Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction


With close readings of more than twenty novels by writers including Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Gloria Naylor, and John Edgar Wideman, Keith Byerman examines the trend among African American novelists of the late twentieth century to write about black history rather than about their own present. Employing cultural criticism and trauma theory, Byerman frames these works as survivor narratives that rewrite the grand American narrative of individual achievement and the march of democracy.

The choice to write historical narratives, he says, must be understood historically. These writers earned widespread recognition for their writing in the 1980s, a period of African American commercial success, as well as the economic decline of the black working class and an increase in black-on-black crime. Byerman contends that a shared experience of suffering joins African American individuals in a group identity, and writing about the past serves as an act of resistance against essentialist ideas of black experience shaping the cultural discourse of the present.

Byerman demonstrates that these novels disrupt the temptation in American society to engage history only to limit its significance or to crown successful individuals while forgetting the victims.


One of the prominent features of American culture since the late 1960s has been the flowering of interest in African American history. Though the quest for a documentable black past goes back at least as far as the pre-Civil War period, its development as a topic of significant national concern really began with the demands of activists in the late 1960s for the recovery of what had been lost or deliberately suppressed. What could have been a relatively straightforward historiographical project was transformed by the controversy over William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), the modest success of Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), Ernest Gaines's Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), and the cultural phenomenon of Alex Haley's Roots (1976). Rather than simply an academic field, black history became an institution and a commodity and thus a key part of American culture. While the modes of expression have changed to some extent, the processes of analysis, popularization, and commodification continue unabated.

Within this context, major African American narrative artists have focused their literary efforts on the black past. Gaines, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, and Gloria Naylor, among others, have chosen to (re)construct the past rather than tell stories of the present. In this choice, they distinguish themselves from earlier generations of African American writers—the black arts movement, the protest/modernist generation (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison), and the Harlem Renaissance. While there has been an interest in historical narrative as long as blacks have been writing fiction, this is the first generation to make it the dominant mode. Part of the reason for present-time orientation among earlier writers was the perception that black writing existed primarily (or at least largely) as a means of “advancing the race.” Those writers with a different concern, such as Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and . . .

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