Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1281-1285
[Access article in PDF]
Raising the Dead:
Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity
Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity. Sharon Patricia Holland. Duke University Press, 2000.
Perhaps it's not altogether ironic that a book about the strange ways black life (and death) haunt the conceits of American identity would also be "haunted" by a pair of black critical works, silent in the background of Sharon Patricia Holland's new book. If not for the implicit heteronormative bias which Holland reveals to be so exactly unproductive elucidating acts of formal influence (see chapter four), Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity might be said to have descended directly from [End Page 1281] a coupling of Toni Morrison's well-known Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Orlando Patterson's somewhat earlier Slavery and Social Death.
Holland extends the work of Morrison beyond the nineteenth century to argue for the phantasmatic serviceability of black subjects, the always-already-dead, in the construction of the contemporary American self. "In the imagined life of a United States citizen," Holland avers, "black subjects [not only] haunt and therefore threaten the stability of the working nation" (23), but "by having . . . a black seed against which all action—and therefore . . . all being—is differentiated" (16), even the modern American self is reassured, today as a century and a half ago, that it is "not repulsive but desirable," as Morrison has written, "not helpless" entering the new millennium, but "licensed and powerful" (Morrison 52). 1
Additionally, in a nod towards Patterson's idea of social death, Holland posits what Michael Taussig calls "the space of death " 2 as the imagined territory of the margins, at once socially and discursively conceived, where the silence and abjection of the literal dead are "mapped onto the literal and figurative silence of the excluded and marginalized" (150). The space of death that is, in Patterson, American slavery endures as "[slavery's] imaginative-replacement" in Holland. Inasmuch as the black living are also already imaginatively dead, then, and "'living' [for the black subject] is something to be achieved and not experienced" (15; emphasis Holland's), in the space of death, as Holland theorizes it, the living and the ancestral, bond and free, "converge, mingle, and discourse" (40).
Although Holland pronounces in her book that "death, its consort—the dead—and our irrational fear of its bleeding edges create a genderless space" out of the space of death (6), this is not to deny the sexually-inflected, gendered ways black men and women are dead more particularistically. (One can no longer speak of death as an impending event. In Holland, death is neither fully past nor an eventuality. It is present perfect.) Deftly holding race, sex and gender in balance, each of Holland's several chapters gives powerful critical voice to those modern (black) subjects left to die, as it were, "with no recourse to discourse" (32)—imperiled black youths, vilified black mothers, Native Americans too long forgotten, massacred Rwandans, and silenced black gay and lesbian subjects, all nevertheless intruding upon the white Western dreamscape in silent, ghostly anonymity.
In this major first book, Holland succeeds admirably. Chapters one, two and five are especially noteworthy. In chapter one, "Death and the Nation's Subjects" Holland improves upon Benedict Anderson's belief in the idea of death (as distinct from the actual dead) as holding nations together. Where Anderson looks to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the ur-trope of America's ghost-bred nationalism, Holland, fully comprehending the significance in Anderson of the anonymity of the Unknown Soldier in disentanglingthe trauma of actual death from the productive depersonalization of its nation-inspiring specter, races and re-personalizes death in a black, though still yet "unknown," cast. Reading instead Allen and Albert Hughes's 1993 film Menace II Society for its profoundly crafty scripting of a narrator, dead in the narrative present but amply undead to narrate from the grave, Hollandrecovers Menace II Society from the academic...