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Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2

Essay

 

Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown

Yearning for the Homeland: The "Return to the Source" in Contemporary African-American Women's Fiction and Visual Art.


Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown (Ph.D. U of Texas) teaches English at Spelman College in Atlanta and has published on black women writers and visual artists.

 

From the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to the cultural nationalism of the 1960s, "back to Africa," "ancestralism," and the "return to the source" have constituted a cultural and aesthetic paradigm for African Americans. And despite a host of radical critiques, charges of sentimental idealism or banal exoticism, this "homing instinct," as Alain Locke called it, has persisted. As symbolic balm for the psychic wounds inflicted by slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, the motif of longing and return, especially during the decade of the sixties, articulated a desire for substantive change as well as a forceful critique of EuroAmerican cultural ideology. Equally important this yearning, as one critic has suggested, described a common ground where differences for African people both on the continent and in the diaspora could meet and engage one another (hooks 113).

In what follows I analyze works produced during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s by four African-American women artists, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Paule Marshall, and Toni Morrison, in terms of their conscious configuration of the "return to the source." The reclamation of African cultural and aesthetic traditions by these four artists during the 1970s and 1980s was, in great part, a consequence of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. During that now historic decade, the decade of the black aesthetic, the descriptive and prescriptive formulations advanced for "black art" were harnessed to certain other ideological formations. But because these formations were fundamentally masculinist in orientation, the art by these four women frame a womanist intervention. The consequence is that, while Saar's and Ringgold's visual representations and Morrison's and Marshall's fiction all configure a journey to the source, the journey proceeds along motherlines. Inscribing an Afrocentric consciousness, "the return to the source" in the works by these four artists establishes and affirms cultural continuity. At the same time, in specifying the black woman's experience, particularly her role in mothering, nurturing, and healing, these artists establish and affirm a certain matrilineal continuity as well.

Betye Saar, an academically trained artist from UCLA, has expressed the belief that "whatever we got from Africa we still have here"

(Britton 4). Saar, who has also explained that the intent for her early works was to "explode the myths" associated with black American cultural heritage, situates African materials and symbols with derogatory folk icons in mixed media assemblages and collages placed in boxes. In refusing to formulate a subject from a single medium, collage and assemblage invite disjunctures in meaning and embrace discontinuities and fragments (Liss 3). The works Saar produced during the sixies, the seventies, and the early eighties emphasize the fragmentation of the African-American cultural experience and censure its distortion. At the same time, these works suggest that despite and even through distortion, African culture in the diaspora endures.

Imitation of Life (fig. 1), which takes its title from the two American films sentimentalizing race and gender oppression, explores cultural endurance along motherlines. This work, which consists of two contrasting images placed in the lid and cavity of a cheap tin box, contains a doll figure of Aunt Jemima, the stereotypical black American mammy, standing on a "pedestal" of human teeth against a background pasted with a newspaper ad for her sale. The sale announcement, advertising Jemima's skill as plain cook, laundress, and dairy maid, details the ages of her four children and reads, "2 of the children will be sold with the mother, the others separately."

This first image, evoking the horror of the slave trade, specifically the economic imperative which required the African woman to serve as breeder (as it denied her the privilege of raising her children), is one of several violent transformations of Aunt Jemima produced by black American artists during the 1960s. With the hand grenade in her fist, Saar's liberated Jemima articulates resistance and struggle. With the clock in her womb, the work assigns new value to her role as breeder, suggesting that both Jemima and her progeny are a "time bomb," that the distorted, dehumanized image of the black woman as mammy is destined for explosion. In contrast, the pale photo-etching of the black mother and infant in the lid of the box evokes a certain awe and reverence. Subverting the distortion of the first image, this second image inscribes "the return to the source" through the reclamation of the classic African status of motherhood.

Gris Gris Box (fig. 2), with the amulets and charms of "gris gris" (a term for the process and paraphernalia of black American folk magic), inscribes cultural and matrilineal continuity through the representation of African religio-philosophical principles and their retention by women. The doll, which may be seen either as fetish, priestess, or conjure woman, is encased in a box containing other boxes or secret inner compartments. Beneath the box are reptile skins used in vodun ceremonies to represent the power and presence of the loas. Here Saar not only links diasporic folk religions, vodun, conjure and hoodoo, to their original African source, but situates the role of women in preserving and bearing the spiritual legacy.

A self-identified, black feminist artist whose works have been labeled "Afrofemcentric," Faith Ringgold conveys her sense of Africanite and "the return to the source" through the conscious adaptation of African design patterns and the use of African mystical and cosmological beliefs. The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro (fig. 3), a performance piece and environmental installation with four life-sized soft sculptures and several mask figures, inscribes these mystical and cosmological beliefs. Conceived after Ringgold's first trip to Africa, Wake and Resurrection is patterned on the African "festival as art event" in which masks and sculptures are worn, carried, or merely present for people collectively creating life-sustaining rituals. In Ringgold's performance, dancers mime the event of a black American wake which culminates in a uniquely African resurrection.

During the performance, the two dead figures of Buba and Bena are laid out on a "cooling pad" surrounded by the figures of the mourning mothers, Moma and Nana. Through the spiritual powers associated with African women diviners, these mothers resurrect their dead children, one who has died of a drug overdose and the other who has succumbed to grief. While this work draws on the pan-African belief in the life of spirits after death, Wake and Resurrection relates in a specific way to the special powers attributed to African women diviners.

As Dominique Zahan reports, these women have the ability to mediate between the spirit world and the world of the living. Moreover, from their own experience of symbolic death and resurrection, they are believed to have the power to transmit to humans the wishes of the spirits to effect resurrection (83­84). In attributing this power to Moma and Nana, Ringgold establishes continuity, matrilineal continuity in particular, between African women diviners and the urban black American mothers.

Women bequeathing to other women the material forms of culture informs Mother's Quilt (fig. 4), the work completed two years after the death of Ringgold's mother. In explaining how the tradition of quilt making, a EuroAmerican woman's art form, was maintained in her family, Ringgold recalls how her mother, Willie Posey, often told the story of her own enslaved great-grandmother, Suzie Shannon, who boiled and bleached flour sacks until they were as "white as snow" to line the quilts she made for her owners. Ringgold consequently surmises: "[U]ndoubtedly many of the early American quilts with repetitive geometric designs [were] slave made and African influenced" (84).

Without the narrative text characterizing the quilts Ringgold produced later, Mother's Quilt offers a visual experience primarily. The frontally-portrayed faces of black women with jeweled or sequined eyes are situated against a background of bold, intense color—variegated reds, oranges, and yellows in the women's dresses and floral borders. Contrasting subject and background to the degree to form "synthesis," Mother's Quilt may be said to consciously appropriate the African design principle of repetition with difference. In situating each face like the others but making each one different, this work achieves the "syncopated rhythm" which is regarded as a distinct feature of black American aesthetic sensibilities (Jarrell 18­19). Equally important this sensibility, with origins in Africa, articulates "the return to the source" through conscious choice and preference by the artist.

***

To advance thematic definitions of continuity and return, Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall use the structural device of the journey in their fiction. In Morrison's Tar Baby and Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, the movement of characters through geographical space reverses the historical journey of African slaves to the new world. Beginning typically in "first world" cities, this journey advances to the Caribbean and concludes symbolically at the African "source."

Morrison's Tar Baby abstracts this journey of return first by creating a new dialogue with "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story," a folktale which has more than twenty-five documented variants throughout the diaspora (Parsons 48­52). In the North American variant Morrison uses, a white farmer places a tar-covered doll by the side of a road to trap Brer Rabbit. After he is stuck to the tar baby, Brer Rabbit pleads with the farmer for his life. "Skin me,…snatch out my eyeballs, tear out my ears…cut off my legs, but please don't fling me into the briar patch." Wanting to inflict the worst possible harm on the rabbit, the farmer does just that: he flings him into the briar patch. Moments later, the farmer hears laughter and finally Brer Rabbit's taunt, "Born and bred in the briar patch…born and bred in the briar patch" (Cole 668).

Toni Morrison explains the influence of this tale on the novel when she reveals that despite its funny, happy ending, the story "worried" her. She questioned why the "extraordinary solution" to trap the rabbit involved tar and which of the two views of the briar patch—the farmer's and the rabbit's—was "right" (O'Meally 197). The fruition of the writer's "worrying" is a novel which not only situates two views of nature and culture, referenced by Karla Holloway as "African values" and "Western chaos" (117), but which also defines, through the configuration of the "return to the source," which view is "right."

Set principally on the fictitious Caribbean island, Isle de Chevaliers, Tar Baby chronicles the complexities of interracial and intraracial relationships. But essentially the novel is the story of Jadine Childs, a "bourgeoise black woman" and Son Green, a "down home" black man. Jadine is a sophisticated art historian, high-fashion model, and part-time actress. Son is a fugitive musician on the run for killing his wife. Like the tar baby in the folktale, Jadine lures and entraps Son. Realizing her embrace is destructive, Son eventually releases himself from Jadine's grasp and at the end of the novel runs like Brer Rabbit, "lickety-lickety-lickety split" to a mythic tribe of blind horsemen, making a return to a mythic, symbolic African "source."

Through the legend of the blind horsemen and the swamp women from Sein de Veilles, the narrative renders the two views of the briar patch as two views of nature and culture. The tribe of blind horsemen and the swamp women, descendants of the slaves who were struck blind the moment they saw the island, are metaphoric representations of the African cultural past. As marooned communities, communities of Africans never enslaved, both have had the opportunity to preserve links with nature and sustain their own social order to ensure continuity.

The women from Sein de Veilles, however, delineate more precisely the narrative's definitions of continuity along motherlines. With their "pitch-like" smell linking them to the earth substance tar, the women of the swamp sisterhood are simultaneously "earth mothers" and what Morrison calls "diaspora mothers" (288). More importantly, having sustained their links with nature and culture, they have maintained the "sacred properties" which ensure human and cultural continuity.

Tar, as metaphor for these properties, is perhaps the most expansive and complex in the whole of the narrative. As Angelita Reyes has discerned, tar is first a metaphor for both bonding and entrapment (25). When Jadine almost sinks into the pit of pitch-like substance near the swamps, tar suggests entrapment. But Jadine's efforts to extricate herself are overseen by the swamp women hanging from the trees, women for whom tar is bonding. Initially delighted when they see Jadine, for they think a runaway child has been restored to them, the women hanging from the trees soon begin to wonder at this diaspora child's "desperate struggle" to be free, to "be something other than they were." For these women with a pitch-like smell, tar is not only meta phor for their bonding, but for their "value," their "exceptional femaleness."

In attributing the bonding properties of tar to these women, the narrative ultimately presents another view of the folk stereotype and makes "tar baby" into something more than and different from the doll used to ensnare Brer Rabbit. As Morrison explains, after she discovered there was a tar lady in African mythology, she started thinking about tar. "At one time, a tar pit was a holy place—because tar was used to build things. It came naturally out of the earth; it held together things like Moses's little boat and the pyramids" (Le Clair 17).

Morrison also recollects that "tar baby" was a name white people called black children: "black girls as I recall. For me the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together" (Le Clair 27). Though she is likened to the tar baby in the folktale where tar represents entrapment, Jadine fails to become the tar baby as reconfigured in the novel: that is, a true daughter of the African tar lady with the bonding quality of tar, the "sacred property" which enables diasporic black women to "hold things together."

While Tar Baby, with Son's sudden retreat to a mythic, primal source, abstracts the journey of return, Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow renders it experientially concrete, as physically, psychically, and spiritually arduous. Marshall has stated that she firmly believes it is "absolutely necessary" for black people to make a spiritual journey of return, and that her aesthetic intent is "to initiate readers to the challenges this journey entails" (Williams 52).

To emphasize that the journey is spiritual and to initiate readers to its challenges, Marshall selects as protagonist a sixty-two-year-old, upper-middle-class black woman, places her in first class accommodations aboard a Caribbean cruiser, and begins the novel with her psychic dislocation. Having decided to desert the cruiser and her travelling companions, Avey is anxious, irrational and fearful as she strains to pack her six suitcases. The source of her anxiety is a dream she has had two days earlier, a dream in which her great aunt Cuney, the woman with whom she had spent her childhood summers in South Carolina, issues her a patient "summons."

South Carolina, a community much like the actual Tatemville, Georgia, profiled in the 1940 survival study, Drums and Shadows (65­72). And in the extended description of this community, a community in which memories of slavery, emancipation, and "pure born" Africans are still very much alive, the narrative inscribes the return through cultural retention. The extant African customs and traditions detailed in Tatem, like those later described in Marshall's narrative, link the diaspora to Africa by means of cultural survivals, one of which is the ritual of storytelling.

Twice weekly, Aunt Cuney, whose own grandmother had been "pure born" African, takes Avey to Ibo Landing and recounts the story her grandmother had told of Ibos, who walked water "like solid ground" back to Africa. Aunt Cuney's story of Ibos walking water, like other folktales which implied a return to Africa, affirmed continuity and identity. It was with such stories that people of African descent emphasized their own power, however mystical or fantastic, to determine their destinies. Though their bodies were enslaved, they could recall Africa as spiritual homeland.

Aunt Cuney's story, in delineating the role of women in maintaining cultural traditions like storytelling, links thematic definitions of cultural continuity to matrilineal continuity. The story of Ibo Landing survives primarily through generations of women. Just as Aunt Cuney's grandmother tells her the story, she tells it to Avey who in turn recounts "the whole thing almost word to word" to her brothers and later to her husband.

In the same way, the pivotal rituals of nurturing, healing, and renewal, recollected and enacted by women, affirm cultural and matrilineal continuity in the novel. While the old man, Lebert Joseph, initiates the healing process for Avey with the drink of coconut water and rum he gives her in his shop, women are the ones who assume primary responsibility for regeneration and rehabilitation.

It is Lebert Joseph's daughter, Rosalie Parvay, who performs the final ritual of physical and psychic renewal for Avey. And it is the ritual of bathing, kneading, and anointing Avey's flesh which evokes memories of nurturing, healing, and birth. First, as Lebert's daughter oils, kneads, and stretches her limbs, Avey remembers stretching the limbs of her own babies after their baths, "To see to it that the bones grew straight" (222). During the night, in her altered states of consciousness, Avey confuses Rosalie Parvay with other women-healers in her life, "her mother holding in her hands a bottle of medicine and a spoon, the nurse in the hospital—leaning over her spent body to announce it was healthy and a girl" (217). It is at this point that the narrative delineates mothering and healing as communal responsibilities. While Avey has slept, one woman who had helped her with the purging on the schooner drops by and leaves a "flawless avocado" for her meal. Another leaves a packet of herbs for tea to restore Avey's strength.

Finally, to reconcile the complexities associated with cultural continuity and continuity along motherlines, the narrative links the communal with the personal. Soon after Lebert Joseph enacts the communal beg pardon, Avey enacts the same ritual privately, begging pardon to her great aunt Cuney. As a triumph of humility rather than humiliation, Avey's beg pardon links her again to a source of power, to that "vast unknown lineage" which had made her being possible. In the Nation dance which follows, though Avey cannot call her "nation," she can and does call her name, Avatara, the African name given to her by Aunt Cuney.

With the metaphorical journey to the "source," the spiritual return to Africa complete, the narrative returns to the theme of continuity. In the last chapter, the narrator tells us Avey will return to Tatem and rebuild her aunt's old house to serve as summer camp for her own grandchildren and others. And to fulfill the mission entrusted to her by Aunt Cuney, Avey will take the children to the Landing twice weekly and recount the story of the Ibos. "It was here that they brought them," she would begin…as had been ordained. "They took them out the boats right where we're standing" (256).

Avey's retelling and recreating the story of Ibo Landing is, in effect, a re-creation and a "reinvention" of Africa. In Praisesong for the Widow, as in the works by Morrison, Saar, and Ringgold, Africa becomes not only a place to which one may return, but an imaginative "space" which one may create. In representing, re-creating, and reinventing Africa, these four women reformulate the notions of "home," of "mother" culture, and of art. In so doing, they re-position themselves and their aesthetic presence.

 

WORKS CITED

Britton, Crystal. "Betye Saar." Art Papers 8.3 (1984): 4.

Cole, Joanna. Best Loved Folktales. New York: Anchor, 1983.

Holloway, Karla F.C. "African Values and Western Chaos." New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. Eds. Karla F. C. Holloway and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos. Contributions in Women's Studies 84. New York: Greenwood, 1987. 117­29.

hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990.

Jarrell, Wadsworth A. "Heading for a Black Aesthetic." Art Papers 9.6 (1985): 16­19.

Le Clair, Thomas. "A Conversation with Toni Morrison: 'The Language Must Not Sweat.'" New Republic 21 Mar. 1981: 25­32.

 

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