Clarence Major's 'All-Night Visitors': Calabanic discourse and black male expression.
Black poststructuralists like Karla F. C. Holloway develop their theoretical paradigms through a method of "shift":
Shift happens when the textual language "bends" in an acknowledgment of [black] "experience and value" that are not Western A critical language that does not acknowledge the bend or is itself inflexible and monolithic artificially submerges [the significance of this black "experience value"]. In consequence, critical strategies that address the issue within these texts must be mediative strategies between the traditional [white] ideologies of the theoretical discourse and the [black] ancestry of the text itself. Such mediation demands a shift in the scope if not the tone) of critical terminology - a redirection that calls attention to different (and often contradictory) [black] ideologies [and paradigms]. (62)
So shift means taking critical paradigms developed by white theorists for non-African-American cultures and "bending" them so that they become relevant for the reading of African-American texts. Because Holloway is talking specifically about the texts of contemporary African and African-American women writers, I "bend" the quotation to make it more generally black. I adapt her concept of shift to explain the kind of critical paradigms that are relevant to Major's experiment with creating a humanistic black male text. For example, I utilize the paradigm of the black phallic trickster, which black vernacular and poststructuralist theorist Houston A. Baker develops by giving an African-American male "shift" to the paradigms of white anthropologists Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz (Baker 180-85). And I later "shift" the paradigm of the black phallic trickster further, to make it the variant paradigm of black phallic duplicity, a construct especially relevant to black men and black male texts because of their particular locus in the nexus of Western culture, politics, ideology, and racism. I also "shift" Turner's concept of liminality for my analysis of African-American texts.
All-Night Visitors is basically a discursive experiment with a deeply traditional Western grounding. The central discourse focuses on erotic encounters between the black main character, Eli Bolton, and several different women. On the surface, the discourse amalgamates a central vulgar, pornographic description and theme, the stereotyping of the black male as sexual beast, and the sexist objectification of women through the first-person point of view that privileges the sexual feeling and gratification of Eli. Eli's primary mode of expression is through crude, vulgar language and sex, and he constantly shows his insatiability.
What I have just described shows the text's deep traditional Western grounding in the pervasive cultural and literary discourse of Caliban and Calibanic phallicism. Roberto Fernandez Retamar traces the history of this discourse in his essay "Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America." Retamar locates one of Shakespeare's main sources for Caliban in a Montaigne essay ("De los Canibales" or "On Cannibals"), but finds the most influential Western inscription of Caliban in The Tempest (14-16). In the play, Prospero takes Caliban's island and gives the "gift" of language to Caliban, who can only "gabble," to make him an effective slave in doing Prospero's bidding. Caliban hates Prospero, and reviles him and the "profit" Caliban himself has gotten from language, the ability to curse his persecutor. Caliban shows his resentment when he tries to rape Prospero's daughter Miranda and perpetuate his progeny on the island. In spite of Prospero's imperialism, the play's point of view makes Caliban an "Abhorred slave, / Which any print of goodness wilt not take." Caliban is a member of a "vile race" who "Deserved more than a prison" (Tmp. I.ii.321-74). Shakespeare plays on the anagram Caliban/cannibal (Retamar 11, 14-15), and situates Caliban in terms of the European perception of savage dark and black non-Europeans.
As Retamar points out, we see the Caliban/cannibal in the "African black who appeared in those shameful Tarzan movies" (14), and according to black feminist theorist Hortense Spillers, this character has a portrayal, "feared and despised, from Caliban, to Bigger Thomas" (8).(1) The point is obviously that this figure and image of Caliban, which is male and highly black, pervades Western discourse. This figure is the inarticulate sexual predator who has somehow missed or misappropriated Western education and civilization. He expresses himself in crude vulgarity and raw, physical sex. The fear of miscegenation associated with him is great. This black male needs to be controlled and locked away, and this discourse of Caliban effectively circumscribes and imprisons the black male.(2)
Major's portrayal of Eli on its surface level clearly situates him within the Western discourse of Caliban. Eli is the crude, vulgar rapist and beast who threatens to pollute with his phallus, just as Caliban would pollute Miranda and pollute the island with his issue. And, very importantly, this characterization of Eli takes on greater resonance today because of stereotypes of black men similar to the Calibanic expressed at certain times in feminist critiques of black male sexism.(3)
Part of the discursive experiment, however, is the attempt to appropriate and subvert what Major intends to be the surface level of Calibanic discourse. Major does this by subverting the paradigm of Calibanic phallicism with black phallic tricksterism, in the process, he changes the black phallus from a symbol of pollution to one of productivity and proliferating meanings.
In his adaptation of anthropologists Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz, Houston Baker develops a black theoretical "shift" to create the paradigm of the black phallic trickster (180-85). Baker "shifts" Turner's and Geertz's analyses of phallic rituals in other cultures to fit the phallic symbolism and ritual of Ellison's Trueblood scene in Chapter 2 of Invisible Man. Baker says that the
... black phallus is a dominant symbol in the novel's formal patterns of behavior.... [It] offers an instance of ritual in which the black phallus gathers an extraordinary burden of disparate connotations, both sensuous and ideological.... Ellison recognizes the black phallus as a dominants symbol of the sometimes bizzare social rituals of America and incorporates it into the text of the novel. (181)
Baker concludes that "Trueblood's sexual energies, antinomian acts, productive issue, and resonant expressivity make him - in his incestuous, liminal moments and their immediate aftermath - the quintessential trickster" (184).
Trueblood's successful black phallic tricksterism consists of sexual vitality, rebellious sexual acts opposed to society and morality, the production of progeny, and an economically rewarding and richly resonant linguistic expression. Trueblood's liminal status - outside the conventions and laws of society in a wide-open place of process and discovery - is important to his tricksterism.
Eli fits a pattern of black phallic tricksterism similar to Trueblood's. On the subversive level of the discourse of All-Night Visitors, Eli's sexual vitality is rebellious and oppositional in a society that proscribes certain behavior by black males. Eli produces no progeny, but much more importantly, the resonance of his language practice creates a figurative and symbolic haven of humanity for him and others. Eli's language practice projects him to a liminal place far away from the horror, brutality, and inhumanity of everyday life, and his language practice maintains his liminal place," |betwixt and between,'" in terms Baker takes from Turner (183), ever in productive process. Most importantly, Eli tries to open linguistic space in the imprisoning discourse of Calibanic phallicism with his methods of black phallic tricksterism.
In my use of the concept of liminality, I have "shifted" Turner's meaning in some specific ways that I need to explain briefly. I have taken the anthropologist's analysis of cultural rites, and applied it to a literary text. But even more importantly, I "shift" Turner's idea of societal "rites of transition" - that is, "separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation" - to focus on its second term, liminality, as opposed to the entire process. For Turner, the process ends in aggregation, and concomitantly completion, closure, or consummation (94). Making liminality primary is relevant and necessary for a significant number of contemporary black male texts, including All-Night Visitors, because these texts foreground liminality.(4)
In All-Night Visitors Eli's most significant place is symbolically" |betwixt and between'" in the margins of liminality. Oppressive racial/cultural conditions keep Eli, along with the characters in other contemporary black male texts, in a position of liminality and preclude aggregate consummation. Eli liminally and symbolically shows his humanity over and over, but the society will not grant him the "culturally recognized degree of maturation" (Turner 93) requisite for societal acceptance and transition into the state of manhood and humanity, his aggragate state. Nor do Eli and other black male characters have the male cultural resources and the physiological/racial qualities to help them achieve aggregation.
For Eli, aggregation becomes secondary; it manifests itself in terms of a wild and, in the final analysis, contrived act of selfless humanity, after which Eli states his own manhood (199-203). Eli's claim of manhood in aggregate societal terms brings the text to an "ending," but it pales in comparison to the text's primary emphasis on Eli's liminality.
Because Major's project in All-Night Visitors is an experiment, I want at this point to look more closely at some of its specifics in the text, to see how the experiment works, and to talk about its possible success or failure.
Major attempts to focus and create the black male self, Eli's self, in All-Night Visitors. The various discourses in All-Night Visitors present two different sets of linguistic signs of this black male self. One set of signs engenders Calibanic phallicism and negative contemporary feminist stereotypes of black male sexists/ rapists. The other set of signs brings forth images of a much more cerebral, spiritual humane, and ultimately loving black male. At this level, the black phallic trickster speaks with proliferating subversive meanings. These two different sets of signs come together in the novel's central discourse, in which Major experiments with a creation of a black male self. Major tries to give the positive conceptions of black maleness ascendance over the negative by giving the discourse both a superficial shallow level of meaning and another level on which one can see positive, humane qualities of black maleness - the levels of Calibanism and black tricksterism, respectively. Major wants to show that the Calibanic level of discourse does not bear the primary meaning and that the main character, who is the black phallic trickster, takes control of the discourse of the text and appropriates and subverts it against its will to make it do what he wants.
The appropriation and subversion take several forms. First, the narrator subverts and appropriates the linguistic signs of the discourse. Superficially, the linguistic signs are Calibanic and suggestive of male sexism in the context of contemporary thinking. The narrator subverts this stage of the discourse with signs that invite us to analyze and participate in the process of self-definition that he undertakes. In this process, the exploration of the higher humanity of the black male self and the self of the female other becomes a dominant topos. This takes the emphasis away from Calibanism and male sexism. Second, Eli Bolton, the artful phallic trickster, creates an urgent tension in the language and sometimes accelerates its rhythm to suggest an almost supernatural level of black human being, a positive black maleness. This is another part of the process of human exploration and definition. Further, Eli subverts the privileging of male feeling gratification, and well-being at important places by language that focuses on the definition of non-stereotypical female humanity. We cannot separate this strategy from the first two strategies described above. Finally and more generally, Eli sets up a contrasting context between the text's erotic discourse and the dehumanization and horror of the alternative experiences available to him. When we see how hypocritical brutal and callous the rest of the world is, we understand that Eli's definition so completely in terms of intense and ultimately honest, sensitive, and humane feeling subverts the discourse of Calibanism and sexism. The discourse thus becomes a parody of all its surface meanings. I will later demostrate these points with specific examples from and discussions of the text.
There is something especially exciting about All-Night Visitors: The characteristic resistance of the novel's discourse to the kind of appropriation that Eli attempts gives it a vital tension and anxiety. It constitutes a discourse that is highly charged and that generates negative, inflammatory, emotional reactions in a culture that stubbornly refuses expropriation from the meanings and contexts of that culture. For many, nothing beyond the negative will be a possibility.
The following quotation from Mikhail Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel" describes the struggle that takes place among the word, the speaker of private, subversive intention, and a generally agreed upon, embedded discursive intention:
As a living socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinoion, lanlanguage, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes "one's own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own. And not all words for just anyone submit equally easily to this appropriation, to this seizure and transformation into private property: any words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them; they cannot be assimilated into his context and fall out of it; it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker. Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated - overpopulated - with the intentions 6f others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (293-94)
All-Night Visitors' Calibanic, male sexist discourse is clearly the kind that does not "submit ... easily ... to [this] seizure and transformation into private property." Eli's subversive trickster's voice risks becoming the voice of the discourse that it attempts to undermine. Examples from the novel will allow me to analyze further its discursive practices and then to talk about the success or failure of Major's experiment.
The first section of All-Night Visitors, entitled "Tammy," is about Eli's relationship with a very young white woman whom he does not love, but the pure pleasure of their sex takes Eli into his spiritual depths. At the end of the "Tammy" section, Eli gives the following description of the climax of oral sex:
I can't hold on much longer, the emission is pushing against the many bevels of the dammed-up walls of myself. Oh shit, I think oh shit, this is too much! I really begin to submerge, sink down into levels of self as I feel it lift - I am dying, flowing down as the splash! enters the first stages Of its red career issuing out of the gun, it is coming - now - out - of - the - fire arm valve, its ordeal beats me back into ancient depths of myself, back down to some lost meaning of the male, or deep struggling germ, the cell of the meaning of Man. I almost pass into unconsciousness the rapture is so overpowering, its huge, springing, washing infiltration into Her, an eternal-like act, a Rain, I am helpless, completely at her mercy, wet in her hands, empty, aching, my ass throbbing with the drained quality of my responsive death .... (14)
The Calibanism and sexism in this passage largely reside in the black male voice cursing, expressing his insatiability as he coerces a white woman to perform oral sex, and showing concomitantly what a sexual beast he is. But the preponderance of the language and its tone and rhythm here focus toward the intellectual analysis and figuration of the humanity of the male self and the sacrifice of that self to the female. There is a "pushing against the many bevels of the damned up walls of myself," a submersion "into levels of self," a search for the "lost meaning of the male," a giving up of the self to "Her" in a "responsive death" that goes on to a surrendering sleep at the end. When read aloud, the accelerated rhythm of the language suggests the heightened human feeling that Eli attains.
If this is true, then it would seem that Eli's tricksterism works, and he expropriates the discourse from its Calibanic, sexist context. But we should not underestimate the power of the discourse to elicit negative emotional responses that would prevent other perceptions and experiences of the text. This is particularly true today, given the highly justifiable outrage in our society about sexist and female degradation through pornography.
In another section entitled "Anita," which is about a black woman, Eli curses and expresses some of the same bestial characteristics that he expressed in the quotation above. But near the end, he calls Anita the knowledgeable Black Mother of a deep wisdom, intrinsic in every fuse, every chromosome, every crevice of her epidermis enormous in the internal cavities of her mouth anus, the atoms of her urethra, the tissues of her every though, liquid of her nerves, the intelligence of her tracts, digestive system, the energy of her bladder, every foetal tissue of her, every psychobiological process of her protoplasm! (104)
A large part of this passage subverts male privileging with language that suggests an intellectual creation and description of female humanity; in this context, the male also implies his empathy. This deemphasizes the passage's Calibanism and sexism.
But this passage has a particular significance in terms of feelings about sexism in the contemporary black community. The segment of the language that reduces the woman to a sexual object ("the internal cavities of her mouth, anus, the atoms of her urethra") will likely evoke a negative response from many readers and cause them not to look further. The sexual exploitation and abuse of black women by black men has been an issue in the public mind for some time now, and many readers (women, in particular) do not tolerate this kind of sexism at any level in discourse. These readers win not see any value in separating the levels of discourse and analyzing what Eli does: The main point is that a black man subjects a black woman to his will. The text's fun narrative will likely further valorize this reaction. In the narrative, Anita is never a woman whom Eli likes or appreciates. His true love is a white woman, Cathy, and he portrays Anita in very direct, unfavorable comparison to her. Probably no issue in the black community has been more of a source of controversy and anger than the contention that black men prefer white women over black women. Some black readers, in particular, will hate Eli for his preference of a white woman. Other white readers win hate him for his phallic pollution of a white woman.
Eli later describes a time with Cathy after lovemaking:
I lay down in the still coolness of the morning, upon the dark bed beside Cathy, who is sleeping very soundly. It is almost daybreak; the worst hour in the world has gone by, and I survived it: I am still breathing. I am not lonely. I feel the comfort of her closeness. There are only the sounds of the night, muffled. The city out there, being milked mystic revolutionaries, despite God's coming, for collateral.
Our lovemaking was like a rite in a hungry hour of ritual. A cycle we needed. Grateful, now. we are transformed. entrance behind us, yet before us.
Gently, I take her into my arms, and she, like a comfortable babe not even waking up while she's handled, comes in her sleep snug against me. Her hot sleeping lips part, the kiss. The taste of night. Of Cathy, her warm sturdy flesh. Our legs lock, our sex coming together, hot.
I know I win be mad when she leaves me. (132-33)
Eli objectifies Cathy less than he does the other women, tries to portray her in positive terms, and tries to show his love for her. But readers will read his words about Cathy in the general context of the novel and experience them in terms of all the discursive weight that has accrued. The larger narrative context has helped to establish firmly an idea that prevents a positive perception of Eli.
At one level, Eli is the Calibanic sexual predator and rapist of Cathy. Early in the novel, we have seen that Eli, in his despair and frustration over Cathy's termination of their relationship, raped her on the street (while two people watched from a room above) as he temporarily slipped into insanity and paradoxically tried to keep her through his act. Many win not sympathize with Eli because of his mental state, and will read his act as a manifestation of his black male oversexuality and bestiality. Major himself has said that he knows he risks confirming myths and stereotypes through Eli's portrayal (Dark 135). And Keith Byerman states that Eli is "very much the stereotype of the sexually prodigious black man, whose oversized penis corresponds to his insatiable sexual appetite" (258).
Eli hopes to make the point that he raises himself above this, thought Besides his attempted subversion and appropriation of discourse that I have been discussing, Eli also establishes a clear contrast between the world inside himself and the outside world. This outside world is horrible. Eli experiences virulent racism; lives in an orphanage and experiences its callous, brutal life; sees the cruelty of a fatal stabbing on Chicago's streets; and witnesses unspeakably cruel racist atrocities as a soldier in Vietnam. Eli's internal world, where he defines himself in terms of heightened feeling that sometimes attains an altered state of intense humanity, is undeniably preferable to the world outside. In this context, Eli's Calibanic and sexist discourse obviously becomes a parody of itself; its surface meaning yields to the figuration of his internal world and its humanity. Through his appropriation and subversion of discourse, Eli practices a form of black phallic tricksterism. But of course this is only true if readers will see the need to go or want to go beneath the surface. This brings me back to a consideration of the success or failure of the novel's discursive experiment, which I will make brief concluding remarks about shortly.
Eli also wants to show that his humanity makes him a true lover. Near the end, he firms about the "eminence of each second [he and Cathy] had spent together. Only one who has known the profoundest most unselfish love, an overwhelming voluptuousness of love - only this person knows the luxury of such selfless outpouring of so much that is beautiful in the loving of someone" (182-83). Eli concretizes his love and humanity in the last paragraphs of the novelthr through the symbolic act of giving up his apartment to a destitute woman and her children (202).
Not all readers will accept or appreciate what Major has done. But it is a fact that the words and linguistic structure of All-Night Visitors can force the careful sympathetic reader below the surface. Here Major deals with an experimental redefinition of the black self and experiments by giving Eli the role of a black phallic trickster.
Major turns the discursive redefinition of self in the direction of the positive, but he reemphasizes positive in the context of indeterminacy and open-endedness. The black phallic trickster expresses his liminality through language. The positive self evolves and reevolves continually in the tension of the language evoking it in the ever-changing situations that Eli encounters. The linguistic signifiers continually produce and reproduce the meaning of the self and text, particularly in the instances of heightened expression. There is always ambiguity. The process is ongoing; the true, full meaning of the self remains ambiguous and open-ended.(5)
By the end of All-Night Visitors, Eli has "become firmly a man," but this does not represent closure in the trickster's process of productive liminality. He remains keenly attuned to this development that defines him. He is "vibrantly alive," feeling the "private crevices of this moment" open in him (emphasis added). The last sentence in the book says, "I stood there until daybreak" (203). He looks at the dawning of a new day which will be part of the ongoing experience of self-definition in which he involves himself. This ongoing quest for the human self projects Eli above the horrible alternative experiences available to him, and keeps him meaningfully alive.
My ultimate goal in this essay is to show how All-Night Visitors reflects the problems of black male texts and black male characterization and I now want to look at the text as a unique male mode of expression.(6) I would start by saying that the text depicts an individual, liminal black male self defined by language in terms of the moment. The individual male self, the self of Eli, struggles for a symbolic kind of discursive freedom in an evil present that would destroy him; the open-endedness of language as a symbol of liminal status is crucial in the struggle for freedom. The primary confinement of the black male is discursive; a linguistically symbolic liminality mediates this confinement and also isolates the male from the horrors of the everyday, physical world. And the struggle is decidedly an individual one.
Karla F. C. Holloway's Moorings and Metaphors provides a useful approach to identifying the terms by which All-Night Visitors reflects black male texts generally and how these texts relate to the alternative possibility of black womens texts. Several key terms provide a basis for Holloway's analysis and definition of black women's texts: motherhood, orality, community, spirituality, ancestry, (re)memory, mythology, and, most important structurally, recursion. Holloway says that, in the texts of black women, motherhood, "embraced or denied," "physiological or visceral," is central to a black woman's sense of self (26,28). Black women's texts define themselves through recursion, "a certain depth of memory that black women's textual strategies are designed to acknowledge" (13-14). The creative potential of black motherhood is central to a sense of black female self capable of (re)membering and recovering the past and achieving wholeness through a process of recursion. Recursiveness involves layers and circles of text constantly enfolding themselves (102, fig. 1). Mythologies, the (re)membered and revised histories and self-definitions that black women generate from their collective oral communal voices (34), layer the recursive process in both the present and past. The orally, communally generated mythologies enfold the physical world and the spiritual world. Mythologies generate (re)membered and revised black female histories that foreground black female ancestry (101-02). They draw together (re)memory and metaphor as sources of deep, powerful spirituality (33-35). The text does not directly reflect the culture of black women, but it does suggest black women's ways of doing and saying things (4-5).
Holloway finds that black male texts lack the orally, communally generated mythologies which revise history and redefine self, and they also lack the fortifying spirituality so important in black female texts (6-11). It seems to me that Holloway says that black male writers fail to find ways, potential or realized,(7) to make the black male self whole in a deeply grounded, recursive context.
I agree with Holloway, but I do not find this to be a shortcoming in All-Night Visitors and other contemporary black male texts. Like other contemporary black male texts,(8) All-night Visitors concerns itself with the potentials and problems of discourse which have a strong foundation in the written Western tradition. Major manipulates language to open up MM places in discursive traditions that confine and oppress black men. Eli's predicament is W" and open-ended. He finds no way to restore, or potentially restore, a self mutilated by the indelible inscriptions of Western discourse and concomitantly buffeted and fractured in an oppressive everyday, physical world. But Major, like other contemporary black male writers, follows the compulsions of his physiology/race, oppressive Western culture, and black male culture.
The point about physiology/race in contemporary black male texts, especially in All-Night Visitors, is that the black phallus is such a physical presence and carries so much ideological weight and symbolic creative potential. Symbolically and realistically, the black phallus is different from the black womb, which is so implicitly important in Holloway's argument about black women's sense of self centered in the potential for motherhood (26-31)." In realistic terms, I find myself reminded of the old black saying "Mama's baby, Papa's maybe." In other words, the black phallus can never be sure of its specific generative power.
In All-Night Visitors, the black phallus is a great physical presence, but Major gives it no physical generative power. Its physical presence symbolizes the power to figure places in an oppressive Western discursive tradition, but it does not carry the symbolic and actual generative potential of the womb. Its very externality and uncertain specific generative potential will not allow it to become a symbol or reality that places Eli in a deep recursive process that recovers and restores the self.(9)
Another point about All-Night Visitors' black phallic tricksterism, which is true for other black male texts as well, is that the phallic trickster is always aware, on some level and to some extent, of his phallic duplicity.(10) Eli is, after all, a trickster, and in spite of genuine, sincere motives in the overall context of the novel he realizes at some point that "all I want her for is to fuck her" (3). Phallic duplicity is tantamount to duality and fracture, and it does not have the moral weight, depth, and surety to provide a basis for fun renewal. The phallus as reality and symbol offers possibility, but not potential or actual fullness and certainty. For Eli, it symbolize the possibility of making open-ended linguistic places in an oppressive discursive tradition.
The Western discursive tradition has, of course, misrepresented black women also, which is one reason that contemporary black women writers have had to revise their representations in their own work. But the case is altogether different when one compares the possibilities that black male and female writers have for revision and reconstructions. Because of their gendered access to black female characters - with a potentially very sure and full orally, communally, and recursively generated sense of self, black women writers have revised and reconstructed their portrayals on their own Mm and in their own unique This is, I believe, a significant part of the point of Holloway's book. But in the context of what I have said about the real and symbolic potential of black male physiology/race and the precarious moral position of black phallic tricksterism, black male writers cannot so fully escape the confines of the Western discursive tradition. Eli, the black phallic trickster, uses language to create open-ended, liminal places in the Calibanic Western discursive tradition. However, he does not supplant this tradition with a new history and mythology, as do black women writers who write recursively because of their cultural grounding and gendering in black womanhood. Major has no access to a safe, sure place outside the Western discursive tradition, so he can only try to distance himself from it liminally.
Holloway and other critics make much of the supportive communities in the texts of black women writers, and implicitly or explicitly criticize the strong individuality of black male texts.(11) I believe that US is unfair and unrealistic. Black male texts, like black female texts, do not mirror culture, but the texts do indirectly reflect the culture's rituals and modes of interaction. And I would assert that the cultures of black men and women are markedly different. The culture of black women is indeed largely communal and supportive, as Holloway says throughout her book. But the culture of black men, at least in its secular aspects, focuses itself much more toward individual assertiveness and competition. And, consequently, it does not surprise me to find this individuality, particularly in the form of black tricksterism, reflected in black male texts such as All-Night Visitors.
I would say that signifying and playing the dozens are the dominant tropes of black male discourse and culture. Prominent black scholars have not called these tropes uniquely male, but the phallic competition and tricksterism embedded deeply in much of the discourse of the dozens and signifying do testify to their black maleness. Both Stephen Henderson and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., use "Rap's Poem" by H. Rap Brown as a signature statement of signifying and black language practice(12):
A session would start maybe by brother saying, "Man, before you mess with me you'd rather run rabbits, eat shit and bark at the moon." Then, if he was talking to me, I'd tell him:
Man, you must don't know who I am. I'm sweet peeter jeeter the womb beater The baby maker the cradle shaker The deerslayer the buckbinder the women finder Known from the Gold Coast to the rocky shores of Maine
Rap is my name and love is my game. I'm the bed tucker the cork plucker the motherfucker The milskaker the record breaker the population maker The gun-slinger the baby bringer The hum-dinger the pussy ringer The man with the terrible middle finger. The hard hitter the bullshitter the polypussy getter The beast from the East the Judge the sludge The women's pet the men's fret and the punks' pin-up boy, They call me Rap the dicker the ass kicker The cherry picker the city slicker the titty licker .... (Henderson 187-W; Gates 72-73)
The poem ends on an individual competitive note: "And ain't nothing bad |bout you but your breath" (Henderson 188; Gates 73).
The signifying language play of much of the quotation suggests a phallic trickster who is duplicitous, but duplicitous phallic virtuosity is a concomitant of subversive linguistic virtuosity. Brown implies a subversion of white discourse in a quotation that Gates uses from Brown's Die Nigger Die:" |I learned to talk in the street ... not from reading Dick and Jane going to the zoo and all that simple shit'"(72). I find "Rap's Poem" to be very male, very competitive, and finguistically subversive. And in spite of the group interaction and call-and-response implied here, the intention of this competition is to achieve individual ends, to see who can prove himself the baddest and set himself apart from the group, as one to be revered and perhaps even feared. This is individual expression that constantly addresses the ongoing moments of black male cultural interaction and implicitly the confining places of white discourse and culture.(13)
Black male texts such as All-Night Visitors will reflect U& black male tricksterism and linguistic virtuosity that is ultimately subversive, and they will also reflect an individuality that is basic to black nub culture, that is deeply embedded in its cultural tropes. Eli sets himself apart and does not competitively sip* in a black male cultural context. But he very much makes himself the individual phallic trickster whose phallic virtuosity coincides with his subversive linguistic virtuosity. In the overall setting of All-Night Visitors, Eli's way is a black male way of creating W" space for himself. This black male way can only reflect the imperatives of physiology/race, oppressive while culture, and black male culture.(13)
Clarence Major has always gone in directions that other "serious" black writers have not taken and done things that other "serious" black writers have not done. The risque portrayal of Eli in All-Night Visitors is part of this experiment. I am saying that All-Night Visitors is clearly a black male writer's kind of experiment, dictated in significant ways by the ineluctable forces of black and white culture and physiology/race. Major becomes more radically experimental as his career develops. His stylistic and structural interests, similar to those in All-Night Visitors, almost always concern themselves with the limitations of the text and of discursive expressiveness. This, too, is very much a proclivity of several contemporary black male writers,(14) and it stands in contrast to the texts of contemporary black women writers, in which the authors successfully break the limitations of Western discourse by (re)membering redefining empowering and making whole (actually or potentially) black female characters. Major's experimentation does increasingly follow the direction of radical white postmodernists and metafictionists; however, it also follows a line that is distinctly contemporary black male.
(1.) I am indebted to Spillers for her insights about the Retamar essay and for her very fin analysis of the various manifestations of Calibanism in narrative discourse. (2.) See Wideman 115-16,12D-22, and 126-51. does a lot to reinforce my point about the pervasive effect of Shakespeare's Calibanism on Western discourse and consequently on black people. The writer/character in Wideman's text tries, "unsucessfully to rewrite The Tempest to give it a different outcome arid change Caliban's fortunes. The text says that "Caliban ... gets ... exiled, dispossessed, [and made a] stranger in his own land ... gets named just about every beast in the ark, the bestiary, called out his name go often it's a wonder anybody every beast it and maybe nobody does" .) Because in Wideman's text fictive discourse, or Western fictive discourse at least shapes reality, rewriting The Tempest would change an important root source of much Western discourse and change the oppressive circumstances of black Americans, particularly those of black males such as the writer/character and his son, who is locked away in a person solitary-confinement cell (115-16). (3.) See hooks 57-64 regarding this point in analyzing to famous Central Park rape case and the white feminist response to ft, hooks asks, ". . . why is black male sexism evoked [by white feminists] as though h is a special brand this social disorder, more dangerous, more abhorrent and life-threatening than the sexism that pervades the culture a whole, or the sexism that informs white male domination of women?" (62). hooks comes down hard on black male sexidsm, but suggests that contemporary white feminism attributes a special virulence to black men, thus stereotyping them and reinforcing old racist patterns. (4.) Obviously, my general theory of black male texts will not apply to every writer and every text; however, no theory is ever all-inclusive. And this short essay, focusing specifically on All-Night Visitors, is not the places to draw out the full dimensions of my theory. Here, I just lay out its dimensions broadly enough to cover the text I am discussing. I Want to say, however, that black male writers have similar concerns with discursivity arid textuality, and tend to problematize On portrayal of the black male self, or at least to make n tentative and open-ended (d. n7 and n10). it is ft foregrounding of tentativeness and open-endedness that significantly amounts for liminality in the texts of contemporary black male writers. My theory of black male writing covers writers as divergent as Ishmael Reed, John Edgar Wideman, Reginald McKnight, Randall Kenan, Charles Johnson, Clarence Major, and Trey Ellis. (5.) Signifiers producing open-ended meaning and indeterminacy bring to mind Henry Louis Gates's analysis of his central trope of Signifyin(g) in The Signifying Monkey. See my discussion later in this essay of the male tropes of signifying and playing the dozens. in this discussion, I show that signifying is the technique of the black phallic trickster. (6.) See n4. (7.) I am implying here a much fuller restorative process in the texts of contemporary black women writers. However, the process in black women's texts is by no means an easy, simple one, and in texts such as Toni Morrison's Beloved, for example, it is not necessarily a successful one. But my point is that the potential for restoration does exist in the black female character, the black female self, because of the physiologcal and cultural resources that Karla Holloway talks about in her book. I mean, more specifically, a sense of self grounded in motherhood (Holloway 26-31) and do mythologies, generated from black women's collective oral, communal voice, that give them de potential to revise their histories and define themselves anew (Holloway 34). Holloway us" the critical term recursion in her analysis of this process (13-14, 102). (8.) Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, and John Wideman's Phildelphia Fire are very clear examples of such black male texts. (9.) See n7. (10.) it seems to me that the awareness of phallic duplicity is pretty widesproad in the texts of black male writers. It has various forms of manifestation, and black male characters view it with different degress of seriousness. In Chapter 2 of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Trueblood weaves an elaborate story, set around a Freudian-type dream, to explain his having had sex with his daughter. There certainly would be phallic duplicity that Trueblood is aware of, but the text leaves unclear its moral significance. The invisible narrator in the Sybil scene of Chapter 24 of invisible Man tries to practice phallic tricksterism, and ends up with ambiguous results. The scene is comic in some ways, and de narrator Seems to become aware of his phallic duplicity arid its ineffectiveness. in John Wideman's Philadelpia Fire, on the other hand, phallic duplicity takes a different form, and presents a possibly more serious moral problem. See the section in the novel (63-65) in which the older, ostensibly more responsible writer/character watches, sexually aroused, as the young daughter of his friend and father figure takes a shower. There is a symbolic violation hers, and the writer/character reveals a duplicitous self that he would not want revealed. (11.) It has become fashionable to criticize black male writers for a number of reason; their emphasis phasis on individuality instead of community is one of them. I hear critics and oommentatdra making this criticism in my classes, at literary conferences, and in private oonversawn. A critical text out states this more explicitly is Mary Helen Washington's Invented Lives. See the inumuom, The Eye Restored Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women," especially xxi. (12.) in Understanding do Now Black Pony, Stephen Henderson uses do poem as ft first piece in Section III of his critical anthology, entitled "The New Black Consciousness, The Same Difference ference." Henderson wants, I think, to indicate that Rap's language pratice shows the new black assertiveness and confidence in the 1 1960s and 1970s and embodies attitude, rituals, ancl mocies d behavior that are very central in black culture. The maleness of Rap's rap makes it clear to me that k is strongly indicative of black male culture. (13.) Of course, black women and also white people can signify, especially since, as Gates quotes from Roger D. Abrahams, signifying can "|denote speaking with the hands and eyes'" (75). But first and foremost, signifying is the "black person's use of figurative modes of language use" (74). And I argue that these "figurative modes of language use" are predominantly masculine. Black women may signify, especially through innuendo and indirection, but the primary modes of rhetorical figuration are practice, with great intention, in black male culture. And perhaps it is true that these modes sift into black female culture. Based on what Holloway says in her chapter'mythologies' (85-109). I would, at the risk of too heavily extrapolating black women's culture from a textual analysis, say that do oral creation of female mythologies, a mode of language practice and storytelling different from signifying, defines black women's culture. What most clearly distinguishes mythologizing from signifying is that it is not language play, competitive or uncompetitive, in the way that signifyinge is. Similarly, indirection is not its purpose. Signifying for black males takes other overt forms than the signifying phallic tricksterism of "Rap's Poem." Gates quotes another example of signifying from Brown:
Man, I can't van for losing.
If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.
I been having buzzard luck
Can't kill nothing and won't nothing die
I'm living on the welfare and things is stormy
They borrowing their shit from the Salvation Army
But things bound to get better |cause they can't got no worse
I'm just like the blind man, standing by a broken window
I don't feel no pain.
But it's your world
You it's man I pay rent to
If I had you hands I'd give |way both my arms.
Cause I could do without them
I'm to man but you the main man
I read the books you write
You set the pace in the race I run
Why, you always in good form
You got more foam than Alka Seltzer .... (74)
The repeated references to "man" emphasize the masculinity of this dicourse. (14.) Some of these writers are Trey Ellis, Randall Kenan, John Wideman, Ishmael Reed, and Charles Johnson. They do not all foreground the limitations of the text and discursive expressiveness in the same way and to the same extent. Reed and Johnson, for example, celebrate discursivity more than they agonize about its limitations. Nevertheless, they do thematize textuality and discursivity. And they may extend and revise Western discursive constructs (this seems particularly true for Reed), but their process d extension and revision still acknowledges the powerfta influence Western discourse on black characterization. They never recursively break free as much as black women writers do.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Cited Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination Four Essays. Trans. Caryl and Michael Holquist Austion: U of Texas P, 1981. Brown, H. Rap. Die Nigger Die!. New York: Dial, 1969. Byerman, Keith. Fingering the Jagged Grain., Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985. Ellison, Ralph. invisible Man. New York: Random, 1952. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. Now York Morrow, 1973. Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture arid Gender in Black Music as Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992. hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, G&M, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990. Johnson, Charles. Middles Passage. Now York: Macmillan, 1990. __. Oxherding Tale. New York: Grove, 1982. Major, Clarence. All-Night Visitors. New York: Olympia, 1969. __. The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987. Retamar, Roberto Fernandez. "Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America." Massachusetts Review 15.1-2 (1974): 7-72. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611. Spillers, Hortense. "Introduction: Who Cuts the Border? Some Readings on |American.'" Comparative Identities Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Spillers. Now York: Routledge, 1991. 1-25. Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca Comen UP, 1967. Washington, Mary Helen, ed. Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. Now York: Doubleday, 1987. Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Firs. New York: Holt, 1990.
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|Title Annotation:||Clarence Major Issue|
|Author:||Coleman, James W.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1994|
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