Burnin' Down the House

Burnin' Down the House: Home in African American Literature

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Burnin' Down the House
    Book Description:

    Home is a powerful metaphor guiding the literature of African Americans throughout the twentieth century. While scholars have given considerable attention to the Great Migration and the role of the northern city as well as to the place of the South in African American literature, few have given specific notice to the site of "home." And in the twenty years since Houston A. Baker Jr.'s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature appeared, no one has offered a substantial challenge to his reading of the blues matrix.

    Burnin' Down the House creates new and sophisticated possibilities for a critical engagement with African American literature by presenting both a meaningful critique of the blues matrix and a careful examination of the place of home in five classic novels: Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and Corregidora by Gayl Jones.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50879-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Introduction: A House Is Not a Home
    (pp. xii-11)

    The search for justice, opportunity, and liberty that characterized the twentieth century for African Americans can be described as a quest for home. During the early part of the century, America witnessed the largest mass migration in history. African Americans left the South looking for opportunity promised by the industrial North. The North did offer relief from the despotism of Jim Crow, which was ruthlessly enforced by mob violence, but poverty and racism also awaited the migrants in northern cities. Overcrowded ghettos began to fester with the stench of unfulfilled promises and the rotting corpses of failed dreams lying unburied...

  5. 1 Living (Just Enough) for the City: Native Son
    (pp. 12-39)

    The novels in this study span nearly forty years, beginning in 1940 with Richard Wright’s Native Son and concluding in 1977 with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In this chapter I look at Native Son because it speaks of home in broad terms that are characteristic of this period of great transition. At the outset of the century the Northern city was presented as the African American’s best chance for locating a viable home. And after the advent of the mechanical cotton harvester, World War II, and other mitigating circumstances, many put their hope of finding a home in the...

  6. 2 Keep on Moving Don’t Stop: Invisible Man
    (pp. 40-63)

    The title Native Son is clearly ironic; Bigger Thomas has no home or paternity. Yet the novel lays out three terms that sketch a blueprint for the place of home within African American literature traceable through works produced over the following three decades: the city, the kitchen, and the womb. The city dominates Bigger’s landscape even as he is pressed into geographically more restrictive spaces. The kitchen is represented as the kitchenette, an abbreviated version of a more complete place; and Bigger’s retreat into the basement of the Dalton house is but the initial stage of a literary retreat into...

  7. 3 Get in the Kitchen and Rattle Them Pots and Pans: The Bluest Eye
    (pp. 64-95)

    Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister, Catherine Beecher, coauthored a work entitled The American Woman’s Home for middle-class Victorian women, to help them use the site of home, and specifically the kitchen, as a means of ordering their lives. Home as the domestic sphere, as opposed to the broad geographical landscape of the city, had been deemed, and remains, the woman’s realm. Such readings of place are “fundamentally political,” to borrow Doreen Massey’s language.¹ In other words, persistent readings of home as the feminine place serve a political end. Yet as Lori Askeland writes, “The vulnerability of this domain, however,...

  8. 4 She’s a Brick House: Corregidora
    (pp. 95-117)

    Although much has been written in the nearly twenty years since Houston A. Baker Jr. published Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984), his book offers a cogent place to begin discussion about home focused on Corregidora, by way of Toni Morrison’s Sula. African American feminist scholars like Ann du Cille, Barbara Christian, Michael Awkward, and Deborah Mc-Dowell have critiqued Baker’s work, in general, because of its significant oversights and phallocentricism.¹ Even when Baker discusses purportedly symbolic aspects of literature, Ann du Cille argues, he tends to collapse the symbolic into the material at the expense of women....

  9. 5 God Bless the Child That’s Got His Own: Song of Solomon
    (pp. 118-148)

    In Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Ishmael Reed muses about the possibility of “blackness” sweeping the country like a contagion of pandemic proportions. Reed suggests that during the 1920s, inspired by the rhythms of black cultural productions, the United States succumbed to its urge to jelly roll, betraying its white façade by exposing its dark underbelly. In this satire, Reed paints a picture of a nightmarish plague that the establishment is unable to quell.

    The infestation is not, however, a foreign agent introduced to a virgin population. Instead, the phenomenon arises from inside the nation. It is a repressed part of our...

  10. Index
    (pp. 149-154)