Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Platitudes has been called a call for peace between black feminist writers and those who criticize them. Parodying both the writing of sexual freedom favored by male authors and the emphasis on folk culture and family solidarity of female writers, Ellis suggests synthesis and the inadequacy of each style when practiced in isolation.

Dewayne Wellington is reminiscent of African American male writers such as novelist, poet, and social critic Ishmael Reed. Reed has criticized black feminist writers for their negative portrayals of black men as sexist. His own satirical fiction is known for its portrayal of a conspiracy against African American men, as in his novel Reckless Eyeballing (1986). Reed’s narrative style relies on experimental techniques that blend black folk culture with material from white American culture in a playful postmodern style.

One of the female writers criticized by Reed is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. Like Isshee Ayam, Walker is a well-known novelist and feminist critic. Her best-selling novel The Color Purple (1982) focuses on the warmth and vitality of black folk and family life in the rural South, where black people are protected from the corrupting values of white society. Isshee’s version of the story of Earle and Dorothy is a broad parody of the folkloric style of Walker’s fiction.

Ellis believes that each of these traditions by itself risks falling into stereotypes, or, as the novel’s title suggests, meaningless platitudes. For him, both the experimentalism of Reed and the tradition represented by Walker are necessary for a vibrant African American literature. In his article “The New Black Aesthetic” (1989), Ellis argues for a new style of African American literature and a new kind of African American artist, the “cultural mulatto.” This new black artist playfully combines elements of traditional black culture with materials from both mainstream mass culture and serious art.

In Platitudes, romantic love is a metaphor for the positive intentions that the new black artist uses to bring together different cultural, class, and racial traditions. Just as romantic love resolves the stark differences between Dewayne and Isshee and between Earle and Dorothy, an honest and open appreciation of diverse kinds of artistic material, taken from both black and white creators, will serve as a model for cultural desegregation and rejuvenation.