Richard Wright's Black Medusa.

Author:Wallace, Maurice

I'm honored to have been invited to participate in this brilliant event, and to have been thought of alongside such a great a company of teachers and scholars as those with whom I am sharing today's panels. As much as I have long adored Claudia Tate, I must admit that had I known who'd also speak this afternoon when I eagerly and rather adolescently accepted the invitation to Princeton (without so much as asking who else had been invited), another mind, that of an untried neophyte, might well have prevailed. I revere every one of this symposium's participants. Among my venerated colleagues today, I would like to single out, briefly, Professor Hazel Carby, the panelist I know best because I formerly held an appointment in African and African American Studies at Yale under her leadership. Looking back over my short six-year career during which I have served under seven chairs in four departments at two institutions, Hazel Carby remains, far and away, the most expert, visionary, and fearless of them all. This is in no way to overlook the executive superiority of so many others at institutions whose leadership I know only by reputation--and there are not a few here today--but to make a public acknowledgment, one inflected by personal experience, of the sort I understand Professor Nell Irvin Painter to have urged us so rightly toward in her article "Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception" in The Chronicle of Higher Education of December 2001. What she has called for, in fact, is exactly the sort of public, collegially imprimaturing acknowledgment, different only by degree, that inspired this symposium from the first and has brought us together today.

Needless to say, I share with everyone assembled today the most profound regard for the unwavering intellectual boldness and critical erudition of Claudia Tate, whose work from Black Women Writers at Work to Domestic Allegories of Political Desire and, most recently, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels I have followed from 1985, when, with Claudia's scholarship before me, I wrote one of my very first freshman compositions at Washington University in St. Louis on Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, to my senior honors thesis there on gender politics in Hurston and Walker, to, more recently, my dissertation and forthcoming first book on black masculinity. I want to point out that these latter projects, both still very much with me, owe significant debts to the insights of Domestic Allegories and Psychoanalysis and Black Novels. However, it is to Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, specifically, that I want to turn today, and still more pointedly, to its criticisms of Richard Wright, whose first novel Native Son I consider the locus classicus of what can only be called the problem of the black masculine in African American letters. I have called black masculinity a problem in this context because, historically considered, the terms black and masculine tend to operate as mutually exclusive signifiers in the modern period without a great many black men seeming to notice or acknowledge it. Both Claudia Tate's analytically piercing understanding of Wright's compulsive plots of violence that act out of "a primary sexual trauma...generat[ing] murderous [and mother-directed] rage" and her lament that hardly a single one of us has formally or otherwise attended sufficiently to the psychosexual bases of Wright's violence-in-excess have drawn me, under the critical exigency of that regret, back to a reconsideration of the maternal conflict in Native Son and that phenomenon's anomalous representation. (1) Native Son, an ambivalently cathartic psychodrama of repressed rage at the black mother, I want to argue, is acted out in the pale lig ht of Mary Dalton's bedroom the fateful night of her murder between Bigger and, perhaps surprisingly, the unlikely surrogacy of Mrs. Dalton, a surrogacy made imaginable to us by Claudia Tate's gesturing towards the private, "surplus" representation of ostensibly "white" constructions in black writing. Cast according to a conspicuously Freudian script, the maternal conflict is enacted in the castrative menace of Mrs. Dalton's Medusan face and searching hands poised to uncover Bigger alongside Mary's bed. Claudia Tate's discerning remark that "the gratuitous and compulsive" violence depicted in Wright's fiction "seems as threatening as looking into the face of the Medusa," (2) in other words, turns out to be, in the specific context of Native Son, more dramatically right than possibly she knew. In a manner extending from Claudia Tate's reading of Savage Holiday, and following her thesis that "we can illuminate the manifest racial meaning of the prominent texts by canonical black writers by probing the latent co ntent in their corresponding noncanonical works," (3) I want to suggest, from the classical Freudian angle I am convinced, owing to Claudia Tate, Wright held to, that a deconstruction of...

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