Friday, February 22, 2008

Daddy Issues/Mommy Issues

Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race by Claudia Tate


This book has been on my wishlist for a while.  I'd heard of Tate's other book Domestic Allegories of Political Desire first, probably in relation to discussions of Pauline Hopkins, but a professor recommended this one specifically due to a paper topic I was considering but then abandoned (or perhaps I just chose the other book she recommended because they had it at the book store - I'm not really sure anymore since I can't remember how broad of a topic I was originally looking at and the book I bought also involved race).  This was part of the large Amazon order that I've been waiting on that they ended up dividing into three packages - so far this is the only part I've received.  Actually, a friend of mine also bought me a copy for Valentine's Day (the only time I remember ever mentioning it is when I told him I'd ordered it, but I guess he missed that part; also, since I've on occasion hijacked his computer, Amazon recommended it to him because I'd been browsing on his account).  Eventually, I'll probably buy Domestic Allegories as well, but even I find it hard to justify spending $50 on a book.


Tate's discussion revolves around five novels by black authors that have largely been neglected and ignored with the exception of Quicksand.  The other four do not quite fit into the ideas of what a African-American novel should be, and as a result, have been seen as anomalies.  Some of the problems include, for example, the plots and the protagonists: in three of the novels, the heros are white, others seemed too focused on romance etc.  Tate argues that these novels have to be approached in a different manner to see what lies underneath, or the desire that drives the novel.  Additionally, while Quicksand is part of the "cannon," it too is restricted by the critical treatment it has received so far.  As Tate argues, psychoanalysis can help illuminate and explain all of these novels and add a new perspective to the discussion.  However, it will help not only with these novels, but all novels: she simply chose these "because they exaggerate the process of performing unconscious desire" (180).


Tate begins her book by asking what exactly it takes to be a "black literary text in the United States" (3).  Throughout her analysis, she discusses the idea that the approach can be reductive and restrictive - in many cases, a black text is expected to address racial oppression and black lives, and this idea tends to marginalize novels by black authors with white characters because they don't fit in with expectations.  Tate says it is necessary to move beyond racial oppression because it prevents other issues in the text being analyzed.  For example, Quicksand has been analyzed by black feminist theorists who focus on race, gender and class issues but as Tate demonstrates, there is even more going on that gets overlooked as a result.  In other cases, such as Richard Wright's work, critics have noticed the extreme, almost gratuituos violence, and even hint that "racial violence may be masking sexual content" (95) in Wright's work, but then just as quickly drop the subject and talk about racism.


Most of the chapters make use of oedipal conflicts, and point to an underlying desire for a parental figure, or how the authors use their novels to work these conflicts out.  The first chapter, for example, illustrates how in Emma Kelley's Megda, Meg's best friend Ethel serves as the mother figure, whom Meg at first emulates and adores.  When she falls for Ethel's fiance, she reads her jealousy as spiritual longing, but with Ethel's death, she takes her place, and thus Meg resolves her oedipal stage.  Since in this first chapter, Tate deals primarily with the text, I was surprised when she extended her reading of W.E.B DuBois's Dark Princess  to slightly analyze DuBois in the second chapter.  She also used some autobiographical evidence in her analysis of the remaining three novels.  Of course, DuBois, Wright and Hurston all wrote autobiographical works and several other texts, so she included these sources to support and strengthen her analysis.  For DuBois and Wright, especially, their neglected novels illustrate themes that occur in all their literature, but are more obvious in these examples.  As mentioned above, Wright's critics usually focused on the racial protest of his novels, but since he chose to use white characters in Savage Holiday, it shifts the focus to misogynist/oedipal issues that have been in all his novels.  DuBois intended his novel as a protest novel, but the romance takes over, so that it, too, reveals an underlying desire for the lost mother much more clearly.


The whole book was an interesting and engaging take.  I am usually ambivalent about Freud - it's definitely a different way to look at things but his theories were obviously flawed; also, I'm not a big fan of readings of Hamlet which claim that Hamlet was experiencing an oedipal conflict, and was in love with his mother.  I think this is also the reason it took me a bit to adjust to the DuBois chapter.  I liked the Wright chapter the best  (I have no clue why, because I've never read anything by him - perhaps it helped not to have any preconceived notions), and also really enjoyed the Hurston chapter (I love Their Eyes Were Watching God, so I liked reading about another of her novels).  It's really about time I read Quicksand - just need that one package to get here . . .

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