Academic journal article African American Review

Inscriptions in the Dust: A Gathering of Old Men and Beloved as Ancestral Requiems

Academic journal article African American Review

Inscriptions in the Dust: A Gathering of Old Men and Beloved as Ancestral Requiems

Article excerpt

The American South, a landscape of contradiction and continuity, is cast as a repository of cultural memory in twentieth-century African American literature. Many writers recuperate the South as a site of reconnection with ancestral history as this symbolic geography bears witness to what Jean Toomer labels the "pain and the beauty" of African American history. Frank Shelton amplifies on the paradoxical construct of the South:

The dichotomy between kinship with the Southern land and the oppression blacks experienced on that land informs the black Southern version of the pastoral.... it seems clear that, for many current black writers (Southern and non-Southern alike), unlike white Southern writers, the meaning of life is to be found through forging a personal connection with Southern history, a history that involves enslavement, prejudice, and racism but nevertheless strengthens individuals through offering them a relationship with the land and a place in a community of people nurtured by a pastoral environment. (13,28-29)

Carolyn Jones has added to this discussion, eloquently exploring the configuration of the South as a site of violence and labor which African Americans wrested as a homeland:

Black Americans shaped the landscape of the American South. The houses that were built, the human beings that were nurtured in them; the forests that were cleared, and the crops that were planted and harvested were all tended by Black hands and formed by African cultural practices, technologies and sensibilities. The landscape of the South, in the beginning so alien to African slaves, became, for the most part, neither legally nor economically their own, but became spiritually their own through their own labor and under the most difficult of circumstances. (37)

In this way, numerous critics have articulated the South as a complex geography of home and exile: Baraka labels the "Black-South" a "homeland" and "the scene of the crime" (143, 142); Atkinson and Page remark on the "joy and shame" of the South (97); Yaeger considers the Southland "as ancestral torture chamber and as ancestral home" (56); Fultz argues that, "for many African Americans, the South remains a place of comfort and contradiction--a place to turn toward and a place to turn from" (79); and Beavers contends that for the men in Toni Morrison's fiction, the South is a "place of origin and curse" (61).

Farah Jasmine Griffin's explication of Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit" is particularly fitting for this analysis:

Her portrayal of the naturally beautiful "pastoral South," marred by the realities of burning black bodies, gives meaning and emotion to the descriptions written by the novelists.... Holiday places the black body at the very center of the pastoral. Its blood nourishes the fertile earth which in life it tilled. (15-16)

For Griffin, Holiday's insistence on placing the lynched and burned black body in the pastoral landscape disrupts spurious constructs of the South as Arcadia. Griffin seemingly intends to applaud Holiday for forcing a recognition of the South's violence; however, Griffin's language has larger implications for this study. For my purposes, "placing the black body in the very center of the pastoral" results in a revision of the American Southern pastoral genre itself.

While, in the African American pastoral, this reasserted black body is the enslaved body--lynched, maimed, tortured, and abused by racism and its institutionalized powers--it is also the ancestral body, with its accompanying folk culture and practices, spirituality, community, and kinship networks. Ernest Gaines implicitly affirms the conceptual model of this analysis: "I think that's what I have in my writing--you have that pastoral, agrarian thing--the fields, and the streams and the trees, and all that sort of thing, but then there's that other thing going on all the time" ("Interview" 318). …

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