A central premise of this project is that individuals and communities perceive the significance of history differently depending on their historical conditions. Indeed, much of the emphasis on memory studies in the last two decades has been informed by an awareness of changing perspectives on the past. Thus, given its focus on black peoples in the United States and the Caribbean, this dissertation aims to illuminate an emergent historical consciousness in the African Diaspora in the late 20th century.
Certainly, scholars can point to the seeming utility of romanticism and vindicationism in African Diasporic historical discourse during the anticolonial period. Within this context, the past served, on one hand, as an epistemological framework for establishing significance in the present and, on the other, as a stage in a teleological journey toward collective liberation. Considerations of history in the anticolonial period thus emphasized themes of continuity, heritage, and filiation and served as fuel in the fight against colonial and racialized oppression.
However, in my dissertation, "Beyond Recovery: The Uses of History in Contemporary Caribbean and African American Literature," I explore the more recent past in order to interrogate the continued utility of these discursive legacies. Specifically, I analyze literary texts from the last thirty-five years in order to explore philosophies of history that respond to the altered sociopolitical landscape of the late 20th century. Given the writers' incorporation of historical narratives in their texts, these novels reveal literature's unique capacity to illuminate precisely those relationships to history that I aim to explore.
This dissertation is divided into two sections. In Part I, "Ancestors: Exploring Historical Inheritances," I analyze Maryse Conde's Les derniers rois mages (1993) and Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco (1993) as they interrogate the concept of familial lineage and query the significance of the past imagined as an inheritance. Whereas Chamoiseau questions the ability of written history to represent memory and experience, Conde empties the idea of heritage of all significance as new relationships to the past come to the fore. In Part II, "New Birth: Exploring Discourses of Reproduction," I focus on Gayl Jones' Corregidora (1975) and Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) as they reveal the limitations of genealogical discourse. By creating their pasts and imagining their heritage, the characters in these texts challenge the primacy of lineage as they point toward other, more viable networks of community and belonging.
Through the analyses presented here, this dissertation offers an intervention in African Diasporic literary scholarship. Rather than our postmodern challenges and dismissals of genealogical discourse, these texts offer new conceptualizations of heritage and "roots" that speak to black peoples' continued investment in ideas of heritage and identity. Yet these texts also challenge approaches to history that depend on a paradigm of filiation. As they turn to the past while refusing its constraints, these authors reveal an historical consciousness that is grounded in an ambivalence that enables them to honor both the significance of the past and the urgency of the present while still remaining open to the possibilities of the future.