Encamped within the limits of experience and "authenticity," critics today often stake out their positions according to race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, and vigilantly guard the boundaries against any incursions into their privileged territory. In this book, Michael Awkward raids the borders of contemporary criticism to show how debilitating such "protectionist" stances can be and how much might be gained by crossing our cultural boundaries.
From Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It to Michael Jackson's physical transmutations, from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon to August Wilson's Fences, from male scholars' investments in feminism to white scholars' in black texts—Awkward explores cultural moments that challenge the exclusive critical authority of race and gender. In each instance he confronts the question: What do artists, scholars, and others concerned with representations of Afro-American life make of the view that gender, race, and sexuality circumscribe their own and others' lives and narratives? Throughout he demonstrates the perils and merits of the sort of "boundary crossing" this book ultimately makes: a black male feminism.
In pursuing a black male feminist criticism, Awkward's study acknowledges the complexities of interpretation in an age when a variety of powerful discourses have proliferated on the subject of racial, gendered, and sexual difference; at the same time, it identifies this proliferation as an opportunity to negotiate seemingly fixed cultural and critical positions.
Michael Awkward’s Philadelphia Freedoms captures the energetic contestations over the meanings of racial politics and black identity during the post-King era in the City of Brotherly Love. Looking closely at four cultural moments, he shows how racial trauma and his native city’s history have been entwined. He introduces each of these moments with poignant personal memories of the decade in focus and explores representation of African American freedom and oppression from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Philadelphia Freedoms explores NBA players’ psychic pain during a playoff game the day after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination; themes of fatherhood and black masculinity in the soul music produced by Philadelphia International Records; class conflict in Andrea Lee’s novel Sarah Phillips; and the theme of racial healing in Oprah Winfrey’s 1997 film, Beloved.
Awkward closes his examination of racial trauma and black identity with a discussion of candidate Barack Obama’s speech on race at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, pointing to the conflict between the nation’s ideals and the racial animus that persists even into the second term of America’s first black president.
Scenes of Instruction is the memoir of noted scholar of African American literature Michael Awkward. Structured around the commencement ceremonies that marked his graduations from various schools, it presents Awkward’s coming-of-age as a bookish black male in the projects of 1970s Philadelphia. His relationships with his family and peers, their struggles with poverty and addiction, and his eventual move from underfunded urban schools to a prestigious private school all become parts of a memorable script.
With a recurring focus on how his mother’s tragic weaknesses and her compelling strengths affected his development, Awkward intersperses the chronologically arranged autobiographical sections with ruminations on his own interests in literary and cultural criticism. As a male scholar who has come under fire for describing himself as a feminist critic, he reflects on such issues as identity politics and the politics of academia, affirmative action, and the Million Man March.
By connecting his personal experiences with larger political, cultural, and professional questions, Awkward uses his life as a palette on which to blend equations of race and reading, urbanity and mutilation, alcoholism, pain, gender, learning, sex, literature, and love.
Soul Covers is an engaging look at how three very different rhythm and blues performers—Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Phoebe Snow—used cover songs to negotiate questions of artistic, racial, and personal authenticity. Through close readings of song lyrics and the performers’ statements about their lives and work, the literary critic Michael Awkward traces how Franklin, Green, and Snow crafted their own musical identities partly by taking up songs associated with artists such as Dinah Washington, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, George Gershwin, Billie Holiday, and the Supremes.
Awkward sees Franklin’s early album Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, released shortly after Washington’s death in 1964, as an attempt by a struggling young singer to replace her idol as the acknowledged queen of the black female vocal tradition. He contends that Green’s album Call Me (1973) reveals the performer’s attempt to achieve formal coherence by uniting seemingly irreconcilable aspects of his personal history, including his career in popular music and his religious yearnings, as well as his sense of himself as both a cosmopolitan black artist and a forlorn country boy. Turning to Snow’s album Second Childhood (1976), Awkward suggests that through covers of blues and soul songs, Snow, a white Jewish woman from New York, explored what it means for non-black enthusiasts to perform works considered by many to be black cultural productions. The only book-length examination of the role of remakes in American popular music, Soul Covers is itself a refreshing new take on the lives and work of three established soul artists.