Monday, June 19, 2017
The Shifting Black Self and Auto/biography Studies
I’m nearing the end of my work editing A History of African American Autobiography for Cambridge University Press. This book is comprised of 22 chapters on Black life writing by African Americanist scholars representing a variety of academic specializations and over 130 Black life writing subjects.
The volume uses the expansive term “life writing” to accommodate Black self-portraiture ranging from visual art objects and diverse print culture forms (think both slick magazines and election candidates’ circulars) to treasured family reunion stories as well as Civil Rights Movement narratives told by Black grandsons and granddaughters who have never yet walked a picket line.
Thinking about the audience for A History of African American Autobiography, I am eager to share definitions and analyses of life writing and its best-known name autobiography in part because this literary genre is one of the oldest practices of literary expression for Africans who, voluntarily or not, formed the African diaspora. Black life writings themselves reveal that the generic choice resulted from an (ongoing) impulse to reconstitute the self within in its new environs. The impetus remains strong in Black people in large measure because life writing offers a means to articulate the self in a new space, to tell the story of transition from one (geographical, psychological, spiritual, etc.) setting to another, to describe the current conditions, be they material or metaphorical, in which one now endures.
Ultimately, as this Cambridge History documents, to study Black life writing is to immerse one’s self in carefully wrought life stories written using cunning strategies of Black self-fashioning. These days especially, Black auto/biography studies forms a rapturous and wide range of expressivities Black people have invented (and continue to develop) to chronicle in each case the experiences of the most interesting person they know: themselves.
Whatever any given Black life writing might say about the intersectional and illusive self at its center, Black auto/biographical subjects continue to record the deft moves Black people must make, thrill to make, in an antiblack world.
Joycelyn K. Moody is Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature and Professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she researches and teaches African American literature.