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Arlene R. Keizer. Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery.

Arlene R. Keizer. Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004. 224 pp. $45.00 cloth/$18.95 paper.

In Black Subjects, Arlene R. Keizer pursues two goals: to theorize the representations of slavery that have proliferated in black fiction since the 1960s and to negotiate the troubled relationship between African American literature and mainstream theories of subject formation. Keizer reads works by five authors from the US and the Anglophone Caribbean as expressions of black theories of subjectivity, and sets each of these fictional theories against what she calls an "established" theory of identity formation to show how theories that "arise from the particularity and variety of black experience, re-imagined in fiction, force us to reconsider the conceptual bases of established theories of subjectivity" (2).

Keizer's term "contemporary narrative of slavery" encompasses three kinds of works published from the mid-1960s to the present: historical novels of slavery (here Toni Morrison's Beloved, 1987, and Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale, 1982); works set in the present that explicitly connect contemporary black experience with the slave past (Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, 1969, and Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain, performed 1967); and works that juxtapose scenes from the past with those set in the present (Carolivia Herron's Thereafter Johnnie, 1991). Keizer attributes the emergence of a new literary focus on slavery in the 1960s to the passing away of "the last of those who had experienced [it] first-hand" and the consequent urgency of "the questions of who would be a witness to slavery and how it would be remembered" (5). She reads contemporary narratives of slavery both as counterhistories to the official history of slavery imposed by colonial and neocolonial powers and as complications and contestations of the themes of resistance and progress that dominate earlier narratives. "Rather than using representations of slavery primarily to protest past and present oppression[,] [contemporary] black writers have begun to represent slavery in order to explore the process of self-creation under extremely oppressive conditions" (11).

The relation of text to theory that Keizer posits varies among the writers she discusses: adherence in the case of Johnson; anticipation in Walcott; alternative view in Marshall; implicit critique in Morrison; possibly direct critique in Herron. The relationship between fictional and established theory is most cleanly delineated in the discussions of Beloved and The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. Responding to Morrison's emphasis on the capitalist aspects of the slave system, Keizer sets Beloved against Althusser's theory of interpellation, the process by which subjects are constructed by or in resistance to dominant ideologies. She argues that, by creating characters who improvise identity, as they do music, out of the conflict between the dominant slave system and the subjugated system of African culture, rather than simply in relation to the dominant one, Morrison "shines a light through the cracks that appear in Althusser's theory as soon as it is applied to an actual social formation" (23). Similarly, her chapter on The Chosen Place, the Timeless People explores "a tension between Jameson's critical concept of postmodernism as 'the cultural logic of late capitalism' and Marshall's localized yet expansive vision of one 'Third World' cultural response to late capitalism" (78). She argues that Marshall portrays a society that is "not so much a remainder of an older culture," as Jameson characterizes the Third World, "as it is a modernist revision of that older culture necessary for survival and resistance under late capitalism" (95).

Marshall's conception of an inclusive Third World--as opposed to narrowly nationalist--identity in Chosen Place is somewhat limited, Keizer notes, by a persistent stigmatization of homosexuality characteristic of Caribbean nationalist rhetoric. In the narratives of Johnson and Walcott, the formation of black subjectivity is more fundamentally restricted, she finds, by failure to overcome the masculinism inherent in slavery, colonialism, and western thought. Johnson's "adherence to Western philosophy, particularly Hegel's theories," in his early narratives of slavery "frustrates [his] attempts to move beyond binary oppositions and the problems of individualism" (76). The 1977 short story "The Education of Mingo" comically deconstructs Hegel's master-slave dialectic by replacing it with a gender binary that denies women, black and white, the subjectivity that it achieves for black men. The phenomenological approach to slavery in Oxherding Tale has the further effect of "allowing the reader to forget the real conditions of slavery, and to view the condition of bondage as primarily an existential problem" (72). (Keizer does not discuss Johnson's other full-length narrative of slavery, the 1990 novel Middle Passage, in which, she says, he "begins to work his way out of the gender binary" [76].) Keizer introduces Dream on Monkey Mountain, the journey of a Caribbean Everyman to self-recovery, as a dramatic text that anticipates subsequent theories of performance. More central to her analysis, however, are the masculinist theories of psychological decolonization represented by several Caribbean adaptations of The Tempest and Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks. She finds that the play manages "to break out of the Manichean world of slavery" on which the trickster and even revised Calibans depend, but not to include black women in its drama of emergent Caribbean subjectivity (102).

In a dense final chapter, Keizer joins an analysis of the metaphoric structure of geography and architecture in Thereafter Johnnie, Herron's novel of the relationship between bourgeois father-daughter incest in the present and father/ master-daughter/slave incest in slavery, to a reading of the novel as both invocation and critique of "the Freudian view of incest as phantasmatic and representative of the daughter's desire" (127). The continuities between past and present represented by both repeated experience and enduring architecture, she concludes, convey Herron's vision of a persistent patriarchal-capitalist cultural pathology that produced slavery, continues to destroy women, and dooms US civilization. With a brief analysis of Gayl Jones's 1999 novel Mosquito in the conclusion, Keizer holds out hope for realization of the implicit ideal of her book, the literary creation of "a liberated and liberating"--and broadly inclusive--"African American speaking subject" (171).

Keizer moves agilely in these essays between acute close reading and wide-ranging literary, cultural, and theoretical reference. She contrives staged conversations between texts and theories. The device provokes illuminating discussions of the texts and points out limitations of the several theories, but the theories vary in relevance and currency, and their limitations are familiar. As Keizer herself puts it in the introduction, "numerous feminist and anti-racist critics have pointed out [that] Western philosophies and theories of subjectivity have proven inadequate to an analysis of the formation of black subjects (especially black female subjects) because of their universalizing tendencies and sexist and racist biases" (14). The greater value of this assured study lies in its richly contextualized analyses of the relation between slavery and subjectivity in the works discussed and the perspective these analyses throw on the entire range of reference to slavery in contemporary narrative.

Reviewed by

Susan L. Blake

Lafayette College
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Author:Blake, Susan L.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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