Academic journal article MELUS

Shatterings: Violent Disruptions of Homeplace in Jubilee and the Street

Academic journal article MELUS

Shatterings: Violent Disruptions of Homeplace in Jubilee and the Street

Article excerpt

Two of the most influential novels to appear in twentieth-century American literature illustrate that establishing a home has often been a contested and complex pursuit for African Americans. Both Ann Petry's The Street and Margaret Walker's Jubilee carefully examine how attempts to find and maintain a home are continually met with violence and thwarted by prevailing social and economic injustices that pervade the boundaries of home and threaten to disrupt any resistance that has been forged. Although home is frequently evoked in the public cultural imaginary as a place of safety, as a retreat from a potentially hostile world, and as a physical location from which one can receive at least some degree of comfort, belonging, and protection, these texts make clear that violence and discrimination have long informed the struggle to construct a viable and ultimately safe home for many African Americans.

Through Walker's and Petry's careful delineation of the social forces that threaten the security and maintenance of one's home, both authors deconstruct such concepts as home, safety, and shelter in their respective texts and reposition them in the context of social injustices born out of the volatile intersection of race, class, and gender oppression. The result is a critical reformulation of home that is more adept to expose the struggles that many men and women of color have had to wage in order to create a viable homeplace, and that can potentially reorder our cultural and social understanding of homes as ultimately safe places--spaces that are assumed to shield their inhabitants from racism and other forms of external and internal threats.

Perhaps the best known essay written on the significance of home for African American women is bell hooks's "Homeplace: A Site of Resistance." hooks suggests that African Americans have historically believed that constructing a homeplace had a "radical political dimension," and that black women have long resisted by making homes where there was affirmation despite hardship and deprivation, and where dignity could be restored where it had been denied (42). As such, homeplace becomes what she calls a necessary "site of resistance and liberation struggle" (45). We might think of this as a place where one can both return to and grow from, as a space where one can find reprieve from an otherwise often harsh world.

While I certainly agree with hooks's claim that the home can function as a liberatory site of resistance, as it indeed has for many African Americans, texts such as Jubilee and The Street provide rich occasions upon which we might interrogate the construction and position of homeplaee even more closely. My use of the term homeplace here indicates that the home itself, or the physical dwelling place where one resides or that one is trying to establish, is a necessary antecedent to the task of creating homeplace, or what hooks refers to as "making home a community of resistance" (42). Readers witness that homes themselves are continually disrupted in Jubilee and The Street through violence and oppression, and as a result, so are various attempts to create and maintain the type of homeplace that hooks describes. Walker and Petry clearly illuminate the need for home to act as a safe place of affirmation and resistance, but their texts raise critical questions concerning the obstacles against which this task must sometimes be carried out. (1)

First, what happens when the very establishment of a home is violently resisted or vigorously contested? In both Jubilee and The Street readers witness repeatedly the difficulty that protagonists have in setting up and maintaining a physical space to call home that might otherwise potentially serve as a location of resistance. Whether it is securing a suitable apartment in the midst of economic and sexual exploitation, or facing the instability of safe travel following emancipation, the female protagonist in both texts must confront the violence of racism, sexism, and poverty when trying to make a home for herself and her family. …

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