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JEANNINE KING Saint Mary’s College of California Memory and the Phantom South in African American Migration Film AFTER EMANCIPATION, FORMER SLAVES CROSSED SPATIAL BOUNDARIES IN search of humanity and agency. Believing the South an inherently constrictive space, they saw mobility as, “in writer Howard Thurman’s words, the ‘most psychologically dramatic of all manifestations of freedom’” (Grossman 19). The migrations that followed, however, were not without conflict. The wreckage of dehumanization, violence, and powerlessness impeded progress. To investigate the marriage of movement and freedom, I want to examine three migration films, Larry Yust’s Trick Baby (1973), Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger (1990); and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991). These films evoke the chaos and upheaval of the post-plantation moment. Using signifiers of Southern memory, Northern discontent, and derailed mobility, they depict spatial and psychological rupture. Deflating the expectations of their genre, the films simulate the disillusionment of the Promised Land. Migration films echo migration literature’s focus on repressed memory, transgression, and surreality. Important works such as Jean Toomer’s Cane and George S. Schuyler’s Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Working of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940 subvert literary conventions. While Cane is grave and Black No More irreverent, both attempt to navigate the New World of the North. To do so, they move beyond the traditional boundaries of African American literature. They use exaggerated imagery to create an almost cinematic vision of migration. Further, the writings are characterized by the modern anxiety of amnesia and displacement. In Cane, urban constriction symbolizes the repression of memory. The architectural structure of the city and the houses themselves enslave and alienate their inhabitants, repressing their natural impulses and communal connection. In Black No More, George Schuylercreatesametabolicmigrationnarrative.Hedescribescharacters that undergo a scientific process to turn white so that they can leave behind the Southern slave past and “get ahead.” The consequent social upheaval, Schuyler’s ironic take on migration, reveals the limitations of 478 Jeannine King mobility and physical freedom. Even whiteness cannot protect the characters from violence and social death. The films, Daughters of the Dust, To Sleep with Anger, and Trick Baby, replay migration literature’s focus on internal conflict. They follow the psychological trajectory from South to North. While the South is ostensibly static, its symbolic presence controls the inner life of migrants in the North. The movies offer a distinctive resolution to the hauntingtracesoftheSouthernpast:thenarrativeandartisticexpression not of continuity but of brokenness. The psychological ruins of an abandoned South become the site of delayed confrontation and mourning. Crossing the borders between the South and the North reveals other interstitial spaces: between tradition and modernity, between memory and forgetting, between rupture and redemption. Like migration literature, To Sleep With Anger, Daughters of the Dust, and Trick Baby blur the boundaries of genre. These films were part of movements, the Los Angeles Rebellion and blaxploitation, that presented non-traditional depictions of African Americans. The LA Rebellion was “organized to produce politically and ‘aesthetically’ rebellious films” which were principally aimed at challenging negative Hollywoodpresentationsofblackcharactersandculture(Stewart,“L.A.” 4). Writer Toni Cade Bambara suggests that their “focus on issues of family, women, history and folklore marked a direct response to the popular blaxploitation films of the 1970s which tended to glorify violence and offered shallow stereotypical depictions of Black Nationalism and sexuality” (Ogunleye 159). While the genres are describedoppositionallyandareclearlydividedincontent,LARebellion and blaxploitation films share one critical trait: they resist the master narrative. Like the LA Rebellion movies, blaxploitation films characteristically involve “a reversal of the racial hierarchies that have so oppressively anchored the history of American cinema since its inception” (Wlodarz 10). In the commitment to breaking precedent and defying rules, both are transgressive. Tableaux of the Ruined in Daughters of the Dust Daughters of the Dust is ostensibly all about transgressive movement: the illegal importation of “purebred” Africans, the Ibos’ mythic walking on water back to Africa, the planned mass exodus from the island and the return to the South of the prodigal daughter. Dash’s film even 479 Memory and the Phantom South extends the contiguous boundaries of the South to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 477-491
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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