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Rafia Zafar, We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870.

Rafia Zafar, We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870 (Columbia UP, 1997), xi + 249 pp., $49.50 cloth, $17.50 paper.

In the discussion and analysis of the mask as metaphor, which is often used by African-American Scholars, Rafia Zafar has determined that criticism of texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century is lacking in the exploration of this critical perspective. In seeking to add to this scholarship, Zafar, as stated in the introduction to her book, will explore how "mask identity-defining and persuasive strategies of black authors [from 1760 to 1870] show their simultaneous allegiance to both American letters and an African identity" (3). Zafar also contends that such a discussion of authors who, through "trial and experiment, appropriation from and accommodation to the European-American literary mainstream," may add further to the understanding of the development of African-American literature (3). For Zafar, such an exploration must be done through an examination of both "black" and "white" American texts.

What better place to begin this analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts than with the (once highly criticized as Eurocentric) poet Phillis Wheatley; the European-American poet Joel Barlow, who wrote of other than Christian gods; and Ann Eliza Bleecker, who believed in freedom, but for whom equality of the races was a concept in which she fell short? Each of these poets took revolutionary stances against the theology and philosophy of the times. The works that each produced looked to the neoclassical and the heroic couplets that reflected the techniques engaged during this period. Zafar notes many of these authors' differences and similarities, but she ultimately focuses on their authorial style, which seeks to persuade the reader away from majority norms. True enough, these three poets seemed forced in their selection, but the common elements of style and literary choices served the authors' purposes. One would note also that it is not just the "race thing" that has obscured the useful examination of such a selection of texts, but the examinations have relegated texts to discussions either of the "race thing," or literary technique exclusive of racial influences. It is the incorporation of both these issues that has allowed an insightful discussion of the texts and their authorial choices. Zafar has established a balance regarding these issues.

In examining texts that influenced the technique of African Americans in confronting American society, Zafar re-views the sources and resources that emanated from captivity and conversion narratives. A careful examination of the captivity text by John Marrant (1785) moves the reader through a revisioning of the author's connection to Christianity and conversion, toward the uplifting of the author--a black man. Recognizing that blacks in 1785 saw themselves as slave and free persons against a godless world, the mimicry of conversion texts was one way of propagating the ideas of freedom and identity. Zafar clarifies Marrant's style and intent by stating that he "saw clearly the parallels between contemporary African Americans' plight and that of the ancient Israelites--and, like his biblical predecessors, he demanded that 'our modern Egyptians' let his people go" (63). Jarena Lee, who also recounted her religious experience in a narrative, was an evangelist who dealt not only with burgeoning race issues but gender issues as well. Zafar uses textual references to exemplify how shifting alliances and contradictions within American society caused African-American authors to move toward a repositioning of roles. In the Narratives of Henry Bibb and William Wells Brown, the narrative shifts from the captor as heathen to the captor as the white Christian who operates on similar levels to the heathen.

Using Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as representative of the paradigm of American selfhood, Zafar examines the narratives of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass. Equiano's narrative, along with the Native American narrative by Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, is discussed in its relationship to, and variations on, the captivity texts, while Douglass' narrative is shown to have appropriated particular aspects of the autobiography of selfhood. Zafar spends much of this chapter dealing with the parallels between Douglass and Franklin, regarding their progress from obscurity to recognition, and attitudes about the community and education. Along with these parallels, Zafar notes that "This American [Douglass], whose life could so resemble Benjamin Franklin's, provides African American literature with a paradigm of both generic appropriation and textual transcendence" (95). "Writing, a matter of pragmatic style to Franklin, is initially to Douglass a literal means out" (102).

While Douglass was representative of the self-made American as a black male, the black female was seeking to define herself while confronting negative images created by whites. Women such as Harriet Jacobs and Harriette Wilson redefined female images in opposition to works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, while contending with the female voice most often relegated to the sentimental novel. It is through the discussion of the works of Jacobs and Wilson that Zafar shows the danger of using "the master's tools to dismantle the master's house" (149).

Zafar's final chapter discusses the texts of Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes at the White House and Eliza Porter's A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life. Each female author experiments with how her own perspectives may be used to influence her audience. It ultimately becomes the choice of authorial voice that determines the fate of each author. While discussing the experiences of Eliza Porter, Zafar at the same time explains how Porter's use of invisibility as a servant, as maintained throughout the text, was crucial in allowing her to critique the society she worked for: "Porter wants to give the philosophy as well as the facts" (159). Even though Porter reveals herself to be Negro early in the text, she does not clearly "reveal herself as a 'colored' female hairdresser [which] can be seen as evidence of authorial strategy ..." (159). Porter was not directly confronted regarding her comments, nor did she suffer severe economic difficulties, in spite of the fact that many knew of her role as author. Elizabeth Keckley, on the other hand, chose a different technique in her text and placed herself squarely in the role of speaker and authority. This ultimately resulted in Keckley's chastisement and her subsequently being forced back into the role of servant and invisibility: "the tragedly of Keckley's mistaken belief [was] that white audiences would give credence to her version of White House affairs" (181). It is clearly through this analysis that we see stylistic and authorial choices embrace the issue of the mask, and invisibility, as a useful tool of the African-American author in seeking a literary forum in which to speak.

At times when the text offers extensive and lengthy analysis, the research suggests a thoroughness and attention to detail that is helpful in the continuation of Antebellum criticism. The historical circumstances of African-Americans do much to align the attention to audience and the need for appropriation of particular and popular styles. The issues of identity for African-Americans and Americans run parallel with the development of social philosophies and racist attitudes that shape how various individuals are perceived. Zafar concludes by capsulizing how these literary shifts promoted the emergence of the African-American authorial voice and the development of its distinct literary traditions. It is agreed, by this reviewer, that "Antebellum writings have yet to receive their due" (1). Zafar's work does much to bring the merit of this critical discussion to light.

Lean'tin L. Bracks

Fisk University
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Author:Bracks, Lean'tin L.
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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