Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven

POSTMODERN SLAVERY AND
THE TRANSCENDENCE OF DESIRE
The Novels of Charles Johnson

The neo—slave narratives of Charles Johnson must be understood in relationship to the culture of Ronald Reagan's America in which they were produced. Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990) are narrated by characters caught up in slavery. Nonetheless, they represent their experience of that institution in such a way as to suggest crucial concerns with American society of the 1980s. Each text in some way considers the situation of the black family, the status of the black woman and the black man, philosophies of race, and the relationship of white intellectuals to black culture. At a time when the president himself was declaring that racism no longer existed as anything other than an individual aberration, Johnson constructed narratives that described the holocaustlike experience of slavery and that implicated current social practices in that history. The 1980s discursive constellation of hyperindividualism, greed, victim-blaming, and cultural exploitation was answered with stories not simply of victimization but also of agency, self-transcendence, black selfexpression, and construction of interracial families and communities. In each novel, the individual fails when she/he functions in isolation primarily for selfaggrandizement or even through racial pride. Thus, these works do not follow the pattern of Roots or even Jubilee in tracing the tale of the heroic black man or woman.

But it is equally false to argue that these works fall into a black nationalist narrative model. Though each work offers what might be considered an essentialist black image, those images are destroyed or transformed in the course of the story and a much more hybrid reality remains at the end. Both race and community are finally seen as necessarily constructed out of the experience of suffering, and all who suffer are potentially members of this community.

If Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose and Toni Morrison's Beloved can be

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