This Discussion of Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada has dual aims, for in it I seek to discuss the novel as literature1 and as social commentary. The literary discussion is an analysis of point of view and time (discussed here as a function of plot) as they impact on character development. The social commentary is derived from the literary analysis: point of view and time cause Reed's characters to illuminate reactionary and progressive aspects of Afro-American political history.
The following quotation from the novel's first chapter provides a useful way to frame this analysis, for it contains the nucleus of the conflicts that animate the novel:
Is there no sympathy in nature? . . . Are people lost because the gods have deserted when they said they never would? They promised they never would. Are they concealing themselves to spite the mean-minded, who are too unimaginative to recognize the new forms they've given themselves? Are they rebuking us for our stupidity? They are mean and demanding. They want to be fed.(9)
This quotation posits a dynamic and dialectical relationship between the seen forces of current events, the world that is immediately perceivable, [End Page 111] and the unseen forces of history as projected by the ancestors or the gods. That relationship is the central conflict in the novel and has three related consequences. The primary conflict from which the other two proceed occurs when characters are unable to see a symbiotic relationship between seen and unseen forces. Such characters become frozen in time, increasingly assuming that perception and reality have one-to-one correlations. Theory, science, and imagination recede into a thickening and hardening consciousness that becomes nonreflective and that loses its ability to adapt.
This stasis leads to the second consequence: characters are unable to recognize new or different expressions of the symbiotic relationship between seen and unseen forces. When this second consequence is in operation, characters assume that other characters' relationships to any number of objective conditions—job, family ties, religious affiliation, and so forth—have consistent meaning over time. Thus, in the novel, field slaves distrust and dislike house slaves (referred to as Castle Blacks) because of the latter's job. The affiliation is seen as definitive because perception is achieved through but half the dialectic posed here: the seen forces (the fact of one job or the other) are projected as the only definitional forces.
Here I turn to the third manifestation of the dialectic between seen and unseen forces. Together, the stasis and the inability to see new or different expressions of the dialectic result in a kind of individualism that precludes mutual projects and the support of black institutions. The "food" referred to in the line the gods "want to be fed" can be understood to mean the creative and developmental interactions of Afro-Americans within the framework of the symbiotic dialectic between seen and unseen forces.
The resolution of conflicts posed by this relationship is the rapprochement of roots, the resumption of that "Ol" Time Religion." The way Reed develops this central conflict demonstrates his virtuosity as an imaginative and skillful writer while also illustrating dramatic and divergent ideological trends in Afro-American political history.
Before these issues are discussed, it is useful and illustrative to turn again to the dialectic between seen and unseen forces that comprises the novel's central conflict. That relationship and its three manifestations can be illustrated as appears below: [End Page 112] The world developed in Flight to Canada asserts that the optimal place for individual and racial development is at the intersection of the seen and unseen forces (position #4). The farther characters and individuals are from this intersection, the more dubious their individual accomplishments and the less likely they are to view their growth, development, and security as commingled with that of other Afro-Americans.
(1) Static World view
(2) Individualism = non-support for black people & institutions
(3) Inability to recognize new expressions of seen and unseen forces
Through an analysis of the way point of view and time shape character development within the framework of the relationship posed here, I intend to illustrate the novel's...