Melancholia as Resistance in Contemporary African American Literature

By Tettenborn, Eva | MELUS, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Melancholia as Resistance in Contemporary African American Literature


Tettenborn, Eva, MELUS


Dualism
in ralph ellison's invisible man

   I am outside of
   history, i wash
   i had some peanuts, it
   looks hungry there in
   its cage

   i am inside of
   history, its
   hungrier than i
   thot

--Ishmael Reed (1972)

The fields of African American literature and disability studies have only recently begun to inform each other's critical discourses. Many of the existing critical works about disability in African American literature primarily focus on the body and the literary portrayal and role of physical disabilities. (1) In Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson makes the compelling argument that African American writers such as Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Ann Petry "offer an African-American female self grounded in the singular body that bears the etchings of history and whose validation, power, and identity derive from physical difference and resistance to cultural norms" (105, emphasis added). In light of American history's traumatic impact on the African American body, the discussion of physical difference and disability in African American literature needs further analysis. Additionally, critics need to theorize the different mind in African American literature, which, as I argue below, in many ways "bears the etchings of history."

More specifically, contemporary African American literature has portrayed characters with different, melancholic minds as figures who are not to be pathologized but who must be read as subjects engaged in acts of political resistance to dominant versions of memory and historiography. While melancholia has traditionally been understood as a personal, disabling mental or emotional condition, I argue that contemporary African American literature has claimed this form of mental difference as a source of political empowerment, while simultaneously holding a white racist system responsible for the emergence of this condition of emotional difference. Esther Sanchez-Pardo has examined the link between melancholia, modernism, sexuality, and race; she argues that "melancholia has a constitutive role in modernist sexualities" (2). I would like to expand on this examination by offering a discussion of Freudian ideas of melancholia and their relationship to contemporary African American literature.

Perhaps the closest link between disability studies and the theorization of mental or emotional difference in contemporary African American literature can be located in the growing field of trauma studies. In recent years J. Brooks Bouson, Lisa Garbus, Robert Holton, Deborah Horvitz, Lisa Woolfork, and other critics have drawn on Cathy Caruth's works to discuss the wounded, altered, and literally or metaphorically disabled black self in African American literature. Another form of mental difference has been examined by Katy Ryan in "Revolutionary Suicide in Toni Morrison's Fiction." Ryan discusses the role of what may be the ultimate self-inflicted "disability" in Morrison's works. None of these critical examinations, however, has established an explicit link with disability studies. My discussion of melancholia in contemporary African American literature draws on both disability studies and trauma studies in an attempt to formulate a new theory of loss in African American literature.

Traditional western theories of mourning and melancholia define melancholia as a mental or emotional condition that has the potential to disable a subject to the point of death or, more precisely, suicide. However, in thinking through the role of melancholia in twentieth-century African American literature one must engage a series of problems. First, it is imperative to revisit western definitions and theories of the mourning or melancholic subject. Most of these theories build on Freudian approaches to mourning. Beyond an assessment of what it means to mourn or to be melancholic according to traditional western classifications, it is crucial to explore the extent to which antebellum African Americans were allowed access to such emotional expressions and how antebellum realities have left an imprint on twentieth-century African American literature. …

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