Whole Sight: Notes on New Black Fiction

Charles Johnson | February 1985

Charles Johnson

During the last decade, black writing has moved forward on two clear fronts, the commercial, and in respect to content, by which I mean this: a wider audience has opened for a few black writers, and the seldom-discussed ' experience of black women has, like the experience of women in general, been thematized in literature, thereby bringing to light a level of social discrimination the nation needs to deal with. Only a dunderhead would deny the political and sociological value of these advances, which are considerable, and a reader thinks, "Thank God these problems' are out in the open," but my feeling is that these works represent a stage in black literature if the telos-or final goal-of art is, as John Fowles wrote in Daniel Martin, "whole sight." This phrase is of course difficult to describe, but we know it when we see it in the expansive works of such American high-wire performers as Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, and (at times) Richard Wright, to say nothing of the levels of imagination, invention, and interpretation achieved by Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe. We must celebrate the hard-won advances of black fiction in the last decade, for they are crucial steps in the evolution of our literature and consciousness, but the danger in being too easily satisfied, as Donald Hall points out in his magnificent essay, "Poetry and Ambition" (Kenyon Review, Fall, 1983), is that great models of literature become forgotten, anything goes after a time, and the high-wire of performance may be lowered more than we like.

True and lasting "world-class" literature is, has always been, and shall ever be distinguished by imaginative storytelling reinforced by massive technique. Furthermore, it is usually a sumptuous act of interpretation or, as phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne often says, "a coherent deformation of Reality." In short, the writer shapes a four-dimensional, fictional world such that it clarifies our experience for us and satisfies our hunger for complete understanding, his (or her) medium for this being the well-made story. One of my theatre friends puts it this way: Good fiction sharpens our perception; great fiction changes it. In one 'sense, we can perhaps View the evolution of literature the same way we view the progress of science. At any given moment, Physicists here and abroad are laboring to answer objective scientific questions handed down by Einstein, Bohr, and others-tracking down hypothetical entities like hadrons, for example, or patching up cracks in Unified Field Theory; it's a competitive race of sorts, as Watson points out in The Double Helix. Similarly, the history of literary practice creates objective aesthetic possibilities, artistic works demanded historically by the foul-ups and partial breakthroughs In past literary art , novels and stories and poems that fill in the blanks and potholes created by the oversights and omissions of those writers (white and black) who preceded us. (No, I'm not talking about your average novel here, only great books that advance the form of the novel or story.) Although the literary struggle of the sexes must be as old as the plays of Aristophanes, the modern emergence of a "woman's perspective" is, therefore, a revolutionary, objective step forward in culture and consciousness, one that sensitizes us to the relativity of truth-we can never again innocently read fiction or watch films that slight black or female characters without wincing, never again stupidly approve images of blacks as servile, or women s mere support-objects for men. Regarding such negative images, our way of seeing has been changed irreversibly. In short, the fiction of, say, Gayl Jones and Ntozake Shange, is demanded by the suppression of black women in American literature (and life), if only to make our dialogue on Being more democratic.

I've said that the new black fictions, male and female, are crucial perspectives on Being demanded (almost in a Hegelian sense) to round out our understanding of the Real, but there can be a problem if our emphasis remains too much upon exploring the splintered "perspective" rather than on the goal of achieving whole sight in novels and stories exciting as novels and stories-thrilling, in other words, as works of imagination and invention. Clayton Riley expressed this eloquently at the 1978 Howard University Black Writer's Conference:

It is my belief that the artist's first allegiance is to the imagination, as opposed to any prevailing dogma. . . Artists seek to find out, to explore, taking on in the process the risky business of knowing what is not easy to know-the danger of discovery. In this, writers most especially, have an entire world-not just the fractured world of American racism and psychic social disorder-to employ in structuring systems and methodologies to make up new planets, new societies, new ways of being eminently more human.

Riley places his finger squarely on the problem I only suggested earlier: How do we "conceive racial being? What is race? What is man? How are we to live? These are the questions lasting, great fiction seeks to answer. The issue of achieving whole sight involves, I think, both the promotion of a "black" or "female" perspective in fiction and a broadening of our expressions and vision or these perspectives. What is at stake is the fundamental question of how we see life in general and black life in particular, and it returns us to the yet unresolved aesthetic dilemmas raised almost a quarter century ago by Blyden Jackson in his classic essay, "The Negro's Image of the Universe as Reflected in His Fiction." Jackson wrote, "It seems to me that few, if any, literary universes are as impoverished as the universe of black fiction. (Of greatest interest)... are the things that cannot be found there." True enough, every writer should "write about what he knows," as the saying goes, but Riley's footnote to this is: Knowing is as limitless as the intellect and the imagination. Furthermore, all perception is, at the instant it arises, also interpretation and shaping, so that, one really begs the question by arguing, "I just want to write it the way it happened," because language and literary art deliver not the event itself-no, never that-but instead a vision of "that event. Even such microscopic linguistic choices as rendering an event in short, simple sentences as opposed to compound-complex ones, or favoring short vowels and long consonants (instead of the reverse) alters the reader's experience of the event.

We know, of course, more than oppression and discrimination. And, as phenomenologist Alfred Schultz tells us in his classic 1932 study, The Phenomenology of the Social World, popular political talk often happens on a high level of abstraction; the language of politics can easily go unexamined, and remain sedimented with theoretical presuppositions about experience. Its concepts are often in violation of direct intuition, and when these political ideas are used to create characters they generally produce flat, prototypical figures in fiction. For example, it wouldn't be unthinkable to scrap the notion of "race" in a country as genetically mongrelized as America. Any geneticist worth the name, like Guy Murchie, can show you that if you go back fifty generations in the life of any person, he (or she) shares a common ancestor with every other person on this planet. None of us can be less closely related than fiftieth cousins. "Race" dissolves when we trace the gene back to A.D. 700. Our ancestors necessarily include some Chinese, Arabs, whites, Eskimos, and all of us are descendents of Caesar, Lao tzu, Empedocles and Shakespeare.

But let us probe deeper into Blyden Jackson's remarks. Because our conception of race is sometimes limited, and because black fiction has largely confined its explorations to the "fractured universe" of bigotry, we seldom, if ever, find black writers tracing the impact of modern science and technology on our lives (We do have a long list of black inventors, you know), or deeply investigating the phenomenon of identity, though we talk endlessly about this, or addressing the primary experiential problem of the 20th century-language and consciousness-or wondering as David Bradley does in The Chaneysville Incident (one of the most intellectually interesting novels to come along in years) over the meaning of history as a shamelessly hermenutic art-form, by which I mean the very idea of "history" as a way of making sense of temporal existence (Can the African past ever be recovered when so many tribes were anchored in a specific Lifeworld, and what were those Lifeworlds like?), or even for that matter acknowledging that black American culture is not all of a piece but instead a tissue of history interwoven with all the diverse, global contributions that make the Republic a web of European, African, Eastern, and classical influences. (As Murchie would say, even this essay in the A WP Newsletter, written by a black American, is made of paper invented by the Chinese, and printed with ink evolved out of India and from type developed by Germans using Roman symbols modified from the Greeks who got their letter concepts from Phoenicians who had adapted them partly from Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

And for anyone at all acquainted with the philosophy of literary form, the vehicles of fictional expression are themselves shot through with meaning and embody a cultural vision and specific values-the "world" of the classic parable is, for example, experientially different from that of the tale. Some daring writers like Ishmael Reed, a pioneer in literary experimentation, cast their works in popular forms, which they've modified (Detective, or Western, and John A. Williams did the War Story), but it would be a pleasure, I think, to see black writers experimenting with the 19th century architechtonic novel, pre-realistic forms of the 17th century as Russell Banks did in The Relation of My Imprisonment (We were in America then, too), the fabliau, classic sea story, pastoral, fable or totem-story, and a galaxy of other forms that are our inheritance as writers, forms that are potentially fertile ground for artistic discovery, and what novelist John Gardner has called, "genre-crossing" in his splendid handbook, The Art of Fiction. In a word, black fiction-all art and evolution-can benefit from the revitalizing influence of cross-cultural fertilization (already present in our lives, indeed as the very stuff of our lives) to move closer to the objective of whole sight.

So, having said all that, I will conclude by saying this:

First, my opinions are cranky, and for that 1 apologize; and, secondly, if there is any thematic thread to the body of black fiction from the first Negro novel, Our Nig to Praise Song for the Widow, if this corpus of literature has any eidos-or essence-at all, it is the quest for identity and liberty. You might argue that these themes are at the heart of American literature as such. (Go ahead, I don't mind.) If this hypothesis is workable, then it follows that black fiction is on the right track, sharpening our perception of the social world, but also that the vision of freedom and identity in future black writing will be broader, more expansive. The themes, and the techniques to mount them, dramatically, will, I'm guessing, grow in depth, expand in breadth, and black literature will be universally recognized as perhaps the truest form of Yankee fiction, the body of stories that, once broadened by whole sight, profiles the concerns of the Republic in the most vivid and memorable manner.

(The preceding has been adapted from Charles Johnson's essay in the Fall, 1984 issue of CALLALOO.)


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