- Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition
Blues are remarkable in their ability to capture the essence of the soul. These "lyrics," hummed, sung, or instrumentalized, grasp the depth of one's sorrow, the intensity of one's pain, the uniqueness of one's life experience—in short, the ebb and flow of life. Improvisation is a major component of the blues. It allows the artist free reign to create a distinct voice within the symphony of instruments utilized by fellow journeymen. The call and response between instrument and artist, when layered with that conversation initiated between artist, instrument, and listener, create a dialectical impulse of inventive interplay wherein the experiences of the artist personify the experiences of the collective. In some instances, the blues seem the only appropriate manner in which to speak the unspeakable. As a literary trope, the blues metaphor is powerful in its ability to conceptualize—to concretize—the political and cultural journey of African American people.
In Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition, Cheryl A. Wall uses the blues idiom to reacquaint the [End Page 217] reader with the rich history of the blues, exploring within the framework of this methodology the varied impulses that shape the ways that African American women's writing "extend[s] the literary traditions to which they are heirs" (245). Drawing on the creative and imaginative cultural resources of stories, recipes, rituals, and photographs, black women writers massage individual and collective memory, weaving together conventional and colloquial histories. This practice allows writers such as Lucille Clifton, Gayl Jones, Paule Marshall, and Audre Lorde to use folk expression as a didactical tool to question and respond to the gaps present in the genealogy of written history and knowledge. In "worrying the line," these writers subvert, refine, and redefine traditional literary practices in order to reclaim a past that has been effaced in mainstream American literary texts.
Wall is creative in establishing a critical epistemology that reinserts the revisionary practices of folk idiomatic customs into the genealogical literary tradition of African American and American writing. As Wall asserts, black people, and black women in particular, write across diverse genres, modifying and challenging the conventions they appropriate, whether they be essay, the lyric, the memoir, or the novel. These writers engage in such practices in order to give voice to stories traditional Western texts could not imagine. These revisions take the shape of reoccurring metaphors and structures drawn from African and African-American oral forms such as sermons, folktales, spirituals, and blues. These forms themselves utilize some Western literary traditions, most notably the Bible, classical myths, and political rhetoric to extend and summarily blur the customary lines within a culture that distinguish between oral and written ways of knowing. As Wall concludes, "even the illiterate may make literary allusions" (13). This distinction in and of itself allows for a reinterpretative process of folk history that treats the vernacular and the written as aesthetic equals so that a fuller picture of black life may be assessed.
The impulse to represent the past within the African American literary tradition is complex. In Wall's estimation, it has as much to do with psychic dislocation and cultural assimilation as it does with autonomy and self-empowerment. The intimacy that once resided in black communities has been weakened by the painful consequences of racism and poverty, which have eroded the cultural and personal integrity of communal living. These factors make the process of gathering knowledge about one's historical legacy convoluted and troubling as Wall demonstrates in her examination of Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (chapter 7) and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (chapter 8). Moreover, within the scope of the national memory, cultural [End Page 218] narratives that make plain the shared pain of interracial and intraracial despair, or the textured nuances of familial or marital loss receive minimal if not superficial acknowledgement. As Wall sees it, "the act of recuperation enables a process of revision," a re-vision...