Establishing an imaginative space for blackness, four mid-century American writers resist literary segregation
Black Regions of the Imagination
African American Writers between the Nation and the World
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A title in the American Literatures Initiative.
Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes were all pressured by critics and publishers to enlighten mainstream (white) audiences about race and African American culture. Focusing on fiction and non-fiction they produced between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, Eve Dunbar's important book, Black Regions of the Imagination, examines how these African American writers—who lived and traveled outside the United States—both document and re-imagine their "homegrown" racial experiences within a worldly framework.
From Hurston's participant-observational accounts and Wright's travel writing to Baldwin's Another Country and Himes' detective fiction, these writers helped develop the concept of a "region" of blackness that resists boundaries of genre and geography. Each writer represents—and signifies—blackness in new ways and within the larger context of the world. As they negotiated issues of "belonging," these writers were more critical of social segregation in America as well as increasingly resistant to their expected roles as cultural "translators."
"Eve Dunbar’s Black Regions of the Imagination is an important intervention in African American and African Diaspora literary studies. Her argument is original and persuasive; its implications for debates about theories of diaspora and African American exceptionalism are profound. As literary scholars increasingly take up black writing from the mid-twentieth-century, they will find Black Regions of the Imagination most valuable."
"Dunbar argues that the four authors constructed a 'region' for alternative blackness, navigating between nationalist, antinationalist, and internationalist perspectives on racial segregation. Each chapter offers original readings of the authors’ works—the chapter on Himes being particularly insightful—that go against the grain of the academic conversation. Buoyed by extensive research, the volume will be of primary interest to scholars of American literature."
"Eve Dunbar’s Black Regions of the Imagination renegotiates the relationship between regionalism in African American literature and ethnography as a practice and form of knowledge production around race in the United States.... Dunbar scrutinizes this intellectual and cultural tension in the critically undertheorized period between major African American literary movements of the twentieth century: the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.... Dunbar’s necessary reevaluation of regionalism produces nuanced, against-the-grain readings of the canonical authors studied in each chapter."
"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."
"Compact, readable, and incisive, Eve E. Dunbar’s Black Regions of the Imagination examines the ethnographic strategies and ironies of African American writers between 1930 and 1970 that probed the specter of national belonging and demonstrated the contrapuntal nationalist and internationalist conceptions of race.... Dunbar astutely repurposes black internationalism to account for the national experience of race."
"In Black Regions of the Imagination, Dunbar develops a fascinating theorization of Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, and Himes as ‘native ethnographers,’… Dunbar demonstrates, in four richly complex chapters, how each calls into question racist ideas about black humanity through radical appropriations of the participant-observer ethnographic method used commonly by anthropologists involved in field study. Dunbar’s readings are compelling from start to finish, for they collectively illustrate how, in the literary imaginations of Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, and Himes, ethnography was performative."
Eve Dunbar is Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.