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Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered.

Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Stave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered. Westport: Greenwood P. 1999. 177 pp. $49.95.

In this study of the American neo-slave narrative, Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu explores the way African American women novelists of the past few decades have rewritten a still partial historiography of slavery, and have produced stories about slavery from the perspective of black women and black mothers. She convincingly argues that Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, Toni Morrison's Beloved, J. California Cooper's Family, Gayl Jones's Corregidora, and Octavia E. Butler's Kindred rewrite the slave narrative by eschewing the paradigm of the male slave narrative based on "literacy-identity-freedom," and concentrating instead on the woman-specific, Harriet Jacobs paradigm represented by "family-identity-freedom." She repeatedly shows how, unlike stories of heroic male loners such as Frederick Douglass, these novels privilege African American women's identities as dependent on families and communities. Countering the stereotype of slave women as genderless, the characters "emerge not as sla ves but as whole women, as mothers capable of loving and caring for their children." By emphasizing forms of resistance and empowerment, these novels achieve something Beaulieu variously refers to as "reinscribing history," "reclaiming the past," and "repositioning the slave narrative."

Beaulieu's approach raises interesting questions about the politics of historical representation, particularly about the representation of slavery in contemporary fiction, but, unfortunately, the book offers no theoretical reflection on those issues. It takes for granted that to represent the slave mother as maternal, strong, powerful, and resistant is a good thing. The discussion of Jubilee is a case in point. Beaulieu justly underlines Walker's emphasis on the ordinary and the everyday, dimensions of slave women's lives that have too long remained "invisible." She isolates a small number of episodes in which Walker is "reinvigorating the slave narrative genre." In one of them, Vyry, the protagonist, fails at her attempt to escape because she cannot bring herself to leave her children behind, and she is brought back to the plantation, where she receives a severe beating. According to Beaulieu, Walker should here be "faulted for lapsing in her portrayal of Vyry as a mother," since the episode suggests that t he display of maternal behavior is inappropriate and dangerous. In effect Beaulieu reproaches Walker for betraying "some unresolved ambiguities about enslaved women and motherhood." Yet in her own introduction she has pointed out the "biological contradiction" of the institution of slavery, which forced black women to be mothers, while preventing them from mothering. That Walker's main goal in this monumental, intensely researched historical novel was a strict, Lukacsian form of verisimilitude does not enter into Beaulieu's evaluation.

The implicit theoretical quandary at work here is not new. It informed W. E. B. Du Bois's stance as he expounded it in his 1926 essay "Criteria of Negro Art," which advocated simultaneously the creation of realistic, complex black characters as a way of countering stereotypes ("truth") and the promotion of positive images of African Americans ("beauty"). It also underlies Beaulieu's discussion of Dessa Rose. In this novel Williams "sets out to revise history" in order to rectify an "inaccurate" and "incomplete" historiographical record. She does it through a series of "reversals" which "insert blacks into positions of power" and elevate "women into positions of authority." Beaulieu offers a lively discussion of these reversals: Kaine and Dessa, the enslaved couple shown at the beginning of the novel, have entered into their union freely, and their domestic relationship is one of equal partners; Sutton Glen, the white woman's plantation which welcomes fugitive slaves, does not recognize race hierarchies; the group's collaboration on a slavetrading scheme is loaded with irony and undermines the white power structure. The analysis stops there, though, leaving the reader to assess the possible contradictions between historiographical and ideological goals.

Even more complex issues of representation inform the discussion of Beloved, which centers on what Beaulieu calls "gender-blurring." From the opening of the novel Paul D and Sethe display respective characteristics usually associated with the opposite sex. Paul D has managed to blend his sense of manhood with a capacity for feeling and emotion. Sethe, who at first remains warlike, confrontational, and isolated from the community, gradually learns to develop a measure of connectedness and intuition, and a more feminine form of motherlove. Beaulieu's approach draws attention to Morrison's original treatment of gender roles, as well as to her use of "blurring" as a recurrent narrative strategy. But it displays alarmingly essentialist tendencies. And ultimately it wavers between praising the achievement of "personhood" or an integrated self and applauding the "gendering" of characters whose happiness partly lies in performing prescribed gender roles in a conventional, heterosexual family structure in which man a nd woman "complete each other." Beaulieu's discussion involves some "blurring" of its own, between endorsing resistance to the institution of slavery and its enforced "genderlessness," and recognizing the ideological implications of "gendering" characters.

Beaulieu's rich and perceptive analysis of Family shows how Cooper creates a new myth to explore the heritage of slavery. Through its timeless narrator Clora, who after her death remains able to observe the lives of her children, the novel sets forth new conceptions of time, exploding the confines of both linear and monumental time in order to enhance its depiction of individual and family relations. The land itself becomes part of the myth, as Always, Clora's daughter, gradually merges with it in her search for identity and freedom. Through its association of blood with kin, rather than with the violence of many Western myths, the novel develops its vision of universal relatedness and search for peace. In a similarly expansive discussion, Beaulieu reads Corregidora and Kindred as explorations of how twentieth-century black women successfully deal with a legacy of enslavement in order to reach a new identity empowered by knowledge.

In the last, engaging chapter Beaulieu places her topic in a wider context. She reviews the historical development of black women writers, and points out their increasing emphasis on themes such as self-love, survival, and women's community. She notes how novels such as Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (1988) explore both America's and their characters' past in a vital process of self-definition and empowerment. These writers help revise negative assumptions about black women, and offer a welcome counterpart to many forms of black contemporary popular culture, such as Africanism, renewed interest in Malcolm X, and rap music, which are predominantly concerned with black men. In this context the neo-slave narratives analyzed here, by "celebrating the heroic status of the enslaved mother," are "a model of inspiration for all black women today."
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Levecq, Christine
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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