- Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel by John C. Charles Williamson
As critical consideration of and theoretical engagement with African American literature has expanded in recent years, so too has interest in texts within the tradition that have become known as “white-life” literature. These texts, penned by some of the most recognizable and celebrated names in twentieth-century African American literature, take as their primary subject matter the lives of white characters. In this they seem to break with the tradition of “racial realism,” as Gene Andrew Jarrett succinctly describes it, or the “scholarly apparatus that … presumes an overtly black subject,” as author John C. Charles Williamson explains it in Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel (2). [End Page 781] For this reason, most white-life literature is understudied and undertheorized, leaving a considerable gap in our critical understanding of African American literature in the postwar twentieth century. Abandoning the Black Hero is the first study to provide focused critical work on white-life novels of this period, and this ambitious text does much to direct more scholarly attention to this body of literature.
Williamson finds that white-life texts are worthy of study not only for how they might revise our understanding of the variety of work African American authors created in the mid-twentieth century, but also for how “our attention to cross-racial identification and desire in these works bring to light what is disallowed and disavowed in our current critical practice” (3; original emphasis). Williamson’s focus on the critical practices of African American literary studies places him in good company. Much like Jarrett’s Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2007) and Claudia Tate’s Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race (1998), Williamson is interested in the ways in which white-life texts challenge and perhaps even resist our expectations and readerly/scholarly assumptions about what constitutes “black literature.” Like these two closely aligned predecessors, he is also attentive to ways in which writing white-life literature allowed African American artists freedom from the proscriptions that restricted their expressive capacities.
Abandoning the Black Hero differs, however, in Williamson’s deployment of two key terms, “privacy” and “sympathy,” which circulate in complex ways throughout his text. In the Introduction, Williamson defines privacy through an examination of the letters, journals, essays, and statements of many African American authors and critics of the postwar period, concluding that “privacy” was a desire not to be defined or to have one’s creative work delimited by “dominant-culture notions of race.” He asserts that “White writers had racial privacy” because “their work was not restricted to ‘white’ material and themes; midcentury black writers, on the other hand, were expected to confine their creative visions to alternately romantic or tragic versions of being ‘black in a white man’s world’” (8).
While the desire of African American authors to write against the literary and social mandates for representing black suffering is well demonstrated and argued in chapter one, Williamson risks reducing this body of literature to a strategy for resistance rather than engaging with the politics of whiteness in a particular historical moment. For instance, in his first discussion of a literary text in chapter two, entitled “The Home and the Street: Ann Petry’s ‘Rage for Privacy,’” Williamson considers Petry’s choice not to fully represent one of the few African American characters in her white-life novel, A Country Place. He finds that Petry’s silences preserve a modicum of privacy and dignity for the author as well as for her character, Neola. In another chapter, “White Masks and Queer Prisons,” Williamson argues that in Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, the author sought “to protect his racial and sexual privacy” by “narrating the suffering of an eroticized, manly, and queer white ethnic man” (109-10). In these...