Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition

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.

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1952. Vintage International, 2013.

Summary of Work
John, the stepson of Gabriel Grimes and son of Elizabeth, is sure he is expected to be a man of God, but he worries he is not yet saved. He knows that there is sin in him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. He goes to church regularly with his family. Elisha, the preacher’s son, comes into town, and he teaches Sunday school. John is having a hard time paying attention because he is focused so much on Elisha. He gets to watch Elisha dance before God and pray and sing, and he wants to be very much like Elisha. Elisha is once reprimanded for spending time with Ella Mae, Harriet Washington’s ward. They are publicly shamed in front of the congregation and made an example of for being together so often unchaperoned and unmarried. After that, Elisha never sees Ella.

John wakes up the next Saturday to realize it’s his fourteenth birthday, and wonders if his family will remember. Sometimes his family has completely forgotten. But he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He goes downstairs for breakfast and his mom and his brother Roy are having a heated discussion about their father Gabriel. Gabriel, a man of god and a former preacher, regularly beats his sons for disobedience. They are not allowed to play outside with other children or go to the movies or do anything that Gabriel Grimes considers unholy. So they spend their days in the house or at school doing work and they go to church as a family on Sundays. They also go on Saturday evenings to the prayer service and they regularly have Bible lessons.

When his mother asks him to do chores, he believes his mother has forgotten about his birthday. He does the chores, and afterwards his mother calls him in the kitchen. She gives him some coins and tells him he can go out and buy what he wants for his birthday, but that he needs to do so before his father comes home. He goes into New York City and determines that he will go see a movie, an activity which has been forbidden him by his father. He feels guilty as he starts watching the film, but as the film goes on he empathizes with the main character. John is tormented because he cannot decide if he wants to follow religion or if he wants to participate in what his father determines are sinful activities. He knows that the people in his school and at other places are good people, even though his father says they are sinners. His father has also told him to never trust a white person.

When he gets out of the movies he sees his sister Sarah running home with a package. He quickly follows and finds that his brother Roy has been sliced open with a knife from his temple to his eye. He had gone to the West side of town and picked a fight with white boys. His father is taking care of his son and is angry that John has been gone so long. John goes to take care of his baby sister. And his Aunt Florence is also there. They argue over what happened and over his wife’s inability to keep his son in the home, and Florence is defending his wife Elizabeth when Gabriel strikes his wife. Roy tells his father never to strike his mom again or he will kill him.

That evening John goes to the Church early to clean it before the Saturday evening prayer service. Elisha also comes along. They wrestle and then clean the Church. Slowly people come in and they start to pray as Elisha plays a sad tune on the piano. As Florence prays, she thinks back on her past: she was a girl born to a former slave, and her mother saw no need to move North. She forced her daughter to stay home instead of go to school so she could learn what her mother saw as the skill set she needed to be a wife, mother, and housekeeper in the South. Florence resented her brother Gabriel’s opportunities to learn and be out and about doing whatever he pleased, and felt disgusted at his philandering and drinking and gaming. His mother always asked him to come to God, but he never would. Then, as Florence’s mother was about to die and her employer had asked her to be his concubine, she decided to buy a ticket to New York and leave everything behind. Her family tries to stop her, but she goes North and gets a job and finally meets a husband, who is a bluesman and who wastes his money on drink and frivolous things. She loves him, but always fights with him. One day he comes home and they have a large fight and he never comes back. She finds out from his mistress years later that he has died in the war in France. She is heartbroken.

As Gabriel watches his sister pray, he prays and thinks back on his life. After his sister left he became a preacher, and he was very successful. He marries Deborah, a woman who had been gang raped by white men in a field as a young girl. She is plain and eight years his senior, but very faithful and a woman of God. She is barren, and one day he meets a young woman named Esther who he is tempted by. While they are at work together, she gets a little drunk and lures him into the house, and he decides to sleep with her. They have sex together for nine days, and then he determines he can no longer be unfaithful and ends the affair. But she gets pregnant. He will not leave his wife and marry her and wants nothing to do with her, so he steals his wife’s savings and gives it to Esther to go to Chicago. She dies in childbirth there, and her family brings her body back and buries it, and take care of the baby, Royal. Royal is the name he was going to give his firstborn son. He watches his son grow up but will not claim him, and he dies in a knife fight in Chicago when he is 18. When he learns this and breaks down, Deborah admits that she knows about the affair and wants to know why he never admitted it and claimed his son. She tells him that he had better repent and keep repenting until he knows for certain God has forgiven him. She dies soon later from her illness. Florence also knows about her brother’s sins because Deborah sent her a letter about it.

Elizabeth was the daughter of a bluesman. Her mother died young, and she was taken away from her father by her Aunt, who believed her father would not raise her right. Elizabeth resented her Aunt for it her whole life and hated the church. While living in the South she met Richard, the store boy, and they fell in love. She follows him to New York City, and they work in the same hotel together. She starts sleeping with him and gets pregnant, but doesn’t tell him. One early morning when they stay out too late, he takes her back to Harlem but then gets caught in a bad situation that lands him in jail. The cops tell her he robbed a store, even though he didn’t and was simply caught in the crosshairs. He will not sign a confession, and he is severely beaten. The cops let her see him, and he stands trial and is found innocent on others’ testimony. He is broken when he gets out of prison and he kills himself, and she never gets to tell him she is pregnant. She still works to take care of herself and the baby, and now she lives in her own space instead of her Aunt’s friend’s home, but she is miserable. She meets Florence, and confides in her about her son and his daddy. She becomes fast friends with Florence, and when Gabriel comes to town, she doesn’t understand why Florence doesn’t like him. Gabriel ends up marrying Florence and promising he will raise the child like his own. She thinks about his promise and that he kept the word but not the spirit. Gabriel hates that John is more righteous than his own son, and cannot stand the thought of John being better than his flesh and blood.

John falls under the power of the Lord and has a vision of going through the gates of hell and being under Satan’s power, and being lifted up by Christ. The congregation is elated that he has been saved. Elisha helped him through the process. The only people who are not so happy are his mother and stepfather. As they walk in the morning light, for they have prayed all night long in the Pentecostal Church, Elisha and John talk about praying and staying on the path to God. Florence and Gabriel talk about Gabriel’s past and Gabriel is furious that Florence knows and that she knows how much he hates John. Elizabeth is crying for her past love and for the lack of love Gabriel has for her son and herself and the sorrow he has brought into her life as the other members of the Church talk about how amazing it is that John has so young discovered the path to God and been saved. As Elisha and John get to John’s home, John wishes to tell him about his father, but only asks for Elisha to always pray for him and be with him. He walks into the house at his father’s bidding before Sunday services later that morning.

Brief Note on Themes
Religion and how it works within people is a large theme in this book. This is particularly true for how certain truths for certain individuals lead them in specific paths and often lead to their downfall as they think their way is the only right way. What does it mean to be saved? How can a person come to be saved through Christ? And can a person stay saved, or are they destined to continually fail and fall into sin?

There is also a theme of finding identity and what it means to be religious and American and living in the North versus the South as a black person. Black identity is also overtly discussed, as each of these people come to learn what it means to be black in America and to in one way or another fear and resent white people and their power.

The power of the word of God through the Bible and through prophecy are always present in the work. There is a big tension between being part of the world and being part of religion. This is always in some way or other expressed using the blues and bluesmen and the jook joint spaces they are played in as a secular representation, and the church and the Bible and God as contrast. That tension is a long and well established running theme in black history, and many preachers were at some point bluesmen before they turned to God. Others were originally preachers who turned to blues. So there is a lot to explore in the ways the “world” is represented in comparison to religion. It’s also interesting that dance is associated with the Bible and God, and there does seem to be a sense of possession, much like the mounting of the Vodun, in black Christian worship in the book. When blues is mentioned, any activities surrounding it are always linked to sex. This continues to show that the music and dances, both done secularly and religiously, have the same call and response ties, the same roots.

Family relationships and sexual relationships and dalliances, are also very common in this work, and love as real and love as convenience are explored. Gabriel loves for duty or convenience: he marries those he thinks will bring him closer to God because he is called to lift them up. Elizabeth comes the closest to finding true love with Richard because no matter what they stick together until he commits suicide. Florence falls into the trap of loving someone to have someone around, and though she does love her husband, she cannot truly forget his faults.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Beacon P, 1957.

Summary of Work
Baldwin’s memoirs detail what it means to be black in America, and outside of it, and how black people form their identities, particularly how American black people form their identities in a space that has denied them access to their past. Further, he discusses how black-white relations work in America, and how they are based off of a mythos that is largely theological: blackness is associated with the devil or evil in Christianity, and the Christian image of goodness is all clothed in white; we know if a person is good and has made it to heaven if they are robed in white upon their appearance in our vision. In a theology of whiteness, black people are forced to either find a different identity, or far more likely and as we see has happened, forced to believe that they are sub-human or non-human because of their blackness, and they accept that role, even if unwillingly, in American white society. This identity and struggle to be recognized as a human being is documented in American protest literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Baldwin asserts is a terrible novel inasmuch as it should be a pamphlet for the type of material it uses, and that Gone With the Wind and other such novels capitalize on this idea of the beauties and tragedies of slave labor—all of which surround black bodies and their identities, which have mostly and largely been forced upon them as objects to be pitied, liberated by well-meaning white people. Of course, this liberation is good, but it still does not rid white people of their understanding that black people are somehow subhuman or lower than they are.

This mythology, woven throughout the American history books and fiction works, extends into film and other mediums of artistic representation, indicative of the underpinning moral beliefs of American society regarding race relations. We can see this in Richard Wright’s famous work Native Son, which gives people a picture of black rage because of this lack of identity, certainly, but also gives us the expected social redemption of Bigger Thomas, something that in Baldwin’s view, robs the novel of much of its power, regardless of its successes. And when all of this history and culture and moral belief is brought by black people over to France and other parts of Europe, they try to deny the identity, because it is just as uncomfortable in Europe as in America. But in Europe, they feel for a time they can escape it. The outright racism and hatred of black people is missing in Europe. However, they quickly come to understand that the derision they experience in America exists in Europe, just in different places, and that they cannot escape their identity as black Americans. The space itself requires them to recognize their unique situation: they are free from the outright racism of Jim Crow, but they cannot identify with the cultures of Europe, and Europeans simply have no understanding of what it means to be black in America or to have experienced that type of race relation. The uniqueness of American life is that black and white races are tied together to learn how to live with each other, and regardless of the white supremacy and the racism, that learning to live with each other, however rife with turmoil, is unique to the whole of the world. Other white countries colonized and left black people in their own country; America brought them in. Knowing that the identity of America, both black and white, rests on this identity and history, should be a step to recognizing a path forward, and to recognizing that the ideal of no racism is simply a dream, but not one that should be discarded.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of racism, racial identity, and white-black relations run throughout this work. Understanding the mythologies and morals that created racial identity in America is also a huge theme, even when Baldwin is discussing his time in France and Switzerland. Coming to understand what it means to be black in America, and outside of it as a black American, is central to Baldwin’s memoir.