- The Historical Uncanny: Segregation Signs in Getting Mother's Body, a Post-Civil Rights American Novel
The segregation sign is an object of desire and scorn in post-civil rights America. We seek them out in museums and public exhibits, asking them to reassure us that Jim Crow is indeed dead, but we wonder if such venues can bear the burden of representing lived experience of compulsory race segregation. 1 We also excavate cultural detritus from that era and give it an afterlife, such as in the hot collector markets in authentic Jim Crow memorabilia from mammy cookie jars to blackface production programs. 2 David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, attempts to get beyond a "thick naïveté about America's past" by opting for a therapeutic model based in "the belief that open, honest, even painful discussions about race are necessary to avoid yesterday's mistakes" (n. pag.). Pilgrim asks post-civil rights subjects to gaze upon his objects with wonder and contempt, fascinated but also committed to keeping them in their place in the historical narrative. In such an exchange, we deputize ourselves watchful guardians of a newer, more enlightened era, lest Jim Crow, Jr., and his goons come knocking at the back door. But do segregation signs cooperate?
The segregation sign is a particularly overdetermined pillar of what John L. Jackson, Jr., calls racial Americana, from which the salience of race returns whether we like it or not in a reputedly postracial era, especially one now governed by a biracial U. S. president. For post-civil rights subjects, Jim Crow segregation signs embody a familiar yet seemingly removed history. Renee Romano and Leigh Raiford consider debates over how best to remember the civil rights movement, from state-sanctioned monuments to later movements taking up the mantle, since "the contests over the meanings of the movement must be understood as part of the continuing fight against racism and inequality" (xxi). Regarding Whoopi Goldberg's "Wall of Shame" of mammies, coons, and whites-only signs, Elizabeth Abel writes, "In a calculated shift of context, she and other African American collectors reappropriate segregation signs and other artifacts of discrimination as a burden of proof against their producers. Repossessed, the signs now speak as symptoms; instead of imprinting the bodies they address, they fingerprint the bodies they express" (16). Literature has a key role here as well. Literary scholars are identifying a tradition of segregation narrative, while Michele Elam has noticed a curious resurgence of the passing narrative in contemporary literature, and I have tracked historiographic preoccupations with Jim Crow in post-civil rights American literature. 3
Extending that work, I suggest that the psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny is useful in describing the effect of encountering fictional segregation signs today. The concept gets at the strange process of inscription embedded in such signs, the process of making them legible. Segregation signs both reflected and generated racialized subjects in a process that cleaved the I and not-I via the crowbar of Jim Crow citizenship, which is to say U. S. citizenship. 4 There is another layer for contemporary fiction readers: identifying with and against those past subjects reading the sign in the historical moment, some of whom may now be contemporary readers. Literary scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Elizabeth Abel, Susan Gubar, and Claudia Tate [End Page 443] developed compelling models for how to bring psychoanalytic interests in identity and psychic development to critical race studies' historical concerns about race and injustice, which also moves such interests into public and collective dimensions of memory. I am indebted to them as I consider what such a frame can say about one particularly illustrative—delightful, I might say—instance of Jim Crow signage in post-civil rights fiction: Suzan-Lori Parks's Getting Mother's Body (2003). The novel is set on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, but with the post-civil rights reader in mind. This essay takes stock of the segregation signs inhabiting the periphery of that novel. I draw from Freud's take on the uncanny to propose what...