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Anissa Janine Wardi. Death and the Arc of Mourning in African American Literature.

Anissa Janine Wardi. Death and the Arc of Mourning in African American Literature. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2003. 214 pp. $55.00 cloth/$5.95 digital.

One of James Baldwin's recurrent themes is the belief of many white Americans, linked to their tenacious conviction of their fundamental innocence, that they can somehow manage to avoid and even eliminate suffering. African Americans, generally never having enjoyed the luxury of such a wistful view of human perfectibility, have survived and thrived despite, but also to some extent because they have been forced to confront a history of enslavement, murder, and discrimination. Anissa Janine Wardi's Death and the Arc of Mourning in African American Literature investigates the centrality of death and funerary rituals in the works of four writers, arguing that these imaginative revisitings of the pain of oppression sustain characters by strengthening their connections to ancestors, the community, and self-identity. She proposes an intertextual study of nine novels by Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor as signifying on Jean Toomer's Cane, which inaugurates what she calls the African American pastoral. Wardi's work is well researched, ambitious, generally insightful and well written, and useful for its contribution to an understanding of how the South and North are constructed in black literature. However, her argument is rather unevenly developed and lacks consistent intertextual analysis. In addition to these significant shortcomings, she does not adequately credit several scholars whose work contributes substantially to her study.

Wardi discusses Cane as a revision and subversion of the postbellum white southern pastoral, a subgenre that portrays the South as an Eden where racism and oppression are nonexistent. Enlarging on Charles Chesnutt's critique of a utopian South, Toomer offers a much more accurate and complex view than that of Reconstruction writers Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, by rendering not only the beauty of the land but also the brutality of the culture. For Wardi the African American pastoral as seen in Cane and other texts embodies the South's inherent contradictions between, on one hand, kinship with the land and belonging to a nurturing community, and on the other hand, the history of violence and oppression suffered in that environment. One important aspect of the complexity of these texts not explored by Wardi is that, in contrast to European and white American pastorals, in which characters often remove themselves from a flawed to an ideal environment, escaping from history and the self-confrontation that might equip them to improve society, characters in black writers' texts often return to the very place that necessitated their own or their ancestors' escape. This return to a dangerous but potentially regenerative place--the opposite of the more romantic, simplistic ideal of running away to some fantasized Arcady--constitutes an acknowledgment of the primacy of history, the inevitability of suffering, and the omnipresence of death.

Wardi's use of the term "African American pastoral" is problematic because she does not give adequate recognition to scholars who have explored this territory and because the term's validity is questionable. She cites only in an endnote Maria Mootry's introduction of the concept of the "black pastoraL" with a similar dual meaning; instead of frankly acknowledging this debt, Wardi minimizes it, claiming that Mootry's approach is similar to hers. Wardi includes a passage from Frank Shelton, which spells out eloquently the duality of the black version of the pastoral that she explores, yet she does not directly acknowledge how much her thesis owes to his insight. She also fails adequately to credit Farah Jasmine Griffin, whose Who Set You Flowin'? she discusses in several places without mentioning Griffin's central point about the role of the ancestor in the individual's overcoming the terror of the South, an idea that Wardi applies with convincing detail in her study, especially in her discussion of Song of Solomon. Several scholars, myself included, argue that using "pastoral" to apply to black writers' complex depictions of southern life is both inadequate and misleading because the term cannot convey the repudiation of the traditional pastoral at the heart of black southern experience. Wardi offers a muddled explanation of her supposed agreement with scholars like Griffin, who interprets Cane as an antipastoral text; yet Wardi still insists unconvincingly that the relatively simplistic term "pastoral" can carry the dialectical weight inherent in these texts.

Wardi effectively employs Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,'s theory of signifying to explain both Cane's revision of the white pastoral and also Gaines's, Morrison's, and Naylor's intertextual engagements with Cane. Although Wardi proposes to use also James Snead's idea of repetition as a dominant figure of black culture, this concept does not receive much attention here. She emphasizes Gates's and Snead's ideas as part of vernacular theory, an alternative to what Barbara Christian criticizes as western theory's dependence on abstractions and linguistic jargon. Applying Christian's idea that blacks have often theorized in less abstract forms such as narratives, Wardi posits Cane as the primary theory for her study. Although she mentions the criticism by Hazel Carby that vernacular theory sometimes leads to an idealization of black folk culture, Wardi makes it clear that she intends neither to idealize the rural South nor to demonize the urban North. Yet her study offers scant treatment of aspects of black family and community life in these texts involving division and conflict.

The first chapter historicizes African and slavery-era burial rituals, emphasizing the denial of proper rites as an assault on the sacred, as seen in Cane's many unmarked graves and the community's unconscious absorption of southern atrocities. Wardi clearly conveys both Toomer's intense connection to the land and black people, as well as his depiction of the omnipresence of terror and death. She discusses Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men and the role of ancestors as a regenerative force for the living, who partake of a symbolic holy communion of eating pecans in the graveyard and thereby finding the strength finally to resist the oppression that has circumscribed their lives. In spite of the insightful analysis of Christian symbolism in the novel one problem with using Gathering in this context is that its portrayal of the racism in the men's lives lacks convincing detail and borders on cliche, weakening the argument that it explores both aspects of the dialectic. The treatment of Morrison's Beloved illustrates well its parallel eucharistic symbolism and progression from pain to healing. Of all the texts in this study, Beloved perhaps best fits Wardi's approach to the pastoral but she misses the opportunity to flesh out her thesis here, with only minimal attention to the role of ancestors and the conflicts within the black community. This chapter draws some fascinating parallels between Gathering and Beloved, but it presents little evidence of signifying on Cane.

Wardi does a better job of tracing close connections between Cane's "Portrait in Georgia" and "Blood Burning Moon" and Gaines's Of Love and Dust in their depictions of interracial relationships that result in lynching. However, this section, like several others in the book, does not address any of the ameliorative aspects of Wardi's pastoral, weakening the argument. With Song of Solomon she skillfully balances her view of the pastoral, with substantial discussion both of southern violence and of family and community ancestry as sources of personal renewal. Yet, aside from brief treatment of the symbol of sugar cane, only slight attention is devoted to Morrison's engagement with Toomer, and links between Morrison's and Gaines's texts are ignored.

The third chapter presents detailed analysis of Cane's signifying on the pastoral and of Naylor's response to Cane in Linden Hills. The emphasis in these texts is on black life in the "promised land" of the northern city, far from southern violence and overt discrimination. Toomer and Naylor depict the danger here precisely in the achievement of success as narrowly defined in materialistic terms, and characters struggle for survival because they are cut off from the sustaining power of southern land, ancestors, and tradition--in flight, and "freed" (like much of white America) from the history that could regenerate them. Although Wardi mentions the pastoral only once in this chapter, and not at all in the next, limiting the coherence of her argument through the heart of the book, she does suggest that Cane critiques the pastoral's southern Eden by reversing the racist association of Cain's descendants as black outcasts and by linking blacks" oppression and displacement to violence by whites. She also shows how Naylor responds to Cane by adapting Toomer's construction of the northern city as a set of contradictions and place of exile, troping several of his characters and moments, and illustrating how death pervades an environment where organic connections have been severed.

Wardi extends her analysis of the northern (and southern) city, relating Cane's urban disconnection to Morrison's Jazz, Naylor's The Men of Brewster Place, and Gaines's In My Father's House. Consistent with Gates's view that the Harlem Renaissance was largely an elitist movement that has been romanticized, Morrison in Jazz focuses on southern migrants who are ordinary people, orphans in the city, cut off from southern ancestors and traditions. Clinging to the failed promise of the city for 20 years, the protagonists unconsciously mourn and come to realize their exile, alienation, and disinheritance, as Morrison portrays the northern city as at least as dangerous as the South that the migrants have fled. Wardi's insights into Jazz and her evidence of the novel's intertextual play with Cane make this one of the book's best developed sections. While she makes a few interesting points about The Men of Brewster Place, her treatment is very brief and generalized, and she ignores the uninspired, programmatic quality of Naylor's only inferior novel, in which Naylor responds unconvincingly to unfair criticism that her The Women of Brewster Place (a much better choice for inclusion in this study) attacked black males. The treatment of In My Father's House is even sketchier than that of Men of Brewster, filling less than one-fourth the space given to Jazz. Wardi identifies echoes of Cane in the novel's protagonist, who escaped his own personal history by migrating to a southern city, but whose success evaporates as he is forced to confront his moral failure and loss of sustaining communal bonds.

The last chapter includes the study's most extensive evidence of a text's signifying on Cane, discussing Toomer's "Kabnis" and Naylor's Mama Day as return narratives in which an outsider attempts to reclaim southern ancestry and tradition. Approaching "Kabnis" as embodying Stepto's "ritual of immersion," Wardi offers her dearest explication of the pastoral's duality, with emphasis on the challenge of accepting the enormous pain of the southern past. Drawn to the beauty of the land yet repelled by the traumas of history, Kabnis rejects black folk culture and thus fails to achieve the strength for his artistic mission. Naylor revises "Kabnis" with George's initial rejection of the local black culture and his eventual embrace of folk tradition, resulting in his personal rebirth and his sacrificial death. Wardi demonstrates how Naylor engages with Cane, especially with the idea of the ongoing, dynamic relationship between the dead and the living, as ancestors help to sustain individuals grappling with the contradictions of the sacred landscape of the South.

Wardi's project is overly ambitious and somewhat unbalanced, dealing with 10 texts in a relatively short book featuring an unevenly argued thesis. A more sharply focused study might have concentrated on Toomer and Naylor, in whose works Wardi seems most interested, perhaps along with Morrison, examining more carefully both sides of the contradictions in the African American pastoral. Yet this worthwhile book brings welcome attention to Cane as a seminal work in black literature and enlarges our understanding of the intertextuality among these writers, who suggest the need of black and white Americans to confront the traumas of US history, to envision greater healing in both the South and the North.

Reviewed by

Michael F. Lynch Kent State University

African American Review, Volume 40, Number 2 [c] 2006 Michael F. Lynch
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Author:Lynch, Michael F.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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