Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dixon Tarrant, when trying to convey to his young daughter the feelings within him during a meeting or a march, sums up the main themes of the novel:Sometimes it’s like when I hear spirituals I heard when I was a child. Kind of a consoling feeling. And sometimes, like the other day with the dogs, it’s like standing in the middle of a storm, but it’s not blowing around you, it’s like it’s coming from inside. Power, it’s a feeling of power.

The movement from powerlessness and even despair to power and hope shapes the novel. Davis expands on this theme through the growing complexity of Willie’s narrative, which eventually becomes a metanarrative for the African American community. The passage above concisely draws in the various devices and references deployed throughout the novel to emblazon the theme of power.

Within Willie’s chronologically retold personal history are various family histories that deal with the national shames of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The elder Tarrants try to bury these histories, believing that to dredge up the darker aspects of the African American experience is harmful. For example, Dixon’s father forbids the discussion of his parents’ bondage, and Dixon is uneasy re-enacting the routines of minstrel shows. Ironically, Dixon finds some remnants of slavery, notably the singing of spirituals, to be comforting. The reluctant retelling of the Tarrant history serves as a caustic reminder of the legacy...

(The entire section is 536 words.)