When I think of the black male “subject” in the West, I immediately think of Estevancio, the first African who traveled to the U.S. Southwest with the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in the 1530s, and of Olaudah Equiano, who traveled throughout the Americas in the 1790s before settling in the United Kingdom in 1792. Finding themselves dislocated, homeless, fragmented, hybridized, and in oppressive situations in the West, both Estevancio— whose life intrigued Major and who went by several names, such as Estaban or Estebanico—and Equiano, to survive and to remain in control of their own representations, developed identities that had many selves. Equiano was a trickster figure who to survive played many roles and took various subject positions. Yet he maintained his African roots. Historically and experientially, most African Americans belong to the tradition of Estevancio and Equiano. But unlike most African-American writers who have been shaped by racial identity politics and enlightenment reason, Clarence Major embraces his hybridity, his plural subjectivity, and his life and art bear this out.
With nonfiction works like The Dark and Feeling (1974), Come By Here (2002), Necessary Distance (2000), and “Licking Stamps,” along with his poetry, paintings, fiction, the Clarence Major Archive, journals, and personal interviews, Keith E. Byerman in The Art and Life of Clarence Major constructs Clarence Major as a plural subject who violates boundaries, as “a black man who does not take race as his principal identity, an artist who deliberately defies mainstream rules, a social and cultural critic who wants to be admired by the world he attacks, and a creator who refuses to commit to one expressive form.” Moving between Major’s life and art, Byerman shows how Major’s racially transgressive family history corresponds with an “artistic identity that resists racial, ideological, cultural, and aesthetic boundaries.”
Clarence Major’s early family life, which was racially fluid and unstable, is quite telling. In addition to paternal and maternal African ancestors, his maternal great-grandmother was white, his mother Inez’s father was white, and Inez’s mother, Ada, was a descendent of the Cherokees. He was born in Atlanta to a distant, abusive father and a mother who could pass for white. The family constantly moved as Inez desperately tried to find financial stability. Ultimately, Inez ends up in Chicago with her children. As a result of his family’s instability, Clarence Major was not properly socialized into normative categories. Thus, he emerges as a subject whose heterogeneous desires, rather than a unified self, came to dominate his personality and his artistic sensibility. These desires caused him to revolt, to transgress social conventions, to go to and empathize with the Other, and to combat totalizing modes of thoughts and social regulation and normalization. He used his art to imagine and, therefore, live in alternative spaces, which allowed his desires to flow. Seemly, Major took pleasure, or what the French calls jouissance, in being the outsider, in violating boundaries. For Major, then, freedom lies in the in-between, the alternative space, where he is most free and alive. This desiring subjectivity allowed Major to enter and exit three disastrous marriages and to father six children by two different women in a period of eight years, whom he did not live with, because he could not successfully settle into a middle-class life and career.
This desiring subjectivity also allowed Major to think and live pluralistically. Even as he lived and participated in othered spaces, Major did not reject black cultural and artistic communities. Like Equiano, Major was always tied to aspects of his African-American roots. He just did not let those roots define the totality of his life and art. For example, although he lived on the South Side of Chicago, where he worked in a loudspeaker factory and sought out other African-American writers and painters such as Willard Motley, Frank London Brown, and Gus Nall, he was not “circumscribed by the racial and gendered conditions of...