"These are the facts of the darky's history": thinking history and reading names in four African American texts.
We are rooted in language, wedded, have our being in words. Language is also a place of struggle. The Oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves--to rewrite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action--a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle. (hooks 28)
"I know Mammy didn't know a thing about history." (Williams 124)
At the conclusion of Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, the title character narrowly escapes being recaptured by Adam Nehemiah, the writer who has followed Dessa since her flight from slavery and imprisonment. Dessa eludes Nehemiah with the aid of Aunt Chole, who reads Dessa's body differently than does Nehemiah, and she is helped by "Rufel," her white accomplice and putative mistress. Dessa, Rufel, and a number of escaped slaves had been running a scam through the South by selling the runaways and then arranging to meet them before their new "owners" have a chance to take possession of them; Dessa's brush with Nehemiah has threatened to undo an otherwise smooth operation. With "Nemi's" allegations discredited, Dessa leaves the jail, thinking: Nemi was low; and I was the cause of him being low. He's tried to play bloodhound on me and now some bloodhound was turning him every way but loose. He knowed me, so he said, knowed me very well. I was about bursting with what we'd done and I turned to Miz Lady. "Mis'ess," I said, "Miz--" I didn't know what I wanted to tell her first. And it was like I cussed her; she stopped and swung me around to face her.
"My name Ruth," she say, "Ruth. I ain't your mistress." Like I'd been the one putting that on her.
"Well, if it come to that," I told her," my name Dessa, Dessa Rose. Ain't no O to it." (232) Insisting on the validity of their own experiences and the integrity of their own names, Dessa and Ruth resist and rewrite the Master narrative of antebellum slavery as represented by Adam Nehemiah. This dynamic of resistance and naming can be found in a number of contemporary adptations of the nineteenth-century African American female slave narrative(1), but in this essay I will concentrate on four such texts--Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. In these texts, certain names function as emancipatory mnemonic devices that simultaneously disrupt and revise the Master narrative--or dominant historiography--within and against which central characters must define themselves. These characters, caught indilemmas of discursive oppression, find themselves at the crossroads of race, class, and gender--and usually at the bottom of one or more of these hierarchies. The "privilege" of this marginalization is a consciousness that defies the purported truthfulness of History, a perspective that envisions Truth as a fictionalized assemblage and erasure of events rather than as a factual representation of actual social or historical relations. The following discussion will be divided into three sections: a brief analysis of historiography, a discussion of the emancipatory impulse and the development of a trope suitable to it, and, finally, a discussion of naming as literary technique.
Representations of historiography play an important and thoroughly problematized role in the texts under consideration. The same holds true for depictions of history itself, which Butler, Jones, Morrison, and Williams portray as fields of contestation that persist into the present rather than as a series of past, finished events. Marx's description of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is helpful here: "Men [and women] make their own history, but not spontaneously, under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them. The tradition of countless dead generations is an incubus to the mind of the living" (13). That is, the jaws of history maintain a chokehold on the present by offering ideologically invested storytelling posing as commonplace fact. What's more, as Walter Benjamin rightly suggests, the historical account given the greatest credence always belongs to the ruling culture.(2) Thus, history is the Master narrative a dominant culture tells about itself. This narrative effaces as much contradiction as it can, destroying certain records, highlighting others, and creating heroes and villains generally convenient to it. Historiography, then, is a place of struggle, and indeed this is the case in Beloved, Dessa Rose, Corregidora, and Kindred.
In Dessa Rose, Adam Nehemiah, the author of The Master's Complete Guide to Dealing with Slaves and Other Dependents and the uncompleted The Roots of Rebellion in the Slave Population and Some Means of Eradicating Them, functions as the scribe of antebellum culture. His first name implies his role as archetypal namer and controller of language, and Nehemiah, the name of the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem and awakened the religious fervor of the Jews, implies the guardianship of traditional culture and values. Nehemiah takes upon himself the writing of Dessa's history and attempts to contain her meaning within the language of slavery. In the novel, after approximately thirty pages largely taken up by Dessa's stories of the plantation and her love of Kaine, the husband debased and killed by their owner, Nehemiah writes his version of Dessa's life:
These are the facts of the darky's history as I have thus far uncovered them: The master smashed the young buck's banjo. The young buck attacked the master. The master killed the young buck. The darky attacked the master--and was sold to the Wilson slave coffle. (39) Nehemiah grounds everything he writes about Dessa in fact; he is, after all, a man of "'Science. Research'" (232), "'a teacher man'" (66). But Nehemiah's compilation of data proves itself a methodology of distortion and--for Dessa--a disabling construction of the truth. His pared down "facts" convey nothing of Dessa's experience; as Deborah McDowell notes, "Nehemiah's account actually essentializes Dessa and attempts to fit her into a recognizable proslavery text" (148). In Dessa Rose, Adam Nehemiah, the Southern historiographer, weaves a narrative designed to trap Dessa and unwrite her humanity.
Similarly, Schoolteacher in Beloved acts as a man of science who works to control the lived and written lives of the novel's black characters. Along with reading and writing, Schoolteacher instructs his nephews in the proper management and classification of slaves. One day, Sethe comes across Schoolteacher during one of his lessons: He was talking to his pupils and I heard him say, "Which one are you doing?" And one of the boys said, "Sethe." That's when I stopped because I heard my name, and then I took a few steps to where I could see what they was doing.... I heard him say, "No, no. That's not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up." (193) Schoolteacher extorts Sethe's labor--in this case, the ink she makes for him--in order to write "scientific" analyses of Sethe that justify or obscure the intolerable relations of production under which she must live and work. Controlling the written word, Schoolteacher portrays Sethe as an animal, all the while erasing his own cruelty and the bestiality of his nephews, who at one point hold down the pregnant Sethe while they feed from her breasts and rape her.
Finally, in Corregidora, hegemony effaces its earlier criminality through the destruction of incriminating records, ("...when they did away with slavery down there they burned all the slavery papers so it would be like they never had it" ), and in Kindred, when Dana travels to twentieth-century Maryland to search through newspapers and legal documents for records of her black ancestors, she finds only a notice of sale, nothing else. Like Corregidora's Ursa, Dana learns that the written records of her family history have also disappeared. Not coincidentally, the Maryland Historical Society's remaining records of its antebellum past are housed in "a converted early mansion" once owned by a member of the slavocracy (264).
Considering the brutal experiences of the black and female characters in Corregidora, Beloved, Kindred, and Dessa Rose, how is it possible--in the texts and in our readings of them--for these characters to achieve any sort of liberation, or even distance, from the oppressive practices and discourses defining their positions? Angela Davis, in developing a black feminist Marxism, suggests that the very intensity and positioning of the black woman's marginalization (particularly the slave's) leads to her resistance and to the oppositional strength of her consciousness. The perspective of the black female slave, who finds herself at the bottom of the hierarchies of race, class, and gender within a society otherwise characterized by the "equality" of "free" wage-labor,(4) can in fact become a powerful site of rebellion and self-assertion, and any portrait of her "must simultaneously attempt to illuminate the historical matrix of her oppression and must evoke her varied, often heroic responses to the slaveholder's domination" (Davis 4). This is indeed the case for the central characters in the texts under consideration.
In a provocative analysis of Dessa Rose and Morrison's Sula entitled "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition," Mae G. Henderson offers a valuable critical methodology for the present study. Drawing upon "Bakhtin's notion of dialogism and consciousness" and Gadamer's conception of the "I-Thou" relationship, Henderson describes black female subjectivity as constituting simultaneously "a multiple dialogic of differences" and "a dialectic of identity" (18-19). This complex subject position experiences gender from a "racialized" position and race from a gendered position; any notion of the unified self is thus challenged from both without and within. "If Bakhtin's dialogic engagement with the Other signifies conflict, Gadamer's monologic acknowledgment of the Thou signifies the potential of agreement. If the Bakhtinian dialogic model speaks to the other within, then Gadamer's speaks to the same within" (20). For Henderson, then, black female subjectivity is at the crossroads of harmonic and competing discourses.
Henderson further proposes "a tradition of black women writers generated less by neurotic anxiety or dis-ease than by an emancipatory impulse which engages both hegemonic and ambiguously (non)hegemonic discourse" (37). These writers, then, incorporate into their texts the racist and sexist discursive practices employed by both dominant and subdominant social groups, while their characters dramatize various efforts to undo or elude these practices. Thus, the "emancipatory impulse" Henderson describes consists of two theoretically discrete moments. First, "the initial expression of a marginal presence takes the form of disruption--a departure or break with conventional semantics and/or phonetics." Next, "this rupture is followed by a rewriting or rereading of the dominant story, resulting in a 'delegitimization' of the prior story or a 'displacement' which shifts attention to the other side of the story." These double actions are charged with revolutionary potential, and they "represent a progressive model for black and female utterance" (35).
Henderson also suggests a trope for this model, the "'womblike matrix' in which soundlessness can be transformed into utterance, unity into diversity, formlessness into form, chaos into art, silence into tongues, and glossolalia into heteroglossia" (36; emphasis added). The words womb and matrix provide a lexical explosion of linguistic possibilities and critical applications, and the following discussion of representations of emancipatory consciousness in Beloved, Corregidora, Dessa Rose, and Kindred constitutes a borrowing and expansion of Henderson's useful trope, primarily as it applies to disruptions of hegemonic discourse by black female characters.
The term matrix presents an array of suggestive contradictions. It is the solid matter in which a fossil or a crystal forms--in this context, the fossil of an undead, murderous past, as well as the crystal of a future Utopia. And matrix denotes the intersection of input and output, encoding and decoding, the site of competing discourses. In a matrix, monologues of power and dialogues of difference collide with each other and with the conversations of the self. External oppression becomes the threat or reality of implosion and self-destruction; self-empowerment explodes or disrupts that which would contain it.
Two examples from the texts will demonstrate this dynamic. In Corregidora, Ursa, whose "veins are centuries meeting" (44), must contend with the memory of her foremothers' Portuguese owner. As a blues singer, if one uses Houston Baker's formulation in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, Ursa stands as a sign of interpretation at the intersection of social, historical, and subjective forces. "The singer's product," according to Baker, "constitutes a lively scene, a robust matrix, where endless antinomies are mediated and understanding and explanation find conditions of possibility" (7). Ursa, a crossroads of resistance and repression, seeks the creation of "a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese song. A new world song" (59). Her consciousness and creativity point at once to past and future, to the violence of memory and the violence of expression; her music contains both Old man Corregidora's fossilized memory and the assertion of Ursa's own pure song:
I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch the past at an early age. I found it on my mother's tiddies. In her milk. Let no one pollute my music. I will dig out their temples. I will pluck out their eyes. (77) Ursa attempts, liek Walter Benjamin's historical materialist, to extract tradition from the cultural victors her great-grandfather/grandfather represents.
Dessa Rose also serves as a decoding matrix of social hierarchies. After the attempted rape of Rufel, the wife of a plantation owner, by Oscar, a plantation owner himself, Dessa realizes that gender significantly mediates class and race, creating a possibility for unity where one did not seem to exist: The white woman was subject to the same ravishment as me.... I hadn't knowed white mens could use a white woman like that, just take her by force same as they could with us.... Cause they could. I never will forget the fear that come on me when Miz lady called me on Mr. Oscar, that knowing that she was as helpless in this as I was, that our only protection was ourselfs and each others. (201-02) Equally open to rape by white men regardless of their status within the structures of race and class, Dessa and Rufel must join forces if they wish to survive. Throughout her text, Williams places Dessa at conflicting matrices of social forces, thus deconstructing the privilege of any one category or position as a self-sufficient perspective.
A matrix can also be the situation within which something must develop--that is, a matrix can also be a womb. Positing the womb as a figure for consciousness in fiction by African American women introduces the impossible contradictions of love and hate, perpetuation and eradication, resistance and complicity, and the nightmares of the past as well as the faint, nearly imperceptible glimmer of the future. Of course, a danger here lies in the reduction of female consciousness (of any race or class) to a biological function, and that is not my intention. Rather, I would argue that black women's fictive discourse considers race as well as gender when representing material and ideological reproduction. In such representations, the surplus-labor value of the enslaved black woman includes the fruits of both material production and human reproduction. In addition, the reproduction of an exploited labor force is depicted as including the potential reproduction of conscious resistance against hegemonic configurations. The womb, therefore, necessarily becomes a site of ideological struggle regardless of any supposedly "natural" relationship between consciousness and biology.
Using the womb as a trope for emancipatory consciousness calls into play an analysis of the role of biological reproduction within a particular mode of production, thus opening onto a vital critical debate that has much to gain through an inclusion of black women's discourse. Marxist feminists have argued at length about the specific relationship between capitalist modes of production and reproduction. In Women's Oppression Today, Michele Barrett
writes: "Attempts to combine an analysis of social reproduction with an analysis of patriarchal human reproduction represent the fundamental problem Marxist feminism faces" (29). Barrett notes "three analytically distinct referents of the concept--social reproduction, reproduction of the labor force and human or biological reproduction" (21). The specific interrelationship of these referents and their role(s) in capitalist production have not been satisfactorily resolved. Novels by black women, which incorporate theoretical machinery and overt political content generally avoided by the canonical Masters (or downplayed by subsequent critics), intervene strategically in this debate through their reconstitutions of historical narrative.
In the texts under discussion, the interplay of maternal reproduction and hegemonic practices and discourses intensifies around reproductive issues. In Kindred, Octavia Butler consistently delineates pregnancy and birth within the socioeconomics of slavery. For example, when Carrie and Nigel, twoof Rufus's slaves, have a child, Rufus rewards the parents with a few household items. "'See,' Nigel told [Dana] later with some bitterness. 'Cause of Carrie and me, he's one nigger richer'" (161). More importantly in the text, Dana contributes to the increase of Rufus's wealth in slaves by assisting him in the rape and concubinage of Alice Greenwood. Although Dana resists her complicity with Rufus as much as possible, she must aid him in order to insure the birth of Hagar Weylin, the first inscriber of Dana's family history. In other words, Alice's rape and continued brutalization constitute a precondition of Dana's existence. The rapes that lead to the conceptions of Alice's children unavoidably mediate her love of them; Alice's feelings as a parent collide with her anger and resentment at her victimization. But she also regards their births as the possible destruction of the foundations of their paternity. "'If Hagar had been a boy,'" Alice tells Dana, "'I would have called her Ishmael. In the Bible, people might be slaves for a while, but they didn't have to stay slaves'" (234). Dana carries this wisdom with her back into the twentieth century, but it is a wisdom she gains at great cost, and a wisdom that cannot save Alice; toward the end of the text, she hangs herself, the only resistance left open to her being self-destruction.
In Dessa Rose, "'that breeding business'" (12) clearly links the maternal reproduction of the slave labor force and the material production of capital. At the beginning of Williams's text, the pregnant Dessa is confined in a root cellar, awaiting execution. Dessa had participated in a slave uprising on a coffle headed south, but unlike her fellow rebels, who were hanged almost as soon as they were caught, Dessa's captors postponed the date of Dessa's execution until after the birth of her (saleable) child. Dessa carries her child fully aware of the contradictions that decision entails; her husband Kaine had reminded Dessa that their child would most likely be sold away from them, and he asked Dessa to get the medicaments necessary to abort the fetus: "'Kaine not want this baby. He want it and don't want it. Babies ain't easy for niggas, but still, I knows this Kaine and I wants it cause that'" (46). Dessa intends to bring their child to term because she loves Kaine and his memory, all the while knowing that Kaine did not want to be the father of a slave. Of course, Kaine could not know that Desmond would be born outside of slavery, that his child's very existence embodies Dessa's resistance and the possibility of future redemption.
Similarly, Sethe is also enmeshed in the involuntary production of human capital, and she discovers herself caught between love for her children and hatred of the system that would enslave them. Her own birth is situated uneasily between complicity and resistance: Sethe's mother bore several children fathered by white slavers, but she killed or abandoned them as soon as they were born. She kept and protected Sethe, however, because Sethe was conceived in an act of love, not rape; and she gave her child a name commemorating that act, Sethe being a feminization of her father's name. Further, all of Baby Suggs's children with the exception of Halle were sold away (23); within the economy of slavery, her value and Sethe's derive primarily from their potential as "property that reproduced itself without cost" (228). When Sethe attempts to kill all of her children rather than allowing them to be returned to slavery, she does so because she finds the intersection of love and resistance impossible to navigate.
Reproduction also plays a central role in Corregidora. Ursa's foremothers want to preserve the oral history of their former owner so that his crimes do not go unremembered: "Corregidora. Old man Corregidora, the Portuguese slave breeder and whoremonger.... He fucked his own whores and fathered his own breed.... My grandmama was his daughter, but he was fucking her too." (8-9) Accordingly, they teach Ursa that"... the important thing is making generations. They can burn the papers but they can't burn conscious, Ursa. And that what makes the evidence. And that's what makes the verdict" (22). Ursa's foremothers urge her to have children so that the story of their bondage will not disappear. The loss of Ursa's biological reproductive capabilities, however, forces her into a critical dialogue with this position, leading her to wonder, "pussy. The center of a woman's being. Is it?" (46) Ursa's physical loss produces a perspective gained through distance, intensifying the contradictions of procreation as both sexual love and the perpetuation of brutality.
Corregidora exemplifies a related concern shared by all four novels. The insistence in many African American women's texts on the contem-poraneity of history suggests that the relations of production experienced by black women under slavery continue to have force in the twentieth century, that the lived experience in a "free" wage-labor system and a slave-labor system are more similar than not. In the following passage from Corregidora, Ursa listens to her friend Cat describe an incident at the home of Cat's employers: ...she was telling me about Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hirshorn and something that happened in the kitchen. She was a young woman, about my age. She lived in during the week and every morning at six o'clock she had to get up and get Mr. Hirshorn's breakfast because he was the supervisor in a plant, and his wife stayed in bed sleeping. He always waited till she called him, but one morning he was sitting at the table while she was fixing coffee. "You pretty, Catherine, you know that? You pretty, Catherine. A lot of you nigger women is pretty." ... She was saying nothing and then when she'd got the can of coffee grounds down and was opening it to pour in the pot, he was behind her, touching her arm, and she dropped the can, and it banged and rolled across the kitchen floor spilling grains. He jumped back, and she was stooping trying to clean it up when his wife came in. "What happened, Tom?"
"That clumsy nigger. I won't have time to eat breakfast this morning, sweetheart."
While she was bending, she could see him bending to kiss his wife's mouth, then he went out the kitchen door, stepping over coffee grounds.
"Your made a mess," his wife said, and went back to bed. (65-66) With a few stylistic modifications, these events, although they were written in the 1970s and take place in the mid-twentieth century, could easily be part of a nineteenth-century slave narrative: Mr. Hirshorn, the owner of the means of production (slaveholder/employer) exploits the labor of a black woman and makes unwanted sexual advances toward her; Mrs. Hirshorn (Southern belle/middle-class wife) and Cat become polarized rather than recognize that the social constructions of race and gender benefiting Tom inform both Cat's oppression and Mrs. Hirshorn's "uselessness" (I employ this term with reservations). A peculiar institution is at work in the Hirshorn house. Similarly, in Kindred, Dana calls her twentieth-century employer--a "casual labor agency" that relies on surplus labor ("winos trying to work themselves into a few more bottles, poor women with children trying to supplement their welfare checks, kids trying to get their first job, older people who'd lost one job too many")--a "slave market" (52). And in Morrison's text, the "free" blacks in Ohio uniformly hold the lowest paying jobs.
What does the persistence of a historical relation of production have to say about the present mode of reproduction? What do these novels have to offer to a Marxist feminist debate? I would argue that they provide an expanded representation of production that recognizes the gendering and racializing of reproduction. In African American women's fiction, with its deconstructive sense of history and constructive assertion of personal narration, the exploitation of slave women as the producers of surplus value--children--and the exploitation of "free" black women as low-wage producers and surplus-labor reproducers amount of very nearly the same form of exploitation; the reproduction of a wage-labor force by black women constitutes the production of capital. The perspective gained through this particular marginality expands conceptualizations of production and reproduction so that they begin to conflate and include each other. This conflation does not eviscerate the necessary Marxist feminist differentiation between production and reproduction; each of course has its own discrete theoretical status. However, this formulation does help challenge the deceptive conception of the actuality of separate spheres--one public, male, valuable, and productive; the other private, female, worthless, and somehow "outside" capitalist production. The exploitation of gender and race is integral to the machinations of capitalism, and it extorts profit from the womb as surely as it does from the field or factory.
Gayatri Spivak makes a similar argument in "Feminism and Critical Theory." In the first part of her essay, Spivak argues that traditional Marxism has not adequately theorized human production:
I would argue that, in terms of the physical, emotional, legal, custodial, and sentimental situation of the woman's product, the child, this picture of the human relationship to production [specifically here the Marxist conception of alienation] is incomplete. The possession of a tangible place of production in the womb situates the woman as an agent in any theory of production. (79) Spivak goes on to suggest that her earlier formulations were inadequate because she did not take into account "the dimension of race" (81). Warning against the tendency in American critical debates to equate all racism with racism in the United States, Spivak analyzes feminist concerns in relation to postcolonial and multinational practices. Toward the end of "Feminism and Critical Theory," she makes a claim well worth mentioning here: "However active in the production of civilization as a by-product, socialized capital has not moved far from the presuppositions of a slave mode of production" (91). The interdependent constructions of racialized and gendered subjectivities vis-a-vis capitalism must therefore also be understood in terms of imperialism.
This argument deserves further consideration and development. For example, the actual utility of African American fiction (or any fiction, for that matter) in a discussion of material (re)production and ideology must be addressed; bell hooks and Michele Barrett would be of use here. And Lise Vogel's concern that a "linguistic similarity of terms" between production and reproduction does not constitute the basis of a theoretical discussion (139) deserves a reply. Also, a more detailed comparision of the slavocracy and the wage-labor system would be needed. However, I hope I have at least demonstrated that the womb as a trope for the emancipatory consciousness offers manifold literary and theoretical applications.(5)
Morrison, Williams, Butler, and Jones encapsulate the dynamic interrelationship of historiography and the "womblike matrix" of emancipatory consciousness in their texts through the technique of naming. Names, according to Louis Althusser, indicate that "ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects" (176-77). Certain names in the four novels under discussion lead to a similar and perhaps potentially more useful conclusion than one that could be drawn primarily according to Althusserian lines of thought, for besides suggesting the pervasiveness of material conditions and the persistence of the conditions of history, names in these novels also offer connotations of resistance and Utopian futurity.
In Morrison's Beloved and Jones's Corregidora, the names of the texts' title characters both perpetuate disturbing historical memories and contain the possibility of liberation from the conditions that provoked these memories. In Morrison's text, "Beloved" acts as a key to painful remembrance that unlocks future potential and healing. Beloved died an unnamed child, the "crawling-already? baby" (93). She takes her name from the epitaph on her gravestone, a name Sethe, impoverished and degraded, purchases with ten minutes of "rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on" (5).
By invoking the name Beloved, the major characters re-experience or "rememory" the past in a way that reclaims it for them. When Beloved seduces Paul D., who was on the Sweet Home plantation with Sethe, she asks him to "'touch me on the inside part and call me my name'" (116). As he does, the tin box of memories rusted shut in his heart begins to flake and open (117). And, at the beginning of each of their rememories, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved invoke Beloved's name to conjure up their collective and individual histories. The eventual outcome of this communal recollection is the entry of Denver into the black community, the re-union of Paul D. and Sethe, and, most importantly, Sethe's re-membering of a dis-membered past and an already dead future. Henderson, in "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text," comments: In speaking, that is, in sotrytelling, Sethe is able to construct an alternate text of black womanhood. This power to fashion a counternarrative, thereby rejecting the definitions imposed by the dominant other(s), finally provides Sethe with a self--a past, present, and future. (77)
The penultimate chapter of the novel ends with Paul D.'s affirmation, "'You your best thing, Sethe. You are'" and her incredulous, doubting, joyful response, "'Me? Me?'" (273). By calling the name of a child murdered by her own mother to protect that child from slavery, the characters in Beloved unleash the past, disjoint and revise it, and unlock the promise of days to come. Beloved's name, a container of uncontainable incongruities, becomes a crystal of consciousness that shatters the truthvalue of Schoolteacher's method of historiography.
In Gayl Jones's Corregidora, Ursa's family name perpetuates a memory that contradicts the "truth" of the past. Because slavers destroyed evidence that could later incriminate them, only the oral history surrounding Ursa's name preserves the knowledge of the indignities experienced by her foremothers. In Portuguese, corregidore means 'colonial magistrate,' thus implying the extent of Corregidora's power over his slaves and their descendants and underscoring the legality of his brutality. In Spanish, corregidora translates as 'the wife of a chief magistrate,' which conveys the persistence of a psychosexual domination that continues to disable the Corregidora women well into the twentieth century; they are all effectively his wives in the novel. But the word corregidora also incorporates the sense of its French root corregir--'to correct.' Corregidora manifests Ursa's reconfiguration of history through memory and the blues; she "corrects" the past by making it more comprehensible to her. Ralph Ellison's comment on the European origin of Afro-American names is relevant here: We take what we have and make of them what we can. And there are even those who know where the old broken connections lie, who recognize their relatives across the chasms of historical denial and the artifical barriers of society.... I speak here not of mere forgiveness, nor of obsequious insensitivity to the outrages symbolized by the denial and division [of slavery and racism], but of the conscious acceptance of the harsh realities of the human condition, of the ambiguities and hypocrisies of human history as they have played themselves out in the United States. Perhaps, taken as an aggregate, these European names (sometimes with irony, sometimes with pride, but always with personal investment) represent a certain triumph of the spirit, speaking to us of those who rallied, reassembled and transformed themselves and who under dismembering pressures refused to die. (149) The name Corregidora thus simultaneously embodies the crushing memory of the past and the liberating memories of resistance and survival.
Two sets of names in Williams's Dessa Rose and Butler's Kindred present the reader with remarkably similar naming strategies. In the first text, a sustained, agonistic contest over the naming of Williams's central character embodies the struggle of the individual subject, Dessa, against the imposition of definitions by Adam Nehemiah, who by right of race, class, and gender has greater access to what Althusser would label the Ideological and the Repressive State Apparatuses of the slavocracy. From nearly the beginning of the novel through its end, Nehemiah refers to her as "Odessa," a name used only by white characters. But, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, she insists that her name is "'Dessa, Dessa Rose. Ain't no O to it.'" By calling Dessa out of her name, Nehemiah attempts to assert his social dominance and deny Dessa's humanity. The "O" he adds to her name is the "O" of Otherness and objectification, as well as the zero of nonbeing or worthlessness; it represent what Frederic Jameson might describe as a linguistic "strategy of containment," a method of historiographical narration that writes over Dessa and cancels out the actual conditions of her existence. Her insistence on the name Dessa disrupts Nehemiah's fiction and rewrites her narrative. Henderson writes: Her rejection of the O signifies her rejection of the inscription of her body by the other(s). In other words, Dessa's repudiation of the O (Otherness?) signifies her always already presence--what Ralph Ellison describes as the unquestioned humanity of the slave. She deletes nothing--except the white male other's inscription/ascription. ("Speaking" 32)(6)
"Edana" in Kindred functions in approximately the same way. Upon her second return to the past, Rufus asks Dana her name, and she replies, "'Edana.... Most people call me Dana'" (30). Neither Rufus nor any other white character in the text calls Dana out of her name; that is never at issue (although Dana and Rufus do have words over the use of the term nigger). Dana's control over her name from the outset indicates the greater extent of her authority over language. In fact, her level of literacy exceeds almost every other character's in the novel, and the onomastic struggle in her case centers on the birth of the child Hagar. Nonetheless, the prefix E-, like the nullity implied by the O in Odessa, denotes absence, negation, or exteriority, and the shortening of "Edana" contradicts this negation.
In Dessa Rose and Kindred, central white characters have homophonic "architectural" names that call attention to the foundation and collapse of slave society. When Dana first goes to the past, she learns that the young Weylin boy's name is "Rufus. Ugly name to inflict on a reasonably nicelooking little kid" (14). Instead, she calls him "Rufe" ("roof"). In Dessa Rose, the runaway slaves harbored at Sutton's Glen call Ruth Elizabeth "Rufel," which proves a very descriptive homophone--"roof fell." Both these acts of signification initially place the characters at the top of Big House society, but they are also reminders of that society's (de jure) dissolution. Upon his master's death, Nigel literally destroys Rufe's house by setting fire to it. Of course, as mentioned previously, Rufus's legacy, as promulgated by the Maryland Historical Society, continues in the twentieth century under the roof of a Georgian mansion similar to his own. His death and the end of slavery constitute only a partial victory for the black characters in Kindred.
Rufel contains both more destruction and construction than Rufe, and this name, like Dessa's, represents a locus of struggle and remembrance. Recollecting the genesis of her name, Rufel recalls her deceased personal maid, Dorcas, whom her mother renamed "Mammy," thus revising or writing over Dorcas's past. Ruth Elizabeth believed that Dorcas called her "Rufel" as an endearment, and because "the darkies could never get her name straight, slurring and garbling the syllables until the name seemed almost unrecognizable" (124). But years later, when she gives Dessa's child his names--first "Button" and then "Desmond"--Rufel, originally at odds with Dessa, "took a private pleasure in having some hand in naming Button, feeling repaid in some measure for the wench's continuing aloofness. Maybe this is what Mammy had felt when she had changed Ruth Elizabeth's name..." (160). What Rufel remembers as an act of love may have been a gesture of revenge, a recurrent moment of resistance that she and her family could not read. Also, as part of Williams's signification on William Styron, "roof fell" refers to her sexual love affair--her "fall"--with Nate, a slave.(7)
Finally, Rufel shatters her own representations of the past and the ideology informing it when she tells Dessa, "'My name Ruth.... I ain't your mistress.'" This brings me back to the beginning of my essay. Ruth never quite reaches the same insights into slavery gained by Dessa, but their mutual insistence on being called by their own names does expose the cracks and contraditions of slavery, and it opens a dialogue between the black and white female characters that had been impossible earlier in the novel: I wanted to hug Ruth. I didn't hold nothing against her, not "mistress," not Nathan, not skin. Maybe we couldn't speak so honest without disagreement, but that didn't change how I feel.... We couldn't hug each other, not on the streets, not in Acropolis, not even after dark; we both had sense enough to know that. The town could even bar us from laughing; but that night we walked the boardwalk together and we didn't hide our grins. (232-33)
In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Walter Benjamin describes the depiction of history as an interruption of narrative: Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he [or she] encounters it as a monad. In this structure [the historical materialist] recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He [or she] takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history.... The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed. (262-63)
Names in Butler's Kindred, Morrison's Beloved, Jones's Corregidora, and Willams's Dessa Rose behave much like Benjamin's monad. They are crystallizations--constant reminders--of resistance and the will to freedom. These names momentarily arrest thoughts that too often go unchallenged, and shatter the confines of hegemonic historiography. They are the precious but tasteless seeds of memory and resistance.
But, to return to the precepts of Henderson's article: The emancipatory impulses illustrated by names in these novels disrupt, delegitimize, and displace Master narratives; they do not make them or their conditions of possibility disappear. History still hurts at the ends of these books. In Dessa Rose and Beloved, the protagonists escape the South only to find racism practiced in other ways in the so-called "Free States." Dana loses her arm at the end of Kindred, and Ursa's rapprochement with Mutt at the end of Corregidora is at best a mixed blessing. This conclusion does not, however, mean that the practices of disruption, delegitimization, and displacement are ineffectual or have no value. They are the precious tools of struggle, and as long they are available, so too are resistance, healing, and transformation.
(1.)My thanks to J. Lee Greene and the participants of his seminar on contemporary masculinist and feminist adaptations of the slave narrative. See also McDowell 161-62.
(2.)Walter Benjamin describes the cultural practices of social "victors" as a "triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures.... There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" (256).
(3.)See Mary Kemp Davis 547-49; Henderson, "Speaking" 25-26; and McDowell 148-49 for further discussions of the name Adam Nehemiah.
(4.)More specifically, the female slave is located within a mixed mode of production characterized by the co-existence of slavery and wage-labor.
(5.)James Thompson and the participants of his "Marxism and Feminism" seminar in the fall of 1991 were instrumental in my understanding of the interconnections and divergences between Marxist and feminist constructions of reproduction.
(6.)Dessa's second name, Rose, also bears mentioning. She is named Rose after her mother, whose name posits a standard of black feminine beauty that defies white definitions: "'Her name was Rose,' Dessa shouted.... 'That's a flower so red it look black. When mammy was a girl they named her that count of her skin--smooth black...'" (119). And Dessa's name carries the memories of her sisters, who died before she was born. Rose can also be read as a verb, as "Dessa rose against slavery" (see Henderson, "Speaking" 219n28). In this way, her name carries in it her defiance on the plantation, on the coffle, and in the various imprisonments she is forced to endure. Thus the name Dessa Rose acts as both predicament and solution, as the self contained by the language of dominance and as the locus of emancipation and the shattering of hegemonic discourse.
(7.)Nate signifies on Styron's "Nat" in The Confessions of Nat Turner. In her prefatory "Author's Note"--the title itself Signifyin(g) on Styron's opening section--Williams notes, "I admit also to being outraged by a certain, critically acclaimed novel of the early seventies [sic] that travestied the as-told-to memoir of slave revolt leader Nat Turner. Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth--and made of that process a high art--remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often these have betrayed us" (5). In "(W)riting The Work and Working the Rites," Mae Henderson suggests that "Styron's work...is meant to be a meditation, or reflection, on history, whereas Williams's can perhaps be more aptly understood as a meditation on historiography--in the sense that it provides the reader a guide to the contemplation of historical and literary historical works such as Styron's..." (636).
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--. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text." Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991. 62-86.
--. "(W)riting The Work and Working the Rites." Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 631-60. hooks, bell. Talking Back. Boston: South End, 1989.
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McDowell, Deborah E. "Negotiating between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery after Freedom--Dessa Rose." Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Ed. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 144-63.
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|Title Annotation:||Black Women's Culture Issue|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1994|
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