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  • Black Skin, White Tissues: Local Color and Universal Solvents in the Novels of Charles Johnson

1. Black Skin

In his postmodern novels Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage—and in passing, Faith and the Good Thing, Johnsonian pun intended—Charles Johnson implies that African Americans lacked access to a Jacksonian self during the American Renaissance. As such they were dispossessed of a transcendentalism rightly theirs—what Johnson at times characterizes as a pre-Western, unmediated relationship with Being or Nature. 1 Having no property-based self-identity to transcend, African-American men and women were denied access to a putative pre-Western unity of being, access white male transcendentalists pursuing Jacksonian selves can only problematically feign. Johnson asserts that slavers brought over not just slaves, but a shape-shifting African god to the new world (paralleling Ishmael Reed’s arguments about Osiris/Pan and American pantheism in Mumbo Jumbo). In Middle Passage, Johnson’s white transcendental ship carries an entire transcendental African culture stowed away in its hold (which Johnson claims to set free): this transcendentalism of the African Allmuseri tribe is configured as unified, opposed to the dualistic transcendentalism of white Americans. In Johnson, an Allmuseri unity of being then lies behind one facet of Emersonian transcendentalism. 2 While trying himself to transcend or dismantle the category of race, Johnson also here implies that white Americans brought Africans to this country not to get bodies, but culture, a move whites systematically deny and try to invert.

I particularly want to focus on how Johnson grapples with the way Being in America is racialized, but also asserts that Being completely transcends race. Like Emerson, Johnson believes that all matter and nature, from his body to slavery, are only reflections of mind, finally indicating a phenomenological rather than historical state: Johnson consistently echoes Emerson’s claims about the metaphysical status of slavery. Despite his heartfelt anti-slavery writings, Emerson was rarely able to address the issue of race except as a metaphysical condition. 3 When Emerson, throughout his works, purports that universal ideas, rather than specific actions, [End Page 1028] reform society, he displays transcendentalism’s American tendency to bury history and politics beneath the facade of the eternal: even read against the context of the categorical imperative and enlightenment philosophy, it is still chilling to read Emerson claim, “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral whose aim or motive may become a universal rule.” 4 One primary effect of Emerson’s rhetoric is to condemn any political action, any partiality, which includes race, as unidealistic and immoral. Emerson therefore insists in “Self-Reliance” that he has “other slaves to free than those negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man”: furthermore, just as “prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious,” so too “he who aims at progress should aim at an infinite, not a special benefit.” 5 This dramatically unqualified condemnation of the practical operation of American politics supports the claim that reform makes the universal particular, fragments the whole to parts, or parses the perfect infinite to the flawed individual. In his novels, Johnson resuscitates not just Emerson’s transcendentalism, but his troubling political “idealism” regarding race and history. For Johnson, the transcendence of particularity or relativism is equivalent to the transcendence of race itself.

I need to make several provisos before I start: as a neo-phenomenologist, Johnson doesn’t really believe in history (which, from his perspective, would make any dispute of his historical framework the rhetorical equivalent of rebuking Emerson for inconsistency). I also acknowledge that it’s particularly difficult to critique Johnson’s idiosyncratic and seemingly inconsistent notions of race, for he doesn’t embrace standard definitions of individual identity either, and we can get caught in a chicken and egg game of which comes first, “individual” or “racial” identity. Johnson is suspicious of all “diversity,” or multiplicity, which for him produces relativism and cancels philosophical unity or oneness with the world. For all ‘intentionalist’ purposes, I should also note that Johnson—trained in Western and African philosophy, Asian religion, and creative as well as martial arts—draws almost as much from Zen Buddhism as he does from African-American folklore. 6

Johnson at times wants to “develop a feeling for how race (Better to say raciality thereby clarifying race as a structure of all perception, like sexuality, spatiality, temporality) figures how we give form, in literature and life to our experience” (“Philosophy” 55). Here and throughout his work, Johnson prefigures some of Judith Butler’s project in Gender Trouble: vis à vis Anthony Appiah, Johnson characterizes the once-essential category of race as purely performative in much the way Butler characterizes gender. For Johnson, race is a socially constructed, if also metaphysical state; but it apparently “structures all perceptions” nonetheless. Yet in Being and Race (1988), his phenomenological critique of black literature, Johnson hopes “we will see a fiction of Americans who happen to be black,” as if race could and should be a secondary trait: Johnson thus wants race to serve as a mere heuristic for discussing philosophical issues of a-priori identity (123). Not surprisingly, given Johnson’s philosophical stance, race seems to come entirely after an ahistoric, essential Being, and does not construct that Being at all: Johnson wants to propose that we could already have a self without race that was then given some largely superficial racial [End Page 1029] identity. This race-free identity could represent an ideal state of Being, but it’s a universal aspiration of Johnson’s great society not all his constituents would share.

In his Last Speeches, Malcolm X had argued that “This is how you imprisoned us. Not just bringing us over here and making us slaves. But the image that you created of our motherland and the image you created of our people on that continent was a trap, was a prison, was a chain, was the worst form of slavery that has ever been invented. . . .” (167, emphasis mine). Johnson systematically develops this perspective, treating slavery only as a form of slavery: that is, as a metaphor with almost exclusively psychological and metaphysical, rather than historical or political, consequences. Where Malcolm X uses metaphor to get back to historical slavery, Johnson uses the metaphor of slavery to transcend history. As he writes in his new introduction to Oxherding Tale, Andrew, the central protagonist, makes “a desperate bid for liberation from numerous kinds of ‘bondage,’” but historical slavery is not among them (xvi, emphasis mine).

The form of slavery Andrew must escape is the West’s image of his ancestry. In order to transform the received, debased view of Africa, Johnson uses the African tribe of the Allmuseri, who appear in some context in all his published fiction. The transcendental, shape-shifting Allmuseri god, who is brought to America aboard the slave ship in Middle Passage, “is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience” (101). It is entirely merged with a transcendental nature in ways to which white transcendentalists can only aspire. No subject/object distinction exists for the Allmuseri or their god, a separation that for Johnson gives rise to all dichotomies, between man and woman, black and white, and all other created binaries and hierarchies. In part, then, the recreated Allmuseri paradoxically salvage our image of Africa by doing away with all distinction between black and white, as well as self and other.

White Americans—in this somewhat selective version of the history of slavery—dispossess and destroy a black/African unity with nature by bringing slaves to the new world: “The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell. . . . that was where we were taking them [on the slave ship]—into the madness of multiplicity—” (MP 65). (One should note, though, the use of a Western idea as the transcendent standard of comparison: their “vision of Hell”). 7 The mind-set of the original Allmuseri represents a pre-racial condition, though the tribe is also emphatically black. What is startling is that throughout his writing, Johnson believes that diversity itself is not multicultural, but multiplicitous: in the tradition of Emersonian liberalism, race is the greatest index of a multiplicity that severs us from the whole, the All, or Nature (which in complex ways is coded as black and female throughout both Emerson and Johnson’s writings). For the transcendentalist and phenomenologist, race itself serves as the locus of all subject/object bifurcations, all Western double-consciousness, and madness itself. If Johnson believes, from a philosophical if not multicultural perspective, that multiplicity is hell, it comes as no surprise that raciality accounts for one of hell’s circles, or represents a fallen state of man.

Most of Johnson’s non-Allmuseri characters directly experience a similar loss of Being in America: for example, Faith, in Faith and the Good Thing, feels “the worst part [End Page 1030] of loneliness not [as] the lack of friends, but the lack of intimacy with the world, the lack of unity. . . Instead of bein’ one with every object, every object became a thing apart from ya—ya even became a thing to y’self!” (192). Even rhetorically, the self is emphatically doubled, a “ya” mirrored back upon itself. (Faith is described—like her father, who is “never confident save when he was alone”—as “wholly herself only when alone” {64, 69}. Africans become subjected to the principles of American individualism that destroy their pre-Western, communal ontology). Once in America, most African-Americans become isolated from an African unity of being. However, Reb the coffinmaker, the egoless exemplar of Oxherding Tale, was from and still epitomizes “the ancient clan-state of the Allmuseri, concealed for centuries” (48). He and the Allmuseri stay so close to Being that they can’t distinguish themselves from the world (a condition to which Emerson and Melville’s Ishmael endlessly aspire but never attain).

As Ashraf Rushdy incisively notes, the Allmuseri seem to be the “Ur-tribe of humanity itself,” embodying all mankind in their ancient presence. But after assuming at least some partly factual basis for their existence, Rushdy concludes, “The Allmuseri unfortunately, do not exist in this world,” and that Johnson has entirely fabricated their history (373). This deliberate creation of a fictional Africa is a crucial point, and completely alters any “Afrocentrism” we would find in Johnson: rather than try to glorify an African history he doesn’t believe exists, Johnson manufactures a new cultural “history” as a hybrid of African and Western transcendentalisms. Just as we have an Allmuseri version of hell, we have an Allmuseri version of transcendentalism; even if Johnson on occasion tries to assert that Western metaphysics are only approximations of African beliefs, he negates his own historical contexts. Yet Johnson also claims that the racial ideologies black writers create for the African experience are “in a strange way seamless. They are founded on what seems at first blush a non-European theory of man, Nature, and social life, although this soon shows itself to be deceptive, insofar as European philosophies are diverse” (BaR 26). In other words, for Johnson distinctions between Western and non-Western philosophies—in fact, perhaps finally all distinctions—are as spurious as the false categories of race. No universal Western or non-Western philosophies exist in this view; yet Johnson creates the Allmuseri to represent a culture existing entirely before the transcendental divisiveness of the West (a schema that is easily emblematized by the principles, but not necessarily the history, of slavery). The Allmuseri represent the All of a pre-Western nature, man before his ontic fall.

Let us briefly consider, however, the arguments of Anthony Appiah, whom Johnson somewhat inappropriately considers a model for his theoretical position on race. In an article on the fictitiousness of racial identity, Appiah notes that W. E. B. Du Bois took a “now familiar move of substituting a sociohistorical conception of race for the biological one” (“Uncompleted” 34). Johnson follows suit, only his “sociohistorical” conception of race is based on the philosophy of a tribe/race that never existed: his Pan-Africanism is predicated on a transhistorical version of Pan, not a historical version of Africa. Appiah quotes Du Bois to the effect that “the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races” (29). But [End Page 1031] Johnson abrogates both history and race, for him coterminous, particular, mutually defining and problematic entities.

In some ways, the Allmuseri reify race as a natural condition, or at least an essentialized aspect of culture, while universalizing or transcending race in other respects. Johnson writes in his 1980 article “Philosophy and Black Fiction,” that “Universals are not static (as Robert Bone believes in The Negro Novel in America, nor empty as [others] argue) but changing, historical, evolving and enriched by particularization” (57). 8 Universal but never static or fixed, the Allmuseri stand behind all Johnson’s heroic characters: quintessentially “not fixed but evolving,” however, they also stop being “wholly Allmuseri” in their contact with the new world (MP 124, emphases mine). But in the same article, Johnson concludes that “universality is embodied in the particulars of the black world”: this endemically transcendental conflict between universal and particular takes a complex turn in Johnson’s racialized version of Being (60).

Always starting with the universal, Johnson becomes impatient with any black fiction that pursues local color and remains stuck in particular history—the naturalistic literature that Johnson notoriously considers full of “the misery-filled protest stories about the sorry condition of being black in America” (BaR 5). 9 In Being and Race, Johnson can only “sketch the history [of slavery], but it is, on the whole and in general, a nightmare” (8). To awaken from that nightmare, and to escape fictions of “brutal realism,” Johnson calls for more experimentation with “prerealistic forms” of narrative, and clearly values a writer’s formal skills over his work’s social content (BaR 12, 52). For Johnson, “pre-realistic” is incontrovertibly equivalent to “pre-racial,” but pre-Western only in the sense that race didn’t exist before the West allegedly invented it. What is disturbing is not that Johnson writes purely ontological fictions—the prerogative of all artists and the ideal of many postmodern science fiction writers—but that he systematically denies a post-racial history in pursuing a pre-racial aesthetics. 10

Johnson dismisses not just history but ‘local color’ because it represents the particularity we must always seek to transcend. In “Philosophy and Black Fiction,” Johnson actually asserts that “No one much cares these days about the particulars of Black life only (this always borders on the exotic, voyeuristic, the sociological). We read the fictions of the racial Other because they disclose the world—a common world, finally—as it might appear if we could be over there in that body” (60). This is a resounding claim, one ineluctably assuming an unproven incommensurability between all particulars and the universal. We can place ourselves in the position of, understand and finally universalize, the “racial other” simply by reading about him or her. In the wake of the debate about multiculturalism, can we have and do we want a common world? (Compare Johnson’s views to those of Toni Morrison, who has repeatedly noted that she began writing because few existing books spoke to her particular subject position; that her language is consciously tailored to black experience; and that universality often represents a false god). By Johnson’s definition, black literature must transcend the local, and reach the universal; but what does it lose by striving for universal acceptance? More importantly, is this a false dichotomy? Shouldn’t black literature exist on its own terms, those that are precisely not universal, [End Page 1032] if universality, by most accounts, is a Western myth? Unless of course, we’ve already done away with a false distinction between Western and non-Western, in which case no black literature per se could be defined.

I’m being slightly facetious here because all interpretation depends on context and vantage-point—local assumptions—which are precisely what Johnson seems to deny us. (We can begin to glimpse here why Johnson uses the Allmuseri to develop an alternate African myth of universality, though he also claims, within that myth of universality, that the Allmuseri “seemed less a biological tribe than a clan held together by values. A certain vision”{MP 109}. Race is both troubling particular and laudable universal in Johnson, depending on the point he wants to make. Like Ishmael Reed, Johnson plays it both ways, giving his African universality a racial and a supra-racial basis.) Johnson inevitably provokes the related question of whether black literature should “assimilate” or remain nationalist (and whether a black writer should write explicitly for a black audience). Not even believing in the category of nations, Johnson is very much in what used to be called the integrationist camp, which repudiates the cultural nationalism of black literature developed after Martin Delaney. 11 Johnson consistently claims he wants to transcend both nation and race: he writes in Being and Race that “the enduring truth is that if we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism,” i.e. all locality, duality, nationality and race (BaR 44). Race for Johnson is only an exemplar of relativism, and he uses a language of transcendence to locate the truth of literature, to deracinate particularity. Toward the end of the same book, Johnson calls Toni Morrison’s Sula “a beautiful, race-transcending exploration of evil and existential freedom” (101, emphasis mine). Sula is beautiful to Johnson because she transcends, rather than embodies, race. It is of course too reductive only to assert that Johnson sides with Ellison’s camp against Wright’s on the issue of social realism; but like Ellison, Johnson would argue that he wants to be read as a writer, not as a black writer. Yet he also wants, in these explicit and telling terms, to transcend and transcendentalize race.

For Johnson, slavery represents the acceptance of racial limitations, polarities, particularities, and history itself. For instance, in Oxherding Tale, Andrew asserts that he

had ever believed it was man’s destiny to achieve freedom from the polarities . . . [but] this deadening feeling that our particularities limited us, closed us in . . . remained. . . . The wretchedness of being colonized was not that slavery created feelings of guilt and indebtedness, though I did feel guilt and debt; nor that it created a long, lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness, which it did indeed create, but that fact that men had epidermalized Being.

(52, emphasis mine)

In other words, in a strange warping of Du Bois, in America some pure universal Being has been given a local skin color and thus rendered dual. In Middle Passage, we are thrust into this very same dream, or rather nightmare, of multiplicity: “whether he [End Page 1033] liked it or not, he had fallen; he was now part of the world of multiplicity, of me versus thee” (140). Though Johnson insists that being has been historically racialized in the new world, he also suggests that race has become a mere corollary of man’s general “fallen multiplicity.” Here, race serves as an ahistorical heuristic for a state of consciousness: not racism, but epidermalized Being. Diversity itself becomes a form of dualism, one again best represented by slavery.

Johnson hates slavery primarily for the reasons Emerson does: it disrupts our sense of homogeneous Being. For Emerson, “A perception is always a generalization: it lifts the object, whether in material or moral nature, into a type. . . . The philosopher knows only laws. . . . The game of Intellect is the perception that whatever befalls or can be stated is a universal proposition” (“Natural History of Intellect,” W XII 40). Emerson continually claims that “underneath the inharmonious and trivial particulars, is a musical perfection,” and in that light “the individual is always mistaken” (“Experience,” W, III 71, 70). The trivial surface particularity that defines individual and ultimately racial identity must be translated to a universal proposition. For Emerson and for Johnson the philosopher of universal laws, race represents the wrong kind of individuality—particularity, isolation from the whole or universal law, and a dangerous, disruptive disharmony in the nation. To paraphrase Ronald Takaki on Emerson’s America, “the new nation [sought] a ‘homogeneous’ population . . . . diversity itself was dangerous in the republican society” (63, emphasis mine).

In a speech not decisively undercut by the narrative, Johnson’s white transcendental captain Falcon, on board a ship not accidentally named The Republic, remarks that

Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other . . . . We cannot think without them. . . . They are signs of a transcendental fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think about it, is only the social corollary of a deeper ontic wound.

(98) 12

Johnson here casts a black, Du Boisian double-consciousness—the dualism between black perceiver and perceived—back not just to an Emersonian American Renaissance, but to a transcendentalism perversely stolen from African, or finally African-American, culture. (This perception represents one of Johnson’s most compelling and original analyses of the evils of slavery). This is what the Soulcatcher in Oxherding Tale and Falcon in Middle Passage inveterately seek, murderously to steal and corrupt the essence of African identity to regenerate themselves. (Perhaps on its own terms, transcendentalism is here largely reified, a notably canonical ontic phenomenon that transcends its specific manifestations.) With a mind made for murder, split from itself, Americans are always in the midst of a permanent auto machia or civil war, one that represents the truest enactment of our transcendental fault. The universal ontic wound always comes first, then produces a specific social corollary, say slavery. (It’s important to note that only the Allmuseri had somehow never experienced this primordial fault of the rest of humanity, and that Johnson’s entire sense of phenomenology, and cross-cultural soteriology, is predicated on this fabricated possibility.) [End Page 1034]

For Johnson, the Civil War isn’t a political or even physical conflict, but a purely metaphysical one. 13 In Oxherding Tale,

There were rumors of a coming war between the states. Sir, we were already in the midst of Civil War. Blacks and whites. Blacks and blacks. Women and men—I was in the thick of diversity . . . . But things were becoming too dense [this “density” kills his father]. Everything seemed to create its own cancellation.

(50, last emphases mine)

Long after the Civil War, Faith similarly suffers from “headaches so violent they seemed to sunder her mind into two equal, warring halves” (FGT 70, emphasis mine). The violence of these wars only reflects a universal split in consciousness: this is an Emersonian, transcendental conceit, that the material world is a reflection of consciousness, that nature is only an apocalypse of the mind. 14 Like his raciality, Johnson’s war is purely phenomenological, a reflection of self-canceling, violent diversity. Intriguingly, double consciousness is not here an emblem of racial history, but racial history the embodiment of double consciousness.

Slavery for Johnson is then hardly an historicizable condition, only an ontological metaphor for an atemporal, inherently dualistic mind which must murder—must destroy the other by creating an other. Out of the realm of history entirely, this allegedly transcendental, universal fault is pitted against an allegedly transcendental unity in the Allmuseri. By contrast, for the Allmuseri, “murder violated (even mutilated) the murderer so badly that it might take them a billion billion rebirths to again climb the chain and achieve human form” (140). That is, with no gulf between me and thee—no transcendental fault, only transcendental unity—the Allmuseri find murder inconceivable. They aren’t regenerated by the violence, as the Soulcatcher is, but symbiotically incapacitated along with the victim; they receive not the strength of his identity, but only his pain. 15

In Being and Race, Johnson invokes—in this context the unfortunately named—Eldridge Cleaver, who “concluded ‘the gulf between the mind and the body will be seen to coincide with the gulf between the two races” (and ultimately genders). The great divide, gap, gulf, fissure, and split in Johnson, however, is always a metaphysical division that finds its incidental expression in race. Where Cleaver “claimed that blacks were stripped of a mental life, leaving them only a bodily existence in the West. . . . [Johnson] attempts to develop Cleaver’s idea by tracing its origins to the Cartesian bifurcation of res cogitantes and res extensae, and of course to the more primordial Platonic dualism” (BaR 26–27). To trace all historical racial issues to a transcendental fault between observer and observed, ideal and real, is an interesting heuristic, but proceeds on a specious premise. Double-consciousness occurs in American society because African Americans had to separate mind and body, and could not own their own bodies, and not simply as the result of atemporal Cartesian dilemmas: it develops in a specific historical framework. For Johnson, however, despite his own exploration of how whites dispossess black transcendentalism, slavery remains metaphysical; [End Page 1035] Andrew laments that he never left slavery, because “it was a way of seeing, my inheritance . . . seeing distinctions.” Johnson’s Allmuseri, however, represent the thing itself, pure Emersonian observation without observer, sensation without the senser. Ironically, Johnson here both echoes and inverts Ellison: as Molly Able Travis notes, Ellison, whom Johnson greatly admires, complains in “The World and the Jug” that “[Irving] Howe makes of ‘Negroness’ a metaphysical condition, one that is in a state of irremediable agony” (18). 16 Instead, Johnson makes slavery the metaphysical condition, and ‘Negroness’ a performative one, even if it is a performance of irremediable hybridity. That is, slavery and raciality cause, even are, multiplicity; and slavery is the transcendental fault of consciousness. Johnson identifies American (but not African) transcendentalism as inevitably producing slavery, as in fact predicating it.

But the non-Allmuseri Johnsonian self is never unified: as we shall soon see, Rutherford Calhoun, the hero of Middle Passage, winds up much like the Soulcatcher in Oxherding Tale, who is a disturbingly “fluid, crazyquilt of other’s features, . . . a cartoonist’s composite face of fifty features,” and possesses a face regenerated by the violence he commits upon the slaves he kills: he is a being stolen from black identity (169, emphasis mine). As Andrew recognizes, “The voice that belonged to the fingers upon me was made from the offscum of other voices” (168). The Soulcatcher’s hands “beat with the pulsethrob of countless bondsmen in his bloodstream, women and children murdered” (169). This stolen patchwork of physical features, this series of masks, again epidermalizes being: the Soulcatcher’s body and identity are precisely racialized for Johnson, and are entirely made up of the detritus of his forebears: those caught by the Soulcatcher; those without the will and hence the ability to survive; those who believe in race. (Note, Johnson’s character is not called the Slavecatcher, which would provide an historical reference, but the Soulcatcher: slavery is always an ontic, not a social, phenomenon). Yet again, however, Johnson undercuts his own ploys, claiming that no features are truly lost:

and yet all were conserved in this process of doubling, nothing was lost in the masquerade, the cosmic costume ball, where behind every different mask at the party—behind snout beak nose and blossom—the selfsame face was uncovered at midnight . . . . (all is conserved; all), the world.


Such an assertion, echoing Melville in The Confidence Man, consistently contradicts Johnson’s earlier suppositions, as it indicates, along with Emerson, that all apparent surface difference—especially the surface difference of race—hides an interior, absolute sameness: as Emerson endlessly reiterates, truth and literature are simply about “detecting identity under variety of surface” (JMN XIII 60). Johnson’s apparent doubling of the self is ultimately subsumed by the selfsame. If we extrapolate from this claim, as Emerson himself does, the particularity of racial “surface” only gets in the way of an underlying, universal, history-transcending sameness. And what white transcendentalists dream of is the self-dispossession black slaves forcibly encounter, [End Page 1036] but that only non-whites—like Reb the Allmuseri coffinmaker, or Ishmael only through Queequeg’s coffin—can survive. As Ishmael Reed writes in his satirical revision of the American Renaissance, Flight to Canada, American transcendentalism is most disturbingly uncanny in its dispossession of blackness: where “Whitman desires to fuse with nature . . here I am, involuntarily, the comrade of the inanimate, but not by choice. . . . I am property. I am a thing” (75). Startlingly, transcendentalism achieves what slavery cannot, the transformation of an individual into an involuntary force of nature, one not with Nature, but the inanimate; in complex ways, to try during the American Renaissance to transcend the white body in nature is also to reify the dispossessions of slavery and the market. In this sense, American transcendentalism and Johnson’s version of phenomenology are another set of twins switched at birth.

2. White Tissues

In paradoxical but consistent ways, Johnson undermines the category of race, and ultimately racial surfaces, to construct both black and white identity. He ultimately promotes an evolution toward whiteness as a progression toward universality and the transcendence of history. In this section, I hope to show how, against his own designs, white and black tissue come to be intimately connected in Johnson’s work.

Writing about contemporary African-American fiction, Fritz Gysin remarks that “In an exemplary way the human skin is, to quote from Roberta Rubenstein’s definition of boundary, an area of ‘both separation and connection between contiguous entities’” (287). This encapsulation provides a useful reference point for Johnson’s notions of a contiguous identity that is precisely skin-deep, because skin seems to cover everything. At this point, I want to focus briefly on the crucial image of epidermalized being I brought up previously. In Being and Race, Johnson remarks that “Doubters may object that it is racially impossible to strip themselves of their own historically acquired traits” (emphasis mine). The true writer or philosopher must not historicize but transcend history, in the most Emersonian terms, and strip himself of his historical subject position/skin, which can only be a reference to blackness. (This postmodern anti-historicism might explain why, as so many critics have almost paradoxically argued of late, Johnson received so little critical attention for so long.) 17 Johnson almost naively wants you to transcend the relativism of particularity in order to write original fiction and achieve cultural understanding, though we must also suspect his cannier motives regarding history. He goes on to say that

many black writers claim they cannot imagine what it is like to be white, that all they know is ‘black’ experience. For my money, this objection is sheer laziness. I will also say such objections are based on a very circumscribed notion of race. We can I think, trash such objections quickly by noting that in a country as genetically mongrelized [a phrase he uses in various contexts] as America it wouldn’t be unthinkable to scrap racial nature altogether.

(43) 18 [End Page 1037]

This idea is fine as far as it goes, though one would suspect it’s usually in white political interests to scrap racial nature altogether. And except that Johnson here contradicts his advice to black writers because he makes the white universal; i.e. black writers need to be able to think like white characters to transcend race, but whites wouldn’t be interested in thinking like blacks—whatever these positions would entail—because, as Johnson claims, that would be voyeuristic, sociological, particular, and, worst of all, historically delimited. (As the Invisible Man would say, break out the steel helmets). Quite simply, Johnson insufficiently sees whiteness as a local racial construct, and instead treats it as an acceptable stand in for the universal. 19 Johnson continues to hide his tracks though, claiming “‘race’ dissolves when we trace the gene back to A.D. 700. Our lives, as blacks and whites, we come to realize, are a tissue of cross-cultural influences” (43, emphasis mine). This “tissue” represents another crucial phrase, a way of juxtaposing two versions of “epidermalized being,” just as Johnson pits historical, white transcendental faults against fictional African transcendental unities.

In an interview conducted in 1993 with Jonathan Little, Johnson states again that the overriding Western notion of a stable identity is only a fiction: “if there is such a thing as identity, I don’t think that it’s fixed or static; it’s a process . . . . a tissue of very often contradictory things, which is why I have a great deal of opposition to anything that looks like a fixed meaning for black America” (“Interview” 161). Like Michael Jackson, Johnson seems intrigued with the idea of an unfixed, hybrid, fluid, actually morphing tissue of multi-colored skin, while all the time denying that race even exists as a category. For someone who doesn’t believe in consistency of identity, Johnson uses a consistent rhetoric throughout his published fiction and criticism. Emersonian fixity and racial tissue are the keys: with no fixity, we have no history; with tissue, a substitute for race, a changing patchwork, as Johnson likes to call it, of skin. Neither fixed nor static, phenomenological identity serves as an underlying universal tissue, or an OverSoul absorbing all particularity.

In keeping with this view, for instance, the Allmuseri are described as living in “process and Heraclitean change . . . not fixed but evolving” (MP 124). This depiction explicitly fulfills Johnson’s aforementioned proviso, in “Philosophy and Black Fiction,” that universals are not static, but evolving. In Faith and the Good Thing, Faith must “factor the possible number of paths to the Good Thing, but not become[e] fixed, or held to those paths of her history, or the history of her race” (195). When Faith, perhaps an echo of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and various other Hawthorne characters, lets “each event weigh [her] down, alter [her] . . . [she] was in bondage,” fixed, unable to be “brand new each instant” (59). That is, Faith is enslaved if she becomes metaphysically fixed or determined by history (a history only incidentally involving actual slavery. Hence we can contextualize both Ellison and Johnson’s resistance to forms of historical determinism, socialism, etc., anything that might literally get in the way of that personified faith transcending history). Faith, in the same terms, explicitly “knew she was in bondage, knew herself to be encrusted with the filth of a past beyond her control” (109). This captivity is always a metaphysical bondage to a particular, filthy and black history, treatable only with the universal solvent of white out or the universal tissue of Kleenex. The real question is why a past [End Page 1038] beyond one’s control should be the fault of, and contaminate, the present generation, and if “transcending” that history, rather than working through its implications, is the most viable response.

In Johnson, then, the faults of history come to be equated with race, and both treated as forms of despoiling particularity: “You are wondering, I imagine, about differences between the white and black world. Well, here is the first; . . . in the Black world the threat [is] there is no history worth mentioning, only family scenarios of deprivation . . . [and] dread in later generations . . .” (OT 132). Consequently, we are told in Faith and the Good Thing that “the pitiable side of Todd lay within the confines of history” (64). (Throughout his writings, Johnson uses one Ralph Waldo to displace another, here obviously invoking Ellison’s Tod Clifton, who in related but opposite terms “had chosen to fall outside of history”{IM 141}. Which Ralph is the world and which the jug, however, which the joke and which the yoke, is not always clear.) Johnson continues to imagine himself wrestling with Ellison, proposing that, “You could chain that malleable rough side of [Todd] that lay in history, but the rest was wind” (182). To counter the confines of a history he abhors as filthy and fixed, Johnson takes two tacks: he doesn’t come up with an historicized Afrocentrism, but a fictionalized one in the Allmuseri; and, like Emerson fleeing his fathers’ sepulchers, he tries to transcend history altogether. Like Emerson, with whom he shares a certain “Orientalism,” Johnson doesn’t believe in history, only “a rhythm, repeating itself, flashing the same forces into the world in different ages and different times and always returning you . . . to some touchstone” (FatGT 140). Johnson again takes his cue from Emerson, who repeatedly intimates, for example, that he finds “not only this equality between new and old countries, as seen by the eye of Science, but also a certain equivalence of the ages of history” (“Progress of Culture,” W VIII 213). But American slavery is a specific bondage, and to distill it distorts its particularity to make it coincide with some imagined universal pattern.

I need to go back to the idea of racial tissue for a moment. Johnson has already claimed that raciality structures all perception, but also that race is literally only a surface phenomenon: a tissue of contradictory, positive hybrid associations, but also a negative epidermalization of being. Much later in his interview with Little, Johnson returns to this rhetoric: “That you see, is the issue, the fact that we are a tissue of cultures. We are a tissue of races already; the concept of race, as Anthony Appiah points out, is false.” 20 Johnson adds that multiculturalist categories are thus repugnant to him because no real races exist, though on different grounds he adds that “I’m not going to read a book simply because it’s by an Asian writer [or] a black American

. . . . It has to be something that meets the standards I bring to all literature” (“Interview” 179). This stipulation is fair enough, but how do we get those standards to be universal when all literatures are contextual? Many philosophers have sought universal standards without contexts, and without success; in their wake, Johnson elevates some aspects of race to the universal while simultaneously erasing others, until race becomes only a thin, but universal, connective tissue. Johnson then himself both epidermalizes and erases Being. But whether race exists in any essential terms is secondary to the effects that have resulted from an historical belief in its essentiality. [End Page 1039]

The paradox of Johnson’s fiction is that all his characters lament being deprived of an individual identity their author doesn’t believe exists. For Johnson wrestles throughout his fiction with the problem of reinvesting African Americans with a problematic, almost Emersonian transcendental identity, one allegedly appropriated from African-American culture (and then entirely misused). In Oxherding Tale, slavery yet again does not entail a physical entrapment, but a metaphysical bondage:

the cause of death for these black men was, strictly speaking, not physical at all . . . . I am speaking of the belief in personal identity, the notion that what we are is somehow distinct from other things when this entity, this lie, this ancient stupidity has no foundation in scientific fact.


For Johnson, black people die because they believe in a particular Jacksonian self they cannot have, rather than a transcendental, universal self of which they have been dispossessed. 21 In his new introduction to Oxherding Tale, Johnson writes that he wondered, “was race an illusion, a manifestation of Maya?” (1995 xi). (Once again, Johnson links his race-transcending delineation of blackness to Asia). But he finally proposes that “Andrew Hawkins was the first protagonist in black American fiction to achieve classically defined moksha (enlightenment)” (1995 xvi). Tautologically, Johnson here asserts that Andrew is the “first black” who realizes blackness doesn’t exist, the first black character who transcends identity altogether.

As Rutherford, “a cultural mongrel,” learns in Middle Passage from the morphing god that impersonates a version of his father, it might be that “the (black) self was the greatest of all fictions,” and those parentheses encapsulate a world of complexities: is the self or only the black self a fiction (187, 171)? 22 As Rushdy suggests, Johnson develops a “theory of subjectivity that dissolves what he suggests is the spurious concept not only of ‘race’ but also of personal identity” (386). Like Emerson, Johnson then winds up with contradictory claims about whether race or any particular or “local” aspect of identity could be essential to Being:

Wife, you’re thinking essences again. Giving nouns the value of existence. People endure. Not names. There are no ‘Negroes.’ Or ‘women.’ There are no ‘nations.’ We tear down one shop sign, America; we put another, Atlantis. And we blunder along as usual.

(146) 23

In Being and Race, Johnson proposes in the same terms that “we must cast a suspicious eye at the very foundations of Western thought and science: the idea of personal identity . . . . There are no ‘blacks,’ or ‘nations,’ or even ‘men’ and ‘women,’ unless by this we mean say, specifically my son, but even that says little” (BaR 33–34). Johnson thus consistently follows a neopragmatist line, a Rortyan constructivism of American identity politics (one of course also developed from Emerson). The question is, can we, should we, and are we ready to transcend race (or gender) as a category just when we are trying to empower it? And if we transcend race in Johnson’s terms, where we [End Page 1040] pursue less rather than more “locality,” don’t we do so precisely by white transcendental standards?

In this area, Johnson consistently continues to echo both Melville and Judith Butler. For Melville, ideas have agency, and people are just the hollow vessels, the hosts, for them: for Butler, paraphrasing Nietzsche, “the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything” (25). That is, no racial identity exists behind a racial performance, but no self of any kind exists behind any performance: the act, Melville’s masquerade of confidence, is all we have. As the (admittedly unreliable) transcendentalist Ezekiel instructs Andrew, identity itself is a lie: “We do not have a sensation of solidity: we are the sensation” (58). The deed is everything, the doer nothing: all identity and race are performative.

The character who actually exemplifies this condition is not the white Ezekiel, however, but the black Reb. Here Johnson overcomes the Western mind-body split, in effect telling Ishmael Reed that African Americans can reinvent their roles as the true transcendentalists. The self does not exist prior to or to receive experience: it is experience. In this regard, the slave narrator embodies this lack of excess, this perfect mesh of internal and external being, which Johnson at times celebrates as purely transcendent, and at times rails against as wildly alienating. In Oxherding Tale, Andrew also becomes like the captured Allmuseri god, who is the world, who “is the heat in the fire. . . . the wetness in water”; i.e., not the thing in itself, but the in itself in the thing (MP 100). To move from perception back to identity, when perception is identity—when the deed/experience is everything—is a falsification. Where Johnson on the one hand denies race, he also posits a universality of being to a racialized/pre-racial African philosophy—a universality inconsistent with his own views—while attributing multiplicity to the West. For Andrew to overcome his new heritage of seeing distinctions, of multiplicity, he must, as Rushdy says, “cease to see distinctions of gender, of race, and ultimately, of self and other” (393). Such a project, however, brings us back to American transcendentalism, which empties, negates, or enslaves the self in order to merge it with the All.

Emerson views slavery as an internal condition, a metaphysical state reflecting mind: in this light, Johnson’s Soulcatcher is simply a man who preys on those who don’t believe in themselves, and who disturbingly delivers “a destiny that comes from inside [them], not outside” (115). The slave’s plight is not a matter of social conditions, nor is he caught because of them; both are questions of his mental state. All this makes sense only if we remind ourselves that Johnson’s novels, though obsessed with the American Renaissance, actually all take place in the present, as evidenced by their systematic anachronisms: they are about contemporary resuscitations of slave mentalities. But blackness still becomes a heuristic for the victim to blame himself for his fate, and embrace an absolute, Jacksonian self-determination, a belief in the wholly self-created individual. The Soulcatcher merely enacts the slave’s own self-induced “fate,” as Melville’s Pierre would put it, and delivers the internal logic of his self-victimization.

Johnson tries to solve such problems by arguing that the individual, that all identity, is entirely race-transcending. Race then represents a choice for Johnson, [End Page 1041] essentially a portable mask (again, much as gender is for Butler): Andrew rejects his father’s

need to be an Untouchable. . . . the rituals of caste would, regardless of law, live centuries after the plantations died. My father . . . needed to rekindle racial horrors, revive old pains . . . . he chose misery . . . [he] simplified a world so overrich in sense it outstripped him, and all that was necessary to break this spell of hatred, this self-inflicted segregation from the Whole was to acknowledge . . . that his life depended on himself and no one else.

(142, last two emphases mine)

If we don’t strip ourselves of race, the world will outstrip us, literally skin us alive. Flat out, Andrew’s ideology sounds surprisingly like that of George Gilder, Reagan’s prophet of supply-side individualism; for Gilder, blacks “choose” to remain poor by dwelling on the past, doubting the invisible hand of commerce and trusting instead to the welfare state. 24 And, finally, they fail because they choose to stay black, to maintain a racial identity. As critics have noted, Andrew’s rose-colored vision of the world partly stems from his light skin tone, and one subtext here is that unlike Andrew, who can and does pass for white, his father chooses to stay black. (Just as Ellison’s Todd Clifton had positively “chosen” to fall outside history, Johnson’s characters often fail by choosing to fall inside it, and by accepting their social condition; Marx chides Ezekiel, for example, that he “chose to be miserable. Why?”

{OT 85} In Johnson’s view, all men are able to choose how they react to their social circumstances, and thus to choose their race and their destinies.) Johnson reduces slavery to an issue of caste in this exaggeratedly anachronistic account of the 19th century, which is of course as much about contemporary black identity—and perhaps generational—politics as about slavery. While Johnson effectively critiques the ways contemporary African Americans allegedly perpetuate a slave mentality, he also projects this bizarre notion of a “self-inflicted segregation” back in historically inappropriate, largely unaccountable ways.

As in Emerson, Nature—or the Whole—replaces society in much of Johnson’s work: the color line of society separates us not from each other per se, but from the All. 25 Racial segregation has suddenly come to reflect a loss of transcendental unity—not even because whites dispossessed transcendental African cultures or views of nature, but because race itself has come to represent an essential double-consciousness. Andrew himself nearly succumbs to his father’s faults by failing to acknowledge his self-contained responsibility, his black individualism: “I felt a shade disappointed [note again: Andrew is half white] that everyone in the White World wasn’t out to get to me. . . . [But] with no self-induced racial paranoia as an excuse for being irresponsible,” Andrew is able to rewrite his life entirely, for Johnson’s explicit project is to allow African Americans to awaken from their nightmare of history (i.e., racial identity). Among few other postmodern writers, Johnson actually imagines many forms of racism as self-induced paranoias. But on his own terms, Johnson never seems [End Page 1042] fully to consider that white freedom might have been predicated ontologically on black slavery, nor what the consequences of such a condition would be.

As suggested, one can trace much of Johnson’s belief in self-reliance—as well as his admixture of phenomenology and Eastern philosophy—to the same period in which his two major novels are set, as well as one of that period’s representative men: Ralph Waldo Emerson, a surprisingly key figure in much of 20th-century African-American literature. In an early lecture (whose text does not seem to have survived except in excerpt), Emerson orates that his fellow Concordians should feel they have done as much as they need, and “not [to] reproach the [slave-holding] planter, but own that his misfortune is at least as great as his sin.” In the reflexive chain of transcendentalism—traced by critics from Perry Miller to Richard Slotkin and Wai Chee Dimock—the victimizer is always equated with the victim, and the victim accountable for his own position: pursuer and pursued, and now slaver and slave, are One. Further, Emerson actually contends that the slaver “is to blame, of course, but in the same sense the slave is to blame for allowing himself to be held as a slave.” For Emerson, slavery is imaginable primarily as an ontological, rather than historical, bondage. The condition of blacks is “inevitable to the men they are, and nobody can redeem them but themselves.” (This is a prospect of self-reliant abolitionism Frederick Douglass, in striving to define his masculinity against a system that treats him as an object, seriously considers, but for entirely different reasons.) The up-side of such a stance is that “really at bottom [all men are] fraternal, alike, identical”: the more considerable down-side, that blacks are held responsible for their status in society during slavery as well as afterwards (Cabot II 425–29).

Perhaps more strikingly, much of what Emerson complains of in Webster’s conception of slavery emblematically holds true of his own transcendental pantheism. His following passages from the 1854 version of “The Fugitive Slave Law,” while seeming to upbraid Webster, also set him up as an (admittedly inconsistent) icon and locus of transcendental virtues: “His power, like that of all great masters, was not in excellent parts, but was total” (XI 222). Emerson must even observe that “the plea on which freedom was resisted was Union” (230). Emerson protests the very conversions he otherwise must defend in his transcendental economy: “It was a question whether man shall be treated as leather? Whether the Negroes shall be . . . a piece of money? Whether this system, which is a kind of factory for converting men . . . shall be upheld and enlarged?” (227). But it is Emerson’s own system that generates such effects in the realm of metaphysics; his American Scholar is the figure dismembered and treated as a piece of money, a condition displaced onto the bodies of African Americans in his as well as Johnson’s writing (which is full of black characters who are literally dismembered or come apart; here, Minty may in part represent a revision of Bessie in Native Son). Emerson’s rhetoric, however, already begins to dismantle itself:

thus to detach a man and make him feel that he is to owe all to himself, is the way to make him strong and rich; and here the optimist must find, if anywhere, the benefit of slavery. . . . [the] divine sentiments which are always soliciting us are breathed into us from on high, and are an offset to a Universe of suffering [End Page 1043] and crime; that self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on god. . . .


To bear a transcendental identity is to fuse with the All and cast off the self—its race, gender, and particularity; it turns out, however, that this process is another name for dismemberment, for the severance of slave from family, self-identity, and social status. Emerson meanwhile has other slaves to free in his mind, and, with a typical transcendental inversion, or reification, once more passes off slavery as a crime against the perpetrator, insisting that “A man who steals another man’s labor steals away his own faculties” (237). Despite most critics’ claims to the contrary, this late Emerson is sometimes indistinguishable from the early skeptic, who had claimed “The secret, the esoteric of abolition—a secret too from the abolitionist—is that the negro and the negro-holders are really of one party” (Cabot 429). In this form of common bondage, Emerson has already encapsulated much of what Johnson will attempt to say in his novels. Emerson and Johnson’s notion of commonality and universality—one that, like Ellison’s Invisible Man, allegedly transcends dialectical history—may unite and speak for everyone on some frequencies, but precisely not on all of them.

In Johnson’s fiction, African Americans fail in the hermeneutic, not social, arena: their actual suffering and even deaths come from lacking an ontology. (In Wai Chee Dimock’s terms, this would be called blaming the victim: in Johnson’s terms, it would be institutionalized whining.) Slave narrators, however, somehow possess the proper transcendental relationship with the world. (The slave narrator necessarily becomes a representative or universal, and hence transcendental, man who loses all particularity; in Johnson, this paradoxically occurs because he represents his race as a category that doesn’t exist.) In one of several brief chapters on the slave narrative in Oxherding Tale, this one titled “the manumission of first-person viewpoint,” Johnson considers “the transcendental nature of the [slave] narrator”: as Johnson learns from Ellison, the slave narrator is the truly transparent eyeball, the invisible man. Along startlingly Emersonian lines, however, Johnson suggests that

to think the Slave Narrative properly is to see nowhere a narrator who falteringly interprets the world, but a narrator who is that world: who is less a reporter than an opening through which the world is delivered; first-person (if you wish) universal. . . . [pre-Western authors] knew, in their preanalytic fashion . . . [that] consciousness is . . . a restlessness that, refusing to be contained, contains everything.


In other words, the slave who lacks access to a Jacksonian self tries to bypass the confines of self-reliant, white male individuality, and like white male transcendentalists merge with nature, be nowhere (a reporter) and yet serve as access to nature’s universal All. He transcends the opposition between subject and object (and thus black and white), which transcendentalists can only dream of doing and whose failure to do so produces slavery: in this bizarre way, Johnson is providing a specific [End Page 1044] “historical” rationale for slavery. African Americans can inherit and fully inhabit the transcendental position that finally betrays white, transcendental want-to-be’s like Emerson.

In Johnson’s unsettling, phenomenological view, the slave narrator is precisely not a local self, and succeeds in becoming transcendent by merging with the world; he is the observer supplanted by the observation: “The Self, this perceiving Subject who puffs on and on, is, for all purposes, a palimpsest, interwoven with everything” (152). (We must remind ourselves that for Johnson, this interweaving is a good thing.) The slave narrator then displaces Emersonian representative man, translated to a universal; the particulars of his life are abstracted to purely representative terms. In this context, Johnson avidly demands much of what Frederick Douglass found most demeaning about slavery; he further wants us to “look at Black life—stripped in the first stage of all Black particulars, purified . . . as an instance of all experience” (“Philosophy” 57, emphasis mine). (Even as he desired to be a representative man for his peers, and needed to hide the specifics of his escape, Douglass resented having to relinquish the particulars of his life for the sake of an abstract and universal narrative aimed at a white audience.) What we are again most likely to strip away, in this disturbing call to purify particularity, is black skin. What would black life be if purged of particularity if not ghostly?

Andrew himself almost becomes Johnson’s unified transcendental slave narrator when he “could hear—was—the sound of a raincrow’s song.” In becoming “a narrator who is that world,” Andrew realizes how he grew “unworthy of [Being], having squandered to a thousand forms of bondage the only station, that of man, from which she might truly be served” (172, emphasis mine). In this pointedly masculine transcendence of the male self, Andrew ceases to exist, yet becomes a man; his real forms of bondage, far more exclusively than Malcolm X’s, are not slavery and racism, but false conceptions of manhood. Faith, on the other hand, is asked, “how’s a li’l fox like you gonna find what ain’t been since the beginnin’ of our bondage”; but Faith is determined to find the good thing, and claims “when I do, everybody’s bondage will end” (30). Bondage in both cases is metaphysical. As always in Johnson’s fiction, as in much of Emerson’s work, women represent some unmediated, pure relationship with Being, one that sometimes relegates female characters to entirely abstract yet reified existences as the objects of inveterate philosophical, if not sexual, male desire. Quite simply, for Johnson, women escape “bondage” by being able to reproduce, and by existing a priori as transpersonal collective beings; all women are already Allmuseri. 26 Johnson here obscures another fact of slavery, that women faced a particular bondage precisely because they could reproduce. At least Faith, however, imagines a “political” action that will free someone other than a roguish, self-contained male protagonist.

But the male Johnsonian self is finally not unified. Actually emblematized by the Soulcatcher, Johnson’s non-Allmuseri protagonists, heroic or not, are doomed to possess largely imitative selves: “The Soulcatcher would have duplicated the Coffinmaker’s spirit, reproduced—as his method demanded—the idiosyncrasies of his victim, which meant he would, in a way, be Reb” (OT 149). Reproducing these tics, these idiosyncrasies, then reproduces the person: the particularities of the self are overtaken by the universal ventriloquist and parasite. The Soulcatcher is the universal [End Page 1045] character who transcends individual identity: he is the white American version of Reb. As the Soulcatcher says, exposing “a barrel chest trellised with tattoos,” “In order to become a negro, to slip under his skin, Ah have to open mahself to some mighty peculiar things.” Without a fictional, essential nametag for a bordered self, however, Reb develops a transcendental sense of sympathy, a oneness with all things and animals: “Did you know if yo friend passed a butcher shop, and if somebody was sledgehammering a shorthorn, the back of Reb’s neck bruised?” (171). Where the Soulcatcher regeneratively dispossesses African Americans of their culture and identities, Reb the coffinmaker only feels a universal empathy. Set against the Soulcatcher, Reb represents the true transcendental Being of (Allmuseri) Africa: “It took up ten thousand hosts, this I, slipped into men, women, giraffes, gibbering monkeys, perished, pilgrimaged in the animal and spirit worlds . . . . died their unrecorded deaths, and ever returned to himself richer, ready to assume a sorcerer’s role” (49). Where the Soulcatcher returns with dispossessed identities, Reb returns with experience. In this way, he contains everything. (This is the central point of Melville’s work, particularly Moby Dick: regeneration through violence produces transitivity between cultures and between “culture” and “nature.”) The Soulcatcher ornaments himself with these tattoos, and is inscribed and regenerated by the violence he perpetrates on others; but, as Toni Morrison would remind us, he is not really black. He is imagined as black by white culture, and has falsely assumed a black mask, the lives of the slaves he catches; but he himself is an empty cipher filled by a projected blackness. Here, double-consciousness and its violence are again relegated back to the white transcendental world that imagined them.

In Middle Passage, even Rutherford winds up less like Reb than the Soulcatcher, a hybrid composite who lacks a center. Rutherford also finds he could not call himself by his name, “only pieces and fragments of all the people who had touched me, all the places I had been . . . . The ‘I’ that I was, was a mosaic of many countries, a patchwork of others and objects stretching backward to perhaps the beginning of time” (162–63, emphasis mine). But the patchwork, crazyquilt self collapses into the epidermalized self; unlike the transcendental Allmuseri, neither Andrew nor Rutherford are always delighted by this predicament. In Faith and the Good Thing, “no personalities existed in such a pure world of feeling, just flashes of human outlines in the quilt of creation . . . all coexisting”: Johnson is perhaps a better knitter than writer, for we keep getting more quilts, patchworks, mosaics or tissue. Though he inveterately deprecates the herd mentality, Johnson invests his heroic characters and the Allmuseri with a profoundly communal or at least non-individuated sense of identity (Rushdy 390). “He hated personal pronouns. The Allmuseri had no words for I, you, mine, yours. They had, consequently, no experience of these things, either, only proper names that were variations on the Absolute. You might say, in Allmuseri, all is A” (OT 97). (S.X. Goudie notes that Allmuseri translates as “we shall be All”{119, n8}.) The black Allmuseri possess Emerson’s imagined race-transcending unity of being, a pre-Western oneness white transcendentalists can only try to appropriate. (Though Johnson does warn us that “These are Western analogues. Don’t make too much of them,” we should again note, as we saw with the concept of hell, the need to use a Western locus, Aristotle, to mark this pre-Western absolute: {OT 97}.) Despite his [End Page 1046] dismissal of racial identity, Johnson’s transcendentalized American blacks can’t recapture this unity if they lose their African, Allmuseri identity: Andrew admits, “I can’t fake that kind of belonging, that blithe, numbed belief that the world is an extension of my sitting room. Or myself,” a belief the fictional Allmuseri could genuinely hold and upon which Emerson could try to act. That is, Johnson’s primary male characters wind up failing more like Emerson and the Soulcatcher than succeeding like Allmuseri.

What I have described as an explicitly Emersonian attempt to make the world an extension of the self inevitably brings us back to white American transcendentalists, and their attempts to transcend the white male ego and body. As Dimock would argue, slaves are dispossessed of the defining trait of white male individuality, property, and most of all self-property: Andrew claims “we hated being propertyless—it was exactly a correlate to the emptiness of the ego. Again and again, and yet again, the New World said to blacks and women’ You are nothing’” (75). This emptiness of the ego, though, is what American transcendentalists inadvertently receive in trying to emulate or appropriate Allmuseri ego-transcendence. (Dimock writes that “The Lockean model of selfhood is perhaps inevitably a territorial one

. . . . A self owned by oneself might also end up being owned by someone else. To make ownership the constitutive essence of selfhood is already to commit the self to a theater of eternal warfare,” a prospect Falcon would endorse{148}.) Women and African Americans have no access to a white Jacksonian self, and so represent the transcendental universal white men seek, or an inversion of it. Slaves and women endemically lack a Lockean self, and thereby have paradoxically already attained the emptying of ego white transcendentalists, like Ezekiel, endlessly pursue. 27

But in Johnson, it is not even people who metaphysically enslave characters like Faith, but “demons, not philosopher-kings [who tell her] ‘you are nothing!’” (179). In Johnson’s eyes, slavery stages a contest not between slavers and slaves, but demons and philosopher-kings, a contest literally over nothing. That is, it is neither slavery nor racism that makes a black person socially invisible, but hermeneutics. In Faith and the Good Thing, Faith wants to gain control of her life, “to be no longer in bondage

. . . . she had in fact heard it before: You are nothing. . . . She accepted her bondage and bolstered herself the day long with denial: ‘I am not what I am.’” (69). We have heard versions of this sequence before, in Emerson, Melville, Ellison and Dimock: with considerable irony, for example, Babo tells Benito Cereno, “Ah, Master, don’t speak of me; Babo is nothing” (“BC” 154). But Johnson himself uses these terms of slavery to describe contemporary life, so do we locate this language as his or his characters’? Johnson here echoes not only his own literary criticism, but Bledsoe’s speech to the Invisible Man: “You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist—can’t you see that?” (IM 141). (In confronting his unity in opposites, The Invisible Man at least can swear, “I yam what I am” {260}.) This hollowness, this nothingness, is the very transparency white transcendentalists like Emerson seek, and that Johnson tries to reinvest in the slave narrator, in the black (non-)self.

Along with Reed and Toni Morrison, Johnson has in different ways then attempted to restore a troubling, and unavoidably contestable, transcendental heritage to African-American culture. In much of Johnson’s fiction, blacks embody an inversion of [End Page 1047] white transcendental models: blacks “predictably fought this massive assault on the ego, even inverted the values of whites (or men)” (76). Andrew’s father “stood Jonathan’s world on its head, to speak plainly, inverting Big House values at every turn” (24). Being a coffinmaker or already dead, as Morrison proposes via Macon Dead in Song of Solomon, represents a kind of inversion, a second double-consciousness. Yet Andrew also realizes his white mistress Flo is already dead: “‘She’s dead,’ he said, without warning. ‘That’s what you came down heah to ask, ain’t it” (48).

The endemic emptiness of ego-death is instead the repository for what Falcon calls white “transcendental faults.” “Even Cripplegate’s bondsmen,” even slaves, precisely possess “a greater sense of purpose than” Falcon or Ezekiel the white transcendentalist. This is the purpose Falcon and the Soulcatcher attempt to steal, a literal regeneration through violence. This “hollow[ness]” of the transcendental mind is then reified in the projected and enforced hollowness of slavery, which metaphysically dispossesses blacks of their egos. Whites are damned not because they’re white, but because they possess race as a category. For blacks throughout Johnson’s fiction, a pure transcendentalism leads to the race-transcending phenomenology of the Allmuseri: for whites, an appropriated and finally debased transcendentalism leads to civil war, slavery, and irremediable cracks in consciousness.

In broader terms, I would argue that white transcendentalists, including Emerson and Melville, through a complex process of inversion, sacralize and deify these alienating effects of black slavery, including loss of ego, loss of control over bodies, and estrangement from family. These are the goals of transcendentalists, as Johnson details in various exchanges between Ezekiel and Karl Marx (Melville makes a kind of cameo, and Karl Marx is an actual character, in Oxherding Tale, which thus represents a perfect summation of Johnson’s wildly anachronistic, phenomenological fiction, which seeks “the atemporal essence of things” {BaR ix}). An amusingly ahistorical Marx savages Ezekiel, the drug-addled white transcendentalist: “You vant to say that the Transcendental Ego is empty, correct? . . . . technically, but you are, by your own argument, dead. . . . Ja, dead” (86). 28 Perhaps such dead whites, like Flo and Ezekiel, become the “particular” zombies of Johnson’s fictions, while blacks attain some race and history-transcending universality. 29

Presaging Falcon in Middle Passage, Andrew claims “[there is a] hollow carved primordially in the midst of things . . . in the chest’s deep cavity [here in the heart, not yet the brain] buried in Being, like a stake, in popular terms at precisely the point where matter and Mind, spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, subject and object, Self and Other, locked like fingers” (OT 28, first and last emphases mine). I want to make the connection back to Captain Falcon’s transcendental fault in the universal (née white) mind: in Oxherding Tale, “the world seemed to fall into two halves,” but the self that wants, waiting for the reply, is, “[again] in popular terms, solipsistic . . . emotionally bankrupt; it was empty” (91, emphases mine). Ironically, Johnson castigates the white mind for not being universal, for casting the world in two halves; but not to do so, to treat it only as a universal, does away with blackness altogether. And the only cure for universal faults, as I hope I’ve suggested, is particular: the ahistorical doubling of self and other is solipsistic; historical doubling a problematic, but treatable, fact of life. The notion that we could transcend history remains dangerously allied with the idea [End Page 1048] that we could transcend race: a peculiar inversion of a “fulfillment” of history through the eradication of ethnicity. Despite Johnson’s best intentions, to see race in exclusively metaphysical terms doesn’t go beyond the pale.

Richard Hardack

Richard Hardack has published widely in such books and periodicals as A Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass in Britain, Social and Secure?, Passages, Politics and Culture of the Welfare State, ESQ and Callaloo. From 1994 to 1998 he was a visiting professor of English at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. He has left academics to pursue law, partly in frustration with the essentialism he encountered (primarily from white hiring committees) in what he had hoped would be an area of free inquiry.


* Earlier versions of this article were presented to the Committee on Languages and Literatures Session on “Multiple Subjectivities,” MLA, San Diego, December 1994, and to the Israel Association of American Studies Annual Conference, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, November 1996. My thanks to Shirley Geok Lin Lim and Emily Budick. I would also like to thank Jennifer Fleischner, Leila May, Kim Benston, Toni Wein and Don Palmer for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

1. Here and throughout this article, I attempt to tease out the implications of Johnson’s works: at no point does Johnson himself overtly schematize the historical contexts or social implications of his fictional constructs. Because I view Johnson’s novels as significant works of both fiction and racial philosophy, I also treat his ontological claims seriously, and attempt to engage with them on the grounds of logical consistency.

2. While Johnson invokes a variety of philosophical traditions, from Hegel to the dialectics of Taoism, to situate the master-slave relationship, he primarily situates the slave narrator in the context of American rather than European or Asian transcendentalism, as evidenced by his obsessive interest in the writers and motifs of the American Renaissance.

3. Without simply imposing an accidental linguistic correlation, I would as a conceit assert a barely visible but persistent correlation between Emerson’s conception of the fugitive Pan—cast as a black, animal-like force of instinct that, explicitly like Topsy, just grows—and his treatment of the fugitive slave law. While Emerson became, despite his inconsistencies and limitations on racial equality, an unqualified abolitionist, the role of blackness in his conception of nature, rather than just his temperament, often made him too abstract to be politically effective: to meet constraints of space, I am admittedly focusing on one aspect of Emerson’s thought in this essay, but it represents the most salient features of transcendentalism for Johnson’s work. While Emerson emerged as a vehement spokesman for abolition, the reformer still coincided not so much with the earlier cautionary skeptic, but the transcendentalist: the man who could still say, “He who does his own work frees a slave. He who does not his own work is a slave-holder.” In other words, early Emerson openly and consistently asserts the way to free slaves is by example, by following one’s own path, and the later Emerson rarely loses that mindset entirely. (I would contend Emerson stops being transcendental, manages to “transcend” his own limitations, whenever he strikes out against particular slavery).

First reflected in a theory of natural transformation, the figure of the fugitive Pan, the black faun, then recurs to the fugitive slave law, an admittedly unlikely but finally logical conversion from one sphere to the other. Emerson cannot reconcile his particular concerns about slavery with his conception of race; though Nature is itself black, blacks could never be universal—in much of Emerson’s writing, race itself is a form of division from the All; whiteness is reified in his texts, and the black and female “not-me” of nature treated primarily in metaphysical terms. Johnson diverges from Emerson here in application, if not principle, for Emerson finally reaches the “scientific” conclusion that “nature respects race, and not hybrids.” Race remains a division akin to the fragmentation of gender in transcendental thought. Johnson’s primary protagonists, however, tend to be mulattos who transcend particularity by emblematizing all races. For a specific chronology of Emerson’s anti-slavery positions, see Len Gougeon. For a further discussion of transcendentalism and blackness, see my “Swing to the White, Back to the Black: Writing and ‘Sourcery’ in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.”

4. Gohdes, “Character,” Uncollected, 44. Compare this claim to Johnson’s in his review of Albert Murray’s literary aesthetics: “Like most existential humanists who reached maturity before American art became ethnically balkanized . . . Mr. Murray unabashedly believes in universality.” That is, for Emerson and Johnson—and Murray by imputation—ethnic particularity can only lead to immoral particularity or the horror of balkanization. Somewhat paradoxically, given the impressive eclecticism of his own interests, for Johnson, multiculturalism represents the ontological balkanization of American society. See Johnson, “Keeping the Blues at Bay” (4).

5. See “Self-Reliance” (W II 77): August 1, 1852 in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), 316: “The Method of Nature” (W I 214).

6. In a longer piece, one would also want to assess the ways Emersonian transcendentalism and Johnsonian phenomenology are influenced by Asian philosophies of materiality and Zen Buddhism.

7. As Molly Able Travis also notes, for Johnson, “the history of Western philosophy is the necessary analytic to productively theorize race and other issues related to African philosophy and culture” (191).

8. Compare this sentiment to that of Ishmael Reed, in whose transcendental satire, Flight to Canada, Quickskill is foolishly told, “you’re too . . . too ethnic. You should be more universal. More universal” (107).

9. This is the category to which Johnson feels his own unsuccessful early writing belongs.

10. If Johnson isn’t himself treated as universal, and if he is read in conjunction with historical and even naturalistic narratives, he does offer a useful complement to African-American literature’s bleak, more faithfully mimetic, portrayals of history.

11. One can find a more consistent postmodern critique of black nationalism in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Partly because he is working in a more straightforward format, Gilroy is able more effectively to argue for the transcendence of national boundaries without decontextualizing the history of race.

12. Again presaging Falcon, The Soulcatcher in Oxherding Tale tells Andrew, “Master Harris, the thought of servin’ Gawd through murder usta bother me, like it’s botherin’ you now, but ah knows mah nature.’ . . . His sense of timing was faultless,” but “the transcendental fault” is still apparent in the violence aimed at the other (111, emphasis mine). As a result of such premises, Johnson’s books are filled with the violence of “transcendental faults,” where characters dissolve, are absorbed or killed in all kinds of “non-literal,” though typically visceral, ways. As Richard Slotkin would suggest, whites here regenerate themselves—and I would add transcendentalize themselves—by imitating, killing and enslaving African Americans.

13. Though Johnson resembles Ishmael Reed in his use of the individual male trickster narrator/character, he here emphatically parts company with his views on the materiality of slavery. As Reed writes in Flight to Canada, “She said that slavery was a state of mind, metaphysical. He told her to shut the fuck up” (106).

14. Such a contention seems in accord with the stance of Phil Fisher in his “Introduction” to The New American Studies, “American Literary and Cultural Studies since the Civil War” and “Democratic Social Space”: as Carolyn Porter adeptly notes, Fisher imagines, in his own words, “a civil war within representation” that constucts a civil war “liberated . . . from the limitations of period,” and that transcends ideology. When Fisher claims that civil wars are only “a local version of what . . . should be seen as the fundamental permanent civil war in any society that is, like the United States, an economy rather than a culture,” he inadvertently lays bare the troubling political implications of his and some of Johnson’s premises (Porter 478–81).

15. Where Ahab, the dismembered, seeks to dismember, Ishmael and the Allmuseri seek only to merge; both sides, however, realize that all actions resolve back upon the self.

16. Quite accurately, Travis argues that “Johnson’s novel seeks to transcend race and to suppress the feminine” (181). This point brings us to the crucial debate over the black critic’s and artist’s responsibility to race and gender: for Joyce Joyce, for example, “it is insidious for the Black literary critic to adopt any kind of strategy that diminishes or . . . negates his blackness.” Her critique of Gates’s poststructuralism could also apply to Johnson’s position, at the other end of the critical and political spectrum, that the critic should aim to transcend race (341). In many cases, black men seek to transcend race while black women seek to redefine it. One context for this division lies in the way American Renaissance transcendentalism defines a male alienation from Nature as the very definition of male individuality; when contemporary African-American women writers return to the period of slavery and transcendentalism, their concern is less with recuperating a black male identity within the tenets of transcendentalism than contesting the entire framework.

17. By contrast, for example, Travis suggests via Joe Weixlmann that Johnson receives insufficient attention because “African-American critics have shown little interest in reader-response approaches” (179). S.X. Goudie, at the time of his writing in 1995, slightly exaggerates that only a single substantive critical article had appeared on Middle Passage since its publication in 1990 (110).

18. As Eric Sundquist notes, “Melville, in Benito Cereno, had judged that race slavery was an exercise of political power that masqueraded behind the supposed ‘laws of nature,’ and Chesnutt and Du Bois, among others, were soon to argue vigorously that ‘race’ was itself a metaphysical notion constructed of cultural, not biological inheritances” (228). In the often renewed debate about race and culture, recently struck up again between Walter Benn Michaels and Christopher Newfield, Johnson would primarily side with the Du Bois/Chesnutt camp.

19. In this country, under current historical conditions, one cannot “transcend” race without becoming marked as white. To “achieve” a non-racial coding does not and cannot yet mean that one has transcended race, but only that one passes as “normative” or non-racial, i.e. white.

20. Johnson’s explicitly Platonic narrator in Oxherding Tale asserts that “No form, I should note, loses its ancestry; rather, these meanings accumulate in layers of tissue as the form evolves” (119).

21. Such ideas in Johnson can usually be correlated to transcendental sources: compare this passage, for example, to one by Orestes Brownson; in his negative view of the same issue, a belief in transcendental pantheism represents the end of all diversity:

Men are weak, are puny, differ from one another because they seek to live in their diversity, and to find their truth, their reality, in their individuality. Let them eschew their [false] individuality . . . . let them be themselves, sink back into their underlying reality, on the One Man, and suffer the universal Over-Soul to flow into them, and speak through them without impediment.


22. In writing about Middle Passage, S.X. Goudie claims that his own use of parentheses as a critic “represents a predominant intersubjectivity in the African-American tradition that Johnson acknowledges” (120, n. 25).

23. For Sharon Cameron, American literature endemically replays this conflict between embodied and disembodied identities, between “people” and their names and designations. As she notes in The Corporeal Self, Melville tears down (the same) identity signs: “‘I am called woman, and thou, man, Pierre,’ Isabel says, emphasizing for our regard this mystery of the subject, ‘but there is neither man nor woman about it’” (57).

24. In this context, one would need to pursue the connection between black conservatism—especially the complex black conservatism found in Johnson’s postmodern aesthetics—and Emersonian transcendentalism in mainstream American culture.

25. The crucial distinction is that for Emerson, the All of nature, the not me, is black as well as female; Emerson seeks to transcend his subject position, whereas Johnson doesn’t seem to want to believe he has a subject position to transcend. Johnson’s Nature/other also tends to be gendered female rather than racialized.

26. Johnson is as contradictory as Emerson, not just on the subject of race, but the underlying subject of gender, and particularly on the role of black women. A feminized Being becomes the unmoved mover of Johnson’s phenomenology, but black women, even Faith, are largely left without role or identity in this system. Johnson writes in Oxherding Tale,

these rolling hills, these timeless trees and vegetation we genderized—even as we racialized Being, giving them feminine attributes, without asking whether Being . . . had an ancient grudge against men. Of course . . . Emerson sang her; Thoreau fled to her; . . . but these were men. . . . What was said of Woman was no less true of world. She did not need us for satisfaction, or even reproduction—there were, after all, parthenogenesis, all of which cast men as the comical exception in Nature, the freak . . . who created history because he could not live Being’s timeless cycles.


Wholly stripped of race and particularity—in politically troubling ways—“women” are categorically dismantled, but simultaneously reaffirmed as representing a non-multiplicitous Allmuseri existence, and the transcendence of history itself. Johnson’s male characters are alienated from nature, rendered dual, in ways that have little to do with any historically imagined conditions of slavery or anything else:

Perhaps all philosophy boils down to the simple fear that the universe has no need for us—men, I mean, because women are, in a strange sense, more essential to Being than we are. . . . In the East, men believe themselves to be off-springs of the sun . . . . They worship Being as a female, the mother. But we in Europe and the Americas have settled for something else. Something less, I daresay. We build machines, Andrew, create tribal languages in philosophy like little boys with secret codes . . . . to get back at the universe because she has failed to give us a function . . . . the culture of women goes on, the rhythms of birth and destruction.


In such a gender politics, male culture simply amounts to a pantheistic worship of a female Nature, which itself has no need for culture.

27. That Ezekiel is a kind of hybridized version of Emerson—and his transparent eyeball as well as general belief in the actual permeability of objects—is clear from various passages, most notably when we are told “He is, let us say, born to Transcendentalism, by virtue of a peculiar quirk of cognition that . . . lets him perceive the interior of objects” (9).

28. This form of reference to the dead takes us back to Johnson’s Todd, Ishmael Reed’s Thoth in Mumbo Jumbo, and Ellison’s Tod Clifton in Invisible Man. For Hegel—a likely secondary reference in The Phenomenology of Mind for constructing the caricature of Marx above—the most salient characteristic of the transcendental All is that of a self-dissolution bordering on extinction: “This condition of universality, which the individual as such reaches, is mere being, death; it is the immediate issue of a natural process, and is not the action of a conscious mind. . . . death is the fulfillment and final task which the individual as such undertakes on its behalf” (445). Only the dead—those who have lost or transcended history, their individual egos, and their boundaries from the “not me”—achieve an actual universality.

29. In Oxherding Tale, Mrs. Pomeroy, for example, is described as being “quite old—Daddy’s already filled out a death certificate for her . . . a real zombie . . .” (125). Andrew even tells Peggy, “If I were a priest and saw you and your father at these moments of hysterical joy, I’d administer Last Rites and lower coins onto your eyelids” (143). Only Reb the Allmuseri, by not being such a zombie, escapes the Soulcatcher, because he “couldn’t entirely become the nigguh because you got to have somethin’ dead or static already inside you—an image of yoself—fo’ a real slave catcher to latch onto” (174).

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