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Incidences de l'événement

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry
Claudine Raynaud

II. Les temps de l'histoire/the times of history

Myth and Irony in the Aftermath of the Civil Rights: The Undercurrents of Black Experience in Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places

Françoise Clary


Les romans de Hal Bennett doivent être replacés dans le contexte de l'activisme intellectuel qui fut marqué par le mouvement pour les droits civiques. Centré sur Lord of the Dark Places, cet article suit le prolongement culturel d'un mouvement politique en proposant le déchiffrement d’un système signifiant inscrit dans le texte romanesque comme son fond et sa raison : le code satirique de la sexualité noire tout à la fois attirante et redoutable. Clé et sens d'un langage où la métaphore fait loi, la satire a, pour Hal Bennett, valeur d'arme idéologique contre l'oppression.

Hal Bennett’s novels must be replaced in the context of intellectual activism during the civil rights movement. Focusing on Lord of Dark Places, the author analyzes the cultural extension of a political movement by decoding a signifying system inscribed in the text of the novel as its content and its reason: the satirical code of black sexuality, both attractive and fearsome. For Hal Bennett, satire is both key and meaning of a language in which metaphor dominates, and serves as an ideological weapon against oppression.

Texte intégral

1Black culture is of major significance in the study of the Afro-American experience. The justification for regarding the impact of the historical event on African-American fiction as legitimate is to be found in the critical, political, social and philosophical issues that were paramount in the thinking of black artists in the intensely engaged period of the 1960s and 1970s.

2In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the idea of rebellion and revolution that had been introduced in a politico-economic context began to be used as a basic cultural metaphor. We may with advantage look at the cumulative evidence of stories, essays and novels as a way to identify certain recurrent strategies of thinking and writing clearly influenced by the impact of the Black Power movement. Besides, aesthetic paradigms illustrate world-views based on ambivalence and anti-structure. More importantly, the idea of alienation that mirrors the political and social ambiguities of the black experience was reinvested with value in the Black Arts Movement.

  • 1 The edition used is: George Hal Bennett, Lord of Dark Places. New York: Norton, 1970, hereafter cit (...)

3Black Power, as a concept, reflects more than the historical struggle of Black people against racial oppression, it expresses the urge of Black people not only to liberate, but also to define themselves. The Afro-American novel of the 1960s and early 70s, “primarily directed at the conscience of Black people” (Neal, 1972, 257) can thus be related to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination. If we consider Black Arts as the aesthetic side of the Black Power movement, it is startling how much and how deeply the passion for formal invention is reflected in the satirical fiction of Hal Bennett where the search for essential identity gives the sense of life as unreal and mad. In Lord of Dark Places (1970), more particularly, narrative form is thrown into disarray, highlighting the dominance of technique. Ingenious stylistic intricacy becomes the foundation for building a new structure of the Afro-American experience in the mode of perversion.1 An easily recognizable statement stays with the novel to the end: politics is based on revolution. Clearly revealing a radical conscious-ness and preoccupation with form, Hal Bennett’s position in Lord of Dark Places is the pursuit of freedom in art and therefore in society. Indeed, the refusal of monotony in this extravagant comedy verging on tragedy calls up startling manifestations in the aesthetic vanguard. They are especially to be found in Joe Market’s story, catching the sense of radical instability in spirit and form that has invaded the African-Americans’ self-conception.

4Being and Becoming. The impact of the Civil Rights is to be felt in the parable of the hero’s fall and loss of innocence as he leaves the South and undertakes a subsequent search for a new Eden in the North where he is confronted with death, madness and despair. Faced with ambiguity on all sides, my approach will focus on the intersection between the text and reality. Fiction and reality have frequently been classified as opposites. But African-American fiction and reality are to be linked in terms not of opposition but of communication, for the one is not the mere opposite of the other. Thus Hal Bennett’s manipulation of words, his tinkering with language, in Lord of Dark Places condenses the contradictions of black American existence in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. The text reveals a world of basic insecurity, with the assassination of Martin Luther King and the growing number of blacks drafted in the Army and shipped to Vietnam to fight America’s war. Attention must be paid to the concept of communication. If Hal Bennett’s text –through its use of myth and irony– is not a reality report, this is not because it lacks the attributes of reality but because it tells us something about reality. My concern will therefore be both with the meaning and the effect of communication between the text and real facts.

5When referring to “real facts” in the 1960s, some questions inevitably arise. How can we assess the impact and potential of nationalism as an ideology and strategy in the struggle for Black liberation and social change? Moreover, in the endeavour to go to the moral center of Hal Bennett’s novel (when Joe Market, the hero, makes it clear that “the people of whatever race who are riotous and discontent all over America are people who have resurrected themselves and are asking for their souls back” (LDP, 249) we have to grasp the effect of communication between the text and reality in the stylized ritual according to which racial fights occur in Hal Bennett’s myth-making. His novel instils a sense of both paranoia and defens-iveness. How then are we to appraise the revolutionary potential of the Black Power concept and the Black Arts Movement?

1. Sociological Distance and Aesthetic Perception of the Revolutionary Potential of Black Power

6“Black Power” was the most significant slogan to emerge in the nationalist movement of the 1960s. While it sounded revolutionary, it was essentially reformist in content. Stokely Carmichael of SNCC first popularized that phrase during a march to urge black voter registration in Mississippi. But the reality about its reformist content was further elaborated in Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power published in 1967:

This book presents a political framework and ideology which represents the last reasonable opportunity for this society to work out its racial problems short of prolonged destructive guerilla warfare […] The adoption of the concept of Black Power is one of the most legitimate and healthy developments in American politics and race relations in our time […] It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community.
(Carmichael, 1967,44)

7As a matter of fact, there were obvious revolutionary aspirations among the nationalists of this period that are somehow mirrored in the violent and disturbing scenes of Lord of Dark Place. They call back to mind what Hal Bennett describes as “the basic conflict in America […] between her people and her government” (LDP, 249). The Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), officially organized in 1963, sought “to free Black people from colonial and imperialist bondage everywhere and to take whatever steps necessary to achieve that goal” (Stanford, 1970, 32). Its philosophy brought forward the need to struggle for the liberation of Black people in the confines of the US as well as to play a major role in the liberation of all oppressed people in the world:

RAM philosophy may be described as revolutionary nationalism, black nationalism or just plain blackism. It is that black people of the world (darker races, black, yellow, brown, red, oppressed peoples) are all enslaved by the same forces. RAM’s philosophy is one of the world black revolution or world revolution of oppressed peoples rising up against their former slavemasters. Our movement is a movement of black people who are coordinating their efforts to create a “new world” free from exploitation and oppression of man to man… RAM feels that the black man must not only think of armed self-defence but must also think aggressively. (Stanford, 1970, 43)

8In the context of the real meaning and objectives of the life and death struggle in which the Black community was engaged, the role of the Black Revolutionary Party was to devise and project, in constant interaction with the masses in struggle, a long-range strategy for achieving Black Revolutionary Power in the United States. The Black Revolutionary Party must consequently be distinguished not only from the traditional civil rights organizations which were organized to integrate Blacks into the system and thereby save it, but also from the organizations that had sprung up in the course of the struggle, arousing the masses emotionally around a particular issue and relying primarily on the enthusiasm and good will of their members and supporters for their continuing activity. Hal Bennett’s aesthetic perception of the revolutionary impact of Black Power is neither pure reflection nor ordinary awareness. It may be understood as a representation of the world in the imagination. The simultaneity and wholeness of aesthetic perception combine with the imaginative interiorization of the aesthetic object. Consequently, far from being a reduction, it is rather what might be called a transcoding into another symbol system. The novelist’s interpretation of reality becomes part of the symbol itself.

9To transcode reality into a symbol system is to assume that existential reality may be brought to the fore and re-expressed in the form of sociology. If we consider with Greimas that meaning is nothing but the possibility of such transcoding (Greimas 1970, 13), then the lived truth can be re-expressed in drama. According to the symbol system into which Hal Bennett transcodes the reality of the aftermath of the civil rights area, salvation for Blacks, as understood by Titus in Lord of Dark Places, lies in the notion of a Black Redeemer. Joe Market, his son, is to achieve the Black man’s act of redemptive sacrifice. What is the significance of this sacrifice? In the manifesto of the Black Revolutionary Party, James Boggs put forward ideas on black nationalism that are rooted in black consciousness: “Because of the nationalist character of the black Revolutionary struggle, the Black Revolutionary Party must be all-Black in its membership” (Boggs, 1969, 55). Beyond this, one of the salient aspects of this manifesto is the emphasis laid on the black man’s emasculation in white America:

The Black Revolutionary Party will repudiate any tendency to Black male chauvinism or the tendency to relegate Black women to an inferior position in the struggle in order to compensate for the emasculation which Black men have suffered in white America. The extraordinary fortitude which Black women have brought to the struggle for survival of Black people in America is one of the greatest sources of strength for the Black Revolutionary Party…
(Boggs, 1969, 55)

10The theme of the black man’s emasculation is dealt with extensively in the episode relating the death of the black lieutenant after his being injured in Vietnam, with the metaphorical representation of America as a “seductive white bitch”:

America has damned near castrated us the black people, and all we can do is sing her praises. It’s what you call the inevitability of love […] It’s what you do to a dog, cutting off his tail so he’ll stay at home. It’s the same thing with Negroes in America… what else do we have to love except America? […] America herself gets a man twisted and maimed and destroyed sexless, which is what happened to his grandfather Roosevelt and to that Negro lieutenant in Vietnam.
LDP, 154)

11Death and Revelation are one in Hal Bennett’s fiction when Joe Market knows with divine clarity that “God is a Black woman” (LDP, 255). In Lord of Dark Paces, the use of symbolic constructs clearly serves a political purpose. In fact, his conception of aesthetic perception emerges from the moral, religious and political debates of the 1960s. Yet Benett’s literary motif, re-expressed in the form of sociology and in the vocabulary of political praxis, recaptures the fuller meaning of the manifesto of the Black Revolutionary Party by transcoding it and thereby transcending its partiality while offering an appropriate way of knowledge in a novel where the reader has abandoned fixed objective reality.

12Central to this conception is sociological distance. Distance, de-familiarization, seeing reality behind the mask—all these terms shed light on Hal Bennett’s symbolic constructs as a method of dialectical self-reflection. The concept of the stranger described by sociologist Georg Simmel fits the African American novelist’s mode of interpretation of social reality:

The stranger is […] the potential wanderer […]. The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organized, in the phenomenon of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by saying that in the relationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near. (Simmel 1950, 402)

13Joe Market’s growing self-reflectiveness follows his evolution from power to weakness, from the exalted masculine self-confidence of the Naked Disciple who perceives himself in terms of a myth to the clearsighted recognition of his failure because of the cowardliness that prevents Blacks from affirming their true selves, forced as they are to partake of this “pretense of virtue” in order to survive; which makes them each day “a little more hypocritical, more white— sick (LPD, 213).

14Such self-reflectiveness implies a dialectic between shifting levels of vision. Basically, they first include the level of the constitution of that which is to be treated as fact: black pride. An important characteristic of the black nation and of black nationalism in the aftermath of the civil rights era is a common cultural orientation which manifests itself in common values and common behavioral prefer-ences. This has been an essential aspect of black nationalism. Each of the levels of vision has its own dynamics as well as dynamic relations with the others. The second level of vision is that at which the explicit analytic frame of the hero – gripped by forces that spring from his culture – clashes with contrary frameworks as he shouts his hatred for Brenzo, the white man, feeling “like a savage bent on destroying a long-time enemy” (LDP, 215). Then comes the level at which the hero’s own implicit historical, social, and political as well as moral points of view are made explicit and reincorporated into his storytelling. America, for Joe Market, is “awaiting the impeccable order of death” (LDP, 249). Confronting death—Lamont’s, the Black lieutenant’s, his son’s (whom he murdered in order to ‘save’ him), his wife Odessa’s psychological collapse (after he confessed murdering their son) Joe, engulfed by madness—Joe divines his own death. The movement of the novel is a circular one that seeks to represent not only the formation and conflict of various social worlds but also the narrator’s political intents easily grasped in his metaphorical description of the degradation and perversion of America: “… our argument is a conflict between brothers; and the man who interferes in a conflict between brothers is always the one who loses the first blood” (LDP, 213). How are we to understand this passage from Lamont’s essay on the meaning of America, whose interest is unmistakably integrationist?

15In the aftermath of the civil rights era, not only did the general cultural life of black people change, but full-blown arts movement developed among black people. Several issues should be discussed in summing up the major trends of nationalism. The civil rights movement with its underlying cultural goal of assimilation was aborted by the reactionary repression blacks underwent in the form of assassination, imprisonment, and racist ideological attacks. The movement had been the hope of a large and developing number of aspirants to middle-class life. When it failed, many of these young, middle-class youths formed the social base for a new nationalist movement against America. While this had a political aspect, it also had a cultural one. “Black Power” became a rallying cry for the newborn nationalist who began to defect from the civil rights movement, particularly after the death of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In this context the Black Arts Movement was born. The “Black Power” concept and the Black Arts Movement reflected the particular plight of the black middle class that was previously revealed during the Harlem Renaissance. In Hal Bennett’s novel, through his confrontation with Tony Brenzo—the white policeman who stands out as the novel’s integrationist symbol and condemns the late summer riots as un-American—Joe Market’s search for Eden is a slow and painful process of re-awakening. “There might be something to integration after all” (LDP, 211) admits Joe Market when brought to a fuller appreciation of himself by Tony Brenzo. In Part III of Lord of Dark Places, Joe Market initiates a countermovement toward social engagement to reach clarity in Part IV at the price of madness and death, which evokes the feelings of hope and disappointment successively experienced by the aspirants to middle-class life and the ambiguity of the middle-class youths who were to defect from the civil rights movement and turn to a nationalist movement against America.

2. Perspectival and Metaphorical Knowledge

16The structure of Lord of Dark Places is that of an allegory of the black man’s loss of innocence, his fall, his damnation (as a result of his being victimized by white America) and of his eventual hope of salvation. Hal Bennett’s perception of reality is perspectival and therefore metaphorical. Mastering irony, the novelist achieves a significant metaphorical construct which confers a special value to the sociologi-al thought underlying his text. Irony is, indeed, constantly used in Lord of Dark Places as a metaphor of opposites, a seeing of life (in its social, religious, moral, political aspects) from the viewpoint of its antithesis.

17Besides, moving from conventional paradigms, Hal Bennett resorts to myth-making with the heightening of awareness which is the special value of irony. The use he makes of myth is innovative because of its ironic effectiveness. The phallic myth—which is the main focus of the text—is developed on an ironic mode because it is taken from its conventional context, that of sex life, and placed in an opposite one, that of religion: Titus founds a religion where the Black phallus is worshipped. And he offers salvation through a Black Redeemer, his son Joe Market, whose naked body is prominently displayed on a platform while he preaches salvation. Hal Bennett’s use of dramatic irony is reflexive ethically as Joe’s exaggerated infatuation with the phallus is meant to convey his identity. Dramatic irony is developed as a principle of discovery in the expression of Hal Bennett’s sociological thought. In this extravagant novel, one point is driven home: the black man may look with pride back over the years of his people’s struggle for survival and recognize that the sacrifices of the black minority and the creative efforts of African American artists have not been in vain. His purpose is served by different modes of ironic expression: rhetorical irony, irony of events and dramatic irony, all of these modes having features in common, such as the opposition of incongruent images, characteristics or events and a transcendent perspective, that is equating manhood and dignity with black identity.

18Kenneth Burke calls dramatic irony “a master trope […] in the discovery and description of ‘the truth’” (Burke, 1969, 503). The main characteristic of dramatic irony in Lord of Dark Places lies in the relationship between the ironist and the audience, that is to say in the higher knowledge of the audience who is not only aware of the unreality of the action but also of the deeper meanings with which the action is infused. The first focus of the novel is on a meaningful and highly symbolical image, that of a naked black child wading in Lee s Creek waters. Joe Market —the central figure—then twelve years old, is playing nude in the river with snakes swimming up to his legs. Joe Market’s first consciousness of sexuality parallels the loss of his childish innocence. Not only is the main focus of the text on the phallus image but also on the implications that sex is both beauty and death. Thus when Titus walks to his son and breaks the news to him that he has murdered his wife by way of the sexual act, adding proudly “you’re a real man, Titus, you killed her with your tail” (LDP, 19), Joe though shocked, is sexually aroused. In this mode of expression of cosmic irony the characters and events are allowed to speak with their own voices, and the transcendent perspective is achieved through dialectical reversal and synthesis.

19Henceforward, Hal Bennett proceeds to portray, in a simple yet comprehensive manner, all the salient aspects of Joe Market’s gradual infatuation with the phallus. The text has truth-value in terms of aesthetic criteria. In a succession of provocative scenes, Hal Bennett develops the “Black is beautiful” image. First, the reader is faced with what could be assimilated with a “baptism”, that is, the discovery of a new life: “The hot, happy chill invading him is the surge of a new life that makes him the most beautiful person in the world” (LPD, 22). A simultaneous nearness and farness may characterize the reader’s perceptive in interaction since the text enables him/her to imagine the scene described as a continuum theater. In the middle of the continuum is the highly stylized ritual of the hero’s growing consciousness of a new life that is equated to a sense of freedom. The relevant isomorphism is not between the reader’s experience of freedom and the hero’s experience that he is playing a role, but rather between the reader’s consciousness and that of the character portrayed.

20Black and beautiful. By referring to Malinowski’s The Father in Primitive Psychology (1927), one can grasp Hal Bennett’s use of the myth of the phallus as a symbol of personal formation through the metaphor of sexual relations. When Titus has sex with Joe to arouse him to sexual pleasure, then when he founds a religion where people will worship Joe’s phallus, ideals and taboos become embodiments of power relations. As Titus preaches the possibility of obtaining salvation by fanatical adoration of Joe’s phallus for a fee, he entraps his son in a life of mere exhibitionism controlled by the phallic myth—from which Joe can no longer be extricated except by killing what makes his identity, that is the Church of the Naked Disciple. Exclusive sexual possession becomes a symbol of authority. In fact, the metaphor of sexual relations can be considered as a model builder. As Norwood Hanson puts it:

Models are […] a way of presenting structures that might possibly enforce subject matters. They do so in ways… most compelling (i.e. simpler and more focused) than would just another confrontation with the subject matter itself… Reproducing perplexities exactly is not the same as highlighting their structures… By completely eliminating all differences between the model and the original state of affairs one ends up destroying the very thing the model (or theory, or science, or art) was meant to achieve—namely, the provision of an “awareness of structure” absent from a confrontation with a complex phenomena. (Hanson 1971, 79-81)

21Thus, the most telling innovations in Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places when examined in the historical context of the moment of its formulation seem not to represent the world as it “really is” (Willner 1967, 24). The key word in Hal Bennett’s novel is rather translation of reality into metaphors and submetaphors. What I suggest then is that Hal Bennett has created a rule of correspondence fit to express the reality of Joe Market’s awakening to self-love, and of Titus’s spreading the social gospel of black salvation. Using myths, parables, legends and allegories to make its point, Hal Bennett’s novel as a whole is a metaphor in the form of a model. In Lord of Dark Places, Hal Bennett uses the phallic myth and sexual metaphors in a clearly rhetorical construct meant to stir the conscience of black people in so far as it offers what Larry Neal evokes as “a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic” (Neal, 1972, 257).

22This passage from Lord of Dark Places is particularly interesting because it brings out the interaction between the functional idiom of a vernacular narrative and the expression of the verbal resources of black folk culture with its capacities for improvisation, its humorous trend, and its metaphorical vigor. Its tone, half dramatic in its outrageous profanity, half comical in its irreverence, helps define the vision of the novel:

Man. I am The Naked Disciple. It seemed a very real and beautiful thing to be. He didn’t care now that Nobody knew who he was. He knew who he was, and that was knowledge enough […] When I was a child. I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things. A white cop looked at him but his peter just got harder. Fuck you jack. You want to suck my big black peter? You white motherfucker, I know you want to suck my peter. He wished he was double-jointed so he could suck it himself Man He loved his peter just that much. Look at me, all you peter hungry motherfuckers. Feast your eyes on my peter. Let your mouths run Water and your pussies and assholes pop but don’t nobody get none of my peter today. Yeah. He decided then that today ought to be his peter’s day off. […] And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is my peter and ME. (LDP, 46)

23Such imagery is not merely stylistic. Through the representation of the stereotypical black man as a sex object whose identity is described as essentially sexual—since Joe Market seems to possess no personality outside his penis—Hal Bennett brings forth one salient type of dialectical irony: “unmasking” used in a theatrical sense. Letting the contradict-ions of the stereotypical figure reveal themselves through the unfolding action, the novelist brings the reader to a deeper level of understand-ing. It thus contributes to convey a philosophy of resilience, affirmation and self-confidence rooted in the African American’s experience in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. In his use of an outrageous vocabulary, in his elaboration of startling sexual metaphors, in his expressionistic use of language to produce effects of surprise and bring about disturbing humor from the grotesque, Hal Bennett has shown that comprehension does not take place only through what is said, but also through what is implied.

3. Black Cultural Nation, Black Voice

24This raises the question of the necessary sociological interpretation of Hal Bennett’s illustrative metaphors whose analytic utility is to isolate and underline the central idea of the text: the struggle of the black man to come to grips with life in a world of myths and shadows where he has been lynched, castrated, made inferior by stereotypes. Indeed, the fictional context of the black speech has to be transcended and the reader finds himself contemplating the “real world”, that of assertive black nationalism and black folk culture or experience the depth of the collective or national consciousness among black people revealed by the rebellion after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. The focus is on black culture with its commitment to the principle and practice of defining, defending and developing oneself instead of being defined, defended and developed by others, with its demands that the black man build his own life in his own image and interests. Reflecting the orientations of the “Black cultural nation” that emerged during the 1960s as an essential aspect of black nationalism, Hal Bennett’s novel involves the assertion of the male principle together with the expression of the black man’s power, exalted manliness and the achievement of the self.

25There are two sides to the novel, assertion—in the commitment to the Black cultural nation—and emotion. On the one hand, there is the black man’s power, startling self-confidence, exalted manliness. Self-determination implies faith, that is, in the sociological framework of the Black cultural nation, a commitment of African Americans to themselves as persons and a people and the righteousness of their struggle. It is the call for an earth-oriented, earth-based, people-centered faith in the tradition of African philosophies and values. On the other hand, one can note an undercurrent of moral ambiguity, the acceptance of one’s vulnerability, the confession of feelings of anguish and despair, the expression of the quest for salvation.

26“Our word is our bond” (Austin, 1962, 10). An analysis of the basic premises of the fictional language of Lord of Dark Places in its rhythm, tone and functional idiom shows the emotion and the sincerity of the Black voice. In the novel, all the action becomes infused with deeper meaning through its mode of ironic expression. There are four major modes of ironic expression in the text, each of them allowing Black voices to speak: rhetorical irony, irony of manner, cosmic irony and dramatic or dialectical irony. Rhetorical irony, to be observed in the Prologue, consists in the stating of a meaning that is ambiguous with the implication that the audience, the narrator, and those who are the object of the ironic construct, are free to interpret the meaning in a sense opposite to the one apparently assumed. Hal Bennett’s use of this mode of ironic expression is as an instrument for putting down the white folks who lynched his grandfather Roosevelt. The use of rhetorical irony is in pretending to take his opponents’—the Klan’s—arguments seriously, and then showing their absurdity by defending them beyond credible limits. The description of Roosevelt’s lynching— hanged because a white woman mistook a tic for a wink—is a case in point:

Roosevelt was sleeping in one of Madame Eudora’s old flowered dresses when the white men came. They greeted him pleasantly and told him to come with them. Roosevelt obeyed at once, even when they told him he needn’t to take off the dress or put his pants on. They escorted him with the greatest courtesy to an oak tree out in the woods. One of the white men was named Mr. Johnson. ‘Just fine, Mr. Johnson. Just fine.’ Roosevelt said. Ί suspect I might have an early harvest this year.’ They tied his hands behind his back and put the noose around his neck. Roosevelt started to cry then. ‘I’m a good nigger, ain’t I, Mr Johnson?” That was all Roosevelt said, he didn’t even ask them why they were killing him, since obviously it was their right to use him as they saw fit. ‘You’re a very good nigger.’ (LDP, 13).

27Another mode of ironic expression characterizes the description of Roosevelt’s hanging arguments—ironization being used as a represent-ation of the black experience. The irony of manner, which refers not to discourse but to action, can be observed on the level of face to face interaction: “‘You’re a very good nigger,’ Mr Johnson told Roosevelt, touching him on his shoulder with a kind of awkward affection. Then he wiped his hands on his overalls while five white men hauled Roosevelt six feet off the ground by his neck” (LDP, 13)

28An ambiguous act is performed: the white man pats Roosevelt’s shoulder affectionately, and yet he wipes his hands on his overalls immediately afterwards. Without any comment from the narrator, both the white man’s intentions and the meaning of his act are referred back to the reader, the implication being that the message is the opposite of its medium. The irony lies in showing the absurdity, and the cruelty of the white man’s acts, bringing into light all that is despicable in his attitudes while apparently defending them beyond credible limits. In a similar fashion, the face-to-face interaction of the repulsive act of castration at the end of the lynching scene and of the fondness with which the white lyncher touches the mutilated body lets the reader free to interpret the irony of manner that conditions not only the meaning of the text through its evocation of historical racial violence but the deeper significance of the novel. The Black voice (here it is Titus’s, since he saw the whole thing) has to be heard: What is the Black man’s inheritance about except one of terror, oppression, myths and illusion?

Mr Johnson and another white man tried to tear Roosevelt’s flowered dress off, but they couldn’t disconnect it from his neck, he was hanging that high up. So they left it falling round his body like a cape. ‘By God, that nigger’s got the biggest peter I ever did see,’ Mr. Johnson said. He reached up and touched it fondly. He said he thought he’d take it home and keep it as a souvenir … Did anybody bring his knife? Titus flew back through the woods then and went home […] He was determined that no son of his would die like his father had died. He’d do anything to keep that from happening to a son of his. (LDP, 13)

29Beyond the denunciation of racial violence and oppression Irony is used by Hal Bennett as a logic of discovery of the Black man’s vulnerability, rage and frustration —one of the main ideas of the novel being that in all societies in all stages of history, where there is oppression there is resistance. All of the important ideological forces in the Black liberation movement over the past few years have had an impact on the Black church. Writing on the role of religion, Gary Marx noted in the 1960s: “When one’s religious involvement includes temporal concerns and acceptance of the belief that men as well as God have a role in the structuring of human affairs, then, rather than serving to inhibit protest, religion can serve to inspire and sustain it” (Marx, 1969, 65). In the irony of events or cosmic irony the source of ambiguity is superhuman: “history”, “fate”, or “God”. As Hal Bennett endeavors to counter the myth of innocence with the myth of the phallus, he introduces a transcendent perspective: Joe is pictured up as a Christ-like figure. The Edenic myth—involving the loss of innocence and the search for a new Eden—parallels the migration from the South to the North. While incongruent images of Joe—both Black Redeemer and sex object —oppose the myth of innocence and the phallic myth, the novelist’s use of cosmic irony allows the opposite to unite through dialectical reversal and synthesis of the structures of ambiguities and contradictions. The characters and events ‘speak’ with their own voices. In the South, Joe Market is the Black Redeemer, highly venerate. In the North, Joe is robbed of his protective myths.

4. From Black Religious Cults to the “Blue Blues”

30In the tradition kept by his parents, Madame Eudora and Roosevelt, Titus founds a religion seeking Black redemption in the world of whites. Offering his son to the adoration of the crowd, he preaches the possibilities of salvation. The features of the modes of ironic expression the novelist resorts to suggest that dramatic irony is particularly suited for illuminating certain aspects of his aesthetic representation of social, political and religious events. In these terms it is true that a functional interdependency exists with the sociological context.

31While storefront churches usually maintained traditional beliefs and practices, black religious cults abandoned conventional beliefs about God and about black people. Two kinds of cults stand out: the “holiness” cults and the “salvation” cults. The “holiness” cults seek to restore a purer form of Christianity through the sanctification of their members. Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer for All People are examples of this type of cults. In 1944, Arthur Fauset described the beliefs and practices of the House of Prayer for All People. In these black religious cults, as is the case in Titus’ religion, a certain emphasis was placed on sex:

Allusions to sex motives are numerous. In a moment of comparative tranquility, I heard a preacher call out to the followers, who were chiefly women, “Who has the best thing you ever did see? I mean the best feeling thing you ever did feel? You feel it from your head to your feet. You don’t know what I mean? Makes you feel good. Makes everybody feel good.” (Fauset, 1944, 21)

32In general, these holiness cults were characterized by a religious frenzy called “shouting” or “getting happy” and prohibitions on alcohol, gambling and the like.

33The “salvation” cults seek salvation through escape from being identified as Christian. Generally, cults and sects reflect Black people’s dissatisfaction with their exploitation and oppression. Indeed many churches did become involved in issues of social justice and were active in the civil rights movement. In Lord of Dark Places as in black religious cults, religion and opposition to white values are part of a single system. In the tradition of black salvation churches, Titus ambition is to spread the social gospel of Black redemption opting for a religious involvement in black protest against white middle-class values. For Titus, “ideas of black good and evil and white good and evil” (LDP, 24) are irreconcilable, that is the reason why he preaches salvation through escape from being identified as Christian by rooting his religion in the adoration of a Black Redeemer. The functional independency of opposites reveals the will to seek salvation through a distortion and amalgamation of myth and religious belief.

34If in the tradition of the salvation cults, Titus’ religion avoids any identification with the Christian church, it also includes the phallic myth as one of its main characteristics. Titus has it that people will worship anything if the phallus is involved. In his Church of the Naked Disciple, Joe Market is trapped, a victim of his gross innocence. The phallic Myth destroys Joe when, in the North, he is commanded by a white woman to have sex with her through a fence: “I can’t get out there because Daddy hates for me to mess around with niggers… And you can’t come here either. I can’t come in here either. I certainly don’t have to tell you why” (LDP, 50). Preventing any intimacy, that fence is the symbol of the myth of the castration of the Black man intertwined with another myth, that of his sexual power leading to his reification since he is perceived as a sexual object: “her nigger, her peter.” (LPD, 53).

35It is interesting to note that the phallic myth glorifying the Black man’s sexual identify is one with the image of Black redemption. Not only is Joe the Black Redeemer in Titus’ religion but all Christian values are inverted. In the tradition of Black nationalism, Titus proceeds to a belittling of white values and an enhancing of blackness: “When the Bible says black, I say white. When it says good, I say evil. When it says, Behold, Jehovah is a God of Light, I say Behold, He is the Lord of dark places; for his children gnash their teeth and cry unto Him and are not heard (LDP, 62). The impact of the organized struggle of Black people and the emergence of Black nationalism is to be felt not only in the content but in the form of Hal Bennett’s novel. Beyond its irreverence, the Black cultural expression to be found in the tone of the novel, as a whole, is authentic. Let us briefly assess the main characteristics of the novelist’s style in the expression of and attack on—the phallic myth that is the dominant metaphor, the Black nigger stud and potential sexual monster, a myth and underlying fear deeply ingrained in the social imagination of the nation. Funny in their irreverence, the passages that celebrate the fusion of the phallic myth and religion illustrate the vitality and the technical qualities of Black American speech. The rhythm and earthy language with real capacities for improvisation, the transfiguring humor and lyricism evoke what Paul Oliver calls “the vital thread of vigorous sexual song” (Oliver, 1970, 165). If we use Oliver’s terms, we can observe that Hal Bennett’s sentences sing—as the lines of the blues do—in the expression of the Black man’s struggle, identity quest, anguish and self-mockery that brings the consolation of that philosophy which is humor.


Works Cited

Austin, John Langshaw. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bennett, George Hal. 1970. Lord of Dark Places. New York: Norton.

Boggs, James. 1969. Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party. Philadelphia: Pacesetters Publishing House.

Burke, Kenneth. 1969. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Carmichael, Stokely and Charles V. Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage, New York.

Fauset, Arthur Huff. 1944. Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greimas, Algirdas Julien. 1970. Du Sens, essais sémiotiques. Paris: Seuil.

Hanson Norwood. 1971. Observation and Explanation: A Guide to the Philosophy of Science. New York: Harper & Row.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1927. The Father in Primitive Psychology. New York: Norton.

Marx, Gary. 1969. Protest and Prejudices: A Study of Belief in the Black Community. New York: Harper and Row.

Neal, Larry. 1972. “The Black Arts Movement”, The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr, Garden City: Anchor.

Oliver, Paul. 1970. Aspects of the Blues Tradition. New York: Oak Publications.

Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe: Free Press.

Stanford, Max. 1970. “Toward Revolutionary Action Movement Manifesto”, Black Nationalism in America, ed. John H. Bracey, Jr. August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Willner, David. 1967. Scientific Sociology: Theory and Method. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


1 The edition used is: George Hal Bennett, Lord of Dark Places. New York: Norton, 1970, hereafter cited in the text as LDP.


Agrégée, docteur de l'Université de Paris III, Professeur émérite (Université de Rouen), attachée à Duke University. Elle a publié Le Roman afro-américain de Chester Himes à Hal Bennett (1988, Prix de l'Académie des Sciences et d'Outremer), Jean Toomer et la Renaissance de Harlem (1997), Médias, pouvoirs et culture de l’image aux Etats-Unis (2004), Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (2006) ainsi que différents articles sur le Pan-Africanisme, la presse noire et l'islam afro-américain.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Rouen and an a contributor to American Literary Scholarship at Duke University, she is the author of Le Roman afro-américain de Chester Elimes à Hal Bennett (1988, Laureate of the Académie des Sciences et d'Outremer); Jean Toomer et la Renaissance de Harlem (1997) ; Médias, pouvoirs et culture de l'image aux Etats-Unis (2004); Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (2006), as well as various articles on Pan-Africanism, the black press and African-American Islam.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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