Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity

Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity

Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity

Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity

Synopsis

In Masculinist Impulses, Nathan Grant begins his analysis of African American texts by focusing on the fragmentation of values of black masculinity-free labor, self-reliance, and responsibility to family and community-as a result of slavery, postbellum disfranchisement, and the ensuing necessity to migrate from the agrarian South to the industrialized North. Through examinations of novels that deal with black male selfhood, Grant demonstrates the ways in which efforts to alleviate the most destructive aspects of racism ultimately reproduced them in the context of the industrialized city. Grant's book provides close readings of Jean Toomer ( Cane and Natalie Mann) and Zora Neale Hurston ( Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph of the Suwanee, and Their Eyes Were Watching God), for whom the American South was a crucial locus of the African American experience. Toomer and Hurston were virtually alone among the Harlem Renaissance writers of prose who returned to the South for their literary materials. That return, however, allowed their rediscovery of key black masculine values and charted the northern route of those values in the twentieth century to their compromise and destruction. Grant then moves on to three more recent writers-John Edgar Wideman, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison-who expanded upon and transformed the themes of Toomer and Hurston. Like Toomer and Hurston, these later authors recognized the need for the political union of black men and women in the effort to realize the goals of equity and justice. Masculinist Impulses discusses nineteenth- and twentieth-century black masculinity as both a feature and a casualty of modernism. Scholars and students of African American literature will find Grant's nuanced and creative readings of these key literary texts invaluable.

Excerpt

The preeminent African American autobiography of the nineteenth century, and the most widely influential text in the study of black autobiography today, is Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life. It sought, among other things, to solve the problem of being by rescuing from the situation of bondage the twin sensibilities of rage and defiance. For Douglass, this was crystallized, ultimately, in what some commentators have called his “cult of masculinity.” His battle with the slavebreaker Edward Covey is “the turning-point” of not only his career as a slave but also the Narrative. In perhaps the most famous lines in the tradition of African American autobiography, Douglass sets the terms of his emergence into the realm of self- possessed consciousness: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” This expression of defiance, which set the style for narratives following Douglass's, fashioned the desire beyond nonbeing: the writing of oneself into existence. But this was a project that seemed doomed to frustration. The first narratives known to emphasize the black male as subject—John Jea's, Henry Bibb's, and Douglass's—had begun to appear in the 1840s. Though David Walker's scathing Appeal of 1829 was already perhaps the most passionate effort of black men to gain both civil and social equality, they were generally forced to deny the rage they felt at their enslavement. Gaining wide acceptance among Southern whites was the viewpoint of Thomas R. Dew, and later George Fitzhugh, that Africans were by nature brutish and barbaric and that slavery was their only civilizing influence. In Richard Yarborough's . . .

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