Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours
Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris
(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Emine Lâle Demitürk, How Black Writers Deal with Whiteness. Characterization through Deconstructing Color (Lewiston, N.Y. : the Edwin Mellen Press, 2008). USA $109.59/UK £69.95, 230 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0-7734-5073-8/10: 0-7734-5073-4 – Claude Julien, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

           Here is a welcome book whose purpose is to map the fictionalization of the weight of whiteness in the African-American novel. Its thesis is that the problem of the color line as delineated in William E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk continues to be a major issue in the 21st century; that the white people’s pretension they own the world remains unchanged; that blackness remains central to the white American social construct ?one that was built out of the habit to look down upon African-Americans. The novels Demitürk studies are never approached as literature, but as expressions of an iniquitous social situation.
          The book’s intention is aptly illustrated in its first part, a fine analysis of Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday. That novel, unexpected after reading the introduction, is an excellent choice because it allows a study of white supremacism in a perspective that does not involve racial elements: indeed the main characters are white. Wright, however, manages to highlight the white man’s (some male chauvinism is involved here) inborn superiority feeling. This is shown through Erskine Fowler’s motives when marrying Mabel Blake. He does not solely propose to hide his responsibility in Tony’s (her son) fatal fall from the balcony, but to save her, to “civilize” her if we choose to read the novel’s title in that perspective? because she is a mere whore in his eyes. Demitürk’s starting point when building her argument is Fowler’s equally prejudiced view of Minnie, a minor black character, bolstered by Wright’s own statement in an interview with Roland Barthes that, after Native Son, he had this time wanted to have white readers face their own moral dilemma ?that is to say by confining his story among the layers of white society.
           From Savage Holiday, 1954, Demitürk turns to the deleterious impact of “whiteness” upon black people and, of course, the relations between both social groups. The book is organized in parts divided into chapters, one to each novel. The second part covers neo slave narratives (Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, 1979, Sherley Ann Williams’s Dessa Rose, 1986, and J. California Cooper’s Family, 1991). There follows a section on novels of “passing”, namely Jessie R. Fauset’s Plum Bun, 1929, and Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C., 1921. The fourth part discusses the perceptions of racial identities. First dealing with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, 1970, it then turns to postcolonial spaces with Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, 1969, set in the Caribbean. The last part studies the black body imprisoned in an urban environment. It starts with Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner, 1970, and ends with Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, 1999.
The novels studied are well chosen. One can always wonder why the author has not opted for Chesnutt’s posthumous Mandy Oxendine rather than Paul Marchand, because the former, much more radical than the latter, remained unpublished. At the heart of this choice, and this may have been worth a discussion, was Chesnutt’s sense of what was acceptable in print in his day measured against his silenced intention to speak out. Other novels may have been selected to trace the representation of whiteness in urban spaces. Demitürk concentrates on Harlem. Other cities offered good opportunities to vary the book’s scope: like the rioting in Wilmington, NC, in Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. That was an earlier, turn of the century, book. If two books by the same novelist were one too many, one may have considered turning to the 1830s Philadelphia race riots as pictured in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and their Friends. If the 1830s pictured in the early 1850s was too early a date, there was John Wideman’s Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia in Philadelphia Fire. And there was rioting Chicago, arguably the worst of Ghettos, in Mark Kennedy’s The Pecking Order. Still in the province of race riots, one may have thought of looking at Paula L. Woods’s Inner City’s Blues located in Los Angeles. Or, also in California and with a strong sense of history to boot, there was Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.
           Such suggestions of other books to bring into consideration are somewhat unfair. Demitürk must have had to take publishing constraints into account, and in-depth studies such as she proposes here were incompatible with a longer list of novels. Hard choices were probably made. Whatever that is, one must say that Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was definitely the best of that author’s novels to come into consideration here. And the study of urban novels wisely picks two books born from vastly different times and genres.
           Demitürk offers sharp, convincing studies of the books she has chosen to deal with. Her interpretations show deep respect for the different novels. Never does she “pull” an element of the various texts to fit her general purpose. Her book is supported by extensive reading of literature and social science scholars: strict (perhaps sometimes ponderous) referencing attests to that. With a thorough bibliography and an index, the end result is pleasant to read and generally well written apart from a few typos and syntactical oddities concerning the omission of determinants (the/a).
           One major problem must be brought out, though. Only when neo slave narratives are analyzed does the question of contextualization briefly come up for discussion. Otherwise, the gap between the moment of writing and the fictionalized period is ignored. All considered, a similar question arises for The Bluest Eye and Daddy Was a Number Runner, both set during the Great Depression. This conceptual weakness may have been corrected by adding a synthetic chapter rounding up and historicizing the question. Knitting the several parts together is felt as a lack as one closes the book. Demitürk’s thesis is that nothing has changed since Du Bois’s evaluation of the color line. Is the great white shadow that immutable? Has there really been no evolution at all? Are the mindsets of Meriwether’s Depression time characters the same as Colson Whitehead’s more modern New York?


                                       ©2009 Claude Julien & GRAAT.










Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison