Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University, is the author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008). A Richard Wright scholar, poet, literary critic, Ward was born in Washington, DC but has spend most of his adult life in Mississippi and Louisiana. He is co-editor with Maryemma Graham of The Cambridge History of African American Literature and HBW Senior Board Member.
[By Crystal Boson]
Jean Toomer’s Cane is a beautiful modernist text that captures the binaries that are most easily associated with Black literary lives of the early 20th century: The North versus the South and the rural laid against the urban. In its entirety, the work follows the trail of the Great Migration, starting South, heading North, and concluding in a liminal space that is in simultaneously neither and both location. The first section of the book focuses upon the trappings that situate the Southern landscape as a site of horror and oppression. The poem “Portrait in Georgia” calls up the spectre of lynching, and places it in conversation with images of inter and intra racial social violence, present in Blood-Burning Moon, Karintha and Becky. The Southern landscape is not entirely demonized; the poems “Song of the South” and “November Cotton Flower” hold glimpses of beauty.
Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle often serves as a poignant satire about the modern role of the cultural mulatto and the destination of the search for communal bonding and self-identification. The novel blends elements of literary theory’s latest darling, postmodern theory, cultural displacement, alternative African American religion, and popular culture.
An initial focus on the power of basketball as a social lubricant in the lives of Black males shifts attention to elements of racial authenticity, self-identification, and cultural mulattoism. Gunnar Kaufman, the novels protagonist, serves as a weaver of a postmodern tapestry; after rejecting the master narrative and cultural isolation placed onto him by his surfer boy upbringing, he later emerges into the role of a reluctant H.N.I.C.
The novel has an interesting inclusion of the practice of alternative African American religions within the text. Throughout this transfiguration, performative manifestations of voodoo continually present themselves, often facilitating both Gunnar’s and the reader’s navigation through the complicated web of communal bonding and self-identification. The presence and elements of Voodoo serve not only as markers of syncretism and rejection of master texts, but as literary lubricant, emphasizing the complexity of cultural mulattoism, and their simultaneous rejection and acceptance of it.
Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle seeks to emphasize the importance of syncretism, cultural mulattoism, and self-identification in the text. It gives a new face to the growing body of Black Postmodern literature and seeks to refute the notion of performative authentic blackness.
Utilizing a database of 100 novels reveals useful ways of considering the central topic of migration in African American literature. Mapping novel settings and the movements of protagonists across different geographic locations provides general readers and scholars important opportunities to consider how migration has emerged in the literary imagination of black novelists.
The Great Migration’s movements of two million African Americans from southern states to the Midwestern, Western, and Northeastern regions of the country during the early twentieth century are reflected in African American novels, particularly among black male protagonists. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Langston Hughes Not Without Laughter (1930), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) all feature men making migrations to the Northern cities, specifically New York City or Chicago. New York and Chicago stand out as popular destinations for black people during the Great Migration, and have remained as recurring settings for black novelists.
More than 54 of the 100 novels in our database are set in urban areas or have major scenes taking place in cities. New York City and Chicago are the settings or sites of scenes in more than 27 novels in our database. At least one novel, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), never identifies New York City by name as its setting, but the fictional metropolis featured in Whitehead’s narrative is definitely based on the Big Apple.
The recurring focus on Chicago and New York City in novels suggests the importance of those cities in the literary imagination of black America. Moreover, the prevalence of urban areas as settings for novels indicates that writers view city environments as fertile grounds for positioning their narratives.