Unspeakable, unspoken.

Morrison, T. (1988). “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of Michigan.

Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature

Toni Morrison (Bidoonism profile)
Unspeakable Things Unspoken (Editable PDF)

I planned to call this paper “Canon Fodder,” because the term put me in mind of a kind of trained muscular response that appears to be on display in some areas of the recent canon debate. Also I liked the clash and swirl of those two words. At first they reminded me of that host of young men — black or “ethnics” or poor or working-class — who left high school for the war in Vietnam and were perceived by war resisters as “fodder.” Indeed many of those who went, as well as those who returned, were treated as one of that word’s definitions: “coarse food for livestock,” or, in the context of my thoughts about the subject of this paper, a more applicable definition: “people considered as readily available and of little value.” Rude feed to feed the war machine. There was also the play of cannon and canon. The etymology of the first includes tube, cane, or cane-like, reed. Of the second, sources include rod becoming body of law, body of rules, measuring rod. When the two words faced each other, the image became the shape of the cannon wielded on (or by) the body of law. The boom of power announcing an “officially recognized set of texts.” Cannon defending canon, you might say. And without any etymological connection I heard father in fodder, and sensed father in both cannon and canon, ending up with “father food.” And what does this father eat? Readily available people/texts of little value. But I changed my mind (so many have used the phrase) and hope to make clear the appropriateness of the one I settled on.

My purpose here is to observe the panoply of this most recent and most anxious series of questions concerning what should or does constitute a literary canon in order to suggest ways of addressing the Afro-American presence in American Literature that require neither slaughter nor reification — views that may spring the whole literature of an entire nation from the solitude into which it has been locked. There is something called American literature that, according to conventional wisdom, is certainly not Chicano literature, or Afro-American literature, or Asian-American, or Native American, or… It is somehow separate from them and they from it, and in spite of the efforts of recent literary histories, restructured curricula, and anthologies, this separate confinement, be it breached or endorsed, is the subject of a large part of these debates. Although the terms used, like the vocabulary of earlier canon debates, refer to literary and/or humanistic value, aesthetic criteria, value-free or socially anchored readings, the contemporary battle plain is most often understood to be the claims of others against the white male origins and definitions of those values; whether those definitions reflect an eternal, universal, and transcending paradigm or whether they constitute a disguise for a temporal, political, and culturally specific program.

Part of the history of this particular debate is located in the successful assault that the feminist scholarship of men and women (black and white) made and continues to make on traditional literary discourse. The male part of the white male equation is already deeply engaged, and no one believes that the body of literature and its criticism will ever again be what it was in 1965: the protected preserve of the thoughts and works and analytical strategies of white men.

It is, however, the “white” part of the question that this paper focuses on, and it is to my great relief that such words as white and race can enter serious discussion of literature. Although still a swift and swiftly obeyed call to arms, their use is no longer forbidden.’ It may appear churlish to doubt the sincerity, or question the proclaimed well-intentioned selflessness of a 900-year-old academy struggling through decades of chaos to “maintain standards.” Yet of what use is it to go on about “quality” being the only criterion for greatness knowing that the definition of quality is itself the subject of much rage and is seldom universally agreed upon by everyone at all times? Is it to appropriate the definition of quality for reasons of state; to be in the position to distribute greatness or withhold it ? Or to pursue actively the ways and places in which quality surfaces and stuns us into silence or into language worthy enough to describe it? What is possible is to try to recognize, identify, and applaud the fight for and triumph of quality when it is revealed to us and to let go the notion that only the dominant culture or gender can make those judgments, identify that quality, or produce it.

Those who claim the superiority of Western culture are entitled to that claim only when Western civilization is measured thoroughly against other civilizations and not found wanting, and when Western civilization owns up to its own sources in the cultures that preceded it.

A large part of the satisfaction I have always received from reading Greek tragedy, for example, is in its similarity to Afro-American communal structures (the function of song and chorus, the heroic struggle between the claims of community and individual hubris) and African religion and philosophy. In other words, that is part of the reason it has quality for me – I feel intellectually at home there. But that could hardly be so for those unfamiliar with my “home,” and hardly a requisite for the pleasure they take. The point is, the form (Greek tragedy) makes available these varieties of provocative love because it is masterly – not because the civilization that is its referent was flawless or superior to all others.

One has the feeling that nights are becoming sleepless in some quarters, and it seems to me obvious that the recoil of traditional “humanists” and some postmodern theorists to this particular aspect of the debate, the “race” aspect, is as severe as it is because the claims for attention come from that segment of scholarly and artistic labor in which the mention of “race” is either inevitable or elaborately, painstakingly masked ; and if all of the ramifications that the term demands are taken seriously, the bases of Western civilization will require rethinking. Thus, in spite of its implicit and explicit acknowledgment, “race” is still a virtually unspeakable thing, as can be seen in the apologies, notes of “special use,” and circumscribed definitions that accompany it [2] – not least of which is my own deference in surrounding it with quotation marks, Suddenly (for our purposes, suddenly) “race” does not exist. For three hundred years black Americans insisted that “race” was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships. During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including theology, history, and natural science, insisted “race” was the determining factor in human development. When blacks discovered they had shaped or become a culturally formed race, and that it had specific and revered difference, suddenly they were told there is no such thing as “race,” biological or cultural, that matters and that genuinely intellectual exchange cannot accommodate it. [3] In trying to understand the relationship between “race” and culture, I am tempted to throw my hands up. It always seemed to me that the people who invented the hierarchy of “race” when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist. But there is culture and both gender and “race” inform and are informed by it. Afro-American culture exists, and though it is clear (and becoming clearer) how it has responded to Western culture, the instances where and means by which it has shaped Western culture are poorly recognized or understood.

I want to address ways in which the presence of Afro-American literature and the awareness of its culture both resuscitate the study of literature in the United States and raise that study’s standards. In pursuit of that goal, it will suit my purposes to contextualize the route canon debates have taken in Western literary criticism.

I do not believe this current anxiety can be attributed solely to the routine, even cyclical arguments within literary communities reflecting unpredictable yet inevitable shifts in taste, relevance, or perception. Shifts in which an enthusiasm for and official endorsement of William Dean Howells, for example, withered; or in which the legalization of Mark Twain in critical court rose and fell like the fathoming of a sounding line (for which he may or may not have named himself); or even the slow, delayed but steady swell of attention and devotion on which Emily Dickinson soared to what is now, surely, a permanent crest of respect. No. Those were discoveries, reappraisals of individual artists. Serious but not destabilizing. Such accommodations were simple because the questions they posed were simple: Are there one hundred sterling examples of high literary art in American literature and no more? One hundred and six? If one or two fall into disrepute, is there space, then, for one or two others in the vestibule, waiting like girls for bells chimed by future husbands who alone can promise them security, legitimacy – and in whose hands alone rest the gift of critical longevity? Interesting questions, but, as I say, not endangering.

Nor is this detectable academic sleeplessness the consequence of a much more radical shift, such as the mid-nineteenth-century one heralding the authenticity of American literature itself. Or an even earlier upheaval – receding now into the distant past – in which theology, and thereby Latin, was displaced for the equally rigorous study of the classics and Greek to be followed by what was considered a strangely arrogant and upstart proposal: that English literature was a suitable course of study for an aristocratic education, and not simply morally instructive fodder designed for the working classes. (The Chaucer Society was founded in 1848, four hundred years after Chaucer died.) No. This exchange seems unusual somehow, keener. It has a more strenuously argued (and felt) defense and a more vigorously insistent attack. And both defense and attack have spilled out of the academy into the popular press. Why? Resistance to displacement within or expansion of a canon is not, after all, surprising or unwarranted. That’s what canonization is for. (And the question of whether there should be a canon or not seems disingenous to me – there always is one whether there should be or not – for it is in the interests of the professional critical community to have one.) Certainly a sharp alertness as to why a work is or is not worthy of study is the legitimate occupation of the critic, the pedagogue, and the artist. What is astonishing in the contemporary debate is not the resistance to displacement of works or to the expansion of genre within it, but the virulent passion that accompanies this resistance and, more important, the quality of its defense weaponry. The guns are very big; the trigger-fingers quick. But I am convinced the mechanism of the defenders of the flame is faulty. Not only may the hands of the gunslinging cowboy-scholars be blown off, not only may the target be missed, but the subject of the conflagration (the sacred texts) is sacrificed, disfigured in the battle. This canon fodder may kill the canon. And I, at least, do not intend to live without Aeschylus or William Shakespeare, or James or Twain or Hawthorne, or Melville, and so on. There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.

When Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, identified the historical territory of the novel by saying “The novel is Europe’s creation” and that “The only context for grasping a novel’s worth is the history of the European novel,” the New Yorker reviewer stiffened. Kundera’s “personal ‘idea of the novel,’ ” he wrote,

is so profoundly Eurocentric that it’s likely to seem exotic, even perverse, to American readers. . . . The Art of the Novel gives off the occasional (but pungent) whiff of cultural arrogance, and we may feel that Kundera’s discourse . . . reveals an aspect of his character that we’d rather not have known about. . . .

In order to become the artist he now is, the Czech novelist had to discover himself a second time, as a European. But what if that second, grander possibility hadn’t been there to be discovered? What if Broch, Kafka, Musil – all that reading – had never been a part of his education, or had entered it only as exotic, alien presence? Kundera’s polemical fervor in The Art of the Novel annoys us, as American readers, because we feel defensive, excluded from the transcendent “idea of the novel” that for him seems simply to have been there for the taking. (If only he had cited, in his redeeming version of the novel’s history, a few more heroes from the New World’s culture.) Our novelists don’t discover cultural values within themselves; they invent them. [4]

Kundera’s views, obliterating American writers (with the exception of William Faulkner) from his own canon, are relegated to a “smugness” that Terrance Rafferty disassociates from Kundera’s imaginative work and applies to the “sublime confidence” of his critical prose. The confidence of an exile who has the sentimental education of, and the choice to become, a European. [5]

I was refreshed by Rafferty’s comments. With the substitution of certain phrases, his observations and the justifiable umbrage he takes can be appropriated entirely by Afro-American writers regarding their own exclusion from the “transcendent ‘idea of the novel.’ ” For the present turbulence seems not to be about the flexibility of a canon, its range among and between Western countries, but about its miscegenation. The word is informative here and I do mean its use. A powerful ingredient in this debate concerns the incursion of third-world or so-called minority literature into a Eurocentric stronghold. When the topic of third-world culture is raised, unlike the topic of Scandinavian culture, for example, a possible threat to and implicit criticism of the reigning equilibrium is seen to be raised as well. From the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the arguments resisting that incursion have marched in predictable sequence: (1) there is no Afro-American (or third-world) art; (2) it exists but is inferior; (3) it exists and is superior when it measures up to the “universal” criteria of Western art; (4) it is not so much “art” as ore – rich ore – that requires a Western or Eurocentric smith to refine it from its “natural” state into an aesthetically complex form.

A few comments on a larger, older, but no less telling academic struggle – an extremely successful one – may be helpful here. It is telling because it sheds light on certain aspects of this current debate and may locate its sources. I made reference above to the radical upheaval in canon building that took place at the inauguration of classical studies and Greek. This canonical rerouting from scholasticism to humanism was not merely radical, it must have been (may I say it?) savage. And it took some seventy years to accomplish. Seventy years to eliminate Egypt as the cradle of civilization and its model and replace it with Greece. The triumph of that process was that Greece lost its own origins and became itself original. A number of scholars in various disciplines (history, anthropology, ethnobotany, etc.) have put forward their research into cross-cultural and intercultural transmissions with varying degrees of success in the reception of their work. I am reminded of the curious publishing history of Ivan Van Sertimer’s work, They Came before Columbas, which researches the African presence in Ancient America, I am reminded of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and especially the work of Martin Bernal, a linguist, trained in Chinese history, who has defined himself as an interloper in the field of classical civilization but who has offered, in Black Athena, a stunning investigation of the field. According to Bernal, there are two “models” of Greek history: one views Greece as Aryan or European (the Aryan Model) ; the other sees it as Levantin – absorbed by Egyptian and Semitic culture (the Ancient Model). “If I am right,” writes Professor Bernal,

in urging the overthrow of the Aryan Model and its replacement by the Revised Ancient one, it will be necessary not only to rethink the fundamental bases of “Western Civilization” but also to recognize the penetration of racism and “continental chauvinism” into all our historiography, or philosophy of writing history. The Ancient Model had no major “internal” deficiencies or weaknesses in explanatory power. It was overthrown for external reasons. For eighteenth- and nineteenth century Romantics and racists it was simply intolerable for Greece, which was seen not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood, to have been the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites. Therefore the Ancient Model had to be overthrown and replaced by something more acceptable. [6]

It is difficult not to be persuaded by the weight of documentation Martin Bernal brings to his task and his rather dazzling analytical insights. What struck me in his analysis were the process of the fabrication of Ancient Greece and the motives for the fabrication. The latter (motive) involved the concepts of purity and of progress. The former (process) required misreading, predetermined selectively of authentic sources, and – silence. From the Christian theological appropriation of Israel (the Levant) , to the early-nineteenth-century works of the prodigious Karl Müller, works that effectively dismissed the Greeks’ own record of their influences and origins as their “Egyptomania,” their tendency to be “wonderstruck” by Egyptian culture, a tendency “manifested in the ‘delusion’ that Egyptians and other non-European ‘barbarians’ had possessed superior cultures, from which the Greeks had borrowed massively,” on through the Romantic response to the Enlightenment, and the decline into disfavor of the Phoenicians, “[t]he essential force behind the rejection of the tradition of massive Phoenician influence on early Greece was the rise of racial – as opposed to religious – anti-semitism. This was because the Phoenicians were correctly perceived to have been culturally very close to the Jews.” [7]

I have quoted at perhaps too great length from Bernal’s text because motive, so seldom an element brought to bear on the history of history, is located, delineated, and confronted in Bernal’s research and has helped my own thinking about the process and motives of scholarly attention to and an appraisal of Afro-American presence in the literature of the United States.

Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature, and range (of criticism, of history, of the history of knowledge, of the definition of language, the universality of aesthetic principles, the sociology of art, the humanistic imagination), is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested.

In such a melee as this one – a provocative, healthy, explosive melee – extraordinarily profound work is being done. Some of the controversy, however, has degenerated into ad hominem and unwarranted speculation on the personal habits of artists, specious and silly arguments about politics (the destabilizing forces are dismissed as merely political; the status quo sees itself as not – as though the term apolitical were only its prefix and not the most obviously political stance imaginable, since one of the functions of political ideology is to pass itself off as immutable, natural, and “innocent”), and covert expressions of critical inquiry designed to neutralize and disguise the political interests of the discourse. Yet much of the research and analysis has rendered speakable what was formerly unspoken and has made humanistic studies, once again, the place where one has to go to find out what’s going on. Cultures, whether silenced or monologistic, whether repressed or repressing, seek meaning in the language and images available to them.

Silences are being broken, lost things have been found, and at least two generations of scholars are disentangling received knowledge from the apparatus of control, most notably those who are engaged in investigations of French and British colonialist literature, American slave narratives, and the delineation of the Afro-American literary tradition.

Now that Afro-American artistic presence has been “discovered” actually to exist, now that serious scholarship has moved from silencing the witnesses and erasing their meaningful place in and contribution to American culture, it is no longer acceptable merely to imagine us and imagine for us. We have always been imagining ourselves. We are not Isak Dinesen’s “aspects of nature,” nor Conrad’s unspeaking. We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, “other.” We are choices. And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to examine centers of the self and to have the opportunity to compare these centers with the “raceless” one with which we are, all of us, most familiar.


Recent approaches to the reading of Afro-American literature have come some distance; have addressed those arguments, mentioned earlier (which are not arguments, but attitudes), that have, since the seventeenth century, effectively silenced the autonomy of that literature. As for the charge that “there is no Afro-American art,” contemporary critical analysis of the literature and the recent surge of reprints and rediscoveries have buried it, and are pressing on to expand the traditional canon to include classic Afro-American works where generically and chronologically appropriate, and to devise strategies for reading and thinking about these texts.

As to the second silencing charge, “Afro-American art exists, but is inferior,” again, close readings and careful research into the culture out of which the art is born have addressed and still address the labels that once passed for stringent analysis but can no more: that it is imitative, excessive, sensational, mimetic (merely), and unintellectual, though very often “moving,” “passionate,” “naturalistic,” “realistic,” or sociologically “revealing.” These labels may be construed as compliments or pejoratives and if valid, and shown as such, so much the better. More often than not, however, they are the lazy, easy, brand-name applications when the hard work of analysis is deemed too hard, or when the critic does not have access to the scope the work demands. Strategies designed to counter this lazy labeling include the application of recent literary theories to Afro-American literature so that noncanonical texts can be incorporated into existing and forming critical discourse.

The third charge, that “Afro-American art exists, but is superior only when it measures up to the ‘universal’ criteria of Western art,” produces the most seductive form of analysis, for both writer and critic, because comparisons are a major form of knowledge and flattery. The risks, nevertheless, are twofold: (1) the gathering of a culture’s difference into the skirts of the Queen is a neutralization designed and constituted to elevate and maintain hegemony, and (2) circumscribing and limiting the literature to a mere reaction to or denial of the Queen; judging the work solely in terms of its referents to Eurocentric criteria, or its sociological accuracy, political correctness, or its pretence of having no politics at all, cripple the literature and infantilize the serious work of imaginative writing. The response-oriented concept of Afro-American literature contains the seeds of the next (fourth) charge: that when Afro-American art is worthy, it is because it is “raw” and “rich,” like ore, and like ore needs refining by Western intelligences. Finding or imposing Western influences in or on Afro-American literature has value, but when the sole purpose is to place value only where that influence is located it is pernicious.

My unease stems from the possible, probable, consequences these approaches may have upon the work itself. They can lead to an incipient orphanization of the work in order to issue its adoption papers. They can confine the discourse to the advocacy of diversification within the canon and/or a kind of benign coexistence near or within reach of the already sacred texts. Either of these two positions can quickly become another kind of silencing if permitted to ignore the indigenous created qualities of the writing. So many questions surface and irritate. What have these critiques made of the work’s own canvas? Its paint, its frame, its framelessness, its spaces? Another list of approved subjects? Of approved treatments? More self-censoring, more exclusions of the specificity of the culture, the gender, the language? Is there perhaps an alternative utility in these studies? To advance power or locate its fissures? To oppose elitist interests in order to enthrone egalitarian effacement? Or is it merely to rank and grade the readable product as distinct from the writable production? Can this criticism reveal ways in which the author combats and confronts received prejudices and even creates other terms in which to rethink one’s attachment to or intolerance of the material of these works? What is important in all of this is that the critic not be engaged in laying claim on behalf of the text to his or her own dominance and power. Nor to exchange his or her professional anxieties for the imagined turbulence of the text. As has been said before, “the text should become a problem of passion, not a pretext for it.”

There are at least three focuses that seem to me to be neither reactionary nor simple pluralism, nor the even simpler methods by which the study of Afro-American literature remains the helpful doorman into the halls of sociology. Each of them, however, requires wakefulness.

One is the development of a theory of literature that truly accommodates Afro-American literature: one that is based on its culture, its history, and the artistic strategies the works employ to negotiate the world it inhabits.

Another is the examination and reinterpretation of the American canon, the founding nineteenth-century works, for the “unspeakable things unspoken”; for the ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure – the meaning of so much American literature. A search, in other words, for the ghost in the machine.

A third is the examination of contemporary and/or noncanonical literature for this presence, regardless of its category as mainstream, minority, or what you will. I am always amazed by the resonances, the structural gearshifts, and the uses to which Afro-American narratives, persona, and idiom are put in contemporary “white” literature. And in Afro-American literature itself the questions of difference, of essence, are critical. What makes a work “black”? The most valuable point of entry into the question of cultural (or racial) distinction, the one most fraught, is its language-its unpoliced, seditious, confrontational, manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked, and unmasking language. Such a penetration will entail the most careful study, one in which the impact of Afro-American presence on modernity becomes clear and is no longer a well-kept secret.

I would like to touch, for just a moment, on focuses two and three. We can agree, I think, that invisible things are not necessarily “not-there”; that a void may be empty but not be a vacuum. In addition, certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them. Looking at the scope of American literature, I can’t help thinking that the question should never have been “Why am I, an Afro-American, absent from it?” It is not a particularly interesting query anyway. The spectacularly interesting question is “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?” What are the strategies of escape from knowledge? Of willful oblivion? I am not recommending an inquiry into the obvious impulse that overtakes a soldier sitting in a World War I trench to think of salmon fishing. That kind of pointed “turning from,” deliberate escapism, or transcendence may be lifesaving in a circumstance of immediate duress. The exploration I am suggesting is, how does one sit in the audience observing, watching the performance of Young America, say, in the nineteenth century, say, and reconstruct the play, its director, its plot, and its cast in such a manner that its very point never surfaces? Not why. How? Ten years after Tocqueville’s prediction in 1840 that “Finding no stuff for the ideal in what is real and true, poets ‘would flee to imaginary regions.’Ó8 ” In 1850 at the height of slavery and burgeoning abolitionism, American writers chose romance. Where, I wonder, in these romances is the shadow of the presence from which the text has fled? Where does it heighten, where does it dislocate, where does it necessitate novelistic invention ; what does it release; what does it hobble?

The device (or arsenal) that serves the purpose of flight can be Romanticism versus verisimilitude ; New Criticism versus shabbily disguised and questionably sanctioned “moral uplift”; the “complex series of evasions” that is sometimes believed to be the essence of modernism; the perception of the “evolution of art”; the cultivation of irony, parody; the nostalgia for “literary language” ; the rhetorically unconstrained textuality versus socially anchored textuality, and the undoing of textuality altogether. These critical strategies can (but need not) be put into service to reconstruct the historical world to suit specific cultural and political purposes. Many of these strategies have produced powerfully creative work. Whatever uses to which Romanticism is put, however suspicious its origins, it has produced an incontestably wonderful body of work. In other instances these strategies have succeeded in paralyzing both the work and its criticism. In still others they have led to a virtual infantilization of the writer’s intellect, his sensibility, his craft. They have reduced the meditations on theory to a “power struggle among sects,” reading unauthored and unauthorable material, rather than reading with the author the text that both construct.

In other words, the critical process has made wonderful work of some wonderful work, and recently the means of access to the old debates have altered. The problem now is putting the question. Is the nineteenth-century flight from blackness, for example, successful in mainstream American literature ? Beautiful ? Artistically problematic? Is the text sabotaged by its own proclamations of “universality”? Are there ghosts in the machine? Active but unsummoned presences that can distort the workings of the machine and can also make it work? These kinds of questions have been consistently put by critics of colonial literature vis-à-vis Africa and India and other third-world countries. American literature would benefit from similar critiques. I am made melancholy when I consider that the act of defending the Eurocentric Western posture in literature as not only “universal” but also “race-free” may have resulted in lobotomizing that literature, and in diminishing both the art and the artist. Like the surgical removal of legs so that the body can remain enthroned, immobile, static – under house arrest, so to speak. It may be, of course, that contemporary writers deliberately exclude from their conscious writerly world the subjective appraisal of groups perceived as “other,” and whitemale writers frequently abjure and deny the excitement of framing or locating their literature in the political world. Nineteenthcentury writers, however, would never have given it a thought. Mainstream writers in Young America understood their competition to be national, cultural, but only in relationship to the Old World, certainly not vis-à-vis an ancient race (whether Native American or African) that was stripped of articulateness and intellectual thought, rendered, in D. H. Lawrence’s term, “uncreate.” For these early American writers, how could there be competition with nations or peoples who were presumed unable to handle or uninterested in handling the written word? One could write about them, but there was never the danger of their “writing back.” Just as one could speak to them without fear of their “talking back.” One could even observe them, hold them in prolonged gaze, without encountering the risk of being observed, viewed, or judged in return, And if, on occasion, they were themselves viewed and judged, it was out of a political necessity and, for the purposes of art, could not matter. Or so thought Young America. It could never have occurred to Edgar Allan Poe in 1848 that I, for example, might read The Gold Bug and watch his efforts to render my grandfather’s speech to something as close to braying as possible, an effort so intense you can see the perspiration -and the stupidity-when Jupiter says “I knows,” and Mr. Poe spells the verb “nose.” [9]

Yet in spite of or because of this monologism there is a great, ornamental, prescribed absence in early American literature and, I submit, it is instructive. It only seems that the canon of American literature is “naturally” or “inevitably” “white.” In fact it is studiously so. In fact these absences of vital presences in Young American literature may be the insistent fruit of the scholarship rather than the text. Perhaps some of these writers, although under current house arrest, have much more to say than has been realized. Perhaps some were not so much transcending politics, or escaping blackness, as they were transforming it into intelligible, accessible, yet artistic modes of discourse. To ignore this possibility by never questioning the strategies of transformation is to disenfranchise the writer, diminish the text, and render the bulk of the literature aesthetically and historically incoherent – an exorbitant price for cultural (whitemale) purity, and, I believe, a spendthrift one. The reexamination of founding literature of the United States for the unspeakable unspoken may reveal those texts to have deeper and other meanings, deeper and other power, deeper and other significances.

One such writer, in particular, who has been almost impossible to keep under lock and key is Herman Melville. Michael Rogin, among several astute scholars, has done one of the most exhaustive studies of how deeply Melville’s social thought is woven into his writing. He calls our attention to the connection Melville made between American slavery and American freedom, how heightened the one rendered the other. And he has provided evidence of the impact on the work of Melville’s family, milieu, and, most important, the raging, all-encompassing conflict of the time: slavery. He has reminded us that it was Melville’s father-in-law, Judge Shaw, who had decided the case that made the Fugitive Slave Law law, and that

other evidence in Moby Dick also suggest that impact of Shaw’s ruling on the climax of Melville’s tale. Melville conceived the final confrontation between Ahab and the white whale some time in the first half of 1851. He may well have written his last chapters only after returning from a trip to New York in June. [Shaw’s decision was handed down in April 1851]. When New York antislavery leaders William Seward and John van Buren wrote public letters protesting the Sims ruling, the New York Herald responded. Its attack on “The Anti-Slavery Agitators” began: “Did you ever see a whale? Did you ever see a mighty whale struggling?” [10]

Rogin also traces the chronology of the whale from its “birth in a state of nature” to its final end as commodity.11 Central to his argument is that Melville in Moby Dick was being allegorically and insistently political in his choice of the whale. But within his chronology, one singular whale transcends all others, goes beyond nature, adventure, politics, and commodity to an abstraction. What is this abstraction ? This “wicked idea ?” Interpretation has been varied. It has been viewed as an allegory of the state in which Ahab is Calhoun, or Daniel Webster; an allegory of capitalism and corruption, God and man, the individual and fate, and most commonly, the single allegorical meaning of the white whale is understood to be brute, indifferent Nature, and Ahab the madman who challenges that Nature.

But let us consider, again, the principal actor, Ahab, created by an author who called himself Typee, signed himself Tawney, identified himself as Ishmael, and who had written several books before Moby Dick criticizing missionary forays into various paradises.

Ahab loses sight of the commercial value of his ship’s voyage, its point, and pursues an idea in order to destroy it. His intention, revenge, “an audacious, immitigable and supernatural revenge,” develops stature-maturity-when we realize that he is not a man mourning his lost leg or a scar on his face. However intense and dislocating his fever and recovery have been after his encounter with the white whale, however satisfactorily “male” this vengeance is read, the vanity of it is almost adolescent. But if the whale is more than blind, indifferent Nature unsubduable by masculine aggression, if it is as much its adjective as it is its noun, we can consider the possibility that Melville’s “truth” was his recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology. And if the white whale is the ideology of race, what Ahab has lost to it is personal dismemberment and family and society and his own place as a human in the world. The trauma of racism is, for the racist and the victim, the severe fragmentation of the self and has always seemed to me a cause (not a symptom) of psychosis – strangely of no interest to psychiatry. Ahab, then, is navigating between an idea of civilization that he renounces and an idea of savagery he must annihilate, because the two cannot coexist. The former is based on the latter. What is terrible in its complexity is that the idea of savagery is not the missionary one: it is white racial ideology that is savage and if, indeed, a white, nineteenth-century, American male took on, not abolition, not the amelioration of racist institutions or their laws, but the very concept of whiteness as an inhuman idea, he would be very alone, very desperate, and very doomed. Madness would be the only appropriate description of such audacity, and “he heaves me,” the most succinct and appropriate description of that obsession.

I would not like to be understood to argue that Melville was engaged in some simple and simpleminded black/white didacticism, or that he was satanizing white people. Nothing like that. What I am suggesting is that he was overwhelmed by the philosophical and metaphysical inconsistencies of an extraordinary and unprecedented idea that had its fullest manifestation in his own time in his own country, and that that idea was the successful assertion of whiteness as ideology.

On the Pequod the multiracial, mainly foreign, proletariat is at work to produce a commodity, but it is diverted and converted from that labor to Ahab’s more significant intellectual quest. We leave whale as commerce and confront whale as metaphor. With that interpretation in place, two of the most famous chapters of the book become luminous in a completely new way. One is chapter 9, “The Sermon.” In Father Mapple’s thrilling rendition of Jonah’s trials, emphasis is given to the purpose of Jonah’s salvation. He is saved from the fish’s belly for one single purpose: “To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!” Only then the reward – “Delight” – which strongly calls to mind Ahab’s lonely necessity:

Delight is to him . . . who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stand forth his own inexorable self.. . . Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him, Delight is to him who gives no quarter in the truth and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight – top-gallant delight is to him who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. (italics mine)

No one, I think has denied that the sermon is designed to be prophetic, but it seems unremarked what the nature of the sin is – the sin that must be destroyed, regardless. Nature? A sin? The terms do apply in Calvinistic America but not in romantic America. Capitalism ? Perhaps. Capitalism fed greed, lent itself inexorably to corruption, but probably was not in and of itself sinful to Melville. Sin suggests a moral outrage within the bounds of New World man to repair. The concept of racial superiority as such a sin would fit seamlessly. It is difficult to read those words (“destruction of sin,” “patriot to heaven”) and not hear in them the description of a different Ahab. Not an adolescent male in adult clothing, a maniacal, egocentric, or an “exotic plant” that V. S. Parrington thought Melville was. Not even a morally fine liberal voice adjusting, balancing, compromising with racial institutions. But another Ahab: the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it.

Another chapter that seems freshly lit by this reading is chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Melville points to the do-or-die significance of his effort to say something unsayable in this chapter. “I almost despair,” he writes, “of putting it in a comprehensive form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught” (italics mine). The language of this chapter ranged between benevolent, beautiful images of whiteness and whiteness as sinister and shocking. After dissecting the ineffable, he concludes: “Therefore . . . symbolize whatever grand or gracious he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.” I stress “idealized significance” to emphasize and make clear (if such clarity needs stating) that Melville is not exploring white people, but whiteness idealized. Then, after informing the reader of his “hope to light upon some chance clue to conduct us to the hidden course we seek,” he tries to nail it. To provide the key to the “hidden course.” His struggle to do so is gigantic. He cannot. Nor can we. But in nonfigurative language, he identifies the imaginative tools needed to solve the problem: “subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man can follow another into these halls.” And his final observation reverberates with personal trauma. “This visible [colored] world seems formed in love, the invisible [white] spheres were formed in fright.” The necessity for whiteness as privileged “natural” state, the invention of it, was indeed formed in fright.

“Slavery,” writes Rogin, “confirmed Melville’s isolation, decisively established in Moby Dick, from the dominant consciousness of his time.” I differ on this point and submit that Melville’s hostility to and repugnance for slavery would have found company. There were many white Americans of his acquaintance who felt repelled by slavery, wrote journalism about it, spoke about it, legislated on it, and were active in abolishing it. His attitude to slavery alone would not have condemned him to the almost autistic separation visited upon him. And if he felt convinced that blacks were worthy of being treated like whites, or that capitalism was dangerous – he had company or could have found it. But to question the very notion of white progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as privileged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind, and to meditate on the fraudulent, selfdestroying philosophy of that superiority, to “pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges,” to drag the “judge himself to the bar” – that was dangerous, solitary, radical work. Especially then. Especially now. To be “only a patriot to heaven” is no mean aspiration in Young America for a writer-or the captain of a whaling ship.

A complex, heaving, disorderly, profound text is Moby Dick, and among its several meanings it seems to me this “unspeakable” one has remained the “hidden course,” the “truth in the Face of Falsehood.” To this day no novelist has so wrestled with its subject. To this day literary analyses of canonical texts have shied away from that perspective: the informing and determining Afro-American presence in traditional American literature. The chapters I have made reference to are only a fraction of the instances where the text surrenders such insights, and points a helpful finger toward the ways in which the ghost drives the machine.

Melville is not the only author whose works double their fascination and their power when scoured for this presence and the writerly strategies taken to address or deny it. Edgar Allan Poe will sustain such a reading. So will Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain; and in the twentieth century, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’Conner, and William Faulkner, to name a few. Canonical American literature is begging for such attention.

It seems to me a more than fruitful project to produce some cogent analysis showing instances where early American literature identifies itself, risks itself, to assert its antithesis to blackness. How its linguistic gestures prove the intimate relationship to what is being nulled by implying a full descriptive apparatus (identity) to a presence-that-is-assumed-not-to-exist. Afro-American critical inquiry can do this work.

I mentioned earlier that finding or imposing Western influences in or on Afro-American literature had value provided the valued process does not become self-anointing. There is an adjacent project to be undertaken – the third focus in my list: the examination of contemporary literature (both the sacred and profane) for the impact Afro-American presence has had on the structure of the work, the linguistic practice, and fictional enterprise in which it is engaged. Like focus two, this critical process must also eschew the pernicious goal of equating the fact of that presence with the achievement of the work. A work does not get better because it is responsive to another culture; nor does it become automatically flawed because of that responsiveness. The point is to clarify, not to enlist. And it does not “go without saying” that a work written by an Afro-American is automatically subsumed by an enforcing Afro-American presence. There is a clear flight from blackness in a great deal of Afro-American literature. In others there is the duel with blackness, and in some cases, as they say, “You’d never know.”

It is on this area, the impact of Afro-American culture on contemporary American literature, that I now wish to comment. I have already said that works by Afro-Americans can respond to this presence (just as nonblack works do) in a number of ways. The question of what constitutes the art of a black writer, for whom that modifier is more search than fact, has some urgency. In other words, other than melanin and subject matter, what, in fact, may make me a black writer? Other than my own ethnicity-what is going on in my work that makes me believe it is demonstrably inseparable from a cultural specificity that is Afro-American.

Please forgive the use of my own work in these observations. I use it not because it provides the best example, but because I know it best, know what I did and why, and know how central these queries are to me. Writing is, after all, an act of language, its practice. But first of all it is an effort of the will to discover. Let me suggest some of the ways in which I activate language and ways in which that language activates me. I will limit this perusal by calling attention only to the first sentences of the books I’ve written, and hope that in exploring the choices I made, prior points are illuminated.

The Bluest Eye begins “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.” That sentence, like the ones that open each succeeding book, is simple, uncomplicated. Of all the sentences that begin all the books, only two of them have dependent clauses; the other three are simple sentences and two are stripped down to virtually subject, verb, modifier. Nothing fancy here. No words need looking up; they are ordinary, everyday words.

Yet I hoped the simplicity was not simpleminded, but devious, even loaded. And that the process of selecting each word, for itself and its relationship to the others in the sentence, along with the rejection of others for their echoes, for what is determined and what is not determined, what is almost there and what must be gleaned, would not theatricalize itself, would not erect a proscenium -at least not a noticeable one. So important to me was this unstaging, that in this first novel I summarized the whole of the book on the first page. (In the first edition, it was printed in its entirety on the jacket.)

The opening phrase of this sentence, “Quiet as it’s kept,” had several attractions for me. First, it was a familiar phrase, familiar to me as a child listening to adults; to black women conversing with one another, telling a story, an anecdote, gossip about some one or event within the circle, the family, the neighborhood. The words are conspiratorial. “Shh, don’t tell anyone else,” and “No one is allowed to know this.” It is a secret between us and a secret that is being kept from us. The conspiracy is both held and withheld, exposed and sustained. In some sense it was precisely what the act of writing the book was: the public exposure of a private confidence. In order fully to comprehend the duality of that position, one needs to think of the immediate political climate in which the writing took place, 1965-69, during great social upheaval in the life of black people. The publication (as opposed to the writing) involved the exposure; the writing was the disclosure of secrets, secrets “we” shared and those withheld from us by ourselves and by the world outside the community.

“Quiet as it’s kept,” is also a figure of speech that is written, in this instance, but clearly chosen for how speakerly it is, how it speaks and bespeaks a particular world and its ambience. Further, in addition to its “back fence” connotation, its suggestion of illicit gossip, of thrilling revelation, there is also, in the “whisper,” the assumption (on the part of the reader) that the teller is on the inside, knows something others do not, and is going to be generous 148 The Tanner Lectures onHuman Values with this privileged information. The intimacy I was aiming for, the intimacy between the reader and the page, could start up immediately because the secret is being shared, at best, and eavesdropped upon, at the least. Sudden familiarity or instant intimacy seemed crucial to me then, writing my first novel. I did not want the reader to have time to wonder, “What do I have to do, to give up, in order to read this? What defense do I need, what distance maintain?” Because I know (and the reader does not – he or she has to wait for the second sentence) that this is a terrible story about things one would rather not know anything about.

What, then, is the Big Secret about to be shared? The thing we (reader and I) are “in” on? A botanical aberration. Pollution, perhaps. A skip, perhaps, in the natural order of things: a September, an autumn, a fall without marigolds. Bright common, strong and sturdy marigolds. When? In 1941, and since that is a momentous year (the beginning of World War II for the United States), the “fall” of 1941, just before the declaration of war, has a “closet” innuendo. In the temperate zone where there is a season known as “fall” during which one expects marigolds to be at their peak, in the months before the beginning of U.S. participation in World War II, something grim is about to be divulged. The next sentence will make it clear that the sayer, the one who knows, is a child speaking, mimicking the adult black women on the porch or in the backyard. The opening phrase is an effort to be grown-up about this shocking information. The point of view of a child alters the priority an adult would assign the information. “We thought it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow” foregrounds the flowers, backgrounds illicit, traumatic, incomprehensible sex coming to its dreaded fruition. This foregrounding of “trivial” information and backgrounding of shocking knowledge secures the point of view but gives the reader pause about whether the voice of children can be trusted at all or is more trustworthy than an adult’s. The reader is thereby protected from a confrontation too soon with the painful details, while siniultaneously provoked into a desire to know them. The novelty, I thought, would be in having this story of female violation revealed from the vantage point of the victims or could-be victims of rape – the persons no one inquired of (certainly not in 1965) -the girls themselves. And since the victim does not have the vocabulary to understand the violence or its context, gullible, vulnerable girlfriends, looking back as the knowing adults they pretended to be in the beginning, would have to do that for her, and would have to fill those silences with their own reflective lives. Thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void filled, an unspeakable thing spoken at last. And they draw the connection between a minor destabilization in seasonal gora with the insignificant destruction of a black girl. Of course “minor” and “insignificant” represent the outside world’s view – for the girls both phenomena are earthshaking depositories of information they spend that whole year of childhood (and afterward) trying to fathom, and cannot. If they have any success, it will be in transferring the problem of fathoming to the presumably adult reader, to the inner circle of listeners. At the least they have distributed the weight of these problematical questions to a larger constituency, and justified the public exposure of a privacy. If the conspiracy that the opening words announce is entered into by the reader, then the book can be seen to open with its close: a speculation on the disruption of “nature,” as being a social disruption with tragic individual consequences in which the reader, as part of the population of the text, is implicated.

However, a problem, unsolved, lies in the central chamber of the novel. The shattered world I built (to complement what is happening to Pecola), its pieces held together by seasons in childtime and commenting at every turn on the incompatible and barren white-family primer, does not in its present form handle effectively the silence at its center. The void that is Pecola’s “unbeing.” It should have had a shape – like the emptiness left by a boom or a cry. It required a sophistication unavailable to me, and some deft manipulation of the voices around her. She is not Seen by herself until she hallucinates a self. And the fact of her hallucination becomes a point of outside-the-book conversation, but does not work in the reading process.

Also, although I was pressing for a female expressiveness (a challenge that resurfaced in Sula), it eluded me for the most part, and I had to content myself with female personae because I was not able to secure throughout the work the feminine subtext that is present in the opening sentence (the women gossiping, eager and aghast in “Quiet as it’s kept”). The shambles this struggle became is most evident in the section on Pauline Breedlove where I resorted to two voices; hers and the urging narrator’s, both of which are extremely unsatisfactory to me. It is interesting to me now that where I thought I would have the most difficulty subverting the language to a feminine mode, I had the least: connecting Cholly’s “rape” by the whitemen to his own of his daughter. This most masculine act of aggression becomes feminized in my language, “passive,” and, I think, more accurately repellent when deprived of the male “glamor of shame” rape is (or once was) routinely given.

The points I have tried to illustrate are that my choices of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my (failed) attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts (many unsatisfactory) to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Afro-American culture into a language worthy of the culture.

In Sula, it’s necessary to concentrate on two first sentences because what survives in print is not the one I had intended to be the first. Originally the book opened with “Except for World War II nothing ever interfered with National Suicide Day.” With some encouragement, I recognized that it was a false beginning. In medias res with a vengeance, because there was no res to be in the middle of – no implied world in which to locate the specificity and the resonances of the sentence. More to the point, I knew I was writing a second novel, and that it too would be about people in a black community not just foregrounded but totally dominant; and that it was about black women – also foregrounded and dominant. In 1988, certainly, I would not need (or feel the need for) the sentence – the short section – that now opens Sula. The threshold between the reader and the black-topic text need not be the safe, welcoming lobby I persuaded myself it needed at that time. My preference was the demolition of the lobby altogether. As can be seen from The Bluest Eye, and in every other book I have written, only Sula has this “entrance.” The others refuse the “presentation”; refuse the seductive safe harbor; the line of demarcation between the sacred and the obscene, public and private, them and us. Refuse, in effect, to cater to the diminished expectations of the reader, or his or her alarm heightened by the emotional luggage one carries into the black-topic text. (I should remind you that Sula was begun in 1969, while my first book was in proof, in a period of extraordinary political activity.)

Since I had become convinced that the effectiveness of the original beginning was only in my head, the job at hand became how to construct an alternate beginning that would not force the work to genuflect and would complement the outlaw quality in it. The problem presented itself this way: to fashion a door. Instead of having the text open wide the moment the cover is opened (or, as in The Bluest Eye, to have the book stand exposed, before the cover is even touched, much less opened, by placing the complete “plot” on the first page – and finally on the cover of the first edition), here I was to posit a door, turn its knob and beckon for some four or five pages. I had determined not to mention any characters in those pages, there would be no people in the lobby – but I did, rather heavy-handedly in my view, end the welcome aboard with the mention of Shadrack and Sula. It was a craven (to me, still) surrender to a worn-out technique of novel writing: the overt announcement to the reader whom to pay attention to. Yet the bulk of the opening I finally wrote is about the community, a view of it, and the view is not from within (this is a door, after all) but from the point of view of a stranger – the “valley man” who might happen to be there on some errand, but who obviously does not live there and to and for whom all this is mightily strange, even exotic. You can see why I despise much of this beginning. Yet I tried to place in the opening sentence the signature terms of loss: “There used to be a neighborhood here; not any more.” That may not be the world’s worst sentence, but it doesn’t “play,” as they say in the theater.

My new first sentence became “In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.” Instead of my original plan, here I am introducing an outside-the-circle reader into the circle. I am translating the anonymous into the specific, a “place” into a “neighborhood,” and letting a stranger in through whose eyes it can be viewed. In between “place” and “neighborhood” I now have to squeeze the specificity and the difference; the nostalgia, the history, and the nostalgia for the history; the violence done to it and the consequences of that violence. (It took three months, those four pages, a whole summer of nights.) The nostalgia is sounded by “once”; the history and a longing for it is implied in the connotation of “neighborhood.” The violence lurks in having something torn out by its roots – it will not, cannot grow again. Its consequences are that what has been destroyed is considered weeds, refuse necessarily removed in urban “development” by the unspecified but no less known “they” who do not, cannot, afford to differentiate what is displaced, and would not care that this is “refuse” of a certain kind. Both plants have darkness in them: “black” and “night.” One is unusual (nightshade) and has two darkness words: “night” and “shade.” The other (blackberry) is common. A familiar plant and an exotic one. A harmless one and a dangerous one. One produces a nourishing berry; one delivers toxic ones, But they both thrived there together, in that place when it was a neighborhood. Both are gone now, and the description that follows is of the other specific things, in this black community, destroyed in the wake of the golf course. “Golf course” conveys what it is not, in this context; not houses, or factories, or even a public park, and certainly not residents. It is a manicured place where the likelihood of the former residents showing up is almost nil.

I want to get back to those berries for a moment (to explain, perhaps, the length of time it took for the language of that section to arrive). I always thought of Sula as quintessentially black, metaphysically black, if you will, which is not melanin and certainly not unquestioning fidelity to the tribe. She is New World black and New World woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding inventively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. And dangerously female. In her final conversation with Nel she refers to herself as a special kind of black person woman, one with choices. Like a redwood, she says. (With all due respect to the dream landscape of Freud, trees have always seemed feminine to me.) In any case, my perception of Sula’s double dose of chosen blackness and biological blackness is in the presence of those two words of darkness in “nightshade” as well as in the uncommon quality of the vine itself. One variety is called “enchanter,” and the other “bittersweet” because the berries taste bitter at first and then sweet. Also nightshade was thought to counteract witchcraft. All of this seemed a wonderful constellation of signs for Sula. And “blackberry patch” seemed equally appropriate for Nel : nourishing, never needing to be tended or cultivated, once rooted and bearing. Reliably sweet but thorn-bound. Her process of becoming, heralded by the explosive dissolving of her fragilely held-together ball of string and fur (when the thorns of her self-protection are removed by Eva), puts her back in touch with the complex, contradictory, evasive, independent, liquid modernity Sula insisted upon. A modernity which overturns prewar definitions, ushers in the Jazz Age (an age defined by Afro-American art and culture), and requires new kinds of intelligences to define oneself.

The stage setting of the first four pages is embarrassing to me now, but the pains I have taken to explain it may be helpful in identifying the strategies one can be forced to resort to in trying to accommodate the mere fact of writing about, for, and out of black culture while accommodating and responding to mainstream “white” culture. The “valley man’s’’ guidance into the territory was my compromise. Perhaps it “worked,” but it was not the work I wanted to do.

Had I begun with Shadrack, I would have ignored the smiling welcome and put the reader into immediate confrontation with his wound and his scar. The difference my preferred (original) beginning would have made would be calling greater attention to the traumatic displacement this most wasteful capitalist war had on black people in particular, and throwing into relief the creative, if outlawed, determination to survive it whole. Sula as (feminine) solubility and Shadrack’s (male) fixative are two extreme ways of dealing with displacement – a prevalent theme in the narrative of black people. In the final opening I replicated the demiurge of discriminatory, prosecutorial racial oppression in the loss to commercial “progress” of the village, but the references to the community’s stability and creativeness (music, dancing, craft, religion, irony, wit, all referred to in the valleyman’s presence) refract and subsume their pain while they are in the thick of it. It is a softer embrace than Shadrack’s organized, public madness – his disruptive remembering presence which helps (for awhile) to cement the community, until Sula challenges them.

“The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at 3:OO.”

This declarative sentence is designed to mock a journalistic style; with a minor alteration it could be the opening of an item

in a small-town newspaper. It has the tone of an everyday event of minimal local interest, Yet I wanted it to contain (as does the scene that takes place when the agent fulfills his promise) the information that the novel both centers on and radiates from.

The name of the insurance company is real, a well-known black-owned company dependent on black clients, and in its corporate name are “life” and “mutual”; agent being the necessary ingredient of what enables the relationship between them. The sentence also moves from North Carolina to Lake Superior – geographical locations, but with a sly implication that the move from North Carolina (the south) to Lake Superior (the north) might not actually involve progress to some “superior state” -which, of course it does not. The two other significant words are “fly,” upon which the novel centers and “mercy,” the name of the place from which he is to fly. Both constitute the heartbeat of the narrative. Where is the insurance man flying to? The other side of Lake Superior is Canada, of course, the historic terminus of the escape route for black people looking for asylum. “Mercy,” the other significant term, is the grace note; the earnest though, with one exception, unspoken wish of the narrative’s population. Some grant it; some never find it; one, at least, makes it the text and cry of her extemporaneous sermon upon the death of her granddaughter. It touches, turns, and returns to Guitar at the end of the book — he who is least deserving of it – and moves him to make it his own final gift. It is what one wishes for Hagar; what is unavailable to and unsought by Macon Dead, senior; what his wife learns to demand from him, and what can never come from the white world as is signified by the inversion of the name of the hospital from Mercy to “no-Mercy.” It is available only from within. The center of the narrative is flight; the springboard is mercy.

But the sentence turns, as all sentences do, on the verb: promised. The insurance agent does not declare, announce, or threaten his act. He promises, as though a contract is being executed — faithfully — between himself and others. Promises broken, or kept; the difficulty of ferreting out loyalties and ties that bind or bruise wend their way throughout the action and the shifting relationships. So the agent’s flight, like that of the Solomon in the title, although toward asylum (Canada, or freedom, or home, or the company of the welcoming dead), and although it carries the possibility of failure and the certainty of danger, is toward change, an alternative way, a cessation of things-as-they-are. It should not be understood as a simple, desperate act, the end of a fruitless life, a life without gesture, without examination, but as obedience to a deeper contract with his people. It is his Commitment to them, regardless of whether, in all its details, they understand it. There is, however, in their response to his action, a tenderness, some contrition, and mounting respect (“They didn’t know he had it in him”) and an awareness that the gesture enclosed rather than repudiated themselves. The note he leaves asks for forgiveness. It is tacked on his door as a mild invitation to whomever might pass by, but it is not an advertisement. It is an almost Christian declaration of love as well as humility of one who was not able to do more.

There are several other flights in the work and they are motivationally different. Solomon’s the most magical, the most theatrical, and, for Milkman, the most satisfying. It is also the most problematic – to those he left behind. Milkman’s flight binds these two elements of loyalty (Mr. Smith’s) and abandon and selfinterest (Solomon’s) into a third thing: a merging of fealty and risk that suggests the “agency” for “mutual” “life,” which he offers at the end and which is echoed in the hills behind him, and is the marriage of surrender and domination, acceptance and rule, commitment to a group through ultimate isolation. Guitar recognizes this marriage and recalls enough of how lost he himself is to put his weapon down.

The journalistic style at the beginning, its rhythm of a familiar, hand-me-down dignity, is pulled along by an accretion of detail displayed in a meandering unremarkableness. Simple words, uncomplex sentence structures, persistent understatement, highly aural syntax – but the ordinariness of the language, its colloquial, vernacular, humorous, and, upon occasion, parabolic quality, sabotages expectations and masks judgments when it can no longer defer them. The composition of red, white, and blue in the opening scene provides the national canvas/flag upon which the narrative works and against which the lives of these black people must be seen, but which must not overwhelm the enterprise the novel is engaged in. It is a composition of color that heralds Milkman’s birth, protects his youth, hides its purpose and through which he must burst (through blue Buicks, red tulips in his waking dream, and his sister’s white stockings, ribbons, and gloves) before discovering that the gold of his search is really Pilate’s yellow orange and the glittering metal of the box in her ear.

These spaces, which I am filling in, and can fill in because they were planned, can conceivably be filled in with other significances. That is planned as well. The point is that into these spaces should fall the ruminations of the reader and his or her invented or recollected or misunderstood knowingness. The reader as narrator asks the questions the community asks, and both reader and “voice” stand among the crowd, within it, with privileged intimacy and contact, but without any more privileged information than the crowd has. That egalitarianism which places us all (reader, the novel’s population, the narrator’s voice) on the same footing reflected for me the force of flight and mercy, and the precious, imaginative, yet realistic gaze of black people who (at one time, anyway) did not anoint what or whom it mythologized. The “song” itself contains this unblinking evaluation of the miraculous and heroic flight of the legendary Solomon, an unblinking gaze which is lurking in the tender but amused choral-community response to the agent’s flight. Sotto (but not completely) is my own giggle (in Afro-American terms) of the proto-myth of the journey to manhood. Whenever characters are cloaked in Western fable, they are in deep trouble; but the African myth is also contaminated. Unprogressive, unreconstructed, self-born Pilate is unimpressed by Solomon’s flight and knocks Milkman down when, made new by his appropriation of his own family’s fable, he returns to educate her with it. Upon hearing all he has to say, her only interest is filial. “Papa? . . . I’ve been carrying Papa?” And her longing to hear the song, finally, is a longing for balm to die by, not a submission obedience to history -anybody’s.

The opening sentence of Tar Baby, “He believed he was safe,” is the second version of itself. The first, “He thought he was safe,” was discarded because “thought” did not contain the doubt I wanted to plant in the reader’s mind about whether or not he really was-safe. “Thought” came to me at once because it was the verb my parents and grandparents used when describing what they had dreamed the night before. Not “I dreamt,” or “It seemed” or even “I saw or did” this or that – but “I thought.” It gave the dream narrative distance (a dream is not “real”) and power (the control implied in thinking rather than dreaming). But to use “thought” seemed to undercut the faith of the character and the distrust I wanted to suggest to the reader. “Believe” was chosen to do the work properly. And the person who does the believing is, in a way, about to enter a dreamworld, and convinces himself, eventually, that he is in control of it. He believed; was convinced. And although the word suggests his conviction, it does not reassure the reader. If I had wanted the reader to trust this person’s point of view I would have written, “He was safe.” Or, “Finally, he was safe.” The unease about this view of safety is important because safety itself is the desire of each person in the novel. Locating it, creating it, losing it.

You may recall that I was interested in working out the mystery of a piece of lore, a folktale, which is also about safety and danger and the skills needed to secure the one and recognize and avoid the other. I was not, of course, interested in retelling the tale, I suppose that is an idea to pursue, but it is certainly not interesting enough to engage me for four years. I have said, elsewhere, that the exploration of the Tar Baby tale was like stroking a pet to see what the anatomy was like but not to disturb or distort its mystery. Folklore may have begun as allegory for natural or social phenomena; it may have been employed as a retreat from contemporary issues in art, but folklore can also contain myths that reactivate themselves endlessly through providers – the people who repeat, reshape, reconstitute, and reinterpret them. The Tar Baby tale seemed to me to be about masks. Not masks as covering what is to be hidden, but how masks come to life, take life over, exercise the tensions between themselves and what they cover. For Son, the most effective mask is none. For the others the construction is careful and delicately borne, but the masks they make have a life of their own and collide with those they come in contact with. The texture of the novel seemed to want leanness, architecture that was worn and ancient like a piece of mask sculpture: exaggerated, breathing, just athwart the representational life it displaced. Thus, the first and last sentences had to match, like the exterior planes match the interior, concave ones inside the mask. Therefore “He believed he was safe” would be twin of “Lickety split, lickety split, lickety lickety split.” This close is (1) the last sentence of the folktale (2) the action of the character, (3) the indeterminate ending that follows from the untrustworthy beginning, (4) the complimentary meter of its twin sister (´´´´´´with´´´´´´), and (5) the wide and marvelous space between the contradiction of those two images: from a dream of safety to the sound of running feet. The whole mediated world in between. This masked and unmasked; enchanted, disenchanted; wounded and wounding world is played out on and by the varieties of interpretation (Western and Afro-American) the Tar Baby myth has been (and continues to be) subjected to. Winging one’s way through the vise and expulsion of history becomes possible in creative encounters with that history. Nothing, in those encounters, is safe, or should be. Safety is the fetus of power as well as protection from it, as the uses to which masks and myths are put in Afro-American culture remind us.

In beginning Beloved with numerals rather than spelled out numbers, it was my intention to give the house an identity separate from the street or even the city; to name it the way “Sweet Home” was named; the way plantations were named, but not with nouns or “proper” names -with numbers instead because numbers have no adjectives, no posture of coziness or grandeur or the haughty yearning of arrivistes and estate builders for the parallel beautifications of the nation they left behind, laying claim to instant history and legend. Numbers here constitute an address, a thrilling enough prospect for slaves who had owned nothing, least of all an address. And although the numbers, unlike words, can have no modifiers, I give these an adverb- spiteful (there are two other modifiers of 124). The address is therefore personalized, but personalized by its own activity, not the pasted-on desire for personality.

Also there is something about numerals that makes them spoken, heard, in this context, because one expects words to read in a book, not numbers to say, or hear. And the sound of the novel, sometimes cacaphonous, sometimes harmonious, must be an innerear sound or a sound just beyond hearing, infusing the text with a musical emphasis that words can do sometimes even better than music can. Thus the second sentence is not one: it is a phrase that properly, grammatically, belongs as a dependent clause with the first. Had I done that, however (124 was spiteful, comma, full of a baby’s venom, or 124 was full of a baby’s venom) I could not have had the accent on full (””””pause””””).

Whatever the risk of confronting the reader with what must be immediately incomprehensible in that simple, declarative, authoritative sentence, the risk of unsettling him or her, I determined to take it. Because the in-medias-res opening that I am so committed to is here excessively demanding. It is abrupt, and should appear so. No native informant here. The reader is snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign, and I want it as the first stroke of the shared experience that might be possible between the reader and the novel’s population. Snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense. No lobby, no door, no entrance – a gangplank, perhaps (but a very short one). And the house into which this snatching – this kidnapping-propels one, changes from spiteful to loud to quiet, like the sounds in the body of the ship itself may have changed. A few words have to be read before it is clear that “124” refers to a house (in most of the early drafts “The women in the house knew it” was simply “The women knew it.” “House” was not mentioned for seventeen lines), and a few more have to be read to discover why it is spiteful, or rather the source of the spite. By then it is clear, if not at once, that something is beyond control, but is not beyond understanding, since it is not beyond accommodation by both the “women” and the “children.” The fully realized presence of the haunting is both a major incumbent of the narrative and sleight of hand. One of its purposes is to keep the reader preoccupied with the nature of the incredible spirit world while being supplied a controlled diet of the incredible political world.

The subliminal, the underground life of a novel, is the area most likely to link arms with the reader and facilitate making it one’s own. Because one must, to get from the first sentence to the next, and the next and the next. The friendly observation post I was content to build and man in Sula (with the stranger in the midst), or the down-home journalism of Song of Solomon or the calculated mistrust of the point of view in Tar Baby would not serve here. Here I wanted the compelling confusion of being there as they (the characters) are; suddenly, without comfort or succor from the “author,” with only imagination, intelligence, and necessity available for the journey. The painterly language of Song of Solomon was not useful to me in Beloved. There is practically no color whatsoever in its pages, and when there is, it is so stark and remarked upon, it is virtually raw. Color seen for the first time, without its history. No built architecture as in Tar Baby, no play with Western chronology as in Sula; no exchange between book life and “real” life discourse — with printed text units rubbing up against seasonal black childtime units as in The Bluest Eye. No compound of houses, no neighborhood, no sculpture, no paint, no time, especially no time because memory, prehistoric memory, has no time. There is just a little music, each other, and the urgency of what is at stake. Which is all they had. For that work, the work of language is to get out of the way.

I hope you understand that in this explication of how I practice language is a search for and deliberate posture of vulnerability to those aspects of Afro-American culture that can inform and position my work. I sometimes know when the work works, when nommo [12] has effectively summoned, by reading and listening to those who have entered the text. I learn nothing from those who resist it, except, of course, the sometimes fascinating display of their struggle. My expectations of and my gratitude to the critics who enter, are great. To those who talk about how as well as what; who identify the workings as well as the work; for whom the study of Afro-American literature is neither a crash course in neighborliness and tolerance, nor an infant to be carried, instructed, or chastised or even whipped like a child, but the serious study of art forms that have much work to do, and which are already legitimatized by their own cultural sources and predecessors — in or out of the canon — I owe much.

For an author, regarding canons, it is very simple: in fifty, a hundred, or more years his or her work may be relished for its beauty or it insight or its power; or it may be condemned for its vacuousness and pretension – and junked. Or in fifty or a hundred years the critic (as canon builder) may be applauded for his or her intelligent scholarship and powers of critical inquiry. Or laughed at for ignorance and shabbily disguised assertions of power – and junked. It’s possible that the reputations of both will thrive, or that both will decay. In any case, as far as the future is concerned, when one writes, as critic or as author, all necks are on the line.


[1] Henry Louis Gates, ed., “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
[2] Among many examples, Ivan Van Sertima, They Came before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. xvi-xvii.
[3] Tzvetan Todorov, “‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture,” trans. Loulou Mack, in Gates, “Race,” pp. 370-80.
[4] Terrance Rafferty, “Articles of Faith,” New Yorker 64 (May 16, 1988): 110.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), p. 2.
[7] Ibid., pp. 310, 337.
[8] Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), p. 15.
[9] Older America is not always distinguishable from its infancy. We may pardon Edgar Allan Poe in 1848 but it should have occurred to Kenneth Lynn in 1986 that some young Native American might read his Hemingway biography and see herself described as “squaw” by this respected scholar, and that some young men might shudder reading the words “buck” and “half-breed” so casually included in his scholarly speculations.
[10] Rogin, Subversive Genealogy, pp. 107, 142.
[11] Ibid., p. 112.
[12] “The life force, which produces all life . . , , in the shape of the word” (Janheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture [London: Faber and Faber, 1961], p. 124).

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