The Musicality of Language: Redefining History in Suzan-Lori Parks's 'The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.'
Bernard, Louise, African American Review
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his The Signifying Monkey. A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), states that the black vernacular tradition stands as a metaphoric signpost at the "liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa and Afro-America meet" (4). However, the concept of liminality within Afro-diasporic experiences, and more specifically within the (African-)American context, is itself a slippery signifier. As a transitional or marginal state, the term also suggests fixedness, or a stopping point--a condition of stasis, or non-movement. This, in turn, places in question the possibilities of both voice (the power of enunciation) and agency. At the same time, though, the historical legacy of slavery and the continued experience of racial oppression mean that peoples of African descent are often socially, economically, and politically positioned at the "margins" of the dominant culture, the Africanist presence remains central to the foundation of America. Although the democratic ideal, in material terms, has not been realized, just as the Founding Fathers did not recognize the direct contributions of black people in the building of the American nation, American culture remains (always already) the product of black style and innovation. While black cultural production itself continues to endure the problems of cross-over invention, freedom movements (particularly white women's and gay liberation movements), music, language use, sports, and fashion are indebted to the cultural experiences of African peoples in America.(1) Similarly, while contemporary identity politics suggests that the (monolithic) subject is now "decentered," such a reconfiguration of History proposes, paradoxically, that the condition of the "dispersed" and the "fragmented" is the representational modern experience. Indeed, "what the discourse of the postmodern has produced is not something new but a kind of recognition of where identity always was at" (Hall 114,115), and as a result "de margin and de center," to use Mercer and Julien's phrase, is forever a convergence of the twain. The crossroads of culture is at once both liminal and "polymorphous and multidirectional," for the juncture represents the possibilities of movement (as opposed to confinement or stasis); it is the paradigmatic "scene of arrivals and departures" (Baker 7).
Such arrivals and departures form the central motif in Suzan-Lori Parks's play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1989-1992).(2) The "death" of the play's title, however, does not represent the end of life as such, for the folkloric Everyman that is the eponymous figure of the drama continues to pass over, and through, Time and Space in a cyclical ritual of adversity and survival. Death of the Last Black Man represents, therefore, in musical terms, a quintessential blues experience: the "impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness" (Ellison, Shadow 78). And just as the blues are "the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed" (Baker 4), so Parks's play is an intricate riff on the complexities of identity and subjectivity within the context of an African-American cultural realm.
The play's "protagonist," Black Man With Watermelon (like his significant "Other," Black Woman With Fried Drumstick), is caught betwixt and between "de margin and de center"; he is at once written out of History, yet placed at the center of his own (postmodern slave) narrative. Black Man with Watermelon is able to voice his (true) Self through the personal pronoun 1, yet he is forever trapped within the metaphoric parentheses of the stereotype that transcends (linear) Time as History:
(I bein in uh Now: uh Now bein in uh
Then: I bein, in Now in Then, in I will
be. I was be too but thats uh Then thats
past. That me that was-be is uh me-has-been. …