Neo-segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature.
by Brian Norman
University of Georgia Press, 2010. 214 pages
Brian Norman's Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature examines the novel, drama, and film in terms of (the author's own coinage) the "neo-segregation narrative." Norman's study spans the period from Lorraine Hansberry's nascent civil rights period play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) through Toni Morrison's late civil rights movement novel The Bluest Eye (1970) to Spike Lee's post-civil rights film Bamboozled (2000) and Suzan-Lori Parks's postmodern Faulkner takeoff, Getting Mother's Body (2003). The book expands on a 2008 special issue of African American Review and a 2010 co-edited critical collection titled Representing Segregation: Toward an Aesthetics of Living Jim Crow, and Other Forms of Racial Division, and as such represents the culmination of an extended scholarly project. Norman's study is an impressive effort to resituate African American cultural arts from the civil rights era to their contemporary phase, and thereby promises to be an influential text for scholars of twentieth-century literary studies.
According to Norman, the neo-segregation narrative is a characteristically historiographic, creatively imagined cultural document that attempts to expose "systems of exclusion and disenfranchisement today" (3), and thereby to disrupt ascendant, deceptive nationalist narratives of equal opportunity at last achieved. Norman proposes the useful critical term "temporal dysphoria to explain the effect of seeing images of Jim Crow today when dominant cultural narratives suggest they should be then" (6). He contrasts the neo-segregation narrative with the "neo-slave narrative," a concept associated with the work of Ashraf Rushdy: "The neo-slave narrative officially begins when we no longer have access to unmediated testimonial accounts of slavery," whereas "the neo-segregation narrative ... has not come into sharp focus because ... not enough historical distance [exists] between the contemporary moment and the era of de jure race segregation" (17). An extended quotation helps to clarify Norman's point about the connection between the neo-segregation narrative and the color line:
Neo-segregation narratives insist that the color line remains relevant in a post-Jim Crow era. As neo-segregation narratives take on such contemporary concerns as the merits and limits of integration, self-segregation. multiculturalism, legislative reform, and the prospect of a truly postrac[ial] era, they must choose whether to position the color line as central or to put it on the outer horizon of their narratives. And they must choose whether to take up the black culture-directed legacy of segregation writers such as Hurston and ... Hughes or to take up the legacy of cross-racial plots and integration-minded fiction of such writers as Wright, [George] Schuyler, and [the] early Baldwin. (13)
As this statement suggests, Norman wishes to underline the fluid nature of neo-segregation narratives: "As de jure transitioned to de facto segregation, neo-segregation narratives have adopted bitemporal fields of vision as a way to reflect, swap, and undermine the relationship between nominal equality and lived inequality."
In a potentially demanding portion of the introduction, Norman articulates his need to employ a terminology that requires clarification, explaining that he wishes to refine two familiar and, for his intellectual project, key terms. The first is "Jim Crow," which he uses as "a convenient, albeit slippery, shorthand for the history of compulsory race segregation in America" (4). That is, though its legal form has ended, segregation "informs how we think about group identity ... today." He also uses the term "civil rights" as a "useful and slippery shorthand for the time between that first major national desegregation victory of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education] and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act."
Norman evidently intends "slippery" and "shorthand" to mean something like precarious and cursory. This finessing of established terms seems fair enough, as Norman's approach appears to have been influenced by Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin, theorists who offered ambitious critical approaches that transformed cultural and literary study and who were unquestionably willing to employ conventional terminology as the lexica of innovative analytical systems. Although Norman does not explicitly refer to Foucault or Bakhtin, consider the following insight: "Segregation," though historically associated with the Jim Crow South and legally located in Messy and Browm, "comprises a diverse set of cultural practices, ethnic experiences, historical conditions, political ideologies, municipal planning schemes, and de facto social systems" (4). This formulation resembles Foucault's description of discourse, the concept that speech and textual modes are "epistemic" in nature; in other words, that they change over time to suit the conditions of the moment. One may also detect the trace of Bakhtin's definition of dialogism lurking here. Dialogism is the theory that all language and ideas (the products of language) are vital, relational, and engaged in the making of continual redescriptions of the world. Though at times Norman suggests that the fictional, dramatic, and cinematic artifacts with which he is concerned are intended to articulate critiques on the still-present affect of segregation, ultimately it seems that these cultural products enunciate their commentaries in a choral, discursive manner. The application of a dialogic tactic makes good sense, as well, as Norman, in an effort to distinguish the neo-segregation narrative, is interested in searching through socially, politically informed forms like the novel--the literary genre that "fits especially well" (8) with the historiographic mode--for the way they reflect legal and political matters.
Norman's argument seems apt as a "neo' critical theoretical logic. Although he does not state as much outright, his study portrays the neo-segregation narrative as a kind of segregation story about segregation narratives, a. self-reflexive, historiographic artifact that recounts the effects of segregation while simultaneously offering a creatively articulated critical commentary on the story of segregation, including its own narrative. Norman's book also critiques the teleology of the segregation narrative, the too-optimistic idea that legal interdiction would put an end to discriminatory practices. The neo-segregation narrative above all imaginatively deconstructs the static, stable notion of historical events logically construed as progressing toward a moral resolution.
Chapter 1, "Jim Crow Jr.: Lorraine Hansberry's Late Segregation Revisions and Toni Morrison's Early Post-Civil Rights Ambivalence," attempts to link two otherwise seldom associated texts in terms of Norman's neo-segregation analytic. As the "iconic" late fifties Raisin in the Sun portrays segregation and desegregation. Hansberry's play "emerges as the salt point between segregation and neo-segregation narratives in the wake of civil rights successes. She thus stands as a transitional figure in the tradition that comes of age with ... Morrison's The Bluest Eye in 1970" (21). Contending that "the segregation narrative is a slippery and evolving tradition only visible in retrospect," Norman proposes "the cases of Hans-berry and Morrison [as] a snapshot of that all-important but diffitse shirt from the segregation to the neo--segregation narrative" (22). Norman is specifically concerned with an unturned screenplay Hansherry wrote for her play. In an effort to respond to the harsh Black Arts Movement criticism of Raisin, epitomized by Amiri Baraka's initial reaction to her work, Hansberry "turned to the motion picture medium to get the Youngers out of their apartment and into the streets of segregated Chicago" (23), thereby shifting the dramatic focus toward a segregation narrative that is conscious of itself in historiographic terms. In the streets, the play's confidence in the progress of desegregation comes close to collapsing, as the comparatively more worldly characters of the screenplay experience the barbed, extra--legal realities of discrimination beyond the walls of that relatively more stable environment, the family home. Hansberry's unshot adaptation of her own work. Norman argues, "is particularly illustrative of the transition toward the neo--segregation narrative and The Bluest Eye."
In chapter 2, "Jim Crow Returns, Jim Crow Remains: Gender and Segregation in David Bradley's The Chancysville Incident and Alice Walker's The Color Purple," Norman draws upon Keith Byerman's notion, in Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction (2005), that the African American recovery novel permits the subaltern to assume a voice in the national discourse. While this act contains the agency to repair society, Byerman notes, postmodern fiction complicates the idea of healing insofar as it "challenges the assumptions of womanist and Af-rocentric readings of it as therapeutic" (qtd. in Norman 55). Following Byerman's lead, Norman focuses on the ways in which gender functions in the healing narratives that buttress Bradley's and Walker's novels. Norman identifies Bradley's novel as a revisionist text that falls into line with Hick nationalist ideology, whereas Walker's womanist narrative radically revises the kind of black chauvinism Bradley's text abides by. Essentially, Norman wishes us to notice how both Bradley's and Walker's novels "not only gauge slavery's legacy after Reconstruction but also engage specifically post-civil rights debates about the limits of integration and related gendered struggles around equality within black communities" (55).
While still working in the area of African American fiction, Chapter 3, "Jim Too: Black Blackface Minstrelsy in Wesley Brown's Darktomn Strutters and Spike Lee's Bantboozled," shifts its focus to film. According to Norman, this chapter "looks at a particularly loopy corner of blackface minstrelsy: black blackface, or what Susan Gubar calls 'black black impersonation, Louis Chude Sokei calls 'black-on-black minstrelsy,' Grace Elizabeth Hale calls 'blacked--up black minstrelsy,' and Eric Lott positions as the genuine article in the counterkit economy of Jim Crow (82). With all of this scholarship already in existence, what does Norman's work have to add Norman wishes to understand black hlackface in terms of the neo--segregation narrative: "In neo--segregation narratives, black blackface can raise questions of coinplicity in white supremacist cultures and what constitutes racial pride, questions that remain in the wake of the legislative gains of civil rights and cultural gains of black feminism and Black Power. Ultimately. Norman finds that Brown's novel surpasses Lee's film as a neo--segregarion narrative. Because Darktoirn Struttcrs (1994) returns to the moment of minstrelsy to tell its story, it presents a more judicious historiographic representation of its subjects complexities. In the case of Bamboozkd (2000), however, Norman appears to agree with the film's critics that director Lee's act of "draw[ing] a historical continuum between contemporary media depictions of black masculinity and nineteenth--century minstrelsy" (105) prohibits the possibility of presenting a space where the human subject may act outside the boundaries of racism and related forms of oppressive ideology.
Norman's fourth chapter, "Jim Crow in Idaho: Clarifying Blackness in Multiethnic Fiction," shifts even further from the domain of the African American novel, addressing American Indian (Coeur d'Alene/Colville/Flathead/Spokane) author Sherman Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues (1995), and gay white American author Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991). Norman includes Alexie's novel because of its mythic insertion of bluesman Robert Johnson--Alexie's playful dehistoricizing of the King of the Delta Blues alongside his soon familiar characters Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, and Junior Polatkin--and Spanbauer's, also set in Idaho, because it is a text that he sees as productively "passing for ethnic" (126). Spanbauer's book, Norman argues, is "well paired with Alexie's novel because it brings Jim Crow subjects into the same region far removed from the segregated South," in the process demonstrating how "in neo-segregation narratives not primarily concerned with African American identity or history. Jim Crow buttresses contemporary ideas about whiteness and ethnic identity" (212).
Chapter 5, "Jim Crow Faulkner: Suzan-Lori Parks Digs Up the Past, Again." may be the most profitable part of Norman's book, as here he demonstrates the wide-ranging, self-reflexive possibilities of his neo-segregation narrative theory. This chapter deals with Parks's 2003 novel 'Getting Mother's Body, a "raucous, irreverent" (133) reinventing of Faulkner's 1930 As I Lay Dying. Norman is probably right to identify Getting Mother's Body as the "best example of a neo-segregation narrative consciously engaging literary history, especially its upper echelons." In place of Faulkner's poor white Southern Bundrens, Parks follows a 1960s poor black rural Texas family, the Beedes, "on a long, hot journey to unbury their matriarch" (134). Once again, a fairly extended quotation from Norman best describes his critical logic:
It is ultimately most accurate to call Parks's use of Faulkner an adaptation, more so than a revision or resignification, which signals how neo-segregation narratives in general reinvent more than revise segregation narratives and Jim Crow scripts. ...For Parks, this requires adapting Faulkner's environment to make room for the Beedes. For her readers, this requires adapting national narratives so that folks like the Beedes may survive, if not thrive. As neo-segregation narratives demonstrate, this is not only a legislative project but also an imaginative one. (143)
Norman's critical logic asserts that the neo-segregation narrative functions on two levels, both the "legislative" and the "imaginative."
In his epilogue, "Jim Crow Today: When Jim Crow Is but Should Not Be," Norman reaffirms that the neo-segregation narrative is a postmodern form that turns inward on itself in order to divulge the complex realities of African American identity:
Neo-segregation narratives consciously induce what I call temporal dysphoria because we encounter Jim Crow today when we think--and know!--he should be then. There is a strange contradiction when contemporary writers return to a Jim Crow period to comment on post-civil rights concerns: the simplicity of Jim Crow thinking is simultaneously absurd and useful. (155)
Here is where I find the application of Norman's theory a bit puzzling. It sounds as if the neo-segregation narrative of necessity self-consciously critiques the segregation narrative, and, in the recognizable postmodern manner, even critiques itself. Indeed, it seems as if the neo-segregation narrative takes an ironic and critical view of a stable past perse, always revealing the innate limitations of an inherited, master narrative. If this is so, however, then one wonders how Bamboozled, with its lurid servicing of blackface to comment on contemporary concerns about black masculinity, as well as other documents Norman identifies as falling short of the mark in terms of performing the work of historiography, qualify as neo-segregation narratives. This difficulty, however, may not be so much a problem with the book as it is a paradox at the core of black literary and cultural production. That is to say, Norman's study will likely launch a discussion over this question, and the resolution, if one is found, will be worked out through critical exchange. Norman has produced a valuable work of scholarship, one that will resituate the way those of us who work in African American literary and cultural studies, as well as those who work more broadly in critical race theory and historiographical studies, will think and talk about black cultural products in years to come.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas 1), 1982.
Byerman, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 2005.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 1966. New York: Random House, 1970.
Norman, Brian, and Piper Hendrix, eds. Representing Segregation. Spec. issue of African American Review 42.1 (2008): 1-178.
--.Represnting Segruation: Thward an Aesthetics of Living Jim Crow, and Other Forms of Racial Division. Albany: SUNY Press, 20 10.
Rushdy, Ashraf. Neo-Siave, Narratives: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina p 2001.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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