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Reviewed by:
Jerry H. Bryant. Victims and Heroes: Racial Violence in the African American Novel. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1997. 374 pp.

This expansive study will in all likelihood become a classic in African American literary interpretation. The phenomenon of violence is of course one that has haunted African Americans since our transportation to these shores, and Bryant correspondingly traces the literary development from its nineteenth-century slave narrative origins to the novels of Toni Morrison. While Ronald T. Takaki’s Violence in the Black Imagination can be considered the precursor for Bryant’s work, the former is far too limited in its reprinting of primary texts, and limited also in terms of its sometimes shallow analytical renderings such as that “one of [William Wells] Brown’s great anxieties as a slave was his inability to react violently against his oppressors,” so he created a character Glen, in The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, who did. Contrarily, Bryant’s study is profound and exhaustive, examining dozens and dozens of primary works, presenting a pattern that evolves into a well-tested rationale for why violence has been consistently a part of African American life and the literature that portrays that tragic circumstance.

In the early pages of his book, the author confronts us with the complexity of slave insurrectionist Nat Turner and accordingly posits that “white violence against blacks produces a victim” while the consequent “black violence against whites [produces] a hero.” Thereby Bryant arrives at the title of his book—“victims and heroes.” But the catch, as he quotes critic Richard Yarborough, is that “blacks were not granted the same freedom of action as whites. . . . Black men . . . were often viewed as beasts and otherwise inferior if they rebelled violently.” [End Page 402] Such has certainly been the case with regard to how history has generally characterized Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser, for example, in vastly different terms than say George Washington or Patrick Henry, in spite of how the slaves’ complaint in retrospect was so much more urgent a call for freedom than that of the other two revolutionary-minded individuals who indeed went on to become two of our most highly regarded statesmen.

In his chapter on the antebellum novel, Bryant elaborates on what he calls “the main problem in the construction of the hero in the African American novel,” that is, “the tendency of African American novelists, over the 150 years of their literary history . . . to admire the hero’s willingness to wage war against the white oppressor but to be uneasy with the results of the behavior they admire.” And thus we see in African American fiction, with regard to the issue of violence, a persistent tension over how to present violent acts, even those that are the necessary defenses against initially violent perpetrators. The complexity becomes even more exacerbated by the time we get to his chapter on Richard Wright. As if violent reaction to violence is not a paradoxical enough question, we are here made to consider the violence of a black man who responds not to a specific slavemaster or a brutal lynch mob, but instead to a society in general that stunts the development and life fulfillment of so many African Americans. This is undoubtedly Bryant’s weakest chapter, though, since in these pages we learn not much more about Bigger Thomas than had already been culled from Native Son by other literary critics. One ever gets the sense that more would have been gained by an in-depth investigation of violence in others of Wright’s novels instead of what seems to be an attempt on the part of Bryant to equate the oppression of Wright’s family, as portrayed in the autobiographical Black Boy, with the oppression of a racist Southern world.

One likewise senses a prematurely conciliatory tone in Bryant’s last chapter, “It Ends in Brotherhood,” where he maintains that in “African American fictions in recent years the “tone has become less accusatory and more independent.” The critic relies primarily on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for evidence of an intraracial violence that indeed is significantly different from the interracial violence...

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