Unspeakable Things Unspoken:
The Afro American Presence in American Literature (1988)

Presented as The Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan, October 7, 1988.

I planned to call this paper "Canon Fodder," because the terms 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. But I changed
my mind (so many have used the phrase) and hopc to make clear the
appropriateness of the title 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 fit 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 litera-
ture of an entire nation from the solitude into which it has been
locked. There is something called American Literature that, accord-
ing 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 or eariler 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 claim of others against the whitemale
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 suc-
cessful assault that the feminist scholarship of men and women
(black and white) made and continues to make on traditional liter-
ary discourse. The male part of the whitemale equation is already
deeply engaged and no one believes the body of literature and its
criticism will ever again be what it was in 1965: the protected pre-
serve of the thoughts and works and analytical strategies of

It is, however, the "white" part of the question that this paper
focuses on, and it is to my great relief that such terms 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 forbid-
den. It may appear churlish to doubt the sincerity, or question the
proclaimed well-intentioned self-lessness 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 term for reasons of state; to be in
the position to distribute greatness or withhold it? Or to actively
pursue 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 West-
ern civilization owns up to its own sources in the cultures that pre-
ceded 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 inc-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 post-modern 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 re-thinking. 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- 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 reversed difference,
suddenly they were told there is no such thing as "race," biological or
cultural, that matters and the genuinely intellectual exchange can-
not accommodate. In trying to come to some terms about "race"
and writing, 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 purpose 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 instance
where and means by which it has shaped Western culture are poorly
recognized or understood.

I want to address ways in which time 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 cab be attributed solely to the
routine even cyclical arguments within literary communities
reflecting unpredictable yet inevitable shifts in taste, relevance or
perception. I Shifts fit which an enthusiasm for and official endorse-
ment of William Dean I 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 lie may, or may not have
named himself); or even the stow, delayed but steady swell of atten-
tion and devotion on which Emily Dickinson soared to what is now,
surely, a permanent crest of respect. No. Those were discoveries, re-
appraisals 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 fail 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
bands alone rests the gift of critical longevity? Interesting questions,
bill, as 1 say, not endangering.

Nor is this detectable academic sleeplessness the consequence of a
much more radical shut, 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 the-
ology and thereby Latin, was displaced for the equally rigorous
study of the classics and Greek to be followed by what was consid-
ered a strangely arrogant and upstart proposal: that English Litera-
ture 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 some-
how, keener. It has a more strenuously argued (and felt) defense and
a more vigorously insistent attack. And both defenses and attacks
have spilled out of the academy into the popular press. Why? Resist-
ance 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 disin-
genuous 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 peda-
gogue and the artist. What is astonishing in the contemporary
debate is not the resistance to displacement of works or to the expan-
sion of genre within it, but the virulent passion that accompanies
this resistance and, more importantly the quality of its defense
weaponry. The guns are very big; the trigger-lingers quick. But I am
convinced the mechanism of the defenders of the flame is faulty. Not
only may the hands of the gun-slinging cowboy-scholars be blown
off, not only may the target be missed, but the subject of the confla-
gration (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, etc., etc., etc. 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 stiff-
ened. Kundera's "personal 'idea of the novel,'" he wrote, "is so
profoundly Eurocentrie that it's likely to seem exotic, even perverse,
to American readers… The Art of the Novel gives off the occa-
sional (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 defen-
sive, excluded front 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.”

Kundera's views, obliterating American writers (with the excep-
tion 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.

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 regard-
ing their own exclusion from the "transcendent 'idea of the novel.'"

For the present turbulence seems not to he 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
rise. 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
its well. From the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the argu-
ments 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 - inny 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 re-routing from scholas-
ticism to humanism, was not merely radical, it must have been (may
I say It?) savage. And it took some seventy years to accomplish.
Severity years to eliminate Egypt as the cradle of civilization and its
model and replace it with Greece. The triumph of tthat process was
that Greece lost its own origins and became itself original. A number
of scholars in various disciplines (history, anthropology, ethnobot-
any, etc.) have put forward their research into cross-cultural and
inter-cultural transmissions with varying degrees of success in the
reception of their work. I am reminded of the curious publishing
history of Ivan van Sertima's work, They Came before Columbus,
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 Levantine-absorbed by Egyptian and Semitic
culture(the Ancient Model). "If I am right," writes Professor Bernal,
"In urging the overthrew of the Aryan Model and its replacement by
the Revised Ancient one, It will he 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 histo-
riography, 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 nine-
teenth 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."

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 live motives for the fabrication.
The latter (motive) involved the concept of purity, of progress. The
former (process) required mis-reading, pre-determined selectivity of
authentic sources, and-silence. From the Christian theological
appropriation of Israel (the Levant), to the early nineteenth-century
work of the prodigious Karl Muller, work that effectively dismissed
the Greeks' own record of their influences and origins as their "Egy-
ptomania," their tendency to be "wonderstruck" by English cul-
ture, 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 dis-
favor of the Phoencians, "the 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 cul-
turally very-close to the Jews."

I have quoted at perhaps too great a length front 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 dis-
missed as merely political; the status qio 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, Amer-
ican slave narratives, and the delineation of the Afro-American liter-
ary 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 Con-
rad's unspeaking. We are the subjcets of our own narrative, wit-
nesses 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 cen-
ters 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, men-
tioned 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 re-discoveries 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 time 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, in mimetic (merely), and unitel-
lectual, though very often "moving," "passionate, "naturalralistic,
"realistic," or sociologically "revealing." These labels may be con-
strued 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 time application of recent literary theories to Afro-
American literature so that non-canonical texts can be incorporated
into existing and forming critical discourse.

The third charge, that "Afro-American art exist, 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. 2) cir-
cumscribing 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 correct-
ness pretense of having no politics at all, cripple the literature
and infantilize the serious work of imaginative writing. This
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 West-
ern influences in/on Afro-American literature has value, but when
its 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 of the advocacy of diversifi-
cation within the canon and/or a kind of benign co-existence near or
within reach of the already sacred texts. Either of these two posi-
tions can quickly become another kind of silencing if permitted to
ignore the indigenous created qualities of the writing. So manyy ques-
tions 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 exclusion 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 writeable
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 profes-
sional anxieties for the imagined turbulence of the text. "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 accom-
modates 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 re-interpretation of thee 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 non-
canonical literature for this presence, regardless of its category as
mainstream, minority, or what you will. I am always amazed by
the resonances, the structural gear-shifts, and the uses to which
Afro-American narrative, persona and idiom are put in contempo-
rary "white" literature. And in Afro-American literature itself the
question of difference, of essence, is 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

We can agree, I think that invisible things are not necessarily
"not there"; that a void may be empty, but is not a vacuum. In
addition, certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionally and pur-
pose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held
"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 tran-
scendence may be life-saving 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 . .' 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; time 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 suspiciousIts origins, it has produced an
incontestably wonderful body of work. In other instances these strategies have succeeded in paralyzing both the work and its criti-
cism. 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 into a "power struggleamong sects" reading
unauthored and unauthorable material, rather than an outcome of
reading with the author the text 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
time nineteenth century flight from blackness, for example, successful
mainstream American literature? Beautiful? Artistically problem-
aic? Is the text sabotaged by its own proclamations of "universal-
ity"? Are there ghosts in the machine? Active but unsummoned pres-
ences that can distort the workings of the machine and cab also
make it work? These kinds of questions have been consistently put
by critics of Colonial Literature vis-a-vis Africa and India and other
third world countries. American literature would benefit from simil-
lar 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 writes deliberately exclude from their
conscious writerly world the subjective appraisal of groups per-
ceived as "other," and whitemale writers frequently abjure and deny
time excitement of framing or locating their literature in the political
world. Nineteenth-century writers, however, would never have
given it a thought. Mainstream writers in Young America under-
stood their competition to be national, cultural, but only in relation-
ship to the Old, World, certainly not vis-a-vis an ancient race
(whether Native American or African) that was stripped of articu-
lateness and intellectual thought, rendered, in D.H. Lawerence'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 writtden word? One could
write about them, but there was never the danger of their "writing
back." Just as one could speak to them with 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 Jupi-
ter says "I knows," abd Mr.Poe spells the verb "nose."

Yet in spite or because of this monologism there Is a great, orna-
mental prescribed absence in early American literature and, I sub-
mit, it Is instructive. It only seems that the canon of American
literature Is "naturally'' or"inevitably" "white." In fact it is studi-
ously 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-in exorbitant price for cultural (white-
male) purity, and, I believe, a spendthrift one. The re-examination
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, it has been at most impossible to
keep under lock and key is Herman Melville.

Among several astute scholars, Michael Rogin 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 time impact on time work of Melville's family, milieu, and,
most importantly, the raging, all-encompassing conflict of the time:
slavery. He has reminded us that it was Melvilie's father-in-law who
had, as judge, decided the case that made the Fugitive Slave Law
law, and that "other evidence in Moby Dick also suggests the 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 185. He may well have written his last
chapters only after returning from a trip to New York in June.
[Judge Shaw's decision was handed down in April, 1851]. When
New York anti-slavery 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?"...

Rogin also traces time chronology of time whale from its "birth in a
state of nature" to its final end as commodity. Central to his argu-
ment Is that Melville in Moby Dick was being allegorically and
insistently political in his choice of the whale. But within his chro-
nology, 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 var-
ied. It has been viewed as an allegory of time state in which Ahab is
Calhoun, or Daniel Webster; an allegory of capitalism and corrup-
tion, Cod 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 its consider, again, the principal actor, Ahab, created by
an author who calls himself Tawney, signed himself Tawney, identi-
fied 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 had 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 aggres-
sion, 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 civiliza-
tion that he renounces and an idea of savagery he must annihilate,
because the two cannot co-exist. 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 while, 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 simple-minded black/white didacti-
cism, or that he was satanizing white people. Nothing like that.
What I am suggesting is that he was overwhelmed by the philosophi-
cal 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 sell. . . . Delight is
to him whose strong arms yet support him, when time ship of this
base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to
him who gives no quarter in time 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? Time terms do not apply. 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 man to repair. The concern of racial superiority 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 differ-
ent Ahab. Not an adolescent male in adult clothing, a maniacal
egocentric, or the "exotic plant" that V. S. Parrlngton thought
Melville was. Not even a morally fine liberal voice adjusting, bal-
ancing, compromising with racial institutions. But another Ahab:
the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the mon-
ster 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 time do-or-die
significance of his effort to say something unsayable fit 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 in me]. The language of this chapter ranges between
benevolent, beautiful images of whiteness and whiteness as sinister
and shocking. After dissecting the ineffable, he concludes: "There-
fore .... 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 signifi-
cance" 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 is 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 lan-
guage, he identifies the imaginative tools needed to solve the prob-
lem: "subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man
can follow another into these halls." And his final observation rever-
berates 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 inven-
tion of it, was indeed formed in fright.

"Slavery," writes Rogin, "confirmed Melville's isolation, deci-
sively established in Moby Dick, from the dominant consciousness of
his time." I differ on this point and submit that Melville's hostility
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 com-
pany or could have found it. But to question the very notion of white
progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as privi-
leged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind, and to medi-
tate on the fraudulent, self-destroying philosophy of that superior-
ity, 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 fit the Face of False-
hood." 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 fascina-
tion 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, Villa Gather, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, to name a few. Canonical Amer-
ican 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 identi-
fies 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
pressure-that-is-assumed-not-to-exist. Afro-American critical
inquiry can do.

I mentioned earlier that finding or imposing Western influences
in/on Afro-American literature had value provided the valued pro-
cess does not become self-anointing. There is an adjacent project to
be undertaken- the third focus in my list: the examination of con-
temporary literature (both the sacred and the 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 presences 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 neverknow."


It is on this area, the impact of Afro-American culture on contem-
porary American literature, that I now wish to comment. I have
already said that works by Afro-American can respond to this pres-
ence (just as non-black 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 hoe 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 its 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 virtu-
ally subject, verb, modifier. Nothing fancy here. No words need
looking up; they are ordinary, everyday words. Yet I hoped the
simplicity was not simple-minded, 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 he gleaned, would not theatri-
calize 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 entirely 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,
1965-1909, 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

"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 addi-
tion 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 render) that the teller is on the inside, knows
something others do not, and is going to be generous with this privi-
leged 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 even 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
(render and I) are "in" on? A botanical aberration. Pollution, per-
haps. 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, some-
thing grim is about to be divulged. The next sentence will make it
clear that the sayer, the one who knows, is a child speaking, mimick-
ing the adult black women on the porch or in the back yard. The
opening phrase is an effort to be grown-up about this shocking infor-
mation. 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" fore-
grounds the flowers, backgrounds illicit, traumatic, incomprehensi-
ble sex coining to its dreaded fruition. This foregrounding of "triv-
ial" 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 simultaneously 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 con-
text, gullible, vulnerable girl friends, 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 reflec-
tive lives. Thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces
something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void
filled, on unspeakable tiring spoken at last. And they draw the con-
nection between a minor destabilization in seasonal flora with the
insignificant destruction of a black girl. Of course "minor" and
"insignificant" represent the outside worlds view-for the girls both
phenomena are earthshaking depositories of information they spend
that whole yearof childhood (and afterwards) trying to fathom, and
cannot. If they have any success, it will be in transferring the prob-
lem 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 conse-
quences 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 happen-
ing 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 "unbeating." 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 manipu-
lation of the voices around her. She is not seen by herself until she
hallucinates a self. And the fact ofher hallucination becomes a point
Of outside-the-book conversation, but does not work In the reading

Also, although I was pressing for a female expressiveness (a chal-
lenge that re-surfaced in Sula), It eluded me forthe 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, her 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 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 lan-
guage (speakerly, rural,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 ;v as 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 in the sentence. More to 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 render 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 front The Bluest Eye, and in every other book I have written,
only Sula has this "entrance." The others refuse the "presentation";
refuse the seductive sale harbor; the line of demarcation between
the scared ed 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 y first book was in proof, in a period of extraordinary
political activity.

Since I had become convinced that the effectiveness of the ori-
ginal 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 post 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-handely in my view, end the welcome aboard with the
mention of Shadrack and Sula. It was a craven (to me, still) surren-
der to a worn-out technique of novel writing: the overt announce-
ment 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 he 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 neigh-
borhood." Instead of my original plan, here I am introducing an
outside-the-circle render into the circle. I am translating the anon-
ymous into the specific, a "place" into a "neighborhood," and let-
ting 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
guts.) 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 unspecifiedbut no less known ''they' who do
not, cannot, afford to differentiate what is displaced, and would
not care that thisis "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 factor-
ies, or even a public park, and certainly not residents. It Is a mani-
cured 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; meta-
physically 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
blakc 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 ease, 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 coun-
teract 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 pre-war definitions, ushers in
the Jazz Age (an age defined by Afro-American art and culture), and
requires new kinds of intelligences to oneself.

The stage-setting of the first four pages is embarrassing to me
now, but the pains I have taken to explain it maybe 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) begin-
ning 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) sol-
ubility and Shadrack's (male) fixative are two extreme ways of deal-
ing with displacement- a prevalent theme in the narrative of black
people. In the final opening I replicated the demiurge of discrimina-
tory, prosecutorial racial oppression in the loss to commercial "pro-
gress" of the village, but the references to the community's stability
and creativeness (music, dancing, craft, religion, irony, wit all
referred to in the "valley man'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 a while) 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 3:00."

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 Song
of Solomon
both centers on and radiates from.

The name of the insurance company is real, a well known black-
owned company dependent off 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 loca-
tions, but with a sly implication that the move from North Caro-
lina (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 heart beat of the narrative. Where is the
insurance man flying to? The other side of Lake Superior is Can-
ada, 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
sermom 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 while world as is signified by inver-
sion of the name the hospital from Mercy to "no mercy." It is
only available 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 tire 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 cer-
tainty of danger, is toward change, an alternative way, a cessation
of things-as-they-are. It should not he understood as a simple desper-
ate 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 whom-
ever 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 motiva-
tionally 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 self-interest
(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

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 uunderstatement, highly
aural syntax-but the ordinariness of the language, its colloquial,
vernacular, humorous and, upon occasion, parabolic quality sabo-
tage expectations and mask 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 sisters' 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 fit because they
were planned, can conceivably be filled in with others significances.
That is planned as well. The point is that into these spaces should
fail the ruminations of the reader and his or her invented or recol-
lected 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 its 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 mythologize 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 hew by his
appropriation of his own family's fable, he returns td educate her
with it. Upon hearing all he has today, her only interest is Filial.
"Papa?...I've been carryin' Papa?" And her longing to hear, the
song, finally, is a longing for balm to die by, not a submissive obedi-
ence 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 debut 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 dream world, 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 folk tale, 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 re-telling 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. Folk lore may have
begun as allegory for natural or social phenomena; it may have been
employed as a retreat from contemporary issues in art, but folk lore can
also contain myths that re-activate themselves endlessly through
providers-the people who repeat, reshape, reconstitute and re-
interpret them. The Tar Baby tale seemed to me to be about masks.
Not masks as covering whatis to be hidden, but how masks come to
life, take life over, exercise the tensions between itself and what it
covers. 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 sculp-
ture: exaggerated,breathing, just athwart the representational life
it displaced. Thus, the first and last sentences had to match, as the
exterior planes match the interior, concave ones inside the mask.
Therefore "He believed he was safe" would be the twin of "Lickety
split, lickety split, lickety lickety split." This close is 1) the last sen-
tence of the folk tale. 2) the action of the character. 3) the indetermi-
nate ending that follows from the untrustworthy beginning. 4) the
complimentary meter of its twin sister [u u/u u/ with u u u /u u u/],
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 (West-
ern and Afro-American) the Tar Baby myth has been (and con-
tinues 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 foetus of power as well as protection from it, as the
uses to which masks and myths are put in Afro-American culture
remind us.


"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom."
Beginning Beloved with numerals rather than spelled out num-
bers, 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, yearn-
ing of arrivistes and estate builders for the parallel beautifications of
the nation they left behind, laying claim to instant history and leg-
end. Numbers here constitute an address, a thrilling enough pros-
pect 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 adjective -spiteful There are three others). 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 make 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, mmust be an inner ear 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 [ / u u / u / u pause / u u u u / u].

Whatever the risks of confronting the reader with what must be
immediately incomprehensible in that simple, declarative authori-
tative sentence, the risk of unsettling him or her, I determined to
take. 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
air environment completely foreign, and I want it as the first stroke
of the shared experience that might he 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 prepara-
tion and without defense. No lobby, no door, no entrance- a gang-
plank, perhaps (but a very short one). And the house into Which this
snatching-this kidnapping-propels one, changes from spiteful to
loud to quiet, as 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
time 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 char-
acters) are; suddenly, without comfort or succor from tire "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 sub; 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 neighbor-
hood, no sculpture, no paint, no time, especially no time because
memory, pre-historic memory, has no time. There is just 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


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
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 he carried, instructed or chastised or even
whipped like a child, but the serious study of art forms that have
much work to do, but are already legitimatized by their own cul-
tural sources and predecessors-in or out of the canon I owe

For an author, regarding canons, it is very simple: in fifty, a
hundred or more years his or her work may be relished for it
beauty or its insight or its power; or it may be condemned for its
vacuosness 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 an case, as far as the future is concerned, when
one writes, as critic or author, all necks are on the line.


Presented as The Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of
Michigan, October 7, 1988.

Author's Note: Older America is not always distinguishable from its
infancy. We may pardon Edgar Allan Poe in 1848 but it should have
occured 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.


1. see "Race," Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates (University of Chicago Press, 1988).

2. Among many examples, They Came Before Columbus, The African Presence in Ancient America by Ivan Van Sertima (New York: Random House, 19760), pp. xvi-xvii.

3. Tzvetan Todorov, "Race , Writing, and Culture," translated by Loulou Mack, in Gates, op cit, pp. 370-380.

4. Terrence Rafferty, "Articles of Faith," The New York Times, 16 May 1988, pp. 110-118.

5. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, volume 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985 (Rutgers University Press, 1987), p.2.

6. lbld., p.310.

7. lbld., p.317.

8. See Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (University of California Press, 1985), p.15.

9. lbld., pp. 107 and 142.

10. lbld., p.112.