One of the interesting possibilities afforded by blogging is that of public revision. “Working up” a paper is so often an intensely private act (in many cases, necessarily so). There might be something valuable about rejecting this will-to-privacy and exposing the always improvisatory labor of putting ideas together.
In this post, therefore, I seek in part to revise and in part to thicken out last week’s essay.
I began that essay with a quote from Lewis Gordon:
Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man contains the following striking statement: “In the eyes of anti-black racists, blacks suffer a hemorrhage in their facticity. A consequence is that there is no black autobiography in anti-black worlds.”
One week later, I still feel that this is––at least potentially––an interesting way to begin a paper. Gordon’s quote lets the reader know what sorts of concerns I will be dealing with. It announces an interest in the racial stakes of biography and autobiography as Western literary traditions (and beyond the literary, as modes of self-fashioning), and declares that Frantz Fanon and Lewis Gordon will be important sources of theoretical inspiration.
But such an introduction carries with it dangers, too. The reader would be forgiven for assuming that my paper will be about Fanon or Gordon. My real subjects, however––my primary sources––are some writings by James Weldon Johnson.
Thus, it is a big problem that I did not connect the presentation of this quote with the text that I intend to read closely (with its assistance): James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man. So, one revision that immediately springs to mind is that I should delay or bracket what last week’s essay moved on to next (a discussion of Marty McFly and Back to the Future as an example of the “hemorrhage in facticity”), and move immediately to the work of introducing Johnson and The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man.
That might look something like:
Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man contains the following striking statement: “In the eyes of anti-black racists, blacks suffer a hemorrhage in their facticity. A consequence is that there is no black autobiography in anti-black worlds.” Gordon’s insight puts us in mind of a famous example of vexed black autobiography: James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man. Johnson published The Autobiography anonymously, and its narrator (a light-skinned African American man who chooses to “pass” as white) was taken by many readers and critics as a successful businessman with a secret identity. Until 1927, when The Autobiography was officially published under Johnson’s name, affluent white readers might have been expected to put the book down and begin wondering if one of their friends or associates was, in fact, its author.
At this stage of the game, all that I know is that I think there is a productive way to connect this historical material to a Gordonian reading of Fanon and anonymity.
In the longest-range view, I hope to tie all of this to Johnson’s status as a “cultural worker”––an author of books, as well as a musician, composer, editor, and journalist and theorist of race and popular culture––and to build from this discussion a set of reflections on cultural work and African American politics. In this concluding section, I will seek to affirm the arguments of scholars like Richard Iton, Robin D.G. Kelley, George Lipsitz, Daniel Widener, Clyde Woods, and Gaye Johnson, and, in complicated ways, the early work of Harold Cruse––sophisticated defenders of the view that African American cultural work constitutes a meaningful mode of resistance to oppression and an idiom in which demands for justice may be articulated––and to challenge arguments like Adolph Reed’s “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?,” which dismisses “cultural work” as largely extra-political and which has found many adherents in recent years within the movement that calls itself “political Marxism.”
Having decided that this effort at conjugation and synthesis will be placed at the essay’s end, we are left with the question: what next? I know that I want to develop the theme of anonymity, and I know, further, that I want to draw upon a number of texts to make my case. John Mullan’s Anonymity is a lucid study of anonymous and pseudonymous writing in eighteenth and nineteenth century British literature; I will certainly want to present some of its key findings. The most important of these is that the sort of trick or joke played by Johnson in The Autobiography is not at all unprecedented. In fact, making the reader guess at the identity of the author of an anonymous publication was part of the strategy of dissemination of many canonical texts, including key works by Defoe, Pope, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Lewis Carroll. In the nineteenth century, much of the action in the anonymous/pseudonymous literary sphere concerned guessing at whether a given book was, in fact, authored by a man or a woman. These games necessarily brought into being a series of meta-debates about the nature of sex and gender, important precursors of The Autobiography’s instigation of white bewilderment and African American bemusement.
I will want also to return to Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, and its key chapter “Identity and Ideology: The Names Controversy.” From Stuckey I wish to move to consider two important recent texts that concern famous African American name-changers: Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X and John Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra. For more general insights into anonymity, I will continue thinking about E.P. Thompson’s great essay “The Crime of Anonymity” in Albion’s Fatal Tree, and Gabriella Coleman’s rich if frustrating study of the contemporary political formation called “Anonymous.”
After having laid out the terrain in this fashion, I think I can move on to putting James Weldon Johnson in dialogue Gordon and Fanon. As we have explored in previous notes, the “anonymity” in which Gordon is interested is not the “depersonalization” of New Left theory, nor the historical forms of namelessness with which literary authors played around in order to maintain personal privacy or avoid state censorship. For Gordon, “anonymity” is a technical term rooted in the existential-humanist phenomenology of Alfred Schutz and Maurice Natanson, a term that turns out to provide the key to Fanon’s oft-misinterpreted writings on the psychic violence of colonialism, the struggle for autonomous identity under conditions of domination, and the limits of white universalistic philosophies of Being. For Fanon, racism is a question of differential access to anonymity. Anonymity is the flip side hyper-visibility, and thus constitutes the secret core of what Naomi Murakawa (drawing on Ruth Wilson Gilmore) calls “race-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
We should stress that the clearest model of phenomenological anonymity––maybe, we might even say, its nomos––is the postal system, an example to which Schutz, Natanson, and Gordon return repeatedly. It might, therefore, be useful to bring into the discussion Richard John’s excellent study of the origins of American mail, and to complement this historical material with Derrida’s famous meditation on all things postal, The Post Card.
This, I think, would get us in decent shape to turn to a close reading of The Autobiography, and to consider it in relation to the “hemorrhage of facticity” and the “impossibility of black autobiography” for which Gordon argues. (I think).
 John Mullan, Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.
 Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
 Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Viking, 2011. John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
 Douglas Hay, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975. E. Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. 2014.
 Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. 2014.
 Richard R. John, Spreading the News The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998. Jacques Derrida, The post card: from Socrates to Freud and beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
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