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Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou.

Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou, by Dolly A. McPherson. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. 176 pp.;

"A classic in any culture, one might say, is a place in which the Spirit works," Houston Baker claims in his recent book, having first defined the terms place, spirit, and work precisely enough to make that statement ring, in context, with all the economy and authority of epigraph. Even out of context, as it appears here, it provides a clue to the mystery of why the heart leaps up (or the mind reels or the eyes grow misty) in the presence of some artifacts of human inventiveness. In those relics we can see both spirit and work, soul and effort, and we are moved by each as much as by their powerful combination. Yet Baker would quite rightly object were we to translate that strong emotion and sense of awed respect with which we greet a "classic" into a theory of "universals" -- "universal" elements of beauty, for example, or "universal" standards of behavior, judgment, and values. To do so would eliminate the original, personal, individual spirit at work. That spirit, contained in and expressed through a physical body of a certain age, creed, gender, class, and race, can never be "universalized" without being reduced to an abstract essence, stripped of its complexity, marginalized, and silenced.

Traditional liberal humanist literary critics will wince at the above string of apparent buzzwords that seems to challenge the existence of what William Faulkner called, in a phrase dear to many, "the eternal verities of the human heart." To these readers, an "essence" is not by definition a bad thing. As the "heart" of a character or textual issue, it seems like a good thing to be able to discern and discuss. But contemporary literary studies have shown us that to essentialize is often to dismiss on the grounds of difference or to remake the difference in the image of the accepted standard. In a recent analysis of race and literary criticism, Toni Morrison describes how such dismissal and remaking are functions of superficially kind but deeply misguided intentions:

... in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.

Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded,

foreclosing open debate. The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into

discourse on race. It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring

race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to

recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence

is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural

body. According to this logic, every well-bred instinct argues against noticing and

forecloses adult discourse.(1)

"To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference": practically speaking, this means that (a white) one does not discuss (discredited) blackness with one's (different) black colleagues; that (marginalized) black critics work on black writers (who write about blackness) in the attempt to reformulate the (centralized white) canon; that everyone usually remains relatively polite in this business,(2) even the embattled traditionalist critics, who sometimes feel as though the discussion of race and gender has occluded the literary front with a frivolous political one.

Our writers, however, have always noticed difference, whether discredited or accredited, and built their works in ways to make us notice it, too. The best works of African-American writers, Robert Stepto has argued, offer readers the "great gift" of their "historical and linguistic portrait of a culture -- once imprisoned by a forced illiteracy -- questing for, finding, and relishing the written word."(3) In these works we can observe both the reflection of individual desire to know the written word and the progress, in spite of enormous cultural and linguistic obstacles, of a whole people toward the same goal. In short, the African-American writer reminds us of the wondrousness and power of literacy. In his or her performance, we can virtually learn to read all over again.

This relearning is what I understand to be the ultimate function of what Houston Baker calls in Afro-American Poetics the "personal, racially derived, and theoretically motivated chord" in his own evolving poetics that resonates through such writers as Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen and should resonate through criticism of their work.(4) If DuBois, for instance, could learn to read white language and cultural symbols and so "sit with Shakespeare" and "move in arm with Balzac and Dumas"; if in fact the African-American's unique double-consciousness requires that he learn to read, speak, and think in two nearly exclusive ways -- that is, in the master language and the vernacular; if language itself "is always the very site of the split subject" and one can measure the success of a poetics by how completely it transforms the perspective and behavior of another (Workings, pp. 63, 158): then contemporary critics of African-American literature and culture offer readers a vital epistemological opportunity. In learning how to read again, (the white) one can learn how to think again, in another, previously unrecognized way and, having done so, speak out in a fuller critical voice.

In this way, readers can move away from "the universalist dilemma"(5) and refuse in effect to "think imperialistically: to appropriate the other in the name of a national propriety that conceives itself as universal, as absolutely proper."(6) But we still must face the problem of how to evaluate, how to judge, the products of inventiveness that appear. It is not enough to invoke their "spirit" or attempt to measure depths of soul. That approach, as Henry Louis Gates has pointed out, ignores the literariness of the literature: "Literary images, even black ones, are combinations of words, not of absolute or fixed things .... [W]e must begin to understand the nature of intertextuality, that is, the nonthematic manner by which texts -- poems and novels -- respond to other texts. All cats may be black at night, but not to other cats."(7) All four of the books under primary consideration in this essay attempt to describe the evils of universalism and the ways in which both white writers and writers of color reflect and challenge pervasive and paradigmatic social conditions. Analytic description can take a critic only so far, though. Sooner or later readers will want to know whether the tour of this burgeoning literary landscape is worth the price of the ticket and, not incidentally, something about the person telling them how to spend their money.

The five volumes of Maya Angelou's serial autobiography have achieved a worldwide readership, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has proven especially popular for its accessibility as well as its emotional honesty. Eleanor W. Traylor's introductory praise for Dolly McPherson's Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou quite rightly locates much of Caged Birds power in "the conditions and figure of silence" that spring literarily from "the proto-image" of Olaudah Equiano, "the muzzled mouth of the African enslaved in the new world." Moreover, Traylor says, Angelou attempts in each of her autobiographies to negotiate "the forms that the discourse of self-portraiture [as a genre] has assumed" (p. xii). A work of criticism on Angelou's autobiographies would thus seem to speak to a wide audience; and according to Traylor, McPherson's effort brings the study of Maya Angelou, bestselling writer, into the realm of "honest scholarship" (p. xi).

Had Eleanor Traylor written the study she introduces, we might have had a good book on a middling author. As matters stand, however, even a reader patient with the way Maya Angelou's self-promotion masquerades as artistic self-scrutiny (obviously, I am not) would object to Order Out of Chaos on at least three counts. First, what Angelou says goes double for McPherson. Second, McPherson sees her critical task as one of re-presenting rather than analyzing what Angelou says. Third -- and, almost of course, consequently -- the resulting book amounts to a fairly straightforward exercise in plot-summarizing heroine-worship. McPherson had access to Angelou's youthful journals, and she has obviously read the five books of the autobiography carefully and with great attention to their details; but at few points in her book does her sheer command of information support an analysis of how Angelou's serial autobiography works and how, in places, it does not work. Probably the clearest example of this failure occurs in McPherson's treatment of the episode in All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes in which Angelou, in Berlin in the early Sixties, impulsively invites a brand-new Jewish acquaintance to the home of a German family (whom she correctly suspects of Nazism) and then becomes physically ill when the two ideologies collide at breakfast. A similar incident occurs with the Senegalese in Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas: she knew of the potential of a violent conflict, courted that conflict, and then acted surprised when it erupted. McPherson doesn't notice this much, though. She merely calls the episode from Traveling Shoes a "most compelling scene" (p. 113); she summarizes and quotes when she should analyze and probe.

Here, in order, are the moments at which McPherson comes closest to challenging Angelou at any level: she points out that "the adult Angelou" the autobiographer, that is) never explores her youthful guilt regarding her son, s illegitimacy (p. 65); she notes that "humor and self-mockery become, at times, a substitute for a deeper look, a closer examination of behavior, motivation, attitude" (p. 72); she allows that the name-dropping Singin' and Swingin' "is certainly a praisesong to Porgy and Bess" (p. 89); and in the "Conversation with Maya Angelou" that serves as the book's conclusion, she catches her subject in virtual ignorance of the history of the form in which she writes (pp. 140-141). That "Conversation" represents in miniature the almost uniformly worshipful tone of the entire book, and when Angelou says that she left "a lot of unkindness" out of all of her books (p. 139), I can practically hear McPherson responding, "So then shall I."

There are, of course, some dangers in writing studies of single authors -- especially of those whom one admires greatly. Much of my own work focuses on the later novels of William Faulkner, and unlike most critics I find those novels wonderfully readable as well as intellectually challenging. So I understand the risks of single-author study well: the temptation to gloss over less-appealing elements of the works; the wish to convert others to my way of thinking about the work and the writer; the chance that my description of a text might just rewrite it to make it better than it really is. Moreover, in single-author study one compares the author to her- or himself before extending the comparison to other writers (if one ever does). There is thus always the danger of critical myopia, a collapsing of judgment that comes of staking so much of oneself on Writer X's reputation that one finds other writers inferior mainly because they are not Writer X. McPherson so prizes what she calls Angelou's "celebration and transcendence" of life that she cannot recognize other, primarily more cynical narrative stances and strategies in African-American autobiography for what they are -- strategies that shape the myriad details of a life into a pattern designed to show an unknown reader the quality of that life. McPherson practically dismisses that crucial live-in-my-skin-for-a-while element of autobiography, unless that element is cheery, and if it is not, she judges the work inferior: "Unlike Angelou, whose innocence is somehow renewed with each bitter or bittersweet experience, by the end of Coming of age, [Anne] Moody is stripped of both innocence and faith .... Unlike the personal narratives of Wright, Moody, and [Mary] Mebane, Angelou's autobiography affirms life itself, despite its difficulties, and celebrates the power of the individual to meet its challenges" (pp. 127-128).(8) In McPherson's script, then, the spirit should smile even as the body trudges through Egypt.

Trudier Harris's Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison far more successfully negotiates its subject's narrative sources and strategies. As Robert Hemenway has pointed out, the literary critic used to assume that "folklore" was simply another name for "bad literature." Recent developments in the field stress that folklore, far from a "corpse-like text, fixed by the collector" is "dynamic, changing through time and space"; and "both writers and tale tellers organize their performances around certain expectations of the community and culture they serve" Reconstruction, pp. 128-129). Harris claims that Morrison goes further, creating a specifically "literary folklore" that combines her own inventions with recognizable bits of known folklore to saturate every level of her novels: "Morrison replicates the dynamic of folk communities by showing how people interact with each other to shape tales, legends, rumors, and folk beliefs" (p. 11). Harris argues this thesis forcefully and with strong documentations from lore and from Morrison's novels. She is particularly convincing in her analysis of the lore of the nonhuman community in Tar Baby -- the yelling trees and brokenhearted rivers, for instance -- and in that novel's adaptation of the racial and sexual dynamics of the tar baby and trickster stories (pp. 125-127, 140). Too, her analysis of the act of storytelling in Beloved persuasively demonstrates its "power literally to heal or to kill"; narrative there is both organizing principle and overriding theme, as well as a prime shaper of character (pp. 166-167).

Harris manages to avoid the temptation to lionize Morrison. Indeed, she may perhaps go too far the other way. In her consistent attempt to bring Morrison into the field of specifically political feminist writers, Harris often overlooks the sexual complexity of Morrison's work. Let me take Harris's example of the myth of woman as demon and nurturer, as manifested in Beloved, to illustrate my objection. Harris sketches out that myth and even seems to accept that woman must be one or the other, source of death or life. Morrison, on the other hand, never accepts such a division. She recognizes that woman can be both at once; so can man be both killer and provider. Jadine and Son can both be right and both be wrong, their union both gorgeously fulfilling and ultimately hopeless. Such characters spring from the troubled core of Morrison's novels, the bloody loam of conflicting desire and experience that she refuses to sentimentalize or render into dogma.

Harris sees this refusal as a weakness. She wants a fictional universe of "independent, self-determining wom[e]n" and believes that Morrison equates such women with a pretentious masculinity that Harris finds distasteful. She claims that "Morrison's works seem to continue the use and abuse of black women characters by making them victims in the traditional folkloric patterns -- generally devalued by males, to be seen and not heard, to submit to masculine will in reality if not in spirit" (p. 188). In other words, she stands her own thesis regarding Morrison's masterful creation of "literary folklore" on its head and judges Morrison's novels adversely because they do not serve the agenda that Harris wishes them to serve. It is true, as Harris points out in her final lines, that one of Morrison's strengths is "believ[ing] that black people can indeed go about their lives without thinking about white people for at least twenty-four hours at a time" (p. 192). I wish that Harris could see that Morrison has an equally powerful vision about sexual relationships and sexual politics that springs directly from her belief that women can go about their lives without thinking about men for twenty-four hours at a time, too.(9) Or, at least, we might sometimes be better off psychically, if we could. Listen, for example, to Nel keening belatedly for Sula: the haunting cry of "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl" moving out of the novel in "circles and circles of sorrow." Think about Pecola underneath Cholly, or about Geraldine faking orgasm to get out from underneath her husband. Four females, four different kinds of femaleness: and as the list expands, so does the spectrum of difference. Recall, finally, probably the biggest monster in the fiction Harris considers -- Margaret Street of Tar Baby, who stuck pins and burning cigarettes into her baby son "because I could," because he wasn't big enough "to tell" and so stop her. I cannot think offhand of a scene anywhere in fiction that so chillingly and concisely represents both absolute power and the fear of eventual resistance and reprisal that power contains and must repress. I am grateful rather than insulted that Toni Morrison's women speak in so many tongues, that their spirits write so diversely and (to borrow Alice Walker's phrase) so womanishly.(10)

Both Dana D. Nelson, in The Word in Black and White. and Baker in Workings of the Spirit make unapologetically urgent calls for readers to begin to read racial difference in American literature (and Morrison would remind us here that race is always central to American literature) in specific theoretical ways. Nelson calls for "a sociological criticism of literature" that "assumes that literature is always already implicated and interfering in the social" -- that is, indivisible from its historical "site of origin" and thus, I take it, bound temporally. The task of such a criticism is "to interpret the processes by which our (always multiple) understandings of |race,'and concomitantly |white' privilege, are deployed" throughout American literature, in texts by and about "black," "white," and "red" persons male and female (p. 21). By foregrounding the concept of "race" as both a fact of cultural life and a fiction "invented, described, promulgated, and legislated by those who would benefit as a group from the concept," Nelson stakes out a space within which to describe just how destructive rhetorical strategies can be in real life and how cruelly they persist through time (pp. vii-xii). She views writers as readers first-readers of "race" who repeat or modify, consciously or subconsciously, contemporary racial concepts in their writing.

I will say at the outset how impressed I am by the sheer scope of Nelson's inquiry (1638-1867) and the detailed critical research that undergirds her thesis. Of course she does not purport to survey comprehensively; rather, she offers up sociological criticism as a uniquely sensitive tool with which to probe the evolving American definition of race. She is very good at reading the racial dynamics at work in individual texts. I am particularly persuaded by her readings of the contradictory social impulses in Hope Leslie and A Romance of the Republic and the murderously encoded white gaze in "Benito Cereno" and particularly pleased that she includes Native as well as African Americans in her conceptual framework. Even her endnotes make interesting and informative reading; The Word in Black and White is uniformly ambitious and provocative.

Yet I must say in nearly the same breath that I am not persuaded by most categorically delineated criticism of any kind. I do not believe that writers -- good writers, anyway -- are readers first: not readers of culture, or gender, or aesthetics, or politics, or social trends. Good writers are producers, movers, shakers, doers; they may observe, reflect, woolgather, ponder, and read, but their central concern is the obsessive, active mucking about with words in order to make something personally satisfying. A broadly defined "sociological criticism" cannot do the writer I have defined any justice at all, for such a criticism does not even recognize what Eliot called the individual talent, never mind allow that talent to factor in a consideration of how issues of race and gender are figured and refigured in literature.(11) This seems to me to be the debilitating flaw in a sociological criticism: it is best suited to writers of fictionalized sociology (as some would describe writers like Childs and Harriet Beecher Stowe). As Gates reminds us, we cannot afford to treat works of literature as though they were only thematic exercises or temporal expressions. Literature, and especially the literature of the dispossessed in the Americas, is heavily intertextual. Books are made by other books, traditions by other traditions. (The backgrounding of intertextuality probably accounts for what seems like a weird omission from a book that surrounds Puritanism chronologically and studies Mather, Winthrop, Cooper, Simms, and Melville in detail: captivity narratives. Nelson doesn't mention them, but they were a vital influence on the aforementioned writers as well as on developing American genres as diverse as the jeremiad and the frontier romance novel.(12))

According to a similar logic, Nelson's reliance on deconstructionist readings as the sole basis for sociological reconstruction seems odd. She stands in the rather contradictory position of using literary models to define the sociological attributes of her literary models. To make my case briefly, I would point to her summary of the racial Othering in Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Pym "is not solely about absence of meaning, but about the impulses -- social, political, economic -- that undergird the construction of any system of meaning," she argues (p. 108). The deconstructionist model reveals the absence of meaning while the sociological approach reveals the presence of meaningful constructions that construct meaning. Such analysis is ideological tail-chasing conducted at dizzying speed; for not only would the strict application of deconstructionist theory radically unpack the assumptions and destabilize the foundations of sociological criticism, but Nelson's combination of the two also requires a pretty energetic suspension of disbelief in its attempt to keep literature strapped down to the quotidian.

I admit to a certain weariness, not unlike Roquentin's nausea, on the subject of much avowedly "theoretical" criticism, the widespread and slapdash application of which occasions my wonder. Is this all there is for the future of literary studies, whether "canonical" or "marginal"? Does the onset of new, allegedly redemptive interpretive strategies mean that the literary baby needs must be tossed out with the old hermeneutic bath water? (I'm sure the philologists felt some similar shivers at the onset of the New Criticism, and the academy has nonetheless survived.) In Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing, Houston Baker cheers me up with his rollicking call for and explanation of a phenomenological theory of black women's "expressivity." He combines Bachelard's concept of space as comprised of imagistic fields (which contain representations of cultural values) with "culturally specific" imaginative fields (such as Alice Walker's mother's garden) in order to define the task of poetics in general: "to operate a universal category or imagistic field through a culturally specific field in order to enhance both" (p. 61). African-American women's writing, he continues, teems with "felicitous" images, by which he means "well chosen, apt, comprehensive" and opposed to "aversive" or "exploitatively melodramatic or sensationalistic image[s] in the service of a profitable ideology of shock" (p. 67). This writing continually not only remakes the world and the self anew through the image (p. 52) but also remakes the now, or time itself (pp. 192, 202). This whole process, magical as it is for all writers, finds its particular roots, its metaphoric power and currency, and its future place in the spirit worker's conjure:

To seek a habitation beyond alienation and ancient disharmonies in a land where

Africans have been scarred and battered, shackled in long rows on toilsome levees,

is the motion of such cultural work. The home that marks the journey's end or theoretical

return is the poetic image conceived as a classical space in which one institutes

the type of locational pause that Bachelard might have called eulogized place -- a

revered site of culturally specific interests and values. Conjure is. to borrow a title

adopted for his nationalistic work by Amiri Baraka, the Spirit House of black women's

creativity. Its efficacy does not consist in its material presence nor in its genteel

reconciliation of opposites such as form and content, context and meaning.

Rather, it is an improvisational pause, a riff in a mighty orchestration, a nonce solo

in which notes or objects at hand are combined to turn the trick on identifiable

adversaries. (pp. 98-99) In conjure, in black women's writing, the spirit works, and the script glows with effort.

And in Houston Baker's view, the critic works, too. Far from merely adopting the language of phenomenology or deconstruction, Baker carefully examines the reflexiveness and potentially mutual exclusiveness of those theoretical positions and calls for nothing less than rewriting the terms of critical discourse. He does not want to "appropriat[e] black women's expressivity through a colonizing gaze" (p. 67) -- like that of his theoretical models, one assumes -- but to "extrapolate from |theory' what is actionally and autobiographically necessary and useful for us" (p. 45). He puts his authorial power where his theoretical mouth is, too: "the nonphilosophically disposed reader should know that he or she can avoid my [discussion of phenomenology and poststructuralist theory] in this and the next section without losing the thread of my general argument," he writes at one point. When was the last time you read a critic who admitted that some of his or her "questions do not arise with equal interest to all" readers without at least implicitly condescending to those readers (p. 53)?(13)

The writers Baker reads are working souls, capable of doing much and showing us how. The critic's task is to find the intellectual energy and mental rigor to keep up with them -- to bring them home, so to speak. Of the four scholars under consideration here, Baker goes furthest to keep the phrase "critical imagination" out of the realm of oxymoron. He writes with amazing energy and grace, and he remakes critical vocabulary consistently throughout the book in order to reflect the dynamic quality of the poetics he describes. That effort at rewriting discourse produces what some readers will call a quirky if not altogether impenetrable style: what, they will demand upon looking at the table of contents, does "the iterability of ONE" mean, and why the capital letters?

I contend that the crankiest reader will, upon finishing Baker's book, not only know what that phrase means but will have a hard time contesting its centrality in any poetics of African-American women's writing. Yet what I find even more appealing than the flexing of critical parameters or the articulation of a poetics is the way that Baker never loses sight of, and never fails to express appreciation for, the individual texts and writers who inspired his efforts.(14) He loves this writing, prizes these writers. Listen to the way he extrapolates from Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road to his argument on conjure: "We live in conjure when we are warmed by such words [as Hurston's]. Combining the various meanings of |conjure,' black women creators have thrust oppressive kings from state, exercised potently magical and occult influence, and performed liberating |tricks' with words. Their acts, surely, have fanned a quintessentially African spirit down dark lanes of time" (p. 101). Words, songs, spells cast on the way to writing: spirit scripts, indeed, interpreted by a critic who knows a little something about conjure himself.

For all its conjuring, Workings of the Spirit begins and ends with the black female body. The poetics depends upon a realization of the abuse and objectification of that body throughout recent history; and the text itself begins, continues alongside, and ends with photographs of African-American women of all classes and ages. Assembled by Elizabeth Alexander and Patricia Redmond, this wonderful series lives up to Baker's description of it as a "phototext," a "visualizaton of an Afro-American woman's poetics" that "offers felicitous images in motion" (p. 212). Between the covers of this book, there are really three analyses at work -- Baker's prose, the phototext, and the suggestive interplay between word and image that emerges from their combination. Spirit in this book thus hovers ever near the flesh through which it finds expression.

It would appear, then, that I have been persuaded by Baker's argument that we are never outside the realm of the "theoretical" or the "personal." Nor should we try to be: "for a theorist to acknowledge autobiography as a driving force is for him or her to do no more than tell the truth" and admit that whatever reading one offers is a function of personal training, experience, desire, and inclination and not some transcendent reflection of ultimate righteousness (pp. 48-50). We should try to stand outside of bad theories, and try to avoid sappy inward forrays that in no way advance our readers' understanding of whatever it is we purport to say.

This call to restore the I to literary criticism is going to be a hard one for sensitive white readers of writers of color to heed. (The white male critic's voice has been the voice of the academy for so long that his I runs a very real risk of being drowned by shouts of derision and covered in rotten vegetables.(15)) If it is difficult to learn the master language, it is also difficult to unlearn; for, aside from making it difficult to see for yourself, having your daddy's eyes can cause you a heap of worry and embarrassment. Baker says that a non-African-American who "honestly engages his or her own autobiographical implication in a brutal past is as likely as an Afro-American" to provide strong readings of the "nuances and resonances of an-other's story" -- in other words, to write good criticism of this literature (p. 48). The white female writing this essay was happy to hear that, because when I began my study of African-American writers I could not shake the uncomfortable sense that, read as carefully and as widely as I could, I just might not have the right to write here. By doing so I might unconsciously continue all abhorrent tradition of appropriation and thievery, and do so not from behind the language and with the apparent sanction of the academy but as an identifiable human being with a ZIP code.

I like the risk inherent in this call to recognize, and so of course to celebrate, the autobiographical presence in criticism, and I think it must be answered wholeheartedly in the affirmative. If I feel locked out of African-American literary study, I can remind myself of what it was like to come to Faulkner for the first time, as a tenth-grader to "The Bear" out of its novelistic context, in fact, and feel absolutely locked out because I didn't know all the words and there weren't very many punctuation marks. I can try to imagine what it must be like to have to teach yourself how to read, in secret, and with sure and certain knowledge of the whip if anyone finds out. I can sit on the porch with Ernest Gaines's old men and a shotgun. I can help John Washington burn his notecards in Chaneysville, and I can cry at the sight of Sethe's husband's face in the clabber. Nobody starts out knowing anything, including the very idea of "difference," and if we must fall into the various charnel houses of history then at least there are writers to show us the way through them.

With spirit. (1) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp, 9-10. (2) Usually, but not always, as the heated exchange between Joyce A. Joyce, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston A. Baker, Jr., in the pages of New Literary History demonstrates. See Joyce, "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism," New Literary History, 18 (Winter 1987), 335-344 and "|Who the Cap Fit': Unconsciousness and Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," New Literary History, 18 (Winter 1987), 371-384; Gates, "|What's Love Got to Do With It': Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom," New Literary History, 18 (Winter 1987), 345-362; Baker, "In Dubious Battle," New Literary History, 18 (Winter 1987), 363-389; and, in evenhanded response to these essays, Theodore O. Mason, Jr., "Between the Populist and the Scientist: Ideology and Power in Recent Afro-American Literary Criticism or, |The Dozens' as Scholarship," Callaloo, 11 (Summer 1988), 606-615. (3) "Teaching Afro-American Literature: Survey or Tradition," in Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, ed. Robert Stepto and Dexter Fisher (New York: Modern Language Association, 1979), p. 23. (4) Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 91, 98. (5) 5See Robert Hemenway, "Are You a Flying Lark or a Setting Dove?" in The Reconstruction of Instruction, p. 128. (6) Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from "The Tempest" to "Tarzan" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 141. (7) "Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext," in The Reconstruction of Instruction, p. 68. (8) She refers to Richard Wright's Black Boy, Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, and Mary E. Mebane's Mary. (9) Barbara Christian succinctly locates Morrison's work among the works of other black female writers of the past thirty years. The writers of the late Seventies and early Eighties, she says, "look at ways in which the quality of black women's lives is affected by the interrelation of sexism and racism. ... Morrison's novels, of those of the major writers, have moved furthest away from the rebellious-woman stance of the mid-seventies, for she has focused [in Song of Solomon and Tar Baby] on men as much as women. ... Morrison sees no practical way out of the morass of sexism, racism, and class privilege in the Western world, as it is presently constructed, for anyone, black or white, female or male." See "Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women's Fiction," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 242-243. (10) There is some irony in using Alice Walker to speak favorably about Toni Morrison, for Walker is usually invoked as Morrison's (superior) philosophical opposite. However, I think the irony reveals the deeper truth of these two women's kinship as working writers. See especially the third and fourth definitions of womanist foregrounded in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: "Loves the Spirit ... Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. ... Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender" (New York: Harcourt, 1983), p. xii (11) Gates has recently addressed the problem of treating an author as (in John Guillory's words) "the representative of a social identity" and the concomitant "suspension of literary or aesthetic judgment": "the sort of conversation and contestation that normally surround literary and cultural assessments, however contingent, can be a valuable part of literary pedagogy. Once a text by, say, Alice Walker becomes essentialized as the Eternal Black Feminine, though, this kind of conversation can no longer take place, because then you are not longer debating the value of a work but of a genus of person." See "Pluralism and Its Discontents," Profession 92 (New York: Modern Language Association, 1992), pp. 35-38. (12) For an excellent overview of these narratives and their place in American literature, see "Cups of Common Calamity: Puritan Captivity Narratives as Literature and History," the Editors' Preface to Puritans Among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676-1724, ed. Alden T. Vaughan and Edward W. Clark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 1-28. William L. Andrews describes the connection between captivity narratives and African-American women's autobiography in his introduction to Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 1-22. (13) Of course, even the "nonphilosophically disposed" might not want to admit such a disposition and forge ahead anyway, perhaps tantalized by Baker's characterization of the two sections as "indispensable." (14) This enthusiasm extends to the theorists who might not appeal to all his readers. (15) John Callahan eloquently negotiates this territory in his description of the formation of his own various "identities," racial, social, and spiritual. See In the African-American Crain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 1-14.
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Author:Towner, Theresa M.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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