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Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies/Revue canadienne d'etudes amertcaines Volume 29,Number 3, 1999,pp. l-26 Taking the Offensive: The Quest for New Politics in Contemporary Black Satire Darryl Dickson-Carr In his seminal essay, "The Satirist and Society," Robert C. Elliott writes that ancient satirists' verses were thought to be magical: [t]he ancient Arabic satirist, for example, was the seer, the oracle of his tribe. His enormous prestige derived from his role as magician, for his primary function was to compose magical satires, thought always to be fatal, against the tribal enemy. The Arabs thought of their satires concretely as weapons, and as the satirist led his people into battlehis hair anointed on one side only, his mantle hanging loose, shod with only one sandal-he would hurl his magical verses at the foe just as he would hurl a spear; and indeed the satires might be dodged, just as a spear could be dodged, by ducking and bobbing and skipping off (Elliott 1971, 207). Elliott's account of the Arabian satirist bears a close relationship to Mel Watkins' example of West African griots or storytellers who are "most often feared by fellow tribesmen because of the great power they are thought to possess" (Watkins 1994, 65). According to Mylene Remy, '"The truth is the 2 Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes amerlcatnes griot's greatest treasure and weapon. . . . When he is properly paid, he remembers only the pleasant, but the edge of his tongue is always ready for those who earn his anger"' (qtd. in Watkins 1994, 65). Both the griot and ancient satirist are appropriate metaphors for recently published African American satirists, although none of today's writers garner similar types of respect and fear. Instead, the metaphor speaks to the extent to which African and contemporary African American satirists represent the humorous and often most scathingly critical extensions of battles within contemporary cultural thought. Contemporary African American satire, whether written exclusively in a satirical mode or as apologues with satirical elements, act as one of the first lines in an ongoing ideological battle, a combative role satirists have historically fought in cultures. The difference is that this battles are part of a larger, quieter war being waged within both African American and American literature and culture to save the former from the infiltration of ideas harmful to free expression. This struggle continues alongside the struggle for complete freedom and equality for African Americans in the post-Civil Rights era. This war began decades ago, but it is now well within a new phase as economic and political conditions for African Americans and the rest of the country undergo startling transformations. Michael Omi and Howard Winant have outlined several models for contemporary reactions to these changes. "In the pre-World War II period," for example, "change in the racial order was epochal in scope, shaped by the conditions of 'war of maneuver' in which minorities had very little access to the political system, and understood in a context of assumed racial inequalities. . . . Today all of this has been swept away...." In contrast, "[r]acial politics now take place under conditions of 'war of position,' in which minorities have achieved significant (though by no means equal) representation in which the meaning of racial equality can be debated, but the desirability of some form of equality is assumed" (Omi and Winant 1986, 83; italics in the original). Omi and Winant use Antonio Gramsci's terms "war of maneuver" and "war of position " to help describe the transformation of the status of African Americans within the American political landscape, a status that can no longer be viewed in the same light of the pre-Civil Rights era. In Omi and Winant's summary of the terms, "war of position" is "predicated on political struggle - on the existence of diverse institutional and cultural terrains upon which oppositional Darryl Dickson-Carr I 3 political projects can be mounted, and upon which the racial state can be confronted" (Omi and Winant 1986, 74). "War of maneuver," on the other hand, "describes a situation in which subordinate groups seek to preserve and extend a definite territory, to ward off violent...


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