Surrealism and the Non-White World

Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings From Africa and the Diaspora

Edited by Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley

University of Texas Press. 2009. 395 pages.

A title in the Surrealist Revolution series.

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African-American historian Robin Kelley and Surrealist Franklin Rosemont (who passed away in 2009) have produced a provocative compilation of Surrealist texts from Africa, the Caribbean, and Black America. Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings From Africa and the Diaspora makes a great contribution in that it makes plain the necessity to rethink some inadequate categories of race, politics, literature, and history.

Kelley’s scholarly career has taken an interesting turn since the publication of Hammer and Hoe in 1990, his study of the Alabama Communist Party of the 1930s (I have yet not read it in its entirety, but I intend to take this book up soon in the context of the so-called revisionist trend in U.S. Communist Party historiography). Kelley, most recently the author of a biography of jazz musician Thelonius Monk, has now for a number of years blended strong currents of Surrealist influence into an interesting Left cultural and political interpretation of African-American history.

Surrealism was strongly oriented to the colonial world from its inception in the 1920s, a characteristic that strategically positioned it for its great encounter with Negritude when André Breton met Aimé Césaire in Martinique in 1940. But almost a decade earlier, a vibrant group of Martinican students in France had initiated their own Surrealist effort in a journal called Légitimate Défense, published in 1932. The group was led by Etienne Léro and although it only published one number of the journal, its lasting influence exceeded by great lengths its modest distribution. Césaire read the journal while himself a student in France and went on to launch Tropiques, a journal inspired in large part by Légitimate Défense.

Much less well known is the history of the Surrealists of the Arab world, which in my opinion, makes the book’s section on North Africa its most interesting. Georges Heinen, an Egyptian, encountered Surrealism as a student in France in 1934. Upon his return he organized a series of groups and journals that would culminate in a formal Surrealist association in Cairo, notable for its high degree of participation women such as Ikbal El Alailly and Joyce Mansour. Surrealists of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are also profiled.

One weakness of this section is a failure on the part of Kelly and Rosemont to discuss the position of the Surrealists of North Africa towards Islam. While Heinen’s father was a Coptic Egyptian and Mansour was Jewish, any attitude towards the dominant religion of the region is mentioned only once, in a short text by Habib Tengour, an Algerian, called “Maghrebian Surrealism.” He writes, “It is, after all, in Maghrebian Sufism that surrealist subversion asserts itself: pure psychic automatism, mad love, revolt, unanticipated encounters, etc.” Interesting, but it demands comment by the editors.

The section on African-America and Surrealism is fascinating and presents what amounts to an alternative cultural history of the U.S. In particular, I found the information on the influence of Surrealism on Richard Wright to be fascinating. While I don’t share the diffuse interpretation of Surrealism of the Chicago school of Surrealism, which Kelley adheres to, the discussion of Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman alone are valuable contributions to the literary history of the post-war U.S.

The book’s final section is a moving essay by Kelley on the importance of Surrealism for the future of Black America, “Surrealism and the Creation of a Desirable Future.” Kelley writes, “As hard as it is for me to admit, I believe Marxism has failed to comprehend this elusive thing we call consciousness.” A statement not without some merit, to be sure, but one that assumes we know the full breadth of Marx’s vision. Kelley’s co-writer Franklin Rosemont was a keen appreciator of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, composed late in his life and the result of intense study of the history and development of human societies in pre-Columbian North America, Europe, and Asia. I believe that the fact that we do not yet have an English translation of the Notebooks available to us means that there are great potential avenues of development for Marxism ahead of us. Surrealism is so closely related to Marxism, as Kelley and Rosemont’s valuable book reminds us, that rather than Surrealism supplanting Marxism, as Kelley seems to believe necessary, it is my contention that the two will develop together.

Google Books has a long excerpt from the book available.

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3 thoughts on “Surrealism and the Non-White World

  1. Pingback: No Politics Are Local: A Critique of Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe « Criticism &c.

  2. Pingback: Georges Henein: Egyptian poet and revolutionary « Criticism &c.

  3. Pingback: Surrealism and the Non-White World: Three New Books « Criticism &c.

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