Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview
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Chapter Five

Jazz and Bailey's Cafe

With the emergence of feminist criticism in the past quarter century, desire has become a focal point of theory and critical commentary. It has, of course, been present in literary discourse for much longer, as long as there have been stories of love, greed, and power. But recent emphases on bodies, sexual identities, and repression have sharpened the discussions. Within African American literature and the criticism of it, there has been a reluctance to fully engage these issues, in part because the dominant racial formation has used the language of desire to subordinate black being through representations of the licentious black woman and the black rapist. What can be seen in the works examined in this section is the continuing ambiguity about desire. Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Charles Johnson problematize the expression of physical desire; none of the characters in the novels considered here find contentment in their bodies or their sexuality. Raymond Andrews, while more playful in presenting sexual experience, takes a moral position (through satire) on other forms of desire, such as greed and power. In his case, the erotic serves the purpose of this moral positioning. Thus, even in contemporary texts where black bodies (and sometimes white ones) are central to narrative, the authors experience dis-ease in their representation.

The late 1980s marked the end of a decade in which gender issues among African Americans had been especially contentious. One marker of the beginning of this era was the publication and performance of ntozake shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide… When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1977), with its depictions of the frequently violent nature of men and the need for bonding among black women. Two years later came Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Black Superwoman (1979), which sought to decon


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