“Violence, The Body and the “The South”
“Violence, The Body, and `The South.”‘ Edited by Houston Baker and Dana Nelson. American Literature 73.2 (2001).
Over the last decade, a number of prominent scholars have worked to reassess scholarly representations of the South. This special edition of American Literature is the result of Houston Baker and Dana Nelson’s collaborative effort to continue and re-energize the recent interest in re-visioning the South. The selection of essays included in this volume present new and diverse theoretical frameworks that “reconfigure our familiar notions of Good (or desperately bad) Old Southern White men telling stories on the porch, proletting white women, and being friends to the Negro” (232). The editors have judiciously included perspectives that endeavor to carry the inquiry into the South beyond traditional boundaries and into what they call “often neglected territories of the Americas” (233). They call for an exploration of a “South” that includes Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California as well as one that extends to immigrants from Central and South America. In addition, they problematize the idea that the South is a state or a region separate from the rest of the United States and emphasize how a national identity in America has relied on a symbolic regional geography.
A number of essays look at how American identity has depended significantly on formations of regionalism and demonstrate what Baker and Nelson refer to as “the nuanced inseparability of North and South” (231) in any area of cultural studies. In “The `Mysteries and Miseries’ of North Carolina: New York City, Urban Gothic Fiction, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,”Jennifer Rae Greeson complicates the traditional view of Jacobs as a southern writer by identifying her use of the urban gothic, a northern genre. She also suggests thatJacobs’s narrative identifies how northerners projected their fears about the modernization of northern society onto the South and onto the body of the degraded woman there. In “Refugees of the South: Central Americans in the U.S. Latino Imaginary,” Ana Patricia Rodriguez focuses on the non-white body in an emerging body of literature about Central American refugees. She argues that “narratives of violence, war, and injustice inflicted on the body” of the Central American refugee in the United States makes visible the desperate situations in which these refugees find themselves, ones not too different from the circumstances they left behind in Central America.
As its title suggests, in problematizing and extending studies of the South, all of the essays in this special issue focus on violence and the body. In “`Eye-Witness to the Cruelty’: Southern Violence and Northern Testimony in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative,”Jeannie DeLombard makes evident Douglass’s attempt to disembody himself by shifting “the metonym of authorship from the vulnerable, corporeal eyeball to the unassailable, corporeal voice” (246). DeLombard also shows how this shift served as a criticism of an antislavery movement that pushed the black man into the role of eyewitness and that kept him embodied; he “seeks to exchange the embodied subjectivity of the slave for the universal subjectivity of the (white) freeman and thus to complete his escape from the South and the physical violence it respresents” (245). In “Charles Chestnuts and the Epistemology of Racial Violence,” Bryan Wagner explains how Chestnutt’s text also testifies to the way in which racial politics are maintained spatially and visually. Physical violence against the black body, Wagner argues, becomes the bodily manifestation of white identity collapse. Laura Anne Doyle continues this focus on violence committed against the black body in “The Body Against Itself in Faulkner’s Phenomenology of Race” with a discussion of Joe Christmas, for whom, she argues, the racialized body is both alienating and a source of self-understanding.
The editors’ focus on violence and the body is a logical one given the violent political atmosphere that has characterized the real and the imaginary South. As Baker and Nelson point out, “the visual, bounded body of the ‘Other’ has been the bedrock for the construction of both regionalism and racism in the United States” (232). It is a little disappointing, however, that the volume’s preface reasserts the familiar opposition, laid out by Robyn Weigman in American Anatomies and Nelson herself in National Manhood, between the hyper-visualized corporeal female/racial other and the white male disembodied subject. It is somewhat a shame that the editors and the contributors don’t do more to encourage new ways of thinking about the body; this omission seems to do the volume some disservice, considering its claim to originality and reinvention in other areas.
Andrea Levine’s essay, “Sidney Poitier’s Civil Rights: Rewriting the Mystique of White Womanhood in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night,” does recognize that during the Civil Rights Movement the white man was encouraged to put his body on the line, an act that made apparent white male identification with black peers. But the essay’s main argument illustrates how the black body is spectacularized in order to reassert racial hierarchy. It is Rodriguez’s essay, however, that evokes the only real new direction in studies of the body with its emphasis on the disappearance of the Latino/a refugee body in contrast to the hyper-visualized and vulnerable black body. The absence elsewhere in these pages of significant discussions of white male embodiment begs the question as to why the subject of embodiment still seems to exclude serious conversation about white men and why disembodiement is always viewed as a white male experience.
Curiously, despite a call over the last decade to consider further both whiteness and class, it seems that white manhood remains the homogenous, bodiless, and unracialized position of power in opposition to the embodied subjectivity of women and men of color. A look at white male embodiment that doesn’t necessarily signify violence against the black body might arouse novel and provocative discussions about race and gender as well as about class and regional differences.
This said, despite the repetition of seasoned ways of thinking about the body, this volume does a fine job of pulling together diverse and salient insights that begin to further complicate and extend existing approaches to the South. The issue itself stands as an important contribution to reassessing the importance of regionalism and also provides an incentive to explore new directions in southern studies. Such new directions perhaps will include looking at inequalities that are marked by both the visible white body and the absent non-white one as well as those signified by black and female corporeality.
Reviewer CAROLINE MILES is an instructor in English at Auburn University.
Copyright Southern Quarterly Fall 2002
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