A collection of twelve essays composed over a fourteen-year period, South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature represents an expansive landscape of knowledge possessed by a seasoned scholar of African American literature. The "south" in Trudier Harris-Lopez's title signifies the author's location as a southern African American critic, gestures toward thematic continuity throughout the anthology and, at times, pertains to geography. Expressly, "south of tradition" indicates "readings of texts that are not in keeping with expected responses to the works. A slant, an angle, or a jolt just below the line of what would be considered the norm for usual responses to African American literary production" (viii). Whether by taking an unconventional approach to a familiar text or attending to the work of lesser known authors, Harris-Lopez fulfils her promise by granting readers just the right touch of surprise and an appropriate dose of queerness.
In keeping with an aslant methodology, Harris-Lopez finds humor in a pain filled classic and spots the workings of race in a so-called "raceless" novel. While other critics have explored the blues [End Page 686] trope in the Color Purple, "Humor in Alice Walker's The Color Purple " (Chapter 1) draws on the tragicomic character of the blues to uncover Ms. Celie's gift of laughter in the face of despair. Taking a cue from Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, the author follows up her first chapter by examining the racial implications of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room in "Slanting the Truth: Homosexuality, Manhood, and Race in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room ." Harris-Lopez cites a metaphoric rendering of homosexuality "as the 'black cavern' of human existence" as just one of the ways Baldwin plays with blackness in the text (19).
Harris-Lopez also works against tradition by tracing intertextual relationships between authors not usually coupled. Chapter 3, "New Invisible Man: Revisiting a Nightmare in the 1990s (Brent Wade's Company Man and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man)," pairs a canonical and an obscure text via the "triumvirate paradigm" of "manhood, sexuality, and access to the American Dream" (37). Wright's Invisible Man plots a course that his successor follows, but Wade broadens Wright's trajectory by exposing sexual matters that, like Wright's protagonist, remained underground. Likewise, Harris-Lopez unearths the late poet Henry Dumas in the work of Toni Morrison. "Hands beyond the Grave: Henry Dumas's Influence on Toni Morrison" (Chapter 8) uses Sweet Home, site of Dumas's birth and of Morrison's fictionalized plantation in Beloved, as a springboard to explore other imprints Dumas may have made on Morrison's work.
Sweet Home is only one of the sites readers encounter "south of tradition," where past and present, myth and realism, the visible and the unseen abound. "Chocklit Geography: Raymond Andrews's Mythical South" (Chapter 6), "Salting the Land but Not the Imagination: William Melvin Kelley's A Different Drummer " (Chapter 9), and "Transformations of the Land in Randall Kenan's 'The Foundations of the Earth'" (Chapter 10) transport readers to Muskhogean County, Georgia, Willson City, and Tim's Creek, North Carolina respectively. Harris-Lopez's engagement with the mythical south of these authors reveals to readers that fictional forays into matters of race, sexuality, history, and memory often take place in uncanny geographies. These selections also affirm southern mythology and mysticism as valuable components of the African American literary tradition. Zora Neale Hurston's mastery of folklore and myth may have enabled her to dupe the white publishing world, Harris-Lopez muses. "Zapping the Editor, Or, How to Tell Censors to Kiss Off without Really Trying" (Chapter 4) claims Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road as a potentially subversive text. Harris-Lopez suggests that the violent episodes in Hurston's autobiography may contain Hurston's resentment toward the white publishing world and its demand that she produce a project she did not wish to write. [End Page 687]
Additionally, South of Tradition delves a great deal into geography's influence...