- Shaping Words to Fit the Soul: The Southern Ritual Grounds of Afro-Modernism
Inspired by a line from Jean Toomer’s Cane, the title of Jürgen E. Grandt’s study of African American modernism also evokes the literary-historical enterprise, the act of “shaping [works] to fit” a particular school or movement. Accordingly, in deft, lucid prose, Grandt offers readers a compelling argument for freeing modernism from the historical confines of the early twentieth century as well as from the geographic boundaries of the U. S. eastern seaboard. He identifies Afro-modernism “as modernism with a historical conscience” and traces its roots to what many have considered a foundational site for black expressive culture: the American South (9). At once illustrative and expansive, this definition enables Grandt to explore works across a generic, racial, and temporal spectrum that reaches from the nineteenth-century autobiographies of Frederick Douglass to the twenty-first-century novels of Tayari Jones, from the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers Band to the socially conscious hip-hop of Goodie Mob and Little Brother. The result is a book that, like Cane, foregrounds and engages the fragmented arcs of Afro-modernism.
At the heart of Shaping Words to Fit the Soul is the question of how Southern artists steeped in African American culture have negotiated the gap between representation and reality, a distance Grandt describes as the “modernist alienation of word from world” (22). Whereas Houston A. Baker, Jr., dates the beginning of such negotiation to the rhetorical maneuvers of Booker T. Washington, Grandt looks to the 1892 publication of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, a life narrative which reflects Douglass’s evolution from the former slave with an unshakable faith in the power of literacy to the elder statesman with a healthy skepticism of the printed word. According to Grandt, this change parallels the signal personal and political shift in Douglass’s life: the realization that words were the beginning, not the end, of the “contest of civilization against barbarism” (5). Played out over the years, this struggle becomes a defining feature of what Grandt, borrowing from Robert Stepto, calls “southern ritual grounds” (5). The challenge for Douglass and his successors, then, is not simply to represent their respective experiences (or those of their fictional personae) but also to contend with disjunctions between these representations (“the word”) and the societies (“the world”) that seek to control, distort, or negate marginalized individuals and communities.
In addition to demonstrating how these gaps change over time and genre, Grandt also makes evocative comparisons across his selected texts. In his reading, Douglass’s navigation of the distance between the political promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and the social reality of Reconstruction’s failure foreshadows the struggle between modernity and feudalism in the rural, early-twentieth-century South of Richard Wright’s story, “Long Black Song.” Rather than gaining prosperity through labor on their hard-won land, Sarah and Silas, Wright’s protagonists, are instead thrust back into an antebellum nightmare when Silas’ murder of a white salesman results in his lynching and Sarah’s flight from home. Similarly, the ancestral longing and regional difference that characterize the contested communication in Toomer’s Cane find a late twentieth-century analogue in the music of the Allman Brothers Band. Though the group’s multiracial members were infused with the work of African American bluesmen, Grandt argues, the historically charged metaphor of the Gregg Allman-penned song “Whipping Post” reveals “a telling inarticulacy that ‘unmasks’ the [song’s] minstrelsy” (103). While “music can transcend race,” Grandt concludes, it “can never really transcend history” (103; original emphasis).
Grandt presents this impasse as indicative of the limitations of Southern music. In keeping with the centrality of fragmentation to modernist expression, however, [End Page 731] recasting difference as constitutive of rather than disruptive to communication, suggests an alternate reading of such charged encounters. Grandt’s repeated deployment of the phrase “telling inarticulacy” recalls Édouard Glissant’s opacité (opaqueness) and Brent Hayes Edwards’s...