Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World
by Eve Dunbar

Reviewed by John Murillo III


Published by American Literatures Initiative, 2012   |   214 pages

Blackness marks a position betwixt and between—blackness marks a dis-lo-ca-tion. Where is the black? How does blackness reposition blacks in, or as exiled from, the world? How does blackness displace? These questions hide in the margins—betwixt and between the lines and pages—of Eve Dunbar’s Black Regions of the Imagination: Between the Nation and the World. The geographical tension embodied by the black position (read: blackness, black positionality), the struggle to place blackness on the map, whether that map is psychic, political, or ontological, permeates Dunbar’s text as she writes of black authors who “think more dynamically about their metaphorical and literal positions in the world” (emphasis mine). It drives and exceeds her project, and, in part, makes it compelling, creating a text that is a liminal region of its own, betwixt and between, black.

In Black Regions of the Imagination, Dunbar, associate professor of English at Vassar College, presents an examination of the fictions and non-fictions of Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, all produced in the “formally unnamed literary period situated between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement (1930-1970).” Of particular interest to Dunbar is the importance of ethnography to each of these authors, both inside and outside their literary production(s). Ethnography: “the scientific description of the customs of peoples and cultures;” the “qualitative research design aimed at exploring cultural phenomena.” Dunbar, methodologically and thematically centralizing ethnography, remains particularly attentive to the authors’ perceived role as participant-observer. Each author, she argues, inhabits and subverts (or, in Baldwin’s case, queers) this ethnographic position so as to imaginatively generate regions for themselves and their humanity ex nihilo their dis-lo-ca-tion. Their subversion (or queering) remains inextricably tied to how they relate to, meditate upon, and create spaces for blackness.

The first chapter focuses on the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, and lays the foundation of Dunbar’s text by dissecting the close relation between Hurston’s work and the field of anthropology, demonstrating how her work both employs and subverts traditional modes of ethnography. Hurston achieves the role of anthropological emcee, retooling the role of the participant-observer and thereby challenging the applicability of traditional ethnographic practice to understanding blackness in the American South and elsewhere, in an effort to not only locate the black position, to place blackness, but to edify a space for blackness, particular a region for what Dunbar calls “black rural modernity.” Dunbar, situating this analysis against Hurston’s international work, marking the differences between Hurston’s work on and in the U.S. and her research on Haiti and Jamaica, reveals Hurston’s between-ness: her (American) blackness positions her as outside the U.S., and simultaneously as outside the Haitian and Jamaican cultures she documents.

In the second chapter, Dunbar traces Richard Wright’s movements outside the U.S., seeking to analyze the doubleness of his literary and political interests. Dunbar recalls Wright’s all-important statement, “I am a rootless man,” and presses it, revealing that for Wright there is a clear struggle to maintain a distance from—or, more directly, to escape—the U.S. and its racial essentialism. Wright’s travels abroad, and his struggles to write in the elsewheres he temporarily inhabits, reflect a deep irritation with the acute regionalisms of African-American political and social existence, and a desire to escape to the alien soil of a more global, universal conceptualization of humanity and subjectivity. And yet, while Wright demonstrates, in anecdote and in writing, his distaste with the particularity of American blacks and their political unrest, Dunbar argues that every work he produced nevertheless emanated from and held allegiance to American blackness. Which is to suggest that Wright’s rootlessness is paradoxically intertwined with his inability to uproot himself completely from his origins (and the related political situation in the U.S.). Wright’s rootlessness thus becomes a kind of between-ness that is a double displacement tied to his blackness, in two places at once, and simultaneously (by being unable to locate himself totally in either place) no place at all.

In the third chapter, which moves through the work of James Baldwin, Dunbar examines the flexibility and mobility of James Baldwin’s narrative gaze and how this “performance of perspective flexibility” directly contests traditional modes of ethnography, particularly the presence and gaze of the non-black ethnographer. Baldwin’s refusal of conventional ethnographic methodology bleeds into the non-black presence and gaze writ large. For Dunbar, this is most evident in Baldwin’s Another Country and the novels of its protagonist Vivaldo. Baldwin inhabits and disarticulates the non-black gaze’s capacity to know blackness at all, queering notions of knowability and relationality as they pertain to blackness. He shares with Chester Himes a more imaginative or psychic relation to marking or creating regions for, or of, blackness.

Himes, treated in the fourth chapter and Dunbar’s final subject, shares with Baldwin a more imaginative or psychic relation to marking or creating regions for, or of, blackness. But Himes demonstrates more directly than Baldwin the imaginative component of the region-making of the authors that precede him in Dunbar’s analysis. This imaginative work explodes into what Dunbar calls “the ethnography of the absurd,” in which Himes treats the absurdity of black existence, in Harlem and elsewhere—across, or toward, “alien soil,” perhaps—as reality, black ‘life’ as, and in the region and reality of, the absurd. Himes thus hyperbolizes topography and event to, on the one hand, disarticulate their knowability, while, on the other, paradoxically, highlighting the absurdity of the reality of black subjection in Harlem and the larger world. In both Baldwin and Himes, the black region, black position, or black space sits in that liminal between-ness: for Baldwin, between knowing and not knowing, between seeing and knowing; for Himes, between absurdity and reality.

Dunbar reads each author as invested in locating, or grappling with, the constitutive dislocation (in Wright’s words, “rootlessness”) inherent in, blackness. A region in or outside the limit capacities of ethnographic research; a region that psychically or imaginatively exists within literature which speaks to the lack of a real place for blackness in the world; a region that sits somewhere between not belonging to the U.S. and struggling to belong to an elsewhere in, or beyond, the diaspora—this black region of the imagination, or this imaginative region for blackness, haunts every bit of analysis Dunbar performs, every question she poses, and every deeply analytical claim she makes.

But where is blackness? Wherein lies the region for the black? The region, as Dunbar mobilizes it from the introduction of her text, sits between and in contradistinction to the concepts of nation and diaspora. As Dunbar describes it, it is a conceptualization of the both-and-between (dis)location of blackness, “extranational,” betwixt the national and the international, and so both and neither at once. As it appears in the text, the region marks a spatial (dis)location and an imaginative (psychic) topography when deployed in analyses of the authors as they subvert traditional ethnographic practice. Where is blackness? “Here,” the authors might answer, as they sketch it out across pages of fiction and non-fiction.

For the most part, however, this question – Where is blackness? – remains a ghost in Dunbar’s text. One feels its presence throughout Dunbar’s meditations, but in its most polemical or violent (violent because its ghastly presence can no longer remain peripheral, even if ostensibly relegated to the unspoken) form, it sits between the lines and pages, hidden somewhere in the liminality of the margins or the binding. The ghostliness of the ghost-question inheres in Dunbar’s rigorous insistence upon staying within the limits of the explicit texts and stated intents of each author as they persistently invoke the Nation-Diaspora bifurcation as it pertains to black subjection in the world. Dunbar works to mark the region’s between-ness within the space of the world, a separate place or placelessness between the national and the international, half or fractionally rooted in both simultaneously, and thereby ‘rootless’ in its incomplete rootedness to either. She does not reach for blackness itself, at least directly. Dunbar appears to textually create a region—and her text is its own region—for blackness that, by meditating on these authors’ mediataions on the between-ness of blackness, sits in that between space, between speaking the question directly and not speaking it at all.

The texts of this historical period, between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, both investigate and stage this between-ness. And Dunbar’s text correspondingly meditates upon and stages – at every level, historical, authorial, political, psychic, and ontological—the subject and operations of the between-ness of the black position, haunted by the ghost of the question of blackness: “Where is blackness?” The depth of her analysis, the adherence to the archive, the continued urgency and importance of the texts Dunbar chooses to analyze – all combine to make Black Regions of the Imagination a compelling, if haunted, and haunting, examination of black literature in this unnamed literary period, and of blackness, itself.

John Murillo III is a PhD student at Brown University in the English department. His primary research interests include twentieth century black literature, afro-pessimism, critical theory, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and cosmology. He is currently at work on a novel and comic book, both entitled Dark Matter.

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