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Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett

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What effect has the black literary imagination attempted to have on, in Toni Morrison’s words, "a race of readers that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free"? How has black literature challenged the notion that reading is a race-neutral act? Race and the Literary Encounter takes as its focus several modern and contemporary African American narratives that not only narrate scenes of reading but also attempt to intervene in them. The texts interrupt, manage, and manipulate, employing thematic, formal, and performative strategies in order to multiply meanings for multiple readers, teach new ways of reading, and enable the emergence of antiracist reading subjects. Analyzing works by James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Jamaica Kincaid, Percival Everett, Sapphire, and Toni Morrison, Lesley Larkin covers a century of African American literature in search of the concepts and strategies that black writers have developed in order to address and theorize a diverse audience, and outlines the special contributions modern and contemporary African American literature makes to the fields of reader ethics and antiracist literary pedagogy.

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Introduction: Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Racialization: Modern and Contemporary Black Literature

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Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Racialization: Modern
and Contemporary Black Literature

ONE OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL FILMS OF THE LAST FIVE years, Lee Daniels’s Precious (2009) chronicles an abused African American teenager’s development as a reader and writer. Adapted from Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push, Precious’s story was heralded by many critics for its “authentic[ity]” (Ebert) and “grit” (Schmader). Others, however, asserted that the film reinforced racist stereotypes. Armond White called it a “carnival of black degradation,” and Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote that the “popular embrace” of the film had “troubling political meaning.”1 The debate over the political meaning of Sapphire’s narrative is a powerful reminder that, despite popular claims of America’s postracial status, American racial obsessions are alive, well, and very much on the minds of contemporary artists and critics.2 This debate also recalls longstanding arguments about how black artists should represent black people, especially where nonblack audiences are concerned. In the case of Push, the debate is, more dizzyingly, about how black writers should represent black readers.

 

1 Unbinding the Double Audience: James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson

IN HIS JULY 1938 OBITUARY FOR JAMES WELDON JOHNSON, published in the prominent black newspaper the New York Age, Howard sociologist Kelly Miller charged the beloved author and political leader with having built his literary reputation by pandering to white readers. In Miller’s view, despite a mediocre and occasional literary oeuvre, Johnson achieved artistic distinction because his works avoided controversy and failed to challenge the “racial sensibility” of an overwhelmingly white audience. Johnson’s “fame,” Miller argued, “rest[ed] chiefly on the appraisal of white people.” Despite Johnson’s many civic accomplishments (which included his role as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP and an antilynching crusade), Miller faulted Johnson for molding his art to the expectations and preferences of white readers.1

Miller’s critique of Johnson is but one moment in a century of debates among black writers about how best to represent black life to a majority white readership. Just a few months earlier, Richard Wright described Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as a literary minstrel show, writing, “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh” (17). And just over a decade later, James Baldwin accused Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, of being a “descendant” of Uncle Tom (21). For her part, Hurston accused the publishing industry of refusing to publish works that did not conform to preconceived stereotypes and faulted white readers for having little curiosity about middle-class black people (“What”).

 

2 Speakerly Reading: Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston

DESPITE THE SHARED FELICITY OF THEIR TRIPLED MONIKERS, James Weldon Johnson, the subject of the previous chapter, and Zora Neale Hurston had relatively little in common as artists. Although Johnson wrote a number of dialect songs and poems in his early career, he eventually rejected dialect and became known for works that appealed to the rising black middle class. Hurston, in contrast, was an ethnographer and folklorist whose best-known works celebrate vernacular black speech and culture. Despite significant differences in their approaches, and as predicted by the double bind of the double audience – Johnson’s description of the no-win situation facing black authors who write for a mixed, majority-white readership – both Johnson and Hurston have been criticized for their particular representations of black life. (Both have been praised extensively as well, but it is the critique I am interested in here.) It is possible to object to the middle-class, cosmopolitan protagonist of Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man for making black culture palatable to the white audience whom he resembles, just as it is possible to object to Hurston’s folksy Southern black characters for appearing untroubled by systemic racism and thus resembling characters on the minstrel stage.

 

3 Close Reading “You”: Ralph Ellison

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Ralph Ellison

THE FIVE HUNDRED PAGES THAT INTERVENE BETWEEN THE prologue and epilogue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) are explicitly concerned with the self-definition of a speaking (and writing) “I,” a visible and legible self who brings himself into being by narrating his story. However, this extended project of self-assertion is framed by explicit address to a second person; that is, the novel begins and ends by addressing its reader. The narrator’s famous final lines proceed in the second person, and his final word is “you”: “Who knows,” the Invisible Man asks, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581).

Like the controversial elements of Hurston’s oeuvre discussed in the previous chapter, the ultimate passages of Invisible Man, and this last line in particular, have performed more than their share of mischief in six decades of Ellison criticism. Until recently, most professional readers (and doubtless many students) have agreed with Ellison’s earliest, “new liberal” critics that the novel asserts a universal humanist vision that, grounded on transracial and individual identifications (between the “I” and the “you”), exceeds the novel’s particular critique of racial exclusion.1 This common interpretation holds that Ellison asserts an individual selfhood that transcends racial particularity and eschews collective political action. As Barbara Foley writes, “A nonblack (especially a white) reader, uncertain about the degree of his or her identification with the novel’s protagonist but certain about dangers posed by Communists and Communism, can . . . request entry into the text’s charmed circle of initiates and reply affirmatively to the narrator’s closing invitation” (346).2

 

4 Erasing Precious: Sapphire and Percival Everett

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Sapphire and Percival Everett

ALICE WALKERS 1982 NOVEL THE COLOR PURPLE WAS A CRITICAL and popular success. Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983 and became the face of a new ascendancy of African American women writers that also included Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange. The reception of Walker’s novel, however, was not universally positive. Some critics and writers attacked Walker for stereotyping black men as violent, black women as weak, and both as sexually perverse. In a 1984 interview with Reginald Martin, for example, poet and novelist Ishmael Reed described “black feminists, people like Alice Walker” as “‘neoconfederate’ novelists” and compared them to Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman (the 1905 novel upon which D. W. Griffith based his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation). And literary scholar Trudier Harris praised Walker’s deft handling of vernacular speech in The Color Purple but rejected her central character as an unrealistic – even infuriating – representation of Southern black women: “I couldn’t imagine a Celie living in any black community I knew or any that I could conceive of. What sane black woman, I asked, would sit around and take that crock of shit from all those folks? . . . But the woman just sat there, like a bale of cotton with a vagina . . . waiting for someone to come along and rescue her” (“On The Color Purple” 155).

 

5 Reading and Being Read: Jamaica Kincaid

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Jamaica Kincaid

IMPLICIT IN THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS IS THE PREMISE THAT literary works possess agency at the reading encounter, and that this agency is often realized pedagogically. Specifically, I have argued that modern and contemporary African American literary works often seek to train readers in how to read self-critically, collaboratively, and against stereotype. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man purports to teach readers about “authentic” black culture while in fact serving as a primer for the ideological mechanisms that produce middle-class white masculinity. Their Eyes Were Watching God trains its audience in the art of speakerly reading, while Seraph on the Suwanee shows them what happens when this practice serves the interest of white capitalism rather than racial and economic justice. Invisible Man models and solicits dialogical and critically self-reflexive reading as a means of interrupting the drive to abstraction promoted by New Critical pedagogies. And Push and Erasure, especially when taken together, train readers to recognize the racist stereotypes embedded in color-blind and multiculturalist discourse and to seek multiple representations of blackness, rather than taking any single text as representative.

 

Epilogue: Toward a Theory and Pedagogy of Responsible Reading: Toni Morrison

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Toward a Theory and Pedagogy of Responsible Reading

Toni Morrison

ABOUT TWO-THIRDS OF THE WAY INTO TONI MORRISONS THE Bluest Eye is a heartbreaking scene. Cholly, whom readers know as an African American father who raped and impregnated his daughter, is an innocent boy fooling around with a girl in a forest. Suddenly, several white hunters appear and force Cholly and the girl to have sex for their amusement. It is a difficult scene to teach. Many students struggle not only with Morrison’s intimate descriptions of sexual violence but also with their sense that Morrison, by exploring how unspeakable suffering comes to pass, asks readers to forgive the unforgivable. Morrison presents Cholly’s victimization as a link in the chain that leads (in nonlinear, “jazz-shaped,” fashion) to his daughter’s victimization.1 The narrative transition to Pecola’s trauma is unsatisfactory by design: “So it was on a Saturday afternoon,” explains the narrator, that Cholly “staggered home reeling drunk” and raped his daughter (161).

 

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