"Leavin' a Mark on the Wor(l)d": Marksmen and Marked Men in 'Middle Passage.'

Article excerpt

The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word. . . . racism always betrays the perversion of a man, the "talking animal." . . . A system of marks, it outlines space in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders. It does not discern, it discriminates. (Derrida, "Racism's Last Word")

I knew I'd have to write frankly about black fiction, which is always a dangerous thing to do, tempers being hair-trigger on this subject, and I don't much care to have anyone firing at me. (Johnson, "Whole Sight")

For some time Charles Johnson has been both a marksman and a marked man. As an outspoken critic, Johnson has taken aim at African American fiction, claiming that it frequently stifles its own vision by relying too heavily on a "'deadly sameness' of sensibility" (Being 121) as opposed to a "four-dimensional" view of the Black experience ("Whole Sight" 2).(1) States Johnson:

We wonder, What Lord, are Black artists doing? Our interpretation of our experience . . . has become rigid, forced into formulae; it does not permit, as all philosophically (and aesthetically) genuine fiction must, an efflorescence of meaning or a clarification of perception. ("Philosophy" 55)

To speak in such frank terms is akin to marking a bull's eye on one's back. Indeed, Johnson's agenda for emancipating artistic vision differs significantly from the vision of African American critics and writers who advocate a departure from "Western" critical and creative traditions as a means of liberation.(2) Outspoken in his criticism of those who suggest that African American fiction can mature without engaging Western philosophy, Johnson has argued for a return to Western literary forms as a means of diversifying African American writing.(3) "It would be a pleasure," Johnson states in his 1988 critical study Being and Race, "to see our writers experimenting with the prerealistic forms of the seventeenth century . . . [including] the classic sea story, the utopian novel, and a galaxy of other forms that are our inheritance as writers" (52).(4) Two years later, in 1990, Johnson published Middle Passage, a formal pastiche that rewrites the major historical event of African American slave history, not to mention Conrad, Melville, Swift, and Defoe.(5) Marked extensively by Eastern and Western philosophy, the novel relies on "intersubjectivity and cross-cultural experience" (Being 38) as a way of rethinking the traumatic ordeal of the slave trade.

Crucial to Middle Passage's narrative and thematic structure, I wish to argue, is a "system of marks" characteristic of racism and racist discourse.(6) On one level, Johnson uses marks, marksmen, and marked men as tropes for racism, and on another level racism becomes a trope for larger marks of the human condition. This reticulated game of marksmanship, along with racism's "system of marks," is refigured, along with Western philosophical and literary traditions, by a singularly imaginative African American perspective.

Judging from the ambivalent critical reception of Johnson's novel, however, it appears that many critics of African American literature may not share this view. Since Middle Passage garnered the prestigious National Book Award in 1990, only a single article has appeared on the novel other than reviews and short features about the award. Such relative critical silence ironically marks both Middle Passage and the African American literary community. By not "marking" Johnson's novel, by not assessing or responding to it, some within the critical community appear to favor banishing the work - and perhaps Johnson himself - to "forced residence" in a textual no man's land. Perhaps such silence responds to the controversy that surrounded the award. Paul West, a jurist on the panel that chose Middle Passage, protested that the selection was based on "'ethnic concerns, ideology and moral self-righteousness'" (qtd. …