Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban. (Reviews).
The last decade has witnessed a profusion of studies on African-American masculinity in multiple contexts--film, art, rap/hip-hop, and sports. Representative texts include Black Men: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art (1994), Representing Black Men (1996), Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity (1996), Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Critical Reader (1999), and Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality (2001). While these multidisciplinary volumes interrogate black masculinity from an array of perspectives, there has been a paucity of literary studies devoted exclusively to black male writers. Perhaps one reason might be the critical tendency--before the 1970s--to conflate "black writer" and "male writer," with the attendant exclusion of the black woman's literary tradition. Given the pioneering excavational and theoretical work of black feminist critics in the ensuing years, perhaps the cyclical nature of literary studies has occa sioned a renewed interest in black men's writing. Hence, James W. Coleman's Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban appears at a cardinal moment in what some have called the "third renaissance" of African-American literary art.
A renowned John Edgar Wideman scholar (his book Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman was the first single-authored study on the prolific novelist/essayist), Coleman simultaneously updates his investigation of Wideman and expands his analysis, producing a textured, provocative exploration of writers who are at once widely known, under-read, and aesthetic trend setters. Coleman's thesis focuses on what he calls "Calibanic discourse," which originates in Shakespeare's The Tempest and its predictably truncated inscription of black masculinity as feral and Other. He situates Shakespeare's representation as the apogee of Calibanic discourse, adducing that it
is the perceived history and story of the black male in Western culture that has its genesis and tradition in language and non-linguistic signs. It denotes slavery, proscribed freedom, proscribed sexuality, inferior character, and inferior voice. In summary, the black male is the slave or servant who is the antithesis of the reason, civilized development, entitlement, freedom, and power of white men, and he never learns the civilized use of language.
Given the historical accuracy of this odious master-narrative of black masculinity, Coleman explores how a melange of black male writers, from Ralph Ellison in the 1950s to Wideman, Clarence Major, Charles Johnson, Trey Ellis, and others from the 1970s to the 1990s, have attempted to destabilize and dismantle this execrable fiction. He concludes that these authors, heavily steeped in the technical unorthodoxies of what he repeatedly refers to as "(white) postmodernism," both contest such belittling perceptions through the postmodernist inclination to deconstruct master-narratives and expose the tendentious underpinnings of such historically perpetuated representations. Coleman ultimately concludes that these authors' attempts to liberate both their black male protagonists and, by extension, their own artistic voices are at best incomplete and not wholly successful, given that the Calibanic text is so deeply embedded in Western aesthetics and ontology: "The main point is that Calibanic discourse has an unconsc ious power that even many black male writers cannot clearly subvert or rewrite, and in spite of their intentions to redefine black men, their stories challenge (that is, contest) and compromise (that is, restrict) their own ends by reaffirming Calibanic definitions." The writers he examines, therefore, ostensibly would appear to be relegated to endless and fruitless attempts to re-imagine venal narratives that have been culturally unimpeachable. Stated another way, they have attempted to extricate artistic renditions of black male subjectivity from a virulent but culturally sanctioned notion of black maleness. To his credit, Coleman avoids the Procrustean trap of trying to fit writers into his paradigm while overlooking their shortcomings in reconstructing black literary masculinity.
Forthrightly, Coleman posits that this attempted uprooting of the Calibanic narrative is inexorably liberating and circumscribing; he asserts very clearly that these authors' technical virtuosity has yielded nuanced attempts to re-inscribe black male subjectivity that may on one level reaffirm the dreaded Calibanistic narrative but on another concomitantly interrupt and refashion it. One of the book's many strengths is that its critical apparatus and theoretical model are rigorous and refreshingly original. Coleman doesn't cecle his critical authority/voice to Euro-Anglo poststructuralists or outre critical flavors of the month. Thus, seminal black feminist scholars such as Karla Holloway and Claudia Tate figure as prominently as Foucault, Bakhtin, and Kaja Silverman. Coleman's own unique theory of black men's aesthetic attempts to liberate black male voice revolves around what he deems "counter-signifying" and "phallic tricksterism," both rooted in black socio-vernacular praxes such as signifying, rapping, a nd sexual virtuosity. These counter-discursive interventions describe both the authors' and characters' attempts to resist and reshape the contours of black male representation. In subsequent chapters, he engages in trenchant, sustained readings of a generous helping of novels by Wideman, Major, Johnson, et al. Perhaps even more laudably, Coleman performs invaluable recuperative work by providing keen interpretations of writers such as William Melvin Kelley, Wesley Brown, and David Bradley, authors who despite their prodigious output remain under-read, under-analyzed, and undervalued. One hopes that this study will revive interest in these authors, who have all but vanished from syllabi and critical exegeses.
The book's most stunning achievement is its positioning of Ralph Ellison's work--fiction and non-fiction--as the cornerstone of black postmodernist men's writing. Coleman meticulously demonstrates how Invisible Man laid the groundwork, thematically and theoretically, for a cadre of writers who in turn embraced Ellison as their literary forebear. This is particularly germane given that so many male writers disclaim and even malign Richard Wright; by reclaiming Ellison, Wideman and Johnson disrupt this baleful trend of literary repudiation--the Bloomian anxiety of influence in sepia tones. Coleman demonstrates that Ellison's counter-aesthetics--his opposition to what he considered the deterministic and abnegating exigencies of protest and social realism--opened an artistic space for subsequent writers who adamantly eschewed the agit-prop literary imperatives championed by Wright. After demonstrating how Invisible Man functions as a generative text that provides a theory for black men's writing, he deftly moves into an interrogation of Ellison's non-fiction, both the venerable Shadow and Act and the lesser-read Going to the Territory. Though Coleman insists upon Ellison's centrality in the formation of a neo-black postmodernist aesthetic, he still maintains that the author's somewhat Panglossian valorization of American democracy is suspect, given the material and corporeal realities black men face in the age of Rodney King, James Byrd, and Abner Louima. Coleman questions Ellison's ardent belief that the "twoness" of the dyadic "African-American" can be reconciled when blacks embrace principles of democracy and individuality--that the "Negro's" inexorable "Americaness" will somehow efface the negativity inherently implied in "blackness." Subsequently, Coleman illustrates how Ellison's literary heirs Wideman and Johnson alternatively imagine new vistas for black American manhood while simultaneously "fail[ing] to center liberating black realities to counter and close out harmful white ones. These fictions do not voic e black male freedom within or through the potential of (white) postmodernism."
Although a seemingly irreconcilable tension exists between what might reductively be considered white form and black content, the ultimate strength of Coleman's critical framework is that it acknowledges this tension and uncovers the writers' valiant and highly ingenious efforts to witness against seemingly impenetrably malevolent literary and cultural constructions of blackness. While the authors under his critical gaze are unarguably at the vanguard of black male postmodernism, Coleman might have also explored or at least addressed how Ishmael Reed might have fit into his schematization. Given Reed's parodic deconstruction of sacrosanct genres such as the slave narrative and his idiosyncratic approaches to narrative form, his style seems consonant with the type of shift Coleman so lucidly articulates. Indeed, one hopes that this path-breaking book will inaugurate scholarly if not popular interest in the thematic and narratological experimentations of a cadre of post-1970s authors, akin to invaluable contrib utions of Robert Stepto (From Behind the Veil) and Houston Baker (Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature) in the theorization of black male literary subjects. Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban will, for example, certainly pave the way for further exploration of younger or neglected literary mavericks such as Randall Kenan and Leon Forrest.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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