This essay explores the psychic dimensions of post-civil rights black representation. I ask, what kinds of desire and identification, what vision of history and futurity, and what lost objects and forms of grief, drive nationalist approaches to black literature? In turn, what affective forces animate black literary and critical texts that are positioned, by will or by force, outside or against the contemporary black canon?
I address these questions through analyses of two divergent narratives of the civil rights era loss of black leadership. I contend that this loss—marked most explicitly by the sixties’ infamous succession of political assassinations— functions as a crisis moment for black representation in both politics and culture. The stories that are told about this moment of rupture in turn work to imagine and concretize vying representational possibilities for a black present and future. In this essay, I juxtapose black nationalist responses to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination alongside Andrea Lee’s controversial novella Sarah Phillips, to explore how contemporary representations of blackness, imbued with the civil rights movement’s revenants of political longing and loss, are achieved, invoked, and disputed in late twentieth-century African American literature.