Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic

Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic authored by John Cullen Gruesser is a comprehensive and innovative compilation that reveals the  prevalent links between the Postcolonial, the African American and the Black Atlantic studies. Dr. John Cullen Gruesser is a Professor of English at Kean University in New Jersey. He is widely known across the erudite world of researchers in literature and criticism for his books. He has authored White on Black: Contemporary Literature about Africa, Black on Black: Twentieth-century African American writing about Africa, The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home: African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion, Race, Gender and Empire in American Detective Fiction, Race and, The  Black Sleuth co-authored with John Edward Bruce, and the editorof The Unruly Voice.

With an ergonomic approach, Gruesser has made his writings accessible enough for the readers to comprehend the links he established between Postcolonialism and African American studies, which according to his analysis could be done through the Black Atlantic studies spreading the scholarship across more related disciplines. According to Gruesser, the theories developed in all these three disciplines cannot be comprehended in isolation. Confluences has four sections, namely, “An overview: the Black Atlantic as a bridge between postcolonial and African American literary studies”, “Postcolonial counter-discourse : Salman Rushdie, Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul”, “Signifyin(g) : Walter Mosley, Pauline Hopkins, Toni Morrison”, “The Black Atlantic : Harry Dean, Harriet Jacobs, Alice Walker”. It is a merger of three major literary areas that brings about the communion of not only profound scholarship but also lays down the foundation of newer disciplines. The first chapter is, as the chapter title suggests, an overview of the three areas and serves as an introduction to what a reader may expect in the proceeding sections of the book. The three major theories that are represented by the three areas of literary and cultural studies are, Postcolonialism, Signifyin(g) and the Black Atlantic. Gruesser examines each theory and takes his readers in a journey through the links he finds connecting them and congregates them all in one platform.

In this section, Gruesser analyses the works of a number of theorists, such as Edward Said, Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Spivak, to a number of other major theorists and fiction writers and comes up with a conclusion that exhibits the inevitable connection between all of them, and especially between postcolonial studies and African American studies. He finds “formidable similarities” (2) between the postcolonial studies and African American studies and expresses his concern and surprise as to why the theorists belonging to these two areas have been so resistant of each other. He says that his intention of writing this book is not just to minimize the gap between the two fields but rather to “build bridges between them” (2) Gruesser further states, “Without question Paul Gilroy’s ambitious black Atlantic project…[ ] stands as the most profound attempt to correlate postcolonialism and African American studies. Gilroy’s penetrating readings of black American texts indicate the advantages of using postcolonial theoretical concepts, discourse analysis, and an expanded frame of reference to analyze African American literature….[ ] Embracing the power of flow of people and patterns of thought, Confluences aims to make a modest contribution to the globalization of literary study (at least in English) through its consideration of migration, circulation, transit, and related concepts.” (4, 5). The idea of the “movement” or “flow” is interesting. Inspired by Gilroy’s “Route Work: The Black Atlantic and Politics of Exile”, Gruesser seems to have identified the movement of ideas across disciplines. It is the flux of ideas that moves across the disciplines, perennially at work across the length and breadth of the concerned studies at different levels. He explains that the “movement of ideas…[is] a process comparable to the joining of two or more streams to form a powerful current” (5). In this introductory section Gruesser makes his intensions of making the connection visible to the entire labyrinth of the theorists across the different areas of study, very clear. Hence, Confluences can be regarded as a manual that depicts travelling or moving of ideas “through space and over time” (5) within a network of different disciplines, penetrating into the realms of literary and cultural studies, not missing out on making conspicuous impressions and new interesting research possible. In this chapter Gruesser describes postcolonialism with the aid of the works of several theorists like Said and his theory of Orientalism and in doing so he also points out how postcolonialism was demarcated. Probably this was the reason Gruesser implies at the beginning of the book about the resistance that African American studies had for Postcolonial studies.

Gruesser titles the next chapter as, “Postcolonial Counter-discourse” dedicating the entire section to discuss the nuances of the concerned theory and it’s supposedly similarities with African American literary criticism. At the beginning, with the aid of the arguments of theorists and critics like, Anne McClintock, Arun Mukherjee, John McLeod, Gruesser analyses the reservations and objections regarding the very terms, “postcolonialism and “postcolonial counter-discourse”, takes us through the extended discussions and raises doubt regarding the ‘postcolonial rewritings of “classics”’ (23) questioning about their being independent of the “colonial culture” (23). Further in the discussion he expresses his belief that re-writing would always have references of the original and hence cannot be independent of it. So, it can be said that the postcolonial re-writings will always have unavoidable correspondence with the canonical ones. Now, with the help of fictions written by Rudyard Kipling, Salman Rushdie and Jean Rhy, he maneuvers to demonstrate the complexities, at the same time attempting to make it look palpable for the reader, and concludes that, “…the concept of counter-discourse can be useful in investigating the racial dynamics within a text” (24). Gruesser attests his argument about these above mentioned theories by paralleling them with fictions depicting how these postcolonial re-writings discuss issues like, “empire, colonization, slavery, race relations, miscegenation, and the male desire to control the female” (32). Hence, there exists an inherent connection between the postcolonial and African American literary and cultural studies. To make the above argument even evident, he derives the concept of “Signifyin(g)” from Henry Louis Gates who focuses on “literary revisionism” (53). He concludes stating, “This link between the concept of counter-discursiveness and Signifyin(g) suggests that postcolonial and African American literary theory can work effectively in concert” (53).

The next section of the book expands Gruesser’s claim of the connection of the two concerned fields of study. At the commencement of the chapter, he illustrates how Gates’s Figures in Black and The Signifying Monkey, “have proven extremely useful in reading African American literature…[ ] and…[that ] they offer insights to critics of postcolonial literary texts” (54). Signifyin(g), according to Gruesser, has become a pivotal concept to analyze African American literary texts. Discussing the significant and substantial works of Walter Mosley, Pauline Hopkins and Toni Morrison, he explains how the concept of Signifyin(g) glides into the concerned literary texts and evokes not only a sense of authenticity but also creates a passage to the literary works not assorted to African American studies. In his own words, “…the theory can be usefully applied to texts outside the African American literary tradition” (57), and further states, “Signifyin(g) proves indispensable in analyzing Hopkin’s literary revisionism”(86). This literary revisionism can be identified as the one that Gates adheres to and that which carries the of concept of Signifyin(g) to postcolonial studies. Gruesser also examines Toni Morrison’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works along with other theorists and fiction writers and establishes his claim of the aforementioned link between the two concerned fields of study. Talking of Morrison and Hawthorne, he brings out, “…the ways in which African American and postcolonial rewritings of dominant and dominating discourses resemble and diverge from one another” (95), suggesting the strong link between the two. The chapter concludes establishing the plausible intersections of the ways of functioning of the two broad areas of study when Gruesser states, “Without question, Gates’s Signifyin(g) and the concept of postcolonial counter-discursiveness have been extremely valuable to critics working in postcolonial and African American studies respectively”(95). He further hints at the role of the Black Atlantic in merging of the postcolonial and the African American studies.

In the next section, the Black Atlantic studies is examined revealing the ways the Black Atlantic works as a pathway connecting the two fields of scholarship. At the onset of this section itself Gruesser points out that Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic functions with the aid of both the African American studies and the postcolonial studies. He brings into context that Gilroy’s “black Atlantic resembles postcolonial counter-discourse and Henry Louis Gates’s Signifyin(g)”, and that, “Gilroy takes major step toward moving beyond such [like that of postcolonial critics and Gates] territorialization by incorporating elements from both postcolonial and African American studies into his theory” (96). Hence, with utmost clarity and precision, Gruesser has presented the role that black Atlantic plays in bringing the postcolonial and the African American studies together. According to him, even though the “new world slavery” (97) is the domain of the black Atlantic studies, yet their area of function extends to examine the complex and “incomplete and unequal” (97) dynamics between the black West Indians, Africans in black Atlantic network, black Britons, African Americans, etc., compelling it to inevitably work as a linking pathway between the postcolonial and the African American studies. As moving out of the bounding territories and merging with the outer world, especially European travel is so much a characteristic feature of the black Atlantic, it encompasses all the above different categories of people sharing allied experiences in some way and hence resembles with the postcolonial and the African American literary and cultural studies.  He exemplifies his thesis with the help of the works of writers like Harry Dean, Harriet Jacobs and Alice Walker. Grusser quotes, Gilroy’s words about the black Atlantic, “a new discursive economy emerges with the refusal to subordinate the particularity of slave experience to the totalizing power of universal reason held exclusively by white hands, pens and publishing houses” (99). Black Atlantic can be assumed to be an area of study that not only resembles the postcolonial and African American studies but also raises questions on various other related areas like colonial studies, transatlantic studies, slave narratives and other theories that apply to these studies, etc.

Gruesser closes Confluences encouraging researchers stating, “I therefore urge both postcolonial and African American critics to emulate, expand on, and, where appropriate, emend Gilroy’s bold attempt to bridge postcolonial and African American studies, embracing the black Atlantic’s stress on movement through space and intercultural connections” (133). A profound undivided reading of the different discussions made in Confluences makes it an inevitable challenge to scrutinize the multiple levels of the affiliation established between postcolonial studies, African American literary and cultural studies and the black Atlantic studies. With adequate theories backed with appropriate literary works Gruesser has presented a very significant solution for the future researchers who wish to either work in any one of these areas or make an interdisciplinary study. I am looking forward to using it for my research on African American literature and I would recommend this book to other students who wish to work in similar areas.     

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