Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Exploring an Archetypal Divide: Epics, Tricksters, Epic Tricksters

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Exploring an Archetypal Divide: Epics, Tricksters, Epic Tricksters

Article excerpt

We now find that mythology also conceals an ethical system, but one which, unfortunately, is far more remote from our ethic than its logic is from our logic.

-Claude Lévi-Strauss (1978)

Trickster, scholars of African American lore and literature know, prevailed as the Africa-born, archetypal culture hero of witty subterfuge and survival at a time when American slaves faced no good choices: flight to freedom in an alien world where even second sight could do them little good; open rebellion against a country that had routed the British Empire and uprooted numerous indigenous American societies; and, uplift based on a racial competition in which the centuries-old ideology of exceptionalism-the roots of slavery-was identified as the high bar they needed to reach, and mount, en route to freedom and equality.1 Indeed, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, former slaves and abolitionists2 have known that this struggle was not only a clear and present danger, but also a transtemporal one reaching centuries back to a point when Western history and epic aesthetics reached a happy union. In ever-increasing numbers in the nineteenth-century fin de siecle-a period known as the "nadir" in African American history largely because of the proliferation of lynchings-black intellectuals concretized the use of belles lettres to critique and undermine America's racialized epic performance.

Not only did these "New Negroes" respond to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the nationalization of "separate but equal," but they also inaugurated a literary "Renaissance" in which ancient epic performance and nineteenth-century white supremacy were understood to be in a cause-effect or strongly correlated relationship. After all, works like Sutton E. Griggs's Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race (1899), Charles W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901), Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1901), Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902-3), and W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) either explicitly emerged from the authors' awareness that epic performance and supremacist law were conflated-that is, that Homer Plessy was the plaintiff was very likely not lost upon them-or their keen apprehension that American racism constituted a modern epical challenge of one form or another.

With the advent of the civil rights era and the birth of black studies programs, European-American scholars like Roger D. Abrahams, a folklorist interested in heroic storytelling, could begin a 1965 article with the following declaration: "The actions we consider heroic reflect a life which is based upon contest values and a societal hierarchy built on the model of a male-centered family" (341). Although explicitly a survey of heroes in America, Abrahams, in a subtle cautionary tale against the Vietnam War ethos, references Homer as the genesis (341m). Abrahams's "trickster-hero" paradigm proceeded from the American association of African lore with tricksters and Europe with epic heroes, but the 1960s-largely due to the 1965 English-language version of D. T. Niane's Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali3-introduced knowledge of traditional African epic performances to American scholars and audiences. Indeed, a seminal comparative moment occurred with the 1979 publication of Isidore Okpewho's The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance, which placed African, Homeric, and Anglo-Saxon epic heroes in a comparative, performance-based context. Although African epic and African American literary scholarship have largely remained divided on either side of the "black" Atlantic over the decades, for various reasons and in spite of scholarly efforts,4 this greater awareness of epic performance and race helped establish a critical foundation.

Not surprisingly, knowledge of causal and correlative relations between epic and racism was widespread enough by the 1980s that literary scholars outside the field of ethnic literature knew it. …

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