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The Blackademic Life

Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual


Lavelle Porter


Evanston (Illinois): Northwestern University Press, 2019

Paperback. x+201 p. ISBN 978-0810140998. $34.95


Reviewed by Anne Stefani

Université Toulouse 2



The Blackademic Life focuses on a literary genre barely explored by critics and scholars, the black academic novel—a novel centering on the lives of black students and academics. Part of its originality lies in its crossing the fields of Literary Criticism, African American Studies, and History of Ideas to frame a highly stimulating study of African American literature within the current context of persisting racism and anti-racist activism in the United States. Lavelle Porter examines the black academic novel as an important contribution of black intellectuals to the historic resistance of African Americans to white supremacist discourse in higher education.

The study starts after Reconstruction, when black academic fiction emerged as a genre, to follow the latter’s evolution through the main stages of twentieth- and twenty-first-century racial history. This historical perspective allows the author to interpret the black academic novel as a distinctive subgenre within the broader genre of academic fiction.

If the five chapters explore a carefully selected set of works chosen for their exemplarity in the various periods under study, a major leading thread for the analysis is the significance of W.E.B. Du Bois’s fiction in the history of the genre. This is indeed another originality of Porter’s undertaking: to approach Du Bois not through his social-scientific writings, but through his novels spanning three of the four periods singled out for the analysis. If the author acknowledges the aesthetic shortcomings of Du Bois’s fiction, he convincingly demonstrates the value and function of such works, first in Du Bois’s personal experience as a black scholar, second as seminal writings including all the distinctive features of the genre developed by authors of later black academic fiction.

The book’s main thesis is that for Du Bois, as for all other black intellectuals, black academic novels constituted counternarratives against the white supremacist discourse that persistently and systematically questioned black people’s intelligence and educability [112] from slavery through the present.

After a first chapter devoted to the presentation of the context, the critical literature, and the chosen analytical framework, each following chapter hinges on selected authors and their contributions to the genre. Chapter two deals with Sutton Griggs and W.E.B. Du Bois as pioneering figures; chapter three examines the works of Nella Larsen, Ralph Ellison, and J. Saunders Redding; chapter four focuses on those of Paule Marshall, Gil Scott-Heron, and Alice Walker—with a return to Du Bois through an analysis of his later fiction; finally, chapter five discusses the works of Ishmael Reed, Samuel R. Delany, and Percival Everett. The conclusion extends the reflection to the representations of blackademic life in popular films and TV shows.

Porter proceeds methodically to demonstrate the value of black academic novels to African American literature and cultural history while drawing the contours of what he calls “the politics of the black intellectual” [24]. Building on classic and recent critical thought—from Harold Cruse to Critical Race Theory through Foucauldian discourse analysis, postcolonial studies, Afro-Orientalism, and queer theory, to name only a few—he convincingly articulates his own theory of the subgenre he has singled out for study. He identifies a set of key features allowing him to construct an elaborate definition of the black academic novel and to examine it critically. Themes such as the “overeducation of the Negro”, the politics of respectability, and the politics of authenticity, are extensively discussed. At the core of his study lies the paradoxical status of the black intellectual, both an exception and a representative of his group (90). The book examines in depth the tensions characterizing the lives of black intellectuals, between, on the one hand, their responsibility to represent the black community—a notion encapsulated in Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth”—and, on the other, their desire to escape racial identification, to find their own individuality, to free themselves from the “burden of responsibility and representation” [39, 74]. The various strategies deployed in the novels are what Porter names “the politics of the black intellectual”.

A striking quality of the book is its self-reflexive dimension, the author commenting on his scientific dilemmas and on the necessary limitations of his study. Such intellectual honesty testifies to the author’s concern for nuance, which definitely serves the analysis by providing convincing justifications for his choices. Another strength of Porter’s lies in his successfully combining a well-buttressed, sophisticated, scientific approach with a highly personal, subjective outlook on his subject. As a black academic himself, he not only weaves elements of his own life and career into his scholarship, but also applies to himself Du Bois’s notion of responsibility by explicitly presenting the writing of his monograph as an ethical commitment to “finding [his] place in a genealogy of black intellectuals whose sacrifices and efforts made [his] own blackademic life possible” [160]. Porter finally reaches beyond the field of academic literature by adding political commentary to critical analysis. The result is an engaging text demonstrating that scholars can contribute in the debates of their time without losing their scientific legitimacy and rigor, nor their critical distance. By framing his literary study within the context of the Trump presidency pitting antiracist movements such as Black Lives Matter against white supremacist ideologues, and by shedding light on the continuity between past and present, Porter not only helps us grasp the depth of white supremacist discourse in American culture but also reminds us of the vital role of literature and intellectuals in the building and preservation of a just society. This is no small achievement at a time when politics and the academia are being torn apart by culture wars. His highly readable piece of scholarship is indeed a most welcome response to the assaults of conservative anti-intellectual forces currently at work in the United States.



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