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  • "I Kill White Mens . . . Cause I Can":The Rewriting of Liberation and Mastery in Dessa Rose
  • Phyllis Lynne Burns (bio)

Introduction: Freedom and Mastery

In their quest for autonomy and freedom, Black1 writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have had to struggle with the agonistic inception of Black identity in America. To be Black in America did not, of course, simply mean that one had African ancestors. To be interpellated as a Black American additionally meant that one played a pivotal role in the symbolic production of white American identity. Toni Morrison explains that we cannot understand the genesis of American identity without a recognition that

nothing highlighted freedom—if did not create it—like slavery. Black slavery enriched the country's creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free, but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination.2

Morrison identifies not only that American society was built upon slave labor, but that the central principles of American identity, including the ideal of freedom, took shape around a symbolic economy in which "blackness" played the foundational role of "the not-me."3 To be Black was by definition to be excluded from the principle of personal and collective autonomy, a principle that took shape in relation to its ideological counterpart, slavery.4 The quintessential (white) American identity was "made possible by, shaped by, activated by a complex awareness and employment of a constituted Africanism" that was "strongly urged, thoroughly serviceable, companionably ego reinforcing, and pervasive."5 Blackness [End Page 119] generally, and enslaved Black bodies in particular, became the location in the American imaginary where anxieties, fears, and the inconsistencies of the symbolic (white) self could be projected or displaced in order to constitute a self-consistent vision of the autonomous American individual. To be American was to be "free" to the extent that the ideals of "autonomy, authority," and ultimately "absolute power"6 could be enacted upon slaves, the "not-free," the ideological antithesis of the free white citizen.7

In the effort to define and claim the principle of freedom as their own within this historical context, many Black male writers have struggled with and, to varying degrees, adopted this symbolic economy in their own conceptualizations of freedom, autonomy, and power, transferring the role of the "not-me," the dialectical counterpart of the autonomous individual, from Blacks generally to Black women. Speaking of male-authored slave narratives, Angela Davis explains that "lurking within the definition of black freedom as the reclamation of black manhood is the obligatory suppression of black womanhood."8 bell hooks traces this tradition of imagining Black male freedom into recent scholarship on slavery, where she notes the predominance of the belief that "the subjugation of black women was essential to the black male's development." According to this "myth," Black men could not become proper "patriarchs," and thereby develop "a positive self-concept," without the rite of passage of controlling Black women.9

Yet, this very reality—that the suppression of Black female agency has so often served as the condition of freedom for Black male writers— has led many Black feminist writers and critics to suggest that unique possibilities for rethinking the notion of freedom might emerge from a Black female subject position. Hortense Spillers argues that because Black women's bodies have been the site at which freedom as mastery has been ritualistically enacted, these bodies have served as the "zero degree of social conceptualization" for freedom and power, a state of social being to which she refers as "flesh."10 As ground zero for the creation of the autonomous individual, "flesh" offers "a praxis and a theory" for a new kind of writing and a new conceptualization of freedom.11 In this essay, I examine how Sherley Anne Williams revisits and rewrites the tradition of imagining Black (male) freedom through the control of Black women in her neo-slave novel, Dessa Rose (1987). In this novel, Williams provides an exemplary fictional model of how such a reconceptualization of freedom might emerge from this...


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pp. 119-145
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