Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson

By Herman Beavers | Go to book overview

Preface

It has occurred to me, over the course of writing this book, that questions would arise concerning the title I have chosen. However, after much internal wrangling I have decided to remain true to this title, and I want to take space here to explain the why and how of it. Those who are familiar with the figure of Jacob in the Bible will remember, of course, his battle with the angel.1 The battle results, not in Jacob's victory, but in an act of renaming. Jacob becomes Israel, and thus he remains himself, but also something more: the focal point, the signifier, if you will, of nationhood. Let Jacob stand for the African American presence in the United States. And consider the time we have spent in this country to be indicative of both the wrestling match and the act of renaming. For in so many ways the African American struggle to belong is likewise a struggle for identity. As Kenneth Karst has pointed out, "The most heartrending deprivation of all is the inequality of status that excludes people from full membership in the community, degrading them by labeling them as outsiders, denying them their very selves."2 What this suggests is that the African American presence is one that calls attention to and references the process of conceptualizing who Americans are and how they engage in a process of knowing.

But if much time has been spent considering the process of "denying Blacks their very selves," this book came into being because I recognized that so many African Americans had constructed creative niches in order to combat this process -- places where, as James Alan McPherson might suggest, African Americans could "remain free enough... to take chances, to be ridiculous, perhaps even try to form [their own] positive stories out of whatever [those] experiences provided."3 As I ruminated on the force of African American music, its impact on American culture-at-large, I began to think about how this struggle for identity has often been carried on in symbolic spaces. In the blues, for example, the relationship between performer and audience is ten-

-vii-

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