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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 672-674

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Book Review

Conjugal Union:
The Body, the House, and the Black American

Reid-Pharr, Robert. Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American. Oxford University Press, 1999.

In Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American, Robert Reid-Pharr has produced a brilliant, if somewhat uneven, historical meditation on authenticity, along with a powerfully revised construction of a Black American literary tradition. Reid-Pharr aims to "historicize the blackness of Black America" by distinguishing "the blackness of Black American literature . . . from the blackness of Black American bodies." He argues that modern Black subjectivity has been constructed through the assertion of black difference—or, in his terms, "singularity"—a singularity figured by and through the black body, and recorded in narrative. Thus, Phillis Wheatley, who asserts not singularity but sameness, cannot be seen as an originator of a distinctive body of Black American literature. As Reid-Pharr puts it: "The simple fact that Phillis Wheatley was an author of African descent, that she existed within a purportedly black body, should not be enough to secure her status as the originator of the Black American literary tradition." Conjugal Union is full of such wonderful insights; the book disappoints only in its reluctance to capitalize fully and explicitly on them.

Positing a singular black body as prior to and prerequisite for the construction of a Black American literary tradition, Reid-Pharr offers domesticity, the household, as the site where that prior black body is produced. In Black American literature between 1830 and 1860, the black body as spectacle and as part of an American panorama was located in the household, repeatedly examined and represented there, so as to produce a specifically raced and classed modern subject. This interplay among body, household, narrative, and racial subjectivity constitutes the "conjugal union" of his title. Reid-Pharr thus takes off from, but also revises, Nancy Armstrong's now-classic Desire and Domestic Fiction. He argues that the household, in conjunction with domestic fiction, produced race along with—and alongside—gender and class. Especially in his chapter "Engendering Race," Reid-Pharr presents that argument nearly seamlessly; its implications are significant and timely for studies of the novel, for African American literary and cultural studies, and for American studies.

Conjugal Union's greatest strength lies in Reid-Pharr's willingness to complicate, in necessary ways, not only classic treatments of modern narrative, but his own analysis as well. He emphasizes that the antebellum project of "a community of free black northeastern intellectuals"—to construct a stable black bourgeois subject on the foundation of a distinct and visible black body and household—was destabilized by the insistent presence of what he terms the "runaway," an unruly, often mulatto body that resisted definition and containment not only by the domestic, but by race itself. Reid-Pharr thereby offers a crucial enrichment of his own argument, as well as of [End Page 672] Claudia Tate's earlier argument that Black women's novels of the 19th century viewed bourgeois domesticity as "an important emancipatory discourse."

For Reid-Pharr, Tate's insight is partial; domestic discourses are as repressive as they are emancipatory. As the chapter "Black, White, and Yeller" demonstrates, the violence done to the "black" body within a text like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig testifies to the ways that the household and sentimental narratives of domesticity mask and often punish "racial ambiguity." The mulatto Frado is tortured by a white mistress in a white household that requires stable racial identity ("Nig"); nevertheless, Frado remains attached to that household. According to Reid-Pharr, such simultaneous insistence on the existence of a singular black body and on the pursuit of "disembodied" bourgeois universal subjectivity—articulated via the domestic—cannot help but produce the violence that occurs in texts like Our Nig and Martin Delany's Blake. In Blake, the singular Black (male) American hero emerges only after the torture of a sickly slave boy who is trapped "in an enervating 'domestic economy'" controlled by whites. The hasty marrying off of Blake...


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