Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey: Contemporary Black Chroniclers of the Imagined South

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-06-19 15:17Z by Steven

Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey: Contemporary Black Chroniclers of the Imagined South

The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 44, Number 2, Spring 2012
pages 122-135
DOI: 10.1353/slj.2012.0009

William M. Ramsey
, Professor of English
Francis Marion University, Florence, South Carolina

“I Don’t Hate the South.”
— book title by Houston Baker, Jr.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun (73). His assumption—that the southern writer is a chronicler accessing the essence of a wholly objective place, transparently “explaining” a history to outsiders who misunderstand it—has been undermined by the theorizing in New Southern Studies. To chronicle the historical South as a special space enacts a social construction positing an ideologically reductive, essentialist regional myth. As Richard Gray argues, the invented South is an “imagined community” as well as a real and given space (xix). Diane Roberts terms it “the South of the mind” (371). Faulkner, conflicted and ghost-haunted by memories of the past, saw himself in the grip of a concrete reality so palpable that it could not be wiped away with time. But multiple communities, genders, and races lived in that past, and they stimulate divergent takes on it. Thus Houston Baker, Jr., borrowing from Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, ambivalently titled a recent book I Don’t Hate the South.

Black writers ghost-haunted by the southern past are highly wary of being possessed by the grip of a mythical mystique that marginalized black experience into historical invisibility. They know, as Martyn Bone argues, that the idealized southern geography rested economically on a social geography of slavery and it sequel segregation—realities that were suppressed in definitions of southern. As Bone notes, “this strategic exclusion is a structural and ideological necessity” for Agrarian-derived myth-making (3). For black writers, then, to perform southern chronicling one must enter history as a self-aware, reconfiguring maker of history. Resourcefully imaginative excavations are required to recover materials deeply buried and long suppressed. The result is an ongoing birthing of a multi-vocal history that presupposes the chronicler engages not in neutral reception but in a constructive act. The past is never past, and yet it must be newly conceived.

Two contemporary black chroniclers, Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey, interrogate the nature of the South with highly revealing metaphors of southern space and soil. They diverge from the familiar anxiety that the region is losing distinctiveness and that its culture is coming to an end. Against that fear of dispossession—of being uprooted from one’s communal memory by time and new cultural infusions—they express the need to take possession of the soil, to put roots into it so as to occupy new space instead of a tenuous space apart. Their poetry thus reflects the literary sensibility of black writers born after the civil rights gains of the mid-1960s. Growing up during profound cultural transitions—a social order of change and adaptive adjustments—they came to perceive historical inquiry not as monumentalizing the past into granite fixity but as excavation of pliable materials for revised narratives. Their poems are keen moments of individual consciousness in which the poet feels free to find and reshape the clay sediments of dug-up history.

In this respect they crack a barrier that confronted earlier black writers, namely the problem of occupying what I term “a space apart,” on the margin, where black life was kept out of history. In the post-bellum era, Charles W. Chesnutt’s dialect conjure tales ironically undermined the white nostalgic plantation tradition while tapping into oral black folk traditions. Yet, in adopting the plantation tale convention of a white frame narrator (his publisher Houghton Mifflin not indicating his racial identity due to his request that the work be judged on its merits rather than the author’s social status), Chesnutt subtly marginalized himself. Unfortunately this approach, a tactic of an era of accommodation, enfolded black materials inside the dominant white discourse domain, subtly distancing folk life to a quaint space apart. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God reflects a new advance born of…

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“Cane”, Race, and “Neither/Norism”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-17 22:47Z by Steven

“Cane”, Race, and “Neither/Norism”

The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring, 2000)
pages 90-101

Charles Harmon

“My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine.”

—Jean Toomer to Horace Liveright

Of all people, Jean Toomer wrote Cane. For a long time, this fact has made critics a little uneasy, a little wistful. The elusiveness of the text itself is the source of some of this wistfulness, and this feeling is only compounded by the elusiveness of Toomer the man. Still, critics have devised serviceable methods to control the ambiguity of both text and author. The currently routine way to read Cane controls the ambiguity of the text itself by interpreting it in a manner similar to the routine way to read that once-mysterious landmark, The Waste Land. Faced with an intriguing array of textual shards, Toomer’s critics patiently triangulate behind the words of Cane until they reach what Nellie Y. McKay has called Toomer’s “song of celebration to the elements that constitute Afro-American experience” (33). In the same way that The Waste Land arranges fragments of desiccated gloom in order to adumbrate a between-the-lines intuition of vernal hope, Cane, according to many critics, arranges fragmentary representations of racial confusion in order to communicate a between-the-lines intuition of racial coherence. In the words of Houston Baker, “As the reader struggles to fit the details together” he or she takes “a journey toward liberating black American art” (80).

The other elusiveness I have mentioned—that of Toomer himself—is not disposed of so easily. As is well known, Toomer took offense at marketing Cane as a work of African American literature. Although he did not always deny the possibility of having African American ancestry, he disliked having any racial designation whatsoever (besides “American”) placed upon him. His biographers have made clear that partly in response to having race be an aspect of his literary persona, Toomer stopped writing the kinds of books that appealed to the audience that admired Cane. Instead of writing other modernist texts, after Cane Toomer mostly wrote linear (and in his life unpublished) books–books that tend to dwell with numbing clarity upon the serenity he found in various philosophical systems. Many of these writings have now been dufffully read and analyzed by scholars of Cane. Still, it remains fair to say that critics have admired the Toomer of Cane because they believe that during the relatively brief time he worked on that particular text, Toomer found a way to strike a balance between racial solidarity and literary ambiguity. No matter how difficult his writing may have been, critics believe that in his heart Toomer disciplined his speculative nature by ultimately identifying himself with African American culture. By contrast, critics have disliked, pitied, or condescended to the Toomer that came after Cane because they believe that during that period of his life, Toomer shifted the quality of ambiguity from his writing to his race. His books became (if anything) too easy to understand, while his sense of racial solidarity became harder and harder to divine.

Thus, we have been left with a “good” Toomer and a “bad” Toomer. The good Toomer briefly and tactfully uses race to contain literary ambiguity, but the bad Toomer jettisons both race and literary ambiguity in favor of such systems as Quakerism and the teachings of Gurdjieff. Whatever one may think of this view of Toomer’s career, there is little doubt that—simply by ensuring Cane’s solid canonization—it has had a beneficial effect upon the study of twentieth-century literature. With Cane’s interest and importance thus solidified, however, other critics have gone on to challenge the orthodox reading of Toomer that has resulted in Cane’s current status. These critics have argued that Toomer’s ambivalence toward racial identity is much more evident in Cane than such critics as McKay and Baker have recognized. Donald B. Gibson, for instance, has insisted that far from being a monument of black American literature, Cane is the “response of one for whom black life.., was too much to bear” (179). In a more moderate vein, George Hutchinson has also claimed that Cane ultimately distances itself from the traditions and resources of African American culture. The text does this, Hutchinson argues, less out of Toomer’s fear of blackness and more out of his desire to represent “a new kind of ethnic subject, the possibility of whose existence was disallowed by both…

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Birth in the Briar Patch: Charles W. Chesnutt and the Problem of Racial Identity

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-03-12 18:48Z by Steven

Birth in the Briar Patch: Charles W. Chesnutt and the Problem of Racial Identity

The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2009
pages 1-20
DOI: 10.1353/slj.0.0040

Daniel Worden, Assistant Professor of English
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

In his speech “The Courts and the Negro,” written around 1908, Charles W. Chesnutt faults the American government’s geographic location for the limits and widespread denials of the Fourteenth Amendment’s power. The government’s central location in Washington, D.C. perpetuated racism, Chesnutt argued, for “inevitably the administration, the courts, the whole machinery of government takes its tone from its environment” (Charles 896). This racism, present within the “clubs and parlors” of the South, feeds the “attitudes of presidents and congressmen and judges toward the Negro,” and therefore, “to men living in a community where service and courtesy in public places is in large measure denied the Negro, there seems to be no particular enormity in separate car laws” (897). Chesnutt goes on to reference the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled in favor of Louisiana’s segregated railroad cars: “And under Plessy v. Ferguson, there is no reason why any Northern State may not reproduce in its own borders the conditions in Alabama and Georgia. And it may be that the Negro and his friends will have to exert themselves to save his rights in the North (903). The federal government’s southern context, then, both defers any institutional remedy to America’s racism and produces racism through association…

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