|Anti-Communist handbill distributed by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham in the 1930s|
My main concern, however, is that Europeans sometimes provide Americans inappropriate, or should I say incomplete, models. In my field of labor history, for example, the enormous contributions of European styles of analysis must be balanced against their silence on fundamental facts of American history: the existence of race as a potent social and economic category and the relationship between race and class. It is true that Europeans like Comte Joseph de Gobineau invented the scholarship of racism in the late eighteenth century, but until quite recently race has not figured as an important theme in European social thought. In the United States, however, race and labor have gone hand in hand ever since the institutionalization of slavery.
Despite the salience of race and racism in American history, they have been difficult for American historians who were not black to confront. (Genocide, gays and lesbians, and, of course, women also have long histories of oversight. These are topics that have been, as the French would say, "occultes.") The civil rights movement and the concomitant black studies movement would have seemed to have ended the silence on race: Most certainly the field of African-American studies has grown tremendously, with many of its most active participants being non-black scholars. Yet the very vigor of African-American studies provided historians of labor a pretext for continuing to produce lily-white analyses—race, they could say, belonged exclusively to black studies. Turning their backs on African- American studies, many labor historians took the further step of embracing paradigms from European history that seemed more sophisticated theoretically than American analyses but that have disregarded race.
The result has been an outpouring of interesting yet flawed labor history that pretends that non-black workers are not affected by the existence of a workforce segmented by race. Although they know that non- black as well as black workers have been affected by racism in this country, labor historians sometimes only admit to this fact when the question is put to them directly. They often prefer to wrap themselves in fashionable Europeanisms and to write as though their favorite, northern, European- American workers lived out destinies divorced from matters of slavery and racism, as though, say, Chartism meant more in the history of the American working class than slavery.
With such struggles over American labor historiography in mind, confess the fear of having to start all over again with historians of women. My nightmare is that this Annales article [“Culture et pouvoir des femmes : essai d'historiographie” the subject of discussion in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Women’s History, in which this essay appears], with the customary European blindness to matters of race, will play the E. P. Thompson role in women's history, with historians of women adopting the myopia along with the genius of European thought.
Perhaps things ought also to be going the other way around. As we read them, French scholars should be consulting Americans who recognize the importance of race, for late-twentieth-century European populations, including the French, now include large numbers of southern-European, Arab, and African working-class immigrants. A glance at French newspapers reveals the popularity of demagogues like Jacques Le Pen, whose xenophobia has begun to alert Europeans to the power of race right there at home. Le Pen is the best-known racist now active in Europe, but the continent is full of racists and proto-racists of the sort who are familiar to Americans. It would be a pity if European historians remained blind to the importance of the relationship of race and class in their own societies, several of which were imperialist, continuing instead their traditional pre-occupation with peasants and shopkeepers of European ethnic backgrounds.
— Nell Irvin Painter, “French Theories in American Settings: Some Thoughts on Transferability” Journal of Women's History 1:1 (1989)
Marx wrote somewhere that literary scholars make their own canon. But, he said, they do not make it just as they please, but rather under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. This dictum seems unexceptionable, stressing as it does a particular kind of historical determinacy. Yet, what it does not clarify is the ideological orientation Marx was gesturing toward. The "past" is always a selected phenomenon, arranged for class usage. The past conditioning canons—their discussion, implementation, pedagogy, or other uses—is always an ideologically conditioned version of events and occurrences gone by.
In recent United States literary study, Marx's insight—like other considerations of history—has been pointedly ignored in pursuit of theory. Rather than looking to either the immediate or distant past of the United States to arrive at useful observations on such matters as the founding rhetoric and representational practices of, say, Colonial America or questions of canons and canonicity in the New World, United States literary scholars have bent their best attention toward theory. In their discussions, theory has been both a covering term for literary study in general and, I believe, a disguise of sorts. It has allowed scholars to avoid a self-conscious perspective on their specific historical situation in the United States and the active implications and imperatives of such a situation.
The stance taken by United States scholars has, more often than not, been that implied by Isaac D'Israeli in his 1791 essay "Literary Fashions": "prose and verse have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats." Whirled around by the whirligig of theoretical taste, United States literary scholars have recently been concerned only with next fall's fashionable theoretical line rather than with history. It would be fair to say, I think, that "theory" has implied—especially in its poststructuralist manifestations—an ideological and sometimes willed blindness to any version of the past that suggests real events, actual human bodies or a responsibility to such phenomena on the part of literary scholars themselves.
In this essay I look specifically at the embodied and actual past of the United States, summoning for sight and hearing rhetorics that imply a promised canonical body described neither by the term "dismantling" (as in taking apart existing canons) nor "replacement" (as in a liberal substitution of Invisible Man for Henderson the Rain King). To set such a uniquely American historical and scholarly scene, I suggest immediately that the most impressive sound in the domain of United States canon formation during recent decades was that of tens of thousands of Civil Rights marchers singing "We shall not, we shall not be moved / Just like a tree that's planted by the waters / We shall not be moved.”
The song is a metonym for historical and radical African American energies that exploded like TNT on the American scene. It is a name for the resonant topsy-turvydom that marked every walk of American life in recent decades. A dramatic social initiative was seized and overseen by Black Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and preeminent in this initiative were questions of canons and canon formation-questions, that is, of binding contractual cultural texts, the production and reproduction of culture, and cultural axiology.
And when Black Power and the Black Arts Movement in combination with the Black Aesthetic found their way (under the aegis of Black Studies) onto the stage of the American academy, the black initiative became a reality for every student, woman, or man-every secretary, security guard, resident advisor, professor, or administrator. If the Black Power epoch was tragically short-lived (I believe the window of opportunity opened for no more than a decade-from assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.), it nonetheless dramatically altered long-standing modes of literary creative and literary critical understanding. It seems appropriate, therefore, in any discussion of canons, to emphasize a United States situation. To do so we might look first at that New World interaction of actual black and white bodies and historical conjunctions that wrote themselves in unique ways during the eighteenth century.
— Houston Baker Jr., “The Promised Body: Reflections on Canon in an Afro-American Context,” Poetics Today 9:2 (1988).