- Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature
At first glance, Brian Norman's Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature would seem to be an extension of Kenneth Warren's thesis that African American literature is at an end, a claim based on the idea that African American literature is inseparable from and beholden to its relationship with white America and white oppression during the Jim Crow years after Reconstruction and before the Voting Rights Act. Warren's claims are part of a larger push to proclaim a "postracial" moment, an argument that conflates the end of de jure segregation with the end of Jim Crow. Yet one of the primary elements of the celebration of diversity and postraciality has been dissipating and delegitimizing African American voices and perspectives that openly speak about the despair of the black poor, the conflicts of the black middle class, or the reassertion of white supremacy. However, Norman rejects the very premises on which Warren bases his claim and which many use to express their hostility toward antiracist work and programs. In particular, Norman sees the terms "post-Jim Crow" and "post-Civil Rights" as especially vexing because they ignore the structural inequalities that continue to marginalize, appropriate, and exploit African American culture and experience. Initially, Norman's promotion of the neo-segregation narratives might seek to capitalize on the success of the neo-slave narrative. However, to Norman's credit, and ultimately to the book's, he knows what he's getting into and productively wrestles with the potentially troublesome terms (for example, "neo") that could sabotage his efforts in his introduction. In fact, throughout the first two chapters, Norman casts the neo-segregation narrative alongside the neo-slave narrative tradition and uses it to lay out the parameters for a definition of the neo-segregation narrative.
Norman's first chapter uses Lorraine Hansberry's screenplay adaptation of her play A Raisin in the Sun as a brilliant starting point. Hansberry's unfilmed version of Raisin disrupts popular readings of the play as a universal family drama and produces a more explicitly critical viewing of integration than it appears in the play or the multiple film adaptations. In choosing Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Norman finds the perfect companion to Hansberry. The novel, like Norman's book, makes a compelling case against a mainstream narrative that promotes integration but retains its racial hierarchy, often to destructive effects on African Americans. Morrison's work is particularly useful because Beloved, like David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident, is [End Page 415] part of the neo-slave narrative tradition that Norman engages. In fact, Norman makes a daring play for Chaneysville as a neo-segregation narrative. More importantly, his claim stands as the guiding edict for the book as a whole: "The novel does not pose segregation as just an extension of slavery, as is common in neo-slave narratives, but rather poses slavery as another form of the longstanding and intricate maintenance of the color line in the legal sphere. Jim Crow remains the pivotal point of reference for all eras" (60). To drive home his point, Norman focuses on Alice Walker's The Color Purple and an obsession with the white gaze. In highlighting the womanist politics in Purple, Norman produces a community that centers on "a decidedly minoritarian perspective" (55).
Nevertheless, Norman smartly avoids wedding himself to any strict theoretical or political ideology. Chapter 3 reveals his eclectic collection of works by performing a virtual resurrection of Wesley Brown's Darktown Strutters, a novel that Norman claims uses black-face as a radically political act. The pairing of Brown's novel with Spike Lee's film Bamboozled makes blackface minstrelsy a dramatic point of reference that signals virtually no change in the representations of African Americans in the mainstream imagination. Norman willingly engages volatile terrain and challenges us to consider the complex meanings that sit behind the donning of the blackface mask and, by extension, Jim Crow.