Jeffrey B. Ferguson, "Race and the Rhetoric of Resistance" (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2021), 128 pp.:
Jeffrey B. Ferguson, Race and the Rhetoric of Resistance (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2021), 128 pp.
Jeffrey Ferguson’s posthumously published Race and the Rhetoric of Resistance is a slim but dense collection of essays that addresses fundamental discourses, debates, and key terms of African American and American studies. The title for this collection, which is also the title of the opening essay, announces Ferguson’s core interest, namely, how African American resistance, manifested in various struggles for freedom, citizenship rights, and equality, represents a vital and recurring, yet also limiting narrative of the African American experience in the United States. Rather than abandoning this narrative of resistance, each essay can be considered a nuanced reflection on different variants of this narrative as well as a careful interrogation of its political and cultural function.
Framed by Werner Sollors’s foreword and George B. Hutchinson’s afterword, Race and Resistance comprises three essays that previously appeared in Raritan, Daedalus, and Amerikastudien / American Studies as well as two unpublished manuscripts. The five pieces can be read as variations on the theme introduced in the first essay: race and resistance. The subsequent essays address diverse topics, including reflections on notions like freedom or escape, and engage in a critical inquiry of the role of the blues and the work and the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. The opening essay thus establishes the intellectual framework within which the other four essays can be located.
Why is it, Ferguson asks, that race and resistance are so inextricably entwined in the broad range of writing by and about Black Americans? Ferguson’s core argument consists of a double bind: he questions American self-fashioning as a nation dedicated to progress and striving towards “a more perfect union,” yet he also expresses discomfort with framing the African American experience as one characterized by resistance within as well as beyond this national narrative. “Like most dominant paradigms or ‘master narratives,’” Ferguson observes, “the resistance framework obscures as much as it clarifies” (7). The clout of Ferguson’s essay lies in its core aim. Scholars in the humanities are trained to criticize, dissect, critically reflect upon, and point out the shortcomings and gaps of certain ideas and historical narratives. But Ferguson is interested in something else: “Yet, despite all of my complaints about the resistance paradigm,” he writes, “I want not so much to argue against it as to explore the intellectual roots of our tremendous respect for it. Why, I wonder, have we come to connect race and resistance so insistently? What ideas do we find at the core of this concern?” (8). Ferguson does not want to deconstruct the grand narrative of African American resistance. Rather, he wants to explore its function, how it attempts to make sense of the past and how it continues to be of significance for present conditions and events. Thus, in a grand tour de force, the topics of the opening essay range from Uncle Tom to The Green Mile, from Democracy in America to Invisible Man, and from Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, to name just a few. Although first published in 2008, the essay has lost none of its relevance; Ferguson’s thoughts may well be applied to more recent events like the Black Lives Matter protests or the debates triggered by the 1619 Project because what he focuses on are not singular events, people, and stories, but the narratives, structures, and rhetorical patterns designed to represent the African American experience.
Continuing his interest in the American master narrative of progress, the second essay “Freedom, Equality, Race” further enquires the relationship between what has been posed as a universal value—freedom—and racial categorization. Tying in with the core argument of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), Ferguson, once more, is interested in the “big picture,” i. e., how “the concepts freedom and race have reinforced each other in the making of modernity” (38). He examines nothing less than how the emergence of the modern idea of human freedom during the Enlightenment could not have come into existence without simultaneously producing seemingly objective and rational explanations why this universal right would not be extended to all human beings.
The third essay, “A Blue Note on Black American Literary Criticism and the Blues” adds another facet to the abundant repertoire of Ferguson’s writing. At first sight, this essay seems to defy the big picture-approach of the previous two essays as this essay is a reflection on blues aesthetic criticism. But here, again, we see a double bind at work that connects the essay to the larger framework of race and resistance. Ferguson’s essay is an example of blues aesthetic criticism, which assesses the form and function of blues for the African American experience, but it is also a reflection on blues aesthetic criticism and on the particular narrative protocols that this criticism produces. With his discussion of how blues critics emphasized certain aspects like improvisation, authenticity, transgressiveness, or Africanity, Ferguson shows blues aesthetic criticism’s participation in this grand narrative of race and resistance. Ferguson does not shy away from uncongenial observations, and he also sheds light on aspects of the blues (such as its apolitical nature, commercialism, and contemporary popularity with predominantly White audiences) that question the eligibility of the blues for narratives of Black resistance.
Although unfinished and fragmentary—the last essay “Notes on Escape” abruptly cuts off in the midst of an analysis of the lyrics of Ella Fitzgerald’s song “Flying Home”—the last two essays further contribute to the breadth of this monograph. “Of Mr. W. E. B. Du Bois and Others,” as the title indicates, assesses the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. Rhetorically and structurally similar to the opening essay and the essay on blues aesthetic criticism, Ferguson both honors the intellectual empowerment and inspiring legacy of Du Bois while also trying to identify its blind spots. In an unusual comparison, Ferguson contrasts Du Bois’s ideas on racial uplift with Mahatma Gandhi’s ability to “value the lowliest, least powerful” (89) to identify how Du Bois missed an opportunity to put the most vulnerable, “the slave” (90), at the center of his thinking. For Ferguson, the slave is “an exemplar” and a “point of criticism” (89) to remind the nation of the prize it paid for “the seemingly magic notion of an infinite rise” (90). He wonders why, rather than using the figure of the slave to unmask the flaws inherent in the American Dream, Du Bois embraced the notion of the “Talented Tenth” which ultimately affirmed the belief in progress, advancement, and upward mobility.
The essay “Notes on Escape” is aptly positioned at the end of the volume because it directly speaks to the opening essay. Ferguson’s first sentence sets the stage without further ado: “Of the various modes of African American resistance, escape bears the most obvious burden of contradiction” (93). Although the escape from slavery is of course a dominant theme that is discussed in the essay, this elaborate work-in-progress piece explores a broad range of implications and connotations of “escape” such as flight, surrender, underground, refuge, inner retreat, exile, exit, and Exodus. The essay is both a discussion of the implications of the very literal act of escape (for the enslaved person, the nation, the race) as well as philosophical treatise on more abstract notions inherent in this term, such as utopia (94), desire (98), and transformation (101).
Aware of the fact that any notion of a master narrative profoundly “runs against current sensibilities” (5), Ferguson nonetheless dares to evoke the need for a “new narrative” (5, 48)—a narrative that is about race without essentializing race. What this new narrative might look like must be up to future scholars to assess, but I am certain that Ferguson would have agreed that this new narrative will have to be structurally different from the linear, narrowly-themed, and burdened narrative of American progress. It will also not be a narrative that tries to confine the African American experience to resistance, multifaceted as its expressions and manifestations might be.
Pia Wiegmink (Universität Bonn)