Corina Crisu | Rewriting | Polytropic Identities in the Postmodern African American Novel | Notes

Publicat deMadalina Marcu



1.     Jacobs’s decision to hide in a garret situated above her grandmother’s house represented a fissure in the racial system. She remained hidden for the next seven years, reading, sewing, watching her children playing in the street, and sending letters to her master, Dr. Flint, in order to confuse him that she had escaped North.

2.     By imitating the white model, nineteenth century black authors also destabilized it. The whole process of writing their slave narratives, “the process of authorship” offered the black writers “a measure of authority unknown to them in either real or fictional life” (Valerie Smith 1987, 2).

3.     See here, for example, William Wells Brown (1847), Henry Bibb (1849), Sojourner Truth (1850), Solomon Northrup (1853), Harriet Wilson (1859), Josiah Henson (1881), and others. Estimated as more than 5.000, slave narratives could flexibly include anything from a newspaper clip to an authenticated text.

4.     Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin specify in this direction: “The narratives produced by emancipated slaves and most narratives written by black authors before the 1970s were of little help since they more or less replicate dominant patterns” (1994, 153).

5.     As demonstrated by Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), the Enlightenment was shaped not just by Western ideas, but also by the slave trade that was the first instance of transnational trade that allowed Western modernity to achieve its economic and cultural hegemony.

6.     See here Jerry H. Bryant’s book, Born in a Mighty Bad Land: The Violent Man in African American Folklore and Fiction (2003).

7.     As Michael Awkward cogently comments, “perhaps the dominant image in the recent creative and critical writing of Afro-American women [is] the struggle to make articulate a heretofore repressed and silenced black female story and voice” (1989 a, 1).


Chapter I

1.     The necessity of revising theory is also stressed by Robert Young: “[Theories] must always be reshaped, resituated, and redirected according to the specific, contingent location of the moment. The politics of theory conceived as a form of activism will always be that it intervenes in a particular, social or cultural framework against the presuppositions or politics of its adversary” (2001, 11).

2.     In this direction, Madhu Dubey remarks: “Although we would expect African-American literature to form a vital resource for debates about postmodernism, it is conspicuously missing, even when these debates are launched in the name of racial difference” (2003, 2).

3.     In “Locating a Text: Implications of Afrocentric Theory,” Molefi Kete Asante criticizes those writers whose work does not contain specific references to blackness. Using two powerful metaphors, he identifies two types of texts—the decapitated text and the lynched text: “A text that is decapitated exists without cultural presence in the historic experiences of the creator; a lynched text is one that has been strung up with the tropes and figures of the dominating culture” (1992, 13). In the decapitated text, the author moves away from his or her personal inheritance; in the lynched text, the author has little cultural or historical knowledge about his or her past.

4.     In 1987, the Centre for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania sponsored a conference entitled “The Study of Afro-American Literature: An Agenda for the 1990s.” A community of important black theoreticians gathered to discuss critical methods that should be used in constructing the African American literary canon. The two important points on the agenda were summarized by Barbara Johnson in two questions: 1. “What the black intellectual’s stance has been and should be toward white Western culture?” 2. “How the Afro-American literary and critical tradition has been and should be defined?” (in Baker and Redmond 1989, 39). Using the call-and-response pattern, critical polemics were initiated between Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Barbara Johnson, Deborah McDowell and Michael Awkward, Houston A. Baker and Mae Henderson, Kimberly Benston and Cheryl Wall, Arnold Rampersad and Michel Fabre, and others. These critics underlined the need to reshape the language of black criticism by stressing its vernacular roots, and by rethinking Western models. As Gates points out, black critics must avoid “the mistake of accepting the empowering language of white critical theory as ‘universal’ or as our own language” (1989, 5).

5.     For a general perspective upon the postmodern literature after the 1970s, see Larry McCaffery’s “The Fictions of the Present,” in Columbia Literary History of the United States. McCaffery compares postmodern texts written in the 1960s with those after the 1970s. He remarks that major writers of the 1960s (such as Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Barth, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenick, Susan Sontag, Raymond Federman, Kurt Vonnegut, and others) did not have “a unified aesthetic sensibility; but they did share a common sense that a crisis was at hand, for our society and for our literature, and that all forms of dogma, convention, and covert ideology… needed to be reexamined, exposed as artifices, and replaced if necessary by fresher systems more suitable to the times.” In their turn, American writers during the 1970s and 1980s (such as Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, Ann Beatrice, Richard Ford, Mary Robison, Alice Adams, Jay McInervey, Alice Walker, and others) are less interested in “experimentalism per se,” and more focused on “the daily world outside the page” (1988, 1162-63).

6.     In his suggestively entitled essay “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” James Snead identifies a repetitive pattern in African American culture and literature. For Snead, repetition is the figure that underscores the main distinction between the Euro-American and the African American culture. In its Hegelian legacy, the Western culture has laid stress on progress, linearity, and teleology, so that repetition is equivalent with accumulation and growth. In a different sense, the black culture has stressed circularity, flow, and non-teleology, so that repetition entails deferral and return. However, Snead’s view on a non-progressive repetition as a specific form of black culture is questionable. How many of the postmodern novels follow the pattern of Snead’s repetitive model? Can we say that Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo—a novel used by Snead to exemplify his theory—implies no progression? Designed to subvert the binarism between the Euro-American and African cultures, Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, (like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage or Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon) makes use of repetition in order “to produce difference” (Gates 1984, 10, in Moraru 2001, 84). Thus, Snead`s perspective on a non-progressive type of repetition cannot be generally applied to the whole black culture.

7.     Carolyn Holmes notes that in 1966 “the social and cultural fabric of the United States of America was shaken to the core of its European foundations by what has been termed a Black Revolution or Black Power Movement” (1992, 37).

8.     The two distinctive directions of the Black Arts Movement’s ideology were focused on the publication of journals and the development of black theatre groups. At a time when most American magazines refused to publish black writers, the work of many important African American authors was hosted by black journals: Journal of Black Poetry, Black ScholarNegro Digest/Black World, Black Theatre,and Black Dialogue. At the same time, black theatre came to be seen as the cultural hub for circulating racial ideas throughout America: the New Lafayette Theatre and Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre (in New York), the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and Val Grey Ward’s Kuumba Theatre Company (in Chicago), Inner City Repertory Company and the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (in Los Angeles), Black Arts West (in San Francisco), Free Southern Theatre (in New Orleans), and countless others. Amiri Baraka (LeRoy Jones) also founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem (1964), an influential model that inspired black artists throughout the country.

9.     While modernism appears as a period when poetry and drama are main genres of the black literature, postmodernism becomes the time when countless significant novels are written.

10. Alfonso de Toro summarizes the actual debate on the relationship between modernity and postmodernity in three ways: a. postmodernity as “ruptura con la modernidad” (as something entirely new); b. postmodernity as a vulgar imitation of modernity (in a negative, anachronistic, and petrified view); c. postmodernity as a culmination of modernity (in positive terms) (1997, 11). For a detailed description of postmodernism as a new facet of modernity, see Matei Cãlinescu, Five Faces of Modernity.

11. Dubey salutes David Harvey’s view in The Condition of Postmodernity: “Harvey extensively details recent changes in production, labor markets, finance, and consumption, but he regards these changes as a new wave of modernization and global industrial reorganization rather than as fundamental breaks with industrial modernity or with the capitalist mode of production” (1990, 145, in Dubey 2003, 18).

12. This is Dubey’s main reason for not using the term “postmodernity,” which would presuppose a radical shift from modernity. Instead, he prefers such phrases as “the postmodern period” or “postmodern times” to name those changes that occurred in American society after the 1970s.

13. Valerie Smith points out that, before the advent of feminism, African American criticism approached issues of gender in three ways: “in a biological framework permeated by sexual stereotypes of women; in assertions of male authority within the Black Arts Movement; and in an ostensibly gender-blind literary history that did not give equal weight to women’s texts” (1994, 484).

14. Summarizing the main points of differentiation, Jaime M. Grant notes the discrepancy between black and white women’s backgrounds: “As white women proposed to change the system to allow women the opportunity to reap the same benefits as men, they often failed to recognize the complex realities embedded in this simple statement. Over the course of more than a century of organizing for equality, white women consistently have failed to acknowledge the widely different historical, material, and cultural realities between themselves and women of color; they have thus represented white women’s experiences and agendas as representative of all women” (2005, 4).

15. In Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, Susan Willis affirms that “history gives topic and substance to black women’s writing,” because it is presented as “concrete experience.” Basically, “the black women’s relation to history is first of all a relationship to mother and grandmother” (1987, 3, 5).

16. One significant aspect that black feminists strove to undertake is changing the structure of the interpretive community. While in the past this interpretive community was considered to be primarily male, after the 1970s female readers have started to emphasize their own perception of both male and female texts.

17. In Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing, Elaine Showalter expresses the necessity to revise the idea of women’s culture by outlining several premises: “In thinking about women’s culture and American women’s writing, we are looking at an invented as well as a ‘natural’ form, and at exchanges, translations, and intertextuality as well as indigeneity” (1991, 19, my emphasis).

18. However, there are critics who are against the use of the term “tradition.” Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood starts from the premise that she “does not assume he existence of a tradition or traditions of Afro-American intellectual thought that have been constructed as paradigmatic of Afro-American history” (1987, 16).

19. Christian continues this idea: “But there is a deep philosophical reordering that is occurring in this literature that is already having its effect on so many of us whose lives and expressions are an increasing revelation of the intimate face of the universal struggle” (1985, 163).

20. Bloom’s study claims to follow the criterion of aesthetic value, and refuses to constitute a literary canon from a politically correct perspective, which takes into account race or gender. With the exception of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, all the authors brilliantly analyzed by Bloom are white men.

21. In her important article “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” (1989), Morrison highlights the necessity to revise how the texts included in the literary canon have shaped the African American presence.

22. Repetition in the form of call-and-response was also explored by John F. Callahan whose reader response criticism lays stress on the relation between the text and the reader. Suggestively entitled In the African-American Grain: Call-and-Response in the Twentieth-Century Black Fiction, Callahan’s project links the black fiction with African roots. In tribal African folklore, the process of storytelling has two characteristics: 1. The seizure of the role of the narrator; 2. The dialogue between the narrator and the audience (1989, 15). Here Callahan draws on the ethnographic work of Roger Abrahams, who writes: “In their specific African setting these tales are called upon not just to deliver a specific message, but to initiate talk about that message” (1983, 9). Callahan shows that African oral tradition influences African American forms of culture—i.e. spirituals, blues, performance, and literature—which entail repetition, a call-and-response dialogue between the individual and the community. Literature in itself becomes a “repeated act of fictionalizing,” in which the author calls on the reader (1989, 19).

23. In The Implied Reader, Wolfgang Iser specifies: “The reader has to figure out the unsaid” (1974, 140).

24. Morrison`s critical reading of the canon has similarities with Jane Tompkins` main point in Sensational Designs (1985). As Rodica Mihãilã comments, Tompkins’ New Historicist project aims at rewriting history: “Exposing the classical canon of the American Renaissance, including the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman, as a fraudulous practice by élite scholars like F. O. Matthiessen whose aesthetic judgement concealed a strong ideological component, she employs the poststructuralist critique of representation as implying misrepresentations, incomplete signification, political and ideological constructions to deconstruct the canon and give representation to what she calls ‘The Other American Renaissance,’ chiefly represented by best-selling Victorian sentimental fiction” (1994, 178).

25. Morrison stresses the necessity to investigate critically four directions. First, she discusses “the Africanist character as surrogate and enabler,” since “Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful.” Second, she draws attention to “the way an Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or, in a later period, to signal modernity.” She explains here how the “dialogue of black characters is constructed as an alien, estranging dialect made deliberately unintelligible by spellings contrived to disfamiliarize it.” Morrison’s third point comes close to the first one: “We need studies of the technical ways in which an Africanist character is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness.” Finally, her fourth point expresses the need “to analyze the manipulation of the Africanist narrative… as a means of meditation—both safe and risky—on one’s own humanity” (1992, 52-53).

26. Gates comes with several definitions or connotations of the word “Signifyin(g),” as given by Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Clarence Major, Hermese E. Roberts, Mezz Mezzrow, Malachi Andrews and Paul T. Owens, J. L. Dillard, William Labov, and William A. Stewart, etc. Gates quotes Roger D. Abrahams’ brilliant definition of Signifyin(g): “The name ‘Signifying Monkey’ shows [the hero] to be a trickster, ‘signifying’ being the language of trickery, that set of words and gestures which arrives at “direction through indirection” (Abrahams 1962, 125, in Gates 1988, 74).

27. Using his theory of Signifying, Gates analyzes a variety of works (from Frederick Douglass to Zora Neale Hurston, from Ishmael Reed to Alice Walker) in which the common denominator is the device of parodic variation. As Madhu Dubey observes, Gates’ approach “is squarely formalist insofar as it posits signifying as a principle of intertextual repetition that operates transhistorically, without any significant variations” (2002, 17). Still, it is through parody, which is considered an important postmodern device, that Gates manages to place his theory under the umbrella of postmodern literary theory.

28. In The Signifying Monkey, Ishmael Reed is the only novelist whom Reed considers to be “postmodern.” Analyzing Reed’s corpus of works, Gates specifies: “he seems to be concerned to critique and revise the models of representation fundamental to the canonical texts that comprise the tradition of the Afro-American novel” (1988, 217).

29. At a time when few critical texts discussed the ideas of a black female tradition, Awkward’s book analyzed the relationship between female authors by focusing on works by Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor.

30. Henderson takes her inspiration for the trope of “speaking in tongues” from the Biblical episode of the Tower of Babel: “Speaking in many and different tongues, the dwellers of Babel, unable to understand each other, fell into confusion, discord, and strife, and had to abandon the project” (1991 b, 23). Henderson applies the trope of “speaking in tongues” to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sherley Anne William’s Dessa Rose, and Toni Morrison’s Sula.


Chapter II

1.     For the sake of my argument focused on the male and female black character, I enlarged Barbara Christian’s feminist perspective by including in her definition both women and men.

2.     Samira Kawash discusses this ambivalence of the color line: “When the racial knowledge seemingly guaranteed by the color line becomes tenuous, it becomes increasingly apparent that while the color line may be a condition for violence, it is also a condition for the security and certainty of identity, a way of ordering and organizing the social world” (1997, viii).

3.     In Cultural Hegemony and African American Development, Clovis Semmes explains: “Cultural hegemony has become the metaproblem out of which epistemological, conceptual, theoretical, and critical issues emerge in Black, African American, and Africana studies.” Semmes defines cultural hegemony “as the systematic negation of one culture by another.” He remarks that “the internal dynamics of one culture evolves in such a way that it calls into discussion the independence, coherence, and vitality of another culture to which it has a socio-historical connection. In a sense, the one culture bases its existence and well-being on the ability to absorb, redirect, or redefine institution building and symbol formation in the other” (1992, 1).

4.     In 1997, Mary Helen Washington, who was elected president of the American Studies Association, addressed her audience with a talk entitled “Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?” Like many other black intellectuals, Washington insisted on the necessity of radically revising the literary, critical, and cultural canon.

5.     Marcel Cornis-Pope observes that “a literary pedagogy premised on the concept of rewriting would have to study the operations that set up interpretive narratives, but also to enable readers to perform them problematically, with a critical awareness of their underlying agendas and grammars of moves” (1992, 15).

6.     At the time, two views upon slavery understood it as either damaging or necessary. On the one hand, “slavery was considered an evil by colonizationists not because they had any empathy with the sufferings of the slaves—they were notably deficient in this regard—but because they viewed it as an economically unsound and dangerous institution” (Fredrickson 1987, 11). On the other hand, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, “the leadership of the of the major cotton-producing states made it clear that a national colonization effort was unacceptable because in their view slavery was an essential and Constitutionally protected local institution which was no concern of the Federal government or the nonslaveholding states” (Fredrickson 1987, 43).

7.     While general emancipation of slaves took place in the North, in the post-Revolutionary South, the white power system prevented the emancipation of the blacks, by proliferating the idea that freedom would make the black population socially dangerous by turning them into a degraded pariah class. More and more, a colonization movement started to take shape (especially with the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1817) and advocate the necessity to send the blacks to Africa. More voices rose to spread the idea that colonization could gradually rid America of the social and political evil of slavery, while also insisting on the benefits brought by the “civilized” ex-slaves to the African “savage” population. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and William Wells Brown’s novels are classic examples of literary works tributary to this colonial scheme.

8.     See Barbara Christian, “Images of Black Women in Afro-American Literature: From Stereotype to Character,” in Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (1985).

9.     Robert Stepto comments on the three phases of the slave narration. The first is the Basic Narrative as an Eclectic Narrative, in which “the authenticating documents and strategies are appended to the tale.” The second is the Basic Narrative as an Integrated Narrative, in which “the authenticating documents and strategies are integrated into the tale and formally become voices or characters in the tale” (1979 a, 5). The third phase can be seen either as a Generic Narrative or as an Authenticating Narrative. In the Generic Narrative, “the authenticating documents and strategies are totally subsumed by the tale,” so that “the slave narrative becomes an indefinable generic text, e. g. autobiography.” In the Authenticating Narrative, “the tale is subsumed by the authenticating strategy,” so that the slave narrative becomes an authenticating document for other, usually generic, texts, e. g. novels, histories” (1979 a, 17).

10. Two emblematic instances of nineteenth century black writing, Douglass’ and Jacobs’ autobiographic texts dominate their narrative, they are the center of gravitation toward which the other events organize, in Stepto’s words, they alone “authenticate the narrative” (1979, 182 b). In this respect their very titles indicate their insistence on their own authorial freedom, as well as on their racial and sexual identities: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglassan American Slave. Written by Himself, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself.

11. In this directions, Sabina Draga specifies: “The black body, spatial projection of a self that emerges in the social world under the sign of a defining category, that of Blackness, is as such the product of an identity performance which is to a great extent designed for an audience who represents not the Same, but the Other” (2000, 41).

12. In this sense, Walter Mosley notices black authors’ need to free African American literature from the burden of representation: “Our writers have historically been regarded as… best suited to address the nature of our own chains. So if black writers wanted to branch out past the realism of racism and race, they were curtailed by their own desire to document the crimes of America. A further deterrent was the white literary establishment’s desire for blacks to write about being black in a white world, a limitation imposed upon a limitation” (1998, 34).

13. The word “polytropic” has its etymology in the Gr. polytropospoly + tropos, “turning many ways, versatile, also much traveled.” As The Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word is invested with several meanings: 1. Capable of turning to many courses or expedients; 2. Math. Turning several times round a pole; also applied to a function which has several different values for one of the variable, being opposed to monotropic; 3. Of a bee: collecting nectar from many kinds of flower; 4. Physics and Astr. Pertaining to or designating a body of gas or process in which pressure volume changes in such a way that a specific heat remains constant. In the Odyssey, the word polytropus represents the epithet given to Ulysses, who is characterized by a series of attributes: “much-enduring,” “a man of many schemes,” “the man of twists and turns,” “godlike,” “great-hearted,” and “brilliant.” Moreover, the term can be later traced in Plato’s “Hippias Minor,” where the philosopher identifies the distinction between two types of human nature embodied by the Homeric heroes Achilles and Odysseus. The first is haplus, “simple,” “single,” and “all of a piece,” representing the straightforward but rudimentary nature, the second is polytropus, having “many ways of being,” always turning in various directions and multiplying the ways of his nature. As the Romanian philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu points out, there is a big distinction between the Achillean and the Odyssean types: the aspect of the Achillean simplicity, univocity (associated with the Story of the Iliad) is contrasted with the Odyssean complexity, plurivocity (specific for the many stories of the Odyssey) (1981). Importantly, Socrates reacts at Hippias’ claim that Achilles is superior to Odysseus, since the first is “true and simple,” while the latter is “false and wily.” Socrates’ idea of knowledge is supported by the notion of voluntary erring: the one that does something voluntarily is superior to the one who does it involuntarily.

14. Charles Johnson reintroduces this notion of a “round” character speaking about black identity in Being and Race (1988, 6).

15. In its turn, poststructuralism, with its pretense of no in-depth message, can be sometimes ill-suited for discussing black postmodernism. For example, Michael Awkward mentioned that poststructuralism fails “to recognize the positive search in black female texts for a black female wholeness” (1989 a, 8).

16. This idea is also sustained by Marcel Cornis-Pope who affirms that rewriting former texts implies “a better understanding of their own underlying ‘stories of reading’” (1992, 14).

17. Gates about Hurston’s writing in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1988, 239).

18. As Morrison affirms, the African character has contributed for centuries to the shaping of the American character: “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American” (1992, 38).

19. The activist, social aspect of black literature is nothing new. Since 1922, James Weldon Johnson, one of the main figures of the Harlem Renaissance, stresses the social role of literature. In his Preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, he remarked that literary and artistic creativity must represent basic means for an ethnic group’s value and advancement: “For the whites, art was the means to change society before they would accept it. For the blacks, art was the means to change society in order to be accepted into it” (Johnson 5, in Lewis 1994, xxi). Three years later, in The New Negro, Alain Locke insists on reconsidering the undervalued role of African Americans in the American culture. Inspired by Du Bois’ concept of the Talented Tenth, Locke affirms that a great social gain depends on releasing the talented group of African Americans “from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression. The especially cultural recognition they win should in turn prove the key to that revaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further betterment of race relationships” (1925, 50). To illustrate his ideas, Locke edited and published in 1926 an anthology with a symbolic title, The New Negro, in which he promoted a number of talented black men and women of letters (among which the poets Rudolph Fisher, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen).

20. When discussing the way in which historical discourse produces interpretations, Hayden White stresses that historical discourse does not “produce new information about the past, since the possession of both old and new information about the past is a precondition of the composition of such a discourse” (1999, 2).

21. In this direction, Paul Veyne comments: “The merit of historism will have been to bring to light the difficulties of the idea of History and the limits of the historical objectivity; it is even simpler not to begin to propose the idea of History and to admit right away that the sublunary is the realm of the probable” (1984, 30).

22. In this way, postmodern African American writers do not simply narrate the past events, but they also insist on their relevance for the present times. In many instances, anachronisms contribute to the actualization of the past message and the interrelation between the slave history and the contemporary times. Exemplary historiographic metafictions, such as Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, either abolish temporal conventions (so that the amused reader discovers modern technology as an integrated part of slavery), or employ techniques of science-fiction (so that time travel makes the reader sympathize with the slave conditions).

23. I allude here to the famous definition in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In this passage, the main character’s Nanny reveals the black women’s double burden in gender and racial terms: “Honey, the white man is the ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where the black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (1990, 19).

24. Moreover, there is also another basic issue tackled by these neoslave narratives: the transcultural and transracial exploitation of women. As Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose or Toni Morrison’s Beloved suggest, both black and white women have to face the rigor of a patriarchal system. In Williams’ and Morrison’s novels the meeting between a black and a white woman—characters that have different social and cultural backgrounds—initiates instances of reciprocal help and understanding. In William’s novel, a young slave woman who has given birth to a baby while running away meets a young white woman abandoned by her husband on their northern Alabama plantation. In Morrison’s novel, again, the focus is on a black woman who gives birth, while she is helped by a white servant in search for better social conditions.

25. The ellipses and gaps have their function in the nineteenth century slave narrative, since either racial or sexual reasons were invoked. For instance, Frederick Douglass’ reasons are mainly racial: “Before narrating any of the peculiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction. My reasons for pursuing this course may be understood from the following: First, were I to give a minute statement of all the facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties. Secondly, such a statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of the slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains. I deeply regret the necessity that impels me to suppress any thing of importance connected with my experience in slavery” (Douglass 1997, 99). Moreover, Harriet Jacobs’s motifs are sexual, pertaining to the nineteenth century understanding of gender: “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate toward others to pursue this course” (Jacobs 1861, 5).

26. These two tasks are ingeniously combined, for instance, in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, where he offers an insight into the African beliefs that have survived in the American culture. As in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, or Paule Marshall’s Praise Song for the Widow, an alternative African forma mentis is offered by means of the main character’s internalizing of black cultural inheritance. Not accidentally, Bradley’s main character, Washington, is a historian, who, “in the face of the ‘gaps,’ the lacunae in the historical record assembled by his father, and of African Americans in general… feels impotent, unable to interpret, but also feels continually impelled to interpret, to imagine” (Wilson 1995, 12).


Chapter III

1.     Through his controversial position among his contemporaries, Johnson often swims against the literary current. Even if Middle Passage won the prestigious National Book Award in 1990, its critical reception has been ambivalent. Paul West, a jurist on the panel that chose Middle Passage, protested that the selection was based on “ethnic concerns, ideology and moral self righteousness” (Goudie 1995, 110). Moreover, in comparison to other African American authors such as Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, or Alice Walker, fewer articles have been written about Johnson’s work, which is in many respects innovative. Positive echoes come from Carl Pedersen, who succinctly remarks the combination “of the excitement of a sea adventure with the horrors of the Middle Passage,” so that the crossing of the Atlantic is transformed “into at once a microcosm of world history and an allegory of growing self-awareness” (1993, 233). In the same positive note, S. X. Goudie argues how Johnson “uses marks, marksmen, and marked men as tropes for racism, and on another level racism becomes a trope for larger marks of the human condition” (1995, 109). While Muther is interested in how female identity appears in the novel as “a composite of misogynistic stereotypes” (1996, 649), Daniel M. Scott III comments upon the novel’s ability to offer interrogations of African identity, which tests “the capacities of binary opposition, dualism, and abstraction to contain meaning and experience” (1995, 645). Enlarging the critical approach with a religious perspective, Celestin Walby discusses the ritual of the sacrificial kinship in relation to Christian and African mythology. In a comparative line, Christian Moraru analyzes Johnson’s text in the context of the postmodern age of cloning, paying special attention to the way in which the novel reworks Melville’s Moby-Dick. In addition, intra- and intertextual readings are offered by Virginia Whatle Smith (Middle Passage and John A. Williams’ Captain Blackman), Lorraine Quimet (Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale), Helen Lock (Middle Passage and Douglass’ The Heroic Slave and Melville’s “Benito Cereno”), Jonathan Little (Middle Passage and Siddhartha and Invisible Man).

2.     Johnson’s phenomenological ideas presented in his Being and Race place his work in a larger theoretical context, where Husserl and Merleau-Ponty play important roles.

3.     Johnson’s novel can be also read in relation to Alexandre Dumas’ Histoire de mes bêtes, published in 1858, in “Revue de deux mondes.” Dumas’ postmodern text avant la lettre “plays with multiple identities: human/animal, black/white/mulatto, in a thousand mirrors with reflections that are false, oblique, or blurred, which lead to (the lack of) self-knowledge and knowledge of the Other” (Mariana Neţ, copy in author’s files). See also Mariana Neţ, Alexandre Dumas: Le pays où il fait mort, Wien: Institut für Sozio-Semiotische Studien, 1997.

4.     Refraction, n. 1. Physics. The change of direction of a ray of light, sound, heat, or the like, in passing obliquely from one medium into another in which its speed is different. 2. Optics. a. The ability of the eye to refract light which enters it so as to form an image on the retina. b. the determining of the refractive condition of the eye. 3. Astron. a. Also called astronomical refraction, the amount, in angular measure, by which the altitude of a celestial body is increased by the refraction of its light in the earth’s atmosphere, being zero at the zenith and a maximum at the horizon. b. The observed altered location, as seen from the earth, of another planet or the like due to diffraction by the atmosphere. [<LL refraction- (s. of refractio) a breaking up, open] (Webster’s Dictionary 1207).

5.     This idea is also supported by James Coleman: “Johnson focuses on the black experience as it exists ‘in literature’ (Being 5), in written texts, and it is through the revision of the written textual tradition that Johnson tries to break its hegemony, to inscribe a revised black freedom and liberation” (1995, 631).

6.     Discussing the way in which Johnson rewrites the tradition of the slave narrative, Lorraine Quimet specifies: “the mongrelized characteristics of the form and its structural capacity for movement (from sin to salvation, ignorance to wisdom, bondage to freedom) make it the perfect vehicle for Johnson’s mapping of a phenomenology of freedom and for his identity politics” (2000, 34).

7.     As April Langley affirms, Equiano’s movement has a profound cultural significance: “In the movement from freedom and enslavement in Africa to slavery, freedom, and racial enslavement and oppression in the New World, Equiano complicates the notion of freedom through his developing and changing kaleidoscope that imagines communities across geographical and historical landscapes of African literatures and cultures of the diaspora” (2001, 48).

8.     As in Johnson’s short story, “The Education of Mingo,” both master and slave influence each other’s behavior. Linda Selzer points how Mingo, the slave, “begins to function as a mirror for Moses, [his master]” (2003, 106). Reminding us of the “homunculus” in Goethe’s Faust, Mingo is more than a product, a passive receptacle of Moses’ ideas. He thus influences Moses in the same way Jackson seems to influence his master, Chandler.

9.     Focused upon the story of an black prince taken as a slave to America, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688) represents “an early attack upon the colonial problem of the human slavery, of sufferance and degradation” (Sanders 1997, 259).

10. The change of Equiano’s name is significant: Gustavus Vassa is the name of a Swedish nobleman who lived in the 16th century, and who led the Swedish people into a war of independence against the Danes. Thus, Vassa is the first Swedish king who led his people out of slavery.

11. Equiano’s fictional persona is even more complicated if we take into consideration Vincent Caretta’s suggestion that Equiano was not born in Africa, but was born a slave in North Carolina, where his baptismal record has been found. If Caretta is right, then critics and historians will have to find a “new interpretation” to Equiano’s narrative (Sollors 1987, xxxi).

12. Possibly, Equiano’s acculturation to the Western world is performed only “to win his freedom and bring about his physical and spiritual salvation” (Costanzo 1987, 41, in Sabino and Hall 1999, 6). From another perspective, Equiano’s “Christian rhetoric” (Orban 1993, 655) can be seen an irreversible superimposition of a Western identity and an erasure of his African one.

13. The second part of Rutherford’s journey from Africa to America retraces Equiano’s uprooting passage from his African homeland to the New World. If in Equiano’s biography Africa appears as an Edenic homeland with a specific ethnicity, in Johnson’s fiction Africa is initially a blank space, which will be later inscribed through the Allmuserian worldview.

14. Notice here how Rutherford’s voyage by sea is initiated by his theft: he steals Josiah Squibb’s papers in order to embark on the Republic. Once on board, he fabricates a new version of his biography in order to persuade the captain of his lack of protection, family, and financial means. In addition, he ironically expresses in his writing his understanding of the shrewdness of his own race: “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but we all know it anyway: namely, that a crafty Negro, a shrewd black strategist, can work a prospective white employer around, if he’s smart, by playing poor mouth, or greasing his guilt with a hard-luck story” (28).

15. From the Greek word, parasitos meaning “beside the grain” (para, beside + sitos, grain). In his essay, “The Critic as Host,” Hillis Miller underlines the antithetical meaning of this prefix, “signifying at once proximity and distance, similarity and difference, interiority and exteriority“ (1979, 219).

16. Even if Conrad’s treatment of colonialism in Heart of Darkness  and Lord Jim draws upon Kipling’s Kim, he differs from Kipling and the other English authors of his age: “Alone among writers like Kipling, Haggard, Henley, and Stevenson, Conrad lived both as a native of a colonized country and as a member of a colonizing community. Thus, he achieved what they never could, although some, like Kipling, tried: a view from the other side of the compound wall” (McClure 1981, 5).

17. In spite of the fact that Rutherford is an African American, he is forced into the position of a colonizer who goes to Africa on a slave ship. To borrow from S. X. Goudie, “Calhoun is a black man playing a white man’s colonial game” (1995, 111). Moreover, since identity also means physicality, he has to beware not to be taken for an African and thrown back into slavery.

18. Johnson’s understanding of the Middle Passage can be compared to Toni Morrison’s view in Beloved. If in Morrison’s text, the perspective is that of numberless female slaves taken to America, in Johnson’s text, it is that of an observer. On the one hand, Beloved tells her story in fragmented, confused images that offer sympathetic identification to the reader with her traumatic experience. One the other hand, Rutherford’s voice is more orderly and controlled, therefore intended to disambiguate the reader’s perception of the narrated events. While Morrison presents the experience of the Middle Passage through dissipated perceptual metaphors, Johnson’s focus is on the more concrete, visual aspects of the passage. Here I disagree with Vincent A. O’Keefe who stresses that “Rutherford (and Johnson) may simply be unable to articulate Allmuserian perception through language,” and that “the narrative techniques of Middle Passage prevent readers from sharing that experience, contrary to Johnson’s intentions” (1996, 641). On the contrary, the horror of the event is augmented by Rutherford’s inability “to watch,” as well as by his awareness of being an accomplice “in taking part in the captivity of the Allmuseri” (Middle Passage 66).

19. The analogy between the crew of the Republic and the motley American-scape is obvious. Notice how the crew is described after a tempest: “Without speaking we all clapped out hands together as one company—thirty-two sopping-wet cutthroats black-toothed rakes traitors drunkards rapscallions thieves poltroons forgers clotpolls sots lobcocks sodomists prison escapees and debauchees simultaneously praying like choirboys, our heads tipped begging forgiveness after this brush with death in Irish, Cockney, Spanish, and Hindi for a litany of collective sins so long I could not number them” (82).

20. See here how during a storm Rutherford meditates upon the ocean’s “vortices that were mirrored in [him]” (79).

21. He thus illustrates Bakhtin’s conception of the novel as a “dialogized heteroglossia,” which incorporates diverse and sometimes contradictory views subverting the monolithic supremacy of a unitary language.

22. My affirmation is also supported by Brian Fagel, who observes Calhoun’s ability to “speak from the middle”—a thing which “creates a moment of postcoloniality.” Fagel also discusses the two effects of Calhoun’s middleness: “the confinement to middleness of Calhoun’s colonial moment, and the transcendence of coloniality via enunciation from the point of confinement” (1996, 625).

23. The short stature is another common point of Kurtz and Falcon: while in Johnson’s text, we are explicitly told that Falcon is short, in Conrad’s story, Kurt’s very name means “short” in German.

24. The documents are given by Marlow to Kurtz’s cousin, to a journalist, and to Kurtz’s lover, signaling their distribution to three symbolic spheres.

25. Ironically, as if to draw attention to the deceitful, many-faced character of his postmodern writing, Rutherford stresses his main occupation as a thief, who fabricates different versions of his life-story in order to take advantage of certain situations.

26. In this context, the Allmuseri god transported by Captain Falcon to the Western hemisphere symbolizes the climax of his Ahab-like desire to subdue the essence of the colonized culture.

27. Both Melville’s and Johnson’s texts take their inspiration from Frederick Douglass’ novella, “The Heroic Slave” (1852), which depicts the successful slave rebellion aboard the ship Creole in 1841. Led by Madison Washington, the African slaves manage to take control of the ship en route from Virginia to New Orleans, and change the course of the ship to the British free port of Nassau. Douglass’ main objective was to emphasize Washington’s heroic stature, his ability to outwit the white crewmembers, as well as his ideals of liberty and equality.

28. As Helen Lock stresses, “although Melville uses different techniques, he and Johnson nevertheless are making the same point: both illustrate how when the master/slave, ruler/ruled roles are inverted, each side reveals the characteristics of the other, for better and worse, until, as at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is no discernible distinction” (2000, 59).

29. Rutherford has a similar vision of a reversed situation, during one of his discussions with Falcon, when he is told about the African god they carry on the ship: “Could it be that in a dimension alongside this one I was a dwarf sitting in a Chinese robe, telling a white mate I had captured a European god and, below us, the hold was crammed with white chattel?” (102).

30. Babo, Atufal, Diamelo, and Francesco are Africans whose haunting presence can be traced both in Melville’s and Johnson’s texts. In Middle Passage, the scene after the mutiny makes direct reference to Melville’s characters. Rutherford narrates: “I saw three Allmuseri sitting on the benches; I recognized two more named Babo and Francesco passing a bottle of the skipper’s best bellywash, and still another called Atufal, a big man who had an iron collar around his neck and stood behind the mate arguing—if my hasty translation could be trusted—for them to toss him over the side” (Johnson 131). Moreover, the slaves’ desire to kill their mate reenacts another scene in Melville’s text, where the former slaves argue over the killing of the cook—whose life is finally spared. Significantly, the same scene can be traced in Douglass’ The Heroic Slave, where Madison Washington does not allow his black men to kill Grant, the white man who is lying unconscious on the deck.

31. In this way, the crew sees in Rutherford’s drifting nature (“a vagabond,” who “got nothin’ to lose” (87)) his possibility to kill Falcon and still escape the hand of the law. At the same time, Falcon wants Rutherford to become his spy, and turns him into an accomplice by poisoning his “perception of the other[s]” (58), by unraveling their secrets. Besides, Rutherford himself acts as the agent of the African revolt, since he offers them the key that unlocks their fetters.

32. Parmenides, Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century B.C. In his poem, On Nature, he depicted the universe as having one, continuous, fixed nature.

33. In addition, by revising the Platonic/Cartesian dualism between (the inferior) body and (the superior) spirit, he suggests that both corporal and mental aspects are equally important and in constant process.

34. His question to Ngonyama proves enlightening for his ability of reverse roles: “If you were captain of this ship, what would you do?” (119). In Ngonyama’s answer, his desire to return to Africa transpires, so that the whole Middle Passage appears as a nightmare, “a tale to thrill—and terrify—our grandchildren” (119). With deep psychological implications, the voyage on board of the tight-packer is thus understood by the Africans as a plunge into the unreal, a departure from their holistic understanding of the universe and an entrance “into the madness of multiplicity” (65). Alluding to Ishmael’s rhetorical question in Moby-Dick (“Who ain’t a slave?”), Falcon’s monologue before his death also prophesizes an apocalyptic vision of America as a dystopian land of anomalies, in which former values no longer hold: “It came to me as I lay here, a nightmare that this was the last hour of history… Everything from ancient times to now, the civilized values and visions of high culture, have all gone to hell in fire old hamlets filled high with garbage, overrun with Mudmen and Jews, riddled with viral infections and venereal complaints that boggle the mind and cripple whole generations of white children who’ll be strangers, if not slaves, in their own country. I saw families killing each other. People were killing in alleyways. Sexes and races were blurred” (144-45).

35. The episode of embracing the dead is also present in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlow has to lift and throw overboard the dead body of his African helmsman, so that it will not be eaten by the other members of his crew who are cannibals (“I hugged him from behind desperately” (73)). At this moment he meditates upon their “subtle bond” and mournfully realizes the loss of his partner (73).

36. Kristeva points to the etymology of the word “cadaver,” from the Latin cadere, “to fall.” She also discusses the idea of loss in relation to the abject corpse: “There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from the border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere—cadaver” (1982, 3).

37. At a general level, Paul Giles cogently notes: “one of the greatest needs of any culture is to proscribe its own form of abjection, to censor those models of deviance that the culture itself produces” (2002, 181).

38. Ironically, Falcon’s colonial log helps Rutherford to accomplish his liberating mission. Falcon’s written word serves as an instrument of exposing Papa Zeringue’s involvement in the slave trade. The log manages to turn the tables on Rutherford’s side by making Santos aware that his black employer is one of the principal investors in a slave ship. An Allmuseri via his grandfather, Santos distances himself from Papa’s complicity in the colonial trade. Having the Herculean Santos on his side, Rutherford dares to request “a full endowment” for the African children “until they come of age” (203). Suggestively, by making a black character an accomplice in the slave trade, Johnson draws our attention to the network of power in which the master/slave antagonistic positions are still preserved. As Rutherford understands the fragility of his momentary triumph, he keeps the logbook as his future “insurance,” the ace in his pocket that will enable him to preserve his rights.

39. Analyzing the novel from Isadora’s perspective, Elizabeth Muther convincingly comments: “Isadora’s offstage adventuring, however, is at the center of Johnson’s purpose in Middle Passage. Crises of gender, of family and destiny, drive the plot of Johnson’s novel and provide a key to reading its parodic representations of classic male quest adventures. The stock quality of Isadora’s character—she is a composite of misogynistic stereotypes—conceals the strength of her embedded rival story. She goes to sea, and she stays at home, but her story is a critical locus of resistance in the novel” (1996, 649).


Chapter IV

1.     In this direction, Barbara Hill Rigney writes about “the double-voiced discourse which is Morrison’s text,” as well as its “controlled disorder” and its “serious anarchy” (1991, 4).

2.     Aoi Mori draws our attention to Morrison’s deconstruction of binary stereotypes: “Aiming at subverting a racial hierarchy and validating African American culture, she challenges a dualistic Western Civilization which has mutilated and debased the African Americans physically and psychologically: right or wrong, black or white, the oppressors or the oppressed. African Americans have been subject to the harmful dichotomizing by race which has strongly restricted their behaviors and social and political participation. In slavery, the status of slaves was determined by the race of mothers, either a legitimate white or a conquered black, with no acknowledgement of degrees of racial identity between these polarities… That is, the lives of slaves were determined by a strict racial dualism from the very beginning; and they could never subvert or qualify the imposed racial status ” (1999, 21).

3.     Beloved draws on an oral tradition, too. The novel contains accordingly motifs from the African American folk tradition, with which Morrison has been familiar since an early age, when she grew up in Lorain, Ohio, in the middle of a black community that indulged in telling supernatural stories. In the black folk tradition, there are significant ghost stories which might have influenced Morrison in creating Beloved, the ghost character. Trudier Harris draws our attention to a tale, “Daid Aaron,” which comes from the Gullah people. Focused upon the theme of revenge, the story tells how a dead husband refuses to go to the other world and allow his wife to have other suitors: “The widow finally gets rid of Aaron when he requests that her fiddler suitor provide dance music. Aaron dances gleefully and madly, faster and faster, until he comes apart, literally bone by bone” (Harris 1991, 156). The story of Aaron should therefore be linked with Morrison’s novel in the sense in which the dead members of the family return to inhabit the consciousness of the living. As Morrison’s text is inhabited by a ghost that feeds upon the main character’s memory, so the reader’s mind gets haunted by Morrison’s ghost-like text that makes reference to an intricate cultural memory. At a symbolic level, the ghost represents the embodiment of the oppressed memory that emerges at the textual surface as a memento, a reminder of the slave condition in the past. At a literal level, “the ghost in Beloved is not represented as a shadowy figure, a creature of legend or dreams, but rather as a character who drinks water, has sexual urges, and even has a need for mothering” (Rice 1999, 101).

4.     By comparing Toni Morrison’s and Maxine Hong Kingston’s work, Pin-chia Feng discusses the relation between the process of remembrance and the construction of identity: “The continual resurgence of the past leads the protagonist, the reader, and the author to a linguistic meeting place in which dialogic exchanges between different layers of history take place and vital ‘information’ is passed on” (1998, 24).

5.     See also Unflinching Gaze. Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned, edited by Carol A. Kolmerten.

6.     For an account of Margaret Garner as the historical model used by Morrison to write Beloved, see the essay by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “‘Margaret Garner’: A Cincinnati Story.” The Massachusetts Review 32 (Fall 1991): 417-440.

7.     In the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson argued that blacks were inferior to the white population, though he concluded that this hypothesis should be verified: “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites both in body and mind” (1784/1944, 455).

8.     In Beloved, Schoolteacher is one of the harshest promoters of slavery. His notebook, in which he takes notes about the slaves’ physical features and behavior, shows his aim to document the black’s inferiority.

9.     Stamp Paid is a controversial image: he is the one that helped Sethe, but he is also the one that unconsciously made the community hate Baby Suggs’ family, by bringing the blackberries and thus starting the party, the huge celebration that would attract the envy of the community.

10. In Beloved, as in most of Morrison’s novels, the heroes are seen in connection mainly with the African American community, and not so much with the white people’s society. For the community depicted by Morrison, it is the recognition or despise of the others that gives to any person a social and moral status. As a runaway slave and a criminal, Sethe’s status is ambivalent. This is why, from an ethical point of view, Sethe is seen by the others as a prodigal character, one whose act of killing her own child is unaccountable. However, from an epistemological point of view, Sethe demonstrates the truthfulness of her motherly love, when she takes the risk of claiming her children as her own.

11. In Greek, pathos means “sufferance,” and nomos means “law.”

12. See Morrison’s preface in Playing in the Dark, and her comments on Marie Cardinal’s The Words to Say It.

13. Missy Dehn Kubitschek comments upon Morrison’s choice of 1880s to set her novel. She draws a comparison between the 1880s and the late 1980s, when the novel was published. Kubitschek specifies: “Writing about the problems of the present in terms of the past has the advantage of not making the audience immediately defensive” (1998, 132). The critic points out that both the 1880s and the 1980s were times of change. In the 1880s, “the African American community faced many serious problems—worsening poverty, weakening family and neighborhood structures for raising children, and stereotypes to justify political neglect. Like the 1880s, the 1980s followed a period of drastic change for the African Americans. As the 1860s witnessed emancipation, so the 1960s saw the culmination of the civil rights movement. As the black community of the 1870s lost leaders like Baby Suggs, so did the black community of the 1960s lose the leadership of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.” (132-33).

14. As Krista Walter notes, “just as Brent learns that in order to protect herself she must negotiate and imitate the cunning ‘texts’ of her master, Jacobs finds that she must use the language of the sentimental romance (and the identities it engenders) in order to convince her readers to take action against slavery and its supporting social institutions” (1994, 4).

15. Both Linda and Sethe are assisted by female characters, which offer them protection and shelter.

16. One could ask here again the recurrent questions: Is Linda’s voluntary exile from the others and Sethe’s act committed in cold blood an imprisoning experience or a redeeming act? Certainly, for both characters, “indiscipline makes it possible to resist, to remove [themselves] from the actions of the Master/Other” (Jewsiewicki 2002, 595).

17. Irina Chirica convincingly argues that Sethe’s home actually stands for her conscience that is haunted by the memory of past events: “Sethe cannot escape from her house, as she cannot escape the memory of the past which totally fills her tortured mind” (1998, 200).

18. See also Mae Henderson, “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text.”

19. “I do not remember these things/—they remember me”—both heroes seem to say (Frame 1986, 297). As Janet Frame’s seemingly paradoxical line suggests, a sort of reciprocity is present in the process of memory, which always implies a double process.

20. Sethe’s perception of time as cyclical should be related with Mircea Eliade’s comments upon the perception of time in traditional societies. Eliade specifies that there is a great difference between the individual who belongs to a traditional society and the individual who is part of a modern society. If the first has a circular conception of time, thinking of time in a cyclical way, the latter has a linear idea of time, seeing time as progress. The traditional person abolishes the chronology of history by endowing a certain event with a special repetitive significance, whereas the modern person places the historical event in a chronological order, history being the development of the Universal Spirit in its Hegelian understanding (1991, 108).

21. Many critics have noticed the ironical discrepancy between the meaning of the place, Sweet Home, and its cruelly dull reality. Sweet Home is a place that functions “as a critique of a system covered with the ‘begonias’ of the domestic ideal but built on the ‘rough logs’ of slavery” (Askeland 1999, 165).

22. Commenting upon the way in which Morrison links her narrative craft with music, in particular with jazz, Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin suggest that her intention is to emphasize “the participatory aspect of that type of music that complements her conception of art as pictorial vision… The jazz musician starts from a well-known popular tune in order to imprint upon it his distinctive style in a more forceful way than if it has been his own creation” (1994, 152-3).

23. Brooks Bouson notes that by “exposing the shame and degradation suffered by the slaves, and because shame is a contagious affect, Beloved, like Morrison’s other novels, risks generating shame conflicts in readers” (2000, 136).

24. It is Paul D who reluctantly notices that she needs no man at all, that she has succeeded in escaping with no man’s help—revealing Sethe as a feminist character.

25. An abyss separates the world of the whites from that of the blacks, each of them being inescapably caught in their own condition. As Franz Fanon underlines in Black Skin, White Masks, a sort of “dual narcissism” appears: “the white is sealed in his whiteness,” “the black is sealed in his blackness” (1967, 11). Only seldom bridges of humanity are built between races. Such an example appears when Amy helps Sethe; another example appears when Mrs. Garner gives Sethe a pair of earrings as a wedding gift.

26. Baby Suggs’ name is symbolical. She refuses to be called “Jenny” because Jenny Whitlow is the name given to her on the sale ticket. In her discussion with Mr. Garner, the slaveholder, who keeps calling her “Jenny,” she explains to him why she is called “Baby Suggs:” “Suggs” is the name of her husband and “Baby” is the name by whom he used to call her. It is interesting how Baby Suggs refuses to accept the name and identity imposed by the white man and strives to keep a name inherited from her black husband.

27. In Harper’s Iola Leroy, the prayer meeting also takes place in the woods. The preacher, Uncle Daniel, is an illiterate black man, just as Baby Suggs. Harper insists that the secret character of these meetings has the role of evading the masters’ surveillance: “Although the slaves were denied unrestricted travel, and the holding of meetings without the surveillance of a white man, yet they contrived to meet by stealth and hold gatherings where they could mingle their prayers and tears, and lay plans for escaping to the Union army. Outwitting the vigilance of the patrollers and home guards, they established these meetings miles apart, extending into several States” (Harper 1893, 13).

28. Baby Suggs’ message can be put into relation with L. E. Lowman’s suggestion in The Negro Revolt: “By listening and frequently responding to the pure poetry of the Negro preacher, the Negro masses got a sense of history and moral philosophy… Even those of us who couldn’t read came to think of history as a moving, changing thing; we were never allowed to doubt that man as a created thing had purpose and that we, to be sure, were a part of that purpose” (1962, 47).

29. In many of her novels, Morrison depicts the black community in an ambivalent way, making it responsible for the characters’ fall or redemption. For instance, in The Bluest Eye, “the gaze that condemns the Breedloves belongs as much to the white people as to the African Americans who refuse to recognize their status as human beings” (Crişu 2001, 68).

30. The same idea appears in most of Morrison’s novels: the individual should be seen in relationship with the community. For instance, in Sula, the community’s venom infects the individual’s life and produces sufferance and even death.

31. Sethe’s case can be symbolically linked with another emblematic figure: Sojourner Truth. Truth’s biography, like that of Sethe, is shaped by images of loss. Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I A Woman” reveals striking images of motherhood as a deprived condition: “I have born thirteen children and seen most all sold into slavery and when I cried out a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me” (in hooks 1981, 169). There is an important interconnection between Sojourner Truth and Sethe, as both of them are able not only to survive a tragic event, but also to reconstruct their self-image as powerful mothers with a free consciousness.

32. Lori Askeland comments on Stowe’s mitigation of Cassy’s maternal force, even after escaping slavery: “When Cassy is united with and enabled to ‘sink into the bosom of the family,’ Eliza’s ‘steady, consistent piety’ must transform even the strong maternal force that Cassy redeveloped in the attic with Emmeline into the ‘gentle, trusting’ love of a grandmother. Her maternal love might still be judged too powerful or ‘too thick,’ as Paul D put it to Sethe in Beloved” (1999, 164).

33. In “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” Morrison specifies that “the fully realized presence of the haunting is both a major incumbent of the narrative and sleight of hand,” and its aim is to “keep the reader preoccupied with the nature of the incredible spirit world while being supplied a diet of the incredible political world” (32).

34. Jill Matus observes that “the narrative in itself, at least in the first half of the novel, conveys the nature of the traumatic past through its discontinuity and fragmentation. The narrative texture is built up of memories that disrupt linear time and blur the boundaries between past and present experience” (1998, 111).

35. Beloved appears as both a projection of Sethe’s guilty conscience and a projection of the black mothers that were forcefully separated from their daughters. Beloved consequently stands for a whole genealogy of daughters that yearn to be reunited with their lost mothers. As in Harper’s Iola Leroy, the daughter comes back to search for her lost mother. Moreover, as in Brown’s Clotel, it is the mother who also searches for her daughter.

36. Commenting upon the complex significance of the name “Beloved,” many critics have underlined how Morrison rethinks the Biblical tradition. Monica Bottez subtly observes the allusions to both the Old and the New Testament: “The epigraph of the novel is from the Romans (9: 25). St. Paul is explaining why God has chosen the Gentiles over the Jews, but curiously he is quoting Hosea. Of Hosea’s three children, representative of the Israelites temporarily rejected because of their betrayal, one is called ‘not beloved.’ After a period of punishment, God reclaims the lost people, symbolically renaming the children, as related in Romans” (Bottez 1997, 227). Moreover, Gurleen Grewal argues that the word “beloved” can be an allusion to another temporal moment in the Bible, the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (6: 3) becomes in the novel: “I am Beloved and she is mine” (1998, 210). Grewal also points to the fact that the novel makes allusions to other episodes in the Bible, for example “The Witness of the Spirit,” in The First Letter of John: “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ, not by water only but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth” (5: 6). Thus, Grewal shows that a transparent comparison can be established between Christ’s resurrection and walking on the water and Beloved’s appearance and walking out of the water.

37. See the novel’s dedication: “Sixty Million/and more.”

38. Morrison points to the similarity between the Middle Passage and death: “[Beloved] tells them what it was like being where she was on the ship as a child. Both things are possible, and there is evidence in the text that both things could be approached, because the language of both experiences, death and the Middle Passage—is the same” (Morrison with Marsha Darling, “In the Realm of Responsibility.” Women’s Review of Books 5, 6 (1988): 5).

39. Beloved’s appearance triggers in the novel the “trickster aesthetic,” which is described by Jeanne Rosier Smith as an aesthetic that “challenges an ethnocentric as well as a phallocentric tradition” (1997, 11). In the presence of this symbolic character, the past can be seen as a multi-voiced flexible entity to be re-lived and re-created through the agency of the others, i. e. Sethe, Denver, Paul D, Stamp Paid, and the community. Smith’s “trickster aesthetic” draws on Bakhtin’s conception of the novel as a “dialogized heteroglossia” which incorporates diverse and sometimes contradictory points of view, thus undermining the monolithic supremacy of a unitary language.

40. The novel is so designed that the readers enter a “watertime” condition, in which the limitations of normality are trespassed by “a confluence of time and space in which all normal boundaries are suspended” (Morey 2000, 248). Ann-Janine Morey demonstrates that “watertime” stands for a new type of feminine knowledge that appears in women’s fiction, in which spatial and temporal borders become fluid. Morey analyzes Morrison’s and Atwood’s novels as illustrative for this type of fiction which resists a rigid categorization and proposes a cultural flexibility that threatens not only the strict schemes of the religious traditional Weltanschauung, as Morey specifies, but also the frame of the ethical order. For both Morrison and Atwood, “watertime” is a condition that brings in the “irrepressible fluidity of the inbreaking past” (Morey 2000, 248), a concept that Morrison designates by her own coined word, “rememory,” and Atwood by the metaphor of “surfacing.”

41. Claudine Raynaud correlates Beloved’s burning with Kristeva’s concept of abjection, which lies beyond the re-presentable: “Abjection resurfaces in the very ambivalence, in the impossibility of a definite referent, of that recalled burning (searing?) which points to consummation, to death by fire, or to sexuality” (1999, 78).

42. Denise Heinze notes about the importance of communities in Morrison’s text: “Morrison’s fictional communities, simultaneous expressions of structure and communitas, provide unique insight into the conflicting value systems of America” (1993, 107).

Discussing this scene, Terry Otten explains: “In attacking him, Sethe achieves an exorcism; in saving Beloved by offering herself, she at last frees herself from the demonic presence that will not release her from the past. Once Sethe acts to save Beloved, retestifying to her love, the ghost disappears” (1989, 94).


Chapter V

1.     Flight to Canada, back-cover.

2.     When discussing the negative response to Reed’s aesthetic, Bernard Bell specifies: “Uppity, pretentious, pompous, sexist, and sophomoric are the most frequent if not kindest names hurled by unsympathetic critics at Reed for the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic he develops between 1967 and 1983” (1987, 330).

3.     Robert Elliot Fox cogently notes the multiple meanings of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo aesthetic: “Neohoodooism is the name Reed gave to the philosophy and aesthetic processes he employs to take care of business on behalf of the maligned and mishandled. Hoodoo—the African American version of voodoo, a misunderstood term that actually refers to traditional African religious practices as they have reasserted themselves in the diaspora—appeals to Reed because of its “mystery” and its eclectic nature, thus providing him with an appropriate metaphor for his understanding and realization of art. Reed’s best statements concerning the workings of neohoodooism can be found in his first book of poetry, Conjure (1972)… while the most successful actualizations of neohoodooism as a practice are his novels Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), the aforementioned Mumbo Jumbo, and Flight to Canada (1976)” (, 1997).

4.     Richard Swope considers Reed’s Neo-HooDooism a “multicultural amalgamation” that “includes the intermingling of differing, culturally infected spatial perceptions and constructions” (2002, 614).

5.     Ashraf H. Rushdy considers Flight to Canada the point of origin of the neo-slave narrative (1999).

6.     Like in Mumbo Jumbo, in Flight to Canada, Reed undermines the idea of linearity (see Hogue 2002).

7.     In Flight to Canada, Reed emphasizes his black-on-black rewriting and his literary indebtedness to Brown. In a symbolic scene during Raven’s passage to Canada, the character meets William Wells Brown, to whom he confesses: “My poem ‘Flight to Canada’ is going to be published in Beulahland Review. It kind of imitates your style, though I’m sure the critics are going to give me some kind of white master. A white man. They’ll say that he gave me the inspiration and that I modeled it after him. But I had you in mind… Mr. Brown” (121). As Roumiana Velikova observes, “Reed uses this encounter to rebuff his critics in the 1970s who compared him exclusively to white writers” (2004, 38).

8.     Not just Stowe rewrote a number of African Americans’ stories (as she points in Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin), but also Brown rewrote various texts, including Lydia Maria Child’s story, “The Quadroons” (1842).

9.     In this direction, Helga Geyer-Ryan stresses that rewriting history is not an easy task: “For what is left is a pure form—pure because it is defunct—into which new meaning can be deposited, an activity performed by the artist, the historian and the collector alike” (1994, 15).

10. The use of anachronisms is also one of William Wells Brown’s techniques. Lee Schweninger evinces Brown’s problematic authentication and his chronological inconsistencies as part of his process of transforming a historical fact into fiction. For Brown (as for Reed), “historical accuracy seems hardly important insofar as the plot is concerned” (Schweninger 1999, 23).

11. Moreover, like other postmodern authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon, Reed reveals “the self-reflexivity of a postmodern narrative that is concerned with its telling of a tale, at the same time being conscious of its incapacity to represent the narrated events” (Criºu 2002, 213).

12. From another angle, Reed’s text can be seen as “surfiction”—a narrative that does not simply reproduce former meanings, but ingeniously produces new ones. In Reed’s textual endeavor, “to write is to progress, and not to remain subjected” to past narratives (Federman 1993, 38). This creative interpretation of reality is underlined by Raymond Federman, who differentiates between surfiction and realistic fiction: “Rather than serving as a mirror or redoubling on itself, fiction adds itself to the world thus creating a meaningful relation that did not previously exist. To write today is before all an effort to create a DIFFERENCE, and not to pretend that fiction is the same thing as reality. The traditional, realistic novel was a representation of the SAME. Surfiction will be a presentation of difference—a liberation of what is different” (38).

13. In his chapter “Outwriting, Ishmael Reed’s Critical Appropriations,” Christian Moraru focuses on Reed’s ability to rewrite Edgar Allan Poe in a variety of ways. References are made to Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Premature Burial,” “The Raven,” etc. Moraru points out that Reed’s novel “crayons the psychological portrait of an epoch by laying bare morbid, Sadistic, or necrophilic drives as core components of a definition of slavery and ‘Nobility’ simultaneously” (93-94). Quoting Kathryn Hume, Moraru distinguishes between the “Poe midsummer day’s dream” (i.e. the chivalrous, idealized image of the South) and the “Poe nightmare” (i.e. the Southern preposterous racism) (Hume 1993, 508-9, in Moraru 2001, 94).

14. In this sense, Karl Marx makes the following commentary: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” (Marx 1973, 146, in Young 1996, 146).

15. Reed castigates Whitman’s image as the poet-healer—the reconciler who sympathizes with the common suffering of the North and the South—by turning him into a “polite” poet, one who sits in a corner of the White House and sniffs “a lilac” (83). Reed hints here at Whitman’s poem dedicated to Lincoln’s death, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”

16. Reed’s anachronism is obvious here, since “the Washington Monument was only about 1/3 complete and construction had completely stopped by the time of the Civil War. It was not finished until the 1880s” (Frank N. Schubert, copy in author’s files, 2005).

17. The seven states were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

18. George B. Tindall summarizes the whole event: “To save the Union, Lincoln finally decided, complete emancipation would be required for several reasons: slave labor bolstered the Rebel cause, sagging morale in the North needed the lift of a moral cause, and public opinion was swinging that way as the war dragged on. Proclaiming a war on slavery, moreover, would end forever any chance that France or Britain would support the Confederacy” (1988, 670).

19. As George Fredrickson affirms, “Lincoln had apparently absorbed two of the basic principles of Northern white nationalism: that whites and blacks could not live together in equality and that each was biologically suited to inhabit a different region” (1987, 151).

20. Like George and his family, Miss Ophelia and Topsy sail to Africa, as missionaries. Stowe envisages them as part of a grand national project, in which “Our nation shall roll the tide of civilization and Christianity along its shores, and plant there mighty republics, that, growing with the rapidity of tropical vegetation, shall be for all coming ages” (441).

21. Reed alludes here to the rock musical “Hair,” with the song, “Happy birthday, Abie baby, happy birthday to you, yeah! Happy birthday, Abie baby, emanimotherfuckin’pater of the slaves.”

22. Mammy Barracuda’s rapacious character is also suggested by her name, Barracuda, a species of predaceous, tropical and subtropical marine fish.

23. George Fredrickson specifies in this sense: “There was opposition to this apparently equivocal glorification of Negro docility, not from genuine ‘non-resistants’ who suspected a double standard, but also from their antislavery opposites, those who in the 1850s began to encourage slave resistance and other forceful methods of destroying slavery” (1987, 119).

24. Opposing the view of the mulatto superiority, the romantic racialists supported the idea of the mulatto inferiority, the mulatto being seen as a degenerate individual. These romantic racialists that opposed racial amalgamation sustained that the black and white races were totally distinct.

25. Among the Americans and the British, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was extremely popular. In the first two days, it sold out five thousand copies, and during the first year, it sold three hundred thousand copies in America and two hundred thousand copies in England.

26. The first federal Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the Congress in 1793, and in 1850 the Congress passed major compromise legislation containing harsher federal Fugitive Slave Law.

27. In response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery texts were written. Moreover, minstrel shows arose after the publication of Stowe’s novel, shows that survived up to the 1960s, radically changing Stowe’s text. See also Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), especially chapter “Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production” (211-238).

28. Baldwin compared Stowe’s novel with Richard Wright’s Native Son, seeing similarities between Uncle Tom and Bigger Thomas, two characters that “accepted a theology that denies [them] life,” and had “to battle for [their] humanity” (1955, 155).

29. In her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), Stowe strives to underline that in her novel all her events and characters have a real correspondent: “Now all these incidents that have been given are real incidents of slavery, related by those who know slavery by the best of all tests—experience; and they are given by men who have earned a good character in freedom, which makes their word as good as the word of any man living” (1998, 476).

30. Not everyone wanted his or her story to be written by Stowe. Harriet Jacobs is a case of resistance. In order to write her autobiography, Jacobs asked for Stowe’s help. Stowe treated Jacobs from the superior position of a successful white writer, and all she offered Jacobs was to include her story in the writing of Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Appalled, Jacobs refused.

31. Uncle Tom’s message was directed toward white readers and elicited the sympathy of a white audience. Susan Ryan stresses the importance of “benevolence via identification that Stowe encourages among her readers” (2000, 760). Ryan reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin within the broader debate over benevolent citizenship, “a way of thinking about national membership and national character through the paradigm of doing good” (2000, 752).

32. A key figure, Josiah Henson (1789-1883) could be seen as the prototype of both the fugitive and the religious black man. Henson escaped from slavery and he faithfully led a party of slaves from Maryland across free territory in Ohio, to Kentucky. By means of the Underground Railroad, he fled to Upper Canada (now Ontario). Significantly, he became a Methodist Episcopal preacher, and was considered the leader of the community of escaped slaves (see Johnston 1990, 3-4).

33. Moraru reminds us of David Cowart’s comments on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake wordplay on storytelling and stolentelling, so that “storytelling always involves theft, that all ‘telling’ is ‘stolen’” (Cowart 1993, 2, in Moraru 2001, 91).

34. Latin. Literally, it means “a scholar with books,” referring to someone who is incapable of thinking by himself and always borrows ideas from other books.

35. In Reed’s novel, the Southern mistress—the romanticized image of the white, pure belle—turns into an emancipated character, Ms. Swille. One can trace her literary ancestor in Brown’s Georgiana (a character in Clotel), another Southern woman who was educated in the North and returned to the South in order to spread her ideas of emancipation. Still, while in Brown’s book Georgiana puts into practice her plans and liberates her slaves, in Reed’s novel Ms. Swille lacks the energy to change the fate of the slaves on the plantation. Barracuda’s bossy behavior obliging Ms. Swille to behave like a Southern belle challenges Ms. Swille’s authority that is temporarily turned into a puppet mistress.

36. Moreover, Matthew R. Davis points out that there are two other characters taken from Brown’s third autobiography, My Southern Home. Thus, the overseer in Reed’s text, Cato the Graffado, is ingenuously copied after Brown’s Cato. The poorly educated Cato in Brown’s text, who “plays doctor and tries to heal several fellow slaves,” turns into Reed’s extremely educated Cato, Ph.D., the overseer, the slave who exploits other slaves (Davis 1996, 751). Reed also borrows from Brown’s third autobiography another character: Pompey, the trickster. While in Brown’s text, Pompey persuades the others to do him various favors, in Reed’s text, Pompey is the one who “precipitates the demise of the Swille plantation,” through his special ability to “’impersonate’ the whole Swille family” (Davis 1996, 751).

37. At this point, I tend to agree with Beatrice Anderson, who, in her suggestively entitled essay “Uncle Tom: A Hero at Last,” stresses that Tom’s pacifism should not be seen as passive submission, but rather as heroic behavior that arises from “religious ethics,” from his desire “to maintain his dignity and manhood while holding fast to his convictions and rescuing his friends from tortures he knows they cannot bear” (1991, 99).

38. In Flight to Canada, the Christian religion is also at stake. When Robin affirms that he acts in accordance with the African gods’ advice, his words are meant to deconstruct the precepts of the Christian religion and its pretensions of universal validity. Robin’s remark sends us back to Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo focused on the spreading of the Jes Grew epidemic that subverts the Western/Christian cultural framework: “I’ve about had it with this Christian. I mean, it can stay, but it’s going to have to stop being so bossy. I’d like to bring the old cults back” (1972, 171).

39. Reed alludes in his novel to book titles that draw attention to slaves’ status as things or property: “The original subtitle for Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ‘The Man Who Was a Thing.’ In 1910 appeared a book by Mary White Ovington called Half a Man” (Flight 83).

40. As Waugh remarks, “the aim of metafiction” is to disclose the “artificiality of [the former] fictional form,” to displace its language and finally replace it (1995, 45).

41. Stowe carefully draws George Harris’s portrait in order to suit the type of the rebellious mulatto: it is from his white father that George inherited “a set of fine European features, and a high, indomitable spirit” (111). In a famous passage, Stowe draws a comparison between the white Americans’ heroism and George’s craving for liberty: “Liberty!—electric word! What is it? Is there anything more in it than a name—a rhetorical flourish? Why men and women of America, does your heart’s blood thrill at that word, for which your fathers bled, and your braver mothers were willing that their noblest and best should die?… To your fathers, freedom was the right of a nation to be a nation. To him, it is the right of a man to be a man, and not a brute” (391-92).

42. Giulia Fabi discusses the three book-form editions of Clotel that “reveal not only the off-noted close connection between early African American literature and historical events, but also the author’s effort to adjust his original text to its own accomplished novelization, in the attempt to tame its proliferation of characters and events” (Fabi 1993, 639).

43. For an analysis of cross-dressing in Brown’s novel, see Michael Berthold’s “Cross-dressing and Forgetfulness of Self in William Wells Brown’s Clotel.” Berthold pays special attention to the episodes concerned with Clotel’s disguise—disguise that has the function to unsettle the power system, as well as “to negotiate the chasm of private and public” (1993, 23-24).

44. Another instance of black-on-black oppression should be found in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, where Zeringue alias Papa, like Yankee Jack, is the invisible hand that moves people’s destinies, the real possessor of the “goods.”

45. Notice that Quaw Quaw’s marriage to Yankee Jack is denuded of any sacred connotation: “When his church objected to this marriage between a Christian and an Infidel, he closed the church down” (93).

46. If we compare Stowe’s and Reed’s titles, we observe that Stowe chooses the Uncle Tom symbol (related to the narrative of immersion), while Reed prefers the flight symbol (related to the narrative of ascent). In the first case, the focus is on the “group consciousness,” while in the second, the focus is on the protagonist’s “self-consciousness” (Stepto 1979 a, 168).

47. As Irina Grigorescu Panã notes, any exilic land can be seen as “an alibi (derived from the Latin for elsewhere), articulated and eventually deciphered through modes of relatedness.” In this way, Canada’s “colonial edge” is transformed into a “seminal origin” (1996, 10,12).

48. The poem is also his textual “bloodhound” (13), as its photocopying and printing leave traces to be followed by the slave-catchers.

49. Reed stresses the connection between freedom and literacy: “It was his writing that got him to Canada. ‘Flight to Canada’ was responsible for getting him to Canada. And so for him, freedom was his writing. His writing was his HooDoo. Others had their way of HooDoo, but it was his writing. It fascinated him, it possessed him; his typewriter was his drum he danced to” (88-89).

50. Strange enough, neither Stowe’s George nor Brown’s George remain in Canada—one of the landmarks of their complex trajectory.

51. For an analysis of the relation between Reed’s aesthetic and Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, see Sami Ludwig’s “Dialogic Possession in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: Bakhtin, VooDoo, and the Materiality of Multicultural Discourse” (1994).


Chapter VI

1.     See Michael Awkward’s book, Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels (1989).

2.     Thadious M. Davis compares Walker’s Southern experience with that of Ernest Gaines: “Like Louisiana native Ernest Gaines, Walker grounds her fiction and poetry primarily in the experiences of the South and Southern blacks” (1989, 25).

3.     The Color Purple was published in 1982, the year that also marks the publication of Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place and Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo. Since its publication in 1982, The Color Purple has been reprinted many times: 1983 (three times), 1984 (five times), 1985 (five times), 1986 (three times), 1987 (three times), 1988 (twice), 1989, 1990 (three times), 1991 (three times), 1991 (three times), 1992, 1993, 1994 (twice), 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000.

4.     This phrase refers to Morrison’s idea of the importance of “claim[ing] ownership of that freed self” (Beloved 95).

5.     Jacqueline Bobo remarks that Walker’s novel has generated controversy since its apparition. She also stresses that Walker’s text is circumscribed by two imperatives much discussed in public media: the necessity of positive images for black people in the media and the ability of African American writers to reconstruct these representations (1989).

6.     Several writers have adopted and expanded the term “womanist.” See Katie G. Cannon, in her Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) and Emilie M. Towers, with In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).

7.     In The Temple of My Familiar, Celie’s granddaughter, Fanny disseminates “The Gospel According to Shug,” a series of twenty-seven maxims that contain the ethics of love, generosity, laughter, as well as resistance, subversion, and divergence from imprisoning rules.

8.     The title of Walker’s essay, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” significantly echoes Flannery O’Conor’s story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” The essay was published in Walker’s collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

9.     For nearly thirty years after its publication, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was forgotten by the literary audience. Being one of Hurston’s most ardent admirers, Walker strove to secure a place for Hurston into the African American canon. Walker went to the South to search for Hurston’s unmarked grave and wrote on it: “Zora Neale Hurston/A Genius of the South.” Walker also edited a book on Hurston: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… And Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (Feminist Press, 1979).

10. See Dianne F. Sadoff’s “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.”

11. Both Michael Awkward (in chapter “The Color Purple  and the Achievement of (Comm)unity” in Inspiriting Influences) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (in chapter “Color Me Zora: Alice Walker’s (Re)Writing of the Speakerly Text” in The Signifying Monkey) offer complex intertextual readings of Hurston and Walker.

12. Even if Hurston’s novel was harshly criticized by outstanding writers such as Richard Wright who found no theme and no idea in the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God contains some of the main motifs explored during the Harlem Renaissance, such as marginality and alienation, the emancipation of women, the use of the African American folk and blues tradition. Moreover, the merit of the book consists in its moving beyond the themes cultivated during the Harlem Renaissance, thus acquiring a universal quality.

13. Bernard W. Bell includes Walker in the neorealist tradition together with John Oliver Killers, John Alfred Williams, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gayl Jones, but he acknowledges that The Color Purple appears as an exception, a novel that is not “historical and mimetic” (1987, 268).

14. One must also notice that Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple have been either criticized or praised for various reasons. Some of the “manifest flaws” of the novels consist in their failure to achieve realist fiction (Hite 1989, 103), their romantic atmosphere and happy endings. Hazel V. Carby stresses that Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is an unrealistic novel, in which the black people are represented as “happy and healthy” (1990, 90). Criticizing Walker, Lauren Berlant notices in the novel the gap between the “aesthetic” and “political” discourses, harshly concluding that the author highlights “individual essence in false opposition to institutional history” (1988, 868). In the same direction, bell hooks strenuously objects to Walker’s focus on the main character’s personal oppression and lack of focus on the collective sufferance of African American people—a fault that can be traced in Hurston’s text as well (1990). However, other critics have raised their voices to re-evaluate these (mis)readings of Hurston’s and Walker’s texts. Berlant’s and hook’s observations about the distance between the personal and the political in Walker’s text are reconsidered by Linda Selzer who argues that Walker is able to combine the “domestic perspective” with “an extended critique of race relations” (1995, 68). The same note is struck by John F. Callahan when he discusses Their Eyes Were Watching God as “a thematic fusion of intimacy and immensity, personal and impersonal reality,” “lyrical imagery” and critical approach to “the limitations of the community” (1989, 116, 121).

15. In this direction, Mae Henderson remarks that “Walker creates a new literary space for the black and female idiom within a traditional Western and Eurocentric form” (1987, 18).

16. Hurston has been criticized for not allowing her main character to narrate her story in the first person, in a novel in which the quest for an authentic voice is primordial. I would say here, echoing Gates, that Hurston’s alternation of narrators and her use of free indirect style are part of her complex narrative technique. Thus, the main character’s inner development is reflected through the mixture of various discourses.

17. Celie may be easily compared to Samuel Richardson’s character, Clarissa, who is raped by Lovelace and later dies. Like Celie, Clarissa writes letters—her means of communication with the external world—letters that become incoherent after her rape, thus rendering the dramatic changes of her traumatized psyche. Still, unlike Clarissa, Celie is able to transcend her traumatic experience and find in writing a means of survival.

18. One could argue that Walker reconfigures the Augustinian tradition of Soliloquia (dialogues in solitude with God) from an African American female perspective.

19. The theme of abuse and rape circulates in several African American novels. Not only is Celie psychologically maimed by rape, but also Morrison’s Pecola is inescapably driven into madness, Angelou’s Marguerite retreats into silence, and Naylor’s Lorraine becomes both insane and unable to speak. Unlike in Morrison’s and Naylor’s pessimistic texts, in which there is no healing for the protagonists’ wounds, Walker’s and Angelou’s novels present characters who learn how to grow inwardly and assert their own independence in the end. By enabling Celie to write, Walker skillfully reconsiders Philomela’s myth recounted by Ovid in Metamorphoses. In the ancient myth, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who also silences her by either cutting her tongue (in some versions) or imprisoning her in a tower (in other versions). In spite of Tereus’ attempt to silence her, Philomela manages to weave a tapestry depicting her story, which is sent to her sister, Procne, who “reads” its message. A common point between the myth of Philomela and Walker’s story should be found in the bond of sisterhood established between Philomela and Procne, on the one hand, and Celie and Nettie, on the other hand—a relationship that enables the protagonists to express themselves. In both Ovid’s myth and Walker’s text the same pattern is present: violation—silencing—disclosure. But while the ancient Philomela remains speechless, Walker’s heroine acquires a powerful voice “that successfully resists the violent patriarchal inscription of male will onto a silent female body” (Cutter 2000, 163).

20. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identifies “the trope of the talking book” “in the mystical writings of Rebecca Cox Jackson, with whose work Walker was familiar. Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871) was a freed black woman, a religious leader who created a Shaker sisterhood in Philadelphia in 1857 (241). In Gifts of Power, Jackson pointed how her brother who taught her how to read and write also corrected her words. As she did not want her brother to gain control over her text, she told him “I don’t want thee to word my letter” (Jackson 107, in Gates, 1988, 241).

21. Many critics have noticed how Frado’s psychological autonomy is reinforced by her acquisition of literacy (47).

22. See Krista Walter, note 14, Chapter IV.

23. The last phrase in the novel is relevant for Iola’s mission: “From threads of fact and fiction I have woven a story whose mission will not be in vain if it awakens in the hearts of our countrymen a stronger sense of justice and a more Christlike humanity in behalf of those whom the fortunes of war threw, homeless, ignorant and poor, upon the threshold of a new era” (1893, 290).

24. In an intertextual reading of Harper’s and Walker’s novels, McDowell convincingly highlights their main difference: “Iola’s energy is invariably directed outside of herself, and the narrative’s action is correspondingly social and public in emphasis. Celie’s energy, on the other hand, is primarily directed inward, and the narrative action of The Color Purple is correspondingly psychological, personal, and intimate in emphasis” (1995, 43).

25. To overcome their state of utter loneliness, both Celie and Frado turn to God for moral and religious support. Frado’s readings from the Bible and Celie’s writing to God undermine the white people’s authority or the male power. Frado finds refuge in the Christian community and the Christian religion, which is forbidden to her by her mistress, Mrs. Bellmont: “She felt herself capable of elevation; she felt that this book information supplied an undefined satisfaction she had long felt, but could not express. Every leisure moment was carefully applied to self-improvement, and a devout and Christian exterior invited confidence from the villagers” (124-5). In the same way, Celie tries to seek support in the Christian religion during a situation which she considers worse than death: “It’s worse than that, I think. If I was buried, I wouldn’t have to work. But I just say, never mine, long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along” (18). It is significant to notice that Celie’s religious attitude will later change, as discussed in the next section.

26. Walker continues: “This is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realized I had experienced and taken for granted as a child; a chance for me as well as the main character, Celie, to encounter That Which Is Beyond Loving and to say: I see and hear you clearly, Great Mystery, now that I expect to see and hear you everywhere I am, which is the right place” (1).

27. In addition, Walker complicates the perspective upon religion, since she introduces in the novel the sections about Africa. Nettie’s letters record the African myths, which are various means of relativizing a monolithic understanding of religion. The Olinka population tells us that the Biblical story should not be read only from the white man’s point of view: the first man was black, while Adam is just a naked version of the original black man; even Christ Himself was black. The African section of the book sheds an ironic light over the missionaries’ efforts to present to the Olinka people the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. As in the Olinka language the word for “naked” is “white,” so “anybody looking at a white person can tell they are naked, but black people can not be naked because they can not be white” (232).

28. For a detailed analysis of Walker’s pantheistic convictions, see Pamela A. Smith. Smith points how Walker received the image of an inhibiting God from the Methodist church of her mother, and how she strove to rethink it. Smith draws our attention to the way Walker “redefines the role of Christ and places the historical Jesus not in the unique role of only-begotten Son but as one among many beloved children, though a distinctly enlightened one. A gifted child, he is worthy of worship. But so are our present brothers and sisters, our ancestors, wisdom figures, and the many spirits in the world” (1998/99, 476).

29. Here Celie resembles Hurston’s Janie who is also silenced by her second husband, Jody Starks who just “wanted her submission” (67). Similarly to Mr. ______, Jody places Janie at the same level with children and animals, on a dependent position: “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves” (67). Like Celie who makes herself wood, Janie’s face becomes a mask beyond which her husband cannot guess her real thoughts: “The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face” (72). Like Celie who writes to God, Janie prefers to keep her most intimate thoughts for herself and the only answer to her husband’s remarks is her silence. Later, there is a significant change in Janie’s and Celie’s attitude, since they learn how to defy their husbands verbally.

30. Awkward constructs his analysis on Walker’s novel by linking the textual manifestations of Celie’s self-awareness with “Walker’s figuration of the written Afro-American text as a shared communicative act” (1989 a, 151).

31. At a textual level, quiltmaking can be symbolically seen as an artistic version of écriture feminine, which, through the piercing and stitching techniques, conflates both the pen and the needle: “A knowledge of piercing, the technique of assembling fragments into an intricate and ingenious design, can provide the contexts in which we can interpret and understand the forms, meanings, and narrative traditions of American women’s writing” (Showalter 1986: 227).

32. Emerging on the stage in the 1920s, both Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker were famous singers of the time between the wars. Coming from the South, Smith “combined the rural southern blues singing style with the sophistication of the city.” Even if she was popular, she was not universally acclaimed by those “black elite longtime residents of northern cities” for whom “she seemed to personify the most disturbing characteristics of the black southern newcomers. Generations of northern middle-class blacks had wrapped themselves in a cloak of respectability to shield themselves from white intolerance, and they were more likely to approve of black success in more classical forms of music in the 1930s” (Horton and Horton 2001, 240).

33. Even if Josephine Baker was famous in Europe and around the world, she was also subject to racial prejudices in America. “In the United States, she once complained: ‘they would make me sing mammy songs.’ In Europe she sometimes played on racial stereotypes that saw her as ‘La Sauvage,’ but she never suffered the abuse in Europe faced by even the most popular black stars in the United States. She was never completely comfortable on her few American tours, never feeling fully appreciated by white American audiences” (Horton and Horton 2001, 238).

34. There is another resemblance between Sula and Shug: both of them have affairs with their closest friends’ husbands, Wiley Wright and Mr.______.

35. Squeak reverses Sofia’s destiny: if Sofia moves from independence to subjection, Squeak evolves from helplessness to autonomy.

36. Notice also the onomastic similarity between the two sisters’ names that rhyme.

37. McDowell makes the difference between the oral quality of Celie’s text and the literary quality of Nettie’s text: “While the majority of Celie’s letters can be said to represent the private paradigm of the African American female tradition in the novel, the majority of Nettie’s letters can be said to represent the public paradigm” (1995, 47).

38. Nettie also disseminates another idea: way in which the Africans sold their own brothers and sisters, and made them slaves in order to get more money. Notice that this idea is also present in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.

39. One of the first impressions that Nettie documents is the racial superiority of the white missionaries. Her description of Monrovia points to a colonial space that replicates the Western scenario. As the relationship between the white people and the Olinka population are extremely tensed, Nettie’s letters suggestively portray the danger embodied by the white people’s desire of dominion exemplified in the approaching road they construct. To use Leo Marx’s emblematic cultural metaphor in The Machine in the Garden, the whites’ so called civilization is an illustration of the machine in the pastoral landscape, of the potential damage brought by the road to the Edenic black community.

40. Because they do not want to educate their daughters, they are compared to the white people who do not want the black people to learn (133). Nettie also draws a comparison between her father and the African men, who silence their women. In this context, Tashi’s case is significant, as she is not allowed by her family to study (Tashi becomes the main protagonist in Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy).

41. Moreover, Linda Selzer considers the effacement of another opposition: the one between races. She insists on two instances present in the novel: Miss Eleanor Jane (the white woman raised by Sofia) coming to work for Sofia, and Alphonso’s decision to employ white people in his store. However, Selzer concludes that even if the novel “suggests that feelings of racial identity can transcend national boundaries, the novel provides no such reassurances that the boundaries between races can be successfully negotiated” (1995, 76).

42. Derrida remarks in Of Grammatology: “The logic of supplementarity, which would have that the outside be inside, that the other and the lack come to add themselves as a plus that replaces a minus, that what adds itself to something takes a place of a default in the thing, that the default as the outside of the inside, should be already within the inside“ (1976, 215).

43. Gates, 1988, 239.

44. McDowell, 1995, 46.

45. In Walker’s most anthologized short story, “Everyday Use,” quilting is a creative traditional process that is transmitted from generation to generation.

46. The aim of Morrison’s The Bluest Eye “is to forge a new aesthetic criterion of racial beauty by relating it to an ethical background that has the function of making the audience aware of its inner racism. It is significant to notice here that the time when Morrison wrote her novel, between 1965 and 1969, was a time of great social changes in the life of African American people, when most stereotypes were undermined” (Criºu 2003, 11).

47. In addition, when her stepfather dies, Celie inherits a lot of money, that will enable her to run her own business in her own house. The situation in itself is ironical, since Celie’s stepfather—her cruel oppressor—offers her post mortem the financial means to be independent.

48. Notice here that the dichotomy between the masculine and the feminine sphere was also reduced in Spielberg’s adaptation of the book to his 1985 movie The Color Purple. Carol Dole analyzes the changes Spielberg operates to the book, as his main point was to create equilibrium by cutting certain scenes of the novel or adding new ones. Dole shows how a mainstream white male director adapted “Walker’s feminist, matriarchal novel about the Southern rural black experience” by “softening both Walker’s celebration of female culture and her harsh portrayal of male culture” (Dole 1996, 12-13).

49. Adventure, from Lat. advenire, to arrive.


Chapter VII

1.     In Playing in the Dark, Morrison analyzes the antithesis between the white man, Harry, and the black man, Wesley, characters in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Morrison answers here a significant question: “What would have been the cost… of humanizing, genderizing, this character [Wesley] at the opening of the novel? For one thing, Harry would be positioned—set off, defined—very differently. He would have to be compared to a helpless alcoholic, a contemptible customer, and an individualized crew member with, at least by implication, an independent life. Harry would lack the juxtaposition and association with a vague presence suggesting sexual excitement, a possible threat to his virility and competence, violence under wraps. He would, finally, lack the complementarity of a figure who can be assumed to be in some way bound, fixed, unfree, and serviceable” (73).

2.     We should take into account here Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s interesting argument that Twain’s two models for Huckleberry Finn were in fact black (the black boy Jimmy, and the black man Jerry—both of them skilled orators), in the context in which the writer himself “allowed African-American voices to play a major role in the creation of his art” (1993, 5).

3.     As one might recall, the fourth part of William Faulkner’s “The Bear” was absent when the story was initially published in The Saturday Evening Post,in 1942. Significantly, it is this fourth part which links Ike’s quest with the slaves’ condition.

4.     In this direction, Toni Morrison states: “What became transparent [while examining the white texts] were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence” (1992, 17).

5.     Gaines’ fiction intricately connects a variety of literary influences. In terms of language, his work draws upon the simple, concrete, vivid style present in Hemingway’s writings, and also upon the ability to draw sketches of essentialized human characters, as depicted by Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert. As Gaines himself acknowledges, the way in which such authors as Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov described the rural condition of Russian peasantry made him envisage in universal terms his own African American people living in the South. In his fiction, the center of gravitation is an imaginary Louisiana plantation named Bayonne, an intricate mindscape, which echoes William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. In an interview with Bernard Magnier, Gaines highlights the similarities between his work and Faulkner’s: “I certainly feel close to Faulkner. We both belong to the South. We write about the same things—life in small towns, the everyday struggles of poor people, the influence of big land-owners on small farmers, race problems. And Mississippi isn’t far from Louisiana” (Magnier 1995, 6).

6.     “Self-crushing” is a striking attribute to be found in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, in a symbolic scene, where Janie looks at her lover, Tea Cake, while he is asleep and feels “a self-crushing love,” so that “her soul crawled out from its hiding place” (122).

7.     A complex analysis of the figure of the “bad man” is offered by Jerry H. Bryant’s “Born in a Mighty Bad Land:” The Violent Man in African American Folklore and Fiction (2003). Bryant discusses nineteenth century bad man ballads in connection with the image of the violent man in the fiction of the Harlem Renaissance authors, as well as in works by Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, Himes, Mosley, Wideman, and Morrison.

8.     The multiple connotations related to the term “bad nigger” are underlined in Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: “bad nigger” has often been celebrated for “cunning, boldness, coolness, and wit, often in the face of overwhelming odds, and for the uncanny ability and imaginative powers he displayed in outwitting his enemies” (Litwack 1998, 438).

9.     I was inspired here by Jeffrey Folks’s article, “Communal Responsibility in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.”

10. Whereas Gaines’ protagonist conversion may remind us of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom (the prototype of the Christ-like hero), the contemporary author departs from Stowe, since he purges his message from Stowe’s nineteenth century mentality.

11. In his introduction to Native Son—“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”—Wright discusses how he adapted various techniques from white authors: “I took these techniques, these ways of seeing and feeling, and twisted them, adapted them, until they became my way of apprehending the locked-in life of the Black Belt areas. This association with white writers was the life preserver of my hope to depict Negro life in fiction, for my race possessed no fictional works dealing with such problems, had no background in such a sharp and critical testing of experience, no novels that went with a deep and fearless will down to the dark roots of life“ (Wright 2000, 11).

12. See, for example, at the turn of the century, Thomas Nelson Page’s Red Rock (1898) and Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (1905), as novels that proliferate the “beast” image of the black man, an image that has roots in biological views upon the African race as inferior. In The Black Image in the White Mind, George Fredrickson indicates that, at the beginning of the century, demonized images of blacks were proliferated mostly in connection with rape. However, “although rape was the central and most horrifying example of the Negro’s allegedly inherent criminality, some writers took a broader approach and emphasized the increase of Negro crime of all sorts” (1987, 281).

13. In the last section of the novel, Bigger confesses: “I didn’t want to kill! But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder…” (453).

14. It is interesting to remember Native Son’s genesis. Disclosing the process of writing his novel, in his Introduction to Native Son, Wright confesses that he initially wrote the last part of the novel, that is, the scene in the courtroom.

15. Here I metaphorically borrow from Michel Fabre’s The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. As the critic explains, Native Son seems to end without developing Bigger’s sense of liberation. The novel thus contains, to use Wright’s own words, a number of “unrealized potentialities” (Introduction 30).

16. Probably the harshest criticism that Native Son has ever received comes from James Baldwin, who refers to its main character as a descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. Even if the angry Bigger Thomas is the opposite of the submissive Uncle Tom, the similarity between them consists in the fact that Bigger “had accepted [the same] theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being subhuman and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth” (1994, 155). In Baldwin’s view, Wright failed to see the humanity in Bigger and wrote only about sociological statistics. However, Baldwin’s criticism is questionable from one perspective: the more the image of the “bad nigger” is reinforced in Native Son, the more it is undermined, so that an attentive reader can grasp Wright’s subversive intention.

17. Kenneth Kinnamon points out that Wright must have learned about Daltonism in the Chicago hospital where he worked. Kinnamon specifies: “In their fashion, the Daltons in the novel strive toward color blindness, though they fall tragically short of achieving it” (1995, 15).

18. Robert Felgar draws our attention to Wright’s suggestion that Bigger’s “violence is one of the effects of 350 years of slavery and oppression; Bigger Thomas is a native son of the United States” (2000, 43). In the same direction, Margaret Wallace sustains that Bigger’s reaction to the murder “is not accidental,” being “rooted in the past which has conditioned him” (2000, 29).

19. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (edited by Michael D. Coogan, 2001) comments upon the book of Job: “For many, the man Job is most well-known through the cliché about ‘the patience of Job,’ derived from the traditional translation of Jas 5.11. The Greek term that is translated as patience, however, means not so much patience as ‘endurance,’ ‘persistence,’ or ‘steadfastness.’ And, indeed, the Job that one encounters in the book that bears his name is not patient, but he is persistent in his claim that he has suffered undeservedly” (726).

20. In his Introduction to Native Son, Wright describes the stereotypical situation: whenever a crime is committed, the police “cruise the Black Belt and grab the first Negro boy who seems to be unattached and homeless.” The treatment this black boy receives during a week of incarceration makes him confess anything the white people want him to: “When a black boy is carted off to jail in such a fashion, it is almost impossible to do anything for him. Even well-disposed Negro lawyers find it difficult to defend him, for the boy will plead guilty one day and then not guilty the next, according to the degree of pressure and persuasion that is brought to bear upon his frightened personality from one side or the other (24-25).

21. Sorin Antohi observes that, in order to institutionalize its disciplinary system, “the modern state conceives and imposes a whole apparatus of alterization, of exclusion,” which is disclosed by the practice of “‘penal partition’ (the separation of the delinquent from society, the constituency of the delinquent area)” (1997, 19-20).

22. The idea of racial inferiority as an argument for innocence also appears in Native Son, where Bigger is considered too dim-witted to commit such a crime.

23. For a deconstructionist view upon the Eurocentric racism, see Molefi Kete Asante, “Locating a Text: Implications of Afrocentric Theory” (1992) and The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism: An Afrocentric Response to Critics (1999).

24. Discussing Native Son, Trudier Harris refers to the time of the plot—the 1920s and 1930s—as a time characterized by “an increased concern over the lynching of blacks” (1984, 113).

25. As Harris observes, in the ritualistic lynching of African Americans, “white Americans were carrying out rites of exorcism in which they seemed determined to eradicate the black ‘beast’ from their midst, except when he existed in the most servile, accomodationist, and helpful of positions” (1984, xiii).

26. In this direction, Jeffrey Folks also remarks: “Once the binding of shared values is severed, discrete acts of irresponsibility and violence occur with increasing frequency. The individual is unable to invent a personal culture; human civilization is the shared creation of the human masses over time” (1999, 73).

27. In White Mythologies, Robert Young concisely phrases Foucault’s view on power as a two-way process: “Just as the exercise of power is heterogeneous, so is resistance… Resistance does not operate outside power, nor is it  necessarily produced oppositionally: it is imbricated within it, the irregular term that consistently disturbs it, rebounds it, and which on occasions can be manipulated so as to rupture it altogether” (1990, 87).

28. James Marshall states that Foucault’s work on power has challenged the process of education from two points of view: “first, philosophically, his work challenges liberal education philosophy (and liberal education) and its use of authority as the fundamental concept for describing and understanding the ‘process’ of the transmission of knowledge… Second, he challenges the relationship between teacher and learner and the sorts of human relationship that underline that relationship” (2002, 413-14).

29. As Justen Infinito points, “absolute control of or liberation from the forces of power was not Foucault’s goal—indeed, for him this is an impossibility—nevertheless, he advocated exerting our positive freedom by experimenting on and creating a self” (2003, 163). According to Foucault, there are certain technologies for self-formation that allow us to disrupt various discourses. Exploring the ancient technologies of the self, Foucault noticed that the Greeks used to understand their own existence as a permanent exercise (1988 b).

30. In A Lesson Before Dying, Vivian Baptiste reminds us of Catherine Carmier, the title heroine of Gaines’ first novel (1981). Like Catherine, Vivian comes from a Creole family who forbids her to associate with anyone darker than herself. Like Catherine, who falls in love with Jackson, a black man, Vivian’s first husband is black, hence, the racial and emotional conflict initiated by her family’s mentality. Moreover, by describing the relationship between Grant and Vivian, A Lesson Before Dying also stresses another aspect: Vivian’s struggle as a Creole to be accepted by Grant’s black community. Since Vivian, Grant’s aunt, and Miss Emma share the same religious and ethical values, they learn to accept and respect each other.

31. Leon Litwack draws attention to this white educational process of “taming” black children: “Every black child would come to appreciate the terrible unfairness and narrowness of that world—the limited options, the need to curb ambitions, to contain feelings, and to weigh carefully every word, gesture, and movement when in the presence of whites. To learn to live with this kind of harsh reality became no less than a prerequisite of survival” (1998, 7).

32. Schubert’s point is also supported by Oliver and Lois Horton, who draw attention to the difference between the urban, industrial North and the rural, agrarian South, where the two-tiered slave system still survived during Reconstruction and later during the twentieth century: “As the nation turned its attention to the more northern concerns of industrialization, urbanization, and European migration, the South was increasingly free to develop its own policies on race, and southern blacks found themselves isolated in poverty and oppression. For most African Americans freedom remained—in the words of poet Langston Hughes a generation later—‘a dream deferred’” (2001, 199)

33. Pirkko Markula notices that “according to Foucault (1984), the practical form of transgression involves every day practices through which the individual constantly re-invents him/her-self, but in addition, it requires a necessary aesthetic element: an individual recreates him/herself as a work of art. This takes place through a complex and difficult process of stylization and therefore, the individual’s relationship to one’s self is more like a creative activity, a constant process of invention” (2003, 102).

34. The invisible man shows his awareness in the prologue of Ellison’s book, where he thinks retrospectively: “I have been boomeranged across my head so much that now I can see the darkness of lightness” (5).

35. Mark Busby comments upon the invisible man’s innocence: “Homer A. Barbee, a black orator (both literally and figuratively blind), articulates this myth as it was supposedly embodied by the Founder and then reembodied by Dr. Bledsoe. Believing the myth, the narrator cannot see the world as it really is—one in which Bledsoe manipulates both whites and blacks in order to hold on to his power” (1991, 50).

36. One of the most haunting aspects of Ellison’s novel is the invisibility of the black body. In his article on Invisible Man, Daniel Y. Kim stresses that racism has negative effects not only over the mind, but also over the physical aspect of the black person: “To be the ‘nigger’ for the white man is not only to accept and acknowledge one’s racially subordinate status, it is more precisely to relinquish authority over one’s body—to allow one’s body to do whatever the white man says it should do” (Kim 1997, 321).

37. In a Melus Interview with Wolfgang Lepschy, Gaines advocates the necessity for African American people to remain in the South. He characterizes Grant as a teacher who works hard to “save” his pupils, to make them grow roots in their native place: “Otherwise some of them might have run away and done the things this dying professor had told Grant he should do. But now the kids will stay and do all the work that is necessary. And those are the ones that have made all the difference in the South, staying, working there, living there, fighting, and dying” (Lepschy 1999, 207).

38. Commenting upon the portrait of The Founding Father and Bledsoe, Robert Stepto affirms: “While the demystification of these would-be examples is prerequisite for the Invisible Man’s blossoming as a truly literate figure, the thrust of the narrative is not to replace these portraits with that of the Invisible Man as a heroic example. Rather, it is to identify Bledsoe, Norton, and the rest as varying fictions of reality and history which must be deposed… defiled in order for the fiction that is the narrative to be imagined” (1986, 61).

39. In Invisible Man, Ellison sketches Bledsoe’s portrait: “Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy complexioned wife” (78).

40. Comparing Bledsoe in Invisible Man to Babo in “Benito Cereno,” Valerie Bonita Gray remarks: “Both Babo and Bledsoe wear a mask that affects their conduct, dress and speech. Upon closer examination, however, one sees that the two characters are using the same means for different ends—the former to liberate his people, the latter to subjugate them” (1978, 41).

41. The ambivalence of Bledsoe’s educational system is metaphorically expressed by the symbolic statue of the college Founder: as he stretches his hands toward the veiled face of a kneeling slave, we do not know whether it is a gesture of lifting the veil or one of lowering it.

42. There are two instances in the novel when Grant searches for models of heroes. One is Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play baseball in the major leagues, who had an active role in the Civil Rights Movement in 1947. The other one is Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish national hero, leader of the Irish nationalist movement during the early 1880s, who is also the focus of James Joyce’s short story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”

43. Miss Emma’s dignified status is also suggested by the polite way in which she is called by the others. She is not addressed as “Aunt Emma,” as black women used to be called during slavery, but as “Miss Emma,” pointing to her higher moral status in her community. Gaines’ use of names is one of his techniques of reconstructing the black image in a racially segregated South that still preserved a two-tiered racial system from the time of slavery.

44. This idea is also stressed by Keith Byerman who notices that there is always a conflict in Gaines’ novels between “those who ‘defend’ the rules” and “those rebels who are willing to die in order to break the system.” The last category is always supported by the folk community, which appears as “a means of resistance to the white system of repression (1985, 67).

45.  The whole community gathers in the church to witness the reenactment of their daily life in the nativity scene. Just like the black women, Mary wears a denim dress as a sign of her poverty, while Joseph wears overalls and carries a hammer in order to show his profession.

46. Gaines does not reconsider just black and white relations. He also pays attention to the relation between the blacks and the Creoles. There are two significant instances in the novel, where the Creoles treat the black people in a racist way. One instance hints at Vivian’s Creole blood; the other instance to the conflict between the blacks and the Creoles at the Rainbow Club. (See here Mary Ann Doyle’s article that focuses on pointing out how Gaines’ novel “led to a more focused inquiry about the history of Creoles in Louisiana and the implications of that history for us as teachers or students preparing to teach” (2001 453).

47. Importantly, at the end of the novel, Jefferson’s death is narrated from the perspective of various black and white characters, who sympathize with his suffering.

48. Auger draws an interesting parallel between Gaines’ Paul and Paul in the New Testament, who has a revelation and starts preaching the word of Christ (1995, 83).

49. His leitmotif—“I am doing all right” (233)—should be literally read as his attempt to see his actions as rightful.

50. Mark J. Justard used the term “écriture masculine” in his essay on male physicality, stressing how this type of writing “deconstructs stereotypical constructions of masculinity” (1996, xi).

51. In his article, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Ralph Ellison uttered oracular words: “The artist is no freer than the society in which he lives, and in the U.S. the writers who stereotype or ignore the Negro and other minorities in the final analysis stereotype and distort their own humanity. Mark Twain knew that in his America humanity masked its face with blackness” (1994 b, 148).


Chapter VIII

1.     Another similarity between the three novels consists in their lack of critical attention. Thrown to the literary dustbin as “sentimental fiction,” Harper and especially Fauset are frequently overlooked. It seems that their fate is shared by Shange’s novel, a text about which very few academic papers have been written.

2.     In “Allegories of Black Female Desire,” Claudia Tate makes the distinction between the black male and female sentimental texts. In the black male romance, the marriage plot has the role to support “the dominant racial discourse of protesting social injustice;” in black female romance, the marriage plot is central, as “these narratives not only culminate in marriage; they also idealize the formation of the family unit” (1991, 105-6).

3.     Even after the end of slavery, its long-lasting effects made men see black women as sexual objects or “mules of the world” good only for hard work (Hurston 1990, 14). In spite of this social drama, literature provided almost no plot about aggressed black women. In 1940, when Richard Wright wrote Native Son, the American scene was swept by hysteria over the vulnerable image of the white woman, whose body was thought to be a desirable target for black men. There was no fuss about molesting black women. Alarmed by this literary absence, Wright’s goal was to draw attention to the black female abused body, and he introduced in Native Son the subplot of Bessie’s rape. From a new perspective, thirty years later, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gayl Jones explored the effects of physical and mental violence upon black women, especially rape and incest. Their fictional universe is haunted by poverty, violence, and loss, disclosing how the strongest social cell—the family—has been affected and could not normally function. The plot focused on the rape of a black female that was underdetermined in Wright’s time is now overstressed. Unlike in slavery, when the violator was the white man, now the criminal becomes the black man. All these contemporary narratives rewrite again and again the ancient myth of Philomela described by Ovid as physically and mentally maimed. In some instances, Philomela speaks. This is the case of Walker’s Celie or of Angelou’s Maya, heroines whose existential growth can fathom the depth of her inner resources. In other instances, Philomela remains silent. This happens to Morrison’s Pecola who ends up being caught in the symbolic cage of a racist mechanism that triggers her mental disease.

4.     Claudia Tate draws attention to the way in which African American women’s sentimental narratives “construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct Victorian gender conventions in order to designate black female subjectivity as a most potent force in the advancement of the race.” Tate reads black women’s nineteenth century sentimental narratives as “feminized mediations of what is conventionally understood as male power,” so that they can be understood as “discourses of liberation” (1991, 107).

5.     Jane Campbell shows that the romance represents “a mode that has qualities appropriate for depicting the black experience and for enhancing the mythmaking process” (1986, xi). She also stresses the fact that historical romance has been a predominantly male genre, since black women’s existence was circumscribed to the homey, domestic sphere. Quoting Tate, Campbell points out that the existential movement of female characters is often restricted by family responsibilities so that they have to “conduct [their] quest within close boundaries, often within a room” (Tate 1983, 185, in Campbell 1986, xi).

6.     Richard Slotkin points to “the myth of regeneration through violence” and the myth of “the heroic quest” as essential components underlying American cultural mythology (2000, 5, 10).

7.     In this sense, the epigraph of the novel sets its tone, by juxtaposing affective and escapist images: “& this is for the man who chases butterflies/ & alcoholics in latin night club dreams/ & kisses me with zoom lenses on the beaches/ of the Hollywood Freeway/ all the hibiscus bloom as you devour iguanas/ & and this is for the men who loved me &/ the one I love/ & and the child who is a mirror (Jessica Hagedorn, “Something about You”).

8.     The novel echoes Thoreau’s famous comment: “Men labor under a mistake… Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or nigh; does any divinity stir within him?… The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (1992, 3-4).

9.     The porch as a spiritually elating space of liberation is placed in opposition with the basement—a memento of the time of slavery: “The stairs to the basement were magnificently narrow, like a dungeon the basement was. In the summer it was ever so cool and in the winter it was warm. Betsey didn’t know why more of the family didn’t covet the basement. Maybe it was on account of the dark and the smell. It smelled funny down there. Jane said that white folks usedta make the colored help sleep down there” (15).

10. A striking comparison can be established between this episode and Sarah Orne Jewett’s story, “The White Heron,” as in both cases the huge, fabulous tree represents the axis mundi, the center from where the female protagonist can start her initiation. Jewett’s Sylvia (aged nine) resembles Shange’s Betsey (aged thirteen) not only because both girls are inexperienced characters young in years, but also because both manifest contemplative skills. In spite of the temporal and spatial differences, Sylvia’s and Betsey’s propensity to explore the world from above, choosing nature’s peaceful shelter over the noisy, industrial American cityscape, initiates a significant quest. Again, for both heroines, the quest takes place on a vertical, not horizontal axis, the pine tree (for Sylvia) or the oak tree (for Betsey) giving them access to the spiritual.

11. Pondering this “halo of romance,” Michele Birnbaum observes that “Harper’s novel, until most recently, has been neglected in part because her characters seemed too brilliantly lit, too idealized in the name of racial service (1999, 14).

12. Gabrielle Foreman discusses the discrepancy between two images of Iola, a static one circumscribed by the nineteenth century essentialized gender conventions, and a mobile one free from stereotypes: “Harper chooses the sentimental form because as a genre its audience appeal had already been proved. Yet she guides her reader, comfortable with the trappings of a familiar genre, through a text in which she transforms her received form and undermines its basic assumptions. In many scenes Harper empowers otherwise weak, defenseless women with the ability to entrance men, to do no less than to perform miraculous transformations through their pure and equalizing inherent qualities, an expected characteristic in the sentimental genre. What is significant is that she incorporates theories which rely heavily on inherent gender qualities while she decries theories based on ‘inherent’ racial qualities. Her explicit undermining of racist biological theories subtly calls into question the implicit construction of essentialized gender differences her text ostensibly offers. Harper’s delineation of woman as the moral/spiritual force to be protected by man is by no means unequivocal—her women are speakers and actors… Throughout the novel, Iola is a strong, independent character, hardly in need of protection. Harper creates a notable tension: She describes womanhood as weak, innocent, and defenseless but will have her heroine employ the opposite characteristics to defend her ‘weak and defenseless’ status” (1990, 651).

13. The rime representing the epigraph of the novel is significant in this sense: “To market, to Market/ To buy a Plum Bun;/ Home again, Home again,/ Market is done.” As McDowell notices, the motto suggests that “the unfulfilled expectations of the speaker in the nursery rhyme stands in ironic contrast to the foiled expectations of Angela Murray” (1990, xvi). The motto may also suggest the idea of “marketalbe” love, as it alludes to men as buyers and women as “plum buns,” alluding to women’s racial and sexual exploitation.

14. Like Just as Mr. Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Roger offers Angela gifts, but no real understanding. Even if Angela gives in to Roger, “something quite outside herself, something watchful, proud, remote from the passion and rapture which flamed within her, kept her free and independent. She would not accept money. She would not move to the apartment on Seventy-Seven Street; she still refused gifts so ornate that they were practically bribes” (1990, 204).

15. Hence, the tension between what Victor Turner calls “communitas,” (the relationship through which Betsey can be placed on an equal position with the other individuals), and “structure” (the system that obliges Betsey to obey the moral imperatives of her society (1974, 47)).

16. Selwyn Cudjoe remarks the importance of names for African Americans: “The inviolability of the Afro-American’s personhood is so closely guarded that any assault or presumed assault upon his/her person is violently resisted” (1990, 277-78).

17. Geta LeSeur affirms that Ntozake Shange’s women “must learn to relate to and separate themselves from the men in their lives” (1992, 167).

18. One of the traps into which the Harlem intellectuals fell was imitating the elitist model of the white people. These African Americans earned the epithet “dicty niggers,” a term characterizing those belonging to Harlem’s upper class. It is during this last stage of the Renaissance that they realized their mistake of mimicking white values. The result was both a separation of African Americans from American culture and a turning toward the African past.

19. Anthony Hale observes that “Daniels serves as Angela’s ‘racial consciousness’ as the youthful heroine transgresses forbidden racial boundaries in search of a life free of economic and racial oppression” (2001, 167).



1.     The discussed texts are characterized by a “double historicization,” which presupposes a rethinking of “both tradition and of the way in which the tradition is ‘applied’” (Bourdieu 1998, 423).

2.     In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Toni Morrison militates for a political dimension of literature: “The work must be political. It must have that as its thrust. That’s a perjorative term in critical circles now: if a work of art has any political influence in it, somehow it’s tainted… The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time” (1984 b, 344-45).

3.     Moreover, to create an opening into new possibilities of exploring identity in relation to race, postmodern black texts have started to construct characters that bridge over racial conflicts such as Rutherford in Johnson’s Middle Passage, Amy Denver in Morrison’s Beloved, and Paul in Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. The stress here is on a reciprocal acknowledgement of the inherent value of the other with no concern for perpetuating racial antagonism. In this sense, bell hooks’ “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” can be a useful starting point, as she remarks that in the black imagination whiteness is invested with the same features as blackness in the white imagination (1992, 338).


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