Academic journal article African American Review

"These Are the Facts of the Darky's History": Thinking History and Reading Names in Four African American Texts

Academic journal article African American Review

"These Are the Facts of the Darky's History": Thinking History and Reading Names in Four African American Texts

Article excerpt

In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.... Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. (Benjamin 255)

We are rooted in language, wedded, have our being in words. Language is also a place of struggle. The Oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves--to rewrite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action--a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle. (hooks 28)

"I know Mammy didn't know a thing about history." (Williams 124)

At the conclusion of Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, the title character narrowly escapes being recaptured by Adam Nehemiah, the writer who has followed Dessa since her flight from slavery and imprisonment. Dessa eludes Nehemiah with the aid of Aunt Chole, who reads Dessa's body differently than does Nehemiah, and she is helped by "Rufel," her white accomplice and putative mistress. Dessa, Rufel, and a number of escaped slaves had been running a scam through the South by selling the runaways and then arranging to meet them before their new "owners" have a chance to take possession of them; Dessa's brush with Nehemiah has threatened to undo an otherwise smooth operation. With "Nemi's" allegations discredited, Dessa leaves the jail, thinking: Nemi was low; and I was the cause of him being low. He's tried to play bloodhound on me and now some bloodhound was turning him every way but loose. He knowed me, so he said, knowed me very well. I was about bursting with what we'd done and I turned to Miz Lady. "Mis'ess," I said, "Miz--" I didn't know what I wanted to tell her first. And it was like I cussed her; she stopped and swung me around to face her.

"My name Ruth," she say, "Ruth. I ain't your mistress." Like I'd been the one putting that on her.

"Well, if it come to that," I told her," my name Dessa, Dessa Rose. Ain't no O to it." (232) Insisting on the validity of their own experiences and the integrity of their own names, Dessa and Ruth resist and rewrite the Master narrative of antebellum slavery as represented by Adam Nehemiah. This dynamic of resistance and naming can be found in a number of contemporary adptations of the nineteenth-century African American female slave narrative(1), but in this essay I will concentrate on four such texts--Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. In these texts, certain names function as emancipatory mnemonic devices that simultaneously disrupt and revise the Master narrative--or dominant historiography--within and against which central characters must define themselves. These characters, caught indilemmas of discursive oppression, find themselves at the crossroads of race, class, and gender--and usually at the bottom of one or more of these hierarchies. The "privilege" of this marginalization is a consciousness that defies the purported truthfulness of History, a perspective that envisions Truth as a fictionalized assemblage and erasure of events rather than as a factual representation of actual social or historical relations. The following discussion will be divided into three sections: a brief analysis of historiography, a discussion of the emancipatory impulse and the development of a trope suitable to it, and, finally, a discussion of naming as literary technique.

Representations of historiography play an important and thoroughly problematized role in the texts under consideration. The same holds true for depictions of history itself, which Butler, Jones, Morrison, and Williams portray as fields of contestation that persist into the present rather than as a series of past, finished events. Marx's description of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is helpful here: "Men [and women] make their own history, but not spontaneously, under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them. …

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