Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine

FAMILY TROUBLES
History as Subversion in Two Wings to
Veil My Face and Divine Days

In his novels, Leon Forrest consistently concerns himself with what Ralph Ellison called “the complex fate” of being black and American. For Forrest, the condition requires an emphasis on the process of storytelling, involving many voices and discursive practices.1 It includes layers of meaning that constantly shift and re-form. Narrating such experience necessitates recognition of the history embedded in the everyday life of the present, as well as in the tales told or untold by his characters. Each work has as its central character a young black man who is compelled to try to make sense of the past, usually because he has lost significant members of his family; the problem in each case is the wealth rather than dearth of materials and possible interpretations that are available to him. At the same time, the history revealed has implications for the seeker's sense of identity and place in the world, in part because it incorporates family experiences that might aid him in understanding his own situation as an orphan and a black man in the contemporary world. Forrest argues that the recovery of family history, which can serve as metaphor or metonymy of group history, is the most effective means of understanding and working through contemporary problems. Without an appreciation of the past and its impact, present concerns will seem insurmountable. Thus, Forrest reworks the holocaust motif so as to both acknowledge and move beyond it. In creating a thematics of troubled families and orphans, he figures African Americans as special, but only in the sense of being the most fully American of the nation's people.

In constructing his version of the past, Forrest implicitly challenges virtually all of the standard readings of black experience circulating in the 1970s and 1980s. Both heroic and pathological readings that suggest that African American history can be reduced to a simple cause for the present are rejected; neither

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