This double operation of imagining and interpreting engages the reader in the task of visualizing the many possible shapes of the identifiable world, so that inevitably the world repeated in the text begins to undergo changes (Budick and Iser 1989, 327).
There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war… The peace I am talking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one—an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in (Morrison 1997 b, 7).
Aware of the dangers of monologism, this book has presented an effective dialogue between various texts belonging to different contexts, in the field of African American criticism. The delineated revisionist pattern stresses the way in which late twentieth century African American novels rewrite both the black and the white literary tradition. This form of rewriting initiates important reconfigurations of the black character that rework former standardized notions of identity and elaborate upon innovative polytropic versions. Contemporary black authors “do not strive for canonization by situating their texts in relation to a canonized text, but rather skeptically query the very process of canonicity and the appropriation gestures involved in that process” (Rushdy 1999, 14).
These postmodern African American authors have been chosen in accordance with their major contribution to redefining black identity. In this way, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines, and Ntozake Shange produce significant rewritings of black authors (Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Wilson, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Frances Harper, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison), as well as white authors (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Alexadre Dumas, and Joseph Conrad). In this ongoing reconstruction of identity, the main attribute of postmodern black novels is not the anxiety of influence, but the necessity to establish links with the literary precursors whose texts are (de)constructively reevaluated. As shown in Chapter I, crucial revisions of African American characters are triggered by the authorial task of redefining what was previously misrepresented, or to “figure out the unsaid,” to read the silences and gaps of former texts (Iser 1974, xii).
Through the revisionist method used in each chapter, this book takes distance from theories that understand postmodernism as an illusory form of literary repetition producing nothing new. Textual repetition thus entails difference and offers fresh versions of identity, without reiterating the past arbitrarily.1 Black postmodernism becomes a constructive, meaningful phenomenon that grants rewriting an empowering role in reshaping African American characters. For the sake of this constructive purpose, the postmodern black novels chosen for discussion do not sacrifice aesthetics for politics, or politics for aesthetics, pointing to the equilibrium between the craft of language and the craft of polemics.2
This careful selection of novels with a strong socio-political component has been undertaken for the abiding goal of charting a map of key events in the history of the United States. Each of the discussed novels delimitates a specific Weltanschauung belonging either to the nineteenth century or to the twentieth century: the Middle Passage (Middle Passage by Charles Johnson), the ante/post-bellum era (Beloved by Toni Morrison), the Civil War (Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed), the 1920s and 1930s (The Color Purple by Alice Walker), the late 1940s (A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines), and the late 1950s (Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange). By revisiting these historical moments, the contemporary black authors are conscious that the present can be understood in a new light, inasmuch as the past can be read differently through the lens of the present. They do not simply reproduce the past, but they instill a change in the reader’s way of perceiving it. They imply accordingly that it is “memory that enslaves the present,” that former racial representations must be revisited, reconsidered, and reborn through endless intertextual efforts (Otten 1989, 83).
In the light of the reusable past, this book argues for an innovative perspective on African American identity, redefined as polytropic—a perspective that denies monolithic, stereotypical figures and affirms multi-faceted, fully realized representations. Leaving behind the prejudiced past definitions, contemporary black writers configure polytropic characters, whose flexible trajectory toward self-awakening and assertion eludes physical and mental fixation and the deadness of being. These authors create Bildungsromans in which the black characters’ rites of passage disrupt the white system and affirm personal autonomy. As demonstrated in Chapter II, the main characters acquire polytropic identities not simply through geographical movement, but primarily through spiritual progress toward self-assurance and empowerment. Consequently, Johnson’s Rutherford, Morrison’s Sethe, Reed’s Quickskill, Walker’s Celie, Gaines’ Jefferson, and Shange’s Betsey represent free embodiments of black masculinity and femininity. Projected upon a historical background of bondage, their destinies are defined by their symbolic awareness of their freedom, so that their mobile, malleable identities transcend rigid boundaries.
Significantly, the importance of attaining polytropic identities is disclosed in the chapters dealing with the nineteenth century (Johnson, Morrison, and Reed), and also with the twentieth century (Walker, Gaines, and Shange). These chapters dismantle the clichés of black identity that have been formerly circulated by the black and white literary tradition: “the gentleman of color” (Johnson), “the black savage” (Morrison), “the black pacifist” and “the bellicose mulatto” (Reed), the “Jezebel” (Walker), “the violent man” (Gaines), and “the good girl” (Shange).3
Combining postcolonial and Transatlantic theories, Chapter III highlights Johnson’s rewriting of such emblematic authors as Olaudah Equiano, Herman Melville, and Joseph Conrad. By subverting the Eurocentric worldview, Johnson’s postmodern text deconstructs the model of a gentleman of color and constructs a polytropic character that serves as a mediator between the African and American spheres. Thus, Johnson’s novel presents a postmodern Odysseus, an African American trickster, who becomes engaged in a voyage toward self-definition.
These multiple modulations of the polytropic identity also appear in Chapter IV. Rethinking the figure of “the black savage” inherited from slavery, Morrison’s Beloved presents a rebellious mother who affirms her autonomous identity and her motherly love as free will. Morrison fills in the gaps present in texts by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Jacobs, and provides us with a counter-history that rips away the veil that had fallen over distortedly narrated events of the past.
Complex polytropic heroes are offered by Reed’s defetishized images of “good” Uncle Toms and rebellious mulattos. Underlining how Reed reworks key intertexts by Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wells Brown, and Alexandre Dumas, Chapter V reveals that Reed’s postmodern writing abolishes narrative conventions and proposes fiction-made characters that parasitically feed on former writings. Importantly, Reed’s historiographic metafiction makes us see history as fiction, as a hybrid genre that places a question mark next to the validity of events, so that the reader envisages the Civil War (1861-65), and its personalities (Abrahm Lincoln, Jefferson Davis) in a new light.
Furthermore, the chapters focused on the twentieth century also bring forward the primordial aim of rewriting in order to shape the polytropic identity. Both Chapter VI and Chapter VII underscore the possibility of creating polytropic characters by reconstructing black womanhood, and manhood, respectively. Chapter VI analyzes how Walker’s character deconstructs the stereotype of the Jezebel and how the female protagonist’s polytropic identity is developed through the process of writing letters. Intertextually, the chapter emphasizes Walker’s rewriting of the nineteenth century tradition, as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The same leitmotif of the inner development from a subaltern into an independent position is present in Chapter VII. The analysis stresses how Gaines’ novel reconfigures the negative image of the black criminal by rewriting the existential isolation illustrated by Richard Wright’s Native Son and placing his hero in relation to his supportive Southern community. Drawing on Ralph Ellison’s subversive perspective in Invisible Man, the chapter also investigates Gaines’ reevaluation of the educational model imposed by the racist system. Gaines’ pedagogical ethics—a constructive method of redefining the black self—insists on the transformative role of communal ethics.
The gallery of polytropic characters is completed in Chapter VIII. Through intertextual connections with Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, the chapter considers how Shange makes use of the specific tropes of the black female sentimental romance, such as the insistence on an idealized domestic setting and on heroic quest for racial freedom. The chapter unravels how Shange subverts women’s stereotypical representations by creating a polytropic character, whose coming of age is deeply related with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement.
Ultimately, the book demonstrates that race must be seen as a “metaphor,” a construct that has been transformed from a mark of inferiority in the nineteenth century into the positive category of ethnicity nowadays. In this way, the chosen texts have undertaken the task of liberating race from “the burden of representation,” that is, “the homely notion that you represent your race, thus that your actions can betray your race or honor it” (Gates 1997 a, xvii). By rejecting all-inclusive definitions, contemporary African American writers negotiate new configurations of identity and initiate—as powerfully suggested by Morrison’s epigraph—the dance of open minds.