Retelling Our Selves: Collective Memory and the Body in Charlotte Watson Sherman's 'One Dark Body.' (African American Woman Author)

By Sloboda, Nicholas | African American Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Retelling Our Selves: Collective Memory and the Body in Charlotte Watson Sherman's 'One Dark Body.' (African American Woman Author)


Sloboda, Nicholas, African American Review


African American literature often identifies and confronts political oppression, societal racism, and economic exploitation. Recently, writers of these texts have broadened the parameters of their discursive worlds to explore historic (even ancient) culture and spirituality, contemporary differences in expressions of individual and social subjectivity, and projections or visions (at times apocalyptic) of the future. Juxtaposing a heterogeneity of voices, they readdress suppressed, neglected, and other aspects of being in their refashioning of self-identity and social expression. While writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor have been studied extensively, surprisingly little attention has been give to the poet and prose writer Charlotte Watson Sherman, whose first novel One Dark Body makes a valuable contribution to this nexus of writings.

Sherman shows how a local African American community in a small town turns to its ancient social and cultural customs to come to a better understanding of themselves and, at the same time, to deal with past injustices and acts of oppression. In particular, she examines the reciprocity between ritualistic (or symbolic), body-centered experiences and other, remembered orders of thought and expressions of being, and how this interrelationship contributes to the ongoing formation and expression of identity. As her characters become aware of and respond to primordial bodily gestures, they encounter both personal recollections and collective cultural memories or mysterious "dreamstories" through which they renegotiate their own presence, at once embodied and represented, individual and historical. Recognizing the importance of maintaining such a dialogue between the past and present, the individual and social, Sherman affirms Trinh T. Minh-ha's contention that "remembering, understanding, and creating what we have heard together" remains essential for our "coming into being" and the expression of "the story of a people" (119). Sherman presents such moments in her novel as integral to the reformation of identity, both on personal levels and across generations. With families divided and relationships torn apart due to individual and social injustice and violence, Sherman both unveils the harsh reality facing an African American family in small-town America and points to the redemptive value of body-centered and memory "dialogues" between a mystical past and the material present.

Attending to cultural expression as a living continuum and dynamic system (and not a static and closed hierarchy), Sherman shares discursive worlds with other major contemporary African American writers. Like Morrison, Sherman establishes a dialogue between African American and feminist points of view. In Beloved (1987), Morrison not only examines the traumatic effects of violence but also shows how it seeps down from society to the family. Her inclusion of apocalyptic events - simultaneously catastrophic and revelatory - and a reappearing, embodied ghost is comparable to Sherman's presentation of visionary experiences - at once traumatic and symbolic - and recurring, otherworldly voices. Through such scenes, both authors review individual and social histories, at once exposing the destructive effects of prolonged racist and exploitative treatment and showing how awareness of history and culture allows for regeneration and transformation. Also recognizing the tension between the past and present, Gloria Naylor, in Mama Day (1989), juxtaposes life in Willow Springs, an island off the South Carolina-Georgia coast dominated by the spiritual and mysterious, with New York City, an island regulated by capitalism and rationalism. Similarly, Sherman intertwines life in the small town of Pearl, and its familial and social strife, with secret or "holy" areas in the woods or by the local pond, where cultural legends and ancient spirituality are maintained. With Naylor's Cocoa and Sherman's Sin-Sin choosing lives that mediate between the quotidian and spiritual worlds, both authors show how a better understanding of the natural and supernatural can emancipate the individual and social subject.

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Retelling Our Selves: Collective Memory and the Body in Charlotte Watson Sherman's 'One Dark Body.' (African American Woman Author)
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