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On Racial Frontiers - Gregory Stephens

On Racial FrontiersThe New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Bob Marley

Cambridge University Press, 1999
Price £14.95
ISBN 0-521-64393-7

A book that makes a serious attempt to connect the life and thought of three such apparently diverse mixed-race 'stars'
already deserves recognition for the sheer scope of its ambition. If you want to know more about Frederick Douglass
(nineteenth century abolition campaigner), Ralph Ellison (writer of the classic American novel Invisible Man) or Bob Marley (reggae genius of the Wailers) then this is a fine introduction to key aspects of each. The triumph of Stephens, though, is that he manages to create something much more than an unusual triple biography: he succeeds in producing nothing short of a new philosophy of 'race' in the modern West or, rather, of its potential non-existence.

Stephens departs from a fascinating and well-argued theoretical premise that there has been a systematic psychological repression of mixed-race people's existence in modern Western society despite their very 'obvious' reality; as a result, we, even in the enlightened twenty-first century, find it impossible to conceive of 'mixed-ness' totally and utterly free of the black/white' discursive framework. Even when that 'mixed-ness' stares us in the face with its refusal to conform to the rules of 'race' as a clear-cut classifying system of human difference, Stephens suggests that this artificial and man-made racial matrix is all but impossible to think outside of: our very beings are trapped by its rules.

In revolutionary opposition to this, though, are the work and legends of Douglass, Ellison and Marley. These three stand, the book argues, as the ultimate hidden representatives of an 'interracial consciousness', positioned at the borders of all racial labels. Usually claimed as unproblematical 'black' figureheads of oppositional politics, Stephens here insists that we reclaim the 'mixedness' of their legacy. This leads us to perceive a more accurate vision of the struggle painted in their speeches, books and songs: we see that is a struggle built not on a fixed model of racial identity but rather on a mosaic of constantly shifting discourses,
territories and cultures. Through the carefully orchestrated hybridity of them and their art, 'blackness' stops being something the reader/spectator can easily pin down, and instead radically destabilises the very foundations upon which our notion of 'race' rests.

If all this sounds a little dry and intellectual, rest assured that all these deeply significant philosophical insights come illustrated through lively and compelling discussions of some of the most beautiful literature and song lyrics of the twentieth century. (It is good indeed to see Marley's work getting the literary analysis it deserves.) An academic and yet effortlessly unpretentious series of essays, they can (and should) be read by anyone frustrated by the limitations of the stereotypes forced on us by conventional racialized thinking. This book offers dynamic inspiration for how to re-write and re-define our reality on our own terms.

Book Review by Andrew Asibong.

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