Academic journal article African American Review

Isadora at Sea: Misogyny as Comic Capital in Charles Johnson's 'Middle Passage.' (Fictional Character Isadora Bailey)

Academic journal article African American Review

Isadora at Sea: Misogyny as Comic Capital in Charles Johnson's 'Middle Passage.' (Fictional Character Isadora Bailey)

Article excerpt

When Rutherford Calhoun goes, Ishmael-like, to the waterfront early in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, he ponders the "heavy, liquescent air" and finds in it some promise of purification from the vanities of urban culture - "self-interest," "mediocrity," and "selfishness" - and from his own excesses. He also finds a compulsion in the atmosphere. Staring out to sea, he feels the allure of the journey out, through the "erotic mist," and wonders if there is some place apart, a "far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth's rim" (4), that could be a place of escape.

Meanwhile, the sea itself provides an analogue for his deepest philosophical meditations, all of which he withholds from Isadora, his fictional counterpart, the female protagonist of Johnson's novel. When she comes to the pier, too - and this is where he first meets her and initially sees her as a potential easy hit for his thievery - he denies her that sea vision utterly. She is a blank to him. He admits, ". . . her expression on the pier was unreadable . . .," but he affirms as if he knew positively that she is "a woman grounded, physically and metaphysically, in the land" (5). It remains for Isadora to act, albeit outside of the frame of his apprehension, to reverse these prescriptions. She will, it turns out, be the agent whose positive, if desperate, acts will propel the action of the story.

Much recent critical attention has been focused on Johnson's extraordinary African Ur-tribe, the fictional Allmuseri, whose intersubjective powers in Middle Passage allow Rutherford Calhoun to reshape his world view and his sense of self.(1) Very little has been said about Isadora Bailey, whose actions precipitate Calhoun's journey of self-discovery, and who meets him upon his return ready to engender a future with him.(2) One of the reasons for this neglect is that Isadora is a singularly unlikeable character. Johnson creates her under a consistent mask of misogyny, though it is arguably Calhoun's and not his own. And Isadora appears in the action only in the frame story of the novel - the first and ninth chapters - and even here is treated with contemptuous humor.

Isadora's offstage adventuring, however, is at the center of Johnson's purposes in Middle Passage. Crises of gender, of family and destiny, drive the plot of Johnson's novel and provide a key to reading its parodic representations of classic male quest adventures. The stock quality of Isadora's character - she is a composite of misogynistic stereotypes - conceals the strength of her embedded rival story.(3) He goes to sea, and she stays home, but her story is a critical locus of resistance in the novel. Parody is overt and instrumental in Johnson's novel. Through the interstices of intertextual play, Isadora Bailey's story acts against the coercions of the parodied texts: their complicity in the gendered sacrifice of women to the violence of male denial of the feminine in themselves.

Claudia Tate locates in African American modernist fiction - or "allegories of desire" - a recurrent trope of black male flight from the entanglements of marriage. This trope is doubled, in her account, in black female narratives that equate marriage with compromised individual freedom and suppressed female subjectivity.(4) "We tend to applaud," she writes, "the discourse on freedom unconditionally, while the discourse on marriage is, for us, at best problematic" (100). Charles Johnson's two postmodern novels of slavery - Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990) - both present marriage, what Tate calls "a metonym for female desire" (101), as fundamentally entangled with slavery.(5) Johnson literalizes the problem of marriage as the antithesis of freedom by placing his male protagonists into situations where they are either married, or pushed to the brink of marriage, under the pressure of blackmail. Andrew Hawkins in Oxherding Tale becomes the prey of the slave owner, Flo Hatfield, who has serially seduced and murdered his predecessors in her service; Hawkins ultimately escapes and finds a more appealing mate, but he is coerced into marrying her by her father. …

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