This Special MFS Issue on Black Fiction is arranged chronologically to reflect changes in the audience to which black fiction is directed. These changes can be understood as moving from an external audience and terrain bounded by racism to an internal audience and terrain in which intraracial concerns dominate. The question of audience, however, is not the focus of the essays in this issue. The essays range from close readings of the text to readings that see texts as sociology. The arrangement of essays is itself intended as a subtext providing an imperfect measure of changes in black fiction.
Although Tracy Webb acknowledges Richard Wright's concern with mimesis in his depiction of Afro-Americans seeking self-definition in a racist society, she focuses on water imagery as a structural device that reflects and embellishes the move of characters from passivity to engagement in Wright's Uncle Tom's Children. In the background of Webb's discussion of water imagery is the external reality of racism, a jagged terrain that must be negotiated in order for characters to progress. Jon Wallace discusses James Alan McPherson's collection of short stories to illustrate how black characters with middle-class pretensions use language to distance themselves from Blacks who are part of the folk-tradition. The concern with language, the distancing function it is made to serve by some of McPherson's characters, alludes to the internal but no less treacherous terrain of intraracial self-definition.
The intraracial issues of self-definition are also the subject of extended treatment in Elizabeth B. House's essay on Toni Morrison. In moving to the volatile core of what it means to be Black in America, House discusses Morrison's fiction to illustrate the centrality of balance in making affective life choices. In Viney Kirpal's essay racial definition is developed [End Page 3] through an analysis of the way modern Nigerian novelists balance the requirements and techniques of traditional African storytelling with those of novel writing. This balancing, which defines their literary tradition, results in structural continuities among modern Nigerian novelists.
The two essays on Alice Walker also negotiate the terrain of intraracial self-definition; in both cases, however, the special definitions available to black women as a result of folk traditions in the black community are the focus. Alan Nadel's essay explores the problematics of maintaining personality in the context of tradition, and Daniel W. Ross's essay discusses the centrality of Celie's need for community to precede any investigation of selfhood. Laura de Abruña's essay suggests that the specific problems of selfhood, which Afro-American female writers examine, is an issue shared by female writers of the English-speaking Caribbean.
Theodore O. Mason's essay on Ishmael Reed is an attempt to define the problematic terrain that his fiction creates, and my essay on this author's work is a discussion of what that terrain tells us about the inhabitants of the various and often contentious Afro-American communities. Together, the two essays allude to a fictive world far removed from the stark one in which Wright's characters find so much casual and unsophisticated brutality.
Craig Werner's review-essay captures some of the heat among critics of Afro-American literature who are looking for the proper stance to discuss continuing preoccupations and changes in that literature. His essay also provides a useful guide to recent books about the literature.
In chronologically ordering the issue and in discussing essays in terms of movement within a terrain or in terms of redefining a terrain, I do not mean to suggest that the essays are not, individually, sufficient and suggestive. I do mean to suggest that Afro-American writers have explored and continue to explore different ways of telling their stories. This issue provides a limited although useful sampling of approaches to and discussions of Afro-American literature.
Norman Harris, an Advisory Editor to MFS and Guest Co-editor of this special issue, has published in various journals on modern black fiction. His Connecting Times will be published by the University Press of Mississippi this year.