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Approches critiques de la fiction afro-américaine

Michel Fabre
Claude Julien
Trevor Harris

"History is always Written Wrong": Song of Solomon and "The Memories Within"

Jesús Benito Sánchez

Texte intégral

Fiction, by definition, is distinct from fact. Presumably it's the product of imagination — invention — and it claims the freedom to dispense with " what really happened," or where it really happened, or when it really happened, and nothing in it needs to be publicly verifiable, although much in it can be verified.
T. Morrison, "The Site of Memory"

  • 1 A really important contribution to this topic is the book edited by Geneviève Fabre and Robert O'M (...)

1In The Life of Reason: Reason in Science, George Santayana (1932, 45) observed that: "History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten." This notion, amply defended in the second half of the twentieth century, has signalled the emergence of a multiplicity of decentered histories; besides, it has exposed the political and ideological essence of the master histories of the west, which traditionally excluded all marginal voices. Similarly, in Metahistory (1973) Hayden White maintains that "it is possible to view historical consciousness as a specifically western prejudice, by which the presumed superiority of modern, industrial society can be retroactively substantiated" (1-2). The long-lasting predominance of western historical epistemology has suffered a gradual process of dissolution over the last few decades, and the old notion of history as the maximum symbol of power exerted by the white world has been the target of constant attacks. In American culture, this process of dismantling and demystification of monocultural thinking has been greatly speeded by the intervention of minority groups. African-American novelists are specially active in this process of decentering the old notion of history in favor of a new understanding of the past more akin to their vernacular culture. This article focuses on this "journey back" of the Black novelists, in the sense that it also represents a rejection of contemporary historical sensibility and a search for the ancestral world of collective memory.1

  • 2 In a profound study of the folklore of the slaves, Lawrence Levine concludes that "they extended t (...)

2The African-Americans have undergone a circular movement in their relationship with the past, which can be related to the different stages in their long journey from Africa and their painful adaptation to a new life in America. While in Africa, and during their first experiences as slaves on American soil, written history did not exist in its modern form, and thence, no distance or mediation between past and present. In an article published in 1865, the anonymous author railed against the Black race in the following significant words: "They have invented no writing: not even the rude picture-writing of the lowest tribes…. The negro has no history — he makes no history" (quoted in Early, 1982, 187). The white world equated history and writing: there could be no trace of the past unless it was recorded in writing. Thus, the white historian was unequipped to read any history that was not recorded in the traditional written form of western historiography. However, unnoticed to these alien observers, African peoples, as well as slave groups, kept a social and unviolated memory maintained in a complex body of folklore. During slavery time, legends, folk tales, peculiar reinterpretations of biblical passages, work songs, spirituals, and blues songs were responsible for establishing a fluid evolution from the slave's ancestral past to his personal present. As Sterling Stuckey indicates, these forms of oral culture are "closely related to the African griot's vocation of providing oral histories of families and dynasties" (1968, 453). Besides, religious folklore provided a safe transition from the past to the future, a mythical link between the before and after.2

  • 3 For a more detailed analysis of what are known as the "WPA narratives", see Davis and Gates, eds., (...)

3Throughout the dark ages of slavery, the slave saw his spontaneous memory manipulated and displaced under the influence of the white world. The economics of the slave trade allowed no place for the slave's collective memory. He suffered what Pierre Nora calls "the conquest and eradication of memory by history" (1989, 8). Beside the restrictions to communal life inherent in the day-to-day practice of the slave trade, the slaves in America entered a dramatic tower of Babel which added to their feeling of alienation. The slaveholders mixed slaves of different tribal origins, confounded their languages and destabilized their family bonds. They thus started the dissolution of the collective memory of the groups of slaves and left them at the mercy of history, a history designed and written by the literate white man. Once deprived of memory, the Black slave was obscured in the position of a silenced other; he did not have the chance to write himself into history. While he was fighting to escape the darkness and silence of slavery, he was being cast in words, that is, inscribed into history by the dominant social forces. Gradually, these people traditionally excluded from history saw themselves radically engulfed by the pages of an alien history which displaced their previous collective memory. According to Pierre Nora, this process takes place whenever so-called primitive societies are "awakened from their ethnological slumbers" by more "civilized" nations. In these cases, "the remnants of experience still lived in the warmth of tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral, have been displaced under the pressure of a fundamentally historical sensibility" (1989, 7). The suppression of memory under the influence of history in African-American culture originated in the Reconstruction period and has continued ever since. In the years 1936 to 1938 "The Work Progress Administration" undertook to record thousands of accounts of former slaves in what is known as the "Federal Writers' Project".3 The 2194 oral accounts given by the slaves were later printed and stored in appropriate archives for the use of historians. This way, a modern historical sensibility was appropriating, interrogating, deforming and transforming memory, wresting it from its secular keepers and rendering a stagnant picture of it. Even as late as 1964 Ralph Ellison could write: "We've fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory" (1964, 250).

4However, the second half of the twentieth century is witnessing a deliberate move back to the old days of collective memory. The most conscious fiction writers of the twentieth century have realized the extreme dangers of falling submissively at the hands of history. They see the threat in the radical "acceleration of history" (Nora, 1989, 7), the swift motion by which Black Americans are losing their ancestral memory while they are swept into the cold pages of history. This movement from ancestral memory to material history signals a radical alienation of a peculiarly Black ethos, which had been maintained during the slave past. With the advent of history, mainly as it was written by the white masters, African-American memory was gradually displaced; it turned from a collective celebration into, at most, a private meditation. The strictly oral knowledge of a sacred past changed into a historical knowledge based on archives and written information, on traces of the past which signalled a radical separation of history from the people. The past turned into a world apart, confined in archives. Under the attack of material history, metaphysical memory vanished.

  • 4 This trend is widespread in modern literature. Besides African-American writers, there are many ot (...)

5In an effort to counteract the dangerous move of African-American memory to succumb to the influence of history, many Black novelists are challenging the master narrative of the west in their fiction.4 They endeavor to subvert the authority of the received images of the past by envisioning a recovery of the collective memory, and by returning to a mythical, sacred understanding of the past. From the 1960s on, James Baldwin (1989, 193) denounced the African-Americans' lack of a true historical legacy in written English: "there is nothing to assess an inheritance unless one wants to liberate oneself from the western language, the western frame of reference". This emphasis on "inheritance" instead of "history" has been repeated by most Black novelists. While history implies the distance of a past which lives only in history books and inhabits museums and monuments, the "inheritance" is a personal part of every individual, based as much on lived experiences as on the ancestral knowledge of a people transmitted orally.

6Writers like Toni Morrison, Margaret Walker, Gayl Jones, David Bradley, Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, John E. Wideman, Ernest Gaines and Alice Walker, among many others, are striving to recover the inheritance of the African-Americans in their novels, struggling to present in their fiction what T. Morrison (1987, 111) calls the "memories within". However, as Toni Morrison herself acknowledges, the vestigial memories of the Black people in the twentieth century are not enough to displace the "master narrative of history" and reach the total complexity of negro life in the past. The lack of a well articulated metaphysical system inherited from their African and slave past leaves Black Americans under the necessity to have recourse to what Michael Dash has called "the counter culture of the imagination" (1973, 66). Where the pervasive influence of mainstream culture, of history and written discourse, has disrupted and displaced the metaphysical system of an ethnic group, only the imagination can serve to counteract that loss (see Tiffin, 1988, 173).

7Within African-American culture, the Black writer is striving to fill the gaps in the Black collective memory through the recollection of scraps of memory and their imaginative recreation in fiction. Morrison acknowledges the few vestiges of memory still existent in the Black mind are insufficient: "These 'memories within' are the subsoil of my work. But memories and recollections won't give me total access to the unwritten interior life of these people. Only the act of the imagination can help me" (1987, 111). In her novels, Morrison opposes the elusive essence of memory and the imagination to the master narrative of history. The essentially oral quality of Black folklore evades the fixity of written history and inscribes polyphony and change. This "journey back" from material history to metaphysical memory, from prosaic records to sacred and mythical stories, from the immutability of the archive to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, is visible in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Placing her narration within a Black urban society where memory is no longer experienced collectively, the novel makes its characters face their own past. The heroes will be those who transcend the artificial historical separation between past and present and undertake the long journey to become "memory-individuals". In this atmosphere, the hero's search for his own history also represents his quest for memory (Nora, 1989, 13).

  • 5 This is a recurring motif in many African-American novels: the Black character is depicted as the (...)

8In Song of Solomon, the male protagonist, Milkman, is initially trapped within the realm of history.5 His recognition of the fact that men cannot fly like birds leaves him comfortably installed within the realm of the physical world, of things that can be seen and touched. The acceptance of his inability to fly "denies his spiritual link with the past" (Campbell, 1981, 140). To his materialistic mind, the world of memory, of the metaphysical, of mythical men who can fly, the world of his own ancestors is a world apart, not to be resuscitated or retrieved. The past is no longer present, but a mere discontinuous set of events better left untouched. When, after his father and mother have had an argument, his father tells him a short version of the family's past, his reaction is very telling: '"What the fuck did he tell me all that shit for?' He didn't want to know any of it. There was nothing he could do about it. The doctor was dead. You can't do the past over" (76). The chasm between the before and after — a gap inexistent in the world of memory but deeply ingrained in history — appears insurmountable for Milkman.

9Although he disregards his past, to a great extent it shapes his own actions and feelings. He suspects the part of his personal history encoded in his own name, a name he bears but whose origins or connotations he fails to grasp. The beginning of Morrison's novel elaborates on the necessity of clinging to names as repositories of memory. Pilate still treasures the piece of paper where her father wrote her name when she was born. She keeps the piece of paper in a little brass box which she has made into an earring. Similarly, the Black residents of "Not Doctor Street" strove to keep the name of their street and of "Not Mercy Hospital" as a vestige of their past and their sense of community. Unlike them, Macon Dead and his descendants have willfully given up their name to adopt a new name, Dead. Ironically, for Milkman's ancestors, this name had a healing effect, since it cut them off, as a free people, from their slave past that was contained in their master's name. It was Milkman's great grandmother, Sing, who advised her husband to keep a name erroneously given him by a drunk white man. She urged her husband to keep the name because "[she] liked it. Said it was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out" (54). However, the slave past of Milkman's ancestors is too remote for him to savor the healing effect of the new name. In Milkman's case, the name "Dead" is decontextualized; Milkman keeps a name which wipes out a part of his past and alienates him from his more remote ancestors.

10Milkman and his family are all situated within the realm of material history. Their links with the collective past of the Black people have been severed and replaced by strictly material ties with the capitalist values of the whites. Macon Dead's advice to Milkman is very meaningful: "Own things, and let the things you own own other things" (55). Significantly, Milkman's effort to break all links with his family and his past comes together with his search for gold. Leaving family and memories behind, Milkman undertakes a long journey in search of a sack of gold supposedly hidden in a cave. The materiality symbolized by the sack of gold buried in the distant past is counteracted by Pilate's sack of bones taken from the same cave and still full of memories. While Milkman retraces his family's steps in an effort to submerge himself deeper in material possession, Pilate had undertaken the same trip many years before to collect a sack full of memory. With this experience in mind, Pilate will be the mythical guide, the "supernatural helper" (in terms of Joseph Campbell, 1972, 69-76) who will direct Milkman's journey to the cave where he hopes to find the gold. Under the direction of Pilate, Milkman's trip undergoes a magic and mythical transformation. He gradually and unconsciously changes the purpose of his initiatory journey. He starts to liberate himself from the weight of gold and materiality which kept him tied to the ground, and unconsciously goes through the gradual steps of a mythical hero; he will have to fight the opponents of his quest, and will also take part in a hunt which represents his rite of initiation. Once initiated, he will enter into conversation with Circe, "a woman older than death" (221), and will also establish mythical communication with the earth, using a new language: "No it was not language", indicates Milkman, "it was what there was before language. Before things were written down" (281). Finally, as he reaches the cave, he enters the "symbolic womb" (see Evans, 1987, 157) and is ready to be born to a new life. Soon the cave metamorphoses before his eyes. It is no longer a container of gold but a "site of memory" where part of his past remains untouched. There he liberates himself from the constraints of material wealth and written history, and falls into the hands of myth, which appears as "the primary language of historical memory" (Slotkin, 1986, 70). The attachment to material things and written records (like the ones he keeps of his tenants) gives way under the magical influence of oral stories, legends, tales and music.

  • 6 Traditionally, as Nietzsche defended, music has given birth to myth. When modern historical consci (...)

11Milkman is now well equipped to solve the riddle, which comes to him in the form of one of the basic repositories of collective memory: a song.6 As he unravels the mysterious song which tells of his great grandfather and the flying Africans, Milkman's present opens up to the past; the physical barrier that kept the past from joining the present is totally overcome, and Milkman enters the world of collective memory. He reactualizes primordial time and becomes the contemporary of his ancestors (see Evans, 1987, 155). This new world is populated with people who may be dead, but who still inhabit the present, since, as Pilate says, "People die when they want to and if they want to" (141). When, in the final scene of the novel, Milkman jumps to embrace Guitar — even if it results in his own death — he is aware that death does not equal finality (see Campbell, (Jane] 1981, 147). He has transcended western rationalism and has learned to fill the gap between past and present, life and death.

12Unconsciously playing the role of a mythical hero in a quest for African-American memory, Milkman has unravelled all the mysteries lost in the darkness of the past; he has restored magical continuity to the ruptures already inscribed by history. The hero becomes intimate with a previously distant past not through the recovery and presence of material elements — like the sack of gold Milkman was after — but rather through the activation of oral repositories of memory like "gossips, stories, legends, speculations" (327) and songs — an essence associated to Pilate's sack of bones. Using all these forms of oral collective memory, Milkman has retrieved his own past in the form of a genealogical search. Thus, it is not only Milkman who enters into collective communion with his ancestors; the novelist herself places her narrative within the African-American literary tradition, a sort of literary memory. As Kimberly Benston affirms, "all of Afro-American literature may be seen as one vast genealogical poem that attempts to restore continuity to the ruptures and discontinuities imposed by the history of Black presence in America" (1984, 152).

  • 7 Sartre identified power with the capacity to impose fixity on a fluid subjectivity. In his vision, (...)

13In her effort to represent this return to the mythical days of collective memory, Morrison takes her narrative back to the South, to an untextualized cave where she will collect a few scraps of memory to be completed by the "counter culture of the imagination". The cave transforms itself into a "site of memory" gathering together the life story of Milkman's ancestors which is rendered in a magical atmosphere of legends, heroes, origins and myths. With the help of all these unwritten texts of history and culture, and the act of the imagination, Toni Morrison seeks to complete the circle: if memory and oral culture were first displaced by a master narrative of history based on written records, now fiction can help counteract that displacement; if history "made not only the future invisible but also the past" (Nora, 1989, 17), fiction can fill the gaps and reestablish continuity; finally, if history delegated in the archive the responsibility of remembering, fiction claims that responsibility back to memory and to the social group. Thus, Morrison is reclaiming Black people's freedom and identity by evading the "master discourse" and its capacity to impose fixity and motionlessness.7 As Jane Campbell indicates, "Morrison strives to remove the print quality of language and to put back the oral quality" (1981, 152). Her novel joins memory in its emphasis on orality, on suggestion and evocation (Mason, 1988, 566); similarly, Song of Solomon avoids direct and realistic representation, which is more directly applicable to history. Thus, fiction enters an impossible battle: it strives to get rid of its fixity as written discourse, and to join the elusive folklore of the Black past. The novelist reaches out imaginatively to the "memories within" of her Black characters and then composes a fictional version of the past. What memory has lost to the influence of history, the imagination can legitimately recover since, as Morrison recognizes, "the act of the imagination is bound up with memory" (1987, 119).



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Benston, Kimberly, 1984. "I yam what I am: the topos of (un) naming in Afro-American literature." In Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry L. Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen.

Bradley, David, 1986. The Chaneysville Incident. London: Serpent's Tail.

Campbell, Jane, 1981. Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Campbell, Joseph, 1972. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.

Dash, J. Michael, 1973. "Marvellous Realism — the Way out of Negritude." Caribbean Studies 13.4.

Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., 1985. The Slave's Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Early, Gerald Lyn, 1982. "A Servant of Servants Shall He Be…". In Paternalism and Millenialism in American Slavery Literature, 1850-1859. Cornell: University Microfilm International.

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Morrison, Toni, 1977. Song of Solomon. New York: New American Library.

--- 1987. "The Site of Memory." In Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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1 A really important contribution to this topic is the book edited by Geneviève Fabre and Robert O'Meally, History and Memory in African-American Culture (1994). In this book, diverse scholars study the construction of an emerging African-American cultural memory.

2 In a profound study of the folklore of the slaves, Lawrence Levine concludes that "they extended the boundaries of their restrictive universe backward until it fused with the world of the Old Testament, and upward until it became one with the world beyond" (1977, 32-33).

3 For a more detailed analysis of what are known as the "WPA narratives", see Davis and Gates, eds., 1985.

4 This trend is widespread in modern literature. Besides African-American writers, there are many others — specially the so-called "ethnic" writers — who follow the same trend: writers like L. Silko, L. Erdrich, R. Bebe Hill, S. Wong, A. Tan, and R. Anaya among many others.

5 This is a recurring motif in many African-American novels: the Black character is depicted as the alienated hero engulfed in an a-historical alienation who will gradually discover a rather elusive and mythological Black past. This is masterfully depicted, for example, in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident (1986), whose hero, John Washington, bears many similarities to Milkman Dead.

6 Traditionally, as Nietzsche defended, music has given birth to myth. When modern historical consciousness arises, mythical and musical sensibility is forced into the background (see F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, chapter 10).

7 Sartre identified power with the capacity to impose fixity on a fluid subjectivity. In his vision, human freedom depends on the subject's ability to evade the imposition of fixity (see Donald Pease, 1991, 114).


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