restricted access Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race
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Reviewed by
Claudia Tate. Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. xvi + 238 pp.

Tate’s latest work is in a certain sense a sequel to her 1992 effort, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. In that earlier work Tate both sought to reconstruct the “community of assumptions held by late nineteenth century black people regarding the institution of marriage and [to hypothesize] the modes in which black women writers of that epoch represented their political as well as personal desires for the individual and racial self.” It had been Tate’s assumption that strict Black Aesthetic and feminist interpretations of those turn-of-the-twentieth-century works resulted in a limited understanding of both the works and their authors. [End Page 498]

Now in Psychoanalysis and Black Novels she elucidates further on the rather pervasive phenomenon of black texts having been interpreted with the use of standardized racial and feminist models. For example, Tate characterizes Emma Dunham Kelley’s novel Megda (1891) as a “white” or “raceless” work and yet, she asserts, “While Megda looks like a story about white people, its cultural matrix is black. [. . . I]t is precisely this hybridity that resists formulaic racial readings.” Though she does not ignore race and gender issues, Tate offers the mechanism of desire as an effective way of understanding the novel’s characters, the text as a whole, and indeed the text’s creator.

Tate’s use of psychoanalytic perspectives (especially those of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and Jacques Lacan) is a highly effective strategy. In considering W. E. B. Du Bois’s obscure novel Dark Princess (1928), Tate explores how “the erotic image of [Princess] Kautilya serves Du Bois’s ideal personification of work and pleasure.” Through such analyses we are taken on a journey through Du Bois’s “inner life” to the point where it becomes quite comprehendible how the civil rights leader’s prodigious literary outpouring might have been the consequence of a subconscious need to repay his dutiful mother, who endured poverty and outrage to provide the foundation for her son’s future greatness.

Though Tate’s analysis of Du Bois is a fascinating and largely accurate psychoanalytic study, this chapter does flounder somewhat as she pushes the issue of “Du Bois’s use of eroticism for representing racial protest.” According to Tate, Du Bois regularly created a “dark woman” in his writings so as to recapture the lost mother who would represent his lifelong quest for racial justice. As effective as Tate is in developing this concept, the flaw occurs in her extraction of a statement that Du Bois made in his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). In that seminal essay, Du Bois asserted, “I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy” (emphasis added). Tate interprets that statement as a Du Boisian shift from the “public arena of social protest” to the “private domain of erotic pleasure.” A shifting back and forth between those two worlds can certainly be seen, as Tate avers, in Dark Princess; however, “Criteria of Negro Art” should be interpreted more literally since what he was arguing for was the right of African Americans to partake of art (particularly as pertains [End Page 499] to its propagandistic value) and life in general with all its “beauty,” “truth,” and “goodness.”

Tate is absolutely brilliant as she shows how the major works of Richard Wright are evidence of his “process of working through trauma.” Whereas Du Bois had a “good mother,” Wright may be said to have had a “bad mother” whom he sought first to recreate in his literary works and then ultimately to destroy. Critics have often pondered the dilemma of what they call Wright’s “gratuitous violence,” and too often these critics have satisfied themselves with the notion that such violence can simply be viewed as one element of the author’s social protest stance. Tate, however, forces us to dig deeper. She accomplishes this...