Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

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  1. Inventing the New Negro | Daphne Lamothe
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  3. Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

Inventing the New Negro combines an intellectual history of one of the most important eras of African American letters with nuanced and original readings of seminal works of literature.

Inventing the New Negro | Daphne Lamothe

It will be of interest not only to Harlem Renaissance scholars but to anyone who is interested in the intersections of culture, literature, folklore, and ethnography. Daphne Lamothe. Both Venuti and Appiah promote types of translations that would produce essential signs, traces, or clues in the target language that express the cultural and linguistic specificity and hence the minority status of the source language.

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Brynes gives some good examples of how this might look. Appiah, as well, theorizes a translation ethics that would give the reader of a translation some view of the cultural and linguistic complexity of the source language. This clearly would pertain to banlieue minority texts, as well, since by definition these texts operate as subalterns within the literary system of the major mode: for an American student to read Boumkoeur is as much an education about the world as reading the Akan proverbs that interest Appiah and his mother.

The translation as a form would still attempt only a one-to-one correspondence. For instance, Yaz is concerned that his language will attain a sufficiently scientific or intellectual plane for the reader of his eventual ethnography:. Such self-translation is typical of ethnographers.

Yaz couches his self-translation as being concerned only with levels of language, but ethnographers, such as Yaz, also have to translate the cultural particularities and the language in which these cultural particularities are expressed into a scientific language whose universals translate the particulars into language and information potentially useful to other scientists. Yaz, as narrator-ethnographer, makes us aware that the translation of banlieue literature as a type of postcolonial literature rests at the center of the power dynamics inscribed in the negotiation of language and culture.

This act of making aware, or forwarding as a problem, means that he relinquishes the putative objectivity of the colonial ethnographer, a specious objectivity that could only but distort the tense cultural and linguistic exchanges of the field. As the narrator-translator, Yaz never misses the chance to make sure the reader understands that translation in the banlieue is linguistic and cultural. Yaz compares these graphic signs to what he knows, the spray-painted tags of the neighborhood. It is an act of cultural translation and an ironic—and humorous—literary strategy, playing on the colonial travel narrative in which French metropolitan subjects would rely upon such similes, referring foreign scenes that escaped their experience and vocabulary to ones familiar from Europe.

Boumkoeur does so through its self-conscious interruptions in the plot to speak of the difficulties of translation in its many aspects. Reading Yaz as a translator situated with a postcolonial context that is nevertheless indissolubly linked to colonial history, then, allows us as readers to see the advantage that such an authorial position would afford the translator of postcolonial texts as well.

In other words, Yaz separates himself from the colonial epistemology in which translation was conceived as a non-problematic process that domesticates and Europeanizes. His ability to do so suggests that translators of postcolonial works—whose epistemological, cultural, and socio-political ties to the colonial era cannot be broken—should also find ways to articulate a position of ethical purchase.


This would start merely by announcing the presence of the translator within texts in translation as an active mediator. Two ethnographic paradigms compete for pride of place in Boumkoeur. The literary ethnography that emerges thus destabilizes the textual forms and styles of ethnography and reveals that translation, as well, is contained within forms as much as it is produced through styles or ethics. The group serves as the collective authenticator of the narrative to follow.

Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

This characterization engages in essentialism of a dubious sort, and it further brings to light how the transition from colonial geographical place to postcolonial cultural space remains fraught with the imprecision inherited from colonial anthropological rubrics. The unambiguous titles of ethnographic monographs attest to this possessive relationship. This facet of ethnographic epistemology influences the construction of the banlieue as a zone of cultural difference. The first ethnographic paradigm begins with the start of the narrative.

This has to be seen as a problem for the aspiring ethnographer; without a fixed location for the ethnography, the problem of the language of inquiry—and, thus, the choice of interpreter—remains partially unresolved.

Nevertheless, in this paradigm, the failure of Yaz as an ethnographer seems due to his inability to maintain a scientific, objective distance: he gets kidnapped by his native informant. This second paradigm subtends and supplants the first. Yaz now has the distance needed for evaluation: he is the ethnographer at a proper remove, separated from the taut cultural relations of the society under analysis.

What connects these seemingly disparate intellectuals is their investment in the study of and participation in African American and diasporic folk cultures.

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The writers that seem the least logical for this study are often the most interesting. Brown [End Page ] emphasizes travel and migration through the image of the road, celebrating African American culture as discursive and modern. Tell My Horse is yet another example of the kind of generic hybridity that characterizes New Negro ethnographic writing. The amateurish tone, according to Lamothe, is intentional, enabling Hurston to underscore for Western readers the social position of the narrator, undercutting her stance as a purportedly objective observer, and exposing the inevitable cultural biases that shape our understanding of other cultures.

But where the ethnographic stance of Tell My Horse emphasizes the vexed political and imperial aspects of relationships Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide.