Being and Race

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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...

(The entire section is 1583 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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

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