Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Not My Story to Write": Indirection, Southern Discourse, and the Elusive Black Voice in Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Not My Story to Write": Indirection, Southern Discourse, and the Elusive Black Voice in Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle

Article excerpt

They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat

--Bob Dylan, "The Death of Emmett Till" (1963)

LEWIS NORDAN'S WOLF WHISTLE CENTERS ON THE INFAMOUS 1955 MURDER of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy accused of making sexual overtures toward a white woman in the Jim Crow South. The case sparked a national outcry that helped solidify the burgeoning civil rights movement. As a teenager in rural Mississippi, Nordan witnessed much of the subsequent conflict--the trial in which two white men were acquitted of the murder--first hand. In several interviews, the author claims that appropriating the boy's voice would have been irreverent, and indeed, the reconstruction of Till's voice by a white man remains at best problematic. He admits to struggling with issues of propriety:

   I was unable to write the Emmett Till story all those years in part
   because I didn't feel it was my story to write.... We never spoke
   of the murder.... I never said anything, and nobody else said
   anything about it either. We were horrified by it. We were so
   shocked we couldn't deal with it at all, couldn't even talk about
   it. ("Interview," Ingrain and Ledbetter 84)

Nordan's remedy for stunned silence and qualms over misappropriation lies in an indirect narrative approach. Wolf Whistle is a strange text; in addition to the controversial choices of black humor and magical realism to relate a historic, racially charged incident, the narrative peculiarly omits the murdered boy's voice. Randall Kenan praises the text for "extraordinary aesthetic achievement" but calls the absence of Till's voice "no small disappointment" and suggests that the tragedy of a murdered black boy suffers through this omission. Although the voice of Bobo, the fictional Emmett, eludes direct representation in

the text, Kenan's view of Wolf Whistle as "solely the story of the white folks" (595) requires expansion. As Toni Morrison theorizes, an Africanist presence saturates the whole of American literature "even, and especially, when texts are not 'about' Africanist presences or characters" (46). Such is the case with Wolf Whistle. Nordan's reluctance to attempt a realistic recreation of Till's murder avoids callous disregard of the tragedy by employing an indirect narrative style, one which paradoxically evinces the monumental weight of his subject. The self-consciousness with which he excludes Bobo's voice exempts the text from charges of marginalizing Till's fate and its impact on racial history in the South. Nordan's indirection allows him to approach the unapproachable, telling a story that might otherwise have gone untold.

Nordan employs several strategic devices in an attempt to avoid irreverence when telling a story of the racial Other. First, Wolf Whistle's characters and Nordan's meta-narrative use forms of rhetorical evasion and circuity, which I argue are peculiarly pervasive in Southern culture. For Nordan's characters, indirection proves both constructive and destructive, alternately keeping the peace and instigating violence. However, for Nordan, skirting or talking around the issue of the murder indicates its import and honors Till's memory while avoiding misappropriation. Second, although humor has often been used perniciously in relation to racial issues, humor in conjunction with grim subject matter also contains a remarkably human and fitting response to tragedy and loss. Used as a defense mechanism, humor does not preclude earnest consideration of the material but--ironically--renders it more accessible and allows for deliberate contemplation of what might otherwise have gone unexamined. Magical realism operates much the same way, opening "space for interactions of diversity" (Zamora and Faris 3). Finally, narratologist Gerard Genette's theory of pseudo-diegesis, according to which a narrator or character tells another's story as his or her own, aptly describes Nordan's purposeful blurring of the lines between characters and narrator, facilitating multiple perspectives which draw the reader closer to Bobo's experience. …

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