The black plumb line: Re-evaluating race and Africanist images in non-black authored American texts

LeShondra Vanessa Robinson

Abstract

This study evaluates Africanisms (representations of racialized or ethnicized blackness) within three contemporary non-black authors' texts: Jewish American Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King, white southerner Melinda Haynes' novel Mother of Pearl, and Nyurican poet Victor Hern√°ndez Cruz's works "Mesa Blanca" and "White Table." Though not entirely unproblematic, each selection somehow redefines black identity and agency to challenge denigrated representations of Africanist people and culture. In the process, each author subverts faulty components of American myths of racial purity, particularly stratifying black-white dualisms that promote whiteness, racial supremacy, and resulting undue privilege. This study also traces how Bellow, Haynes and Cruz adopt and/or adapt rhetorical strategies, mutual investments in history and shared identity cues that align these writers and their works with aspects of the African American literary tradition as well as kindred authors of African descent. Racial performance and the social construction of identity factor heavily into this project as the chosen writers also challenge critical tendencies to equate authors' identities with authors' aims, particularly when writers cross identity boundaries to dismantle traditional patterns of racial supremacy and racism. The ambiguously raced author Jean Toomer and fellow writer Carl Van Vechten also serve as key introductory comparative figures within this study. Ultimately, this project underscores the continued responsibility American writers have to address the cultural artifact American imaginations have made of racialized blackness within our national literature and corresponding social spaces and institutions.