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Ten is the Age of Darkness: The Black Bildungsroman.

Geta LeSeur. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1995. 245 pp. $34.95.

Reviewed by

Alice A. Deck University of Illinois

The surge of scholarly interest since 1989 in Africa and its diaspora has yielded a number of articles, books, and anthologies designed to explore the cultural, historical, and literary linkages among black people. Francoise Lionnet's Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture, published in 1989, now reads as the paradigm for the cross-cultural study of black women's autobiography. Three titles published in 1992 centered on women's literature: Karla Holloway's Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature, Gay Wilentz's Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the African Diaspora, and Margaret Busby's edited collection Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent. William Branch edited an anthology entitled Crosswinds: An Anthology of Black Dramatists in the Diaspora in 1993, and in 1995 Stelamaris Coser published Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones. Hence, Geta LeSeur's Ten is the Age of Darkness: The Black Bildungsroman, with its emphasis on fiction by black writers in the United States and the Caribbean, falls in line with an established and growing scholarly trend. What emerges from reading this particular literary study, however, is an intellectual schism. On the one hand, LeSeur manages to argue convincingly for discernible thematic linkages among the novels; on the other hand, the stated links are not always defensible as unique to African and African diasporan literatures.

This schism comes through in Geta LeSeur's stated threefold purpose in doing this study:

This study's purpose is threefold. First, it illustrates the linkages among the disparate experiences of a people who shared a common slave history after dispersal from Africa while maintaining a sense of family, community, and customs. Second, it emphasizes the importance of the formative years of young black children's lives and shows how they differ from their white peers and from each other because of cultural and colonial differences. Third, it demonstrates the Black writer's ability to use and adapt a traditional form, the European bildungsroman, to create lively, wonderful, and artistically sound novels that can instruct us.

The first chapter proceeds to outline the characteristics of the European Bildungsroman. LeSeur wants to make definitive distinctions between this form and the black Bildungsroman, while at the same time admitting that the black novels have much in common with those by Europeans and white Americans. She carefully explains why none of the West Indian and African American novels she will discuss can be grouped with those by William Faulkner, James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf because of distinct sociological and historical contexts. Yet later in the same chapter, she insists that, in terms of form, the European Bildungsroman and Bildungsromane from the African diaspora all have "rites and rituals as part of [their] structure."

The remainder of this study is subdivided as follows: Chapter two on African West Indian Male Initiation novels is centered around George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, Michael Anthony's The Year in San Fernando, and Austin Clarke's Amongst Thistles and Thorns. Chapter three focuses on Ellison's Invisible Man, Hughes's Not Without Laughter, and Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain as African American Male Initiation novels. Chapter four on African American Female Initiation novels looks at Gwendolyn Brooks's Maude Martha, Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and ntozake shange's Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. Chapter five begins with a discussion of West Indian novels by male authors, such as Claude McKay's Banana Bottom and George Lamming's Season of Adventure, which feature young women coming of age. Subsequently, the chapter covers novels by younger generations of West Indian women such as Merle Hodge's Crick, Crack Monkey and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John as African West Indian Female Initiation novels. This division along gender and cultural lines works against a full appreciation of the thematic similarities among the novels that LeSeur wants us to see. We need more comparative analysis within and among these chapters given the large number of novels she addresses in each. Moreover, all of these chapters fall into too much summarizing and a rehearsal of critical arguments others have made rather than offering any new readings. This is particularly true of LeSeur's overly long discussion of Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones.

There is, I think, a missed opportunity fully to develop the compelling title of this study as a controlling metaphor in each of the novels. LeSeur explains in her preface that the title, Ten is the Age of Darkness, comes from a story her young daughter told her. She states that many of the protagonists in her study are between the ages of nine and thirteen, "with ten becoming a significant marker." Yet rarely in the course of her discussion of fifteen or more black Bildungsromane does she identify or explain how age ten works as a marker - or what Darkness might mean in this context.

Nevertheless, LeSeur's study of the black Bildungsroman is a unique contribution in the growing field of comparative studies of African and African diasperan literatures, and it will be of use especially to scholars and students who may be unfamiliar with African West Indian authors. LeSeur does give us an interesting, though brief, conclusion that summarizes some of the books' thematic similarities, and the two appended chronologies - one a chronology of the African West Indian Bildungsroman and the other a chronology of the African American Bildungsroman - will serve users well. Yet, Ten is the Age of Darkness demonstrates the difficulty of managing such large studies. LeSeur, like some other cross-cultural scholars, seems to be overwhelmed by too many potential similarities among too many black novels, while simultaneously compelled to establish connections between the black Bildungsroman and Bildungsromane by European and white American novelists.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Deck, Alice A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:973
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