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Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American.

Robert F. Reid-Pharr. Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 166 pp. $35.00.

Conjugal gal Union, by Robert F. Reid-Pharr, is an ambitious book that endeavors to reconsider notions of black subjectivity as it is constructed in antebellum Black American literature. Reid-Pharr incorporates theories of corporeality and domesticity when he asserts that the black body "of antebellum print culture was hardly a static phenomenon." He further contends that this body "was male and female, coal black and perfectly white, bond and free, rich and poor." Because of these paradoxes inherent in black corporeal existence, Reid-Pharr argues that the black body in antebellum Black American literature should be read as an unstable site for subjectivity which proves to be more challenging than the simplistic category of "black" (or "white") seems to suggest.

Reflecting on this instability of the black subject, Reid-Pharr declares, "I will maintain throughout Conjugal Union ... an emphasis on ambiguity .... I will argue that the army of mulattos, cross-dressers, and foreign interlopers who march through [Black American] literature are significant, not because they have retreated from blackness, but instead have come late, if at all, to normative American processes of corporeality." Reid-Pharr begins by contrasting this "ambiguity" with the projects of early nineteenth-century black writers who set out specifically to define a black subjectivity free from uncertainty and indeterminacy. He examines in his first chapter the essays and slave narrative traditions offered by David Walker, Henry Bibb, and Frederick Douglass, which, he says, provide a "clearly definable black body" in a "clearly definable black community." He further argues that these early black authors produced definable black bodies in their texts to challenge the mass political subject which was "spec ifically imagined as disembodied while in reality he was most often white, male, and propertied."

In the remainder of his book, Reid-Pharr depicts how antebellum Black American novelists--William Wells Brown, Frank Webb, Harriet Wilson, and Martin Delany--troubled these tendencies for a stable and clearly definable black subjectivity, devoting a chapter to each author. Reid-Pharr further illustrates that the most common attempt at interrogating Black American subjectivity is through the figure of the tragic mulatto, as represented by the title-character in William Wells Brown's Clotel--functioning as neither black nor white. However, Reid-Pharr concludes that this figure--as represented in Brown's novel--is "tragic" not because she cannot choose racial identities but because her society, whether fictional or in reality, cannot "not choose." Her body is hence a site for instability and vulnerability.

Even as this body becomes unstable and often an unreliable site for subjectivity, Reid-Pharr also points to the notion of space--in this case, the domestic space--as being just as unreliable. In this, he uses the example of Frank Webb's 1857 The Garies and Their Friends, in which he interrogates the project of "cleansing," which he defines as producing a domestic order for the black bourgeois household out of the chaos inherent in the interracial household. Hence, the destruction that ensues from violence and riots in this novel is interpreted as a "cleansing" ritual from which to rescue black subjectivity from the instability of racial ambiguity--whether in the domestic or corporeal space.

It is such instability that Reid-Pharr believes has kept Harriet Wilson's 1859 Our Nig from recognition in the Black American literary tradition until recently, for the heroine in this novel fails to declare a black subjectivity and remains "yeller," as it were, at the close of the novel.

Reid-Pharr ends his analysis with Martin Delany's Blake, or the Huts of America, an ambitious project of pan-African subjectivity and bourgeois values. In this instance, he illustrates other instabilities of corporeality by suggesting that the novel is wrought with homoerotic tensions. Yet no release is offered as Delany ends his work with a succession of marriages, thus suggesting that the heterosexual institution can provide order and clarity, even if the body remains precarious as a subject.

Interestingly, it is a quote from Delany from which Reid-Pharr draws his title: "The consummation of conjugal union is the best security for political relations." Yet he ends his own work with a series of questions, one of which inquires, "As we approach the millennium, how much longer can this particular set of ideological and discursive strategies serve our interests, especially in the face of the constant reports of black bodies and households under siege?" Surely, the antebellum works that Reid-Pharr he has critiqued have proven Delany wrong, for the attempts of early Black American writers, in their writings and in their own lives, to create black agency within independent black households did not lead to this security in political relations.

Nonetheless, Reid-Pharr's own critical work seems not to offer any more stable a definition of the Black American literary tradition. It does disrupt and poke holes into the accepted notions of the agendas of our antebellum black writers, as provided by earlier theorists and critics of African American literature such as Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Paul Gilroy. However, writing on the subject of vulnerable black subjectivity almost structures this book as an unstable critique insofar as it attempts to create fixed notions of the subject while arguing for the unfixed notions that underlined the themes of early black writers.

Reid-Pharr's work might have been made stronger had he focused on just the genre of the novel, rather than tying in other genres, from poetry to pamphlets to slave narratives. Moreover, a more detailed description of the social and political contexts of abolitionist and pro-slavery discourses might have further explained the necessity for antebellum black writers to construct and deconstruct blackness and concepts of race and racial identity in their literary works.

Still, Reid-Pharr successfully situates his texts in a longstanding Black American literary tradition and in current discourses on the body. By tracing various considerations of this issue in an extensive and interdisciplinary view of African American literature--from David Walker to Martin Delany--Reid-Pharr proves that constructions of blackness are not just the productions of a white literary imagination. Early Black American writers were just as preoccupied with these constructions, if only to fill in the gaps created by white hegemonic discourse.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hobson, Janell
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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