Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban

Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban

James W. Coleman
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban
    Book Description:

    WithThe Tempest's Caliban, Shakespeare created an archetype in the modern era depicting black men as slaves and savages who threaten civilization. As contemporary black male fiction writers have tried to free their subjects and themselves from this legacy to tell a story of liberation, they often unconsciously retell the story, making their heroes into modern-day Calibans.

    Coleman analyzes the modern and postmodern novels of John Edgar Wideman, Clarence Major, Charles Johnson, William Melvin Kelley, Trey Ellis, David Bradley, and Wesley Brown. He traces the Caliban legacy to early literary influences, primarily Ralph Ellison, and then deftly demonstrates its contemporary manifestations. This engaging study challenges those who argue for the liberating possibilities of the postmodern narrative, as Coleman reveals the pervasiveness and influence of Calibanic discourse.

    At the heart of James Coleman's study is the perceived history of the black male in Western culture and the traditional racist stereotypes indigenous to the language. Calibanic discourse, Coleman argues, so deeply and subconsciously influences the texts of black male writers that they are unable to cast off the oppression inherent in this discourse. Coleman wants to change the perception of black male writers' struggle with oppression by showing that it is their special struggle with language.Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Calibanis the first book to analyze a substantial body of black male fiction from a central perspective.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5868-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [viii]-[ix])
  3. Introduction Defining Calibanic Discourse in the Black Male Novel and Black Male Culture
    (pp. 1-17)

    Why do contemporary African American male writers write the kind of novels they write, and why do these works lack the appeal of novels by African American women? There is, of course, no one simple answer to this question. But some critics and readers say that over approximately the last three decades, black male fiction has become increasingly more bizarre, negative, and difficult. Male writers set up plot situations in which their fictional characters have the opportunity to confront oppression, but then they “don’t do anything with” these situations. Texts written by black males seem to become laden by oppression...

  4. 1 The Conscious and Unconscious Dimensions of Calibanic Discourse Thematized in Philadelphia Fire
    (pp. 18-36)

    Philadelphia Fire(1990) depicts a negative, imprisoning Calibanic discourse about black men deeply embedded in the semiotics of American and Western culture; the discourse works both consciously and unconsciously, having virtually the same effect when conscious as when unconscious. Calibanic discourse challenges (that is, contests) and compromises (that is, restricts) the conscious response that it elicits just as it challenges and compromises the unconscious. It reveals how the challenge and compromise are embedded in language and implied non-linguistic signs, theme, and formal structure—embedded in the overall discourse of the text.¹Philadelphia Fireis an example of the complicity of...

  5. 2 The Thematized Black Voice in John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing and Reuben
    (pp. 37-58)

    The thematized writer inPhiladelphia Fireis intersubjective, many different writers at different times all at once, and “he must always write about many places at once. No choice…. First step is always out of time, away from responsibility, toward the word or sound or image that is everywhere at once” (23). Thematized, intersubjective characters who are writers, fiction makers, and storytellers also try to create the fictions and tell the stories that will liberate in Wideman’sReuben(1987) andThe Cattle Killing(1996). The similar quest of writers/creators to tell the story of liberation connects Wideman’s three novels.


  6. 3 Clarence Major’s Quest to Define and Liberate the Self and the Black Male Writer
    (pp. 59-80)

    Clarence Major is in many ways a unique black male writer because of his extensive use of postmodernist and poststructuralist themes, forms, and approaches. In increasingly pessimistic terms, his novels focus on the liberating potential of discourse. In his first two books, black male characters purportedly liberate themselves through the subversive use of language and the fictions they construct. Over the course of several novels, however, it becomes more and more evident that discourse is hostile and imprisoning, and the texts progressively make discourse synonymous with arcane self-referential narrative. This narrative becomes the place of articulation of the black male...

  7. 4 Charles Johnson’s Response to “Caliban’s Dilemma”
    (pp. 81-99)

    InOxherding Tale(1982) andMiddle Passage(1990), Charles Johnson tries to avoid “Caliban’s dilemma.” Ashraf H.A. Rushdy points this out in a reference to Johnson’sBeing and Race.

    [Johnson says that] [t]he art of writing for those who discover that the history of language and fiction “isnotsympathetic with their sense of things” becomes an art of writing against a tradition—indeed of contesting the “antithetical vision and perspectives of our predecessors” [Being39]. While recognizing that this is the situation of all writers in a minority tradition (including women of all cultures), Johnson employs the nameCaliban’s...

  8. 5 Calibanic Discourse in Postmodern and Non-Postmodern Black Male Texts
    (pp. 100-128)

    This chapter addresses Trey Ellis’sPlatitudes(1988), William Melvin Kelley’sA Different Drummer(1962), David Bradley’sThe Chaneysville Incident(1981), and Wesley Brown’sTragic Magic(1978).A Different Drummeris a non-postmodern novel that consciously uses the Caliban trope and unconsciously (re)inscribes it, andPlatitudes,Chaneysville Incident, andTragic Magic, a postmodern and two non-postmodern novels, respectively, show further that black male novels in both categories tell stories that conform to the pattern of the challenge and compromise of the story of liberation in the texts in the first four chapters.

    To begin, Ellis’sPlatitudes’ overall project as a novel...

  9. 6 Ralph Ellison and the Literary Background of Contemporary Black Male Postmodern Writers
    (pp. 129-147)

    This chapter traces the literary tradition of Calibanic discourse as manifested in the contemporary black male postmodernist fictions of John Edgar Wideman, Clarence Major, and Charles Johnson. This tradition goes back to 1940 when Richard Wright publishedNative Son,which is when the black male voice first tried to express fully freedom in the context of realist/modernist/ postmodernist fiction. To serve his protest agenda, Wright consciously sets out to create a story of liberation that fails in order to show graphically the effects of white racism on Bigger Thomas. Within this context,Native Sonportrays Bigger’s failure of voice and...

  10. Conclusion The “Special Edge” Tension Between the Conscious and Unconscious in the Contemporary Black Male Postmodern Novel
    (pp. 148-155)

    I begin the conclusion by emphasizing the accomplishment of contemporary black male writers, especially Wideman, Major, and Johnson, in spite of the impact of Calibanic discourse. Wideman has made comments in a recent interview that help me to move toward summing up the success and importance of black male writers in the context of the foregoing chapters.

    When I’m really going well, afterwards, I can sit down with [the writing] just as a critic might and say, “oh yeah, this book embodies great time, because characters move without any kind of barriers between past and present and future. The dead...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 156-179)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 180-183)
  13. Index
    (pp. 184-194)