Imagining Slavery: Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson

By Parrish, Timothy L. | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Imagining Slavery: Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson


Parrish, Timothy L., Studies in American Fiction


The odyssey of the African-American throughout the

twentieth century has been one of loss and reclamation. It's about

reclaiming those things which were lost during slavery.

--August Wilson

The slave narrative, as Hazel V. Carby points out, differs from the historical novel of slavery in that the prior form is concerned exclusively with how "the ex-slaves `wrote [their selves] into being' through an account of the condition of being a slave."(1) The contemporary writer, in contrast, can only re-imagine the conditions of slavery, and therefore writes in order to connect the receding past to the living present. This distinction underscores the difference between recalling slavery as an ex-slave versus reconstructing slavery as one who would understand how its history continues to shape one's present. Yet to say that the slave narrative focuses on how the ex-slaves wrote their selves into being is also to imply that the ex-slaves had no identity prior to writing it. While not disagreeing with Carby's distinction, I suggest that both forms confront the question: how do I reinvent myself in light of my altered circumstance? Seen this way, the question of how one connects oneself to (or disconnects oneself from) the experience of slavery has been a preeminent concern for all African-American writers from the time of slave narratives on. Arnold Rampersad remarks that "exploring the reality of slavery is necessarily painful for a black American, but only by doing so can he or she begin to understand himself or herself and American and Afro American culture in general."(2) The barrier that one crosses over in moving from slavery to freedom is also the point at which the continuity of African-American identity is imagined and created.

Indeed, one could almost say that whereas the writers of the slave narratives were intent on inventing their free selves, contemporary African-American writers have been intent on inventing their slave selves. Deborah McDowell noted recently that "the subject of slavery has become a kind of literary `free for all,'" and one need only think of recent works by Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Gloria Naylor, David Bradley, Sherley Anne Williams, Ernest Gaines, Octavia Butler and Ishmael Reed to confirm this impression.(3) Of the many novelists who have taken up slavery, I single out Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison and Oxherding Tale (1982) by Charles Johnson in part because these two writers seem to be offering diametrically opposing views on the meaning of slavery, in part because I would like to suggest that Morrison and Johnson may be closer than a first reading would suggest. Both writers explore how African-American identity was forged in the crucible of slavery, and how that identity continues to be created today. Their basic difference resides in how they interpret the meaning of that ongoing cultural invention, specifically as it relates to American identity. As Jonathan Little notes, Oxherding Tale concludes with a happy mulatto marriage that is "without precedent in American fiction."(4) No such ending is imaginable in Beloved or in Morrison's fiction generally. Morrison invokes the ghost of slavery in order to illuminate the continuity of African-American identity--a community originating in the shared experience of slavery. Insofar as she brings slavery to the present day, Morrison's African-American community is at once a part of and separate from so-called white American experience. Johnson, on the other hand, imagines African-American identity to be irretrievably mixed with other American identities, a happy mongrel. For Johnson, slavery is less a historical presence than a philosophical problem. Although Johnson and Morrison offer differing views of how to view the present, each writer understands that the meaning of slavery cannot be recaptured, but only re-seen.

Molly Abel Travis, who has offered the only sustained comparison of Johnson and Morrison thus far, defines them in oppositional terms. …

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