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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Autobiography and Black identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-Century Armerica
Kenneth Mostern

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
280pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 37.50/$54.95; ISBN 0-521-64114-4. Pb.: 13.95/$19.95; ISBN 0-521-64679-0.



Kenneth Mostern analyzes the use of autobiography by a select group of black intellectuals to construct identity politics, derived from, and aimed at, the racial imbalances of the American order. Projected as a microscopic representation of collective experience, the autobiographical genre became the framework for, "simultaneous self-creation and self-emancipation."(p11) William E. B. Du Bois's writings and autobiography offer insights into the dynamics of black identity politics. They trace his ideological transitions--from a color-blind, liberal vision, through a black essentialist/racial one, to a Marxian class perspective. As race assumed dominance, Du Bois embraced a global Pan-Africanist identity. He contends that racism mandates racialist constructions of identity by blacks.

Ida B. Wells Barnett, James W. Johnson and Walter White construct identities in opposition to lynching. Johnson affirms the centrality and essence of black culture. This exaltation of black culture notwithstanding, lynching compelled Johnson to adopt a liberal, non-racialized posture, by identifying with the lynchers (whites), rather than the lynched (blacks). Conversely, the probability of being lynched shaped the racialized identity and political activism of Wells Barnett, and Walter White. Thus, while Johnson advances race-effacing identity, and liberal individualism, Wells Barnett, Du Bois and White, advocate racialized identities. Zora Neal Hurston's identity emanates from a celebration of black culture, in contrast to Wells Barnett's racialized identity. Mostern thus underlines fundamental disagreement among blacks on the relative significance of race and culture.

Paul Robeson and Malcolm X defend a global political perspective on black identity, and manhood. Malcolm X provides a systemic representation and critique of racism, favoring a black essentialist identity. He exalts black masculinity, and espouses a humanism that justifies violence. Malcolm X's black masculinity, ironically reinforces the dominant patriarchal culture.

Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis criticize black masculinity and patriarchy. Their radical defense of gender constituted a negation of the black masculinity, and the identity politics of Malcolm X, Robeson, and the Black Power generation. bell hooks depicts black masculinity as constituting both a rejection of white supremacy and affirmation of patriarchy. Black women autobiographies, Mostern demonstrates, inhered identity politics that challenged both racism and black masculinity.

Mostern underscores the multi functionality and complexity of black autobiography. Particularly revealing is the ideological differences, conflicting perceptions of identity, and discords on the relative significance of race and gender. Mostern's selections, however, place undue emphasis on gender divide. Blacks manifest far greater degree of ideological convergence across gender lines than is reflected here. Beyond gender differential, however, knowing other explanations for the conflicting constructions of identity politics would help.


Tunde Adeleke
Loyola University-New Orleans




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