Being and Race

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1583

The epigraph to Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 is a statement by French dramatist and playwright Prosper Mérimée that highlights the relationship between theory and practice: “In fiction there must be a theoretical basis to the most minute details. Even a single glove must have its theory.” Charles Johnson demonstrates his belief in this idea by applying what he calls “the method of ’phenomenology’” to fiction written by black writers since about 1970. Acknowledging that the term “phenomenology” is often misunderstood, Johnson describes, rather than defines, his use of the word as a reliance upon a “philosophy of experience” in which people “bracket,” or set aside, previous models for explaining phenomena and thereby rely upon intuition to illuminate the reality investigated. While this notion is derived from Edmund Husserl, the creator of phenomenology, it has been modified by later thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Dufrenne—all of whom have influenced the author in his effort to use a phenomenological mode to understand black American fiction.

In the first half of Being and Race, Johnson focuses upon the theoretical glove by examining race, fiction, and form as they are related to the philosophical question of being. The first chapter is both a personal statement of Johnson’s literary odyssey and a historical overview of black literature, beginning with its earliest developments and tracing its more recent examples in the black arts movement. Throughout this evolution, Johnson states, black writers have been concerned with making meaning of the black world, with creating various racial ideologies for the African experience.

This ideological thrust is fundamentally antiphenomenological, according to Johnson, for it eliminates a free investigation of phenomena by reducing the black experience to a one-sided acceptance of otherness. In this ideological reductionism, the black body is viewed as stained, a notion eliciting thoughts of guilt, sin, punishment, ostracism, and the need to be purified or cleansed. Given this one-dimensional view of the black experience, two options are available to the black writer: accepting this state and assuming a kind of “invisibility,” or reversing the negative meaning of the black stain and assuming a kind of “black is beautiful” posture. Johnson argues that both options restrict genuine, creative work, and he calls for a suspension of this ideological approach.

The second chapter, “Being and Fiction,” examines the ways in which a less ideological and more phenomenological approach can enrich the literary productivity of black writers. Johnson explores what he calls a middle ground between two views of fiction, one articulated by William Gass and the other summarized by John Gardner. In Gass’s view, literature is not related to the world of real men, real women, or real events. A literary work, according to Gass, “is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect.” By contrast, John Gardner sees fiction as “moral” and life-affirming, similar to Leo Tolstoy in his work Chtoe takoye iskusstvo (1898; What Is Art?, 1898) and William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1949), both of whom emphasized art as a human, not merely linguistic, activity.

The middle ground between these two views is what Johnson describes as “the presence of others in language.” This notion rejects the position that language is a neutral medium for expressing things and also rejects the opposite position, that art is simply a way to express human emotion. In this middle ground, both language and fiction are viewed as transcendent, reinforcing what Johnson describes as “the old saw that great writers are sexless, raceless, and have no historical moment circumscribing their imagination and curiosity.” Unfortunately, according to the author, this vision of transcendence has not been seen or communicated by many black fiction writers.

In the final chapter of this section on philosophy, Johnson looks at “Being and Form,” asserting that most current fiction has a “depressing sameness, a formal one-dimensionality.” Just as he calls for an elimination of ideology and a reliance upon transcendence in the first two chapters, so Johnson makes another call in the third chapter, this time for technical virtuosity that comes from experimenting with forms used by earlier writers. This experimentation will allow writers to move among genres and to play with various styles, thus using the tradition of literature to create new artistic worlds.

Given this theoretical discussion, it is not surprising that Johnson chooses to examine and praise black fiction writers who demonstrate a nonideological, transcendent, experimental virtuosity. The second half of the book identifies the men and the women, a chapter for each, whom Johnson believes are the exemplars of his views on race, fiction, and form.

In the chapter titled “The Men,” Johnson surveys writers whom he describes as pioneers because of their experimental efforts: Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed, Samuel Delany, William Melvin Kelley, Al Young, John McCluskey, Jr., Leon Forrest, John Edgar Wideman, James Alan McPherson, David Bradley, John A. Williams, Cyrus Colter, John Oliver Killens, and Cecil Brown. In his survey, Johnson has special praise for John A. Williams, describing him as “a model who has borne the brunt of discrimination and continued doggedly to deliver solid works of literary achievement and to discharge his manly duties.” Williams’ book, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), receives superlatives for its powerful message about racism and is compared to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) as well as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). If Williams is singled out for his contributions to black literary history, James Baldwin is omitted for his contributions to the genre Johnson calls “the ’protest novel’ oriented toward race politics.” Rejecting protest literature for aesthetic reasons, though acknowledging his early reliance upon that genre, Johnson consistently focuses upon male black writers who, in his estimation, advance black writing both technically and thematically.

The final chapter, “The Women,” asserts the phenomenological importance of literature written by black women and the questions raised by feminists. Johnson points out that “the modern emergence of a ’woman’s perspective’” has irreversibly changed the way the world is viewed, thus sensitizing readers to seeing phenomena in new and revolutionary ways. Among these new visions is the ongoing process of self-definition experienced by black women and described by Toni Morrison as the sense that the black woman “had nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may very well have invented herself.” As he does with the male writers, Johnson surveys the writing of black women and includes the following writers in his catalog: Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Kristin Hunter, Ellease Southerland, Jamaica Kincaid, and Octavia E. Butler. The book which receives the author’s greatest attention is Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), which Johnson describes as standing “at the crest of black women’s fiction in the 1980s,” as “the publishing phenomenon of this decade,” and as “a cultural event.” Predictably, given his concern with aesthetic standards, Johnson does not offer unqualified praise to a book which he views as having greater cultural significance than it does literary merit; he concludes that The Color Purple “is not fully realized as a work of art.” He offers a similar evaluation in summarizing the contributions of black female writers, assuming what might be construed as a patronizing stance when he praises the women for having a better eye for details than their male counterparts but being limited in their abilities to manipulate plot and to demonstrate formal virtuosity. The aesthetic dimension, Johnson contends, seems to be of little interest to most black female writers, a contention that many theoreticians and practitioners will certainly question, if not deny.

In his final section, Charles Johnson explicitly addresses the question he implicitly considers throughout his study: Has the fiction written by black men and women plowed new racial and social ground and suggested new phenomena for investigation? In his negative answer, Johnson asserts that the bulk of black writing continues to be marred by a monotony of technique and content. He mentions some exceptions, but points out that black fiction continues to be a kind of genre writing in which writers fail to demonstrate the seriousness and skill necessary to forge new paths, experiment with new forms, examine new ways of viewing phenomena.

Despite this less than positive evaluation of contemporary black fiction, Johnson concludes on a hopeful note. He speaks of the challenge beckoning black writers to discover an art thatcan be dangerous and wickedly diverse, enslaved to no single idea of Being, capable if necessary of unraveling, like Penelope, all that was spun the night before and creating from entirely new social and scientific premises if need be, or adjusting the seminal work of the past to address issues relevant to this age.

On the horizon, according to Johnson, is a fiction that enables both black writers and their culture “to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.” In this clarion call to black writers, Johnson combines his two roles of creative writer and critical theorist. He is a man perhaps best known as a fiction writer—his collection of short stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was a PEN/Faulkner nominee in 1987—and director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington. In combining those credentials with his insights into literary criticism, he echoes the epigraph of Being and Race: Fiction and theory are brought together in this analysis of black writing since 1970.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12

Booklist. LXXXIV, February 15, 1988, p. 966.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, July 24, 1988, p. 8.

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