Reginald O’Neal, 18 Years and Counting, mural, Miami, 2020

The African American Novel in the Early Twenty-First Century

The volume will address African American fiction published since the turn of the twenty-first century. We want to investigate how the black literary imagination has interacted with the new millennium, the era of post-racial racial inequality (Haney-López 1023–74). American race relations of the first two decades of our century have been wrought with intense contradictions. We have witnessed the election of the first black US president, which sparked premature announcements of the post-racial era. These hopeful sentiments coincided with the growing visibility of the prison industrial complex as well as other forms of systemic violence against black bodies such as police brutality, which led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. As we begin to collect essays for the volume, the US is witnessing a series of nationwide protests, which began in May 2020 in response to the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, during an arrest. At the same time, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has named Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate, and she will be the first African American woman to appear on a main US party’s presidential ticket.

Apart from the specifically race-related factors and US social context, the black novel in the twenty-first century needs to be examined in the wider perspective of late/liquid capitalism, neoliberal globalization, the virtualization of reality, and instantaneity of communication – newly emergent phenomena that powerfully shape the experience of the new era. As Peter Boxall argues, contemporary Anglo-American fiction has visibly reacted to these factors, and the reaction took the form of new attention to embodiment and the materiality of reality. Such an intense preoccupation with the real, however, has not resulted in a return to classic realism (8-13). On the contrary, the commitment to the materiality of history, for example, has led to a fascination with the shifted temporality and narratives that reflect the elusive experience of time. The preoccupation with embodiment has not taken the form of naturalism but is intricately related to the rise of posthumanism and the increasingly blurred boundary between human and nonhuman. Finally, according to Boxall, the contemporary novel “imagines radical new subject positions, new ways of conceiving ethical cultural being” (13), thus extending the ethical turn that held sway across the humanities in the late 20th century (Goodman et. al 1-10; cf. Rancière 1-20) to the realm of creative expression.

In this volume, we want to examine how these literary structures are inflected by the black collective experience and imagination, which seems to be not only a productive but also a pressing task as African American fiction or the race issue are virtually absent from Boxall’s survey of twenty-first-century fiction. The African American Novel in the Early Twenty-First Century will make up for this lacuna in a number of ways. We will examine the issue of narrative preoccupation with embodiment as connected to racial identity, and specifically to the millennial fascination with mixed race, creolization, and new ethnicity (Bost 185). Temporal shifts and alternative histories in the black contemporary novel will be analyzed as related to the traditions of Afrofuturism and neo-slave narratives. The ethical turn in the twenty-first-century novel with its “faint and faintly utopian outline of a new kind of futurity” (Boxall 14) will not be treated as a brand new characteristic of African American fiction, but rather presented as a continuing, fundamental element of the black narrative tradition, which has always been future-oriented rather than nostalgic and has always imaginatively reached towards a better, more ethical future.

Works Cited

Bost, Suzanne. Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000. University of Georgia Press, 2005.

Boxall, Peter. Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Goodman, David M., and Eric R. Severson. The Ethical Turn: Otherness and Subjectivity in Contemporary Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 2016.

Gordon, Avery F. “Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex: An Interview with Angela Davis.” Race and Class, vol. 40, no. 2/3, 1998/99, p. 145–57.

Haney-López, Ian F. “Post-Racial Racism: Racial Stratification and Mass Incarceration in the Age of Obama.” California Law Review, vol. 98, no. 3, 2010, pp. 1023–74.

Rancière, Jacques. “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics.” Critical Horizons, vol. 7, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1-20.

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