Academic journal article ARIEL

"From a Distant Witness" in Rome and London: Black Atlantic Temporalities in William Demby's Beetlecreek and George Lamming's in the Castle of My Skin

Academic journal article ARIEL

"From a Distant Witness" in Rome and London: Black Atlantic Temporalities in William Demby's Beetlecreek and George Lamming's in the Castle of My Skin

Article excerpt

In Richard Wright's introduction to the first American edition of George Lamming's debut novel, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), he relates that "[o]ne feels not so much alone when, from a distant witness, supporting evidence comes to buttress one's own testimony" (vi). Wright's notion of a "distant witness" instantiates a mode of black diasporic affiliation, invoked by a renowned African American writer living in exile in Paris since 1946, in praise of Lamming, an Afro-Caribbean author who expatriated to London in 1950. This article compares the distant witness of Lamming's novel with that of Beetlecreek (1950), African American author William Demby's first novel, written upon his expatriation to Rome in 1947. Focusing on these two works of Cold War-era black Atlantic fiction, (1) this comparative analysis explores the formal and thematic effects wrought by these avant-garde expatriate authors. Read in tandem, their shared aesthetic project of bearing witness to their segregated homelands from a position of critical distance generates complex black Atlantic temporalities that defamiliarize structures of oppression: that of Jim Crow in Beetlecreek and colonization in In the Castle of My Skin. (2)

Demby and Lamming penned these modernist novels from their respective positions in postwar Rome and London, each electing to write semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age novels with existentialist undertones set in the fraught 1930s of the Global South. With Beetlecreek, Demby innovated a black modernist aesthetic that follows the inner desires and thwarted dreams of multiple characters living in a small fictional town in the rural Southern United States during the Great Depression. Beetlecreek centers on an African American adolescent, Johnny Johnson, and his uncle, David Diggs, whose experiences share some biographical resonances with Demby's own life story. (3) Beetlecreek often features internal, existential reveries, and its themes focus on interracial relations and racialized violence under Jim Crow segregation. Demby worked on the novel in the late 1940s in Rome, where he was immersed in the antifascist, postwar art scene and lived with a leftist cadre of Italian artists and filmmakers. Lamming wrote his experimental bildungsroman upon his Windrush-era move to London in 1950, where he worked on the BBC radio program Caribbean Voices and formed friendships with other West Indian writers and intellectuals, completing his first novel, like Demby, within the first few years of his expatriation. (4) The reader first encounters Lamming's semi-autobiographical protagonist, "G," on his ninth birthday, before he appears again in the second half of the novel in his teen years. Through its poetic language and disjunctive form, In the Castle of My Skin defamiliarizes the colonial power structure, subtly undoing what Lamming later characterized as his debut novel's project: to present and deconstruct the "tragic innocence" ("Sea of Stories") of the colonized in the British Caribbean.

Critical distance shaped the writings of black authors in exile like Lamming and Demby, whose decision to move abroad after World War II was influenced by the forces of racism and a dearth of opportunities at home. Demby's and Lamming's first novels set into practice critical cosmopolitan thinking--what James Clifford terms "cosmopolitanism from below" (qtd. in Robbins and Horta 9) regarding the ravages of colonial modernity amid the rise of US imperialism. Both writers experiment with form, content, and style to "imagine," in keeping with Rebecca Walkowitz's theorization of cosmopolitan style, "that conditions of national and transnational affiliation depend on narrative patterns of attentiveness, relevance, perception, and recognition" (6). Demby's and Lamming's respective displacements from their homelands are compelled by a creative impulse: systemic oppression motivates each writer to seek alternative ways of being in and seeing the world. …

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