We must read the texts that black writers inscribed between the lines of America’s master texts (Nielsen 1994, 24).
Obviously we will have to learn to read the Afro-American literary tradition in new ways, for continuing in the old way is impossible (Washington 1987, 3).
There is a haunting, recurrent image in nineteenth century black fiction—the garret—the most secret locus in a house. It is the secluded area where Frederick Douglass pursued his clandestine project of educating himself, and it is the place where Harriet Jacobs hid in order to escape her master’s harassment. 1 In both cases, the garret offered the protagonists access to “freedom and literacy,” but while Douglass’ main occupation was self-instruction and cultivation, Jacobs’ primary objective was to preserve her physical and moral integrity (Stepto 1979 a).
In a significant episode in Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), he tells us how he devised an ingenuous stratagem: he hid in his master’s garret, where he used the notebooks of his young master as a means of improving his education. By writing between the lines of the white child’s notebook, the black child gained access to literacy, something that would later enable him to attain his liberty. Moreover, in a crucial scene of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Jacobs describes how she had hidden for seven years in her grandmother’s garret, writing letters to her master in order to make him believe that she had already escaped to the North. Her own letters allowed her to forge a new identity for herself, to initiate her own liberation and her children’s manumission.
Both Douglass and Jacobs took refuge in limbo—a purgatory between the inferno of slavery and the paradise of freedom—from where they cunningly designed escape plans. They deliberately created a room of their own, in an act of self-empowerment that functioned to undermine the white system. Their escape was staged using the most powerful instrument: literacy.2 Mastering words, they waged war with the weapons of their adversaries and became tricksters who outwitted the cleverness of their oppressors. As in the case of other literate slaves, their textual authority initiated their rite of passage into a world of freedom, so that they wrote themselves into being in narratives that reshaped their old, enslaved identity into a new, emancipated persona.3
It must have been impossible for Douglass or Jacobs to grasp totally the significance of their trailblazing contribution to the creation of African American literature. The garret was the starting point for their cloistered creativity, a symbolic topos of imprisonment where they could only make use of white models—the notebook and the letter—in order to transgress their enslaved condition. Now part of a national canon, Douglass’ and Jacobs’ narratives have been repeatedly re-modeled by postmodern black writers, who are seduced by the risky, (de)constructionist enterprise of rewriting the master text.
The emblematic image of black writing, which was configured by Douglass and Jacobs, reveals an opening into the theme of this book. If the quest for freedom and literacy was representative of nineteenth century literature, more recent black literature redirects its quest toward freedom from literary conventions. While in the nineteenth century black writers strove to offer free versions of black identity through writing by disrupting the white system, 4 postmodern authors deconstruct the former black and white texts through rewriting, and propose new transnational, Transatlantic versions of identity.
As Aldon Nielsen and Mary Helen Washington affirm in the epigraphs to this introduction, postmodern African American writers have searched for innovative ways of defining black experience by rewritingthe previous literary tradition. Thus, the multiple modulations of the nineteenth century black works—from slave narrative, to autobiographies and novels—are to be found in neoslave narratives by David Bradley, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Sherley Anne Williams, and others. In this way, subtle echoes from white canonical writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and Joseph Conrad reverberate in Charles Johnson’s, Toni Morrison’s, and Ishmael Reed’s outstanding works. Contemporary authors also revisit the powerful legacy of the twentieth century. Remarkable Harlem Renaissance authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Jessie Fauset speak again in Alice Walker’s and Notzake Shange’s textual heteroglossia. Richard Wright’s and Ralph Ellison’s seminal images of Native Son and of Invisible Man are echoed nowadays in a multitude of novels belonging to Ernest Gaines, John Edgar Wideman, and Clarence Major.
This book explores how postmodern African American authors reconfigure black identity through the intricate process of rewriting both the black and the white literary tradition. The proposed triangular pattern eludes a binary model that privileges unilateral discussions of either black or white authors. Through this analysis of double rewriting, the book elaborates upon complex, constructive perspectives on the African American character, which is defined as polytropic. Drawing upon its etymology (Gr. polytropos, “the one who has many aspects, the one who turns in many directions”), the book configures the polytropic identity as a semantically loaded concept that presupposes not just physical and spiritual movement away from imprisoning conditions, but also a subversive disruption of rigid social and racial rules. Throughout the book, it will be demonstrated how, by means of rewriting, contemporary authors move away from previous, less flexible versions of racial identity and create polytropic black characters. Unconventional, mobile, and eluding fixed definitions, these heroes are distinguished by the transformative movement from a state of imprisonment to a state of liberation and self-awakening.
This book was born out of several basic questions: What kind of critique is entailed by the “double-coded” techniques of postmodern African American novels? Which are the textual transformations undertaken through rewriting a black text or a white text? How is black identity reconfigured through either transparent or covert instances of rewriting? How far can we reach back into the past in order to safely return and connect different versions of identity?
Various answers to these questions are to be found in the following chapters. The first two chapters represent the preliminary section of the book, discussing the main features of black postmodernism and the complex notion of polytropic identity. The other six chapters centered on postmodern African American authors offer ontological redefinitions of the black character, by charting a historical map of the most significant moments from slavery to more recent times. While privileging intertextual dialogues between significant fictional works, the following chapters are rooted in the critically fertile soil of African American studies, feminism, and gender studies, as well as of postcolonialism, New Historicism, Foucauldian, and post-Bakhtinian theories.
In order to offer a theoretical and cultural context for this work, Chapter I (“Cultural and Theoretical Contexts: Rewriting, Revision, and Black Postmodernism”) stresses the importance of rewriting in black postmodernism, which is defined by a double process of resistance to Western ideas and affirmation of black cultural inheritance. The practice of “radical postmodernism” proposed by bell hooks challenges the conventionality of the postmodernist discourse theorized by an academic white elite, and underlines the necessity of changing the critical focus toward researching the previously marginalized black authors. The novels of late twentieth century black writers are defined not just by a criticist tendency, but mostly by a revisionist aspect that redefines the values of an important racial inheritance. This need to rethink earlier racial and gender issues can be traced back to the Black Arts Movement and the Feminist Movement.
Significantly, the chapter also correlates the culturally rich phenomenon of rewriting with main African American theories that contain a revisionist component through intertextual and comparative analyses. The key point here is to bridge theories that revise the black literary tradition (Robert Stepto), theories that revise the white literary tradition (Toni Morrison), and theories that revise both the black literary tradition and Western ideas (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Awkward, and Mae Henderson). By illustrating how these theories complement and complicate each other, my argument reveals another concern that will be later developed in the book: the urgency to move beyond the separate spheres that draw demarcations not only between black and white texts, but also between male and female texts.
Chapter II (“From Stereotypical to Polytropic Black Identities: Excavating Literature and History”) argues in favor of the multi-faceted concept of polytropic black identity. To offer a historical basis for contrast, the chapter starts by sketching the stereotypical, prejudiced definitions of the black character in the Euro-American intellectual tradition. The black image in the white mind developed from the Enlightenment throughout the nineteenth century was either reified or demonized, in order to consolidate Eurocentric positions and serve racist purposes. These degrading definitions internalized by African Americans initiated a dichotomized self-representation, i. e. the double consciousness so dramatically described by W. E. B. Du Bois.
Taking distance from these monolithic or dualistic versions of black subjectivity, the chapter goes on to define the African American identity as a polytropic one, constituted through geographical movement and mostly through spiritual quest for self-assertion. Leaving behind an objectified state defined by tropes of physical or mental imprisonment, the black character achieves a polytropic identity that celebrates physical and psychological self-awareness. Thus, it is the mission of African American writers to furnish new interpretations of black identity by means of the archeological work of reconfiguring what has been forgotten, disregarded, or misunderstood—the silences and gaps of the black male and female authors.
This idea of excavating history is furthermore investigated in the following six chapters, each of them circling around a historical period of the nineteenth century (the Middle Passage, the antebellum era, the Civil War and its aftermath) and the twentieth century (the 1930s, the late 1940s, and the late 1950s).
In this sense, Chapter III (“‘A Cultural Mongrel:’ Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage”) centers on one of the darkest periods in American history: the nineteenth century slave trade. The analysis highlights how Middle Passage (1990) rewrites texts by Olaudah Equiano, Joseph Conrad, and Herman Melville. Johnson’s postmodern novel parodically reverses the premises of a slave narrative centered on the acquisition of literacy and freedom. While in The Interesting Narrative (1789), Equiano’s ardent desire is to refashion himself into “a gentleman of color,” Rutherford’s yearning is for spiritual liberation from a Eurocentric mindset.
Suggestively, the main character, a manumitted slave, acquires a polytropic identity during his voyage on a slave ship from America to Africa and back. Rutherford’s act of writing in a white man’s hybridized journal becomes a postcolonial critique of a colonial moment. Rutherford’s hyphenated African American identity and his middle position as a free black man allow him to present a double-sighted narration containing both Western and African worldviews. In Johnson’s postmodern narrative, the African subalterns start speaking, and they are no longer the mysterious “savages” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) or the ambiguous pretenders in Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1856). Therefore, Johnson’s Transatlantic scenario both critiques the Western cultural hegemony and proposes an alternative African model.5
As pointed out in Chapter IV, echoes of the traumatic events of the Middle Passage also haunt Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)—a novel dedicated to the sixty million or more Africans forcefully taken into slavery. The chapter’s title, “‘Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self:’ Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” unravels the deep relationship between official history and personal memory, between the implications of the moral damages of the pre-Civil War era upon the post-Civil War period. The chapter underlines that Morrison’s palimpsestic novel draws on both historical and fictional sources. Taking into account the real source of the novel—an account of a slave mother’s infanticide—Morrison suggests that white literacy can be a form of mis-remembering, of manipulating public opinion by disseminating only degrading images of African Americans.
By discussing how motherly love can trigger the expression of free will, the chapter explores the way in which the slave mother Sethe attains a polytropic identity by asserting her own authority over her alienated life story. Morrison offers new insights into black identity, as she rewrites Frederick Douglass’ three autobiographies (1845, 1855, 1881), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). It is Beloved’s role to fill in the gaps and silences of those nineteenth century events “too terrible to relate” and to engage the reader in a counter-history that reconfigures their unsayability (Morrison 1987, 109).
The triangle dedicated to slavery and its consequences is completed by Chapter V: “‘Fiction-Made Characters:’ Parodying Stereotypes in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada.” With comic seriousness, Flight to Canada (1976) expresses Reed’s belief in an elaborate, syncretistic Neo-HooDoo aesthetic that reworks a variety of Western and Eastern texts. As shown in the chapter, Reed’s postmodern novel plays with historical and literary conventions, so that the standard versions of the Civil War and main historical figures are deconstructed.
The more a powerful literary inheritance is invoked in Reed’s novel, the more it is revoked and subverted. Not only Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), but also William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853), and Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (1864) are pre-texts for Reed’s rewriting of stereotypical characters into polytropic heroes deviating from former representations of blackness. In its turn, Canada—that used to be the El Dorado of every fugitive slave—becomes a utopia, a hyperbolic lens through which America’s racism is augmented. Cited in the novel’s title and in a recurrent poem, Flight to Canada is a historical leitmotif to be de-fetishized, and finally juxtaposed upon the image of America.
Chapter VI, entitled “‘I have Always Been a Good Girl:’ (Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,” focuses on various strategies of reconfiguring the unacknowledged part of the African American female subjectivity. Remodeling her precursors in an innovative melting p(l)ot, Walker offers a ground-breaking model for the reconstruction of the unknown (hi)story of black womanhood, while her innovative view upon character and genre has its roots in her self-definition as a womanist writer.
The nineteenth century tradition (represented by Harriet Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, and Frances Harper), as well as the work of the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston are subtly rewritten in a deconstructive act of redrawing the commonplace image of “the good girl” into an emancipated, polytropic figure. The themes of Hurston’s speakerly text (Their Eyes Were Watching God,1937) are re-circulated in The Color Purple (1982), with an insistence on female self-assertion and spiritual rebirth. In a therapeutic act of healing, Celie’s letters signify a double gesture of subverting both the patriarchal and religious systems. These letters also configure Transatlantic connections between Africa and America in the 1920s and 1930s—the epistolary technique thus serving a mainly feminist and emancipatory cause.
Furthermore, Chapter VII—“‘Tell Nannan I Walked:’ Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying”—represents the complementary version of the previous chapter, in the sense of shedding light this time on a male character whose moral and religious awakening is stressed. By rewriting Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) focusing on the figure of the violent man “born in a mighty bad land,”6 Gaines saves his hero from existential isolation and places him in relation to his supportive black community, in the segregated South of the late 1940s.
The chapter also discusses Gaines’ Lesson Before Dying (1993) as a rewriting of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with a special concern for ethics and pedagogy as either manipulating or liberating disciplines. Drawing on Ellison, Gaines proposes a form of resistance pedagogy as a means of destabilizing white supremacy, “the old lie that people believe in” (Gaines 1993, 192). In this respect, a shared notion of “communal responsibility” becomes crucial for Gaines redefinition of black identity.
Finally, Chapter VIII, “‘Speak up, Ike, an ‘Spress Yo’se‘f:’ Sentimental Romance Revisited in Ntozake Shange’s Betsey Brown,” reworks the sentimental romance in order to subvert its discursive limits imposed by static female roles. Special attention is paid to representative intertexts such as Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892) and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929). Taking place against the background of the cultural upheaval of the school integration program and the Black Arts Movement, Shange’s Betsey Brown (1985) elaborates upon complex racial and gender issues.
The eighth chapter therefore demonstrates how Shange’s novel makes use of the specific tropes of black sentimental romance, such as the ideal atmosphere of a domestic setting and the heroic quest for racial liberation. In this search for identity, the self/body of an African American girl becomes a text that is symbolically inscribed by various mechanisms of power, spanning from family to social relations. Since the construction of one’s subjectivity is inseparable from one’s interaction with others, racial (lack of) status represents the consequence of others’ preconceived ideas that equate standard versions of behavior with virtue.
Given the significance of the chosen topic, the late twentieth century African American novels analyzed in this book feature polytropic black heroes, whose common trajectory—from silence and invisibility to speech and visibility—metaphorically expresses the transformative power of contemporary black culture. 7 Therefore, all these novels can be seen as “lieux de mémoire” created at the interface between memory and history, as interactions between “the two factors that result in their actual overdetermination” (Nora 1994, 295). Textual memory turns into an actual phenomenon that appropriates the reusable past in new forms that suit the present. In spite of their inherent, structural differences, all these novels propose a paradoxical rhetoric of healing through the controversial idea that in certain cases only literary violence can undo historical violence; we need to pass through a painful process of remembering in order to come to terms with the past.