The postmodern writers, Ishmael Reed, Octavia Butler and Ernest Gaines offered their views about how they imagined the future of America in terms of race. This paper will present their distinct perspectives on the future of race in America and will analyze whether their premonition was an accurate portrayal of their future.
Literature does not merely reflect the authors’ point of view, it also reflects the political, economic and social conditions of their immediate society, one within the author is necessarily a part of. Ishmael Reed’s stories and memories provide glimpses of what it means to live in his time, what it means to dwell in different places and most importantly, what it means to be black in America.
Ishmael Reed was active in several cultural organizations during his life. He was witness to the height of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. He was also witness to birth of the Black Arts and Black Power movements, as well as various radical “underground” integrated political-cultural organizations. During those turbulent times, racism is not a mere issue, it was a fact that was lived and felt by the black community.
Reed’s evolving role as a cultural critic can be seen in Writin’ Is Fightin’. It can be seen within Reeds work that he differs from most oppositional critics in that, for all his egotism, he sincerely likes his country, likes the particolored cast of contemporary culture. And at the center of his contentious plan is a dignified vision of the United States “as a planet-nation—a nation that is generated by diversity and cultural exchange between people of different backgrounds”. In several essays, he explores the diverse traditions given by the African migration. The United States can, he feels, “become a place where the cultures of the world crisscross … This is possible because the United States is unique in the world: The world is here.” These are the passions of nationalism in the service of internationalism; or possibly vice versa (Gates 631)
Reeds literary framework is infused by his rare blend of the visual, verbal, prosaic and poetic, fictional and factual, serious and satiric, African, as well as American traditions. His postmodern inclinations reflect even his views on racism and ethnicity and how it should be approached.
As an African-American woman, Octavia Butler, wrote in the white male dominated genre of science fiction. In her literature, Butler explored such unconventional issues as race, gender, sexual identity, and the dynamics of power and submission. Butler’s characters, who are often black women, exemplify the traditional gender roles of nurturer, healer, and peacemaker, but they also are courageous, independent, and ambitious, enhancing their influence through alliances with or opposition to powerful males (Krstovic 244).
A recurring theme in Butler’s work is race and slavery. This can be especially seen in her first novel, Kindred, which tells a story of a black woman who is transported back in time to the historical South. The woman, who is African American, has been summoned there to save the life of a slave owners white son, who turned out to be the woman’s ancestor. Butler’s narrative allows the reader to experience, with great immediacy, the horrific indignity of slavery and racism through her character.
As with Ishmael Reed, Butler’s literary work was predisposed by the institutional racism and segregation she faced throughout her life. When she began writing she was often told she would be unsuccessful and cannot be a writer because she was a black women and black women were not writers. Butler once explained that it was her mother’s experiences that shaped her writing, saying, “I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors. If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So, I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure (Fox).” It was these experiences that influenced her writing and shined a light on critical social issues. She’s attributed with using the science fiction realm to depict real-life matters involving race and power imbalances.
Octavia Butler’s future of America can be seen through her writing, particularly in Parable of the Talents, which was published during a particularly grueling time in American history. One of the most telling moments in the book comes when she described the political sentiments of President Jarret. When delivering speeches Jarret would excite his supporters by arousing biblical morality of good versus bad and tapping into the single-minded patriotism that found strength in dominance, saying “Leave your sinful past behind and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.” Butler wrote Jarret as a cruel and unfit leader, and she saw him in the fabric of American society. He was someone who could be shaped by the very structures on which America was built on; black and homegrown genocide. Lauren Olamina, one of Butler’s main characters wrote “The 13th and 14th amendments — the ones abolishing slavery and guaranteeing citizenship rights — still exist, but they’ve been so weakened by custom, by Congress and the various state legislatures, and recent Supreme Court decisions that they don’t much matter” about the state of crime in America in the year 2032.
Ernest Gaines is a storyteller of the deep South, specifically of the black experience in rural Louisiana during the three decades following World War II. His main setting, former slave quarters located near the town of Bayonne, closely mirrors the actual surroundings of Gaines’s boyhood: the quarters on River Lake Plantation and the town of New Roads. This world, remote for most readers, becomes in Gaines’s novels a literary microcosm, inhabited principally by blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns, all treated with a simple honesty and direct style that are the hallmarks of his fiction.
As with fellow postmodern authors Ishmael Reed and Octavia Butler, Ernest Gaines’s fictional themes often originate in his own experience. His male characters search for an identity at a time when change was hard-won, and self-esteem required the courage to reject a demeaning place in a world in which wealth, prestige, and power belonged exclusively to white people. In those turbulent years of the mid-twentieth century, escape from poverty and racial servility often involved flight to the North or West, but at great emotional cost and with a deep sense of alienation and loss
Gaines depicts the strength and dignity of his black characters in the face of numerous struggles: the dehumanizing and destructive effects of racism; the breakdown in personal relationships as a result of social pressures; and the choice between secured traditions and the sometimes radical measures necessary to bring about social change “So many of our writers have not read any farther back than [Richard Wright’s] Native Son. So many of our novels deal only with the great city ghettos; that’s all we write about, as if there’s nothing else.” Gaines continued: “We’ve only been living in these ghettos for seventy-five years or so, but the other three hundred years—I think this is worth writing about.” (Matthews 1329)
Fox, Margalit. “Octavia E. Butler, Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 58.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Mar. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/03/01/books/octavia-e-butler-science-fiction-writer-dies-at-58.html.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Reed, Ishmael (1938–)”. African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001, pp. 629-650. Gale Virtual Reference Library Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.
Krstovic, Jelena O. “Butler, Octavia 1947–2006.” Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2008, pp. 244-258. Gale Virtual Reference Library Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.
Matthews, Tracey L. “Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–.” Concise Major 21st Century Writers, vol. 2, Gale, 2006, pp. 1325-1331. Gale Virtual Reference Library Accessed 21 Nov. 2018.
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