The Great White Way: African American Women Writers and American Success Mythologies. Kafka, Phillipa.
New York and London: Garland, 1993. Hardcover. 223 pages. $35.00.
Phillipa Kafka joins a distinguished line of scholars of African American letters with The Great White Way. Hers is the last in the Critical Studies in Black Life and Culture Series, which delivered such scholars as Margaret Perry and Amritjit Singh. The premise of The Great White Way is audacious enough: Booker T. Washington, in his life and work, mediated to African Americans, specifically to African American women writers, the American myth of individual success, exemplified by the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin. What follows is the intelligent and forceful advocacy of several women whose work has become canonical: Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker.
The Great White Way is a six-chapter exploration of the impact of American male success mythology on the lives and writings of African American women. Specifically, a penniless individual can run away from home at an early age, work hard to reverse his fortunes, and, as a result of diligence and native wit, earn the respect of heads of state. Before addressing obvious differences in success potentials, Kafka explains her understanding of African American identity formation. She defines the cultural position of African Americans and other "hyphenated Americans" as both African and European in orientation. This both allows African American women a claim to the success myth and problematizes their inability to experience it.
"Signifyin(g)," the term coined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is offered as the unique African American literary expression: "signifyin(g) is a uniquely black rhetorical concept, entirely textual or linguistic, by which a second statement or figure repeats or tropes or reverses the first" (Gates qtd. in Kafka 87). Kafka's use of the term in The Great White Way occasions discussions of positionality. Questions that students might ask themselves are "How, if at all, does a person from one ethnic or cultural group critique literature by a person of another group? As multiethnicity in literary studies becomes routine, how necessary or helpful is it to publish one's cultural position? Is the exclusive application of "signifyin(g)" to African American literature not, in fact, an instance of "blacking up"? Perhaps it is time to apply "signifyin(g)" to non-black literatures. After a series of definitions, both in the introduction and in the first two chapters of analysis, it is somewhat difficult to distinguish "signifyin(g)" from other forms of literary irony.
The introduction to The Great White Way tends to zigzag between critical approaches (Gates, Baker, and Asante), among genres, and around disciplines (history and literary criticism). However, Kafka begins provocative work on Booker T. Washington here. She also demonstrates the linguistic cum literary technique of "signifyin(g)" with lively readings of Charles Johnson's short fiction.
Upon this critical foundation, Kafka constructs parallel narratives of the lives of Phillis Wheatley and Benjamin Franklin. In so doing, she emphasizes the drastically different fates of the writers. Specifically, she contends that it is impossible for Wheatley to have achieved individual success such as Franklin's because of her race, her gender, and her slave status. In a lengthy examination of the poetry and correspondence, Wheatley emerges as an expert signifier whose revolutionary spirit and subversive rhetoric have been misunderstood and muted by critical neglect.
The third chapter of The Great White Way, "Wheatley and Her Literary Daughters: From Tragedies to Triumphs," argues Phillis Wheatley's importance as a model from which to read the work of African American women writers. Kafka advances the concept of literary genealogy with a survey of nineteenth century women …