Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Dessa's Blues: Reimagining the Master's Narrative in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Dessa's Blues: Reimagining the Master's Narrative in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose

Article excerpt

I AM NOBODY A RED SINKING AUTUMN SUN TOOK MY NAME AWAY. RICHARD WRIGHT, HAIKU 1

Introduction

Using the "counterpoint of Western classical music" to critique "different experiences contrapuntally" in Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said (1994) illustrates how "various themes play off one another" such that "in the resulting polyphony, there is concert and order, an organized interplay that derives from the themes" (pp. 18, 51). This essay shows how politics and law affect the everyday lives of African American communities by analyzing the contrapuntal conversation between Sherley Anne Williams's 1986 novel Dessa Rose, and the legal narrative Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). In the Author's Note, Williams explains that Dessa Rose (1999) is based on two historical incidents, an 1829 story of a pregnant black woman in Kentucky who helped to engineer "an uprising on a coffle," and an 1830 story of a White woman who lived on an isolated farm in North Carolina that "was reported to have given sanctuary to runaway slaves" (p. 5). Williams draws on the blues tradition of investigation and knowledge production to create a fictional account of an African American woman's struggle for embodiment in the antebellum plantation culture of Northern Alabama. Dessa's "speakerly" (Gates, Jr., 1989) voice not only anticipates the blues tradition, but she "signifies" on history as she becomes aware of the gap between democratic myths of freedom and equality, and state-sanctioned violence in slavery. Identifying the blues as criticism, Richard Wright states in "Blueprint for Negro Writing" that "the Negro has a folklore which embodies the memories and hopes of his struggle for freedom" (Gayle, Jr., 1971, p. 337, Woods, 1998, p. 19). Dessa's vernacular speech crosses racial boundaries to indict white society, not only placing its representatives "Nemi" and "Rufel" individually on trial, but holding society collectively accountable for the racist institutions sanctioned by the patriarchal white supremacist social order. Trauma shapes cultural memory as Dessa and her companions capture the rhythm of the blues and adapt the music and language of slave songs to trick her adversaries and escape twice--once from the chains of the coffle and once from the cellar where she is confined during her stay of execution.

This study draws on Clyde Woods's "blues epistemology" to link African American Folklore to Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Dessa Rose. Critical Race Study theorist Patricia Williams (1991), discusses the historical failure of the "rights" discourse from her position as a Black female law professor searching for an apartment in New York. Using stories to challenge racialized power structures, Williams finds that despite her professional status, she is a member of a minority group still "treated as three-fifths of a human, a subpart of the white estate" (p. 141). Woods (1998) describes the "blues epistemology as the embodiment of African American daily life, social explanation, and social action" (p. 103). Just as Development Arrested challenges the prevailing legal culture of male white supremacy, Dessa Rose's characters embody quotidian themes of tragedy, love, and identity in their struggle for autonomy and freedom. Dessa's contrapuntal voice not only foregrounds the role of the African American woman in the slave community, it acts as a prescient counterpoint to that of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. While Taney denied the rights and privileges of citizenship to all African Americans, Dessa (1999) questions the dominance of the white master that spared her life "until I could birth a baby white folks would keep slaved.... We was mules all right. What else would peoples use like they used us?" (p. 183). Angela Davis (2005) explains that since the earliest days of our "developing democracy," "white people ... were released from the threat of death for most offenses" ..., but "black slaves ... were subject to the death penalty . …

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