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  • Politics of Belonging:Race, Freedom, and Subjectivity in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Echo of Lions
  • Trimiko Melancon (bio)

As the "Others" of society who can never really belong, strangers threaten the moral and social order. But they are simultaneously essential for its survival because those who stand at the margins of society clarify its boundaries.

—Patricia Hill Collins

The ideological dependence on racialism is intact and, like its metaphysical existence, offers in historical, political, and literary discourse, a . . . route into meditations on morality and ethics . . . a way of thinking about justice; a way of contemplating the modern world.

—Toni Morrison

In her 1989 novel Echo of Lions, Barbara Chase-Riboud explores the vexed relationship between race, belonging, freedom, and subjectivity during the nineteenth century and within a larger transhistorical context. Drawing upon historical events while concomitantly employing postmodern and feminist techniques and interventions, Chase-Riboud deconstructs the very notion of "otherness"—namely, through tropes of belonging and disbelonging—as it relates to social constructions of race and national identity. Whereas "Others" of society are marginalized to putatively maintain social and ideological "boundaries," as the opening epigraphs delineate, those same individuals are paramount: serving as sites and "counter-discourses" that define, if even by seeming contrast, the paradoxes entrenched in society and its varied structures.

Chase-Riboud's fictionalized historical account of the Amistad revolt, and the ensuing trials and debates concerning slavery and the Constitution, strategically foregrounds individuals on the "margins" to expose the disparities and contradictions inherent in United States articulations of universal equality. Through her characterizations of individuals—black and white, African and American, captured and free—who ultimately serve as metonymical entities within the text, Chase-Riboud illuminates, I argue, the vexed relationship between democracy, citizenship, and freedom. They are, that is, neither fixed nor universal, but rather mediated by race and constructed as invariably at odds with black agency and humanity. Not only does she illustrate the inconsistencies of United States and New World discourses, but she simultaneously redefines "blackness" and the politics of belonging within an American, as well as larger global, context. [End Page 845]

Redefining Race, Identity, and Nation

Throughout the Enlightenment, modernity, and beyond, Continental Africans have both denotatively and connotatively "come to signify," as Toni Morrison avers, "the entire range, views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learnings about the[m]" (7). Constructed in diametrical opposition to "whiteness," which came to embody civilization, enlightenment, and order, black bodies were associated with a different set of semiotics: as inherently uncivilized, disorderly, pagan, and primitive. Mythologized as such to uphold constructions of Western identity, black identity was relegated to a state of inferiority, whereby blackness came to function symbolically. "For the West," as Michelle M. Wright contends, conceptualizations of the "Black Other" and "Black inferiority" are a "result not of objective observation but instead the need for self-definition. In order to posit itself as civilized, advanced, and superior, Western discourse must endlessly reify Africa and the Black as its binary opposite" (27). Such ideologies dehumanized and stigmatized black people to, in turn, justify their exploitation through a transatlantic slave trade, which, as Cornell West asserts, marks "origins of Western modernity and the criminal foundations of American democracy" (51).

In Echo of Lions, Barbara Chase-Riboud questions both American democracy in relation to race and the very stigmatization of black identity as it intersects with transatlantic and New World slavery. Challenging the ways black bodies function historically within a politics of difference and "Otherness," she dramatizes African culture and society, specifically via her protagonist Sengbe Pieh, to redefine black identity outside its customary constructions within Western discourse. Her delineation of Mende society at the onset of her novel subverts particular mythologies propagated about blackness during the Enlightenment, modernity, and beyond. Contrary to myopic constructions of Africa in the West, Chase-Riboud characterizes Mende society—and, by extension, continental Africa—as replete with order and civilization; familial, legal, and moral structures; aristocratic lineage and socio-economic class strata; and political astuteness and intelligence. Not only does her concentrated focus on race, identity, and nation within an African context humanize black people, but it also significantly ascribes to them subjectivity, order, and autonomy prior...


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