Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview
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Chapter Six

THE COLOR OF DESIRE
Folk History in the Fiction of
Raymond Andrews

The novels of Raymond Andrews are primarily stories of black men in the South in the early to mid-twentieth century. They concern themselves with the struggles for a strong masculine identity during the time African American men were commonly referred to by whites as “boys” and the time when those same whites selectively used racial violence as a means of political and social emasculation. In this sense, the texts, like those of Ernest Gaines, “bear witness” to the struggles for black manhood in a context in which such an identity was presumed by many, primarily but not exclusively whites, to imply danger and criminality. But in its religious sense, such witness has always linked hope with suffering, and so it is with these texts. Manhood can be achieved, for some in death and for others in a reshaping of their relationship to the social order.

In offering possibility within a framework of trouble, both Gaines and Andrews speak to the present in the framework of narratives of the past. Recent representations of the black man as “endangered,” as “monster,” or as “gangsta” are challenged by exposing how such constructions operate in the larger culture and by showing the varieties of actual black male experience. Narratives that use folk methods—storytelling, legends, tales, folk religion, and ritual— suggest that oral tradition reveals a version of black life profoundly different from that of “official” history. Gaines and Andrews also signify on literary history to force a reconsideration of its role in the discourse of the South and of the nation. While the modes of narrative are different—Andrews is essentially comic and Gaines tragic—the underlying aim is the same: to reconstruct the image of the black man in a way that more accurately reflects his experience. In Andrews's Muskhogean County trilogy (1978–83), the focus is primarily on sons who first feel victimized by the lack of fathers and use this condition to

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