Black Speculative Fiction and Octavia Butler

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[By Crystal Boson]
  Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred is a skillful combination of several literary genres; it serves as a superb entre into the realm of Black Speculative Fiction and functions as a postmodern, inverse slave narrative.   Her characters’ 20th century experiencing of slavery places the work within the long tradition of slaves narratives, where individuals speak to their own experiences of direct oppression and liberation, and presents the oppositional gaze, forcing Kevin to examine racialized and gendered privilege and the impact that slavery has upon the contemporary moment.
            As a work of speculative fiction, Kindred takes place both in the past and a present moment.  It also explores in this layered setting the strength in which seemingly disenfranchised characters hold against the dominant discourse.  The temporal and spatial shifting of the work make it a difficult one to nail down.
            Butler’s decision to force Kevin, a white male, to witness first hand the dehumanizing impact of slavery both upon those who enforce the practice, and the people suffering under the system sets in visceral proximity its damaging psychological and emotional effects.  The work acknowledges the defenses the dominant discourse has constructed to distance itself from slavery, through the rewriting of literary and cultural history, and works against those constructs.  Dana is physically dragged back to the past to keep her present moment from being rewritten; when Kevin does not place belief in her statement of travel, he is flung into the past as well, but without much of the knowledge that Dana possessed about the system of slavery and its degrading force.
            The work presents interesting depictions of agency.  Dana is not in control of her acts of time travel; she is summoned by some unexplained power of Rufus, and dismissed only by a tremendous fear for her life, created by circumstances beyond her control.  Despite her lack of direct control over her temporal jumps, she has both symbolic and overt power over Rufus.  Kevin is also vastly dependent upon her, both for his emotional wellbeing and his safe return to his present.

One Function of Speculation in African American Literary History

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Welcome Guest Blogger: Professor Jerry W. Ward

Predictions about the end of African American literature pivot on definitions of what is African American and on who is making the definition.  Such predictions are odd but not new.  Addressing European audiences in “The Literature of the Negro in the United States,” Richard Wright argued that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and that what the metaphor signaled was a nervous, “constant striving for identity.”  The striving would cease when Negro writers were as intimately immersed in their cultures as Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, and Phyllis Wheatley had been in theirs.  Wright sought to persuade his auditors that should a complete “merging of Negro expression with American expression” occur, the blending would be a sufficient reason for the actual “disappearance of Negro literature as such.”
Let us assume that Wright was using in the 1950s a meaning of “Negro literature” rather different than the one he sketched in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937), a meaning adjusted by the political realities of publishing.  Wright’s inclusion of his lecture in White Man, Listen!  (1957) was strategic.  What had been listened to as a lesson in literature would consequently be read as a political statement.  The political dimension was accomplished by its linking with lectures on the psychological reaction of oppressed people, ideas about the future of tradition and industrialization, and conclusions about nationalism in the Gold Coast (Ghana).  Wright turned a spotlight on the indivisibility of culture and cultural expression, reifying notions about base and superstructure which still causes some twenty-first century literary historians to squirm.  For them, the implicit Marxism of Wright’s assertions is poison ivy.
Without claiming that Kenneth W. Warren’s recent essay “Does African-American Literature Exist?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education is indebted to Wright, we can provisionally identify Warren’s thinking as an effort to bring affirmative closure to Wright’s speculation.  Warren had been cautious when he asserted in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011) that “despite the waning of overt forms of racial oppression we are still far from the moment when race can be declared a null force on the American social scene” (p. 743).  But when in the Chronicle essay Warren asks us to believe that African American literature is “just a little more than a century old” and “has already come to an end,” we must be skeptical about what his understanding of history entails.  Is he being simply tendentious or complexly humorous in wearing a mask that grins in a convex mirror?  It seems unlikely that a serious literary historian or critic would locate the origins of African American literature in the twentieth century unless she or he intends to signify on the rhetorical stance of LeRoi Jones’s 1962 essay “Myth of a Negro Literature” or on Wright’s lecture from the Cold War period.  One result of such signifying is deflection from genuine efforts to struggle with convoluted issues in literary history.  We can be led astray by hubris, hyperbole, and the entertainment aspects of rhetorical performance.
Through their engagements with how literature and politics are linked in cultural discourses, Wright and Warren offer valuable but remarkably different lessons for writers of African American literary history.  Wright was fairly clear about his agency and his primary audience.  Warren’s agency, on the other hand, depends on the generosity of an audience constituted by probability.  Wright did not suggest that the merging “Negro” and “American” expressions was necessary and sufficient warrant for murdering an ethnic literature and transmitting the body to a morgue. Such an act would result in the death of American literature(s) whose ontological being is dependent on diversity in unity and obligate  literary historians to become  cultural archaeologists.   As literary historians read Warren’s essay, they ought to be most attentive to how energizing and bamboozling premature predictions can be.

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. 

Men and Migration–Revisited

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[By Kenton Rambsy]
The movement of black people from the South to the North stands out as a major recurring theme in African American literature. Looking at a select few black male novelists work will reveal how migrations patterns are expressed through fictive representations of black male protagonists.
Rudolph Fisher’s short story “City of Refuge,” Charles W. Chesnutt’s shorty story “The Wife of His Youth,” and Ishmael Reed’s novel Flight to Canada showcase protagonists who migrate   northward and offer reading audiences conflicting views about the North as the “Promised Land.” As mentioned in a earlier post, northern cities have been both places of economic opportunities and oppressive conditions.
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902) focuses on the fictional accounts of the Hamilton family, a wealthy African American family, as they fall from social graces. Beginning in an unnamed Southern town as a very prosperous family and ending in New York City amongst scandal and prison, Dunbar creates a story about the numerous challenges, opportunities, and drawbacks about urban
James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) focuses on the trials of an unnamed, biracial narrator coming to grips with the tough racial realities in America. From his time as a child in a small Georgia town at the beginning of the novel to his decision to live as a white man in New York at the story’s end, readers come to grips with the tense social negotiations that are associated with skin tone, social status, and the larger legacy of slavery.
Langston Hughes’s novel Not Without Laughter (1930) focuses on the coming of age of the male protagonist Sandy. His move from the small fictional town of Stanton, Kansas, to Chicago, Illinois, presents him with many challenges as he transitions into manhood.
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) deals with the educational and intellectual development of the unnamed protagonist. His travels from a small, college town in Alabama (largely inspired by Ellison’s experiences at Tuskegee) to New York bring the narrator face-to-face with the communist-like group the “Brotherhood and its chief rival Ras the Exhorter.
James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) reflects the sometimes-strained relationships between the black church and its members. Particularly, in flashbacks, readers encounter the migration patterns of brother and sister, Gabriel and Florence. Both of the siblings, at separate times, decide to leave their unnamed Southern home in search of the more worldly opportunities of New York City. 

Cultural Oppositions and Jean Toomer

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[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.


               The first section of this work has an interesting focus on both Black aesthetic beauty and the deconstruction of the Black body.  Concerning beauty, Toomer presents an image of culturally normative beauty in his opening work, Karintha.  The entire piece serves as a tragic homage to her beauty and her youth and innocence stripped to carelessly from her, but her beauty is constructed around the images of “skin like the dusk” and the ways of the folk.  Carma, who is presented within her self titled short story, is presented as strong and capable as well as beautiful.   Sadly, however, the strengths of these women were presented as vehicles that lead to their individual tragedies.  The destructive power of feminine strength is tied within the concepts of deconstruction of the body within this section.  The image of smoldering sawdust serves as a continual backdrop to the multiple bodies this section presents that are burned, broken, and dismembered in a physical or metaphoric sense.
               The second section of Toomer’s work examines the city, and presents the image as gritty, a potentially degrading influence, and a site for both creation and destruction.  The opening work of this section Seventh Street invokes the images of speed, movement, and restless migration.  A sensuality of musicality rides along the prose of this section, most evident in the opening poem in Seventh Street and “Her Lips are Copper Wire”.  Both Bona and Paul and Box Seat present the problematic nature of social control, racialized representations of love, and the isolating nature of the urban.   
               The third section of the work calls to DuBois through the bars of the prose, marking the Black literary imagination upon the image of the isolated educator within a liminal landscape and the situation of being uprooted from home and the land on which one is born.
               Toomer’s Cane is nothing but a work of beauty.  It situates the location based binaries of the cultural and national landscape within the complexity of Black life, love and sorrow.  It is nothing short of breathtaking.  

Oprah Winfrey and Black Literature

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[By Kenton Rambsy]
Oprah Winfrey has been a major leader in promoting African American literature through various dramatic mediums. Oprah Winfrey’s mark on black literature has been significant in terms of dramatizing the works of Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Oprah’s contributions to black writing spans more than twenty years from her portraying Bigger Thomas’s mother in the 1986 remake of Native Son to financing the 2007 made-for-television film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Oprah’s portrayals of Sophia in the 1985 film The Color Purple and as Sethe in the 1998 film of Beloved have had significant consequences on how moviegoers connect to the film versions of those movies. The now famous line, “Miss Celie, you told Harpo to beat me” resonates in popular culture as both a connection to Alice Walker’s novel, Spielberg’s film, and Oprah Winfrey’s character, but also, the line serves as a tragic-comedic representation of domestic abuse.
Even outside of acting, Winfrey has played a behind the scenes role in giving black novels second and even third lives. For instance, she served as one of the key producers for the 2005 Broadway Musical of The Color Purple, which earned eleven Tony Awards nominations in its three year stint on Broadway and giving rise to new character representations for wide ranging audiences to consider. Also, she employed the talents of African American playwrights uzan-Lori Parks for writing the screenplay for the television film of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in 2005.  
The multiple reincarnations of African American literature through film, and even plays, have direct connections to the efforts of Winfrey. Serving as an advocate, actress, or financer, she has played a pivotal role in the production and promotion of African American literary art. 

Remixing Literary History With Paul Beatty

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[By Crystal Boson]

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.

The Great Migration

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[By Kenton Rambsy]

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.