- Rewriting the Corpse in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Getting Mother’s Body
Corpses show up quite often in Southern literature, lingering long after their moment of death, sometimes unburied, sometimes exhumed, and at still other times buried but imagined to be still present. The treatment of dead bodies is of course an important cultural signifier, and in the American South, corpses—and the spectacle of corpses—have played a role in figuring Southern power and identity. The dead body can serve as forensic evidence, as symbol, and as a reminder of powerful violence. Michael Kammen, in Digging Up the Dead, proposes that Southerners hold the corpses of their dead particularly close due to an acute sense of nostalgia (xi), but ownership and control of the dead body taps into even deeper concerns of justice and belonging, especially in the case of dead black bodies. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has long explored such concerns in her stage plays, and again in her first novel, Getting Mother’s Body.
In her assessment of Parks’s output as a playwright, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory writes that “Parks represents, reenacts, or replicates racial migrancy in poignant Middle Passage scenarios … to suggest the destabilizing effects of the African holocaust. She seems intensely interested in exploring the synergies between racial memory and healing or remembering of Blacks” (184). But, Brown-Guillory adds, Parks’s “characters, generally speaking, do not achieve wholeness” (184). In her novel, however, Parks layers her re-enactment of racial migrancy with a re-enactment of an iconic literary journey, that of the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, reversing the goal of that journey to encompass an act of reclamation. That reclamation of the mother’s dead body echoes to some degree the efforts of anti-lynching activists to reclaim the bodies of murdered African Americans. [End Page 41] While Parks’s characters set out with no intent of enacting justice on a grand scale, they nonetheless achieve, perhaps inadvertently, the stability and wholeness that her stage characters may not.
Getting Mother’s Body revisits As I Lay Dying, rewriting that classic Southern novel to center the story on a black female protagonist. Parks has said that her novel was inspired not only by As I Lay Dying, with which it shares similarities in plot and structure, but also by the West Texas landscape she knew from her childhood (qtd. in Marshall). Getting Mother’s Body re-envisions Faulkner’s migration story from the perspective of a young black woman in the 1960s, shifting the setting, the gender of the primary narrator, and most importantly, the objective of the journey. This final shift, from burial to exhumation, reconfigures the characters’ relationship to their own pasts and calls to mind the history of the reclamation of black dead bodies as reclamation of power and act of resistance. Whereas Faulkner’s characters are driven to bury the past, attempting but repeatedly failing to separate themselves from it, Parks’ characters seek to reclaim their history, finding in it usable pieces that will help them achieve their futures. By claiming the body as a member of their family, gazing upon it, and controlling its fate, Parks’s characters re-enact a tradition of African Americans asserting bodily ownership through correcting or revealing the maltreatment of black corpses.
The novel, published in 2003, is the subject of several recent critical studies, including three separate essays by Brian Norman. Early critics tended to dismiss the Faulknerian influence, and many of those critics, including Glenda Dicker/sun, make the point that while Getting Mother’s Body renegotiates a Southern story, it is not a retelling of As I Lay Dying (157). Insofar as readers cannot escape comparison, however, the fact that Parks takes her germ from an iconic story of poor Southern whites and instead tells the story of Southern blacks is undeniably significant. Cedric Gael Bryant focuses on the structural and thematic similarities between Faulkner’s and Parks’ novels, arguing that both “are centered on the tensions inherent in loss and recovery, absence and presence, and on the inevitability of change. Constancy and the recognition that life depends on stability, especially in...