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Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature.

Gayl Jones is one of the most forceful voices in contemporary African American literature, but until recently her major works were out of print. Her violent use of language and sexual/scatological images have challenged notions of what women write, and when first published, critical reception was based on shock. Acceptance of the multivocal nature of Black women's experience as well as a poststructuralist age which is more open to the language of fragmentation have led to renewed interest in Jones's work in critical circles. And now her 1977 collection White Rat has been reissued by Northeastern University Press, joining her two novels, Coregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), both of which were reprinted in 1986. In addition, Harvard University Press has recently published a work of her criticism written in 1982. Unlike the collection of short stories, which is as impressive as when it was first published, the critical collection Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature would have been much more useful and appropriate had it been published when it was first written.

Liberating Voices, as its subtitle suggests, examines the oral tradition, which Jones and others have seen as the basis of African American literature. The book is separated into three sections: "Poetry," "Short Fiction," and "The Novel." Each section begins with early writers, mostly from the Harlem Renaissance, and then moves chronologically to contemporary writers. Jones sees a development from the early pioneers of "dialect" like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Zora Neale Hurston, who were trying to break from Du Bois's "double-consciousness," to modern writers who have more authoritatively freed the voice. In her introduction, she identifies the Harlem Renaissance as the moment when "folklore or oral tradition was no longer considered quaint and restrictive, but as the ore for complex literary influence" (9). Relating this tradition to Euro-American authors such as Mark Twain, she ends her introduction with the concept of an African American "multilinguistic" text which is an admixture of literary and oral genres, both "spoken and musical" (13-14).

The first section begins with Dunbar's reinterpretation of the Plantation tradition as a necessary step to freeing the voice. She examines Dunbar and the later poets in light of the influence of blues and spirituals. Jones focuses on the "multi-voiced blues" of Sherley Anne Williams's poetry and the "jazz modalities" of her mentor, Michael Harper. The second section explores the short fiction of Dunbar, Hurston, Toomer, Petry, Elison, Baraka, and the lesser known Loyle Hairston. She sees Hurston as an important function to a freer voice, in which the oral tradition "enters, complements, and complicates character" (67). The rest of this section relates aspects of language and dialect to American music, especially jazz. The final section deals with novels from Hurston's for Eyes Were Watching God to contemporary works like Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss lane Pittman and Alice Walkers The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Jones's conclusion raises some questions about how literary criticism would change if standards of excellence were taken from the oral tradition. Finally, she includes a postscript explaining that the work was originally written in 1982, and gives nominal reference to contemporary critics like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston Baker, and Abena Busia. She then appends a glossary of terms.

Although the reality of an unrevised work presented ten years after its composition poses a problem I examine later, there is much to be gleaned from the book. Jones's Chronological exploration of the oral voice of the African American writer is generally satisfying. Statements concerning the relationship of oral and written modes, producing a "composite" novel or poem (13), help expand our concept of the oraliterary quality of the text. Furthermore, Jones, like others since her, relates the African American's search for self-definition definition to the use of oral modes in the written text, "in which both form and content merge to solve or complicate the questions of language, art, reality, morality, and value. Thus, in this central concern the many voices in this book cohere as one voice" (3).

Throuhgout the work, Jones offers insights into specific writers that respond to the concerns addressed above. In a discussion of Sherley Anne William's poem "Someone Sweet Angel Chile," Jones links the author's "multi-voked blues" to earlier dialect poems. Unlike Dunbar, Williams allows the principal narrator, the blues singer Bessie Smith to speak for and identify herself. In doing this, Williams relates the singer/storyteller to a cultural history which has been liberated by a contemporary "voice." According to Jones, Williams, as an "individual talent, prepared for and spurred on by the discoveries of earlier literary generatlons and the resources of classic oral tradition can give a new vitality to poetic language as speech and music, transfiguring a developing tradition" (43).

In the section on "Short Fiction," Jones also focuses on the aural/oral modes of the speech/music literary tradition. Her chapter on Amiri Baraka's short story " The Screamers" is intriguing not only for its detailing of the relationship between the oral modes of jazz aesthetics and social morality, but also because Jones has chosen to look at Baraka's short fiction instead of his poetry. In the final section, Jones centers her discussion on the novel. Her analysis of extensively critiqued novels, such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, is not as enlightening as her examination of less criticized works, like Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland. In this chapter, Jones identifies the novels movement from a blues ritual (such as Jones uses in her own work) to a liberating spiritual. Placing the novel within an oraliterary and historical context, Jones perceives that, in Walker's powerful first work, "the precedents of [Richard] Wright and Hurston gain a sense of a formed whole" (154). According to Jones, Walker uses oral modes to "reinforce the spirit of this achievement" (155). In the conclusion, Jones addresses the need to contextualize "freeing the voice" in African American literature, and in her short postscript, she mentions some of the critics who have begun this process.

Jones's postscript, which states what a careful reader might have already guessed - that this work of criticism was written in 1982 - identifies the crux of the problems in the text En the last ten years, much has changed in the state of African American criticism, and many of the questions that Jones ponders in the work have been addressed from various viewpoints, and often been answered. Jones's aim in the work appears to be to justify the oral tradition as a base for African American letters, but at from point, we really don't need a justification of this sort. The use of the orature, from African-based practices to folk elements in African American culture, has not only been identified contemporary critics but has been developed into a theoretical position of its own. Moreover, the lack of attention to critics, both cursorily named in the postscript and unnamed, seems to deny what has transpired in the last decade. Creative writers often write critical works with their own impressionistic style, but in this case, the work of criticism is an extremely conventional one and therefore needs to be appraised in this context.

Another problem which also may relate to the lapse of ten years between the writing and the publishing of the work, concerns Jones's use of European models and Eurocentric practice to critique the literature. This is particularly disturbing because Jones's main point is to liberate the African American voice from dominant literary tradition. The overwhelming attention to how Chaucer, Twain, and T. S. Eliot have integrated voice into their work tends to disturb her narrative, because it appears gratuitously inserted to validate her points. The valorization of these models raises concerns about how free Jones's critical voice is. Moreover, the questions raised by this kind of discussion of influence and quality are not articulated in the text, so that, in the chapter "Dialect and Narrative: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God," Jones poses contradictions without examining them. Jones quotes Robert Stepto who, in an early article on the novel points out Hurston's lack of skill in shifting "awkwardly from first to third person" (137), a viewpoint actively challenged by feminists and Afrocentric critics. Jones perceives this shift not as Hurstdon's intention but as a flaw as well Accordingly, Hurston does not go far enough in "breaking the frame and freeing Janie's whole voice" (134). Later on in the chapter, she comments that what is "innovative in one tradition may appear conventional in another," challenging the concept of one qualitative standard, yet, ironically, she also compels us to examine Hurston within the literary stylistic framework of T. S. Eliot's Wasteland. Unfortunately, the interesting dialectic that could have been explored by a comparative approach is lost because Jones appears unaware of her simultaneous resistance to and acceptance of Eurocentric models.

Another kind of dialectic is posed by examining Jones's critical and creative work together. Often we look at critical writings to gain insight into the author,s own work, but in this case, her choices in formulating her own creative writings, including the short stones examined in this review, implicitly influence Jones's critical judgments. In the informative foreword to White Rat, Mae Henderson comments that, for Jones, the "technique of first-person narration . . . is 'the most authentic way of telling a story' because it implies "direct identification of the storyteller with the story'" (xiv). For Jones, the "authenticity" of this form of her own writings is also validated by her critical judgments. In this regard, Ernest Gaines has a much "freer" voice than Zora Neale Hurston because his Jane, unlike Hurston's Janie, never gives up her narrative voice to third-person. One may disagree with this evaluation of the two works, but it tells us something about the dialectical relationship between creative and critical judgments. For Jones, the first person's voice is the voice of the storyteller, a voice from the oral tradition.

Jones's attention in her work to oral voicing, and to those who have been rendered voiceless, is the basis of White Rat, a powerful collection of short stories, as volatile and impressive now as when it was first published Through her use of dialogue and first-in narration, stripped of description and euphemisms, Jones continues her interest in people on the edge. As witnessed in her two novels, this collection addresses abnormal psychology, sexual disruptions, the historical trauma of slavery, and the social basis of silence and madness. These stories tell the lives of people in a "liminal zone" - those who have chosen not to speak, and those whom society has silenced. The collection reflects African orature, in that each story is a dilemma tale, and Jones has left many gaps and silences for her readers to enter into - if we dare. The power of her narrative is that Jones gives us strength to examine on a literary level stories that usually find themselves in tabloids or dry casebook studies.

The title-story is that of a young man, the "White Rat" who identifies with Black culture, but because of his blond hair is taken for white. His first-person narration is told to a white bartender and raises the question of color versus culture - if who you are is constantly contradicted by what people think you are. It is the passing story in reverse, but it also exposes the complexities of a society that refuses to acknowledge its history. This piece reflects one of Jones's themes in the work - one's personal historicity in relation to the larger historical tragedy of slavery and its repercussions. "Legend" tells of a Black man hung for "raping" a white woman, but we find out through the dead man's narrative that, in fact, he was forced into sex by her father. As one of Jones's trademarks, violence surrounding sex is also evident in these stories. In one of her most often anthologized tales, "Asylum," a gynecological exam is a horrific violation, with underlines of rape:

He comes in and looks down in my mouth and up in my noise and looks in my ears. Hi feels my breasts and my belly to see if I got any lumps. He starts to take off my

I aint got nothing down there for you. (78)

This familiar scene, told within the confines of a psychiatric ward, is defamiliarized to expose how women are abused under the name of medicine. Moreover, the emphasis on the all-powerful white-male doctor and the resisting but powerless Black woman patient serve as a trope for the various violations in a racist, patriarchial society.

Other stories deal with different kinds of violations, and the individuals who suffer or resist through silence. As Henderson notes, many kinds of silences are "at the heart of Jones's stories" (x), a few of which concern taciturn young African American women at privileged white colleges. In the most autobiographical story in the collection (xi), "Your Poems Have Very Little Color in Them," the protagonist comments, "There are two kinds of people, those who don't talk and those who can't talk" (18). For both kinds in this collection, there are others who try to make them talk and pressure them in other ways. In two of the college story, "A Quiet Place in the Country" & "Persona," the young women are silenced not only by the obvious separations of race and class, but also by subtle sexual pressure from professors, both male and female. In "A Quiet Place," however, the protagonist gains her voice by speaking to the Black gardener at a wealthy white professor's summer home. In "Persona," one can identify a concealed attack on lesbianism, since the women - much like the men - prey on the innocent student. Moreover, the story "The Women" is virulently homophobic, with the unfit mother apparently unresponsive to her daughter because of her lesbian activities. Yet most sexual affective relationships are abusive in the world view presented by Jones, the only characters who even come dose to an affectionate relationship are the pair in "The Round House."

Jones's interest in sexual abuse and abnormal psychology, most decisively articulated in her second novel, Eva's Man, is related to the historical trauma of African Americans and the abuses of women. Jones, as a storyteller, focuses on the lives of those silenced by historical and social trauma, who often sink into insanity. It is these voices - finally allowed to speak to the reader, if not within the confines of the tale - which reflect Jones's writing at its most compelling. Ricky, the young mentally disabled boy in "The Coke Factory," makes us aware, in his powerful dialect, of the lack of sympathy his adopted mother and others in his community have for him, as well as his comprehension of his environment. "I'm fifteen. She says when I get eighteen she gon send me out to eatern state that the mentle hospital . . . that's where they put all the mently tarded" (98). In this story, Ricky talks to us, but not to those around him, who call him "bad; and, in the end, he gets his reward for his one independent act-returning his empties for a new bottle of soda. In a more disturbing pair of stories, "Return. The Fantasy and "Version Two," we are exposed to the breakdown of a young Black intellectual and the woman who allows him to control her in her aim to protect him The first story is narrated from her point of view, and the second is compiled his oracular ravings. Joseph, in "Version Two," the last story in the collection, leaves us with a prophetic note: "My words win work your magic. Are you starting to go? Yes, I know you. Everything you told me. I'll help you find your way out" (178).

For Jones, for her characters, words are a way to find one's way out of oppression, silence, and historical and sexual trauma, but words are also part of that nightmare. Unfortunately, the words of her explicitly rendered first-person narratives also limit the use of her writings in college classrooms, because of the scatogical and linguistic violence she so expertly exposes. Nonetheless, these stories, like her two novels, present for us an exposed world that we can no longer refuse to see. Jones expands our knowledge of both "normal" and "abnormal"; her commitment to telling stories situates her firmly into the African American literary tradition; and this collection - more than her critical work - emphasizes the importance of writing for defining self and recording history.
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Author:Wilentz, Gay
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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