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Freedom To Self-Create: Identity and the Politics of Movement in Contemporary African American Fiction
Robert Butler. Contemporary African American Fiction: The Open Journey. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1998. x + 163 pp.
Philip Page. Reclaiming Community in Contemporary African American Fiction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999. x + 256 pp.
"A central quest in American life," writes Robert Butler, "is for pure motion, movement either for its own sake or as a means of freeing oneself from a prior mode of existence." Indeed much of American life revolves around finding one's own place in a world intent on relegating one to spaces and places chosen by others. This tension--between individuality and homogenic existence--provides fertile opportunity for the investigation of imaginative movement in American literature. According to Butler, "America has always set an unusually high premium on mobility. It is not surprising, therefore, that American literature is densely populated with [. . .] fundamentally restless people in search of settings which are fluid enough to accommodate their passion for radical forms [End Page 998] of freedom and independence. Cooper's West, Melville's ocean, Whitman's open road, and Twain's river are the mythic spaces that our classic heroes yearn for." American literature, when placed in this context, assumes that everyone has the opportunity for movement, the opportunity to pursue "radical forms of freedom and independence"--that is if you are white and male. History has proven, however, that even in times of limited mobility, individuals excluded from the classic "mythic spaces" have found a way to exercise their autonomy.
The Open Journey examines such a premise, focusing on the ways in which African American authors have asserted their autonomy through their depictions of the journey motif in their fictional writing. Butler constructs a critical paradigm that joins the literary endeavors of nineteenth and twentieth century writers and argues that in many ways the "classic African American fiction in the twentieth century can be seen as artfully signifying upon the open journeys imagined in nineteenth-century slave narratives." In these instances, writing itself becomes a vehicle for invading mythic spaces denied to non traditional classic heroes and heroines. One text that comes readily to mind is Douglass's The Heroic Slave. This novella juxtaposes the term "heroic" with a social classification meant to demean and deny African American people their humanity. Douglass's self-reflexive posture serves as both a signifier of contemporaneous texts that excluded blacks as plausible heroes/heroines and a precursor to twentieth century novels like Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, whose central protagonist is a sixteen year old black female slave who leads a small slave revolt on the coffle on which she is chained. Douglass's novella and Williams's fictional narrative are just two examples of attempts by African American writers to imagine movement in a static social system such as slavery. Butler's critical investigation centers, however, on twentieth century texts; he examines nine novels that offer a range of "open journeys" to varying degrees of freedom and self-creation.
In chapter 1, he considers Richard Wright's Native Son and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and concludes that these narratives are stunted picaresque novels because they can "only provide the faint outlines of such an open journey to self." Furthermore, each narrative ends with the central character "imagining but not fully achieving an open journey into their own inner space and into the external [End Page 999] space of the worlds in which they live." While Butler's observations may be accurate with respect to the external social positioning of Bigger Thomas and Janie Crawford, he underestimates the power of internal migration, particularly in his analysis of Hurston's text. As he himself states, Hurston's novel concludes with "an image possessing complexly double meanings." This doubleness, so often found in African American literature, is movement itself as the ambiguous ending he alludes to here offers Janie an opportunity to...