Reading Cultures: The Construction of Readers in the Twentieth Century

By Molly Abel Travis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critic's Essentialism

Given today's race industry, we are talking about millions of individuals -- politicians, preachers, professors and poets among them -- who can no more budge from the belief in racial (and gender) differences than the Inquisition could give a fair hearing to Galileo.

-- Charles Johnson, "Inventing Africa"

Statements to the contrary, insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity, are themselves full of meaning. The world does not become raceless or will not become unracialized by assertion. The act of enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act

-- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

This chapter stages a dialectical encounter between the narrative techniques of Toni Morrison Beloved and Charles Johnson Middle Passage to focus on the different positions required of readers of the two novels. By readers, I mean both the reader(s) implied by the text and actual/historical readers. I argue that it is necessary to answer questions about identity politics and competing models of multiculturalism in order to construct an adequate social model of reading response. Robert Stepto rightly concludes that because the reigning social models of reading response ignore race, they do not tell us much about "an American act of reading" (315). Also significant is Joe Weixlmann's observation that African American literary critics have shown little interest in reader-response approaches to African American texts (55).1 There are several probable reasons for the lack of exchange between African American criticism and reader theories. First, African American literary criticism has tended to focus on the text and the writer. Second,

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