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Blacks in Eden The African American Novel's First Century ByJ. Lee Greene University Press ofVirginia, 1996 384 pp. Cloth, $49-50; paper, $19.50 Reviewed by John Leland, professor ofEnglish at Virginia Military Institute, Lexington. Lee Greene's Blacks in Eden rebuts Thomas Jefferson's remark about the poetry of Phyllis Wheatiey, the eighteenth-century black poet: "The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." Greene, who has written a biography of Anne Spencer and numerous articles on African American writers, argues that blacks consciously subverted die Anglo-American myth ofan edenic America in "a hidden polemic against Jeffersonian ideology." Successive chapters review black novelists' attempts to write true American history in response to the various incarnations of this white myth: America as earthly paradise or civil utopia, the soudiern plantation idyll, and die American Dream itself. In early literary efforts, such as novels like William Wells Brown's Clotel, that inverted die myth of the black rapist and presented white men wanting black women, black women were the protagonists. Greene observes that such novels, by depicting chivalric white men ignorant oftheir black lovers' race, inadvertendy celebrate white paternalism and light skin color. Other novels transformed black men into white men through the love ofwhite women: "a New World Ishmael who metamorphoses into a New World Adam." James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography ofan Ex-Coloured Man traps a black man in a white body, anticipating, Greene argues, ideas about Negro psychopathology that appeared later in the writings ofFrantz Fanon andJacques Lacan. Greene holds that African American novelists, such as Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow ofTradition, turned their attentions from miscegenation to lynching in response to the emergence of a "civil religion" in the white South, one of whose more sacred rites was the lynching bee. Black servicemen returning from World War I were lynched because whites feared that their experience of racial equality in France had corrupted diem. Blacks naïve enough to diink, like those in Victor Reviews 101 Daly's 1932 Not Only War, that diey could rid the edenic South ofdie serpentJim Crow, were killed, imprisoned, or exiled for their pains. Miscegenation between a white Eve and a black Adam might have created an American Eden in which blacks finally entered mainstream society. But white southerners, thinking otherwise, perfected lynching, which, in Richard Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home," becomes "a ritual of purification and decontamination consistent with die assertion that white personhood is sacred." In America's dystopian Eden, a white Eve asks her black Adam to suffer for her. Bigger Thomas, in Native Son, refuses; killing and burning Mary Dalton is "a symbolic act of destruction . . . followed by a ritual ofpurification" that allows Bigger to create a new world that "inverts power relations." Bigger moves "from the signified to die signifier to the transcendental signified. In die new picture ofcreation he has effected, he is a son of God, a son of Adam, and therefore a member of the human race." In The Street, Ann Petry combines fairy tales with Adam and Horatio Alger to critique the American Garden from the outside space occupied by her protagonist, LutieJohnson, who is "the desiring subject, her object ofdesire . . . the American Dream, and the mediator ofher desire ... a rich and powerful white man." By far the most intriguing of Greene's chapters is the deliciously subversive "Totem and Taboo," where he uses Freud to decode a totemic South. "Totemism is a system which takes the place of a religion among certain primitive peoples [i.e., clans] . . . and provides the basis of dieir social organization." Since a generic white woman constitutes white society's totem, Jim Crow ensures that the totem remains undefiled. In a lynching, any black will do, because "ifa member ofa clan is killed by someone outside it, the whole clan ofdie aggressor is responsible for the deed." That all white women are totemic sisters to all white men is problematic for blacks who pass as whites. In Johnson's Autobiography ofan Ex-ColouredMan, his white half asks itself that bugaboo question of white American males: "Would you want your sister to marry a nigger?" One way to escape the dialectic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 101-103
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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