russian literature,” Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. It was, of course, inevitable that the great Russian poet who proudly accepted his African lineage would be identified as one of the paragons of black accomplishment, another example of the race’s intellectual aptitude. But the African American profile of Pushkin would display specific features that were a product of the manner in which he came to the attention of the public.

It was the prominent New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier who, as early as 1847, introduced Pushkin to American readers in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. Both the vehicle and the content of Whittier’s article forecast particular emphases in the African American shaping of Pushkin’s portrait. It mattered that Pushkin was affiliated with the emancipationist cause, was recognized for his genius by aristocrats and common folk, and, most crucially, had in his masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, most fully embodied the nationality of Russia.

These themes were repeated and developed in a two-part biographical essay on Pushkin published in 1904 by the influential black scholar and activist W. S. Scarborough. In his account of Pushkin’s life and works, Scarborough draws attention to Pushkin’s choice to identify with his “brother Negroes” as a fellow “caged bird with free flight proscribed.” He also emphasizes Pushkin’s peasant nanny, whose influence “was exerted to permeate him with national fervor . . . the undiluted richness, raciness, and grace of his native language.” Scarborough insists on the importance of Pushkin’s choice to write in Russian as a means of elevating its worth as a vehicle of literary and national expression.

The implicit connection between the poet’s chosen blackness and his Russianness is crucial in understanding the centrality of Pushkin in the formation of the New Negro aesthetic. Pushkin’s racial identification with Negroes made him receptive to the folk legacy transmitted by a female serf; Pushkin’s ability to discern and express the “soul” of Russia was not despite being a Negro but because of it. Here, then, was a model of a person of African descent who rebelled against constraints on social and personal freedom and whose writing was formative in shaping a nation’s literary tradition and cultural identity.

The vehicle for promoting this Pushkinian image of racially expressive writing was Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, published by the National Urban League under the editorship of Charles S. Johnson. Hailed as the chief promoter of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson took it as his mission to foster a Negro literature that would express the creative potential of African American culture. As the editor of Opportunity from 1923 to 1928, Johnson transformed the style of black activism by creating a rival approach to the civic-minded militancy of W. E. B. DuBois’s NAACP journal, Crisis. A graduate of the University of Chicago, where he imbibed a new culturally sensitive sociology dedicated to surveying the subjective and experiential diversity within social groups, Johnson sought to promote an appreciation of the varieties of Negro experience.

In agreement with James Weldon Johnson that “no race can ever become great that has not produced a literature,” Charles Johnson was convinced that the development of a contemporary African American culture was essential to racial progress and political gains. To that end, Johnson organized literary banquets and sponsored prizes to acquaint New York’s publishers and literati (white and black) with “the Younger School of Negro Writers.” The culmination of this activism came with two announcements in 1925: the publication of a special “Harlem” issue of Survey Graphic and the establishment under the auspices of Opportunity of an annual Alexander Pushkin Poetry Prize. Both of these events were confirmations of Pushkin’s complex legacy for African Americans since they simultaneously encouraged a literature of cultural nationalism and urbane cosmopolitanism.

One of Charles Johnson’s first moves in advancing his agenda was to recruit in 1923 the erudite Howard University professor Alain Locke as “special foreign correspondent” on the staff of Opportunity. A Harvard graduate and the first African American Rhodes Scholar, Locke at Oxford had become closely associated with the Cosmopolitan Club, a gathering of commonwealth anticolonial scholars of color. Obviously impressed with Locke’s extensive literary and diasporic experience, Johnson approached him on March 4, 1924, with a new idea:

It was proposed that something be done to mark the growing self-consciousness of this newer school of writers . . . We want you to take a certain role in the movement. You were thought of as a sort of Master of Ceremonies for the “movement.”

Literally in that role a few weeks later, Locke was asked to supervise the special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic devoted to the new black writing and arts, part of a series of issues publicizing the social and cultural resources of the newly self-determining peoples risen like Russia “from serfdom to self-help.” From its conception, the “Harlem” issue was to represent a conscious departure from the “economic-educational” and political approaches to racial progress proposed by Booker T. Washington and Du Bois. The publisher advised Locke: “We are interpreting a racial and cultural revival in the new environment of the northern city.” The previous moral and political emphasis on “uplifting the race” was to be replaced by nothing less than a cultural reconstruction of the American Negro.

Alain Locke was the ideal candidate to lead the campaign to introduce the American public to the “New Negro.” In his first noteworthy publication, he had advocated a “rational cosmopolitanism” that would be complementary and not antagonistic toward an informed nationalism. As an intellectual embedded in the black diaspora, he understood that a sense of Negro nationality could not be identified with fixed frontiers. Trained as a philosopher, the young Howard professor returned from his European sojourn both a “race man” and an aesthete who embodied cultural nationalism and sophisticated urbanity. Locke understood Harlem to be the “Mecca of the New Negro,” not a ghetto, but one of “those nascent centers of self-expression and self-determination which are playing a creative part in the world today.”

Given the acclaim garnered by the “Harlem” issue, Locke was the logical choice to preside over the publication of an expanded volume of materials in evidence of the arrival of a black cultural renaissance. The New Negro announced itself as a clarion call in Locke’s foreword: “Negro life is not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul.” The bulky volume that was published defies summation in its representation of multiple constituencies, genres, and perspectives. Yet Locke, as the impresario of this vast polyphony, manages to be a guiding presence, so much so that his interpretive interventions provide an ideological orchestration to the massed assembly of voices. He interjects himself five times, dominating the opening pages and providing editorial leads to the sections dealing with literature and the creative arts. The Pushkinian ideal of articulating a national consciousness in a native tongue that wields literary power seems within reach of the new nationality that is emerging in Harlem.

In the title essay, “The New Negro,” Locke announces that the time has come for the Negro to cease seeing himself as a stereotype or “problem,” as a sociological shadow of his empirical self. Nor should Negro culture be identified with any one geographical area or cultural segment. Modern Harlem is truly the “laboratory of a great race-welding,” the magnetic center of a previously disaggregated and culturally diverse people. Most important, there can be no true appreciation of the Negro, no healing of the American nation, without a broader cultural recognition of what the race in all its multiplicity contributes to the growth of the American mind. In “Negro Youth Speaks,” Locke identifies artistic discourse as the unique medium capable of articulating the complex wholeness of a people, “foretelling in new notes and accents the maturing speech of racial utterance.” No other generation has been so well positioned to “evolve from the racial substance something technically distinctive, something that as an idiom of style may become a general contribution to the resources of art.” In a bold assertion, Locke situates Negro identity as a developing array of cultural idioms.

In two substantial essays that follow on his opening proclamations, Locke provides aesthetic guidance for the emerging black arts movement. “The Negro Spirituals” and “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” build the foundations for a cosmopolitan articulation of the Negro’s message to the world. The distinctive music of the Negro spirituals has the potential to be heightened rather than whitened:

Just as soon as the traditional conventions of four-part harmony and the oratorio style and form are broken through, we may expect a choral development of Negro folk song that may equal or even outstrip the phenomenal choral music of Russia . . . It can therefore undergo without breaking its own boundaries, intricate and original development in directions already the line of advance in modernistic music.

At the same time, Locke was in the forefront of the campaign to educate African Americans to appreciate and cultivate, as European modernists had, the “distinctive idiom both of color and of modelling” achieved in Africa’s decorative and sculptural arts. In his earliest writings for Opportunity, Locke had celebrated the classic discipline and elaborate artifice of African art, calling for an “Africanization” of America’s black elite: “We can safely predict a great reappraisal when Africa is eventually seen, as it must be, with the artist’s eye.”

It is fair, then, to say that Locke’s aspiration in publishing The New Negro was to sophisticate and hyphenate the common understanding of what it meant to be African American in the twentieth century. The goal was to construct a Negro arts movement that would consciously develop idiomatic varieties of racial expression in modern cultural forms that gave utterance to a nationality in the process of formation. Locke’s New Negro artists, no longer “cultural nondescripts,” would, like Pushkin, innovate a highly literate discourse that would convey the richness and complexity of a previously denigrated native language and folk culture.

Within a decade of the announcement of the New Negro movement a rival aesthetic with a different mission for African American literature arose. It, too, was largely inspired by a Russian precursor, the “father of Soviet literature,” Maxim Gorky. In the autumn of 1937 the ire of Richard Wright overflowed in two pronouncements against the Harlem Renaissance and its self-appointed tribunes of black culture. Wright took particular exception to the seductive prose of Zora Neale Hurston, whose story “Spunk” was featured in the New Negro anthology.

Hurston was a protégé of Alain Locke, who had published her first story in The Stylus, Howard University’s literary journal. The focus of Wright’s attack fell on Hurston’s acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. In a scathing review, he accused her of primping up a picturesque primitivism:

Her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality which has dogged Negro expression. Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel that tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes “the white folks” laugh.

All the devices of linguistic ambiguity and indirect aggression that were cause for celebration in Hurston’s South were for Wright nothing but shameful displays of “puttin’ on de massa.” Wright’s contempt for writing that dressed itself up in ethnic frills was very much rooted in a male-gendered commitment to a revolutionary aesthetic of resistance.

Coinciding with the attack on Hurston, Richard Wright published his own literary manifesto, “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” Coming to social consciousness in Depression-era Chicago at the height of the Popular Front campaign to organize the proletariat, Wright, who was himself a refugee from America’s “lower depths,” experienced a profound identification with the legendary life and writing of Maxim Gorky. Both writers were autodidacts raised in an environment only lately risen from bondage, and both firmly rejected the vestiges of serfdom among the folk that spawned them. Accordingly, in his manifesto Wright, like Gorky, adopted a rhetoric of degeneracy to impugn writers who, in his estimation, had distorted the real features of the masses. Young Wright cruelly satirized the Negro literati of the Harlem Renaissance as castrati:

They entered the Court of Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to that of other people These artistic ambassadors were received as though they were French poodles who do clever tricks.

Wright and Gorky were advocating a similar revision of the literary representation of the historic folk. Indeed, Wright’s “blueprint” for a literature of the black masses closely echoed Gorky’s influential 1934 address to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers over which he presided. Gorky’s famous speech, which helped consolidate the official definition of “socialist realism” as the concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development, has correctly been described as “a hymn to folklore revised by himself.”

Wright similarly called for a selective integration of “progressive” aspects of Negro folklore and religion into a consciously fashioned collective myth; in effect, Wright was emulating Gorky’s call for the transformation of suffering peasant souls into militant socialist masses. Rather than the “conspicuous ornamentation” of folkways so fashionable in “New Negro” writing, Wright advocated, along with Gorky, a more empowering and accessible history-making art of mass culture:

Negro writers must accept the nationalist implications of their lives, not in order to encourage them, but in order to change and transcend them . . . A deep, informed, and complex consciousness is necessary; a consciousness which draws for its strength upon the fluid lore of a great people, and moulds this lore with the concepts that move and direct the forces of history today . . . To borrow a phrase from the Russians, it should have a complex simplicity.

By 1937, Wright stepped forward as the most illustrious recruit to the aesthetic of proletarian realism. Indeed, a revolutionary refashioning of black Christianity and Negro spirituals is precisely what distinguished the narrative structure of Wright’s first collection of stories, Uncle Tom’s Children. Soviet reviewers in 1938 were quick to notice the dialectical logic of Wright’s story sequence; each black hero chooses to risk martyrdom in progressively more elevated stages of class consciousness. Russian readers also correctly noticed the unmistakable resemblance of the culminating story’s heroine to the title figure in Gorky’s prototypical socialist-realist novel, Mother. Both Gorky and Wright incarnated the future of proletarian revolution in the prophetic shape of a peasant mother whose Christian faith impels her martyrdom in solidarity with young revolutionaries.

Wright’s blueprint for a missionary proletarian black literature faded when he became disenchanted with Gorky’s faith in collectivist culture and social engineering. Sometime around 1942 Richard Wright openly broke ranks with the Communist Party. This ideological defection coincided with a new, intense affiliation with Dostoevsky’s tragic humanism and “underground” psychology of lacerated psyches. Wright lost interest in proletarian internationalism and black nationalism simultaneously. The effort to define the mission of African American literature then ebbed for decades. Great works of American black fiction and poetry were produced, but no one was speaking for the distinctiveness of Negro writing as such.

Unexpectedly, a new generation of African American intellectuals and artists revived the call of the Harlem Renaissance for public recognition of a literature that adequately expressed black American culture. Sixty years after the New Negro movement, a forceful proclamation of the cultural distinctiveness of African American artistic expression was renewed. In the 1980s a major transformation in the perception of the cultural work being performed by African American modes of expression coincided with the delayed transmission of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “sociological poetics” in English translation. Beginning in 1968 with the translation of Rabelais and His World and accelerating in 1973 with the first American edition of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Anglo-American literary criticism began to be infiltrated by Bakhtin’s “dialogical” analysis of language and cultural signs.

University-trained scholars of African American literature gradually shifted the center of gravity of black writing away from a heavily sociological and representational literature of protest toward an artfully crafted performative literature rooted in the diction and rhythm of black vernacular culture. Why did Bakhtin’s linguistic theory become instrumental in making the underlying “soul” of African American literature more visible? Why did the response of African American critics to Bakhtin’s writings lead to a revised version of the cultural nationalism of the 1920s?

As Bakhtin’s translators and commentators have noted, the starting point for his particular analysis of verbal signification is the idea that all speech and writing is “utterance.” In Russian the term (vyskazyvanie) is freighted with its own semantic weight. Usually translated as “expression,” it literally denotes the act of speaking out, or having one’s say, of (ex)postulating with an interlocutor. The word, spoken or written, is an act of articulation driven by a propulsive energy. Articulation is a primary act of cultural intervention, but it inserts itself into a prevailing discourse.

In Bakhtin’s understanding, self-expression is ever mindful of the already spoken and necessarily attentive of an internalized other, a projected co-respondent. Consequently, we struggle to intone in our speech and writing a comprehension of what we aim to signify through our words. We do this by reaccenting, as best we can, the linguistic rules and cultural codes of the prevailing discourse. The actual message that is communicated is for speaker and listener, writer and reader, a contextually embedded, socially constituted, interpersonal event that allows for unfinalized but not indeterminate meaning. By 1983 two young critics had articulated ambitious theories positing in linguistic terms the existence of a culturally distinct African American expressive difference. With a sideward glance at Mikhail Bakhtin, both Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr. reached the conclusion that African American writing displayed an inherent “double-voicedness.” Sounding out the words on the page of black American writers, they uncovered the irreverent double talk of the black vernacular within the most “literary” texts.

Both critics called for an end to tone-deaf and word-blind bleaching and blanking out of Negro writing. The traditional reading of African American writing as the protest literature of “humans like us” had sanitized performances of cultural contestation, reducing them to an “indentured” discourse subject to an imposed expectation of universal sameness. As Gates indignantly announced: “Because of this curious valorization of the social and polemical functions of black literature, the structure of the black text has been repressed and treated as if it were transparent.” Baker put it differently, but no less strongly: “The only means of negotiating a passage beyond this underclass [status] . . . is expressive representation. Artful evasion and illusion are equally traditional black expressive modes in interracial exchange.” What was being called for was a theory of African American literature that emphasized the duplicitous slippage of stable meaning, the “critique oblique” that prevails in trickster discourse and acts of cultural survivalism.

Bakhtin would, no doubt, have been gratified to learn of this crossover between linguistic theories of “signification” and street-smart applications of “signifyin’.” Gates celebrates a whole range of African American verbal practices, from the slave tales of the Signifying Monkey to the postmodern pastiches of Ishmael Reed, as prime examples of behind-the-back “double talk.” African American speech, he claims, has cultivated a high degree of obliquity because public expression within earshot of the majority culture requires “monkeyshines” and “aping” of standard rhetoric. Signifyin(g) is then, “essentially, a technique of repeating inside question marks in order to reverse or undermine pretended meaning, constituting an intended parody of a subject’s complicity.” This definition is a textbook example of Bakhtin’s “internally polemical discourse—the word with a sideward glance at another’s hostile word.”

Houston Baker, too, draws from a black vernacular base to argue for the specificity of “Afro-American expressive culture.” Black discourse is audibly grounded in a blues matrix. As Baker hears it, this blues matrix extends northward to literacy in the founding document of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. Locke’s anthology gathers together “the fullest extensions of a field of sounding possibilities; it serves as both the speaking manual and the singing book of a pioneering civilization freed from the burden of a nonsensically and polemically constrained expression.” As in the New Negro movement, attention is being drawn to the diversity and sophistication of an emerging African American discourse. This alter native American voice could, however, become a music unheard if its auditors failed to appreciate its technique of “sounding” reality and signifyin(g) resistance to dominant cultural stereotypes.

The mission of African American literature was redefined by a new generation of black intellectuals toward the end of the twentieth century. Compared to the previous generation of the 1920s, this generation emphasized cultural distinctness more sharply and was less interested in integration. The New Negro aesthetic foresaw the uplifting of black vernacular culture into the genres of Western literacy, thereby expanding the contours of American national identity. The newer theorists of African American literature were intent upon making more visible the historically conditioned particularity of black American expressive arts. The earlier generation aspired toward a Pushkinian ideal of a racially inflected artistry that spoke in eloquent literary form in the name of a previously unacknowledged national identity. The later theorists, citing Bakhtin, excavated the devices of language to convey the subversive and contestatory force of African American cultural expression within the dominant national discourse and American literary canon. Despite these differences of emphasis, both efforts to define an African American cultural particularity were straining to reconcile claims of diversity and distinctness with hopes for acknowledgment and recognition as a people integral to the nation at large.

As Gates and Baker demonstrate, an ear for Bakhtinian “heteroglossia” seems to come naturally to African American literary scholars. What W. E. B. Du Bois famously named the “double consciousness” in the psyche of the Negro American is reflected in the linguistic polyphony of the “double voiced” discourse identified by Bakhtin. It does not follow, however, that the subversive and “carnivalesque” practice of black “signifyin(g)” exorcizes the power of a dominant cultural discourse to misconstrue or deafen what the “double-voiced” utterance signifies. The deepest affinity between the thought of DuBois and Bakhtin can be felt in their sensitive appreciation for the striving in the speech and inner being of people who experience their own subjectivity veiled by alien language and cloaked by stereotypes.

Surely the responsiveness of African American literary theorists to the call of Bakhtin’s dialogic discourse analysis is grounded in a sympathetic understanding of the strife at the core of his definition of speech acts: “Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including creative works) are filled with others’ words, with varying degrees of otherness and ‘our-own-ness,’ with varying degrees of familiarity and alienation.” Given this understanding, the very language with which “we” hope to articulate our being must express itself in a pitched contest, a coded dialogue with a received set of signs and significations.

The literary and musical polyphony embedded in the words and notes of Russian writers and composers resonated in the manifestos of Locke and Gates proclaiming the mission of African American literature. After Bakhtin, any rhetorical claim speaking of Negro identity or black culture had to be located and localized in the actual “voicings” of African American utterances, oral and written. With her usual acuity, Toni Morrison has defined the basic terms of African American literary expression:

Now that the Afro-American artistic presence has been “discovered” actually to exist . . . [we] are not, in fact, “other.” We are choices. And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to examine centers of the self and to have the opportunity to compare these centers with the “raceless” one with which we are, all of us, most familiar.

The restless unending reconstitution of relative difference so pervasive in the shaping of Russian literature has animated the ongoing quest to express the “soul” of African American writing.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from Solzhenitsyn and American Culture. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Orest Kiprensky, Portrait of A.S. Pushkin, 1827; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Dale Peterson

Dale Peterson held the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor Chair of English and Russian at Amherst College. He is the author of Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul.

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