- Black Literature, Desire, and the Psychoanalytic Model
In her provocative and ground-breaking work, Claudia Tate undertakes the task of probing the repressed layers of not only black novels, but also Black Critical Studies itself. In her investigation of psychoanalysis and black novels, Tate is not simply interested in adopting psychoanalytic paradigms as a means of examining black textuality; rather, she also asks a larger question: why has Black Critical Studies been resistant to psychoanalytic theories?
Tate is quick to provide answers to her own question. Tate acknowledges that many black scholars, focusing upon the oppressive sociological and material factors associated with the “black experience,” question the significance of psychoanalytic theories for black liberation. In fact, some black scholars view psychoanalysis with real suspicion, affiliating it with Western hegemony. Is the psychoanalytic model, they ask, the appropriate means of investigating personal and social desire in black works? Since psychoanalysis tends to focus upon family rather than social dysfuntions, psychoanalytic practice too often ignores the role of social oppression and racism. Moreover, Tate points out that the issue of desire identified with the “hypersexualized black body” has had such a problematic and traumatic history for African Americans that some scholars skirt the issue in fear of reifying essentialist stereotypes and, thus, perpetuating racism.
Tate, however, boldly locates her text in “this tabooed site of black sexuality.” Although Tate draws freely from Freudian and post-Freudian theories in her exploration of desire, Tate makes it clear that she does not want to efface the role of race; rather she wishes to construct a “racially contexualized model of psychoanalysis.” Using psychoanalytic theories based on the works of Freud, Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan, Tate provides often brilliant and always provocative readings of her five selected novels: Emma Kelley’s Megda, W.E.B. DuBois’s Dark Princess, Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee. Tate selects these novels precisely because most of them are considered anomalous, rather than representative of modern conceptions of black subjectivity. She asserts, “Because these works do not conform to the protest agenda of black modernism, they are repressed in the traditional black canon.” With the exception of Larsen’s Quicksand, the other four novels have often been dismissed as aesthetically flawed works. Some critics locate the flaw in surface matters—such as the fact that Wright and Hurston choose white, rather than blacks, as their central characters. Tate, however, argues that these works tend to be marginalized—or in the case of Quicksand misread—because they disrupt preconceived racial paradigms, for she argues that desire, rather than racial protocol, fundamentally drives the production of meaning in these texts.
Not all readers, however, will feel comfortable with Tate’s readings. After all, one could argue that the limitations of Tate’s chosen psychoanalytic paradigms dictate the [End Page 253] limitations of her work. In the past, too many psychoanalytic literary critics have presented reductive and forced readings of texts, leaving the reader feeling inevitably trapped in a kind of psychoanalytic painting by the numbers: if there is a superego, there must be an id; if there is a desirable mother, there must be a dying father. I would, however, urge resisting readers to “suspend their disbelief,” for Tate manages to escape those pitfalls, presenting compelling and convincing readings of her chosen texts. For Tate is not simply using psychoanalytic models; rather, she is reformulating them for her purposes.
I did, however, find one perplexing aspect of some of her readings: her own apparent resistance to readings of homoerotic desires. For instance, in her analysis of Kelley’s Magda, Tate highlights a scene in which the central character Meg, upon seeing her close girl friend Ethel embrace another girl, feels “a jealous pang shoot through her heart—the first she had ever known.” Tate states that the text attributes this jealousy to “sibling rivalry instead of unrequited love . . .” Later, when discussing Larsen’s Passing, Tate notes that although “one prominent scholar identifies the relationship between Irene and...