A lot of my books, people say, are all fiction, but Flight to Canada, and some of the rest of them, are based on research. So there’s fact there, too (Reed, in Martin 1983, 2).
With myth-bending ingenuity, Reed merges history, fantasy, political reality, and high comedy as he parodies the fugitive slave narrative: the slave poet Quickskill flees to Canada on a nonstop jumbo jet; Abe Lincoln waltzes through slave quarters to the tune of “Hello Dolly;” the plantation mistress lies in bed watching the Beecher Hour on TV. Flight to Canada’s preposterous episodes leap out from the pages of history to reveal a keen sense of America past and present (The New York Times Book Review).1
Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s
Flight to Canada
“Neo-HooDooism:” A Fetish-Breaker
In an interview with Reginald Martin, Reed confesses: “There are European influences in my work, as well as African, Native American, Afro-American, and that’s what Neo-HooDooism is all about” (Martin 1983, 12).2 For Reed, writing represents an elaborate process of rethinking various texts in order to create a syncretistic aesthetic. Since he considers “the black aesthetic” a limiting term imposed by unaware critics, he advocates the importance of Neo-HooDooism as a multicultural aesthetic that includes both written and folkloric texts, North American and South American works, Western and Eastern influences, and a broad view on history where the present and the past coexist. This intertextual aesthetic is not exclusive (like Western canons), but inclusive.3
The strongest point of Reed’s Neo-HooDooism consists in parodying literary and historical conventions through his technique of making us contemporary with a multitude of texts and contexts that are rewritten in his fiction.4 Reed’s highly acclaimed novels—The Freelance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Last Days of Louisiana Reed (1974), Flight to Canada (1976), The Terrible Twos (1982), Reckless Eyeballing (1986), The Terrible Threes (1989), Japanese by Spring (1993)—are part of a postmodern venture of deconstructing political, economic, religious, and racial realms. Interpreting these novels, we escape from the straitjacket of a single literary or historic source of inspiration, and, by delving into a multifaceted past, we rethink the present.
Focused on Reed’s neo-slave narrative5 Flight to Canada, this chapter analyzes Reed’s reconfiguration of the African American identity by rewriting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter (1853), and Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (1864). The novel also alludes to works by Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Tennyson, Walter Scott, George Santayana, and others. Placing his postmodern novel upon this culturally fertile soil, Reed indulges in a subversive exercise of uprooting standard meanings through a demythologizing endeavor of rethinking his black and white precursors.
It is the aim of this chapter to demonstrate how, by means of pastiche and satire, Reed’s historiographic metafiction recasts the slave history and character upon a new fictional screen, where facts are illuminated by insightful flash-backs and flash-forwards.6 The next section thus analyzes Reed’s (re)presentation of the standard version of real events (the Civil War, 1861-65) and standard portraits of real persons (Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Walt Whitman).
Taking into account this historical background, the following sections focus on Reed’s parody and reevaluation of two significant stereotypical images circulating in the epoch—the black pacifist and the rebellious mulatto. On the one hand, Stowe’s Christ-like Uncle Tom finds his burlesque counterpart in Reed’s Uncle Robin—the one who “dabbles with his [master’s] will.” On the other hand, Stowe’s George Harris, the type of the resistant mulatto—to be also found in Brown’s and Dumas’ novels—is skillfully reconsidered by Reed. If nineteenth century authors insisted on self-made models of manhood, Reed’s postmodern writing proposes fiction-made characters, parasitically feeding on earlier texts. Ultimately, the haunting image of Canada, with its positive and negative undertones, is de-fetishized in relationship to the main characters’ (lack of) aspirations.
To gain authorial freedom, the author employs a hybrid technique: “a unique blend of the verbal and the visual, prosaic and poetic, old and new, fictive and factual, serious and satiric, African and American, traditional and popular” (Weixlmann 1991/92, 57). This textual mixture is not new, as Stowe, Douglass, and especially Brown 7 have infused into their work fragments from sermons, lectures, history books, songs, poems, letters, statistics, newspaper clips, and advertisements.8 Reed makes use of this eclectic genre in order to present polytropic figures that artfully subvert former representations of blackness. Liberated from essentialist views, his characters refuse to be labeled as “real” or “imaginary” and to be pinned down to a certain temporal or spatial dimension. A fetish-breaker, the author highlights the interplay between the factual and fictional to draw attention to the made-up aspects of black history and identity. Invoking Gates, Flight to Canada can be read in the same way as Mumbo Jumbo,as a “self-referential” novel that stresses its own rhetorical mechanisms, in order “to expose the nature of conventions and to insist on new and black structures of feeling” (Gates 1988, 219).
Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s
Flight to Canada
“Waltzing around with Abe:” The Civil War Revisited
Laying claim to historical events, Flight to Canada can be easily identified as a noteworthy instance of historiographic metafiction. While the events of the Civil War dovetail with the characters’ lives, we are enticed to look at history as fiction, as a hybrid genre where the validity of real events is questioned. Reed’s novel mixes “artistic creativity” with “critical awareness,” since writing within a historical frame means reflecting on its validity (Onega 1995, 95). Linda Hutcheon cautiously affirms:
The interaction of the historiographic and the metafictional foregrounds the rejection of the claims of both ‘authentic’ representation and ‘inauthentic’ copy alike, and the very meaning of artistic originality is as forcefully challenged as is the transparency of historical referentiality. Postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological (1995, 77).
Indeed, Reed’s historiographic metafiction is doubly aimed at revising and reinventing history, as suggested in the novel’s leitmotif: “Who is to say what is fact and what is fiction?” (7).9 Reed’s novel therefore emphasizes that there is no such thing as one single version of history, inasmuch as there is no such thing as one Truth, but only truths in the plural. Reed consciously makes use of anachronisms10 through the coexistence of past mentality with present technology, in order to insist on the staged character of history.11 With comic seriousness, he chips away the unique representation of history, which is seen instead “as a text, as an artifact, as something constructed” (Geyer-Ryan 1994, 13).12
The writer depicts from a tragicomic perspective the Civil War, the relation between the North and the South, and the role of the American statesmen. History wears carnivalesque guise: the grandeur of battles is bracketed, the Southerners are labeled as Arthurians and the Northerners as Saxons; General Lee obeys the orders of a Southern planter; the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis is caught when trying to escape wearing women’s clothes. Winning or losing the war, Reed implies, is part of a literary battle initiated by writers and poets, of a myth-making process where historical persons metamorphose into heroes.
This is the reason why Reed strives to unravel the literary mechanisms that have created a collective image of the South—an icon that is still worshipped. He links the image of the aristocratic South with Oscar Wilde’s elevated, artificial style, and with Alfred Tennyson’s poems about an “indefinite medieval past” (Sanders 1997, 415). The novelist also associates the past Southern glory with Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels that generate a romanticized version of (Scottish) history. Likewise, Reed refers to Edgar Allan Poe—“the principal biographer of that strange war”—whose cultural imaginary “says more in a few stories than all the volumes by historians” (10).13
Among these authors, Reed mostly invokes Whitman, the American bard, the national poet who wrote on the Civil War in his poems and letters. In Reed’s war descriptions there is nothing of the dramatic intensity with which Walt Whitman presented the war. If the nineteenth century poet “understood the war as America’s own tragic recreation,” and his poems contributed to the mythical aura of the Civil War (Blight 2001, 20), the contemporary writer lays stress on the comic aspects of the war,14 with the purpose of demystifying its heroic image. Reed’s criticism of Whitman15 obviously hints at Whitman’s inability to grasp the racial problem, revealing that the poet’s sympathetic perspective did not encompass the problem of black equality and did not consider the consequences of emancipation.
By refashioning the rhetorical devices used by his precursors, Reed changes the perspective upon the Secession War and sheds light mainly upon the racial problem, while taking into account its political and economic background, too. His insistence on Lincoln as a key personality draws attention to the way in which the war’s political purpose (preservation of the Union) must be connected with its racial purpose (emancipation of slaves).
In Reed’s parodic novel, Abraham Lincoln—“the President of the so-called Union”—becomes a master of ambivalence. During his encounter with Swille, Lincoln is crayoned in the coarsest lines that diminish his heroic stature and unveil the fabricated nature of his personal myth. In comparison with Swille’s aristocratic, influential figure, Lincoln appears as an uneducated curmudgeon, who gazes “toward the Washington Monument,16 assuming a somber, grave and sulfurous countenance” (33). With incredible humor, Reed stages his entrance in the novel: “Lincoln, Gary-Cooper-awkward, fidgeting with his stovepipe hat, humble-looking, imperfect—a wart here and there—craw and skuttlecoat, shawl, enters the room” (23). Lincoln’s ideal of fighting for “a great and noble cause” is undermined here by his pragmatic act of asking money from a Southerner.
Reed’s questioning of Lincoln’s integrity is based on historical facts. Caught in history’s grip, Lincoln was elected president in a moment of national crisis (1860), at a time when seven states of the Lower South withdrew from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.17 Lincoln’s main objective was to preserve the nation. Even if he was opposed to the institution of slavery, his idea was to compromise with the South by proposing constitutional preservation of slavery: “In his inaugural address, he firmly opposed the right of states to withdraw from the federal union, but pledged that he would not interfere with slavery, the institution that was the foundation of Southern economic and social life” (Horton and Horton 2001, 165).
In Flight to Canada, Lincoln’s duplicitous relationship with the African Americans is stressed. Whereas he criticizes Swille’s contempt for the black people (who worked hard to build Swille’s economic empire), Lincoln cannot help asking for Swille’s financial assistance (which makes him an accomplice with the slaveholders). Hence, Lincoln’s Janus-faced image as both a liberator-figure and an opportunist—in a word, a politician “operating in the real world of possibilities rather than in an abstract one of principles” (Frank N. Schubert, copy in author’s files, 2005). The novel also alludes to Lincoln’s much acclaimed Emancipation Proclamation (1863) as a double-edged act: it proclaimed the liberation of the Confederate slaves, but it did not apply for slaves held by those loyal to the United States.18
Moreover, Lincoln could not envisage an American nation where blacks and whites would have equal rights, and this is why he advocated the plan of colonization, of the blacks’ immigration to African countries. Half jokingly, half seriously, Reed draws attention to Lincoln’s colonization plan as an aim of the Civil War:19
We buy up all the slaves and then tell them to go off somewhere. Some place like New Mexico, where nobody’s hardly seen a cloud and when they do show up it looks like judgement day, and where the cactus grows as big as eucalyptus trees… Other times I think that maybe they ought to go to the tropics where God made them. You know, I’ve been reading about this African tribe that lived in the tropics so long that they trained mosquitoes to fight their enemies (32).
Lincoln’s ideas of colonization were nothing new at the time. Other nineteenth century thinkers or writers, among whom Harriet Beecher Stowe, were in support of the blacks’ immigration. They advocated the colonization scheme not only because they saw no possibility of racial equality in the U.S., but also because some of them believed in the extinction of the black race in America, partially due to economic competition, partly due to the harsher American climate in comparison with the African one. This is one of the reasons why Stowe ends Uncle Tom’s Cabin with George’s and his family’s emigration to Canada, France, and finally to Liberia.20 Reed humorously reverses roles and depicts Lincoln as a black man, seen by Southern cartoonists as an “Illinois Ape.” Swille himself proposes that Lincoln go to Canada and work in one of his Canadian mills: “You can be a powerful man up there. A powerful man. Why, you can be Abe of Yukon” (27).
Reed’s novel betrays Lincoln’s complicity with the Southern mentality, while he simultaneously supports the abolitionist cause. In a symbolic scene (that circles back to 1862, when Lincoln became the first president to invite a delegation of blacks to the White House, only to tell them to leave the nation), Raven Quickskill dreams that he is invited to a White House reception. During the reception “honoring the leading scribes of America,” where Raven is called a “national institution,” the poet is drugged and lured into Lincoln’s bedroom, so that he could be returned to his master (83-84).
Obviously, Lincoln is a man of many disguises—a fool and a player—one who flatters Swille, the master whose money he needs, and one who winks at Uncle Robin, the slave whose approval he wants. Lincoln’s waltzing around with Mammy Barracuda hints again at his complicity with the slave system: “Hello, Abbbbbe. Well, hello, Abbbbbe. It’s so nice to have you here where you belong” (38).21 Paradoxically, Mammy Barracuda is a nurturing monster: a motherly presence who takes care of Swille and a black female overseer who imposes the slaveholding system upon her own people.22 Mammy’s dancing with Lanky “diminishes his stature as a possible liberator,” in the same way in which his act of liberating the slaves can be seen as “a short little dance, not a real movement” (Levecq 2002, 285).
The president’s stature is also diminished in the scene of his assassination, which is indirectly described. Using the close-up technique from movies, Reed’s camera is not focused on Lincoln, but on the lovemaking scene between Raven and Quaw Quaw—a mulatto and a Native American—who are watching on television Our American Cousin. Through mass media, Reed presents the real event of Lincoln’s assassination: on April 14, 1865, while watching a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern actor and a believer in the slave system. Reed’s novel does not simply draw attention to history as theatrum mundi, to the artificial character of historical events and figures. By linking Lincoln’s assassination with a scene of lovemaking, Reed also suggests that Lincoln’s tragic exit from the historical arena should be related to the conception of a multiracial nation.
If Lincoln is an actor, then history is a stage upon which, as this postmodern novel implies, the past events are reenacted, and “what has been enters into a constellation with the ‘Now’” (Benjamin 1982, 576, in Geyer-Ryan 1994, 13). With its mixture of historical and fictional details, Reed’s historiographic metafiction discloses the interpretability of the historical fact, the “incomplete,” “subjective” nature of American history (Veyne 1984, 16, 30). Since the writer pays attention to both historical and literary representations, the next parts will discuss how Reed unsettles two stereotypical images of African Americans produced by nineteenth century texts.
Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s
Flight to Canada
The Pacifist vs. the Bellicose: “Naughty Harriet”
With its pre-Civil War atmosphere, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin becomes a signpost of reference, a center of gravitation for Reed’s plot and heroes. This textual signpost indicates two different directions taken by two types of characters. On the first way, we can encounter the black hero: the pacifist, Christ-like Uncle Tom. On the second way, we run into the mulatto hero: the rebellious, warrior-like George Harris. Tom’s and George’s divergent adventures are the basis for the double plot present in both Stowe’s and Reed’s books. The images of the black pacifist and the rebellious mulatto can be found in significant nineteenth century texts, starting with the 1820s and 1830s, when these types were employed by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters who used them in order to consolidate their own perspectives.
The first type corresponding to Uncle Tom was the epitome of humility, meekness, and gentility. Outstanding personalities such as William Channing, Theodore Parker, and Charles Stuart advocated the Christian virtues of the black race, its unique blend of submissiveness and affection. Thus appeared the doctrine of romantic racialism, which “acknowledged permanent racial differences, but rejected the notion of a clearly defined racial hierarchy” (Fredrickson 1987, 107). In comparison with the hard, haughty Anglo-Saxon, the African individual had a natural inclination toward Christianity. “All the sweeter graces of the Christian religion appear almost too tropical and tender plants to grow in the Caucasian mind,” affirmed Alexander Kinmont, a leading exponent of Swedenborgianism, who added: “they require a character of human nature which you can see in the rude lineaments of the Ethiopian” (Kinmont 1839, 218, in Fredrickson 1987, 105).23
In contrast to this docile black character, a second type arose: the rebellious mulatto, the unyielding, relentless type who recalls the resolute Anglo-Saxon race as part of his/her mixed blood. The mulattos were praised as superior individuals, “the best specimen of manhood found in the South,” since “the African mothers have given them a good physical system, and the Anglo-Saxon fathers a good mental constitution” (Parsons 1855, 65-66, in Fredrickson 1987, 121).24 These conventional views disseminated a growing belief in the inborn racial differences: to the passive character of the quiescent black man, they opposed the unruly character of the resistive mulatto. While the first type was prone to stay on the plantation and conform to the master’s will, the second type was more inclined to run away and defy the white system in search of liberty.
The conventional images of the black pacifist and the bellicose mulatto were in vogue in 1852, when Stowe published her bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin.25 By intermingling the separate destinies of Uncle Tom and George Harris, Stowe disseminated her antislavery views and criticized the whole dehumanizing racial system. She mostly aimed at unmasking the immorality of the Fugitive Slave Law, which had been reinforced just two years before Uncle Tom’s publication.26 The book’s impact at the national and international level was unprecedented. Stowe was not just “the little woman who started the big war,” as Lincoln called her. Read both in America and in England, her novel strengthened the Transatlantic relations between the African Americans and the British. Influenced by its abolitionist message, the British kept the Canadian border open to the fugitive slaves arriving from the United States.27 In Stowe’s novel, Canada was the free land of cornucopia, the Canaan toward which the fugitive mulatto George Harris and his family were fleeing. At the same time, Stowe made the reader empathize with the black slave Uncle Tom, whose ardent desire was to reach the Christian heaven—his ideal Canada of spiritual liberation.
What’s so wrong, we may inquire now, with Stowe’s history-making fiction? In spite of its wide reception, why did so many voices rise against it in the nineteenth century? Why did her novel gradually go out of print toward the end of the nineteenth century? Most of all, the harshest criticism came from James Baldwin, who, in his famous “Everybody Protest Novel,” saw in Stowe’s book a “catalogue of violence” that was “activated by theological terror” (Baldwin 1955, 150).28 Furthermore, protests rose in the 1980s and 1990s, when critics discussed Stowe’s rhetoric of colonization that sent blacks back to Africa and her “failure to imagine an America in which blacks could be recognized as persons” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992, 113).
Tributary to a certain mentality, Stowe could not avoid the unavoidable—what Toni Morrison called a “racially infected language” (1992, 12). She could not help reiterating some of the racist ideas of her time, among whom the stereotype of the black pacifist and the bellicose mulatto. In order to give more strength to these types, she made use of a great number of authenticating documents ranging from slave narratives to letters and journals.29 She was also inspired by texts pertaining to Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, the Clarke brothers, and others, as disclosed in Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.30
If Stowe’s ideas were anchored in her time, still, why does Reed call her “naughty Harriet,” and think of her authentication as theft? At the beginning of his novel, Reed harshly satirizes Stowe’s usage of Henson’s autobiographical story as the model for Uncle Tom:
The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave. Seventy-Seven pages long. It was short, but it was his. It was all he had. His story. A man’s story is his gris-gris, you know. Taking his story is like taking his gris-gris. The thing that is himself. It’s like robbing a man of his Etheric Double (Reed’s italics, 8).
Reed’s critique draws attention to Stowe’s plagiarism, to her framing of Josiah Henson’s story within the bounds of her sentimental novel. Wanting to liberate the Africans, in fact, she reinforced white conventions. At a time when black people had no copyright over their stories (as Reed humorously says), Stowe as a white woman appropriated a black man’s experience and wrote a book that made her famous.31 In order to depict significant black and mulatto types, Stowe re-told Josiah Henson’s story, as well as other black texts.32 This kind of “stolentelling” is not just an innocent borrowing, but a way of “repossessing the ‘property’ her novel was actually attempting to free” (Moraru 2001, 91).33
Hence, Reed’s anger; his conscious attempts to recuperate in writing a story that was taken away from his literary precursors; his ambition to rewrite what was wrongly written. Reed thus appears not a doctus cum libro,34 who would directly make use of Stowe’s text, but as an incredulous reader who disbelieves her epoch-making opus. Flight to Canada is a postmodern example of “lethetic fiction,” where Reed stubbornly resists conventional interpretation in a critical process of revising Stowe (Koelb 1984, 48). As Hortense Spillers remarks, “Stowe’s subsequent narrative on prior texts of Scripture and the historical is absorbed and displaced in Reed’s contemporary structure through his translation of syntactic elements into an iconic sign, whose ‘verbal equivalent… is not a word but a phrase or indeed a whole story’” (Eco 1979, 215, in Spillers 1989, 31).
In this way, Reed keeps the two narrative threads present in Stowe’s novel, each of them dealing separately with Uncle Tom and George Harris. Only that Uncle Tom becomes Uncle Robin, Aunt Chloe—Aunt Judy, George Harris—Raven Quickskill, Eliza—Quaw Quaw, Missis Shelby—Ms. Swille, Master Shelby—Massa Swille. Last but not least, Harriet Beecher Stowe becomes simply “naughty Harriet.”
Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s
Flight to Canada
From Uncle Tom to Uncle Robin: “Dabbling with Master’s Will”
When exposing the lurking presence of the conventional South, Reed pays special attention to the stereotype of the black pacifist. It is the aim of this section to see how Stowe’s Uncle Tom is imaginatively transformed into Reed’s Uncle Robin, by laying stress on disguise and literacy. As suggested above, Stowe’s white sentimentalism is remade by Reed’s “critique of seriousness” that discloses his anti-essentialist view upon black identity (Jessee 1996, 128). Reed’s embittered laughter castigates Stowe’s position as the nation’s scribe delegated to present the African Americans’ story. To quote Hortense Spillers, we as readers are “coerced to change our mind about who and what ‘character’ is” (1989, 55). For that reason, Reed undermines the hackneyed image of the black pacifist who passively submits to the white man’s oppression. Retaining Tom’s obedient meekness only apparently, Uncle Robin’s subversive behavior controls his master’s will both literally and figuratively.
To contextualize his story, Reed parodies Stowe’s attempts to romanticize the Southern aristocracy. The Virginia plantation in Flight to Canada reverberates with the medieval feuds and the Arthurian legends: the master’s name is Arthur, his castle is a fine replica of Arthur’s castle in Camelot, swarming with knights, ladies, and… slaves. Through ingenious comparisons, Reed draws attention to the continuation of Eurocentric views: if medieval Arthur fought with the Saxons and with the Druid gods, “his descendants came to his America and made war against the gods of ‘Indians’ and Africans” (16). Swille’s aristocratic ambitions perpetuate the “Anglican Grand Design,” with “the whole dang-blasted genteel crew” (49).
Not surprisingly, the quintessence of this “dang-blasted genteel crew” should be found in Stowe’s book, which emphasizes the aristocratic atmosphere of the Southern domain. Thus, we encounter the Byronic St. Clare, the angelic Eva (alias Annabel Lee), and, mostly, the elegant mansion of a Southern plantation:
The carriage stopped in front of an ancient mansion, built in that odd mixture of Spanish and French style, of which there are specimens in some parts of New Orleans. It was built in the Moorish fashion,—a square building enclosing a court-yard, into which the carriage drove through an arched gateway. The court, in the inside, had evidently been arranged to gratify a picturesque and voluptuous ideality. Wide galleries ran all around the four sides, whose Moorish arches, slender pillars, and arabesque ornaments, carried the mind back, as in a dream, to the reign of oriental romance in Spain (167-68).
If Stowe’s above description reunites the East and the West, Reed’s Southern domain juxtaposes several temporal levels. Thus, Arthur Swille’s castle and his collections of medieval fettering equipment are part of a postmodern collage, together with the telephone, the color TV, the milk pail fulla toddy, the free dental care, and the spot remover.
Reed populates this Southern setting with a handful of characters taken from Stowe’s book. Significantly, Stowe’s couple Uncle Tom-Aunt Chloe is transformed here into Uncle Robin and Aunt Judy, who live in the Frederick Douglass Houses, who watch TV and drink champagne, and whose children are free and work in the North. The emblematic Southern aristocrat is represented by Master Swille—the rich, educated, necrophilic baron, who daily drinks slave mothers’ milk, and cherishes incestuous memories of his sister. His wife, Ms. Swille, is the ironic portrayal of a Southern emancipated belle, who spends her time watching the Beecher Hour Show on television. Their son, the anthropologist who was eaten by African cannibals, is a burlesque version of Stowe’s young Master George, the liberator who emancipates his slaves.
Stowe’s soft-hearted mammy is also present in Reed’s text, where she turns into the hard-hearted Barracuda. When depicting the relationship between mammy and her mistress, Reed inverts Stowe’s significance. If Stowe depicts mammy as a poor, fatigued creature who does not sleep at night in order to take care of the hypochondriac Marie, Reed depicts mammy as a maternal presence who nurtures her master, but also as a terrifying one who patronizes her mistress, in a subversive act of taking her place.35 At Barracuda’s side, Topsy makes her momentary appearance as a disobedient character, reminding us of the tricky, theatrical presence of Stowe’s Topsy.36
Among these characters, both Tom and Robin occupy significant places as literate slaves. Tom’s most distinct trait of character is his religious faith that inspires his self-sacrificing attitude toward the others. Stowe’s “antebellum discourse of benevolence” solicits readers to identify with Tom’s patience, suffering, and humanity (Ryan 2000, 752). Tom is defined accordingly as a minister for his black people, “a sort of patriarch in religious matters,” whose whole appearance bears the imprint of “the touching simplicity, the child-like earnestness, of his prayer” (35).
Stowe takes special care in making Tom the prototype of the African pacifist: “He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence” (27). When Tom is sold down South, he endures the harshest treatment not because of his lack of courage, but because of his Christian principles. His strong sense of responsibility toward both the blacks and the whites manifests on various occasions: his love for his family and community; his refusal to run away from the Shelby plantation; his rescuing of little Eva from drowning; his role in St. Clare’s conversion and later in the conversion of the black people on Legree’s plantation; finally, his martyrdom as a consequence of his refusal to tell on Cassy and Emmeline.37
With subtle irony, Reed’s Uncle Robin flings away Tom’s heroic coat and becomes a man of many schemes who humbly subverts his master’s intentions. To be sure, the innocent-looking Robin—an example of servility—knows how to turn the tables on his side after his master’s death, how to take his place and inherit his Southern estate. His final confession—“I dabbled with [Master’s] will” (170)—has a double meaning. On the one hand, his remark suggests his ability to lie and cajole in order to modify his master’s testament; on the other hand, his remark reveals his ability to control his master’s decisions. Seen as “a simple creature” by his master, Robin is in fact a strategist who gingerly calculates each of his movements. The white black man Moe perfectly defines Robin: “[master] thinks you are docile, but sometimes it seems to me that you’re the cleverest of them all” (40).
Robin’s name in itself is significant: being a bird, the robin connotes flight, freedom, movement, and crossing borders. More than that, Robin also sends us semantically to Robin Hood, another trespasser, the legendary English outlaw of the 12th century; or to Robin Goodfellow alias Puck, the mischievous sprite in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A fiction-made hero with a thousand faces, Robin is both a slave and a master—a travestied gentleman, wearing either Moorish attire or Swille’s clothes. (He reminds us here of Tom’s neat appearance, when Tom is derisively seen as one of those “niggers who tried to be gentlemen” (Stowe 346)).
Intertextually, Robin himself makes open reference to Tom: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are all Uncle Toms” (41). Robin’s remark highlights the impossibility to escape an all-encompassing system, where the master-slave places are interchangeable. As in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, Reed seems to advocate throughout his novel the reversibility of situations and roles. Thus, when Swille dies consumed by fire, it is Robin who inherits his great estate. It is the slave who turns into a master, as suggested by Robin’s humorous cynicism: “I’m going to run it just like my Massa run it” (167). The plantation that belonged de facto to Robin, because he was the one who administered it (just as Tom took care of Shelby’s and later St. Clare’s plantations) becomes de jure his own, since he is legally Swille’s inheritor. In this way, both Tom and Robin look at property as if it is their own, only that they do this for different reasons: while Tom devotedly serves his master, Robin deceitfully minds his own interests.38
Uncle Robin is certainly a polytropic character who knows how to snake his way through master’s papers, thus manipulating his master’s will. Considered to be like a computer by Swille, Robin makes use of literacy in order to impose his own volition, to appropriate what belonged to his master. In fact, it is the slave-animal stereotype that Reed undermines here. If Stowe and her contemporary abolitionists strove to dissolve the comparison between a black person and an animal, Reed’s postmodern approach undermines the slave/computer parallelism: “This computer left itself a whole estate. Property joining forces with property. I left me his whole estate. I’m it, too. Me and it got more it” (171). Robin’s pun suggests his condition as property in the eyes of his master, his inanimate status, and his objectified self.39 Hence, Robin’s rewriting his master’s testament is an act of appropriating what already was part of himself, what already belonged to himself.
If Henson’s story was taken by Stowe, Robin’s story is to be entrusted to another black man, Raven Quickskill. The rewriting of Robin’s story by Raven draws attention to Reed’s rewriting of Stowe’s text. Like other postmodern metafictions by Barth, Carter, or Coover, Flight to Canada offers a parodic reworking of familiar conventions. In a double game of rupture and connection, Reed plays with the nineteenth century tradition, which he undermines. His historiographic metafiction thus keeps the balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, seeking to defamiliarize conventions. While questioning Stowe’s novel, Reed presents to us an extremely self-conscious text, in which we as readers are confronted with the “uncertainty about the validity of its representations” (Waugh 1995, 40).40
Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s
Flight to Canada
From George to Raven: “My Trusted Bookkeeper”
If Reed gives Uncle Robin the role of the black pacifist, Raven Quickskill is the embodiment of the rebellious mulatto. Raven alias George is a polytropic character with a long intertextual CV, whose presence can be traced not only in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,41 but also in William Wells Brown’s Clotel,42 and Alexandre Dumas’ Georges. In all these texts, we identify a brave mulatto named “George” or “Georges” whose unquenched thirst for freedom defies racial prejudices. These nineteenth century romances focus on the mythmaking process of transforming black characters into heroes. By rewriting these romances, Reed warns us that we should be more afraid of romanticized rather than demonized representations of the African American character, and he intends to expose these conventional versions of black identity that transform “black history into mythic fiction” (Campbell 1986, xi).
This section focuses on Reed’s reconsideration of the nineteenth century authors’ emphasis on two important aspects—disguise and literacy—employed to facilitate the mulatto character’s escape. In Reed’s and his precursors’ texts, the techniques of disguise, travesty, quid pro quo, cross-dressing, and inversion of gender roles are essential means of changing the characters’ social/racial/legal status. At the same time, the characters’ literacy can be seen as a mask beyond which they hide their racial identity, and therefore a valuable source of freedom.
In nineteenth century texts, disguise is facilitated by the heroes’ light skin that allows them to pass for white and by their gentlemanly manners that give them access to a higher social status. Thus, Stowe’s George is a runaway slave who disguises himself in order to escape. For catching him, his master advertises his appearance in the newspapers, drawing attention to the unmistakable signs by which he can be recognized as a runaway slave:
Run away from the subscriber, my mulatto boy, George. Said George six feet in height, a very light mulatto, brown curly hair; is very intelligent, speaks handsomely, can read and write; will probably try to pass for a white man; is deeply scared on his back and shoulders; has been branded on his right hand with the letter H (111).
George dyes his hair and changes his complexion, so as to mislead the slave hunters, who decipher his appearance in accordance with the written text. Later, during their passage to Canada, George’s entire family is in disguise, as his wife, Eliza, wears a man’s attire, and their little boy, Harry, dresses as a girl.
In Brown’s Clotel, disguise plays an important role in liberating the heroes, too. Not only the mulatto woman Clotel adopts the mask of a Spanish gentleman, but also George evades his death sentence by dressing in his lover’s clothes. Through George, Brown brilliantly offers us a double disguise as a white person and as a female:43
As George was of small stature, and both were white, there was no difficulty in his passing out without detection; and as she usually left the cell weeping, with handkerchief in hand, and sometimes at her face, he had only to adopt this mode and his escape was safe (84).
Moreover, disguise functions in Dumas’ Georges, where the title hero is a free, rich mulatto who returns to his native land, the Island Mauritius. After educating both his mind and his body, Georges’ lifetime ambition is to gain spiritual freedom and get rid of the prejudice that mulattos are inferior. His fight with a white man, his love for a white woman, his serene attitude in the face of death, and finally his bold escape are meant to draw the portrait of a heroic mulatto:
Forced by circumstances, Georges was facing that prejudice which, after travelling for so long, he had returned home to abolish; and here he was ready to fight, on death and life, for his own victory and that of his fellow beings (218).
Besides the technique of disguise, literacy also becomes a source of freedom in Stowe’s, Brown’s, and Dumas’ novels. Stowe sketches in the brightest colors George’s portrait—an inventor whose unusual intellect and dignity make his master “feel an uneasy consciousness of inferiority” (18). Brown also pictures George as an educated man, whose courage matches his brilliant mind, able to lead the black insurgents and destroy an abominable system. In his turn, Dumas pictures Georges as a fine character who educates his intellect and strength in order to become the leader of his black people and achieve his emancipating goal.
Like the above nineteenth century authors, Reed uses both disguise and literacy as key elements in Raven Quickskill’s liberation. In the case of the postmodern hero, his education serves as his major disguise. Intertextually, Raven’s livresque identity parasitically feeds on Stowe’s, Brown’s, and Dumas’ heroes and their quest for literacy and freedom. The nineteenth century George turns into a mask—a role enacted by Raven in a double play of mimicry and mockery. If earlier authors insisted on the connection between freedom and writing, Reed lays stress upon the relationship between freedom and rewriting. If the nineteenth century George is a Franklinesque self-made man, Reed’s Raven is a Borgesian fiction-made character whose constructed identity is a collage of texts.
High on rhetoric, low on action, Raven’s fictitious character is prompted by his words and his writings symbolize “his bows and arrows” (88). Like the nineteenth century heroes, Raven is a cultivated slave whose access to literacy initiates his escape. Literacy—“the most powerful thing in the pre-technological pre-post-rational age”—is compared by Swille to the old Voodoo, since both of them are liberating rituals (35). Empowered by his literacy, Raven “fools around” with his master’s books and invoices, and forges papers for himself and his friends, 40s, and Stray Leechfield. As in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Raven writes a poem about his liberation in order to mislead his master and made him believe that he has already run away to the North.
In Swille’s house, Raven plays the paradoxical role of an erudite slave, being the bookkeeper to whom his master entrusts his property and benefiting from the rights ascribed to a white man. Hence, Swille’s bewilderment: “Quickskill, I’ll never be able to figure out. Why, he ate in the house and was my trusted bookkeeper. I allowed him to turn the piano pages when we had performers in the parlor, even let him wear a white wig—and he’d give all of this up” (19). Raven’s unwillingness to play the role of a white man echoes the former texts. Stowe’s, Brown’s, and Dumas’ mulattos are exemplary models of gentlemanliness who can pass for white, but finally refuse the privileges of their white ancestry in order to choose their black belonging. In the same way, Raven refuses to be a simple puppet in his master’s hands. While pretending to perform his role seriously, just like Uncle Robin, he subversively “dabbles” with his master’s will.
Significantly, Raven is not the only pretender. Leechfield and 40s are two other instances of runaway slaves, who adopt two different types of identity in order to escape supervision. For Leechfield, business is a key issue: after selling his master’s poultry, he starts selling his own body. Together with his Jewish associate, Leer, he makes money in the pornography industry, by exploiting the prejudice about the excessive nature of black sexuality. He paradoxically wants to buy his freedom with the money obtained from selling his body. Unlike Raven who idealistically wants to change the whole system that considers him property, Leechfield is conscious that “this is a white man’s country” and understands the economic reasons behind his enslavement (74).
While Leechfield maintains his freedom through visibility (by taking pictures of himself and selling them), 40s maintains his freedom through invisibility (by hiding in “a houseboat down the river” (76)). Like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, 40s has his own hole, where he prepares for camouflaged fight. Without having a proper name, 40s is a belligerent protagonist who directs us to the troubled period of the 1840s, a time that prefigures the Civil War: the slave revolts abroad the ships Amistad and Creole (in 1839 and 1841), the struggle of abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison (who started publishing his newspaper the Liberator in 1831), and Frederick Douglass (who published his first autobiography in 1845, and the newspaper The North Star in 1848). In his angry manner, 40s criticizes both Leechfield’s pragmatism and Raven’s idealism, while advocating the necessity of political action for the black people: “Cause them niggers don’t wont no organization. You have an organization, they be fighting over which one gone head it; they be fighting about who gone have the money” (79).
Parts of a triangle, Raven, Leechfield, and 40s appear as three versions of a multi-faceted character. Whereas Leechfield plays by the rules of the white system and 40s chooses to defy them through camouflaged fight, Raven’s middle position makes him both a pretender and a fighter. Hence, Raven’s repeated escapes to the North are part of Reed’s postmodern awareness of the impossibility of representing history in fiction in a single way. Once more, Flight to Canada is a distinct example of historiographic metafiction that evinces the fabricated nature of the narrated events.
Raven’s flight to Canada is orchestrated accordingly as a succession of escapes, each of them alluding to Stowe’s, Brown’s, and Dumas’ texts. Raven’s departure from Swille’s plantation derisively reenacts George Harris’ escaping from his cruel master and also his travelling incognito. Then, Raven’s outwitting of the Nebraska tracers (the detectives hired by Swille to find Quickskill and bring him back to the plantation) and his hurried escape through the bathroom window reiterate George’s outwitting of the slave-catchers in Brown’s novel (where George is helped by a farmer to run away through a secret way). Last but not least, Raven’s passage by boat to Canada more or less consciously mimics Dumas’ heroic fight, where Georges and his family aboard Jacques’ ship passionately fight with an English frigate.
Quickskill’s passage aboard Yankee Jack’s yacht parodies the nineteenth century heroism, in the sense that there is not so much fighting as acting, not so much a single text, as an inter-text that rewrites the earlier narratives. In their transcontinental journey, Raven, Yankee Jack, and Quaw Quaw prototypically enact three versions of ethnic identity. If Raven stands as the representative of the free spirit, Yankee Jack is just the opposite: a black man who made his great fortune by enslaving his own people. The couple Raven-Jack finds its counterpart in Dumas’ two characters, the brothers Georges and Jacques. Jacques alias Jack is the pirate of human flesh, the one whose main business is to capture black people and sell them as slaves. Playing the benefactor, Yankee Jack is instead a “distributor” who enslaves not only people, but also people’s minds. He decides “which books, films, even what kind of cheese, no less, will reach the market” (146).44
In spite of her title of nobility, Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara is one of Yankee Jack’s possessions. “This Third World belle” who is “finer than Pocahontas” and performs “ethnic dances” represents the exotic version of the Native American woman (93, 147). It is Yankee Jack who carries her away from her native village, kills her father and brother, and marries her, “since heathen women were available to pirates under any condition the pirate wanted” (93). Quaw Quaw’s seductive appearance sends us to those nameless women in Dumas’ novel, “heathen” women whose sex appeal is so much praised by Jacques.45 Educated at the best universities, Quaw Quaw is nothing more than “the exotic of the new feudalism,” part of Yankee Jack’s domain (96). It is Quickskill who lifts the “white spell” over Quaw Quaw’s eyes and shatters her romantic sentimentalism through his poem which reveals the truth about Yankee Jack and prompts her emancipation. Both Quaw Quaw and Raven turn their hopeful eyes toward the Canadian land envisaged as the only solution to the American racism. The last section demonstrates that Canada can be seen as an elsewhere, a re-readable symbol, a mindscape inasmuch as a reality.
Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s
Flight to Canada
“Ascent” vs. “Immersion:” Whose Canada?
The types of the black pacifist and the rebellious mulatto discussed in the previous sections can be associated with what Robert Stepto calls the narrative of ascent and the narrative of immersion. On the one hand, the self-sacrificing black corresponds to the narrative of immersion that is a “ritualized journey into a symbolic South, which is the most oppressive environment.” In this place, “a hero or heroine must be willing to forsake high individualized mobility in the narrative’s least oppressive social structure for a posture of relative stasis in the most oppressive environment, a loss that is only occasionally assuaged by the newfound balms of group identity” (Stepto 1979 a, 167). On the other hand, the self-assertive mulatto corresponds to the narrative of ascent, which is focused on the journey from an enslaved South to a liberating North. The questing figure is “increasingly literate,” and at the end of the narrative, he or she is “situated in the least oppressive social structure afforded by the world of the narrative” (Stepto 1979 a, 167).
These “counterpointing rituals” of ascent and immersion are skillfully revised by Reed who focuses on Canada as a central topographic symbol.46 Reed’s flight therefore makes specific reference to the nineteenth century narratives of ascent that relate the protagonist’s pursuit of freedom with idyllic images of Canada. In nineteenth century texts, Canada epitomizes the nostalgic land of freedom, so much cherished by Stowe’s and Brown’s characters.
An antipode of America, the Canadian utopia reflectively augments the racism of the American society. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin,Eliza’s rhetorical question—“Is it very far off, is Canada?” (91)—points to Canada as a hard-to-reach reality. Her husband, George Harris also advocates Canada’s and America’s antithetic locations: “I don’t want anything of your country, except to be let alone,—to go peacefully out of it; and when I get to Canada, where the laws will own me and protect me, that shall be my country, and its laws I will obey” (118). In the same line, for Brown’s George, Canada is a place where he can work undisturbed, while also continuing his education, so that his freedom could prompt the reconstruction of his manhood.
The idea of flight to Canada can be traced back to Douglass’ three autobiographies (written in 1845, 1855, and 1881). During his enslavement, Douglass dreams about Canada as a ubiquitous free land, where only wild geese can fly. Later, Douglass escapes via the underground railroad in 1838 and goes to New York, England, and later Canada. Physically free, yet legally bound, Douglass experiences the tragic condition of being still chased by his owner.
In depicting Raven Quickskill, Reed relies on Douglass’ flight, his repeated border crossing, and his endangered liberty. Like Douglass, Raven is never secure after escaping to the North, as he is still chased by the Nebraska tracers sent by his master. Raven’s recurring departures and returns to his master’s plantation, his explicit details concerning his escape serve as a means of filling the gaps of Douglass’ text. While remembering Douglass’ cautious refusal to disclose the details of his escape, we hear Reed’s farcical laughter that lays stress on such details.
The arch-theme of Canada is de-fetishized in Reed’s novel. Fluctuating from utopia to dystopia, Canada is an exilic land continuously re-shaped and mis-shaped,47 as in Quickskill’s poem, “Flight to Canada:”
Dear Massa Swille:
What it was?
I have done my Liza leap
& am safe in the arms
of Canada, so
Ain’t no use your Slave
Catchers waitin on me
I won’t be there
I flew in non-stop
Jumbo jet this A. M. (3).
Since fact and fiction continuously intermingle, the poem becomes Raven’s manumitting document that makes possible his textual escape.48 Flight to Canada can be understood ad literam as a flight by plane, in a true narrative of ascent.49 Ironically, in the novel’s scenario, Raven’s poem is a prelude that prompts his later Canadian liberation, but also a postlude that hints at his later return. The poem serves accordingly as a frame within a frame, a mise en abyme that reverberates with the message of the whole novel and creatively juxtaposes temporal levels: it speaks about Raven’s departures and returns, about his stealing from his master with the benumbed assistance of his mistress, and about Raven’s filial relationship with his white master.
Canada thus entails both positive and negative cliches. It is optimistically seen as a haven for runaway slaves that anachronistically has all the attributes of modern technology, containing “the plentiful supply of gasoline, the cheap, clean hotel rooms that could be had in Toronto and Montreal; the colorful Eskimo sculpture that could be bought in the marketplace, the restaurants specializing in lobster; the scuba diving, the deep-sea fishing” (61). On the flip side, Canada is a terrifying nowhere, a disheartening image fabricated by white masters in order to prevent their slaves from running away. For instance, Mammy Barracuda is the spokesman who disseminates a negative notion of Canada in her discourse that includes images of a black holocaust similar to the Jewish one: “As for Canada, she said, they skin niggers up there and makes lampshades and soapdishes out of them, and it’s more barbarous in Toronto than in darkest Africa, a place where we come from” (57).
In a transnational scenario, Canada turns into a mere version of America and reproduces the same logic of capitalism, within which the past racism coexists with the present consumerism. Canada is just an American outpost, where “Americans control fifty-five percent of sales of manufactured goods and make sixty-three percent of the profits” (160-61). Far from being a “Peaceable Kingdom,” Canada reproduces America’s propensity toward racial segregation and inequality, its annihilation of a multicultural society. Carpenter, a free black man, warns Raven and Quaw Quaw:
Man, they got a group up here called the Western Guard, make the Klan look like statesmen. Vigilantes harass fugitive slaves, and the slaves have to send their children to schools where their presence is subject to catcalls and harassment. Don’t go any farther, especially with her. They beat up Chinamen and Pakastani in the streets. West Indians they shoot (160).
In the cyclical journey of his anti-quest, Raven returns to the States, to the South that is reevaluated as a land of affluence. This nostalgic attraction to a Southern idyllic life points to a return to a “national consciousness grounded in the local” (Levecq 2002, 281). The Southern plantation thus becomes the ultimate image of a utopian Canada, where the past and present coexist in a collage. Uncle Robin concedes: “These rolling hills. Mammy singing spirituals in the morning before them good old biscuits. Watching ‘Sleepy Time Down South’ on the Late Show” (19). Reed proposes a reversed image of the Southern plantation, a world turned upside down, in which the slave acts the master, and the master exits the stage through death. Moreover, the Southern plantation becomes a model to be transplanted in Canada, as the mistress gets a job in a Toronto museum, where her task is to create “a replica of a Virginia plantation” (172).
“Strange history. Complicated, too” we can finally say with Reed (Flight 8). As Flight to Canada ends with Raven’s departure from Canada and his return to the South, the last sentence in the novel—“Raven is back!”—has a double scriptural meaning. It points to Raven’s mission after his return to rewrite Robin’s story, so that the story of a black man is to be narrated by another black man. It also rewrites nineteenth century narratives of ascent, in which the hero does not come back to the South. In Stowe’s book, George goes to Canada, and later to Africa; in his turn, Brown’s protagonist leaves for Canada, and later for France.50 In Reed’s novel, a narrative of ascent is turned into a narrative of immersion, in which this recurrent return to the South may designate the preservation of the Southern mentality after slavery, but also a possible revision of the South grounded in the rewriting of the local slave (hi)stories.
Ultimately, Reed’s narrative freedom is as much at stake as his characters’ personal deliverance. Flight to Canada’spolyphonic discourse parodies standardized versions of stereotypical characters by offering “a zone of contact” with his precursors’ style (Bakhtin 1981, 39).51 He thus draws attention to the permeable nature of his characters’ discourse, to the way in which former meanings can be liberated through reexamination. Reed’s overlapping of temporal aspects—from the nineteenth century to nowadays—highlights the actual significance of historical events, their crucial consequences for the contemporary reader.