Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. U of
Massachusetts P, 1987.
Summary of Work
This work gives a critical analysis and historical overlook of the development of the African American novel from slave narratives to the novels written in the 1970s during Postmodernism. The work takes a mix of historical, anthropological, and cultural analysis as Bell analyzes the development of the African American novel. Bell determines that there are four unique qualities that run throughout the AfAm novel that separate it from the regular American novel: double-consciousness, referring to the biracial identity of black people as black and American; socialized ambivalance, meaning “the dancing attitudes of Americans of African ancestry between integration and separation, a shifting identification between the values of the dominant white and subordinate black cultural systems as a result of institutionalized racism” (xvi); double vision, which is the use of irony and parody in the art form in order to deal with the hardships of life; and folklore, or the artistic forms and communicative process which are unique to African American cultural communities.
For the purposes of my area of study, I have skipped over the chapters with a focus on nineteenth century writers and moved into the twentieth century writers. The beginning of the twentieth century into WWI was the era of naturalism for the novel, which kept some of the sensationalism of romanticism from the nineteenth century, but focused much more on social issues of the day and spoke more to reality. This is particularly true of African American novels, which “combine the themes of love, marriage, and success with the protagonist’s struggle for freedom from color and caste discrimination in a cyclical quest to fully realize his or her rights and potential for growth as a person of biracial and bicultural identity” (79). These ideals were further promoted by the idea of having a Talented Tenth, the New Negro movement, and a higher class of art from African American artists that harbored elitism even as white America was moving away from those ideals itself. Two authors representative of naturalism during this time period are W.E.B. Du Bois, who’s novels failed in being very enjoyable reads, but succeeded in providing a sociological take on current issues; James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a psychological form of naturalism which enjoyed enough success to initially be considered an actual autobiography. They dealt with the same problems of existing in a white world and succeeding as a black man, especially the irony of interracial relations when one could pass as white. They deal with the cultural tensions and biases of the rising middle class of black people in America.
With the Harlem Renaissance came a new belief of what black art forms, especially written forms, should do: they should celebrate black life, achievement, and show the complexities of black cultural existence. It was an era where black men were still being lynched in large numbers each year, and race tensions were as high as ever, but expression without fear or shame was a driving theme of the Harlem Renaissance writers.
Jean Toomer represents poetic realism at this time period. Considering himself neither white nor black but an American, he often came into conflict with others over the labeling of his work and what he was doing. He termed himself an essentialist rather than a realist or classicist, particularly meaning that he believed in the transcendent nature of the soul and that he believed in truth through intuition, and that he was a believer in Eastern practices of mysticism. Cane, Toomer’s masterwork, is a mix of prose and poetry, creating a poetic novel that on the surface may seem pastoral, but is much deeper than that because there can be no return to the country life or pre-industrial life, and the characters are complex. Mystical visions of life combine with folklore and cultural history and knowledge to create an undercurrent of a metaphysical journey. His work modeled those of Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson, and he, like them, worked on experimenting with utilizing regional and local materials in high artistic works.
During the time of both nationalism and assimilationism, with the cry for a back-to-Africa movement in Garvey and a melting pot theory on the other hand, authors such as Nella Larsen began to explore what it meant to have dual identities as a response to both of these movements. Against both assimilationist beliefs and the nationalist formations, Larsen’s books explore what happens to people when they force themselves to accept one or the other of these options.
During this time in the Harlem Renaissance there was also a turn to Folk Romance, or more specifically forms of ancestralism or pastoralism and even at times primitivism within novelistic writing. The writing was meant “to express the historical struggle of black Americans to achieve a dynamic synthesis of their individual and collective double-consciousness” (113). Thus, the African American pastoral was different than the regular pastoral because it encompassed both rural and urban settings, utilizing the near past to discuss the African American psychological and social struggles. Zora Neale Hurston’s work is full of folk romance. This could be in part because of her lifetime refusal to relinquish her heritage and folk origins that made up her identity. Their Eyes Were Watching God is the pinnacle of her work, her best folk romance. The work explores the life of Janie and her dreams and hopes as she marries different men and those dreams either get taken away through violent means to herself or to the one she loves (Tea-Cake having to be shot because he attacks her after getting rabies). The narration switches from third person to first person and has a variety of different narrators (with mixed success), making Hurston better able to discuss the sacrifices that black women have made from slavery forward in order to survive and help their men, and what happens when black women refuse to sacrifice and instead pursue their own interests. The whole of the novel also centers the oral folk traditions of the black South.
Unlike Hurston and other folk romantics, authors like Langston Hughes stuck to a form of folk realism that looked narrowly at specific, everyday lives of black people, focusing on common social rituals rather than larger, more universal truths. While the stories in isolation do not tell all of the black experience, they do offer perhaps a successfully “realistic portrayal of the ways in which ordinary black folk used religion, music, humor, and language to cope with adversity than their counterparts” (129).
With the coming of the Great Depression and the rise of the ideas of socialism and communism in America with it, there was a greater realization of the disunity of the races than there had been in the 1920s, with as many as 60 percent more black people being unemployed than white people (152). While many black people and their leaders were wary of the Communist party because of their oversimplification of racial issues in favor of economic issues, Richard Wright became a party member because he felt it gave him and black people a chance to gain a unity that had been lacking, and that the unity would help solve many of the racial and economic problems of the time. The writers of this time also benefitted from the Federal Writer’s Project, and Hurston, Ellison, Wright, and many other black writers were able to get funding for their writing projects.
Wright was a naturalist writer, and he rejected “both the concept of black consciousness and the values of Afro-American culture,” which is evidenced in his writing, including Native Son (155). In Native Son, he looks closely at poor black life in the South Side of Chicago, and discusses fear and freedom as sources of weakness and strength: weakness in the bad things it leads to, strength in the power of action. While many critics see the work as part of black nationalism, the double-consciousness throughout the work would speak against that theory or belief. Instead, the work shows how racist beliefs that white people have consistently spoken and acted upon have become internalized in black people to the point that they may even go commit crimes like Bigger Thomas as an act of self-realization or freedom. The themes and issues Wright explores in Native Son make his work the “naturalistic vision of the social paradoxes that bind white and black Americans” (166). The work is a play between Marxism and Freudian psychology.
The 1950s saw a move from Naturalism to a revitalization of cultural discussions of myth, rituals, and double-consciousness of the black experience. At this point, black authors began writing and experimenting with non-racial themes as well. Authors such as Ralph Ellison discuss that they came to the realization that what T.S. Eliot was doing with cultural myth and ritual could be done in black culture as well, and that it could be done with different materials, their own cultural heritage. Ellison’s one novel, Invisible Man, solidifies this change in novel writing as Ellison creates a modern epic by utilizing African-American history and cultural traditions, particularly traditions of blues and jazz music. In Ellison’s work, African Americans become a metaphor for the human condition.
James Baldwin’s novels carry on a similar work, but through religious overtones and discussions, which he was better able to carry on because of his childhood religious background. Baldwin’s early interviews, writings, and discussions look very similar to Richard Wright’s beliefs outlined in Native Son, and indeed, Baldwin’s self-professed literary father was Wright. However, he grew as a novelist and became interested in focusing on more components of black life than the political, even though he still kept the narrow viewpoint of Wright by exploring specific narratives of specific characters rather than a more general search for a generalized black experience. His work is “spiritual and sexual,” exploring “not the terrifying possibilities of hatred, but the terrifying possibilities of love” (219). He relies on the social structures and myths given him in black churches and in black music as he writes his narrative, integrating more cultural discussions than were prevalent in naturalism. Specifically, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a story that exposes “the moral foundations of the institutional pillars of the black community” (224).
With the rise of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and the rise of feminism and the Women’s Rights Movement, the African-American novel made a move toward Modernism and Neorealism as a response to the turbulent times. While Neorealism kept the forms of realism, it was “also a philosophical and political attitude toward the human condition” (246). Thus, there is far more hope for humanity in African American novels of this strain than of the novels written by other races of people. Alice Walker embodies this hope with her work, which seeks to uplift both men and women (leading her to call herself a womanist rather than feminist). Her work splits the line between realism and romance, and The Color Purple in particular utilizes the folk realism and romanticism embodied by the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Her work has a sexual egalitarianism to it that is unique in comparison to other novels written during the same time period.
Poetic realism, the act of realism including “imaginative power, compression, and lyricism of language,” moves toward the problematic reality of reality being largely shaped by consciousness (269). Thus, much like Jean Toomer, those writing in a Poetic Realist tradition are seeking to find the sensations or feelings of truth rather than to lay it out as reality. This form of realism is best embodied in the work of Toni Morrison, who’s Song of Solomon utilizes a nonlinear narrative and haunting tales of the Dead family and their surroundings to discuss the fact that no matter how terribly a race or group of people is treated, it seems like they are never turned into beasts. The poetic language in Sula explores the pain and suffering of African Americans while also exploring the topics of sexuality and freedom in newly-minted linguistic ways.
Finally, when it comes to Postmodernism, the African American novelists depart from the white novelist traditions of the work of art as meaningless and instead “are deeply concerned with fictive visions that focus on the truths of the perversity of American racism and the paradoxes of Afro-American double-consciousness” (284). They reaffirm the power of the folk tradition as a way of seeing and knowing important truths to navigate through the perversities of life. These features mix with fabulation, romance, fantasy, and satire to create the literature of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the time when this book was written. The work of John Edgar Wideman, particularly highlighted by the short story collection Damballah, blurs the distinctions between “history and fiction, novel and romance, orality and literariness” through his blending of “epistle, legend, myth, fable, biography, and autobiography” in his fiction (312). By doing this, he has a recurring theme of understanding that what we think we are is just as, if not more, important than what we actually are when it comes to identity. Ishmael Reed challenges his readers to break free of the idea of a monolithic narrative for the African American novel, and he uses a Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic in order to blend a variety of cultural writing techniques and challenge readers “to be as culturally egalitarian and imaginatively bold as the author” (331).
Discussion of Work
This book’s main strength is in its discussion of these authors and the evolution of the African American novel within the context of social and political happenings: by offering a brief historical overview in tandem with the development of new literary movements and returns to older movements, Bell is able to show how the African American novel is as tied to them as is the novel in general. The work provides much needed representation of black authorship in a scholarly field that for too long overlooked their additions and achievements and how they influenced the development of the novel. I largely agree with what is said in this work regarding the topics and critical discussions of the authors chosen for the work, and so I have little more to say about it than has been highlighted in the summary. However, I do believe that structurally, the book may be trying to do too much in that it tries to feature too many authors. While it is certainly necessary to offer up multiple authors’ works to show the breadth of the literature from each literary movement, the number of authors chosen leads to less of an in-depth discussion about many of them, and altogether excludes works that might be discussed from other authors.