Academic journal article MELUS

"Oral Tutelage" and the Figure of Literacy: Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

Academic journal article MELUS

"Oral Tutelage" and the Figure of Literacy: Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

Article excerpt

An important theme in African American literature is the relationship between the writer or the artist and the community in general. This is true in black women's fiction and is often embedded in the relationship between mother and daughter. The mother-figure in black women's fiction ironically embodies a faith in education while she herself participates in a largely oral culture. She may, strictly speaking, be literate, yet to say that her literacy bears a heavy oral residue seems inadequate. Rather, her powerful primary orality may be said to betray a sedimentation of literacy. The daughter, often the protagonist in black women's fiction, may or may not be formally educated, but she stands, broadly speaking, as the figure of literacy, and as such, subsumes, within the figuration, the function of the writer or artist.

At one level at least, literacy is disjunctive in a physiological sense, the level at which the configuration of senses is rearranged, the play of eye and ear, for example. In a much quoted essay, "Characteristics of Negro Expression," Zora Neale Hurston observes that, among other qualities, action and the picture prevail in black speech. The speaker "must add action to it [language] to make it do, and referring to terms like "`chop-ax,'" "`sitting-chair,'" and "`cook-pot,'" she observes that "the speaker has in mind the picture of the object in use" (39). She concludes, "So we can say the white man thinks in written language and the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics" (39). Hurston suggests that "The stark trimmed phrases of the Occident seem too bare for the voluptuous child of the sun" (40). What the speaker resists is precisely the removal of agency and visualization which, according to Eric Havelock, occurs with the acquisition of alphabetic literacy.

Havelock calls our attention repeatedly to the fact that what occurred with the invention of the Greek alphabet is essentially a syntactical disruption: "The mind must be taught to enter a new syntactical condition, that of the mathematical equation, in preference to the syntax of the story" (230). The new syntax requires one to "identify the `subject' in relation to that `object' which the `subject' knows" (201). This disjunction between subject and object, if it is initiated with literacy,(1) is exacerbated in the project of rationality and Enlightenment philosophy and continues to be a central concern of Western philosophy. With what Michel Foucault describes as an epistemic shift occurring at the end of the eighteenth century, "the continuous relation which had placed man with the other beings of the world was broken. Man, who was once himself a being among others, now is subject among objects." As a result of this break, Man, as an invention of modernity, realizes that he is seeking to understand, not only other objects, but himself. Thus he is "not only a subject among objects," but "becomes the subject and the object of his own understanding" (Dreyfus and Rabinow 28).

In Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, the generational conflict between mother and daughter, between Silla and Selina, may be understood in terms of this disjunction. Mother and daughter are represented by a thematics of interiority and exteriority, and such a thematics defines a different syntax for each, different syntactical possibilities between subject and object. The powerful primary orality of the mother figure is represented in what we may call scenes of "oral tutelage," scenes where inside and outside are defined on a continuum, where subject and object define a continuity. The daughter, in contrast, is caught in a restless movement, vacillating between subject-object positions. The syntax here disrupts the continuity between subject and object, the commensurability between interior and exterior.

Before undertaking a closer analysis of Brown Girl, Brownstones, we might note that the thematics of inside and outside is emblematic of a tension between self and other, between the community and the individual, between belonging and exile, membership and exclusion. …

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