Academic journal article African American Review

"Manumission and Marriage?": Freedom, Family, and Identity in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale

Academic journal article African American Review

"Manumission and Marriage?": Freedom, Family, and Identity in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale

Article excerpt

My knowledge, my clothes, my language, even, were shamefully second-hand, made by, and perhaps for, other men. I was living a lie, that was the heart of it. My argument was: whatever my origin, I would be wholly responsible for the shape I gave myself in the future, for shirting myself handsomely with a new life that called me like a siren to possibilities that were real but forever out of my reach.

--Andrew Hawkins, in the process of requesting manumission from Jonathan Polkinghorne in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale

The pursuit of political freedom is necessarily ambivalent because it is at odds with security, stability, protection, and irresponsibility; because it requires that we surrender the conservative pleasures of familiarity, insularity, and routine for investment in a more open horizon of possibility and sustained willingness to risk identity, both collective and individual. Freedom thus conceived is precisely at odds with the adolescent pleasures held out by liberal formulations of liberty as license.... Freedom of the kind that seeks to set the terms of social existence requires inventive and careful use of power rather than rebellion against authority; it is sober, exhausting, and without parents.

--Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity

Alongside an excerpt from an inaugural moment in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale, I begin with an extended epigraph from political philosopher Wendy Brown, whose formulations of freedom echo Johnson's in a number of significant ways. Writing some thirteen years after the publication of Oxherding Tale, Brown similarly proposes an intervention in the prolonged interdisciplinary debates about identity, politics, and enfranchisement in late modern America. While readily conceding the import of identity politics to the evolution of progressive social and cultural engagement, both Johnson and Brown caution against overzealous investment in what Johnson terms "codified and institutionalized" formulations of identity ("Philosophy" 82). In their analyses, a politics that posits a historically fixed "identity" as the premise for social agency--that asserts as its core, for example, an authentic black or female Self inadequately considers a world of possibility beyond the constraints and confines of contemporary injustices. Indeed, for Andrew Hawkins, the protagonist of Johnson's neo-slave narrative, chattel status is fundamentally linked to the "shamefully second-hand" robes of prescriptive identity (17). Accordingly, it is in large part Andrew's philosophical dissatisfaction with the pre-designated parameters of his racially inherited identity that occasions his development of radical new thought (and action) about personal and political freedom, about physical and metaphysical manumission.

In Oxherding Tale, the historical event of American slavery is revisited and revised as a synecdoche for a more broadly conceived notion of African American bondage, past and present, physical, philosophical and psychological. While the plot ostensibly unfolds along the genetic lines of the antebellum slave narrative, following its first-person narrator from birth in bondage to freedom that is confirmed through marital status and property ownership, Johnson's strategic re-appropriation of the form works to address both historical convention and modern readings of the past. (1) History, as revisited through Johnson's novel, is already and conspicuously infused with the prejudices and preoccupations of the modern eye/I. For example, the reader is encouraged--goaded, even--by the narrator who periodically slips into late twentieth-century vernacular, to read the historical plots of black cultural nationalism and second-wave feminism as pretexts to an allegory situated in the nineteenth century. Consider the proto-feminist Flo Hatfield, described as "so liberated from convention that no one in Abbeville would touch her with a barge pole" (44-45), or again, the proto-black nationalist George Hawkins, who protests against engaging in mundane chores, arguing that "this was no work . …

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