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Re: The End of the Black American Narrative

You are welcome Write Away. I suppose this discourse will be a form of much debate for awhile. Below is a response from esteemed professor Jerry Ward of Dillard University that was posted to Kalamu's list.
=======================================================POV: response to charles johnson's essay

A Response to “The End of the Black American Narrative”

Q: Mirror, mirror on the floor,
How can we lock the racial door?

A. Sorry. Race is always an open house.

This is an annus mirabilis. The discussions which energize the presidential
election year are sometimes serious but more often wild. Rising food and gas
prices portend a declining economy in the United States of America, and a
significant redistribution of wealth in a few second world countries. It is
increasingly difficult to distinguish what is news from what is entertainment.
Journalism has adopted the ethical stance of a trickster. Growing disbelief that the
idea of absolute truth has any legitimacy contaminates what was once called
the Sea of Faith. Yes, American money does still proclaim ”IN GOD WE TRUST,”
and propaganda regarding democracy and terrorism still assures people that their
God is on their side. Anticipate deep remorse in January 2009 when Americans
recognize, much too late, their failure to insist that the Republican and the
Democratic presidential candidates address the changes in the social contract
authorized by the USA Patriot Act. We can be assured in this unusual year that
“race,” however much some Americans would make it trivial, occupies a
central position in American thought. CNN did not miss a beat when it served up
narratives of victimization in July by way of the banquet series “Black in America.
” And the novelist and philosopher Charles R. Johnson has provided a piè c e
de ré sistance with his essay “The End of the Black American Narrative.”

This philosophical and theoretical essay ponders the link between the
traditional use of race in narratives of historical identity and the speculation that
the twenty-first century demands raceless and indeterminate American
narratives. It is a wonderful example of optimistic discourse about the power of

Anyone familiar with Johnson’s book Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970
(1988) might recognize the essay as an elaboration of his earlier point of
view about race and human existence. We can categorize the book as his
phenomenological examination of assumptions in the field of fiction, but the essay is
closer to a meditation on the function of fiction in everyday life a la Michel
de Certeau. The shift suggests that more than fiction is at issue, for we are
not exactly free to think that social science fictions are identical with
novels. Shot through with implications about the role of narrative in social
construction, the essay can foreclose both aesthetic and cognitive distance.
Although Johnson does warn against the pitfalls of following scripture, there is a
faint odor of the jeremiad in his rhetoric. And some of his readers, as
Frederick Douglass famously put it in his 1845 narrative, shall find themselves within
the circle and handicapped in efforts to witness “as those without might see
and hear.” Whether one is within or without, it is crucial to be aware that
Johnson can only partially write himself outside the circle of America’s
post-Enlightenment heritage.

It may be ironic that Johnson, so firmly possessed of the notion in Race and
Being that “art is not useful in the sense that a commodity is useful”(23),
now proposes a crafting of new identity narratives that would ultimately prove
to be pragmatic and utilitarian commodities in cultural and political
commerce. Beneath the surface of the essay silent theories about man’s life in
language flow, theories that resonate language games and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s
ponderings in Philosophical Investigations (1953) and that alert us to take
seriously certain of Noam Chomsky’s warnings about linguistics and current affairs in
Language and Responsibility (1979). If we remember that language is sometimes
an emperor who is aware of his nudity, we cling to the wisdom of the phrase
caveat emptor.

As readers we may tend to interpret the surface of Johnson’s essay rather
than its hidden dimensions. We ought to be especially attentive to the shape of
his argument. He begins with an admission of his indebtedness as a writer and a
person to a narrative “which emphasizes the experience of victimization.” In
Johnson’s telling the narrative begins with violence in the 17th -century
slave forts in West Africa. The alternative point of origin would be the much
earlier violations in the Arab slave trade. He notes carefully that the nominal
end of slavery as an American institution did not inaugurate real freedom and
inclusion for the formerly enslaved. The end resulted in American apartheid.
Johnson justly acknowledges and honors the sacrifices made by people in the long
history of struggles for civil rights, but he questions “the truth and
usefulness of the traditional black American narrative of victimization” that was
strategically crucial in those struggles. Convinced that the dream of Martin
Luther King, Jr. has recently morphed into reality, Johnson champions the view
that Black Americans are now full-fledged Americans, subject to all the
opportunities, slings, foibles, entitlements, and arrows that the state apparatus
provides. For him, Black Americans are now as culturally complex and as free as
their fellow citizens who are pigeonholed as Asian or European.

Whether we like or detest Johnson’s ideas, they do provoke grave questions
about the ontology of the American social contract. In seeking to answer those
questions we encounter what I would call the epistemological trap in Johnson’s
line of reasoning. The trap involves our confusing what we think reality is
the actuality of which it is a pale copy. The trap is quite Platonic. It would
be unkind to accuse Johnson of deliberately setting this trap. It is more just
to explain it as an accident of philosophy, especially an accident of
philosophy in association with narratology. Falling into the trap would force us to
have a debate about what is necessarily historical and is wastefully
ahistorical. The debate has no resolution, no ending point. It exists in the realm of
ideologies and is the kind of ideology that, in the words Johnson quotes from
Susan Griffin, “begins to destroy the self and self-knowledge.” Our inability to
know to what or to whom Johnson refers in using the pronoun “we” as he
argues that “we” can not assume the legitimacy in 2008 of “a destiny based on
color in which the meaning of one’s life is thinghood, created even before one is
born.” Americans are positioned within a dynamic social contract that nurtures
its character as a racial contract, despite our best efforts to bring the
Janus-face of the contract to the bar of justice. This position is eloquently
explained in The Racial Contract (1997) by Charles W. Mills. It is simply beyond
the power of narratives old or new to guarantee transcendence.

Johnson tries to extricate himself and his readers from an epistemological
trap by deflecting attention to Ralph Ellison’s idea about “invisibility” and
to the possibility that endless repetition and interpretation of a narrative “
can short-circuit direct perception of the specific phenomenon before us.” The
gesture only sends us on a search for the necessary and sufficient grounds for
believing that what is before before us (namely the various ways Black
Americans have created and used narratives) is specific rather than diffuse and
remarkably inventive and receptive to change. Johnson is right in suggesting that
the essence of a person’s life is not located in her or his victimization, and
it is unlikely that large numbers of black Americans have ever believed any
victimization they might have suffered was essential. As far as I know, we do
not have significant empirical evidence to make such a case. If Johnson seems
to be making that case slantwise as he argues that “the old black American
narrative has outlived its usefulness as a tool of interpretation,” I would offer
the counter-argument or hypothesis that the narrative has long been more g
enuinely a tool of critique rather than one of interpretation or hermeneutics.

“The End of the Black American Narrative” provokes me to stand in complete
but friendly opposition to Johnson’s idea that we embrace the making of “
narratives that do not claim to be absolute truth, but instead more humbly present
themselves as a very tentative thesis that must be tested every day in the
depths of our own experience….” At this point I speak only for myself and not
for any other Americans of whatever color. The narratives I hope to have a small
part in making will never leave behind the painful history of slavery and its
consequences, will never lend credibility to cultural amnesia that can be
fatal. Richard Lanham in The Motives of Eloquence (1976) invited us to think that
writers and thinkers can be either homo rhetoricus or homo seriosus. I choose
to be the latter, to preserve the possibility of having an irreducible
identity. In my writing and in my discussions with undergraduates at my university I
try never to tap-dance on quicksand. My narratives allow me to acknowledge
the presence of plurality and change in the process of human histories without
dissolving my identity and buying into the fashionable but infelicitous trends
of the twenty-first century in America. My refusal to embrace narratives of
rupture more than narratives of critical continuity is historical.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Dillard University
August 1, 2008

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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