In this series of interlocking essays, which had their start as lectures inspired by the presidency of Barack Obama, Robert Burns Stepto sets canonical works of African American literature in conversation with Obama’s Dreams from My Father. The elegant readings that result shed surprising light on unexamined angles of works ranging from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.
Stepto draws our attention to the concerns that recur in the books he takes up: how protagonists raise themselves, often without one or both parents; how black boys invent black manhood, often with no models before them; how protagonists seek and find a home elsewhere; and how they create personalities that can deal with the pain of abandonment. These are age-old themes in African American literature that, Stepto shows, gain a special poignancy and importance because our president has lived through these situations and circumstances and has written about them in a way that refreshes our understanding of the whole of African American literature.
Stepto amplifies these themes in four additional essays, which investigate Douglass’s correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe; Willard Savoy’s novel Alien Land and its interracial protagonist; the writer’s understanding of the reader in African American literature; and Stepto’s account of his own schoolhouse lessons, with their echoes of Douglass’ and Obama’s experiences.
No single work was more important in the revolution in close reading that electrified African American literary studies in the 1980s than was Robert Burns Stepto's From Behind the Veil, a work as deeply insightful as it was engagingly written. Stepto reminded us, after Keats, that one dives into the lake not merely or necessarily to swim to the other side, but to enjoy the dive. Let us hope, at the end of another era of reductive thematic (race, class, gender) criticism, that this marvelous book can once again play that salutary role in redirecting readers to the sheer splendors of close reading, reminding us of the pleasures of luxuriating in the language of African American texts.
This is a collection of essays both timely and classic.
By juxtaposing Dreams from My Father with a variety of texts, including critical pieces on African-American literature, Stepto illuminates the lasting validity of these classics and their importance to our modern times.
Provocative… Stepto discusses literature about as well as anyone, and it's a genuine pleasure to follow his joyful excursions through Douglass, Du Bois, Morrison and others.
Stepto's incisive analysis involves, for example, a very close reading of how writers from James Weldon Johnson to Du Bois to Obama himself have written about their school day blues, their initiation into racial difference by white classmates… Stepto's willingness to confront the white reader of African American classics becomes, in the end, the great strength of this book… In the introduction, Stepto quotes Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) description of how, in America, African Americans are 'at once unseen and constantly observed.' Stepto's meditations force the white reader, including and especially the allegedly 'color-blind' reader in the Age of Obama, to confront this paradox, this internal security system of America's racial and racist system of control.
Robert Stepto's A Home Elsewhere is a tour de force. Literary history and autobiography flow in its pages until one is aware of what Ellison called time's 'nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead.' In his introduction Stepto writes of realizing 'in broad terms that there was a project to pursue that involved being attentive to how we read African American literature at the present moment' of Barack Obama's election. In mid-sentence, Stepto responds to his own call, and his cadenced subtle prose becomes a prose of revelation: 'knowing, and actually being stunned by the fact, that an African American writer is our president.' Reading the chapters on Douglass and Obama, and Du Bois and Obama, I couldn't shake the feeling that all of Stepto's distinguished work as literary scholar (From Behind the Veil) and autobiographer (Blue as the Lake) prepared him in a unique, almost providential way to write this book. A scene of communion opens up in his pages. There stands Douglass, there is Du Bois, there Obama, approaching tentatively until Stepto gallops up, bends down, lifts all three writers upon his back, and, hooves pounding the earth, himself soon becomes a son of Pegasus. All four fly freely through air and sky, the reader borne aloft in the updraft.
- 192 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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