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FOLK AND URBAN COMMUNITIES IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN'S FICTION: OCTAVIA BUTLER'S PARABLE OF THE SOWER Madhu Dubey Brown University In "The Politics ofFiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston," first published in 1991, Hazel Carby seeks to account for the recent academic revival of Zora Neale Hurston' s southern folk aesthetic . Carby argues that Hurston's writing, locating authentic black community in the rural south, displaced the difficulties ofrepresenting the complex and contested black culture that was taking shape in the cities and that the current academic reclamation of Hurston' s work illustrates a parallel logic of displacement. Carby concludes with the suggestion that present-day critics of African-American literature and culture "begin to acknowledge the complexity of [their] own discursive displacement of contemporary conflict and cultural transformation in the search for black cultural authenticity. The privileging of Hurston ... at a moment of intense urban crisis and conflict is perhaps a sign of that displacement."1 Carby's provocative argument can be extended beyond its specific reference to the academic recovery of Zora Neale Hurston, and applied to the turn toward southern folk culture taken in so much of the criticism surrounding novels by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, and others. Although most of these writers have published city novels, criticism on these novelists has tended to privilege those selected texts and textual elements that help consolidate a black feminine literary tradition derived from southern folk culture .2 Following Carby's logic, we might argue that these critical texts are executing a "discursive displacement" of problems of urban literary representation, but this displacement is itself an oblique form of response to the widely prevalent rhetoric of contemporary urban crisis . This rhetoric, magnetized around the notorious term "underclass," tends to frame the issue of urban crisis essentially as a crisis in black culture and community. In popular media and academic discourses, the underclass is commonly represented as a recalcitrant urban mass polarized against an expanding black middle class and caught in an illicit culture ofpoverty.3 Given the public sway ofthese discourses, it is not surprising that so much recent African-American literature is 104MadhuDubey framing urban crisis as a problem ofrepresentation, and grappling with the questions of whether and how the writer can bridge class divides and speak for, as well as to, a wider black urban community. This problem of representation is exacerbated by the fact that contemporary literary readerships are highly specialized and restricted as well as racially and culturally diverse, and are certainly not coextensive with "the black community." The southern folk aesthetic exemplifies a "discursive displacement" of this crisis in literary representation in the sense that, if black community is perceived to be irreparably fractured in the contemporary city, the folk domain ofthe rural south operates as a site where integral black communities can be imaginatively restored. These face-to-face models of community are typically bound together by ties of place, distinctive cultural modes ofknowing (clustered around the term "conjuring ") and styles of communication (oral tradition). The turn toward southern folk culture works essentially to guarantee the writer's ability to identify, address, and speak for a wider black community. For example, Alice Walker declares, in a much-quoted passage from her essay "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," that "what the black Southern writer inherits as a natural right is a sense of community . Something simple but surprisingly hard, especially these days, to come by."4 Ifwe accredit current discourses ofurban crisis, black community does appear surprisingly hard to come by these days, requiring as it does difficult acts of mediation across intraracial class, regional, and cultural distinctions. The literary turn toward a rural southern past helps short-circuit this labor of mediation, furnishing community as the writer's "natural right." Alice Walker's remembered image of wholesome southern community hinges on a "cooperative ethos"5 that mitigates intraracial class divisions, precisely the ethos that is often said to have dissolved in the contemporary city. Houston Baker, in his study of black women novelists, specifies the type of community implicit in the southern folk aesthetic, as he opposes the "mulattoization"—or racial dilution—of black urban...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 103-128
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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