Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Abandoning the Black Hero

Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Abandoning the Black Hero
    Book Description:

    Abandoning the Black Herois the first book to examine the postwar African American white-life novel-novels with white protagonists written by African Americans. These fascinating works have been understudied despite having been written by such defining figures in the tradition as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, and Chester Himes, as well as lesser known but formerly best-selling authors Willard Motley and Frank Yerby.

    John C. Charles argues that these fictions have been overlooked because they deviate from two critical suppositions: that black literature is always about black life and that when it represents whiteness, it must attack white supremacy. The authors are, however, quite sympathetic in the treatment of their white protagonists, which Charles contends should be read not as a failure of racial pride but instead as a strategy for claiming creative freedom, expansive moral authority, and critical agency.In an era when "Negro writers" were expected to protest, their sympathetic treatment of white suffering grants these authors a degree of racial privacy previously unavailable to them. White writers, after all, have the privilege of racial privacy because they are never pressured to write only about white life. Charles reveals that the freedom to abandon the "Negro problem" encouraged these authors to explore a range of new genres and themes, generating a strikingly diverse body of novels that significantly revise our understanding of mid-twentieth-century black writing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5434-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    In 1946, a promising but little-known young black writer named Frank Yerby burst onto the literary scene withThe Foxes of Harrow, a blockbuster southern historical romance with more than a few resemblances to Margaret Mitchell’sGone with the Wind(1936). Yerby’s sprawling saga of the rise and fall of Irish immigrant Stephen Fox sold more than a million copies in its first year alone, was made into a feature film starring Maureen O’Hara, and soon made Yerby the best-selling black writer of all time—he would go on to publish thirty-three novels, all but three featuring white protagonists, with...

  5. 1 “I’m Regarded Fatally as a Negro Writer”: Mid-Twentieth-Century Racial Discourse and the Rise of the White-Life Novel
    (pp. 22-54)

    The interwar years were ones of hope and frustration for African American authors. Although figures such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer, among others, had already achieved minor critical recognition in the American literary establishment, the publication of Richard Wright’sNative Sonconstituted a watershed moment in black American writing. As Irving Howe (in)famously declared: “The dayNative Sonappeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama, and claustrophobia of...

  6. 2 The Home and the Street: Ann Petry’s “Rage for Privacy”
    (pp. 55-85)

    One of the central objectives ofAbandoning the Black Herois to reconsider a body of works that in African American literary studies have beendevalueddue to interpretive protocols that presume blackness as the privileged object of inquiry. This devaluation of course is in response to a corresponding devaluation of blackness in the United States, culturally, socially, and politically. As Lindon Barrett argues inBlackness and Value: Seeing Double, in the United States “value” and “race” are fundamentally intertwined, as “abstract entities [that] keenly reflect one another, even to a point at which they might be considered isomorphic. At...

  7. 3 White Masks and Queer Prisons
    (pp. 86-129)

    James Baldwin’s second novel,Giovanni’s Room(1956), has long been established as a foundational work in modern gay literary history. It has only been within the last fifteen years, however, that the novel has been brought out of African American literary history’s closet, so to speak, where it languished as apparently irrelevant to the tradition and to Baldwin’s status as a powerful chronicler of black American experience. Critics such as Marlon Ross continue to remind us that not only are questions of sexuality always of uppermost concern in Baldwin’s work, but they are also inextricably related to his analyses of...

  8. 4 Sympathy for the Master: Reforming Southern White Manhood in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow
    (pp. 130-157)

    Though he’s now largely forgotten, Frank Yerby was, for a time, granted greaterindexicalsignificance—as a sign of racial progress—than nearly any other contemporary black writer.The Foxes of Harrow, his 1946 “reconstruction” of Margaret Mitchell’sGone with the Wind(1936), sold millions of copies and was one of the best-selling novels of the postwar era.¹ Yerby’s unprecedented commercial success was not the principal source of his significance, though. African American critics in particular were struck by the fact that Yerby penned a bona fide southern historical romance, as Blyden Jackson says, “quite comfortably, and with no sense...

  9. 5 Talk about the South: Unspeakable Things Unspoken in Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee
    (pp. 158-181)

    In 1975, Alice Walker launched one of the greatest revivals in modern American literary history with herMs. magazine essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” The extraordinary range of Hurston’s achievements, which include groundbreaking novels, autobiography, short fiction, drama, political and cultural essays, reportage, folklore, and ethnography, has garnered her an audience, both critical and popular, that continues to grow unabated. Hurston’s status as the great literary foremother of contemporary African American women writers stems principally from her work in the 1920s and 1930s, and especially her masterpiece,Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937).Their Eyes’ protofeminist sensibility, its...

  10. 6 The Unfinished Project of Western Modernity: Savage Holiday, Moral Slaves, and the Problem of Freedom in Cold War America
    (pp. 182-201)

    Richard Wright was, at the start of the post–World War II era, unquestionably the world’s most influential and revered, even if controversial, black author. His work was widely discussed at home and abroad, translated into many languages, and selling well enough to provide a comfortable life for him and his family. He was also arguably the writer who sought authorial racial privacy more fervently than any other in this study. Whereas the young careers of Willard Motley and Frank Yerby suggested new possibilities for commercial success and subject matter among black writers, Wright’s demonstrated new possibilities for literary and...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 202-210)

    Abandoning the Black Herohas investigated the question of why and to what effect did nearly every significant black novelist of the mid-twentieth century “abandon the black hero” in favor of white protagonists, if only momentarily. I have argued that the authors’ sympathetic treatment of their white protagonists indicates neither a disavowal of blackness, nor a naïve assimilationist desire, but a bid for authorial racial privacy in a public sphere structured by the color line. Many black writers resented that “Negro literature” had become synonymous with racial protest, to the exclusion of other experiences, interests, and perspectives. The writers under...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 211-240)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 241-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-263)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 264-264)