Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The novel is composed with a frame story about Nathaniel’s attempts to write his grandmother’s memories of her past. Within this frame there is a circle of interconnected recollections revolving around three main testaments, those of Aunt Foisty, I. V. Reed, and Sweetie Reed. The novel uses a variety of techniques in its chronicle of the past. Poetic monologues, dialogues, dreams, and passages of surrealistic prose knit a complex overview of the origins of African American culture.

Sweetie Reed’s fabulous narration of her family’s history establishes through a blend of legend, memory, and dream the intense saga of her ancestors. Certain key refrains and incidents form the nucleus of the novel. One recurring refrain is the fragment of a spiritual containing the lines “Angel got two wings to veil my face/Angel got two wings to fly me away.” Other motifs include the use of masquerade, mirrors, and magic.

The first important incident is the funeral of Jericho Witherspoon, which inspires Sweetie Reed to deliver a commanding eulogy over her dead husband’s coffin. This in turn launches a more comprehensive recitation of her ancestors’ past. By returning to Aunt Foisty’s life on the Reed plantation, Sweetie Reed reaches far back into the origins of slavery. Aunt Foisty is the repository of ancient wisdom and the vernacular tradition. Her perfect memory records the passage of all the slaves of the plantation. She keeps the complete...

(The entire section is 485 words.)