Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview
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Chapter Eleven

APOCALYPTIC VISIONS
AND FALSE PROPHETS
The End(s) of History in Wideman,
Johnson, and Morrison

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that “the problem of the twentieth century [was] the problem of the color-line” (Souls of Black Folk, 3). At the end of the century, and of the millennium, three novels dramatize the apocalyptic effects of the century's failure to find a solution. In Paradise, Cattle Killing, and Dreamer, Toni Morrison, John Wideman, and Charles Johnson, respectively, dramatize moments of history's explosion into violence, chaos, and death. In this sense, they are linked not only to contemporary obsessions with technological and political disorder and religious and media images of Armageddon but also with historical recurrences of such concerns at end moments of centuries.

But consistent with other works in this study, these novels do not engage directly in the immediate (in this case millennialist) discourse. Instead, they present crisis moments in (real or fictive) history and reconstruct those in ways that signify on the present. By exploring the sources of the crises and the meaning of transformative moments, the writers imply the truth of our moment. In this sense, the “end of time” becomes an opportunity to consider the ends of history. In each case, the end that concerns them is race. Does its persistence into our fin de siecle imply that it is an end rather than a means in history? How is it that a problem of 1790s Philadelphia, the civil rights era, and an all-black town in midcentury America can look so much like the problem of the multicultural, postmodern United States? And why should this be the concern of highly respected, well-placed, successful writers? Why should their texts, through portrayals ofmurder, disease, and riot, reflect despair much more than hope and disintegration much more than healing? In effect, their works

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