- Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature by Thadious M. Davis
Thadious Davis’s eleventh book seeks to show “how black writers from the Deep South use their spatial location to imagine, create, and define new and [End Page 662] unproscribed subjectivities” (4). Through the malleable concept “southscapes,” Davis tempers the postmodern emphasis on “the South as a social, political, cultural, and economic construct” by attending to “the geographic ‘fact of the land.’” As recent ecocritical scholarship demonstrates, there is real value to criticism mediating postmodern constructivism through a materialist reading of southern geographies. There is promise too in Davis’s opening proposal to “situat[e] visibly black southern writers as central to any full analysis of writing within the southern region and … today’s dynamic global world,” in which “the American South” may be remapped as part of “the Global South” (2). Southscapes seems poised to further the transnational turns in both southern studies and African American studies—two fields, still too often segregated from one another, in which Davis has long been eminent. It is surprising, then, that Southscapes subsequently has little substantial to say about the U. S. South vis-à-vis the Global South, while Davis’s selection of Richard Wright, Ernest Gaines and Alice Walker as the individual subjects of three of the book’s six lengthy chapters may seem a tad too familiar to Southernists and African Americanists alike.
In the opening chapter, Davis reiterates an irrefutable point from her seminal 1988 essay “Expanding the Limits: The Intersection of Race and Region”: that while “whites in the South became simply ‘southerners’ without a racial designation … blacks in the South became simply ‘blacks’ without a regional designation” (29). Davis proceeds to argue that such designations retain a pernicious power within the new Southern studies: for example, she scores Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn’s Look Away!: The U.S. South and New World Studies (2004) for perpetuating old Southern studies’ elision of black southern perspectives. But Davis belabors the point by criticizing the absence of black writers from books in Southern literary studies published more than a quarter-century ago, even while claiming that The History of Southern Literature (1985)—to which she contributed an important essay on Southerners in the Harlem Renaissance—offered a “more expansive reading and representation of ‘southern’ culture” (33). The problem here is that other scholars have long since interrogated the History’s overall blindness to black Southern writing: as Jon Smith observes, “In this 605-page work…. Slave narratives get precisely one paragraph.” Davis’s selective and sometimes overstated views on previous scholarship have the effect of making the reader more alert to the lacuna in her own approach. (Perhaps especially this reader: I can see why Davis opines that my book The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction “reverts to the old pattern of excluding black writers,” but am bemused by her larger claim that I represent “the tradition-bound white southern literary and academic establishment” .) So, when Davis claims that “racial configurations in the twenty-first-century South are no longer reducible to a black-white binary” (6), one may heartily agree while noting that Southscapes never makes more than passing mention of (black Southern writing’s relationship to) recent fiction about Latino/a and Asian immigrants.
Davis argues that while black Southern writers since the civil rights movement have engaged postmodern models of blackness, authors like Alex Haley (Roots) and Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon) have posited “an insistent regionality of black selves” (48). This usefully supplements Riché Richardson’s focus in Black Masculinity and the U.S. South (2007) on rural black Southern identities marginalized by critical cartographies of African American literature which privilege the urban. But Davis’s claim that “modern black identity … is rooted in the South as grounded manifestation of the ever-desired formative ‘homeplace’” and “counter to the exilic imagination and migratory identity often apparent in the displaced writers of color from the Caribbean, South America, [and] Africa” (19) may explain why Southscapes largely overlooks...