MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 841-842
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Carol E. Henderson. Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002. ix + 183 pp.
Carol Henderson's Scarring the Black Body is a fascinating examination of the trope of scarring in African-American literary works ranging from Olaudah Equiano's Travels (1789) to Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). Much more than a survey of literature on the topic, the book focuses on literary works that employ the body and its markings as metaphors for the reinvention of African-American subjectivity within specific historical contexts. Henderson explores the process through which American slave owners "violently rewrote the language of the African body" (33), so that African Americans became "Americanized" through scarification, and contends that contemporary writers "recoup the African-American body through a literary evocation of its physical trauma, thus reclaiming the essence of a selfhood fragmented under the weight of the dominant culture's gaze" (7). Henderson works most closely with contemporary literature, and Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Ann Petry's The Street, and works by Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright receive chapter-length treatments.
Scarring the Black Body grows out of work focusing on the African-American body and the construction of national subjects by scholars such as Toni Morrison, Homi Bhabha, bell hooks, and Lauren Berlant. Henderson's contribution to the study of these issues is the development of a critical paradigm focused on body woundedness, a "state of being that carries with it a complex doubleness that allows [her] to use the body's substance to investigate the richly textured field of scars and wounds" (8). At stake in her project is whether individuals can disrupt processes that determine the social meanings of the black body, how social discourses built on the black body as sign/language can be restructured, and how individuals can regain agency in a system intent on destroying will. Henderson argues that writing about threats to the body is the way that African Americans heal from physical and emotional wounds.
Scarring the Black Body is divided into two sections, "The Call" and "The Response." In "The Call," Henderson examines nineteenth-century legal cases and slave advertisements in order to demonstrate how particular meanings were attributed to black bodies and the ways in which scars developed rhetorical meaning. In this section, Henderson also notes acts of resistance and modes of self-fashioning in works by Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. Henderson believes that these writers [End Page 841] offer a "call" to the writers who follow them because they set a precedent for manipulating and reenvisioning the sites of abuse to their bodies and making their wounds signs of empowerment and self-ownership. In doing so, she argues, they "call attention to the social abuses of African American people in chattel bondage [and] rescue the African American body from its inanimate position as 'thing' or 'property' and give it three-dimensional character" (12). This section is especially valuable for surveying the historical representation of the scar in African-American literature.
In "The Response," Henderson focuses on writers who carry on the work of their literary predecessors and "signify on those silences imposed by publishers and editors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" by focusing on the wounded African-American body (12). She considers Williams's reinvention of the whip-scarred body in Dessa Rose, the importance of rememory as a way to heal psychic and bodily wounds in Beloved, and the rhetorical uses of scarring in The Street. Henderson argues that Williams, Morrison, and Petry are able to "inhabit the very body they wrote about discursively in order to create a new, regenerative body—one that both presented the scars on the body and absorbed these same wounds in a simultaneous gesture of rhetorical healing" (157). The final chapter of the book explores the challenges of establishing a literary tradition around the fear of castration associated with lynching, and Henderson examines the...