The absented presence of blackness

By on March 27th, 2018 in Blog Posts


Time and time again throughout this class I am reminded of Simone Browne’s phrase about the “absented presence” of blackness. Tyler Schmidt approximates the Browne’s language in his White Pervert piece, only with respect to white absence in the novel Beetlecreek. Shmidt makes reference to a white man who in essence “approximates” blackness vis-a-vis an active denial of his whiteness – approximates in quotes because blackness appears to be the default when whiteness is rejected or deviated from. This is of course due to the hegemonic hold that whiteness holds over blackness. It is one or the other; nothing in between.

Thinking back to when I read pieces from Tan Confessions, I was shocked at how my mind was attempting to attach racial characteristics to the characters in those pieces and yet there is nothing particularly black about the pieces I have been exposed to from Tan Confessions. What I mean to say when I say this is that the pieces give no indication as to an ethnic or racial identification. The people in the pieces appear to be “race neutral” but of course I know this is not the case given the context we are provided by Leisa D. Meyer in her essay Strange Love.

But of course I realize that this is a faulty way of thinking and that I must be wary about my own line of thinking when I start to assume that there must be a set way to depict black experiences. I must keep myself in check as a non-black person of color when thinking about why I assume there is nothing particularly black about the (small sample of) pieces I have been exposed to from Tan Confessions. So what I really meant to say when I said this is that when reading anything that has been censored by black Americans in the 1950s, I have to remind myself that there is (of course) no monolithic black culture.

Meyers’ own essay reminds us of this from the start when she presents us with two “disparate reactions” ┬áto the first issue of Tan Confessions; one is appreciative of the works presented while the other is not as enthusiastic. Breaking down my own line of thinking further, I would say that there is nothing stereotypically black about the pieces I have been exposed to from Tan Confessions – nor should there be – and yet the expectation existed and persists. It’s as if the absence of blackness during the 1950s – and the subsequent denial of depictions of blackness – denied a generational transmission of blackness through the ages. This sets the stage for the proliferation of black stereotypes that only serve to censor blackness. This is dangerous especially in the context of blacklists then and blacklists now.

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  1. This is a brilliant blog post, Pedro, and I want to recommend everyone read it. With great adeptness, you link Browne’s concept of “absented presence” to critical readings and, interestingly, to Tan Confessions. If you are interested in developing this blog into a final paper for the course, it has the possibility to be publishing. I’m sure Prof Eversley and I would both be willing to help with this if this is one of your goals.

    One thing your blog post made me think about: audience. If one considers an audience to be “raced” in a certain way (such as the audience of Tan Confessions, putatively “Black”), then the author can “erace” any racial markers. Is there any clearer testimony to racial segregation and hierarchy than that? There is no law or rule or institution marking readership–and readership is assumed to be segregated racially, so much so that racial markers are unnecessary.

    I’ll be thinking about this a long time, Pedro. Thank you for these insights. I hope you will bring this up in class tonight if I fail to. So crucial to what we are discussing this semester. –Cathy Davidson

  2. Hi Pedro. Indeed it is worth thinking about cultural politics when thinking about a “racial” audience, or even a “racial” character. For instance, the more socially conservative–and mainstream–black intellectuals of at the height of the blacklisting era would have celebrated “universal” characters and “universal” literature and racially “unspecific,” more evolved, and for them, thankfully celebrated as a complete break from (black) protest fiction. for some, the promise of integration meant that black literature–even black characters–were less necessary. The special Issue of Phylon, “The Negro in Literature” (1950), which was edited by Alain Locke, takes this position. The same year, when Gwendolyn Brooks wins the Pulitzer Prize (a first for an African American), the supportive reviews celebrated her book Annie Allen for its ability to seem “non-racial.” More recently, Professor Kenneth Warren, has argued that African American literature is less necessary or useful since its traditional commitment to black freedoms would be less relevant after legal integration.

    It may be that, at least in the 1950s context, this turn toward more “universality” in writing by African Americans could help render a writer’s work as mainstream and save her from being associated with the left.

  3. Pedro,

    You wrote: “Thinking back to when I read pieces from Tan Confessions, I was shocked at how my mind was attempting to attach racial characteristics to the characters in those pieces and yet there is nothing particularly black about the pieces I have been exposed to.” This is interesting – I think about also Chester Himes’ Yesterday Will Make You Cry and his decision to write the main character as white, while not attributing racial characteristics to the character immediately upon the introduction of the character. How do we attach these characteristics when we read a novel, and does the author change the way that we read the story?


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