The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.'

By Bernard, Louise | African American Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.'


Bernard, Louise, African American Review


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his The Signifying Monkey. A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), states that the black vernacular tradition stands as a metaphoric signpost at the "liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa and Afro-America meet" (4). However, the concept of liminality within Afro-diasporic experiences, and more specifically within the (African-)American context, is itself a slippery signifier. As a transitional or marginal state, the term also suggests fixedness, or a stopping point--a condition of stasis, or non-movement. This, in turn, places in question the possibilities of both voice (the power of enunciation) and agency. At the same time, though, the historical legacy of slavery and the continued experience of racial oppression mean that peoples of African descent are often socially, economically, and politically positioned at the "margins" of the dominant culture, the Africanist presence remains central to the foundation of America. Although the democratic ideal, in material terms, has not been realized, just as the Founding Fathers did not recognize the direct contributions of black people in the building of the American nation, American culture remains (always already) the product of black style and innovation. While black cultural production itself continues to endure the problems of cross-over invention, freedom movements (particularly white women's and gay liberation movements), music, language use, sports, and fashion are indebted to the cultural experiences of African peoples in America.(1) Similarly, while contemporary identity politics suggests that the (monolithic) subject is now "decentered," such a reconfiguration of History proposes, paradoxically, that the condition of the "dispersed" and the "fragmented" is the representational modern experience. Indeed, "what the discourse of the postmodern has produced is not something new but a kind of recognition of where identity always was at" (Hall 114,115), and as a result "de margin and de center," to use Mercer and Julien's phrase, is forever a convergence of the twain. The crossroads of culture is at once both liminal and "polymorphous and multidirectional," for the juncture represents the possibilities of movement (as opposed to confinement or stasis); it is the paradigmatic "scene of arrivals and departures" (Baker 7).

Such arrivals and departures form the central motif in Suzan-Lori Parks's play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1989-1992).(2) The "death" of the play's title, however, does not represent the end of life as such, for the folkloric Everyman that is the eponymous figure of the drama continues to pass over, and through, Time and Space in a cyclical ritual of adversity and survival. Death of the Last Black Man represents, therefore, in musical terms, a quintessential blues experience: the "impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness" (Ellison, Shadow 78). And just as the blues are "the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed" (Baker 4), so Parks's play is an intricate riff on the complexities of identity and subjectivity within the context of an African-American cultural realm.

The play's "protagonist," Black Man With Watermelon (like his significant "Other," Black Woman With Fried Drumstick), is caught betwixt and between "de margin and de center"; he is at once written out of History, yet placed at the center of his own (postmodern slave) narrative. Black Man with Watermelon is able to voice his (true) Self through the personal pronoun 1, yet he is forever trapped within the metaphoric parentheses of the stereotype that transcends (linear) Time as History:

(I bein in uh Now: uh Now bein in uh

Then: I bein, in Now in Then, in I will

be. I was be too but thats uh Then thats

past. That me that was-be is uh me-has-been.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.'
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.