Tag Archives: Racism

Literary Labels as an Othering Force

22 Feb

Fanon writes, “I believe that the fact of a juxtaposition of the white and black races has created a massive psychoexistential complex. I hope by analyzing it to destroy.”

One of the most regrettable behaviors in literature is the pidgeonholing of work. “Queer lit,” “African-American lit,” “feminist lit,” etc. While these labels are often apt and speak to the subject matter, they give no indication of style and expose the unfortunate part of human nature that leads us to limit our consumption to work that deals with people like us. Furthermore, we are committing that most terrible sin: judging work by different standards. It seems condescending to think that there are different standards for African American literature (or African literature for that matter). This seems related to ideas that Said rejected.

The tendency is somewhat understandable and at times necessarily for practical and consumerist reasons, but it seems to reinforce divisions. By attaching these labels, we create the juxtaposition that Fanon writes about. One might assume that the labels exist, in part, to separate these works from predominantly white literature or the literary canon. For example, it seems that we are sometimes saying “this is good for Middle Eastern literature” instead of “this is good literature.” That creates a dynamic that is not entirely constructive. 

The flip side of this that these genres or subgenres add a great deal of texture. If we read, say, a work of African-American lit, it not only presents the reader with a well crafted and entertaining story, but a story that enhances our understanding of the African-American experience. This seems to be of literary value and also socially conscious. It would seem like a mistake not to read Cesaire as Martiniquan or black literature. Also, in light of Cesaire’s chosen subject matter, it would also be incredibly contrived to discuss the work as not Martiniquan or not a statement on being the other.

In some cases, it seems important that authors work under these labels so as not to be confused with those who would wear the “white mask” that Fanon writes of. In other cases, it seems that society is using these labels as to intentionally segregate “literature” from black or queer or third world literature as if those works would not stand up outside their own literary realm. Of course, it can and should be argued that these same labels put Caribbean literature on an equal plane with British literature by virtue of the admission that the Caribbean or Africa or the Middle East have produced works that can be called literature. It is more problematic to consider the question: if there is black literature does that mean that so many other works belong to “white” literature?

I know, of course, that these labels are largely innocuous or, at best, extremely useful for scholars. The labels are also reflective of a reality created after centuries of colonialism and oppression, a reality that many of us regret and attempt to remedy but a reality all the same. I am not arguing to the cessation of these labels, but I think it is worth noting why they sometimes stick in my throat.