Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"You Ain't Never Caught a Rabbit": Covering and Signifyin' in Alice Walker's "Nineteen Fifty-Five"

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"You Ain't Never Caught a Rabbit": Covering and Signifyin' in Alice Walker's "Nineteen Fifty-Five"

Article excerpt

You can't find it in a book . . . you've got to inherit the blues

-Peter Chatman ("Memphis Slim")

"Born with the Blues"

Black writers and white writers seem to me to be writing one immense story-the same story, for the most part-with different parts of this immense story coming from a multitude of different perspectives.

-Alice Walker, "Saving the Life That Is Your Own"

THIS ESSAY UNFOLDS under the anxiety of inadequacy, and the familiar phrase from "Hound Dog" is its motto. Like many of us in a multicultural age, I am troubled by matters of access and authority-the degree to which one can and must respond to experiences and values not one's own, and the nature of that response. I am particularly intrigued by the uneasy balance between the dominance represented by knowledge and, for lack of a better term, humility-a recognition of the limits and ethics of dominance. In this essay I engage these problems through Alice Walker's "Nineteen Fifty-Five," a remarkably complex staging of the difficulties of cross-cultural connection. Difficulties of access in this short narrative are tied to racial differences, though certainly not confined to them. To accentuate this aspect, I draw on two concepts, covering and signifyin', that bear importantly on the relations between African American and white cultures. These concepts are especially useful because they embrace a complex range of issues from exploitation and resistance to creativity and consumerism, and, applied to readers, they help set in relief the motives as well as the limits of reading. The pairing itself reflects the cultural tension I am exploring, since covering arises from dominant white cultural practice while signifyin' is an African American tactic.

The most immediate relevance of "covering" derives from the music industry: the recording of a song previously issued by another artist. A common phenomenon in twentieth-century popular music, it took on special significance in the 1950s as white artists covered black rhythm and blues songs. This sense is neatly exemplified in "Nineteen Fifty-Five," Walker's version of Elvis Presley's relationship to Willie Mae Thornton, the African American singer who first popularized "Hound Dog" (they appear as Traynor and Gracie Mae). But, as my initial paragraph intimates, when applied to literature "covering" has powerful metaphoric applications, both among characters and among readers. That is, the attempt to understand-to grasp, to reproduce-another person or a text might be understood as a kind of covering-a replication, a version inevitably inflected by the person doing the covering. (Traynor himself models this kind of extension beyond music when he laments that his experience of marriage is "like singing somebody else's record").1 Thus "Nineteen Fifty-Five" involves not just Traynor covering Gracie Mae's song, but also Walker covering (characterizing) Elvis-and critics covering (interpreting) Walker. As a kind of cover, paraphrase is the most faithful-and least informative-version of the reading process, but even less literal accounts seek to provide an accurate, "true" rendering: in short, a cover. And in its broadest application, "covering" might be taken to emblematize a powerful mainstreaming: the tendency of those in control to appropriate artifacts and attitudes from those less empowered. At this level covering can be found not just in the evolution of rock 'n' roll but also in university curricula. These expanded senses of covering, rather than the superficial impulse to mere repetition or imitation, will guide my examination of the intercultural dynamics of writing and reading in Walker's story. These metaphoric extensions allow us to more clearly discern and differentiate the ways a range of historical figures, fictional characters, authors, and readers respond to appropriation.

I need to stress from the outset, however, that this appropriation, seemingly imperious, is nonetheless shadowed by the specter of exclusion. …

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