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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African American Voices

(W)Rriting The Work and Working the Rites

Mae G. Henderson

Note de l’auteur

I am grateful to Kathleen Diffley, William Caine, Peter Thornton, and Keneth Kinnamon for their helpful readings of earlier versions of this essay, and especially to Houston Baker for his detailed comments.

Texte intégral

One day this ole slave name John was walkin' through the woods; and he sees this, this here skeleton... laying there in the sun... He don't pay them dry bones no mind... he done see plenty of them bones in his time... he sits down on that rock to rest his weary self; and the next thing you know, he hears somebody eerie say: "Tongue is the cause of my being here." John leaped up and ran back to the Master... "Massa... Massa" he say, "there's a talking skeleton in the woods! Old Master say, "I don't believe that John, you're not trying to make a fool of me, are you?" John say: "No Massa, dem bones is really talking." So the Master called all of his friends from all of the nearby plantations... White folks came from all over; and when they arrived at the place of the skeleton — the place of the talking bones — they said to John: "Make him speak." But the skeleton wouldn't talk... So, and then, they beat John to death with anything that they could get their hands on... And left him beside the other skeleton... As the sun set redly, the buzzards was tearing into John's liver, and as the waning sun shined through his vacant sockets... the bones laying beside him commenced to shake and rattle, and then, chillen, them bones spoke... They said: "Tongue, yes, tongue brought us here, and tongue brought you here too."
Old Folk Tale, cited by Larry Neal in
The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn.

It would seem that one must be acquainted with darkies from one's birth in order to fully understand what passes for speech amongst them.
Narrator, "Meditations on History."

There is no doubt about it. White people often undo themselves by such running off at the mouth, and God only knows how many nigger triumphs have been won in total silence.
William Styron's Nat Turner, in
The Confessions of Nat Turner.

And unlike white Americans who could assume literacy and familiarity with existing literary models as norms, the slave found himself without a system of written language — "uneducated" in the denotative sense of the word. His task was not simply one of moving toward the requisite largeness of soul and faith in the value of his experiences. He first had to seize the word... Only by grasping the word could he engage in the speech acts that would ultimately define his selfhood.
Houston A. Baker,
The Journey Back.

  • 1 Sherley Anne Williams's recent novel, Dessa Rose (1986), an elaboration of "Meditations on History" (...)

1"Meditations on History", Sherley Anne Williams's novella about discourse and struggle, achieves much of its meaning through its own struggle with previous modes of discourse.1 Engaging works by William Styron and Thomas Gray, Willliams explores the discourses of history and fiction. Although Williams makes reference neither to Styron nor his work in "Meditations", her title signals not only that Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner is the primary anterior text for her work, but that her purpose is to produce a text which engages Styron as a kind of literary interlocutor.

(Clearly, I have drawn on modern critical revisionist strategies. But revisionism, like metaphor, is a term which subsumes much — in this instance, a variety of literary-critical practices. While acknowledging my debt to Harold Bloom's (1973) notions of misprision and intertextuality, I prefer to describe my own methods more in terms of rereading than misreading and contratextuality rather than intertextuality. His definition of revisionism notwithstanding, Bloom's strategies appear to emphasize the generative or, perhaps more accurately, engendering aspects of the text as opposed to the corrective purposes of writing (and reading). My contratextual reading of Williams's novella is designed to demonstrate her deconstruction of the racist and sexist misreadings of an anterior text (regardless of intentionality) in order to reassert a prior (oral and biographical) text. As a corrective gesture, it cuts back through the detritus concealing the contours of the original in order to reclaim the primal experience from the deformation of race and gender-inflected historical-fictional misreadings. Although Williams writes within an intertextual tradition (that is, through textual antecedents), her purpose, in my reading, is to achieve a more accurate representation — or reconstruction — of the original experience. If the relationship between Styron and Turner can be described as creative misreading (misprision), I would describe that between Williams and Styron as one of corrective rereading. I am indebted to a conversation with my colleague, Keneth Kinnamon, for a clearer formulation of this strategy.)

2Williams's title, "Meditations", suggests a formal and thematic revision of Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner (a title appropriated from Thomas Gray's earlier document of the same name). Significantly, both titles turn on the notion of discourse (or its absence), silence and utterance, contemplation and revelation, private thought and public language. Williams takes her title from the "Author's Note" in Styron's Confessions where he describes his novel as "less an [sic] "historical novel" in conventional terms than a meditation on history" (Styron, 1967; emphasis added.) By unmasking Styron's work as more nearly a personal and authorial "meditation" than the "confessions" of his subject, Williams's title constitutes an ironic affirmation of Styron's stated intentions. For both Williams and Styron, the notion of "meditation" not only implies the priority of the author's imagination and consciousness, but also an ordered reconstruction of history. In the sense that both authors interpose their literary meditations into a historical episode, both these works of historical fiction constitute acts of mediation as well. Williams's work suggests, however, that Styron's interventions result in the misreading of his historical subject, while her own work represents not only an attempt to reconcile the literary treatment to the historical subject, but, in the process, to deconstruct her predecessor's methods. "Meditations", then, becomes a gesture of what Henry Louis Gates calls "critical parody" (Gates, 1984, 294-6) in that Williams revises and thus problematizes the structuration of Styron's Confessions.

  • 2 Mike Thelwell writes: "Is it possible... for a white southern gentleman to tune in on the impulses, (...)

3Styron structures his Confessions in terms of an antithesis curiously appropriate to his subject: freedom and bondage. He declares his intention to "re-create a man and his era", allowing himself as author "the utmost freedom of imagination in reconstructing" the early life and motivations of his protagonist, while remaining "within the bounds of what meager enlightenment history has left us about the institution of slavery" (Styron, 1967, "Author's Note"; emphasis added). Although many critics argue that the novelist, even the historical novelist, is entitled to some literary license, others allege that Styron has created a fictional character who reflects the historical Nat Turner less than he represents the author's highly personal and imaginative reconstruction (Clarke, 1968). In her implicit critique of Styron, Williams suggests that the priority of the imagination — especially when it is distantly removed from the historical subject (object) of meditation by race, gender, class, and culture — creates a peculiar dilemma for the writer.2

4Williams is concerned not only with the problematics of historical fiction, but also with the relationship between discourse, power, and resistance. She explores the critical relationship between power relations and discourse, and the struggle to dominate as well as to resist domination. The central issue for her is not merely the functions, but also the forms, of discourse. The tension between the vernacular discourse of the slave heroine, and the formal discourse of the unnamed white male interviewer who narrates her story raises the issue of spoken versus written language, and their political and ideological functions in racial, sexual, class, and cultural interrelationships.

  • 3 Styron writes: "One of the most striking aspects of the institution [of slavery] is the fact that i (...)
  • 4 (11) Notably, Aptheker contends that Styron's work contains substantial historical distortions (Apt (...)

5Williams and Styron follow similar techniques in constructing their works. Both writers take their subjects from an intermediary and create a complex literary personality based upon a historically constituted subject. Styron's narrative is based upon an account told to Thomas R. Gray, who recorded the original Confessions of Nat Turner as the convicted slave awaited execution in 1831 for leading a rebellion in which he and his followers killed fifty-five whites. Williams's character, on the other hand, is modelled after a historical figure recorded in Angela Davis's "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves" (Davis, 1971, 10). It is also instructive to note in what ways these two readings of the slave experience are influenced by the work of contemporary historians of slavery. Interpreting the dynamics of the slave community and the character of Nat Turner through Stanley Elkins's controversial work on slavery, Styron concludes that Turner, as a slave rebel, is exceptional in that he initiates "the only effective, sustained revolt in the annals of American Negro history" (Elkins, 1959).3 Williams, on the other hand, reads the experiences of her heroine ultimately through Herbert Aptheker's pioneering work on slave resistance, the source for Angela Davis's work on the slave community, which argues that the Nat Turner event "was not an isolated, unique phenomenon, but the culmination of a series of slave conspiracies and revolts which had occurred in the immediate past."4

6Within "Meditations", Williams's unnamed fictional interviewer, whose narrative role parallels that of Thomas Gray, functions as an amanuensis for the slave, Dessa (as Williams's heroine, Odessa, calls herself). However, as author-to-be of The Roots of Rebellion and the Means of Eradicating Them (otherwise referred to as The Work), his role also corresponds to Styron's. The narrator in Williams's text is thus a kind of composite character who fulfills the functions of both Gray, as historical investigator/interviewer, and Styron, as literary interpreter. In figuring the Styron/Gray fictional composite within her text, Williams sets up an author-character relationship which gives her the same control over Styron and Gray that they possess over their subject, Nat Turner. The table below illustrates the parallel relationships suggested above between author, Styron; his intermediary, Thomas Gray; and his subject, Nat Turner. It also structures the parallels between the author, Williams; her intermediary, Angela Davis; and her subject, the unidentified female slave rebel. Finally, it suggests the relationship in Williams's narrative between the composite Unnamed Narrator/Author of The Work and his subject, Dessa.




Nat Turner

Thomas Gray

William Styron

Slave woman

Angela Davis

Sherley Anne Williams


Unnamed narrator

Author of The Work

7I am concerned, however, not only with Williams's replication of Styron's process of composition, but also with her critique of Styron. Like the triptych, above, the elliptical diagram below illustrates the Turner/Gray/Styron and the Slave woman/Davis/Williams relationships, along with their fictional equivalents in Williams's "Meditations."

8Obviously, no schema can reproduce the complexity of these relationships, but this diagram is meant to suggest some of the interrelationships which I will be examining in the course of this essay. The nature and function of these several relationships are indicated through unbroken lines of influence, or replication; broken lines of difference and subversion, or rereading; and parallel broken and unbroken lines of influence and subversion, or misreading. The periphery of the diagram inscribes the intertextual relationships between Styron/Gray and Williams/Davis, and the center, the intertextual relationships depicted in Williams's work. At top left, Nat Turner, the original historical subject, is misread (or constituted and subverted) by Thomas Gray, whose representation is, in turn, appropriated and subverted by William Styron as a literary figure in his novel. In a parallel process of composition, the slave woman at top right is cited by Angela Davis to exemplify her thesis and, in a further development, appropriated by Sherley Anne Williams as a literary subject in her novella. The characters in Williams's text are represented at the center of the diagram in a configuration which both repeats the Styron/Williams technique of composition and, at the same time, plays the dual role of both authenticating Williams's method and revising (subverting) Styron's. In this instance, Dessa is a historical subject falsely constituted (misread) by a historical investigator writing a book on the suppression of slave rebellions, a work which (like Styron's) will be shown to illuminate more about the writer than about his subject.

9One finds telling similarities and differences between Williams and Styron in presentation as well as perspective. Both are involved with discourse on the nature of historical fiction, and both assume the role of literary interpreters who meditate on history. Styron's work, however, is meant to be a meditation, or reflection, on history itself, while Williams's can perhaps be more aptly understood as a meditation on historiography — in the sense that it provides the reader with a guide to the contemplation of historical and literary-historical works such as Styron's and Gray's. If, then, Styron's work is a fictional meditation on history, Williams's is a fictional meditation on a fictional meditation on history, as well as a fictional elaboration of a historal incident cited by Angela Davis. Williams's text thus not only gestures toward intertextuality in its relationship to Styron's literary antecedent, but also in its relationship to Davis's historical citation.

  • 5 If Styron assumes the voice of a black slave speaking as Nat Turner himself in the first person, Wi (...)

10Styron's protagonist narrates the events of his life from the first person, inviting a judgment from the reader on Turner as subject/narrator, while Williams's heroine is presented primarily in the third person from the perspective of the white narrator, inviting the reader to distinguish between the narrator's judgment of the subject and the subject (Dessa) herself. When Dessa speaks in her own vernacular voice, she interdicts the narrator's discourse. At the same time, the contrast between Dessa's spoken language and the white narrator's written language allows Williams as author, in Gates's apt term, to "signify" upon her precursors, Styron and Gray.5 One should perhaps note in passing that the narration of Dessa's story by a white male narrator resolves a technical problem for the author, who must discover a way to present a character who is a victim of an illiteracy enforced by a system which made teaching slaves to read and write a criminal offense. Moreover, it is with a certain appropriateness that Dessa's story is narrated by a white male, representing the class which has historically controlled the print media. It was the historical records of this class (diaries, plantation records, ledgers, etc.) that, until the emergence of modern revisionist scholarship based on the slave's folklore and narratives, provided the primary source materials for the study of slavery (Blassingame, 1972 and 1977; Levine, 1977).

  • 6 Commenting on the relationship between literary and historical discourse in his review of Styron's (...)

11Williams's concern with signification suggests that the reader must approach the discourse of the "real" as well as the discourse of the "imaginary" with a sense of scepticism based on a recognition of the cultural myths inscribed in language and consciousness. It might also suggest that we can assume the truth claim of historical narrative no more than that of literary narrative.6 Thus, as readers, we must beware of what Barbara Johnson describes as the "interpretive malpractice" that writers (both creative and historical) are subject to (Johnson, 1980, 126).

12Because Williams's text repeats in structure and subverts in meaning the Turner/Gray/Styron dynamic, we begin by examining the role of Styron's intermediary, Thomas Gray, whom Styron describes as "a somewhat enigmatic lawyer... who published Confessions... and then vanished from sight" (Duff and Mitchell, 1971, 126-7). In his address "To the Public" in The Confessions of Nat Turner, Gray tells us that what he is about to present is a "faithful record" of his interview with the subject:

I have had ready access to him, and finding that he was willing to make a full and free confession of the origin, progress and consummation of the insurrectionary movements of the slaves of which he was the contriver and head; I determined for gratification of public curiosity to commit his statements to writing, and publish them, with little or no variation, from his own words. That this is a faithful record of his confessions, the annexed certificate of the County Court of Southampton, will attest. They certainly bear the stamp of truth and sincerity. (Appendix to Clarke, 1968, 96)

13Although Gray's assertions suggest that he locates the authenticity and value of his account in discourse that is presumed to be objective and value-free, a close reading of his prefatory comments would indicate a more complex motivation at work. Turner's actions have, in effect, created moral and social chaos for the narrator and his world. By presenting Turner's story as a cautionary tale, the narrator attempts to restore by simple reaffirmation his own sense of moral and mental order, prerequisite to the reestablishment of the social order which Turner has threatened:

His [Nat Turner's] own account of the conspiracy is submitted to the public, without comment. It reads an awful, and it is hoped, a useful lesson, as to the operations of a mind like his, endeavouring to grapple with things beyond its reach. How it first became bewildered and confounded, and finally corrupted and led to the conception and perpetuation of the most atrocious and heart-rending deeds. It is calculated also to demonstrate the policy of our laws in restraint of this class of our population, and to induce all those entrusted with their execution, as well as our citizens generally, to see that they are strictly and rigidly enforced. Each particular community should look to its own safety, whilst the general guardian of the laws, keep a watchful eye over all. (97)

14The contradiction between the profession of factual objectivity ("without comment") and the editorial imposition of meaning that immediately follows signals Gray's real intentions to the reader. Turner becomes for his amanuensis a symbol of disorder and irrationality. Gray's representation of the events surrounding Turner's activities becomes "a useful lesson", or rather an instrument or device for restoring psychic order. Furthermore, the policy of restraint and repression which he advocates is aimed at re-establishing public order. His comments also suggest that his findings (like those of the scholar and scientist) have implications for both the formulation of public policy and the machinery designed to enforce that policy.

15The ambiguous relationship between Styron and his source, Gray, serves to intensify a clearly problematic relationship between Styron and his subject, Turner. In his essay, "This Quiet Dust", Styron discounts as "virtually worthless" the newspaper accounts of the period which he describes as "sketchy, remote, filled with conjecture". On the other hand, he appears to affirm the authenticity of Gray's original Confessions of Nat Turner, "a brief pamphlet of some five thousand words, transcribed from Nat's lips as he awaited trial... There are several discrepancies in Gray's transcript but it was taken down in haste, and in all major respects it seems completely honest and reliable." (Styron, 1971, 126) Yet, in his exchange with Herbert Aptheker, published in The Nation sometime later, Styron suggests a qualification, if not an actual retraction:

I have never questioned their authenticity [Gray's Confessions], whatever semantic emphasis is placed on that word... What I do question... is the accuracy of the "Confessions", the overall fidelity to the circumstances of Nat's life and career which Gray maintained during the course of what must have been, considering the hysteria of the moment, an exceedingly difficult and prickly interview. (Styron, 1971, 198)

16Continuing, Styron suggests that his primary source, Gray, has in fact subverted and misread his subject:

The entire pedantic, impossibly elevated and formal tone of the "Confessions" makes me believe that they were not recorded with "little or no variation" from Nat's words, as Gray states in his prologue; and so how much during that tense encounter was subtly bent and twisted by the narrator? Gray was a man of his time, a Southern racist, and as a functionary of the Commonwealth it may well have been to his advantage (and in spite of his disclaimer to the contrary) to distort many things that the helpless prisoner told him, to add things, to leave things out. (Styron, 1971, 198-99)

17Clearly, Styron is motivated in part by the criticism of detractors who accuse him of inauthenticity, distortion, and historical falsification in his treatment of Turner. Styron's critics have levelled, among others, the charges that the author portrays the slave revolutionary as a weak and irresolute figure; that he associates Turner's liberational impulse to sexual repression, pent-up passion for white women, and latent homosexuality; and that he ignores Turner's wife and the role of his family in the shaping of his character (Genovese, 1971, 205). Styron and his apologists have defended both his artistic and historical integrity on the basis that Styron "takes liberties with fact, as every novelist does, but he does not do violence to the historical record" (Genovese, 1971, 205). Quoting the marxist critic, Lukács, Styron argues that "the novelist must be at liberty to treat [historical facts] as he likes, if he is to reproduce the much more complex and ramifying totality with historical faithfulness" (Styron, 1971, 199).

  • 7 Ralph Ellison's position on the relation of history and literature points to some of the problems c (...)

18If Styron's most severe critics indict him for perpetrating "white Southern myths, racial stereotypes, and literary clichés", his most astute critics suggest that what is at issue is not Styron's literary license, but his preference for his own imagination over the historical facts of Turner's life. (Thelwell, in Clarke, 1968, 91) Responding to this issue, Ralph Ellison, for example, would limit the autonomy of the novelist who chooses to write historical fiction. "The freedom of the fiction writer, the novelist, is one of the great freedoms possible for the individual to exercise," says Ellison, "but it is not absolute... you don't have the freedom to snatch any and everybody, and completely recreate them."7

19Although at a considerably greater remove, Gray is to Styron's Confessions what Angela Davis is to Williams's "Meditations". And what Turner is to Gray, the unnamed slave woman is to Angel Davis. Dedicating her novella to Davis, Williams opens with a quotation from Davis's "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves":

  • 8 All subsequent references are to the edition cited in the works cited. [Emphasis in original.]

The myth [of the black matriarchy and the castrating black female] must be consciously repudiated as myth and the black woman in her true historical contours must be resurrected. We, the black women of today, must accept the full weight of a legacy wrought in blood by our mothers in chains... as heirs to a tradition of supreme perseverance and heroic resistance, we must hasten to take our place wherever our people are forging on towards freedom. (Davis, in Williams, 1980, 200)8

20The dedication and quotation contextualizes the Williams/Styron dialogue within a tradition of political insurgency and literary revisionism, as a fuller consideration of Davis's original article will show. At the outset, Davis informs us that her work is a repudiation of the myths of the black woman embodied, for example, in the Moynihan Report. Referring to "the paucity of literature on the black woman", she writes:

[W]e must contend with the fact that too many of these rare studies must claim as their signal achievement the reinforcement of fictitious clichés. They have given credence to grossly distorted categories through which the black woman continues to be perceived. (Davis, in Williams, 1980, 200)

21Davis argues that we must examine the biases and presuppositions that the scholar brings to the study of black social structures, warning the reader that the putatively objective discourse of the social scientist and researcher can perpetuate negative stereotypes of black women. She cites the following historical event, upon which Williams bases her story, to demonstrate that black women have been leaders in the struggle for liberation of the black community:

[A] group of slaves, being led from Maryland to be sold in the South had apparently planned to kill the traders and make their way to freedom. One of the traders was successfully done away with, but eventually a posse captured all the slaves. Of the six leaders sentenced to death, one was a woman. She was first permitted, for reasons of economy, to give birth to her child. Afterwards, she was publicly hanged. (Davis, in Williams, 1980, 11)

22Examining the historical record, Davis concludes that the black woman has been central in the black community from slavery to the present as the "custodian of resistance." Davis thus provides Williams with a connecting link to the historical event within a continuum of political insurgency, establishing a continuity of purpose between Davis, Williams, and Dessa — as opposed to the discontinuity between Turner and Gray, Styron and Turner, and even Styron and Gray.

23Williams, in effect, gives dramatic expression to Davis's thesis, while simultaneously providing the anonymous historical figure with literary identity. The violence done to the image of the black slave woman by historians corresponds to the violence done to her literary voice by male (black and white) authors. Just as Davis, in her article, seeks to free the black female from historical libel, so Williams seeks to create a text to liberate her protagonist from literary libel. If Williams combines the roles of historian and literary interpreter in the character of the narrator, she represents the black woman's struggle against misrepresentation and misreading in the character of Dessa. What is significant in Williams's treatment is her emphasis on the personal and physical struggles as well as the social and literary struggles of the black woman. Dessa is literally imprisoned in a social system controlled by the slaveholders and literarily imprisoned in a text controlled by the defenders of that institution.

24Williams introduces her story not from the narrator's perspective, but from Dessa's. The main narrative is pre-empted by a prologue that takes the form of a reverie by Dessa. Unlike Styron's Turner, whose early "meditations" center on his experiences as a house slave pampered by an indulgent master, Dessa's "meditations" depict her relationships within the slave community, and, more specifically, Dessa's relationship with her husband, Kaine. Dessa's reveries of Kaine allow her a temporary imaginative retreat from the confines of corporeal imprisonment in the root cellar ("It was gone as suddenly as it had come, the memory so strong, so clear it was like being with him all over again" (Williams, 1980, 208). Situated before the main text, narrated by the historical investigator, Dessa's reveries, expressed in the language of private reflection, establish her as a speaking (rather than spoken) subject, and provide the reader with a subjective and participatory point of reference for understanding the revelation of events which follow. By opening the text with Dessa's reflections, Williams establishes the reader's narrative expectations, promotes identifications with her protagonist, and provides clues on how to read, or decode, the real meaning of the narrator's ostensibly reportorial journal entries.

  • 9 See Stepto, 1979, for a treatment of the significance of prefatory texts in black narrative writing

25In the traditional slave narrative, the prologue or preface to the slave's tale was frequently written by a white guarantor, usually an abolitionist, who assured the reader that the story he was about to read was truthful and reliable.9 If the prologue was a device for authenticating and validating the traditional slave narrative, then Williams replicates, but, more significantly, reverses this function. The effect of Dessa's prologue in "Meditations" is to subvert the authority and authenticity of the main narration, while more traditionally, Gray's prologue functions to authenticate Turner's account.

26Williams's story, however, inverts not only the structure of the conventional slave narrative, but its social and rhetorical strategies as well. If the original slave narrative had as its goal the condemnation and destruction of the "peculiar institution", Williams's narrator (like Gray) attempts to use narrative as justification for the suppression of resistance and rebellion. Ironically, despite the narrator's intentions, Dessa's narrative does, in fact, conform in structure to the traditional slave narrative, which culminates in freedom for the ex-slave narrator. Unlike Styron's Turner, Williams's Dessa is not only liberated from the fate of her historical precursor, but assists in the liberation of her fellow slaves.

27More subtle perhaps is Williams's subversion of the formal discourse of the nineteenth-century slave narrative. The slave narratives, which inaugurate the black formal and narrative tradition, appropriate the discourse of the dominant white and male culture and, like Gray's Confessions, depend for authenticity upon a highly charged public rhetoric in which the slaveholder and the slave system represent a threat to the moral and social order. In Give Birth to Brightness, Williams writes,

it is... clear from these narratives that whatever descriptions of Black traditions or "field of manners" are given are there either to point up the effects of slavery, or are unintentional by-products. The major impetus of these men as writers was the need to call attention to the plight of Black people in this country, to point out the inequities and horrors of America's caste system, to provide answers and questions and solutions to America's dilemma. (Williams, 1972, 35-6)

  • 10 Critics Robert Stepto and Henry Louis Gates demonstrate the significance of literacy and formal dis (...)

28Williams's insertion of the black vernacular into this discourse, in effect, writes into history the voices of slaves like Dessa. Although she was illiterate (unlike Nat Turner), she nevertheless represents those slaves who gained some measure of personal autonomy, despite enforced illiteracy.10

29The main story, as I have indicated, takes the form of a series of journal entries recorded by the amanuensis, emphasizing the authority of written discourse for the narrator. His style, reflecting a "scholarly" posture, is impersonal and "objective", based upon scientific inquiry, reason, logic, cause and effect. In short, his narration represents white, male, formal discourse. He is author of The Complete Guide for Competent Masters in Dealing with Slaves and Other Dependents, a work which he dismisses as "a mere business venture." More important to the narrator is his forth-coming magnum opus. The slave uprising in which Dessa participates, he believes, will make a "splendid opening" to his contemplated project: "... she will be brought to recreate that event [the uprising] and all that led up to it for me. Ah! the work, The Work has at last begun" (212).

  • 11 This bit of riffing by Williams on the practice of conjuring (colloquially described as "root work" (...)

30It is the full title of The Work — The Roots of Rebellion and the Means of Eradicating Them (also referred to as Roots) — which reveals the motivations of the narrator. The ironic allusion to Alex Haley's historical novel Roots suggests a concern not so much with roots as with eradication (1976). Assuming the posture of a historical investigator, the narrator sets out to "discover and analyze the motivating factors which culminated" in what he regards as "this outrage against the public safety" (222). The Work, then, is projected as a kind of blueprint for the exercise of power and control by the dominant and privileged over the dominated and subjected, and thus becomes part of a technology of representation which ensures the ideological dominance and physical suppression of the slave. Undoubtedly, the rather nice subversion and parody evoked by the conflation of the abbreviated titles (Roots and The Work) will not be lost upon the close reader. As the narrator "writes" The Work (Roots), so Dessa "works" the "rites of roots".11

31Based upon trial records, the narrator reconstructs the following incident:

Wilson picked up a consignment of slaves in Charleston at the end of March. While in the area, he attended a private sale where he heard of a wench, just entered upon childbearing age, and already increasing, that was being offered for sale on the plantation of Mr. Terrell Vaungham. He inquired at the plantation and was told that the wench was being sold because she had assaulted Vaungham... Wilson paid three hundred eighty-five dollars species for her: she would fetch at least twice that much in New Orleans... In the early morning hours of April 29, the wench and the four bucks in her chain group managed to free themselves... Two of these went to subdue the guards and drivers while the other three attacked Wilson and Darkmon [the slavetraders], searching for the keys which would free the rest of the coffle. The negress attacked Darkmon and it was his death screams which awakened Wilson... The darkies then took the horses and pack animals, some provisions and all the firearms and other weapons... A posse was quickly formed and set out in pursuit... After a fierce gun battle in which seven of the posse were wounded... the slaves were finally subdued in hand-to-hand combat at a cost to the posse of three dead and numerous minor injuries... Thirty-three blacks were tried (all adults above the age of fifteen): six were hanged and quartered because of the ferocity with which they fought the posse (of these last two totals, six were females); three were whipped only; seven were branded only and three were whipped and branded... The negress still awaits her fate. (217-21)

32Significantly, neither the trial record nor the narrator's text reveals anything of the poignant personal dimension of Dessa's experiences. Although both Dessa and the narrator recount similar experiences, the former's reading is from the perspective of a participant in struggle, while the latter's is from a position of power.

33To understand the narrator's text, we must understand his psychic processes, his profession, his values. The narrator opens his journal with the conviction that "It will be a curious process to delve into the mind of one of the instigators of this dreadful plot" (211). Ironically, the author's journal reveals more about the narrator's imagination and his sense of self and being-in-the-world than it does about the "negro savagery" which he proposes to examine. In his journal, Dessa's interrogator explains his intentions:

  • 12 Grabriel Prosser, along with Jack Bowler, planned a slave revolt in Henrico County, Virginia. On 30 (...)

Each day I become more convinced of the necessity, the righteousness even of the work I have embarked upon. Think, I say to myself as I sit looking into the negress's face, think how it might have been, had there been a work such as I envision after the Prosser uprising of 1800. Would the Vesey conspiracy and all the numerous uprisings which took place in between these two infamous events, would they have occurred? Would this wretched wench even now be huddled before me? No, I say. No, for the evil deed which blossomed forth in her and her companions would never have been planted. (212-13)12

34What is interesting here is not only the objective of discourse for the narrator — to restore order by codifying measures of social control — but also the function of his discourse, which is to organize the narrator's world. Like Gray, the narrator believes that the moral and "natural order of the universe" have been violated by those who do not recognize "their place":

Is it merely the untamed, perhaps even untameable savagery of their natures which causes them to rise up so treacherously and repudiate the natural order of the universe which has already decreed their place, or is it something more amenable to human manipulation? (211)

35The narrator's text is motivated as much by a sense of outrage as it is by a desire to discover whether or not "some disciplinary measure or restraining word" (my emphasis) might not avert further black uprisings. Moreover, the importance attached to The Work not only clearly privileges writing for the narrator, but assumes an added significance in that his prescriptions represent a kind of Nietzschean "will to power" through the agency of formal discourse, giving credence perhaps to Lévi-Strauss's contention that writing "seems to be associated with... the exploitation of man by man." The "necessity" of his work indicates the compulsion with which the narrator approaches his task, while its "righteousness" suggests his conviction of acting in accordance with divine law. Indeed, in taking Dessa out of doors from the root cellar in which she is incarcerated, the narrator seeks to:

free myself [under the open sky] from the oppressive sense of her eyes casting a spell, not so much upon me (I know that should it ever come to a contest, God will prove stronger than the black devils she no doubt worships). No, not upon me is the spell cast, but upon the whole of the atmosphere from which I must draw breath. (213)

36Like Gray's report, the narrator's discourse allows him to impose a kind of Manichean vision on his notion of Self and "Other", organizing the world according to the dualisms of God/devil, righteousness/evil, order/disorder.

37The objectivity implied by a discourse based upon a presumed neutrality is further undermined by the narrator's white, male, upperclass assumptions. Exploiting all the prevailing stereotypes of the black woman, he describes the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Dessa as "this wench scarcely more than a pickaninny", "the virago", "this darky" and "the negress". Comparing her to "a wild and timorous animal", "a beast [crouching] in its lair", and "a raging nigger bitch", he sees her as "a cat... spitting, biting, scratching, apparently unconcerned about the harm her actions might bring to her child". More subtle perhaps than these qualities which suggest that the subject is sub-human (animal-like) are others which depict her as non-human (monstrous). She is the embodiment of evil, a "she-devil" who "casts spells" and "worships... black devils". Incapable of acknowledging courage or intelligence in one who is "but a female and a darky at that", he challenges both her humanity and femininity: "Who would think a female so far gone in the breeding process capable of such treacherous conduct?" (222). Yet, despite his attempts to defeminize and dehumanize Dessa, her femininity, for the reader, has been established in her reveries of Kaine and their lovemaking; her motherhood has been affirmed by her pregnancy; her courage has been demonstrated through her role in the slave revolt; and her intellect, as we shall see, is evidenced in the manipulation of her interrogator.

38It is the narrator's representation of Dessa as Other which enables the reader to understand the complex and fragile psychic structure upon which he erects his self-identity. What is apparent is that the narrator's conception of "otherness" serves to define, through a process of negative identification, his own self-concept. The narrator projects his irrational, submerged self onto the Other, defining himself in opposition to the projected image. Erik Erikson explains how this process of negative identification works:

Identity formation normatively has its dark and negative side, which throughout life can remain an unruly part of the total identity. Every person and every group harbors a negative identity as the sum of all those identifications and identity fragments which the individual had to submerge in himself as undesirable or irreconcilable or which his group has taught him to perceive as the mark of fatal difference: in sex role or race, in class or religion. (Erikson, 1975, 20)

39Thus we see that it is the narrator's effacement and degradation of Dessa which defines his own sense of self-superiority. It is her "savagery" which confirms his "civilization", her "bestiality" which ensures his "humanity", her "evilness" which confirms his "virtue." Erikson's comments also illuminate the subjective source and destructive outcome of the moral outrage expressed by both Turner's and Dessa's interrogators. Such a response is motivated, Erikson suggests, by a threat of losing one's "wholeness" — that is, one's sense of harmony and order — and can "serve the efficient destructiveness of the machinery of oppression and war" (Erikson, 1975, 20-1).

40Williams structures her "Meditations" around the struggle between Dessa and the narrator for control of the text. But this literary or rhetorical struggle is only the linguistic equivalent of the other struggles occurring in the text: racial struggle (black v. white), class struggle (slave v. master), and sex struggle (female v. male). Dessa seeks to avoid imprisonment in formal discourse as well as in society. Just as she rebels against her social bondage, so Dessa rebels against her metaphorical bondage within the text. She disrupts the text just as she disrupts the social system. Indeed, it is because she has threatened both social and literary structures — because she refuses to be confined in either the narrator's text or the social order imposed by whites — that she must be "eradicated."

41The prologue as well as Dessa's interpositions into the narrator's journal are expressed in vernacular discourse. Contrasting his own more direct, linear, formal discourse with Dessa's allusive, discursive, oral discourse, the narrator observes, "[S]he answers questions in a random manner, a loquacious, roundabout fashion — if, indeed, she can be brought to answer them at all" (225). It is her dialect that masks Dessa's true intentions from the narrator, and, at the same time, allows the reader to gain what Williams elsewhere describes as "limited access into the private and personal wishes of the slaves" (Williams, 1972, 35). It is precisely Williams's affirmation of the "speech act" that links Dessa with what Houston Baker describes as "the domain of experience constituted by the oral-aural community of the slave quarters", making Dessa an "authentic voice" of the slave community (Baker, 1980, 43).

42In "Meditations", the meaning of the events resides in the nature of representation, determined largely by the perspective from which they are represented. As Dessa's story unfolds, the reader discovers that Kaine, whose name ironically suggests his biblical precursor, has been murdered by his master:

... when Emmalina meet me that day, tell me Kaine don took a hoe at Mas and Mas don laid into him wid a shovel, bout bus' in his head, I jes run and when the hoe gits in my way, I let it fall, the dress in my way and I holds that up. Kaine jes layin there on usses pallet, head seepin blood, one eye closed, one bout gone. (224)

  • 13 See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's discussion of this concept, based on Wolfgang Lederer's not (...)

43The pregnant Dessa, falsely accused by her mistress of carrying the master's child, is subsequently sold to a slave trader, and becomes one of the leaders in an attempt to free her comrades. Along with her fellow slaves, Dessa manages to escape, but is recaptured and placed in confinement, where she awaits execution after the birth of her child. But Dessa refuses to be either killed in the text or "killed into text", because to do so would be to surrender the control of her life to an-other.13

44If the plot of the narrative revolves around an act of insurgency, its structure is shaped by what I call a kind of "narrative insurgency". The narrator's control over his journal is subverted by a series of "interventionist" acts by Dessa which disrupt the narrator's account. Not only does Dessa refuse to give a full confession, but she circumvents the narrator's persistent attempts to extract information concerning other participants in the revolt. Unlike Turner, who enters into a kind of covenant with his interrogator, Dessa rejects such an implicit contract or consensual arrangement — which would limit the boundaries of her struggle. Despite the narrator's persistent attempts to loosen her "reluctant tongue", Dessa chooses when she will speak, what she will say, and when she will remain silent. If she pre-empts the narrator's story in the prologue, she continues to employ strategies of narrative insurgency — silence, non-acquiescence, evasion, and dissembling — throughout the narrative.

45Repeatedly, the narrator expresses his frustration in attempting to elicit information from Dessa:

46Oh, she may be sullen and stubbornly silent. (211)

47She refused on two occasions to speak with me. (214)

48My latest attempt to have speech with her was this morning... (215)

49We will try what a little pressure can accomplish with her reluctant tongue. (216)

50I do not make the mistake of putting her silence down to modesty or even fear but... stubbornness. (216)

51And she turned her head and would not speak with me anymore. (225)

52I grew more than a little impatient with the response — or lack thereof — which I have thus far elicited... (225-6)

53I had phrased this question in various ways and been met with silence. (226)

54But aside from that offensive flicking of the eye, she would not respond. (226)

55I knew when she turned her head from me that for this day, anyway, I had gotten all from her that I could. (238)

56And when I called to her she would not respond. (243)

57At other times, Dessa hums and sings in order to avoid responding to the narrator's overtures:

58I admit to being at a loss as to how to begin, but... was about to order her to cease her noise. (215)

59[S]he would hum, an absurd, monotonous little tune in a minor key, the melody of which she repeated over and over. (226)

60The humming became so annoying, I was forced to ask her to cease. (235)

61I asked quickly, perhaps too quickly... and... [t]he humming started again. (238)

62Dessa not only exercises control over the narrator's text through her silences and evasions, but emerges in her own voice through a series of "recitals", refusing, as it were, to allow the narrator to inscribe her. The journal entries allow Dessa to emerge at several points in the narrative, displacing the formal discourse of the writer with her own vernacular voice. Her first words, in fact, are not at all in response to the narrator, but rather constitute a speech act of existential self-affirmation, which she delivers in a "loud... even exultant note": "I bes. I. And he [Kaine] in air on my tongue the sun in my face. The heat in my blood. I bes he; he me. And it can't end in this place, not this time. Not this. But if it do, if it do, it was and I bes. I bes" (215-16).

63If the narrator is motivated by a desire to destroy, Dessa's initial response suggests a determination "to be."

  • 14 If Styron relates his protagonist's sexual ambiguities to the white slave mistress, Williams relate (...)

64The key to her identity, however, is not in her relationship to the narrator, but in her relationship to Kaine ("He chosed me. Mas ain't had nothing to do wid that. It Kaine what pick me out and say I be his woman" (233).14 Her love for him — and his death — prompts her rebellion. Dessa recalls that Kaine's final words are "Nigga can do and my [Dessa's] name, my name and Nigga can do." (Emphasis added.) Significantly, his words empower Dessa, who responds to his call to action: "I kill that white man cause the same reason Mas kill Kaine. Cause I can" (224, emphasis addded). With the death of Kaine, she senses herself as part of a network of purposeful — not arbitrary — power and struggle. The social and personal inform one another as Dessa gains knowledge of herself and access to larger social issues. Ultimately, it is through her own exercise of power and will to act that Dessa achieves the subversion of the system that oppresses her and her fellow slaves.

65Similarly, it is the exercise of her rhetorical power to control her own voice and image which enables Dessa to subvert the narrator's text. She senses that formal discourse — which works for the narrator — works for her no better than the system does. She understands that part of the problem is language and representation — and, most importantly, who controls it. As a writer, the narrator has the power to control reality by controlling social imagery. It is because his language has the power to dispossess Dessa of humanity (just as the system has the power to dispossess her of freedom) that Dessa must challenge the narrator's representation. Her challenge to the narrator's historical record preserves between them an adversarial relationship and, at the same time, expresses Dessa's rejection of a formal discourse which excludes or misrepresents her. In the following exchange, significantly one of the few true dialogues taking place in the text ("She spoke to me of her own accord today, spoke to me, rather than the hot windless air, as had been her custom"), Dessa expresses her rejection of a language which can only perpetuate her imprisonment:

[Dessa:] That writin what you put on that paper?… you be writin down what I say?... What you gon do wid it?
Narrator:] I told her cautiously that I would use it in a book I hoped to write.
Dessa:] Cause why?
Narrator:] Girl, what I put in this book cannot hurt you now. You've already been tried and judged.
Dessa:] Then for what you wanna do it?
Narrator:] I told her that I wrote what I did in the hope of helping others to be happy in the life that has been sent them to live...
Dessa:] You thank... you thank what I say now gon hep peoples be happy in the life they sent? If that be true... [w]hy I not be happy when I live it? I don't wanna talk no mo. [230, 231, 234]

66Thus, we see that Dessa, who has physically already become a part of a collective struggle, achieves class consciousness in her personal identification with others. The physical autonomy toward which she struggles finds an equivalent expression in her protest against the transposition of her voice into the racist and patriarchal white male discourse which assigns to her and others "their place" both in discourse and society.

67As the story progresses, the narrator discovers himself increasingly haunted by Dessa. His journal entries begin to display an ambivalence, if not a change of attitude, toward his subject. After an earlier session in which he appears moved by Dessa's personal grief over the loss of her husband, the narrator comments, "It is curious... how the negress, well, how she looks in the sun. For a moment today as I watched her I could almost imagine how Vaungham [her previous owner] allowed her to get close enough to stick a knife between his ribs" (229). Hoping to cajole Dessa into disclosing more information by capitalizing upon her feelings, the narrator employs the strategy of "fram[ing] all of his questions in such a way that Kaine can be referred to some manner". Although acknowledging, finally, that "her attachment to this Kaine appears quite sincere", he nevertheless attributes it to "the basest of physical attraction". (One suspects that he is, in fact, describing the basis of his own feelings rather than Dessa's.) The narrator, however, apparently begins to consider the humanity of his subject, and in doing so, is driven to rationalize his own actions:

I cannot summon up all the same sense of contempt with which I first viewed this liaison. I must confess also that I feel some slight twinge — Not of guilt, rather of compassion in using her attachment to the young darky as a means of eliciting information from her. But the fact is that my stratagems — while not perhaps of the most noble type — are used in the service of a greater good and this consideration must sweep all else before it. (237)

68In their meeting of 27 June, the narrator "[looks] down at the pages of [his] notebook, blank save for the day's date, or at her [Dessa]" (231). In juxtaposing the blank page and Dessa, the author symbolizes the futility of the narrator's effort to capture Dessa in his text. With perhaps ironic awareness, the narrator ruefully laments at "how limited [his] vision had become". Indeed, the limitations of his vision are nowhere more evident than later, during that same session, when he acknowledges the superficiality of his perceptions of Dessa:

But now I know that the thick-lipped mouth, so savage in its sullen repose, can smile and even utter small jests, that lurking behind her all too often blank gaze is something more than the cunning stubborness which, alone, I first perceived, even noted that her skin, which appeared an ashen black in the light of the root cellar, is the color of strong tea and that even in the shade it is tinged with gold. (239)

69Not only does the "girl" become the "woman" in his notes, but the narrator, who has not referred to his charge by name throughout his story (suggesting his refusal to recognize her humanity), calls her by name not less than twenty-two times in his last four journal entries. (Significantly, Dessa drops the "O" from her given name, Odessa, exercising the power not only, in the words of Mary Helen Washington, "to name one's own experience" in the telling of her own story, (Washington 1980, xiii), but also the power to name oneself, thus asserting her own identity in opposition to that imposed by the narrator). Indeed, as the narrator leaves to join a posse in pursuit of a group of slave fugitives, he reflects, "We have much to talk about, Odessa and I, when we resume our conversation" (244). Later, he continues to "look forward to resuming my conversations with Odessa. She has a subtle presence almost an influence which I have only become aware of in its absence" (244). Ultimately, rather than possessing his subject, the narrator himself becomes possessed by Dessa: ("[the sheriff] charged that I acted like one possessed").

70It is finally with some irony that upon his return in the early morning of 4 July (a date the narrator notes with "wearied surprise" in his journal), he discovers that Dessa is absent — vanished without any traceable clues to her route of escape. The narrator learns that Dessa's companions have not only eluded his posse, which has combed the countryside in vain pursuit of the fugitives, but that they have managed, moreover, to return and "spirit away" Dessa. Thus, in the conclusion, Dessa is liberated from bondage as well as from the narrator's text.

71The narrator's final representation of Dessa, more than anything else, threatens the system that the narrator seeks to preserve and defend in The Work. Gradual changes in the narrator's perceptions confirm that Dessa "works roots" on the narrator, and in so doing, succeeds in reappropriating her voice and image in what is essentially an act of self-(re)possession. Dessa has escaped from Roots and the root cellar — leaving the narrator obsessed by her absence:

She is gone. Even the smallest clue — but there was nothing, no broken twig to point the direction, no scent which the hound could hold for more than a short distance. Gone. And I not even aware, not even suspecting, just — just gone. (248; emphasis added)

72The last line suggests that meaning, for the narrator, has been determined exclusively by his own preconceptions. For this reason, he has been a misreader from the very beginning, and Dessa's actions only confirm his misreading. Her escape means freedom for Dessa and her unborn child and, with it, the failure of the narrator's effort. It creates a disruption in the system and a rupture in the preparation of the narrator's text. His sexist, racist, and classist presumptions have obscured for the narrator the character and motivations of his subject. Too late, the narrator realizes that he has underestimated his subject's will and intelligence: "And to think that she — she was so deep as to give never an indication that they [her rescuers] were about." (246)

73In fact, had the narrator been more attentive to Dessa's speaking (singing) text, he might have discovered some clues to her intentions. If Dessa refuses to communicate with the narrator, she does communicate with her fellow slaves in a language devised to mask her meaning. On the morning of her escape, Dessa converses with her emancipators through the lyrics of a spiritual:

Tell me sista, tell me, brotha how long will it be?
Tell me, brotha tell me sista how long will it be?
That a poor sinner got to suffer, suffer here?
Tell me, sista, tell me brotha when my soul be free?
Tell me, oh, please tell me, when I be free?
And the Lawd calla me home? (241)

74Although the narrator recognizes Dessa's voice and is able to "[figure] out [the] words", he understands neither the meaning nor the motive of Dessa's song. Nor does he even suspect the significance of the response of her "sistas and brothas":

Oh, it won't be long. Say it won't be long
Poor sinner got to suffer here.
Soul's goin to heav'n, soul's gon ride that heav'nly train.
Cause the Lawd have called us home. (241)

75In his failure to discern the secular significance of the spirituals, the narrator misreads them as "only... quaint piece[s] of doggerel which the darkies cunningly adapt from the scraps of scripture they are taught" (236). At best, he regards them simply as "close harmonic part singing" which he finds "rather interesting and pleasing to hear." For Dessa and her interlocutors, however, the spirituals constitute a code necessary to disguise their communication from the whites. Dessa both represents and draws on an enabling tradition of black folk and vernacular discourse, epitomized in the spirituals. According to Geneva Smitherman, "the oral tradition [in Black America] has served as a fundamental vehicle for gittin ovuh" — which she defines as spiritual and/or material survival. "That tradition", continues Smitherman, "preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race." In other words, it is the oral tradition which has embodied the collective consciousness necessary to the struggle of the race. Historically, the consciousness and collectivity of the race, engendered by the potent oral tradition, have constituted the principal weapons by which blacks have been able to defend themselves against the technologically superior force of the media and arms controlled by the dominant class.

76Significantly, both these concepts, collectivity and consciousness, are keys to understanding the function of the spirituals and the secular songs. The call-response dynamic that has shaped the black oral tradition is based on a process of mutuality which "requires that one must give if one is to receive, and receiving is actively acknowledging another" (Smitherman, 1986, 108). As an "interactive system", the call-response "seeks to synthesize speakers, and listeners in a unified movement" embodying "group consciousness, cooperation, and the collective common good" (Smitherman, 1986, 109). Unlike the narrator, who uses written language as a means by which to define, control, and establish domination over others, Dessa uses spoken language as a means of interaction and struggle. It is through oral discourse that Dessa, with the help of her companions, plots a successful escape. In the third stanza, Dessa and her companions sing in unison, expressing a unified consciousness and affirming a unity of purpose:

Good news, Lawd, Lawd, good news.
My brotha got a seat and I so glad.
I hearda from Heav'n today.
Good news, Láwdy, Lawd, Lawd, Good news.
I don't mind what Satan say
Cause I heard, yes I heard, well I heard from heav'n today.

77If formal discourse, for the narrator, separates and subjugates those who are different from the privileged, then oral discourse, for Dessa, creates a unifying bond of struggle and resistance among those defined as different on the dominant discourse. Thus, Dessa's accomplishment, as Williams tells the story, is to infiltrate formal discourse not only through interventionist acts, but, indeed, through an "outcry" which draws on a wholly separate (oral and folk) tradition.

78Language not only enables Dessa to obscure her intentions from the narrator, and oppose the system which he represents; it also functions more positively as a means of personal enrichment and empowerment. It is through Kaine's blues-like songs, which he would play "sweet-soft" on his "banger", that Dessa evokes memories recreating her life with him ("She knew the words; it was his voice that had been the music"):

Hey, sweet mamma, this Kaine Poppa
Kaine Poppa callin his woman' name
He can pop his poppa so good
Make his sweet woman take to a cane. (208)

Lawd, gimme wings like Noah's dove
Lawd give me wings like Noah's dove
I'd fly cross these fields to the one I loves
Say, hello darlin; say, how you be. (226)

79The oral and folk tradition, then, provides for Dessa and the slave community (as it does for the author) not only a means of struggle and communication, but an imaginative resource, based on verbal, racial memory.

80The unposed question, however, remains: what is to be done with the narrator's journal? Will it evolve from a pre-text into a text? Its initial status is that of a working paper or notebook for a longer, more authoritative public document. Yet the blindness of the recorder compromises the truth value of his journal, and thus, presumably, its usefulness as a blueprint for the anticipated work. If the narrator's journal were to be transposed into The Work, its authenticity would be subverted by his misreading of Dessa's character and motivation. The journal is not a reliable text because its author is not a competent reader; his discourse is produced by a false hermeneutic.

81Williams's text is about the complex interplay of power, struggle, and discourse — literary and non-literary, oral and written (and to-be-written), public and private, individual and collective. It functions as a powerful critique of Styron, Gray, and other white scholars and writers who, through their historical domination of the print media, have controlled the images of black women. Williams's story not only renders to speech a powerful precedence over writing, but also calls into question the authenticity of white, male, formal discourse on blacks and women and, in the process, suggests to the reader the limitations of literary-historical discourse.

82Her work, however, raises two issues which cannot be entirely resolved: (1) Has Williams produced what Stanley Fish calls a "self-consuming artifact" in that she herself appropriates a form of discourse which her character (Dessa) implicitly and explicitly rejects (Fish, 1974)? Does the author, in other words, discredit the very form of discourse which makes it possible for her to deliver such a forceful critique? (2) Does Williams suggest in her relationship to Styron and in Dessa's relationship to the narrator that white males and black women cannot share a common language? Is she arguing, moreover, that whites do not know how to read black speech — and by extension, blacks and their experiences, making it impossible for the white writer to render an authentic portrayal of blacks?

83Certainly there is an element of self-subversion in Williams's story in that the author does, in fact, problematize the very form of discourse which she herself replicates, that is, formal discourse and, more specifically, historical fiction. It would seem, however, that she replicates the form for the purpose of subverting a particular practice. While there may exist a paradox in demanding historical truth from a literary text, in which conventional meaning is regarded as immanent rather than referential, Williams's treatment acknowledges the elusiveness of her subject. In her characterization of Dessa, Williams represents an ambiguity and indeterminacy that suggest the essential "otherness" of any subject, a quality which must ultimately elude any author who bases his or her fictional character on a historical model. It is the impossiblity of knowing that quality of otherness, explored by the author in her characterization of Dessa, that distinguishes Williams's representation from Styron's.

84Moreover, in her own intervention and "outcry" to an alternative tradition, Williams's strategy, in a sense, replicates that of her heroine. Williams's treatment, in effect, redefines what has been traditionally regarded as "historical fiction". Less a personal and imaginative reconstruction based on the "official records" of what has happened, historical fiction as a genre, becomes, for Williams, a reconstruction based on other "non-official" sources of past experience — the oral and folk tradition. It is a process which shifts emphasis from the authority of the written, and closed, solipsistic text (that is, the official record) to the oral, and open, collaborative text. In other words, the historical fiction writer enters into a dialogue with an oral tradition in a process that not only parallels the call-response pattern in Dessa's spirituals, but that redefines historical fiction itself as a kind of call-response operation. Interestingly, Ellison addresses this very issue in the context of a forum held at the thirty-fourth annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in 1968:

If you project in fiction your version of history, then you have an obligation to think about [the] other feed-ins from the common experience which are going to put to question your particular projection of history. I don't think that history is Truth... Here in the United States we have had a political system which wouldn't allow me to tell my story officially. Much of it is not in the history books. Certain historians and untrained observers did their jobs, often very faithfully, but... the story they recorded was altered to justify racial attitudes and practices. But somehow, through our Negro American oral tradition... these reminders of the past as Negroes recalled it found existence and were passed along. Historical figures continued to live in stories or theories about the human and social dynamics of slavery, and the effects of political decisions rendered during Reconstruction. Assertions of freedom and revolts were recalled along with triumphs of labor in the fields and on the dance floor; feats of eating and drinking and of fornication, or religious conversion and physical endurance, and of artistic and athletic achievements. In brief, the broad ramifications of human life as Negroes have experienced it were marked and passed along. This record exists in oral form and it constitutes the internal history of values by which my people lived even as they were being forced to accommodate themselves to those forces and arrangements of society that were sanctioned by official history. The result has imposed upon Negroes a high sensitivity to the ironies of historical writing and created a profound skepticism concerning the validity of most reports on what the past was like. (Ellison et al., in West, 1985, 125-6, emphasis added)

85In response to the second issue, that is, whether or not whites can render a convincing and truthful representation of blacks, one can arguably conclude that Williams makes a case that whites will be able to decode neither black speech nor black life unless they first challenge the motives served by the dominant discourse. In one respect, the author provides a model of transformation by herself employing the (formal) discourse of domination in order to resist that same domination. In the process, she confronts the challenge faced by contemporary black writers who wish to preserve the strengths of vernacular discourse and the folk tradition within what has evolved into a formal, literate tradition. Like other modern black writers, Williams has inscribed the vernacular voice within a formal text, thereby transforming both the oral and formal traditions.

86While Dessa's narrative interventions and subversions undermine some of the prevailing cultural myths and received notions about black women, Williams's "Meditations" suggests that we must revise our expectations of white- and male-authored literary and nonliterary texts about blacks and women; that we must learn, in the words of Adrienne Rich, "[to enter] an old text from a new critical direction"; and, furthermore, that the act of "seeing" an old text "with fresh eyes" is "an act of survival". As Rich puts it, "We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us." In the sense that Rich uses the term, then "re-vision" allows us to reclaim authentic historical and literary models, and in doing so, to liberate ourselves from old stereotypes (Rich, 1979, 35).

87The major significance of Williams's text is that it draws the reader's attention to the representational and interpretative strategies of those who dominate formal discourse. It becomes a decoding device for reading texts by those who control social and literary structures. In this regard, Williams not only reveals the presumptions and pitfalls of racial-and gender-inflected cultural misreadings, but, perhaps more importantly, she provides the reader with a model of how to read formal texts in which black and women's voices have been muted, suppressed, or misunderstood.



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Davis, Angela. "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves", The Black Scholar (December 1971): 13-15.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 1983. [This text by Foucault did not appear in print until published in this edition in English; the section from which the epigraph at the head of my chapter is quoted was translated by Leslie Sawyer, and appears on p. 255.] 1982.

Duff, John B. and Peter M. Mitchell. The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Erikson, Erik H. Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.

Fish, Stanley E. Self-Consuming Artifacts. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.

Foucault, Michel. See Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. ed. "'Race', writing and difference," Critical Inquiry 12, 1 (Autumn 1985).

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. ed. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York and London: Methuen, 1984.

Genovese, Eugene D. "The Nat Turner Case", in Duff and Mitchell, 1971, 205. [Originally published in The New York Review of Books, (12 September 1968): 34-7].

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1968. repr. in the Appendix to Clarke 1968. [Originally published in 1832 as The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., As Fully and Voluntarily Made to Thomas R. Gray. Richmond: Thomas R. Gray].

Haley, Alex. Roots. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.

Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Neal, Larry. "The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn", Larry Neal: A Special Issue, ed. Kimberley W. Benston, Callaloo 23, 8. 1 (Winter 1985).

Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision", in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Styron, William. "Truth and Nat Turner: an Exhange." Eds. Duff, John B. and Peter M. Mitchell. The Nat Turner Revellion: The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy. New York: Harper and Row, 1971. [Originally published in The Nation (22 April 1968): 543-7].

Styron, William 1967. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1979.

Washington, Mary Helen ed. Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1980.

Williams, Sherley Anne. Give Birth to Brightness. New York: Dial Press 1972.

Williams, Sherley Anne. "Meditations on History." Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers. Ed. Mary Helen Washington. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1980.

Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose. New York: William Morrow, 1986.


1 Sherley Anne Williams's recent novel, Dessa Rose (1986), an elaboration of "Meditations on History", was published after this essay was substantially completed. I treat the novel in a forthcoming work.

2 Mike Thelwell writes: "Is it possible... for a white southern gentleman to tune in on the impulses, beliefs, emotions, and thought-patterns of a black slave? This miracle of empathy entails an imaginative leap not only into history, but across cultures. It necessitates that writer divorcing himself from that vast mythic tradition about slavery, black people, and history which is so integral a part of his background. Then he has to devise a literary idiom through which to record, since the gentleman and the slave lack common language or experience." "Back with the Wind: Mr. Styron and the Reverend Turner" (Clarke, 1968, 80).

3 Styron writes: "One of the most striking aspects of the institution [of slavery] is the fact that in 250 years of its existence in America, it was singularly free of organized uprisings, plots, and rebellions. (It is curious that as recently as the late 1940s, scholarly insights were lagging, and I could only have suspected then what has since been made convincing by such historians as... Stanley Elkins: that American Negro slavery, unique in its psychological oppressiveness — the worst the world has ever known — was simply so despotic and emasculating as to render organized revolt next to impossible" (Styron, "This quiet dust," in Duff and Mitchell, 1971, 125-6).

4 (11) Notably, Aptheker contends that Styron's work contains substantial historical distortions (Aptheker, "A Note on the History," in Duff and Mitchell, 1971, 191-5).

5 If Styron assumes the voice of a black slave speaking as Nat Turner himself in the first person, Williams's narrator presumes to speak for Dessa. (What is implicit in Styron — his appropriation of Turner's voice — is explicit in Williams's characterization.) Moreover, while Styron's character speaks standard, formal English in a style that critic Richard Gilman describes as "novelistic", Williams's heroine preserves the idiom of the black vernacular (Gates, 1984, 286-96).

6 Commenting on the relationship between literary and historical discourse in his review of Styron's Confessions, Thelwell writes: "Because the book is both 'history' and a novel the public mind seems to have invested it with qualities it does not necessarily possess. The events and situations are assumed to be accurate because by being 'historical' they must of necessity he 'true.' And as the 'facts' of history are true, so, in a different sense, are the insights (read 'symbolic truths') of the novel." (Clarke, 1968, 79).

7 Ralph Ellison's position on the relation of history and literature points to some of the problems confronting the novelist: "I'm all for the autonomy of fiction; that's why I say that novelists should leave history alone. But I would also remind us that the work of fiction finally comes alive through a collaboration between the reader and the writer... If you move far enough into the historical past, you don't have that problem... [When writing historical fiction] one, without hedging his bets, has to be aware that he does operate within an area dense with prior assumptions." Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward, "The Uses of History in Fiction", in West, 1985, 130, 131. [Originally published in the Southern Literary Journal 1 (Spring 1969): 57-90].

8 All subsequent references are to the edition cited in the works cited. [Emphasis in original.]

9 See Stepto, 1979, for a treatment of the significance of prefatory texts in black narrative writing.

10 Critics Robert Stepto and Henry Louis Gates demonstrate the significance of literacy and formal discourse in gaining freedom and recognition for the slave. (Stepto, 1979; Gates, 1985; introductory essay). For a different perspective, somewhat closer to my own in its emphasis on "the voice of the unwritten self' (Baker "Autobiographical Acts: The Voice of the Southern Slave," in Baker, 1980, 27-52).

11 This bit of riffing by Williams on the practice of conjuring (colloquially described as "root work" in black vernacular discourse) was suggested as a result of my correspondence with Houston Baker.

12 Grabriel Prosser, along with Jack Bowler, planned a slave revolt in Henrico County, Virginia. On 30 August 1800, over 1000 slaves met "armed with clubs, homemade bayonets, and a few guns." Their attack on the city was thwarted, however, by a severe storm. Moreover, two slaves informed their master of the plot and Governor Monroe quickly mobilized the state militia. As a consequence, 35 blacks were hanged, 4 escaped, and 1 committed suicide. Gabriel himself was executed on 7 October 1800. Denmark Vesey was a free black carpenter (having purchased his own freedom in 1800) who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. Along with Peter Poyas, Mingo Harth, and others, Vesey made extensive preparations to revolt. Over a period of many months, slaves were recruited by appointed leaders and arms were stored, including "two hundred and fifty pike heads and bayonets and over three hundred daggers". Vesey had even written to Santo Domingo for assistance. The revolt was planned to take place on the second Sunday in July 1822, but was moved forward one month because of betrayal. Because many of his followers were miles outside of Charleston, however, Vesey was unable to communicate his change of plans. Ultimately, 139 blacks were arrested, and 49 sentenced to die. Thirty-seven of those condemned were hanged and the others were pardoned. Reportedly estimates of numbers involved range as high as 9000. Cited in Aptheker, 1969, 219-26, 267-73.

13 See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's discussion of this concept, based on Wolfgang Lederer's notion of woman's tendency to "kill herself into art", (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, 14-15).

14 If Styron relates his protagonist's sexual ambiguities to the white slave mistress, Williams relates Dessa's sexuality to her slave husband.

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Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is author of several articles on African American and Feminist Criticism and Theory, including such widely anthologized essays as "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition". She is also coeditor of the five-volume Antislavery Newspapers and Periodicals: an Annotated Index of Letters, 1817-1871 (1980), and editor of a recent volume of essays from the English Institute, Borders, Boundaries, and Frames: Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies (1995)

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