Whether in local book clubs and classrooms or in recent literary scholarship, fictional narratives of slavery and the civil rights era stoke our fascinations and frustrations with the past. Three recent studies analyze how this “historical turn” in black literary production and criticism has made texts such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) emerge as essential reading. Joanne Chassot, Aida Levy-Hussen, and Christopher Freeburg suggest that the historical turn reflects many writers’ and readers’ shared sense that black literature can reflect or even intervene in shaping black people’s political futures, often by recasting the past. Chassot offers nuanced accounts of how several black novelists negotiate history as a corrective to lingering sociopolitical issues. Meanwhile, Levy-Hussen and Freeburg question the analytical methods that have led us to expect that African American literature will offer a sociopolitical or psychological salve at all.

In Ghosts of...

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