- Redefining the African American Canon Writer by Writer
At one point in Thadious M. Davis's Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region & Literature, she quotes Alice Walker: "The region is the heart and the mind, not the section." In many ways this quote captures the core of Davis's remarkable study of southern literature and the political culture it draws from. This book is indeed a game changer, as Davis intervenes in critical discourses about the South in American, literary, and theoretical studies. In the first instance, Davis seeks to redraw the map of work on the South by having scholars think through the lower South—specifically Mississippi and Louisiana—as a starting point for both the global and the local. Secondly, Davis wants us to think about the powerful presence of segregation, which on a political and material level created devastating consequences for the movement of black and white bodies, but at the same time produced the very conditions under [End Page 121] which such movement was possible. And finally, Davis utilizes theories of space, place and geography, gently mining them to "rethink writing produced by southern African Americans."
Like many other scholars in American studies, Davis revisits dichotomies like blackness/whiteness, rural/urban, and modern/postmodern, ultimately questioning, and very persuasively, whether those dichotomies are still useful to scholars in the fields she treats. Early in her study, she notes that until relatively recently black southern writers did not appear in critical work under the moniker "southern writers," and she aptly points out that this segregation has produced decades of scholarship on signal black writers like Toni Morrison but all but obscured the work writers like Ernest Gaines, Margaret Walker Alexander and Alice Walker as specifically black and southern writers. For Davis, the attention black southern writers paid to the impact of the past on the present in the 1980s cannot be ignored. In fact, this attention points Davis toward her seminal thesis, that the "retrieval of space" by twentieth century African American artists created a spatial and psychic relationship to the South that moves against more static and concrete notions of geographical boundaries. In many ways this boundary is being permeated every day as black peoples who left the South generations ago find themselves migrating back "home" in the early twenty-first century.
Literary scholars will find the readings in Southscapes rich and detailed and there is ample treatment of new southern talent here, like Natasha Trethewey. In fact, Davis's might be the first full treatment of Trethewey's body of work and will no doubt be the standard by which other approaches are measured as Davis utilizes the figure of the aperture to think through Trethewey's blending of modern and postmodern throughout her work. In Native Guard, argues Davis, Trethewey's archival retrieval of historical events and dates in real-time combined with the deployment of memories written already in the opaque fabric of forgetting reveal a very complex creative process—one that fits nicely with Davis's argument that the patchwork quilt that is southern cultural studies writes a different map of itself and its origins through the work of artists like Trethewey.
Examining autobiographical narratives of the civil rights era, Davis divulges perhaps her most poignant statement about the work of Southscapes. She writes: "the body itself becomes an articulation that surpasses and supersedes what wounds or scars may signify. What the story cuts across is an unanticipated black space of articulation rather than a [End Page 122] narrative of trauma." This space of unanticipated articulation is best represented in Davis's reading of Olympia Vernon's body of work as representative of a "fugue space." The project of remembering and historicizing the racial and the social gets dispersed hyper-consciously through several characters in Vernon's work, so that it is impossible to have one perspective, one...