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Approches critiques de la fiction afro-américaine

Michel Fabre
Claude Julien
Trevor Harris

From a Thing into an I Am: Autobiographical Narrative and Metahistorical Discourse in Contemporary African-American Fiction*

Klaus Benesch

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  • * This article was first published in Engler, Bernd and Kurt Mueller, eds., 1993. Historiographic Me (...)

It was as though we were the last men in the world, survivors of a holocaust at Hegel's end of history, trying to figure out what went wrong.
(Johnson, [1982] 1984)

1In his epilogue to an anthology that assembled the major literary achievements of the so-called Black Arts Movement the poet and co-editor Larry Neal concluded by saying that:

History weighs down on all of this literature. Every black writer in America has had to react to this history, either to make peace with it, or make war with it. It cannot be ignored. Every black writer has chosen a particular stance towards it. He or she may tell you that, for them, it was never a problem. But they will be liars. (Jones and Neal, eds., 1968, 647)

2Written in 1968 these remarks not only ring with the radical and uncompromising tone of black post-integrationist rhetoric but also express a keen awareness of the impact of history on African-Americans in general. Neither the nightmare of collective enslavement nor the record of ongoing racism and discrimination, Neal's statement seems to imply, can be evaded simply by individual choice. Moreover, as LeRoi Jones instructed his readers in an essay on the "Significance of Black History Month",

if you can be lied to about your own history you can certainly be lied to about the history of the world. And if you can be lied to about history, you can be lied to even about the nature of the present and have a totally distorted picture of how the world itself functions. (Jones, 1984, 251)

3To shift thus the attention of black Americans to the past, that is to history or rather to the fact of being notoriously excluded from it, was at the top of the agenda of what became known, in the term of C.W.E. Bigsby (1980), as the "second black renaissance".

  • 1 See Addison Gayle, Jr., 1971 and Larry Neal, 1966.

4By the end of the 1960s many African-American artists and intellectuals had turned their backs on the liberal dream of integration and had gathered instead around an ideology of blackness and ethnocentricity. Radical concepts like Pan-Africanism, black cultural nationalism, and Black Power were to inverse the negative cultural ascription of black life and, together with the establishment of Black History departments at major American universities, unmistakably signified the need for a revaluation of what was considered as Euro-American historical discourse. At the same time the rejection of white standards and value systems held sway over a considerable segment of the African-American literary production. Contrary to modernist writers like Richard Wright, Melvin B. Toison or Ralph Ellison, the post-modern, cultural nationalist black poet, as the cataclysmic career of Amiri Baraka paradigmatically reveals, now proudly caters to an all-black audience under the auspices of a black aesthetic.1 Perhaps the most rigorous and exemplary recodification of the Western literary tradition was Baraka's — then still known as LeRoi Jones — The System of Dante's Hell (1963). "But Dante's hell is heaven." Even by its very first word, glaringly set against the inclusive, conjunctional and at the beginning of Ezra Pound's Cantos, the text betrays its oppositional and deconstructive stance. Roughly following the pattern of Dante's Commedia (1320), Baraka sets out to dramatize the Inferno in terms of black ghetto life. Led on by a cacophony of free-floating sounds and images we bear witness to the bleak and precarious life of the inner city. But even the desperate, daily struggle for survival, as Baraka tells us in an authorial note, is only limbo to the real, the ultimate hell of being the unseen object:

What is hell? Your definitions. I am and was and will be a social animal. Hell is definable only in those terms…. Hell in the head. The torture of being the unseen object, and, the constantly observed subject. The flame of social dichotomy. Split open down the center, which is the early legacy of the black man unfocused on blackness. The dichotomy of what is seen and taught and desired opposed to what is felt. (Jones, [1963] 1966, 153)

  • 2 Repudiating the modern, Poundian role of the "anonymous seer" the protagonist finally has come ful (...)

5For Baraka the notorious invisibility of black life, already a leitmotif of Ralph Ellison's classic Invisible Man (1952), ties in with the symbolic stigmatization of the black as alien and Other. In order to defy the negative, Manichaean inscription of blackness, handed on precisely by white master texts such as the Commedia, The System of Dante's Hell implements a strategy of radical inversion ("hell is heaven") and revaluation, a poetical apotheosis of everything black: speech, music, dance, food, i.e. the whole range of African-American ghetto culture.2

  • 3 The French philosopher Michel de Certeau too described an obsession with the Other as endemic to W (...)
  • 4 For a discussion of the (white) literary appropriation of what she calls "the Africanist character (...)

6By articulating the black experience in America in terms of symbolic alienation and Otherness this strikingly iconoclastic text dramatizes what — some thirty years later — the English, postcolonialist critic Homi Κ. Bhabha has described as "the impossibility of claiming an origin for the self (or Other) within a tradition of representation that conceives of identity as the satisfaction of a totalizing, plentitudinous object of vision" (Bhaba, 1992, 5). Bhaba's argument is based upon the fact that identity always presupposes an act of doubling, that is the negative ascription of an Other, a mirror image, actually designed to fix personal or cultural difference in a containable, visible object. Both positions, Self and Other, are mutually dependant, or, to put it in a different way, neither is sufficient unto itself. According to Hayden White the egotistic, self-centered desire for the Other particularly dominated our discourse on race and blackness. By the end of the eighteenth century Western anthropology had constructed a Utopian racial Other, the noble savage, a primordial native untainted by the evil influence of civilization, in order to bring about its enlightened ideas of human nature. "This fetishization of the Wild Man", as White pointed out, "was inevitable because, first of all, the concept of a specifically human nature is only negatively definable. Man is what the animal and the divine are not" (White, 1982, 186).3 If White as well as many postructuralist thinkers are correct on this point, the notion of an autonomous, independent self is but a timeworn delusion of Cartesian philosophy. Since we are unable to understand or express ourselves except in relation to an audience, to a counterpart, the way in which we define our identity continually is shaped by the real or imagined responses we get. Thus, in an accurate, if humorous, sense, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. remarked, blacks seem to have "commenced [their] cultural life in this hemisphere as veritable deconstructions… of all that Western culture so ardently wished itself to be" (Gates Jr., 1991, 321).4 Having been forced to act as the notorious Other of Western discourse, the former slave finally turned into a sort of cultural super ego, a relentless critic and deconstructor of white society. In more recent times, as I would like to argue here, it seems that history or, rather, the specific way in which we conceive of the past as essential to our notion of the self were among the primary targets of his/her critique. Having taken Baraka's rewriting of a white classic as a point of departure I will now comment on the interfaces of historical narrative and narrative fiction as highlighted in contemporary African-American writing. In regard to the latter, emphasis will be laid on autobiography or autobiographical form which not only is the most "historical" of literary genres but also a favored narrative device — often applied as "fictive" or pseudo-autobiography — of the postmodern, black text.

  • 5 Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?", Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Crit (...)

7In 1969 Michel Foucault ended a now famous lecture before the Société française de Philosophie by asking: "What difference does it make who is speaking?". In his presentation, entitled "What Is an Author?", Foucault exposed the discursive status of authorship and made clear that there is no ontological ground, that is outside the text itself, from which to interrogate the authenticity or originality of an author.5 Triggering an ongoing discourse on textuality and representation the often sounded knell of the author today has become one of the basic tenets of poststructuralist literary theory. For marginalized groups like women and ethnic minorities, however, the self-righteous displacement of authorship, proclaimed by a predominantly white/male faction of the academia, posed a serious problem. Having been excluded from official, authorized discourse for centuries the one thing that could make a difference precisely was the answer to the question: "Who is speaking?" Historically, the privilege of authorship had always been a contested issue for African-Americans. In the case of the fugitive slave narrator, for example, the right to author a text could be gained only by way of substitutional authorization, that is white patronage. Yet, as the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown or Harriet Jacobs, to name only a few, readily prove, even ex-slaves succeeded to an astonishing degree in wielding authorial control through highly complex, double-voiced narrative strategies. Implementing primarily rhetorical modes of representation slave narratives could be veritable masterpieces of misreading. In many of these texts, as William L. Andrews perceptively observed, we find that "while the narrator is presumably engaged in reconstructing his life, he is also at work structuring a set of conditions in which the reader will find it appropriate to re-examine his concept of identity and personal value" (in Weixlmann and Fontenot, eds., 1984, 36). How do these remarks on authorship and authority relate to our topic on hand? In his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" John Locke elaborated on the (Western) notion of the self as follows:

consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things; in this alone consists personal identity, i.e., the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person. (In Burtt, ed., 1939, 315)

8Identity, therefore, can only be measured in regard to the past or, in the words of the German philosopher Hermann Lübbe, no form of identity is conceivable without history (See Lübbe, 1979, 277). Moreover, if personal identity is innately historical, the narrative account of a person's history, i.e. his or her story, becomes a primary agent in the process of identification. It is precisely for this reason, I would argue, that autobiography, most notably by way of a structural reappropriation of the slave narrative, has come to the fore in recent African-American prose writing. As we can learn in Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), to gain authorial control over the story of one's life was instrumental in turning what had formerly been a black Thing into an I Am:

Book titles tell the story. 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. Over one hundred years after the appearance of the Stowe book, The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams, was published. Quickskill thought of all the changes that would happen to make a 'Thing' into an Ί Am'. Tons of paper. An Atlantic of blood. Repressed energy of anger that would form enough sun to light a solar system. (Reed, [1976] 1977, 93)

  • 6 For the debate on Stowe's book see Nicholas, 1958, 328-344, and Henson, 1877.
  • 7 See McDowell and Rampersad, eds., 1989, 30.

9In Flight to Canada the issues of self-authentication, authorship, and autobiographical form even stand out as a crucial part of the plot. Centered on the alleged plagiary of an early black text the novel debates the right to authorship, and therefore to copyright, in a historic as well as diegetic perspective. Though today there are serious doubts that Uncle Tom's Cabin was actually based on a well known slave narrative, namely The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly a Slave, Stowe's influential book still functions as a paradigm of those powerful fictions, as Reed claims, "who supply the nation with its mind, tutor its mind, develop and cultívate its mind" (in O'Brien, éd., 1973, 179).6 Discussing Uncle Tom s Cabin and Flight to Canada from an intertextual perspective Hortense Spillers pointed out, that "Stowe, the writer, casts a long shadow, becomes an implacable act of precursor poetics that the latter-day black writer would both outdistance and 'forget.'" If we go by this critic, Flight to Canada appears to be co-authored by the restless demon of a white "master" text whose startling history of publication not only set the register for much of the discursive practices on slavery but was even considered, at least in the view of George Eliot, to have "founded" the "Negro novel".7 As the text itself suggests, however, it might just have been the other way round. Having "borrowed" and symbolically exploited the story of an African-American slave that story finally caught up with her: "Harriet paid. Oh yes, Harriet paid. When you take a man's story, a story that doesn't belong to you, that story will get you" (18). By ascribing Stowe's classic the stigma of a "HooDoo book", a text haunted by an endless process of rewriting and revision, Reed not only shifts our attention to the differences between black and white forms of discourse but also prepares the way for his own re-interpretation of his- or, rather, her-story of slavery, the South and, the civil war.

  • 8 See, for example, his collection of essays Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978).

10Among contemporary African-American fiction Reed's zany, spellbinding narrative of slavery certainly stands out as one of the most sophisticated and far-reaching critiques of (white) historical discourse. If we go by the author's numerous essays and programmatic poems, the roots of its iconoclastic energy, which to a varying degree inspires nearly all of his texts, are to be found in VooDoo, a syncretistic religion of mixed West African and Haitian origin.8 As, in Reed's own words, "a Forgotten Faith, a traditional enemy of Christianity which Christianity the Cop Religion has had to drive underground each time they meet" (Reed, 1972, 23). VooDoo is a powerful metaphor of the African-American Diaspora, a symbol of ongoing repression and marginalization as well as of stubborn and — as in the case of Haiti's early liberation — successful resistance. Yet, Neo-HooDooism, as Reed himself calls it, is also an aesthetic creed. According to his poem "Neo-HooDoo Manifesto",

Neo-HooDoo believes that every man is an artist and every artist a priest. You can bring your own creative ideas to Neo-HooDoo. Charlie "Yardbird (Thoth)" Parker is an example of the Neo-HooDoo artist as innovator and improvisor. (21)

11Reed conceives of his work as that of a priest or "houngan" and his novels are writing, as one critic put it, in the sense of both rite-ing — a quasi-religious, collective rite — and right-ing — the deconstruction of Euro-centric cultural/religious monotheism — (Fox, 1987, 39). On each of these levels Neo-HooDoo writing directly affects the status of authorship, the relation of author and text, of narrator and narrative. Since ritual acts are by definition "repetitive", based on the principle of recurrence and sameness, the writer as priest too partakes in an a-historic, a-temporal frame of reference. Neo-HooDoo writing, then, retains much of the heterogeneity and flexibility of nonliteral, oral culture(s). It is an ongoing process, a cycle of permanent search and renewal, not, as Reed has it, "a church for egotripping" (21). In his poem "The Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic" Reed is explicit on this point. Following a word by word recitation of two of Marie Laveau's recipes for traditional Gambo he explains, "Why do I call it the 'Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic'? — The proportions of ingredients used depend upon the cook!" (Reed, 1972, 26). According to R. E. Fox the poem hinges on a saying common among the West African Yoruba: "There is no house where supper is not prepared. But one stew tastes better than another" (Fox, 1987, 50). In both cases the metaphor points to one of the essential characteristics of oral culture, namely the mutual dependence of collective experience and individual innovation. Comparable to the variety of taste achieved through slightly modified "proportions of ingredients used" each act of HooDoo writing must be understood as an improvised version of a traditional, a-historical text, as part of a cultural matrix where everything "depend[s] upon the cook".

12Moreover, Neo-HooDoo writing is marked by a tendency to break down the boundaries of genre and style. "A Neo-HooDoo celebration", Reed tells us, "will involve the dance music and poetry of Neo-HooDoo and whatever ideas the participating artists might add" (Reed, 1972, 25). In other words, by merging different forms of artistic expression Reed promotes a sort of "Gesamtkunstwerk", a stylistically polymorphous Neo-HooDoo text. Hence, most of his novels simultaneously use poetic, theatrical, and cinematic elements, high and low cultural forms, real and fictitious personae. Together with an almost complete breakdown of chronology they blur the sphere of story and history, thereby questioning our belief in the difference of factual and fictional representation. The result is a kind of polyphonic, Bakhtinian literary carnival, or, as Loop Garoo has it, Reed's alter ego of his first novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down: "What if I write circuses? No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons" (Reed, 1971, 36). This is not to say, however, that the often burlesque stratification of voice and narrative mode that characterizes much of Reed's fiction is primarily applied for the sake of a liberating, anti-traditional gesture. Rather, the cross-generic mixture of literary and non-literary, of authored, i. e. attributed to an author, and anonymous, highly repetitive genres (such as soap operas or vaudeville skits), is devised to continually raise the question of "who is speaking" or, to venture a pun on the subtext of HooDooism, "(w)HooDoo the writing".

  • 9 Quoted in Clayton, 1990, 387.

13In a brilliantly written essay on "The Narrative Turn in Recent Minority Fiction" Jay Clayton posits that "the rich mixture of traditional narrative and contemporary political concerns found in minority writing represents the most important force transforming the North American novel of the eighties." Contrary to those who believe that the recent revival of narrative went hand in hand with conservative social views, she argues that story-telling quite often can be associated with "unauthorized" or, in Foucault's term, "subjugated" knowledge. This is stressed by the fact, according to Clayton (1990, 378-79), that a vast majority of these texts either draw on oral forms (folktales, myths, legends, oral histories and the like), explore less privileged written genres (such as diaries, letters, criminal confessions, slave narratives), return to archaic symbolic modes, as in the case of Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDooism, or write about traditional cultural activities. Storytelling, then, especially when related to any of the "unauthorized" forms of oral discourse, could be a veritable means of "correction", an effective antidote to the myths and fictions of dominant society. By articulating formerly subjugated knowledge about the past it may even suspend, redefine or simply dump officially authorized versions of history. Along these lines we can find oral narratives turned into literary texts, such as Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966) or David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident (1981); as-told-to memoirs of fictive life stories, as in Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and Sherley Ann Williams' Dessa Rose (1986); or, as in the case of Gayl Jones' Corregidora (1975), Octavia Ε. Butler's Kindred (1979), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), literary representations of the memory of a (fictitious) black person reliving the trauma of slavery. By articulating moments and memories of the past from the perspective of the oppressed Other, all of these texts are "corrective", revisionist comments on history. In as far as they refer to the realm of oral/aural discourse, however, they are also engaged in a more comprehensive, that is metahistorical critique. Contrary to the Western notion of history as a linear, "time" -ridden axis marked by the impact of great men inducing singular, historical events, oral cultures maintain a cyclical, rather repetitive view of the past. Since story-telling is one of their primary means of socialization, the copyright of a story is extended to all members of the group. In other words, to participate in an act of story-telling, already implies the re-telling of the story, or, as Jean-François Lyotard — writing on the dynamics of orally transmitted discourse — put it, "as soon as I have been spoken to as well as spoken of (in the sense that I have a name, etc.) I have to speak" (Lyotard and Thébaud, 1984, 35).9

14Some of the texts quoted above, however, apply an even more direct critique of historiography and its totalizing vision of the past. In Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for example, a nondescript "editor" and professor of history urges a former slave to let him record her life's story because, as he tells a friend and nurse of the old woman, her story would help him to "explain things to [his] students." When he is asked by her suspicious peer "what's wrong with them books you already got," he poignantly retorts: "Miss Jane is not in them" (Gaines [1971], 1986, v-vi). By focusing on the victims of WASP historiography such as Jane Pittman, who, at the age of 110, bears witness to the struggle of African-Americans from slavery to black militancy of the 1960s, the text offers a view of the past from the bottom up, so to speak, from the margin of (written) historical discourse. As we listen to her personal narrative we are continually reminded of the biases and strategies of exclusion which African-Americans had to face up to, of the innate reluctance of white society to acknowledge or even to "see" their black compatriots. Early on in the text, while handing out water to Confederate soldiers passing by her house, the narrator is harshly initiated into the invisibility of black life: "They took the gourd from me when I handed it to them, and that was all…. But they didn't even see little old black me. They couldn't tell if I was white or black, a boy or a girl. They didn't even care what I was" (ibid, 4).

  • 10 See Benesch, 1990, 112-33.

15If we extend our focus to the level of style and literary form this fictive autobiography also raises questions about the interfaces of narrativity, history and fiction. As Hayden White has it, "it is only by troping, rather than by logical deduction that any given set of the kinds of past events we would wish to call historical can be represented." In other words, any narrativization of the past, be it figurative or literalist, is made up by an act of language or, to borrow White's brilliant phrase, "events happen, facts are constituted by linguistic description" (Cohen, ed., 1989, 26-35). As one can easily see, to lay bare the tropological, discursive status of historical narrative is also a pre-eminent concern of Gaines' genre-crossing novel. Rather than being but a literary adoption of what the historical establishment usually dismiss as "oral" history (unreliable because non-written, highly personalized discourse) the text dramatizes the tension between completely different forms of representation: the literary, objectifying style of Western historiography and the oral/aural Lifeworld of the rural African-American community. It is for this reason, as I have argued elsewhere10, that Gaines invented a pseudo-autobiographical persona whose narrative account spans the (historical) time of more than a century of black suffering and resistance. What we are "listening" to, after all, is not so much the story of one black individual but the testimonies, rendered via the main narrator's voice, of a variety of witnesses (and victims) of Southern racism. "This is", the editor tells us, "what both Mary and Miss Jane meant when they said you could not tie all the ends together in one neat direction. Miss Jane's story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane's" (Gaines [1971], 1986, viii). Contrary to the autobiographical norm, i.e. the singularity or specificity of the self, all of these micro-narratives are complementary pieces of a broader and more comprehensive design: the auto/communal-biography of African-American life in the South ranging from slavery and Reconstruction to the turmoil of the civil rights movement. In transcending thus the monological totality of the autobiographical voice, Jane Pittman's report not only blurs the boundaries of personal and communal memoir but, simultaneously, engages in a cross-generic dialogue of the fictional and the factional, of narrativity and historiography.

16While The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman presents a fictive persona and setting in the documentary style of historiographical discourse (e. g. the fake, explanatory "Introduction" by a fictitious editor) Sherley Ann Williams' prize-winning Dessa Rose and David Bradley's voluminous historical novel The Chaneysville Incident are narrative emplotments of so-called "real" or authentic events. David Bradley, himself a full-fledged historian by trade, took up a semi-documented incident involving a group of runaway slaves, said to have collectively committed suicide. In a thrilling yet highly sophisticated manner, Bradley rewrites the story, which had circulated in the black community of his home town for decades, into a narrative about hunting, storytelling, and the shortcomings of historiographical representation. Above all else, it is in search of an answer to the Rankean question ("what his world had been like") that prompts the narrator and historian John Washington to investigate the legendary life of his father. At first, his is an exclusively empirical approach that is informed by one of "the greatest fallacies that surround the study of the past", namely, if we go by the narrator's own words, "the notion that there is such a thing as a detached researcher, that it is possible to discover and analyze and interpret without getting caught up and swept away" (Bradley, 1981, 141). Having completely failed at reconstructing a logical pattern out of his data, John finally embraces a more sensual, instinctive stance: helped along by his fatherly mentor, a gifted story-teller and expert hunter, he sets out on an imaginative journey into the past. In a series of ritually performed sessions of story-telling, John not only succeeds in recreating the connection between his father and a local legend, the so-called Chaneysville Incident, but in establishing a more inclusive, organic perspective on history as well. By accounting for the lacunae of historiography through ritual, i.e. a somewhat archaic (and, by the way, embarrassingly male) notion of the historian-as-hunter, as pathfinder, The Chaneysville Incident certainly is situated at the fringe of contemporary black fiction on history. Insofar as it enacts the impossibility of gaining access to the past by way of logical deduction, however, the text convincingly chimes in with the post-structuralist critique of logocentrism and the subject.

  • 11 Apart from its specific ring in an American context (cf. the use of the biblical prophet in Cotton (...)

17As Sherley Ann Williams tells us in a prefatory note Dessa Rose too is related to documented historical events: the first involved a pregnant black woman who helped to lead an uprising on a coffle (a group of slaves chained together and herded, usually to market) in Kentucky. Caught and convicted, her hanging, however, was delayed until after the birth of her baby; and secondly, the story of a white woman living on an isolated farm in North Carolina who is reported to have sheltered a group of runaway slaves. In order to highlight the neglected role of female "disobedience", perpetually demoted in both black and white historical discourse, Williams brings the two women together in fiction. Like many contemporary narratives of slavery by black women, Dessa Rose, according to Deborah McDowell, shifts "the point of stress from sexual victimization to creative resistance", from "what was done to slave women… to what they did with what was done to them." Moreover, as McDowell perceptively noted, the text is marked by an interrogating, deconstructive stance, a metahistorical concern with "the who, what, when, and how of telling slavery" (McDowell and Rampersad, eds., 1989, 146). For this purpose, Williams had the story of the rebellious slave girl unfold within the limits of an extremely patriarchal discourse: While incarcerated to await the birth of her baby, Dessa is regularly interviewed by Adam Nehemiah, a white historian doing research for a projective book entitled "The Roots of Rebellion in the Slave Population and Some Means of Eradicating Them". Though Nehemiah, whose name aptly summarizes the agenda of his profession,11 takes pains to posture as a detached observer and historiographer, his textualization of Dessa's report constantly betrays the "situatedness" of his perception. As he remarks in his journal, the "facts sounded like some kind of fantastical fiction" to him (Williams, 1986, 24). What he had thus far uncovered, a series of deadly events triggered by an act of rather little importance (the smashing of a slave's banjo by his master), he deemed a moving yet extremely unlikely romance. Paradoxically, then, his is a fictional representation of the events precisely because — as a racist and ardent defender of slavery — he is unable to imagine a black person having acted in a so-called romantic manner, which is to say, for reasons predominantly impractical and emotional. Dessa, on the other hand, is well aware of her misrepresentation by the white man's text. Not only is she reluctant to give detailed information about the upraising itself but her rambling memories, which never directly relate to the questions of her interviewer, largely remain spontaneous and self-controlled.

  • 12 Elaborating on the differences between historical narratives and narrative fictions Collingwood — (...)

18Dessa's role as a (rebellious) victim of white narrativization is symbolically doubled by a horrible, physical marker: having been flogged and branded upon her thighs, her scars, according to Nehemiah, "bespoke a history of misconduct". Making witness to the perverse rationale of chattel slavery this "master" text was so perfidiously "writ about her privates"(9) that only the most careful buyer would be likely to detect, or rather, to read it. As we are soon to learn, however, the traces of his- story on Dessa's body are subject to multiple, even contradictory interpretations. What for Nehemiah bespeaks a record of "misconduct", is to the black community a signifier of both "devilish" recklessness and extensive, ongoing suffering. In a sweepingly deconstructive gesture Williams articulates the ambivalent, tropological nature of Dessa's brand within a more general critique of historiography and its representational strategies. By enacting different versions of the protagonist's enslavement and final liberation the text foregrounds the situatedness of historical knowledge, the impossibility of constructing, as the British philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood believed, "a picture of things as they really were and of events as they really happened" (Collingwood, [1946] 1956, 246).12 And yet, according to Deborah McDowell, "the novel resists the pull of the postmodern orthodoxy of undecidability and relativism" (McDowell and Rampersad, eds., 1989, 145). Although Dessa Rose refrains from privileging any among the differing perspectives on slavery (determined by factors such as race, gender and class), the text is very specific about the importance of being able, in the phrase of William L. Andrews, to tell a "free" story, of having control over the manner and matter of representing the past (see Andrews, 1984).

19Let me conclude my remarks here by quoting from another neo-slave narrative, Charles Johnson's challenging philosophic inquiry Oxherding Tale (1982):

You are wondering, I imagine, about differences in the White and Black Worlds. Well, here is the first: this feeling in both that the past is threatening; in the Black World a threat because there is no history worth mentioning, only family scenarios of deprivation and a bitter struggle — and failure — against slavery, which leads to despair, the dread in later generations that they are the first truly historical members of their clan; and in the White World the past is also a threat, but here because, in many cases, the triumphs of predecessors are suffocating, a legend to live up to, or to reject (with a good deal of guilt),… a feeling that everything significant has been done, the world is finished. (Johnson, [1982] 1984, 132)

20According to Johnson's universalist perspective, the Black and White Worlds, even though divided by their different approaches to the past, still share a common feeling: the threat of history. In Being and Race, an anthology of theoretical and historical essays on black writing, Johnson expounded at length the phenomenological, universalist background of his position:

If we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism;… because what we have, from the standpoint of phenomenology, are not different worlds but instead innumerable perspectives on one world; and we know that, when it comes to the crunch, we share, all of us, the same cultural Lifeworld — a world layered with ancestors, predecessors, and contemporaries. (Johnson, 1988, 44)

  • 13 For the use of Eastern philosophy in Oxherding Tale see Gleason, 1991.

21As even a cursory look at his novels and short stories may attest, undoing the ideological encrustations of race and history is a pervasive concern of Charles Johnson's fiction. In Oxherding Tale, for example, Johnson explores the mutual dependencies of self-authentication and autobiographical form by signifying on the inherent limitations and paradoxes of the slave narrative. Far from ridiculing the adoption of autobiography as an important mode of black self-expression the text is extremely effective in deconstructing the Western notion of the self as a given, prefabricated entity, a primordial essence that could be regained through a textual movement from uniformity to originality, from nonbeing to being. Whereas the autobiographical pattern presupposes a personal voice increasingly gathering contour and momentum Johnson's postmodern slave narrative hails the "manumission of first-person viewpoint". At the end of the novel, as the author takes pains to explain, we are listening to a narrating self "who is less a reporter than an opening through which the world is delivered: first-person (if you wish) universal" (Johnson, [1982] 1984, 153). Following the nonlinear structure of the ten Oxherding Pictures, a cycle of Zen drawings used for the instruction of novices, the text thus enacts the painful search for a black identity outside the vicious categories of individuality, history, and race.13 From the vantage point of a universalist, multicultural perspective, in Johnson's message, generic markers like race or history are but the result of a dangerous perceptual fallacy, a wrong way, in a phrase he borrows from Merleau-Ponty, "of singing the world" (Johnson, 1988, 123).



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1 See Addison Gayle, Jr., 1971 and Larry Neal, 1966.

2 Repudiating the modern, Poundian role of the "anonymous seer" the protagonist finally has come full circle, i. e. back to blackness: "I felt myself smiling, and it seemed that things had come to an order... things moving naturally for us. At what bliss we took. At our words. And slumped together in anonymous houses I thought of black men sitting on their beds this Saturday of my life listening quietly to their wives' soft talk. And felt the world grow together as I hadn't known it. All lies before I thought. All fraud and sickness. This was the world. It leaned under its own suns, and people moved on it. A real world. Of flesh, of smells, of soft black harmonies and color. The dead maelstrom of my head, a sickness.... Lost to myself, I'd come back. To that ugliness sat inside me waiting" (147-49).

3 The French philosopher Michel de Certeau too described an obsession with the Other as endemic to Western historiography: "L'autre est le fantasme de l'historiographie. L'objet qu'elle cherche, qu'elle honore et qu'elle enterre. Un travail de la séparation s'effectue par rapport à cette inquiétante et fascinante proximité.... L'intelligibilité s'instaure dans un rapport à l'autre, elle se déplace (ou "progresse") en modifiant ce dont elle a fait son "autre" – le sauvage, le passé, le fou, l'enfant, le tiers-monde" (de Certeau, 1975, 8-9).

4 For a discussion of the (white) literary appropriation of what she calls "the Africanist character as surrogate and enabler", see Morrison, 1992.

5 Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?", Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Josué V. Harari, ed. (Ithaca, NY, 1979), 160. See also Roland Barthes, "La mort de l'auteur", in S/Ζ (Paris, 1968).

6 For the debate on Stowe's book see Nicholas, 1958, 328-344, and Henson, 1877.

7 See McDowell and Rampersad, eds., 1989, 30.

8 See, for example, his collection of essays Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978).

9 Quoted in Clayton, 1990, 387.

10 See Benesch, 1990, 112-33.

11 Apart from its specific ring in an American context (cf. the use of the biblical prophet in Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana) the name simultaneously signifies on a misogynistic origin story (Adam) and on the role of the historian as a quasi-religious chronicler and reporter of his times (Nehemiah). See also McDowell and Rampersad, eds., 1989,148.

12 Elaborating on the differences between historical narratives and narrative fictions Collingwood — with an unmistakably Rankean ring to his phrasing — wrote: "As works of imagination, the historian's work and the novelist's do not differ. Where they do differ is that the historian's is meant to be true. The novelist has a single task only: to construct a coherent picture, one that makes sense. The historian has a double task: he has both to do this, and to construct a picture of things as they really were and of events as they really happened" (ibid).

13 For the use of Eastern philosophy in Oxherding Tale see Gleason, 1991.

Notes de fin

* This article was first published in Engler, Bernd and Kurt Mueller, eds., 1993. Historiographic Metafiction in Modern American and Canadian Literature.


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