"Raceless" writing and difference: Ann Petry's Country Place and the African-American literary canon.
Morrison responds to Wendt's inquiry with admirable patience: "I was interested in another kind of literature that was not just confrontational, black versus white. I was really interested in black readership." She sees a connection between her literary ambitions and the achievements of black music, and she argues for a space that is not invaded by the "white gaze." Wendt persists: "You don't think you will ever change and write books that incorporate white lives into them substantially?" Morrison appears to lose some patience: "I have done." "Substantially?" Wendt asks doubtfully. What's left of Morrison's patience evaporates: "You can't understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?" The interviewer swallows. Morrison continues, "Because you could never ask a white author, 'When are you going to write about black people?' ... Even the inquiry comes from the position of being in the center ... and saying, 'Is it ever possible that you will enter the mainstream?' It's inconceivable that where I already am is the mainstream."
An embarrassed Jana Wendt rushes to correct herself: "Oh no, that wasn't the implication of my question ... It's the question of the subject of your narrative, whether you want to alter the parameters of it, whether you see any benefit in doing that." Morrison responds, not by alerting Wendt to the fact that her novels are necessarily saturated with ideas about whiteness: white supremacy is directly responsible for the self-hatred that ravages the Breedlove family in The Bluest Eye; for the horrible choice forced upon Sethe in Beloved; it is the boundary that both delimits and enables black fife in the Bottom in Sula. Neither does Morrison enlighten Wendt to the fact that American subjectivity is always already "incontestably mulatto," to use the off-quoted words of Albert Murray, "blackness" and "whiteness" being inherently mutually constitutive. (2) Instead Morrison attempts to satisfy her interviewer by creating an analogy between her predicament as an African-American writer and that of a Russian writer, "who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians." The fact that Russian writing is translated and enjoyed by non-Russians is a plus, Morrison explains, but the Russian writer is not "obliged to consider writing about French people, or Americans, or anybody." Seemingly satisfied, Wendt moves on. (3)
This exchange between Toni Morrison and Jana Wendt is emblematic of the predicament of the African-American writer who has perennially found her subject matter, as well as her subjectivity, under scrutiny. Doubtless, the first moment of African-American creative production was followed immediately by a second moment of interrogation by critics and supporters, equally unbelieving. In Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Robert Hemenway characterizes as arrogant the biases that have been central to white criticism of black novels, one of them being that a "black author must transcend race in order to write universally." (4) "Black" is parochial while "white" is universal, goes the implicit logic, Hemenway explains. Hazel Carby concurs when she argues that writing about whites has always been assumed "by many white critics, reviewers and publishers to require more literary skill, and more talent, than writing about black characters." (5)
Both Hemenway and Carby make these arguments as part of larger discussions about Serpah on the Suwanee (1947), a little-known novel by Zora Neale Hurston that foregrounds white characters. Zora Neale Hurston was one of several black writers who, partially as a response to the biases inherent in Jana Wendt's interrogation, I believe, focused on white fives for at least one point in their careers. (6) Here, I will argue that multiple and competing historical conditions, cultural imperatives, and professional ambitions led Hurston and other African-American writers to take up the implicit challenge to become, for a moment, a "universal" writer. James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, William Melvin Kelley, Willard Motley, Ann Petry, Richard Wright, and Frank Yerby are among the many African-American authors of novels with white main characters. Together, these novels have come to constitute a genre that has been termed, among other things, "raceless" writing. This essay focuses primarily on Country Place, a 1947 novel by Ann Perry that was published a year after her enormously successful first novel, The Street. Country Place is a quintessential novel of the "raceless" writing genre whose excision from the African-American literary canon is as meaningful as the novel itself. A thorough examination of Country Place reveals that, indeed, race does move meaningfully in the story, and suggests that the same might be true for other "raceless" novels. Ann Petry represents white characters in order to destabilize conventional assumptions about whiteness and universality; to complicate stereotypes about white versus black systems of morality; and to create a racially progressive vision about the transformation of modern life in a small town in post-World War II America.
The Trials of Black Authorship
The tensions between the African-American writer and her audience as evidenced in the exchange between Jana Wendt and Toni Morrison that introduces this essay have historical precedents. "Anglo-African writing arose as a response to allegations of its absence," Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us in his introduction to "Race, " Writing, and Difference. (7) The historic tension between the African American writer and his (white) audience has been a central feature of African-American literary history. It has been as stifling as it has been productive, and African-American literature as we know it would never have existed in its absence.
Gates asks readers to imagine the morning in the spring of 1772 when Phillis Wheatley was tried and found guilty of authorship by eighteen of "the most respectable characters in Boston," among them the governor of the colony. Wheatley was not the sole defendant in that Boston courtroom; her entire race stood beside her. As Gates makes clear, "Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the visible sign of reason." Reason was the difference between a human being and a slave. Nothing less than Wheatley's humanity--and the humanity of other Africans--was at stake that morning, and it could be proven only through her mastery of the arts and sciences, "the eighteenth century's formula for writing," Gates explains. Humanity and authorship went hand in hand for Phillis Wheatley; soon after her poems were published, she was manumitted. (8)
Wheatley's jurors were satisfied that she was "qualified" to be the author of her own poetry, but African Americans continued to swelter under the interrogation lamps long after Wheatley's day in court. One hundred and fifty years after Wheatley was vindicated, James Weldon Johnson prefaced The Book of American Negro Poetry with the portentous lines:
The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced ... And nothing will do more to change [the national mental attitude toward the Negro] and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art. (9)
As Johnson's preface reaffirms, African-American authorship begins with a disallowing and then disbelieving white readership. It is this audience whose sympathies the black writer must solicit in order to have a public existence. This central paradox at the heart of AfricanAmerican literary production continues to affect African-American writers, and their readers, in the twenty-first century.
This always already vexed relationship between the AfricanAmerican author and his reading public has generated what Robert B. Stepto characterizes as a "discourse of distrust," a primary thread in African-American writing. (10) Distrust of the American reader is pervasive in African-American writing of all genres and eras, Stepto argues. A historical lack of substantial African-American readerships may account for this distrust, at least in part. White readers distrusted what ideology and law told them did not and could not exist, and substantial black readerships could be summoned perhaps only imaginatively for early black writers. (11) When Johnson argued in The Book of American Negro Poetry that "the public, generally speaking, does not know that there are American Negro poets," the "public" to which he referred (and which he meant to educate) was implicitly white. In every moment in the history of black writing, the dominance of white readerships has been assumed; the ostensible rejection of white readerships during the Black Arts Movement only underscores how great the threat these readerships have always seemed to pose to the black imagination. (12)
When black readerships do exist, they exert their own particular pressure on the African-American writer. In "The Dilemma of the Negro Author" (1928), James Weldon Johnson described the challenges presented to the black writer by his black audience:
when he turns from the conventions of white America he runs afoul of the taboos of black America. He has no more absolute freedom to speak as he pleases addressing black America than he has in addressing white America. There are certain phases of life that he dare not touch, certain subjects that he dare not critically discuss, certain manners of treatment that he dare not use--except at the risk of bitter resentment. (13)
"The Dilemma of the Negro Author" is one of a number of essays about the relationship between race and writing penned by New Negro writers that represents, among other things, how serious the role of literature has always played in discussions among African-American intellectuals about the future of the race. Nowhere are the aspirations and fears that have dogged African-American writing since its inception made more explicit than in the intellectual discourse of the Harlem Renaissance. The competing and complementary aesthetic philosophies espoused by James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, and Carl Van Vechten underscore two things: first, the remarkable degree of urgency that has historically accompanied the production of African-American writing; and second, how much we should understand "raceless writing" as yet another strategy to address the various complications produced by the very existence of black American literature.
Like many of his peers, W. E. B. Du Bois considered black literature to be an essential tool in the race uplift project of the New Negro Movement. If African-American writing was to transform the social and political positions of African Americans, then it had to present black people in a manner that made obvious their respectability according to the bourgeois norms of the day. In his 1926 essay, "Criteria of Negro Art," Du Bois provides a context and an argument for the maintenance of these norms:
We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as second-hand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people talk of it. Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom. (14)
"Criteria of Negro Art" discusses African-American creative forms as being inextricably tied to audiences with competing sets of needs and desires. The kind of black writing that titillated white readerships had the potential to alienate black readerships. Black writers were therefore in a veritable bind, with the line between commercial success and race betrayal looking very thin indeed. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance, black culture was understood to be in a period of great crisis and radical transformation. Central to this spirit of intense expectation was the hope that black people would be judged differently by white spectators. In "Criteria of Negro Art," what is considered to be most dangerous--and, implicitly, most in need of cultivation--is white reaction to Negro art. A focus on the anticipation of white reception is the constant that links the philosophies of both Du Bois and Johnson about the nature and meaning of black art.
In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), Langston Hughes announced that he, for one, was finished with looking over his shoulder and guessing at possible reactions of others to his work. He symbolically threw off the shackles of white and black spectatorship alike with the famous lines: "If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter. If black people are pleased or displeased, it doesn't matter either." (15)
Hughes' triumphant proclamation is appealing, but implausible, according to Johnson's "Dilemma of the Negro Author":
I have sometimes thought it would be a way out, that the Negro author would be on surer ground and truer to himself, if he could disregard white America; if he could say to white America, 'What I have written, I have written. I hope you'll be interested and like it. If not, I can't help it.' But it is impossible for a sane American Negro to write with total disregard for nine-tenths of the people of the United States. Situated as his own race is amidst and amongst them, their influence is irresistible. (Johnson, "Dilemma," 481)
Conflicting desires both to write without constraints and produce work that might "have some effect on the white world for the good of his race" engendered a kind of schizophrenia in black writing, Johnson argues: "on one page black America is his whole or main audience, and on the very next page white America." The obligations of race uplift and the "irresistible" nature of white influence wreak havoc on black creativity, Johnson believed, and could not easily be shrugged off, despite the claims of Hughes and others.
Hughes wrote "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" in response to "The Negro Art-Hokum," an essay by George Schuyler that was published in The Nation, in which Schuyler characterized any belief in an African-American art form that is distinct from a white, or "mainstream," American art form as foolish. "As for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans--such as there is--it is identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans," Schuyler insisted. (16) As Martin Favor explains in Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance, Schuyler's characterization of the African-American as a "lampblacked Anglo-Saxon" got him into some trouble with black readers and critics who characterized him as an "assimilationist, accommodationist, and counterproductive to the struggle for racial equality"--fightin' words all. (17)
But beneath Schuyler's provocations are some serious challenges to those of us who hold that African-American culture and mainstream American culture are, and have always been, inextricably intertwined. Schuyler was an anti-essentialist who believed that a common national identity united black and white Americans and superseded individual racial or ethnic allegiances. He also believed that all arguments to the contrary were concocted by "Negrophobists" who subscribed to the myth, "recently rehashed by the sainted Harding, that there are 'fundamental, eternal, and inescapable differences' between white and black Americans":
On this baseless premise, so flattering to the white mob, that the blackamoor is inferior and fundamentally different, is erected the postulate that he must needs be peculiar; and when he attempts to portray life through the medium of art, it must of necessity be a peculiar art. While such reasoning may seem conclusive to the majority of Americans, it must be rejected with a loud guffaw by intelligent people. (Schuyler, 312)
Again, Schuyler's language may be distracting, to say the least, but his logic is meaningful. What Schuyler sees in Hughes' position are definitions of blackness and black authorship that limit and homogenize people with distinct histories, ethnicities, and desires. In contrast, Favor argues, Schuyler's project was to "devise a theory of 'race' and a corresponding aesthetic that freed him from a limiting subject position of the primitive 'other' escaped somehow from the heart of darkness." What Schuyler called "the primitive other" was, in Hughes' terms, "the negro farthest down," the subject of much celebratory ardor in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Hughes' imagery and language are much more appealing than Schuyler's, but "The Negro Artist" finally affirms only one version of black cultural experience while "Negro-Art Hokum," as Favor argues, attempts to "make room for a variety of blacknesses to exist at once" (Favor, 124).
Langston Hughes' love for the "Negro farthest down" was matched in intensity by the admiration of white black art advocate, Carl Van Vechten, for the same. In the March 1926 issue of The Crisis, Van Vechten's championship of "the squalor of Negro fife, the vice of Negro fife" sounds unmistakably close to Hughes' celebration of "the lowdown folks, the so-called common element" who are fond of "their nip of gin on Saturday nights," as Hughes described his favored subjects in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." (18) Both Hughes and Van Vechten defended the black artist's right to paint the world and its citizens as he saw them, but Van Vechten's position contained a decidedly pragmatic element: "Are Negro writers going to write about this exotic material while it is still fresh or will they continue to make a free gift of it to white authors who will exploit it until not a drop remains?" Like Du Bois and Johnson, Van Vechten was preoccupied with the white gaze; in decidedly anti-philosophical terms, however, Van Vechten urged black writers to utilize black materials for profit while whites were still interested. Van Vechten outlined his position in his essay "Moanin' Wid a Sword in Mah Han" (1926), in a discussion of Negro spirituals:
It is a foregone conclusion that with the craving to hear these songs that is known to exist on the part of the public, it will not be long before white singers have taken them over and made them enough their own so that the public will be surfeited sooner or later with opportunities to enjoy them, and--when the Negro tardily offers to sing them in public--it will perhaps be too late to stir the interest which now lies latent in the breast of every music lover. (Van Vechten, "Moanin'," 55)
In other words, African-Americans should heed the call of the market--and fast. Van Vechten's argument is premised upon the inevitability of white fascination with the fiction of black primitivism. If the white gaze is here to stay, then black people should manipulate it in their own interests. We may bristle at Van Vechten's brutal cynicism and essentialist language, but the outcome he describes is a veritable cliche in the annals of African-American culture. White spectatorship--and appropriation--is, finally, a central facet of African-American cultural history.
Written two years after Van Vechten's tract, "The Dilemma of the Negro Artist" points to the ugly underbelly of Van Vechten's philosophies about the viability of "exotic material" in white mainstream culture:
White America has a strong feeling that Negro artists should refrain from making use of white subject matter... In plain words, white America does not welcome seeing the Negro competing with the white man on what it considers the white man's own ground. (Johnson, "Dilemma," 479)
According to Johnson's argument, Van Vechten's belief that black writers should "climb to fame with material which is the heritage of their race" could actually be construed as another way of saying that black writers should "stay in their place." Might the same criticism be made of Langston Hughes, who decried black artists who desired "to be as little Negro and as much American as possible" ("Negro Artist," 175)?
"The Dilemma of the Negro Artist" rejects the definition of "Negroness" to which both Van Vechten and Hughes subscribed: a way of being, behaving, and believing that was diametrically opposed to "whiteness" or "Americanness." Like Schuyler, Johnson saw racial and cultural cross-breeding as an inherent feature of American life:
One sometimes hears the critics in reviewing a Negro musical show lament the fact that it is so much like white musical shows. But a great deal of this similarity it would be hard to avoid because of the plain fact that two out of the four chief ingredients in the present day white musical show, the music and the dancing, are directly derived from the Negro. (Johnson, "Dilemma," 479-80)
Johnson does not go as far as Schuyler, who insists that black culture is as white as white culture is black. Such a conclusion is also implicitly rejected by Du Bois, Van Vechten, and Hughes. In fact, Hughes begins "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" with a portrait of a young black poet who wants to be known as "a poet--not a Negro poet," a conclusion Schuyler might characterize as enlightened but to Hughes is a sign of racial self-hatred. But even if the nameless poet in Hughes' essay does, in fact, express a coded desire to be "white," that is still not necessarily a rejection of his blackness. After all, the "young poet" is from a "fairly typical home of the colored middle class," according to Hughes, and like George Schuyler may find Hughes' definitions of blackness alienating and unfamiliar. For instance, in the construction of blackness outlined by Hughes in "Negro Artist," to fail to hear to "eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul" was to be, essentially, white. I contend that this kind of polarization was precisely what led some black writers to attempt construct literary identities elsewhere, in the netherworld of "racelessness."
Much of the richness of the Harlem Renaissance lies in the lively debates it occasioned about the relationship between race and art. The various dilemmas of the Negro artist outlined in the essays by DuBois, Johnson, Van Vechten, and Hughes continue to be instructive and provocative, particularly in their contradictions and unlikely alliances. For instance, Hughes' suggestion that black writers embrace that which has been stigmatized by whites and blacks is a kissing cousin to Van Vechten's argument that black artists ought to take advantage of materials that fulfilled white fantasies about exotic blackness. Both of their positions finally advocate artistic boundaries as limiting as--if opposite to--those espoused in Du Bois' "Criteria of Negro Art." Even James Weldon Johnson's measured "The Dilemma of the Negro Author," which attempts to examine all sides of the issue, ends with this impossible instruction for the black artist: "standing on his racial foundation, he must fashion something that rises above race, and reaches out to the universal in truth and beauty." By pitting the universal against the racial, Johnson takes us full circle, all the way back to the exasperating implications of Jana Wendt's interrogation of Toni Morrison.
Even if it were possible, would it ever be desirable for the black writer to attempt to "rise above race," as Johnson urges? Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asks in his essay "Authenticity, or the Lesson of Little Tree" (1991):
After struggling to gain the recognition that a woman or a black ... writer is, in the first instance, a writer, many authors yet find themselves uneasy with the supposedly universalizing description. How can ethnic or sexual identity be reduced to a mere contingency when it is so profoundly a part of who a writer is? (19)
In "Criteria," Du Bois described the implications of such a reduction:
Just as soon as true Art emerges; just as soon as the black artist appears, someone touches the race on the shoulder and says, "He did that because he was an American, not because he was a Negro; he was born here; he was trained here; he is not a Negro--what is a Negro anyhow? He is just human." (Du Bois, "Criteria," 1002)
Who wins, who loses, and how in any of the possible resolutions of the ultimately very meaningful and complex dilemma that introduces "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"--poet or Negro poet? Are these identities naturally mutually exclusive? Does the achievement of one come at the cost of the other? The debate over whether race is an essential or contingent feature of a black writer's identity dominated the intellectual landscape of the Harlem Renaissance and endures to this day.
The literary history that I have outlined above is, of course, only a thumbnail sketch of the much more vast and nuanced terrain of African-American literary discourse as a whole. The complexities I have described are meant only to give the reader a sense that to become an African-American writer has historically been to enter a war zone in which enemies are disguised as allies, and bedfellows look very strange indeed. Taking all of these prescriptions, admonitions, and obligations into consideration, it is nearly amazing that African Americans ever summoned the temerity to write anything at all. In this context, Ann Petry's Country Place represents a courageous attempt on the part of one African-American writer to address--if not resolve--the multiple and nearly asphyxiating dilemmas of the Negro author. Petry's novel The Street (1947) has been accorded a central position in the canon of African-American literature; Country Place, published one year later, is routinely minimized in, if not excluded from, even the most comprehensive discussions of African-American writing. The silence and confusion that surround this novel are fascinating and instructive. In the end, Country Place is not only a novel but also a terrain on which received notions about the natural relationship between race and writing are deftly challenged.
Preaching No Sermons, Waving No Flags
My discussion of Country Place begins before the opening words of the novel, with the contradictory narratives constructed by successive book covers. The jacket copy on the hardcover of the 1948 British edition and the paperback 1950 edition of Country Place both go to great lengths to authorize Ann Petry's authorship, after suggesting by implication that Petry's authorial choices are somehow suspicious in the first place. The biographical note on the back of the first hardcover edition wants readers to recognize that part of Ann Petry's "natural heritage," to use Carl Van Vechten's phrase, is small town New England. It reads:
It was from the experience of Harlem she gained as a journalist that she wrote her first and highly successful novel, The Street. If the scene of her new book is far removed from the violence of Harlem, it is still one that is very familiar to her from the days when in her own country town she worked in the local 'drugstore' owned by her family. (20)
The 1950 paperback edition of Country Place similarly attempts to anticipate readers' questions about Petry's authority: "Ann Petry grew up in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and as a result, the New England setting of her novel is entirely familiar to her." (21) Petry's publishers use her experience both to titillate and to mollify readers. The extent of her familiarity with small town New England is introduced as a legitimate source of skepticism for the reader, but that skepticism is meant to be answered by the introduction of her biography, which confirms her as "authentic." This strategy both imagines and endorses as meaningful readers' possible doubts about whether Petry is qualified to be the author of her own novel. Her publishers imagine, and effectively create, two different audiences--one for The Street and one for Country Place--even as they suggest that the same audience would find something meaningful in both books. Petry's personal background is used to create a bridge between these two audiences.
On the inside flap, Petry's publishers attempt to account for the prominence of white characters:
Country Place is as profoundly moving and disturbing as The Street, although the tragic problems of race and colour have no place in it, and its outwardly peaceful setting is seemingly far removed from the violence and cruelty of Harlem.
Petry's publishers correctly assert that the geographical shift between Country Place and The Street represents differences that are, in many ways, largely superficial. On these grounds, what "seemingly" distinguishes these books are finally only surface features of each story. The vital similarities that link both of Petry's books include her writerly preoccupation with the tradition of American literary naturalism, and this is suggested in the promotional copy. But her publishers incorrectly intimate that Country Place is not primarily concerned with the "tragic problems of race and colour." As I will demonstrate, racial and ethnic difference is a primary issue through which crucial themes in this novel are elucidated. The question remains: to what extent, by addressing readers' possible anxieties, do Petry's publishers effectively construct those anxieties and then legitimize them? Has the author's authority been put into question even before the reader begins the first page? By stressing the connection between these two books, have the authors of the jacket copy undercut their particularity?
The 1948 and 1950 book covers for Country Place exonerate Petry's authorship, but at the same time indicate to readers that the case against her had legitimate grounds in the first place. The same readers who may have asked whether Ann Petty had the authority to write a novel about white life in a small New England town would not have the same reservations about the narrator Petty designated for her story. Country Place is narrated by the fictional Doc Fraser, the proprietor of the town's old-fashioned drugstore, who opens the novel with this self-description:
I hasten to tell you that I am a bachelor; and a medium kind of man--medium tall, medium fat, medium old (I am sixty-five), and medium bald. I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I think I have what might be called a medium temperament. (5)
None of Fraser's self-narration includes any mention of race. His whiteness, like the race of all of the novel's white characters, is implied. Conversely, the race or ethnicity of all of Lennox's non-mainstream characters is articulated and figured as a central feature of their identities.
Petry uses Fraser's whiteness to establish a sense of his objectivity and, by extension, his reliability as a storyteller. This strategy reflects dominant assumptions about race and writing that are also reflected in the language used by other black writers among Petry's contemporaries to describe their decision to author "raceless" stories. Describing his 1954 Savage Holiday, Richard Wright once told an interviewer about his protagonist: "I picked a white American businessman to attempt a demonstration about a universal problem." In his Afterword to a 1994 edition of Savage Holiday, Early argues that the novel was Wright's attempt to "write about something 'universal' without its being obscured by the particularism of race." (22)
The choice of a white male narrator for Country Place would seem to suggest a similar goal. But finally, Petry invokes the conventional association of whiteness with neutrality and objectivity in order to subvert it. At the end of the first chapter, Fraser tells us:
In the following pages I have reported what happened to them and how it happened ... I believe this to be a true account, but truth has many sides, and, as I said before, I am not wholly without bias where females are concerned. (7)
A few pages earlier, Fraser has owned "a prejudice against women--perhaps I should say a prejudice against the female of any species, human or animal." His bias does not prevent him from owning a female cat, however, to whom he is "devoted," even as he believes "she is much closer to the primitive than a male cat" (5). Even as he describes himself as a mean, a normative standard, an ideal "medium" for this story, Fraser also reveals his prejudices. Furthermore, within his very prejudices are irrational contradictions and his awareness of them. Fraser situates himself as representative, but finally disallows the reader from seeing him as representative of anything but a very limited group. "Fat men do not write the same kind of books as thin men write; the point of view of tall men is unlike that of short men," he muses in the first paragraph of the novel. Clearly, through her characterization of Fraser, Petry means to de-bunk myths about whiteness as normative, and to complicate conventional beliefs about universal standards.
The account to which Fraser has pledged fidelity involves the experiences of one character, General Sergeant Johnnie Roane, as he returns somewhat ambivalently to his hometown, Lennox, Connecticut, after four years of service in World War II. Twenty-six-year-old Johnnie Roane returns to his wife, parents, and close-knit community after having spent "four years in Africa, in England, in France, grubbing around the insides of airplane engines" (25). Immediately upon his arrival, Johnnie realizes that "the town wasn't big enough to hold him any more." The intimacy and predictability of small-town life now feels stifling. Even as a taxi delivers him to his mother's doorstep, Johnnie longs for privacy and anonymity: "He wanted to live some place where when you got off a train the taxi-driver ... didn't know who you were, let alone that your mother had been expecting you; and really didn't give a damn except whether or not you could pay the fare" (12). Johnnie's experiences abroad have enabled him to redefine his notion of an ideal community, and to expand his worldview, in general. In his letters to Glory, his wife back home, Johnnie "wrote about cities, the ones he had seen, the ones he wanted to see and live in." His travels and interactions with new people inspired him to refine his ambitions: "Some fellow in his outfit was an artist and was teaching him to paint" (35). Johnnie's return is only temporary; he plans to take advantage of government incentives and move to New York to study painting.
Glory, Johnnie's wife, has found her husband's transformations disquieting. She has no intention of going to New York: "She would be lost in a city--just another pretty girl in a world full of pretty girls." In Lennox, "she was the prettiest girl for miles around" (36). In the years of their separation, Johnnie's horizon has expanded while Glory's has shrunk. Now, it features one goal: a man, Ed Barren, the town lothario who specializes in married women. They begin an affair, and by the time Johnnie returns, Glory's fantasies about Ed seem to embody her greatest ambition.
Her myopic focus on her amorous desires, however, makes Glory unable to recognize how World War II has had as many liberating effects on her as it has had on her husband. Glory met Ed as a result of her job in a local store, where she began working as soon as Johnnie enlisted. There, she found that "she was free for the first time in her life." She quickly came to rely on the attention and affection showered on her by the farmers, truck-drivers, and traveling salesmen who came to visit the store. "It was a whirlpool of activity after the quiet, dull, backwater life she'd led with Johnnie" (35). Johnnie had been devoted to her but kept her like a hothouse flower. Working at the store has been, by contrast, the most fulfilling experience of her fife. Life in New York, would only pale in comparison to the vibrancy she finds at the store, which she believes "offered more excitement than the biggest city in the country" (36). At the same time as she imagines trading in her life with Johnnie for one with Ed--who already has a wife withering away in a tubercular sanatorium--Glory remains devoted, even in fantasy, to her job at the store. In essence, an evolving sense of self has been the consequence of World War II for both Glory and Johnnie; Glory, however, sees her new self in local terms, while for Johnnie the terms are global.
The plot of Country Place revolves around illicit scandals, especially Glory's infidelity, (23) but more broadly, the novel is concerned with larger, more philosophical questions about how a small American town adjusts to the changing social landscape wrought by World War II. Glory's discovery of her job as a source of liberation parallels the well-documented experiences of numbers of women during this historical moment. The representation of Gloria's rapacious sexuality as a consequence of her new freedom reflects larger cultural anxieties alive in popular media during and after World War II. (24) Doc Fraser symbolizes traditional, Old World attitudes about gender roles that seem to be rapidly disappearing. Another symbol of this Old World is Mrs. Gramby, scion of the town's first family. Both Mrs. Gramby and Doc Fraser are concerned with the impact of the war on the town and its inhabitants. Mrs. Gramby sees Glory's infidelity as a consequence of the chaos that the world has been subjected to: "Instead of a sharp line of demarcation between right and wrong, Gloria and her generation had found only the vague blur made by erasures--it was all that remained of a moral code after the impact of two world wars." Doc Fraser, too, imagines the war might be in some way responsible for Glory's choices: "I found it easy to think of Glory with contempt. Yet I could not help wondering if she would have remained faithful to Johnnie if there had been no war to interrupt the normal course of their life together" (72). In the end, Doc Fraser's speculations about Glory are relatively measured and generous compared to those of Mrs. Gramby, who concludes, "Wars can come and wars can go but by my standards she is a harlot" (63).
Mrs. Gramby thinks she knows something about harlots, since her son is married to one--Glory's mother, Lillian. Mrs. Gramby harbors deep sympathies for Johnnie Roane's ambitions because her only child, Mearns, had once nurtured similar big city dreams, which she thwarted "because she had been terrified lest he marry some cheap impossible young girl." In her efforts to keep him close to her, she had been cruel to the girls Mearns had brought home, Mrs. Gramby remembers: "When they had gone, she had laughed at them, using her malicious wit to make them ridiculous in his eyes" (61). As luck would have it, a middle-aged Mearns finally married Lillian, "a hard, shallow woman with an acquisitive, seeking mouth, a woman who dyed her hair and starved herself in order to stay slender." Worst of all, in the eyes of Mrs. Gramby, Lillian is too old to bear children; the Gramby name will die out.
Lillian is Mrs. Gramby's punishment for bad mothering, a job at which Lillian herself fails miserably. In his Afterword to Savage Holiday, Gerald Early reminds us that the 1950s would become the era of Momism, and the pathology marks Richard Wright's 1954 novel as dramatically as it imprints Petry's 1947 work. The term "Momism" was invented by Philip Wylie, whose 1942 Generation of Vipers warned readers that domineering and overprotective matriarchs were taking over American society, and emasculating their sons. (25) Clearly, Mrs. Gramby's musing casts her as a victim of this neurosis, and the novel rewards her newfound awareness with the regeneration of her son's stunted masculinity by the end of the book. For Lillian, however, perhaps because of gender differences, the illness has taken on a different form; she gives Glory, not too much care, but almost none at all.
Lillian's lack of maternal feeling marks her as "unnatural" at a cultural moment in which the notion of motherhood as the ultimate female experience was being endorsed everywhere in the popular media. (26) Lillian never evinces real concern, much less maternal protectiveness, for her daughter at any point in the novel. When Glory confides in her mother about her conflicts over Johnnie's return and intention to move to New York, Lillian responds: "If he goes and you stay here in Lennox, you'll have to support yourself ... You couldn't depend on me for anything" (52). In the same scene, Glory remembers that when she married Johnnie and then immediately panicked about the commitment she had just made, she turned to her mother, who told her: "You're settled and safe now. I won't have to think about you any more. I can put my mind on myself" (54). Lillian even forbids her daughter the discursive intimacy of the mother-child relationship. When Glory addresses her, Lillian reminds her: "Don't call me 'Momma.' I can't bear it!" (50). Lillian couldn't care less about her daughter's problems. Her "acquisitive, seeking" nature, written on her body as transparently as the artifice of her dyed hair, finds an objective in her mother-in-law's fortune. The "long, deep hunger lines around her mouth" are the scars of her unceasing material and social ambitions (247). Lillian is radically self-centered, inauthentic, and superficial in a community whose fragile identity is built to a large degree on an almost cliched sense of old-fashioned, small town values.
The reader first encounters Lillian when her daughter goes to visit her at the Gramby house, where Lillian lives with Mearns and Mrs. Gramby, in order confess to her ambivalence over Johnnie's return home. In this scene, we get a glimpse of another of Lillian's moral flaws: her racial and ethnic bigotry. As Neola, Mrs. Gramby's black maid, sets a tray in front of Lillian and Glory, Lillian informs her daughter, apropos of nothing, that Neola is in the middle of a divorce. Glory is puzzled, but the reader quickly understands that Lillian has broached the subject only so she can then say in front Neola but not to her, "Who ever heard of a nigger divorce?" When Glory reproaches her mother for her racist comments, Lillian admits: "I said it to make her mad ... Did you notice she never says 'ma'am' to me? Never calls me Mrs. Gramby? Neither does that damn Portegee. He won't even touch his cap to me. And as for Cook--." Here, Lil re-enacts for her daughter an unpleasant interaction she'd had the day before with the Gramby's cook: "A nasty foreigner talking to me like that! (50-51).
Lillian attempts to humiliate Neola because she is humiliated and belittled in the Gramby household as someone who, despite her whiteness, fails to garner the respect Mrs. Gramby easily bestows on Neola and the rest of her staff, foreigners and racial and ethnic "others." In doing so, Lillian demonstrates, to use Eric Lott's evocative phrase in reference to the centrality of blackface minstrelsy to nineteenth-century working class white culture, "how precariously [she] lived [her] whiteness." (27)
Here Lillian refers to three of her nemeses in Country Place, all of whom are characters identified, and marginalized to some extent, by their race or ethnicity. Portalucca, the gardener, is called "The Portegee." He has a "swarthy face ... fierce mustachios that curled about his mouth ... [a] turquoise earring in his ear." He seems to despise Glory and her mother both, and spits in Glory's direction as she walks past him (43-44). The Cook is Irish, and Neola's race is suggested when Glory regards her and assesses: "If Neola was white and didn't have that dead-pan expression on her face, she wouldn't be bad-looking" (47). Soon after this, her blackness is confirmed by Lillian's racial epithet. All three of these characters work at the Gramby estate.
The fourth ethnic "other" in Lennox is Rosenberg, "the young Jewish lawyer," who lives in a world veritably separate from the rest of the townspeople. "He might be an island, set apart, a good distance from the mainland, out of reach of it," Mrs. Gramby thinks as she sits in a taxicab and watches Rosenberg emerge from the town post office and walk past a group of (white) men. She notices that the "men standing in front of the postoffice [sic] looked past the young lawyer. One of them nodded. None of them, as far as she could see, actually spoke to him. One man gestured toward his back and the others shook their heads in disapproval" (64).
Mrs. Gramby remembers different days: "When the town was younger, when she was growing up, a man was judged solely by his actions; not prejudged because he was born in Russia or in Poland" (64). She lectures The Weasel, the local cab driver, from whose car window she sees Rosenberg, on the fallacies of his own antisemitic beliefs: "'The Jew, as you call him, is a man like yourself. With the same desires, the weaknesses,' she said severely" (65). Mrs. Gramby is a conservative with a progressive vision. She has been enlightened by age, experience, and regrets. She holds fast to a belief that the Old World ethics at the heart of this small town are characterized by fairness and authentic democracy. She rejects the new world values symbolized in the rank materialism and racial entitlement exhibited by Glory and Lillian. Mrs. Gramby's traditional values include room for the changing demographics of an increasingly heterogeneous American society. In Country Place, the representation of traditional values as inherently anti-racist echoes arguments made by numbers of postwar anti-racist educators who insisted that "racism and religious bigotry contradicted America's 'Judeo-Christian' and democratic principles." (28)
Mrs. Gramby's traditional values include a moral code that eventually identifies Lillian and Glory as the truly marginal characters in this community. One of the novel's climactic scenes reveals that Lillian and Glory are both adulteresses, and with the same man, Ed Barrell. Importantly, these white female characters in Country Place are both marked and then ostracized because of their transgressive sexual behavior. Conversely, Neola, their black female counterpart, is conservative and demure, even though she too experiences erotic desire in the book and will eventually marry the gardener, Portalucca, with whom she is in love. Petry's portrait of salacious sex is intimately connected to the race of the characters that have it. The fact that white female sexuality is also the focus of Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee, is not a coincidence, argues Hazel Carby. (29) Ann duCille concurs, arguing that, for Hurston, an examination of the romantic lives of whites "allows her to scrutinize with unmatched intimacy the passions and problems of heterosexual coupling ... without subjecting herself and her fiction to charges of pandering to white stereotypes of black sexuality." (30) For both Hurston and Petry, then, white characters provided them the freedom to explore aspects of female identity they were disallowed from investigating according to the implicit mandates of the African-American literary canon.
The Weasel, the cab driver who delivers Johnnie to his mother's doorstep and who annoys Mrs. Gramby with his kneejerk antisemitism, plays a direct role in the disclosure of the illicit affairs that both Lillian and Glory conducted with Ed Barrell. The Weasel, whose nickname indicates exactly the kind of untrustworthy, sly, unctuous character that he is, first makes broad hints to Johnnie about Glory's affair with Ed as he relays Johnnie to his mother on Johnnie's first day back. The Weasel has been spying on Ed and Glory, and takes advantage of his first opportunity to expose them mid-embrace to both Mrs. Gramby and to Johnnie's mother (68). Later, The Weasel rifles through Ed's wallet and finds a note that contains evidence of the affair he'd had months earlier with Glory's mother Lillian (81). Finally, The Weasel delivers this evidence to Mearns, who in turn gives the offending note to his mother, thus fixing Lillian as the ultimate "other" in the town, a modern-day Hester Prynne, but without even a modicum of Hester's charm, modesty, or patience (109-10).
Petry makes use of the natural world as she builds her narrative to a climax. "There was a nagging, persistent wind blowing from the northeast" on the day Johnnie Roane returns to Lennox (18), and the weather makes everyone irritable and restless. The symmetry between the instability of the physical world and the restlessness of characters' internal worlds is sometimes heavy-handed:
I could feel a waiting quality, a tenseness running through the town. It seemed to me that the beat of the rain against the windows, the ever-increasing force of the wind, had set all of us to a reluctant examination of our lives; set us thinking about the things we had wanted and never got; set us to weighing and balancing our desires against our achievements. (105)
Not surprisingly, it rains furiously the day after Johnnie's return, and the day after that as well. The following day is clear and bright, but the actions set in motion during the storm serve as the basis for the unfolding plot. For instance, on the last night of the storm, Lillian decides to hasten her inheritance and murder Mrs. Gramby, a diabetic with a sweet tooth, by planting a box of chocolates near her and then removing the insulin and needle stash nearby. Lillian's attempt at murder not only fails, it also has the ironic effect of motivating Mrs. Gramby to make sure that Lillian will receive none of her fortune in the event of her death; shortly after she recovers, Mrs. Gramby goes to Town Hall to make a legal will (179). Finally, because she is a complete failure, Lillian leaves behind a painfully obvious trail of evidence that connects her to the temporary diabetic coma into which her murderous plot sent Mrs. Gramby.
In order to prepare her will, Mrs. Gramby requires the assistance of David Rosenberg, the town lawyer. She hastily enlists Ed Barrell to serve as a witness and then to help her negotiate the steps as she leaves Town Hall. On her way down the stairs, Mrs. Gramby becomes repulsed when she suddenly realizes who Ed Barrell is and the role he has played in the lives of her loved ones, both her son, Mearns, and Johnnie Roane. She roughly jerks away from Barrel], upsetting his balance as well as her own. Simultaneously, Ed Barrell and Mrs. Gramby fall down the stairs of Town Hall to their deaths (182).
The scene of the reading of Mrs. Gramby's will takes place two weeks later, and it is momentous. The Weasel is surprised to discover that Mrs. Gramby has left him five hundred dollars in gratitude for his careful driving and "chivalrous assistance" (186). Johnnie Roane, who left for New York on the day Mrs. Gramby prepared her will, is to receive six thousand dollars. His mother will receive Mrs. Gramby's pearl necklace while her diamond ring goes to our narrator, Doc Fraser. The house and its contents Mrs. Gramby willed to Cook, Portalucca, and Neola, "along with five hundred a year for its maintenance" (187). The final beneficiary is Mearns, who receives the remainder of her property, stocks, bonds, and real estate, along with any three items in the house he desires.
After Mr. Rosenberg concludes his reading of Mrs. Gramby's will, an outraged Lillian jumps out of her seat. Racial epithets, ethnic slurs, and antisemitic venom spew from her mouth as everyone else in the room sits in stunned silence. She calls Rosenberg a "dirty Jew" and rails against the "niggers" and the "pigpen Irish" slated to receive the fortune to which she believes she is entitled, despite the fact that she tried to murder her would-be benefactor. It is here that Mearns recovers his suppressed masculinity and silences his wife with the revelation of his knowledge about her affair with the late Ed Barrell, a disclosure that causes the humiliated Lillian to faint dead away.
Clearly, the final climax of the book is this moment in which Lillian reveals the truly degraded condition of her moral character. Her golddigging, her extra-marital affair, her bad mothering, even her attempted murder, are nowhere near as damning as what Lil demonstrates about herself at the reading of her mother-in-law's will. In "The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black," Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues, "If various Western cultures constructed blackness as an absence, then various generations of black authors have attempted to reconstruct blackness as a presence." To this end, African-American authors have offered to reading audiences black archetypes drawn to represent plenitude and respectability. (31) Country Place employs yet another strategy meant to challenge dominant stereotypes about black degeneracy, and that is to counter them with suggestions about white degeneracy. What I mean to point to here is the significance inherent in the fact that Lillian, and not the racial and ethnic "others," is revealed as the truly marginal character in this book. It is this character, and not Neola, Portalucca, Cook, or Rosenberg, who carries the stigma of "lack, of degeneration, of a truly negated absence," as Gates describes the burden that black characters have historically been forced to assume in the Western literary tradition (Gates, "Trope," 130). Even more significantly, the depth of Lillian's moral degeneracy is in direct correlation to the extent of her white supremacist attitudes. In Country Place, racial and ethnic bigotry is the ultimate sign of a white character's actual moral inferiority. (32) Petry exposes whiteness as a contingency that depends, in part, upon a relationship to blackness for its meaning.
From beyond the grave, Mrs. Gramby exercises her will, literally, to punish Lillian for what she knows to be her lack of moral fiber, and to ensure that she never rises above her current station in life. Instead, a large part of the Gramby fortune and the Old World traditions it represents will be inherited by the non-majority characters--the servants, immigrants, and ethnic others--to whom Lillian fancied herself naturally superior. Mrs. Gramby's will functions like the will of God. Through it, she doles out justice and metes out punishment, disrupting and preserving the status quo at once. The reader is given no reason to assume that life will change substantially inside the Gramby home: Neola, Portalucca, and the Cook are committed to the Old World values embodied by Mrs. Gramby and Doc Fraser.
Country Place represents Petry's ambition to imagine a new society in which traditional, small town American culture would join forces with changing racial and ethnic demographics in order to combat the ideologies of the shameless pursuit of materialism and white supremacy. These objectives were first lost on Petry's publishers and then reviewers, both of whom expressed either worry or approval--both misplaced--over Petry's shift in subject matter from The Street. A publisher's insert in the 1950 paperback edition explained that taking "the folksy, nostalgic front off 'Our Town' was a "much more difficult task" than treating "the life of the Negro in our big Northern cities," the focus of The Street. Petry had risen above those themes, the writer insisted, to become "a powerful American writer, unhampered by any one theme or hobby horse." (33) An Atlantic Monthly reviewer took a similar tack, and expressed relief that Country Place "preaches no sermons, [and] waves no flags," unlike The Street, presumably. (34) Perhaps just as bad were reviews in The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Saturday Review of Literature that failed to take into account Petry's divergence in subject matter at all. Publishers and reviewers alike ignored what was innovative and subversive about Petry's 1947 novel, either unable to move beyond the curious fact of white bodies where they had expected black bodies to be, or unwilling to consider this fascinating transformation with anything close to the degree of seriousness it merited.
The Natural Heritage of Their Race: The Conundrum of Classification
Despite considerable effort and even more good intentions, critics of African-American writing, both Petry's contemporaries and those of the present day, have not fared much better than publishers and reviewers when it comes to granting a fair hearing to black-authored books with white main characters. In a 1948 Opportunity article, "In Print ... Our Raceless Writers," Philip Butcher attempts to analyze these books under the rubric of "raceless writing." (35) He offers a provisional definition of "raceless writing" by way of a review of a series of recently published books that "deal primarily with white characters" and are read by those without "the faintest idea that they were written by Negroes." The books Butcher treats in his essay include The Golden Hawk by Frank Yerby, God is For White Folks by Will Thomas, and Country Place by Ann Petry.
"Raceless writing" is of course a misnomer that once again reveals common assumptions about the relationship between race and writing: writing about blacks is "particular," while writing about whites is "universal." But even in the assumptions of Butcher's essay there are contradictions. At one point, he writes: "There is no such thing as a 'Negro novel;' there is only the novel about Negroes." Here, Butcher sees something suspect in conventional understandings of African-American literature: "Negro literature itself is an invalid term since Negro writers employ the standard forms of English and American literature, and the literature about Negro life includes more books by white authors than by minority writers" (115). But then Butcher concludes his discussion with a reversal:
The trend toward faceless authorship seems a loss to the Negro and to American literature, which would profit most if the skills of our writers were turned on the aspect of American life they know best and which is so much in need of major, artistically mature spokesmen. (115)
Butcher wants at once to complicate received ideas about the "Negro novel" and to encourage black writers to stick to the material that "they know best." But the kinds of representations of "Negro life" that Butcher deems appropriate are very specific. In the same article, for instance, Butcher characterizes Dorothy West's The Living is Easy as "faceless writing" on the grounds that her characters are "Negroes who are white in appearance or in their sense of values." Butcher does not believe that West's portrait of a black Boston family represents the "rich field for fiction" to which he encourages black writers to recommit themselves.
Philip Butcher is succeeded by Robert Bone, who devotes a section of his landmark study The Negro Novel and Its Tradition, to what he terms "assimilationist novels." (36) According to Bone, assimilationist novels are no different from "faceless" novels, in that they "avoid racial conflict by avoiding Negro life" (166). Bone sees these novels as part of a postwar world in which "Negroes were at last breaking out of their ghettoes and moving toward full participation in every phase of American life. Why not art? Let the Negro novelist demonstrate his cosmopolitanism by writing of the dominant majority" (168). Hazel Carby concurs with Bone when she argues that "raceless" writing was an attempt on the part of black writers to resolve the apparent contradiction between racial and national identity. (37)
Bone reviews these "assimilationist" novels in a section entitled "The Revolt against Protest," even as he sees a kinship between assimilationist novels and protest novels--to him, they are opposite reactions to the same set of circumstances. Bone argues that some black writers of the post-war era had simply grown tired of overt protest writing because "it circumscribed their art," while others fell "under the siren spell of assimilationism." What "raceless" novels have in common, according to Bone, is a "goal to break out of the narrow limits of racial protest into some kind of universality" (171-72). Here, Bone exhibits the same belief in a naturally dichotomous relationship between "race" writing and universality. Even more, Bone's analysis depends upon the common assumption, made also by Butcher, that to write about whites is not to write about race.
The limits in the arguments of both Butcher and Bone do not represent antiquated ways of thinking. Subsequent African-American canon-makers have approached these works with something even more extreme than the ambivalence evinced by Bone and Butcher. In his definitive 1987 study The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, Bernard Bell explains his lack of attention to Country Place. "Because the major characters are white, and because time and place are more important thematically than color and class, [Country Place] is not as relevant ... to our theory of a distinctive Afro-American narrative tradition." (38) In the second section of this essay, I have tried to show that "color and class" are, in fact, crucial to the narrative implications and objectives of Country Place. For the sake of argument, let us assume that even a study as exhaustive as Bell's requires limits, and novels without black main characters may seem justifiably expendable to him, just as they seemed to fit most appropriately in the margins of earlier discussions by Butcher and Bone. But black-authored writing about non-blacks is not just a curious anomaly; it constitutes a substantial enough body of work to merit real consideration. (39) But where?
In "Desegregating American Literary Studies," Shelley Fisher Fishkin makes this argument:
American literary studies will not be desegregated until we learn to value transgressive texts that refuse to be contained in the critical pigeon-holes of the past, until students and teachers and pubfishers and the public come to value the writings produced by writers of African-American descent like [Richard] Wright and [William Melvin] Kelley and [Toni] Morrison and [Ralph] Wiley and [Danzy] Senna not just for their "black" protagonists, but also for their "white" ones; and not only for what they have to say about race and racism and African-American life but also for what they reveal about artists struggling to forge a form to contain their vision. (40)
For Fishkin, "transgressive texts" are "texts in which black writers create serious white protagonists, and white writers black ones" (121). The term "transgressive texts," I believe, captures much more of what is ambitious and subversive about novels like Country Place than either "raceless writing" or "assmilationist novels." Still, I would like to expand the boundaries of Fishkin's definition of "transgressive texts" by reminding readers of the complex tasks and impossible challenges, outlined in the first section of this essay, that have always characterized and distinguished African-American writing. Indeed, every act of black inscription can be read of an act of racial insurgence. Therefore, I would argue, radical black writing is not the primary issue here; it is radical reading that is in short supply. As Fishkin suggests, the onus is upon us all to appreciate black-authored texts for the challenges each and every one makes to our beliefs about and expectations of black authorship itself.
In her introduction to her 1990 anthology of black fiction, Breaking Ice (1990), Terry McMillan writes about the current state of black writing:
Times have changed. We do not feel the need to create and justify our existence anymore. We are here. We are proud. And most of us no longer feel the need to prove anything to white folks. If anything, we're trying to make sense of ourselves to ourselves." (41)
McMillan aligns herself with the position taken by author Trey Ellis in "The New Black Aesthetic," a 1989 Callaloo essay. McMillan quotes Ellis' pronouncement: "Neither are the new black artists shocked by the persistence of racism as were those of the Harlem Renaissance, nor are we preoccupied with it as were those of the Black Arts Movement. For us, racism is a hard and little-changing constant that neither surprises or enrages." (42) For Ellis and McMillan, racism may no longer "surprise or enrage," but biased white expectations of black writing continue to affect the black writer, even Terry McMillan. In a 1996 New York Times article about the dearth of black employees in the American publishing industry, McMillan describes how "the lack of a sizable black presence" affected the publishing history of her first novel, Disappearing Acts:
My editor at the time thought that my character sounded white because she was educated, living off a trust fund and teaching. She wanted to make her grittier and she loved another character who was an uneducated, hard-drinking construction worker.
When she was asked to re-write Disappearing Acts with the construction worker as the main character, McMillan switched publishers. "I said that's not the story I want to tell," she explained. (43)
Once the mountain of presumptions imposed by the publishing industry has been scaled, black writers still have to navigate the avalanche of hopes, fears, and desires communicated by white and black readers who have learned to attach specific expectations to black-authored stories. In "Snow in Alabama," an unpublished essay about the publication fallout from her 1998 book, Caucasia, Danzy Senna compared her experiences to those enjoyed by a white female friend who published a book of short stories at the same time as Caucasia's release:
My readings bore little resemblance to the ones my friend Amy was giving around the country at the same time. I was able to attend one of hers, and found it was a pleasant, high-brow affair. She read a story from her collection of magical realist stories--and afterwards the charmed audience asked her the predictable questions: Who are your influences? How did you get published? What are you working on now? (44)
By contrast, at bookstore appearances Senna found herself fielding questions like:
"Do you date black guys?'
"Do you think O. J. should have gotten off?."
"Do you listen to hip-hop?"
"Honestly, do you think Lenny should have cut off his dreadlocks?"
"Is your hair straightened?"(8-9)
Senna's original fears that black audiences would criticize her work for not being "black enough" were eclipsed by the actual experience she had of being considered "too black." She describes receiving "hate letters from multiracial zealots--both in the mail and on the internet. They felt I had betrayed the cause. I was a sell-out" (10).
"We are a new breed, free to write as we please, in part because of our predecessors, and because of the way life has changed." (45) I quote these words, not from "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by Langston Hughes but from Terry McMillan's introductory essay to Breaking Ice. McMillian's triumphant language recalls the victorious diction of "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" exactly, as do the problems exhibited in her reasoning. "We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves," Hughes proclaimed in his 1926 manifesto. The fact that Terry McMillan and Trey Ellis echo Hughes' decree so explicitly proves not that the progress Hughes reported has finally been achieved, but precisely the opposite. The more passionate the rhetorical need to announce the black author's freedom to "write as we please," the more what is being demonstrated is how far we are from that actual goal. As James Weldon Johnson explained in 1928, white influence and expectation, so intimately connected to black identity itself, cannot easily and simply be shrugged off.
Would all-black readerships be the answer? Would large, reliable numbers of black readers resolve the nearly inexhaustible dilemmas of the black writer? McMillan's thesis that black writers are now only "explaining our selves to ourselves" sounds like the same formula employed by Toni Morrison to enlighten Jana Wendt's in this essay's opening pages: "a Russian writer writing in Russia for Russians." But, as I have argued, the black audience is never only a mirror for the black writer, but full of its own expectations that are often just as much in conflict with the black writer's objectives as the expectations of white readers. The relationship between writer and audience, white, black, or mixed, is never unmediated.
It has not been my intention, in this essay, to deflate or even sour the spirit of hope and possibility reflected in the sentiments expressed by Langston Hughes, Trey Ellis, and Terry McMillan. Rather, I would like to expand upon it with this admittedly more sober proposition: if to write as you please is one matter, then to be read and understood as you please is, it seems, a horse of a different color altogether.
(1) Quoted in Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Desegregating American Literary Studies," in Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age, ed. Emory Elliot, Louis Freitas Caton, and Jeffrey Rhyne (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 124.
(2) Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (New York: Random House, 1970), 22.
(3) Toni Morrison, "Uncensored: Toni Morrison," interview by Jana Wendt, Beyond Productions, a Presentation of Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1998.
(4) Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1977), 307.
(5) Hazel Carby, "On Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee," in Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America (London: Verso, 1999), 163.
(6) In Hurston's case, financial and creative struggles and ambitions accounted for her decision to write Seraph. She believed she had a chance of selling the movie to Hollywood (see Carby, 162). For Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee was also a chance to break "that old silly rule about Negroes not writing about white people," as she explained in a 1942 letter to Carl Van Vechten. For discussions of the evolution and narrative of Seraph on the Suwanee, see Carby; Hemenway; and Ann duCille, The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press), 123-42.
(7) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., "Race," Writing, and Difference (Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), 11.
(8) Gates, 8, 9.
(9) James Weldon Johnson, The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922), 9.
(10) Robert B. Stepto, "Distrust of the Reader in Afro-American Narratives," in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), 304.
(11) In his response to "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism," a 1987 essay written by Joyce A. Joyce, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that "even at the beginning of the tradition, black writers wrote for a double or mulatto audience, one black and white," citing Phillis Wheafley and Harriet E. Wilson as examples. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "'What's Love Got to Do with It?' Critical Theory, Integrity and the Black Idiom" (1987), in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 306. Even so, early black writers were forced, in practical terms, to contend with an overwhelmingly white readership and publishing establishment in terms of sheer numbers alone. The taste and predisposition of this readership was not neutral, but heavily informed by the ideology of white supremacy.
(12) The popular assumption that the creative work of Black Arts Movement thrived in spite of white audience response is challenged by Philip Brian Harper's argument that even though Black Arts poetry derives much of its power through its presentation as a black-only product, "it achieves its maximum impact in a context in which it is understood as being heard directly by whites, and overheard by blacks." See Phillip Brian Harper, Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), 46.
(13) James Weldon Johnson, "The Dilemma of the Negro Author," American Mercury 15 (November 1928), 480.
(14) W. E. B. Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art," The Crisis 1926; repr. in Nathan Huggins, ed., W. E. B. Du Bois/Writings (New York: Viking Press, 1986), 1001.
(15) Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," The Nation, 1926; repr. in Addison Gayle, Jr., ed., The Black Aesthetic (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 180-81.
(16) George Schuyler, "Negro Art-Hokum," repr. in Nathan Huggins, ed., Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), 310.
(17) Martin Favor, Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1999), 121.
(18) Carl Van Vechten, "Moanin' Wid a Sword in Mah Han'," Vanity Fair, 1926, repr. in Bruce Kellner, ed., "Keep A-Inchin' Along" Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), 56.
(19) Henry Louis Gates, ,Authenticity, or The Lesson of Little Tree," New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1991: 30.
(20) Ann Petry, Country Place (London: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1948).
(21) Ann Petry, Country Place (New York: New American Library, 1950).
(22) Gerald Early, Afterword to Savage Holiday by Richard Wright (1954; repr. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1994), 227.
(23) "A revealing novel of marital infidelity," reads the book jacket synopsis on the 1950 Signet edition of Country Place. The cover of the book features a blonde with downward cast eyes and blood red lipstick, one strap of her revealing sheath failing from her shoulders and one knee perched upon a mattress. A window frame that borders this image of female sexuality underscores the book cover's intentions to give readers an unvarnished glimpse into the private lives of its wanton female characters. The book, however, doesn't quite deliver on the titillation promised by its jacket; the few moments that even suggest sex are decidedly minimal. Even more, the town Lothario, Ed Barrell, reminds Johnnie Roane, not of Cary Grant, but of Mussolini (15). Barren is "short and bow-legged" and as fragile as he is virile: a heart condition kept him from serving during the war, which explains why he was available to seduce the women left behind by their enlisted husbands. Perhaps Ed's most obvious appeal is that he owns the only new car in town.
(24) See Elaine May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War (New York: Basic Books, 1988), particularly Chapter 3, "War and Peace: Fanning the Home Fires," 58-91; and Maureen Honey, Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1984).
(25) In In the Name of National Security. Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Post War America (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), Robert J. Corber explains that, "with the outbreak of the Cold War, momism became linked to the spread of communism in the national political imaginary and led to the creation of a demonology of motherhood" (197). For a discussion of momism, see Hans Sebald, Momism: The Silent Disease of American (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1976).
(26) Elaine Tyler May, 140.
(27) Eric Lott, Love and Their: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 4.
(28) See Jennifer Delton, "Before the White Negro: Sin and Salvation in Kingsblood Royal," American Literary History 15 (2003), 314.
(29) Hazel Carby, "On Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee," 165.
(30) duCille, 127.
(31) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black," Representations 24 (1988), 131.
(32) The same equation works in Seraph on the Suwanee, the 1948 "raceless" novel by Zora Neale Hurston. The novel traces the transformation of Arvay Hensen, who evolves from small-minded and mean-spirited to gracious and expansive. Her reformation is signaled by her treatment of the racial and ethnic "others" in the novel. For a discussion of this novel and the role that non-majority characters play in it, see Ann duCille, The Coupling Convention.
(33) Quoted in Cathy, 163.
(34) John Caswell Smith, Jr., Review of Country Place, Atlantic Monthly, November 1947, 178, 180.
(35) Philip Butcher, "In Print ... Our Raceless Writers." Opportunity 26, no. 3 (1948), 113-15.
(36) Robert Bone, The Negro Novel and its Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958), 166-85.
(37) Carby, 162-63.
(38) Bernard Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 180.
(39) For instance, in The Negro Novel Robert Bone writes that "thirteen of the thirty-three Negro novels written between 1945 and 1952 have a predominantly or exclusively white cast of characters" (169).
(40) Fishkin, 130.
(41) Terry McMillan, ed., Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (New York: Penguin, 1990), xxi.
(42) Trey Ellis, "The New Black Aesthetic," Callaloo 12 (1989), 233-50.
(43) Doreen Carvajal, "An Emerging Prominence for Blacks in Publishing: Authors Press for Change in Minority Hiring," New York Times, Monday, June 24, 1996, D1, D6.
(44) Danzy Senna, "Snow in Alabama." Danzy Senna, who allowed me to read and quote from her unpublished essay for this essay, is the author of numerous nonfiction works as well as two novels, Cancasia (New York: Penguin, 1998) and Symptomatic (New York: Penguin, 2004).
(45) McMillan, xx.
University of Vermont
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|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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