Postmodernism and the “Black Experience”

Several posts have interrogated the placement of the novel Beloved within the framework of postmodernism. At first, I was also curious about the connection between postmodernism and historical fiction. Reading Davis’ article cleared up a few things, including the idea that rewriting history, or “rememory” as she terms it, can alter our view and understanding of history. However, I was still unsure about the reading of Beloved with a postmodern lens. (This has nothing to do with the contention that Morrison does not actually see her work as postmodern. Since postmodernism calls for the figurative “death of the author,” her opinion should not influence our understanding of the novel nor should it discourage us from thinking critically about the novel’s place within the postmodern critical framework.)

In an attempt to understand the connection between Beloved and postmodernism, I searched for any literature on the discussion of “postmodern blackness,” and found a useful article by bell hooks, published in Postmodern Culture in September 1990 ( Hooks argues that racism is actually perpetuated “when blackness is associated solely with a concrete gut level [black] experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory.” Although Hooks is skeptical about a clear relationship between postmodernism and the “black experience,” she is also skeptical of the tendency primarily of black literary scholars to dismiss the probability that there may be a meaningful connection there.

Hooks realizes that the black experience has been left out of the discussion of postmodernism: “Since much of this theory has been constructed in reaction to and against high modernism, there is seldom any mention of black experience or writings by black people in this work, specifically black women.” In light of this absence of black experience within postmodern works, she finds it strange and ironic that postmodernist discourse has often suggested that discussions of “difference and otherness” are considered legitimate issues in postmodernist thought: “It is sadly ironic that the contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience, one that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge.”

Now that I think about it, even Haraway’s discussion on cyborgs recognizes the necessity for innovative ways of operating and of relating to others in a postmodern world where partial identities are the standard rather than the deviation. In keeping with Haraway’s vision for a definition of feminism that is “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints,” cyborg theory accounts for and welcomes so-called ‘contradictory standpoints’ from women who are different in class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, nationality, religious beliefs, political party, and physical ability. Hooks seems to agree with this: “Radical postmodernist practice, most powerfully conceptualized as a ‘politics of difference,’ should incorporate the voices of displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed black people.”

Hooks concludes her discussion by asserting that “postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of the [African American] self and the assertion of agency.” I think this is a useful statement because it compels us to consider the benefits of viewing blackness and the black experience within another critical framework. Such a critique allows us to affirm the existence of multiple black identities, or a varied black experience, thereby challenging archetypes of black identity which represent blackness as one-dimensional in ways that reinforce white supremacy (Hooks).

Hence, I do believe that it is beneficial to discuss works of fiction that are not typically recognized as postmodern (such as Morrison’s Beloved) in a class on postmodernism. Confining our discussions of postmodernism to certain texts that are clearly postmodern defeats the purpose of making new connections and understanding the discourse from varied points of view. For example, if we don’t connect postmodernism to our discussion of Beloved, we may not be able to critically think about the fragmented identities of the characters in the novel as decentered subjects in relation to history, as Davis suggests. We may only be inclined to discuss the novel in light of the generic one-size-fits-all black experience that Hooks is desperately trying to escape.