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Jose O. Fernandez, "Against Marginalization: Convergences in Black and Latinx Literatures" (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2022), 216 pp.:


Jose O. Fernandez, Against Marginalization: Convergences in Black and Latinx Literatures (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2022), 216 pp.

Jose O. Fernandez’s insightful and well-written study starts from a rather basic observation: Latinx and Black writers, just like other writers of color in the United States, share the experience of marginalization and the struggle for recognition in the publishing industry. Comparisons between racialized and ethnic groups in the United States have often been made with a clear focus on their social and political exclusion. But marginalization, the author points out, has also influenced the literatures of these groups. It makes therefore sense to study Black and Latinx literary histories comparatively and to explore confluences between them.

The study discusses texts by Black and Latinx writers written between the 1960s and the 1990s, arguing, first, that these texts show thematic and ideological convergences in the way they address the marginalization of their communities, and second, that a shared strategy of these writers to fight their exclusion from the American literary tradition was to negotiate aesthetic approaches and forms of expression prevalent in American literature “by engaging, appropriating, and subverting the literary tradition” (9). The introduction addresses the specific dynamics of the publishing industry—especially of large publishing houses—that have long excluded writers from both groups. The recognition of authors who won prestigious prizes—such as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison or recipients of the Pulitzer such as Alice Walker, Edward P. Jones, Junot Diaz, and Colson Whitehead—cannot obscure the fact that many more writers continue to face considerable obstacles concerning their publishing opportunities in a system that has long privileged White authors. Only recently and in view of a changing demographic of audiences have large publishers been more welcoming to writers of color.

Chapter 1 explores Black and Latinx literatures with a focus on publishing histories in the period up to the 1970s. Fernandez uncovers so far little discussed parallel developments such as the emergence of Black and Spanish language newspapers that served as a medium for debates about political and social life in both communities. These newspapers were also publication venues for serial fiction by authors such as Frederick Douglass and José Martí (whose only novel was serialized in the New York magazine El Latino-Americano), both of whom also functioned as editors and helped create intellectual traditions and publishing infrastructures. Another point of comparison that Fernandez addresses is the difficult struggle of early Black and Latinx writers to engage with predominantly White audiences, to sustain White readers’ interest and the support of publishers. He discusses Charles Chesnutt and Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, both of whom navigated between reader expectations and prejudices regarding authors of color and their endeavor to represent Black and Mexican experiences realistically. The chapter also highlights the importance of institutional frameworks emerging in the 1970s, with the establishment of Black and ethnic studies departments, which initiated a process of recovering ignored and forgotten texts and provided structures for the publication, teaching, and critical assessment of Black and Latinx literatures.

The subsequent chapters investigate convergences between both literatures across various genres in the decades between the 1960s and the 1990s. Chapter 2 discusses grassroots and radical theater traditions in the work of Amiri Baraka and Luis Valdez. Grassroots theater started as a reaction to exclusion from mainstream venues in order to make theater accessible to non-elite Black and Latinx communities. Baraka and Valdez, Fernandez shows, in their plays use experimental forms, foreground nationalism and protagonists who fight against racism, violence, and oppression. The Slave (Baraka) and Bandido (Valdez) rewrite dominant history by staging revolutionary figures who endorse armed resistance while they at the same time remain ambivalent about violence as an adequate means to achieve their goals. Using postmodern aesthetics, both plays juxtapose historical rebel figures such as Denmark Vesey and Tiburcio Vasquez and their historical contexts to contemporary situations in the activist struggles by Black and Latinx people in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapter 3 sheds a light on the literary representation of World War II and specifically the roles of Black and Latinx soldiers in the U.S. Army. Black and Mexican American soldiers saw themselves discriminated against while their participation in the war was obscured or minimized in dominant heroic war narratives. Fernandez explores two novels, James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, both of which dramatize the struggles of marginalized soldiers of color. The novels’ representations of their protagonists also evidence the tensions between activism and art, tensions that have been the subject of intellectual debates in much of twentieth-century Black and Latinx literary histories.

For me, a particularly enlightening part of the book was chapter 4 which discusses the tenuous positions of Ralph Ellison and Richard Rodriguez as writers and public intellectuals who advocated for mixed cultural identities and inclusion, and who saw themselves confronted with accusations of assimilationism, made by cultural nationalists and social activists of their respective communities. As both writers profited from their more moderate positions regarding their appeal to White audiences, the chapter argues, they also equally benefitted from the achievements of the activism they shunned. Fernandez makes the parallels between both authors evident studying their essays, parallels that so far I have not seen discussed anywhere. Ellison in his essays argues against cultural purity and advocates cultural exchanges between Black and White literatures, pointing out Black influences on writers such as Twain and Faulkner long before most critics addressed these influences. Like Ellison, Rodriguez also saw himself as an “American” writer, rejecting ethnic pride and the acknowledgment of marginalization. While both writers endorse the idea of a shared American cultural identity and the need to emphasize commonalities over differences—a claim anticipating David Hollinger’s idea of a “postethnic America” in his 1995 book of the same title—Fernandez also highlights that they tend to ignore the legacies of marginalization and criticize activists’ rightful claims of representation. As the chapter elucidates, both writers ultimately refused to acknowledge the necessity to revise traditional canonizations of American literature and to include the voices of writers who had remained invisible until Black and Latinx activism enabled the institutionalization of Black and Latinx studies.

Chapter 5 explores novels by women writers with a focus on texts by Alice Walker and Helena Maria Viramontes based on their experiences as daughters of working-class sharecropper and farmworker families. The chapter highlights how the conditions in the fields informed the writings of Walker and Viramontes, as did the impact of patriarchy, while both writers remained committed to modernist writing strategies. Finally, Chapter 6 discusses short story collections by Edward P. Jones and Junot Díaz as documents of literary urban naturalism.

This book fills an important gap in the study of ethnic literatures. As a reader I kept wondering if many of the convergences discussed here could not also be discussed with respect to Asian American, and some also with respect to American Indian literary traditions, which were equally excluded from mainstream canons. That said, Fernandez’s book hopefully is only the beginning—it creates the ground for future comparative studies about these literatures that are urgently needed.

Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez (Universität Leipzig)

Works Cited

1 

Hollinger, David. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic, 1995. Print.

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