After surveying responses within literary criticism to the contemporary "crisis in the humanities," this chapter lays out the book's theoretical framework. It begins by defining two key terms—"literature" and "close reading"—before arguing for the importance of reconceiving literary criticism's approach to science and the scientific method. Next, it introduces the social psychological concept of "schema," elaborating its significance for how literature works, before considering the relationship between literary evaluation and objectivity. After introducing the concept of racial literacy, the chapter argues that literature is an especially valuable medium for learning about the way race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are materialized in human lives. Because close reading engages our cognitive-affective schemas, there may be no more effective method by which to understand how humans make meaning about our selves and our worlds than through the activity of close reading works of literature.
This chapter argues that because emotions are key to the doing of race, a sustained examination of how they figure into human motivation must be central to any attempt to move beyond the ideologies and socioeconomic arrangements that sustain race and racism. In considering how to alter people's emotional horizons, it draws on the work of philosophers Marilyn Friedman and Marilyn Frye, and the literary critic M. M. Bakhtin, to propose two avenues: 1) interracial friendships; and 2) the teaching of multicultural literature. Friendships across difference can be rich contexts for learning about the structural inequalities maintained by race, while literature is a medium through which the social order can be imaginatively examined and reshaped. Both friendships and literature have the potential to move people emotionally by activating people's structures of identification with, and empathy toward, other people.
This chapter builds on Chapter 1 to argue that literature remains the most significant venue through which authors and readers alike can examine the complicated reasons people think and behave the way they do. Considering Morrison as an ethicist in her own right, it shows how she uses paradox to explore the dynamics that emerge when a self fails to recognize the other as other, as a unique individual with legitimate needs and desires separate from one's own. Because Morrison conducts her investigation in a fictional, rather than a logical, form, she presents her reader less with an analysis than with a dilemma—albeit one to which she offers some provisional answers in the end. An exemplary multicultural novel, Sula teaches us about the way race and gender shape identity, the kinds of relationships possible in different situations, and the nature of human selves.
This chapter illustrates the falseness of the dichotomy that has been posed between "surface" and "symptomatic" modes of reading. It examines the formal features of two short stories to show how an author's schemas can be expressed in the themes, metaphors, temporal modes and narrative structures of individual works of literature. It begins by examining the formal features of Helena Maria Viramontes's short story "The Moths," before discussing the historical and cultural contexts relevant to both the setting and the writing of this short story in Chicana/o Los Angeles. It then turns to the ancient Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui to show how a vestigial schema has shaped the story's imaginative potential. In a reading of the title story of Manuel Munoz's Zigzagger, it shows how a buried reference to a traditional Mexican American folktale prompts a reconsideration of sexual and gender relations within the Chicana/o community.
This chapter reads the Pulitzer-Prize winning Dominican American author Junot Díaz alongside black lesbian poet Audre Lorde to highlight Díaz's indebtedness to a feminist tradition of decolonial thinking about identity—a tradition shaped by the theorizing that took place in the 1980s and 1990s under the conceptual framework of "women of color feminism." It considers the place of race in Díaz's fiction to engage recent characterizations of his work as "postrace" before elucidating key aspects of Audre Lorde's women of color feminism. Via a close reading of Díaz's short story "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl and Halfie," the chapter highlights the corrosive effects of the racial self-hatred that remains a notable legacy of European colonialism for people of color in the Americas. It shows that—for all their temporal, generic, stylistic, gender and sexual differences—Díaz and Lorde are engaged in complementary critical and imaginative projects.
This chapter argues that A Mercy grapples with two related phenomena in the service of promoting racial literacy. They are: 1) race as a system of social classification; and 2) the ethics and activities involved in reading texts—including, but not limited to, the text of the racial other. Drawing on scholarship by colonial American historians, the literary critic Alex Woloch, and the philosopher Maria Lugones, it shows how the novel works at both the thematic and formal levels. Thematically, the novel is set in colonial America before the link between slavery and blackness was forged to highlight the contingency of race. Formally, the novel redistributes narrative space and narratorial power to characters with the least social power to push against dominant structures of racial interpretation. At stake is the role literature, and literary critics, might play in moving readers toward more just ways of thinking and doing race.