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Playing with Expectations

Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel


Preston Park Cooper

Playing with Expectations: Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel explores a merging of works by African American novelists to promote critical acceptance of postmodern literature and advance the legitimacy and usefulness of postmodern literary techniques. This book examines novels by Ishmael Reed, Charles Johnson, and Toni Morrison, and two novels by comparative newcomer Colson Whitehead – all of whom have used postmodern techniques not only to help their work be read, but to gain a racially wide audience that is open, willing, and able to understand.
Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of local narratives and grand narratives helps show how African American novels, using postmodern strategies, function as small-scale narratives. Consequently, these narratives, set up in opposition to hegemonic metanarratives, offer readers an alternative mode of thinking to that offered by the larger, more widely diffused and self-distributing grand narratives. By providing realistic characters in ways that defy the typical grand narratives of race, as well as the expectations of storytelling itself, readers are stimulated into new realizations about previously accepted ideas, and become prepared to spread the now-realized truth about the inaccuracies of the racist grand narratives.
This book is a vital and thought-provoking addition to the ongoing conversation about storytelling and race, and will engage readers in classroom discussions dealing with race, postmodernism, or twentieth-century literature in a more general sense.
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Chapter Four: Toni Morrison


← 86 | 87 → CHAPTER FOUR

Toni Morrison is arguably the most famous African American novelist since Ralph Ellison. Some of Morrison’s works are less postmodern than other works. The most examined and famous of Morrison’s novels is Beloved. Some examples of metanarratives which Beloved undermines are the observations which follow.

First of all, “We know what slavery was like and what its ramifications are, and their potency has been diminished and can perhaps be dismissed.” One of Morrison’s most common contentions concerns the traumatic power of slavery in African American consciousness. Her works often reveal her belief that the argument of the power of slavery is a narrative that racism seeks to undermine, to deny, because her works are often powerful pieces of evidence proving the damaging pain caused by racism. Beloved works to fight the metanarrative that dismisses the proof that racism’s damage was caused by slavery.

Second, “There is one interpretation for reality, based on white expectation.” In the novel, Sethe’s local narrative shows that the emotional and spiritual pain of racism cannot always be defined by the cold, logical, scientific approach of, say, the character of schoolteacher. Morrison takes pains to show that African Americans must take control of reality or of their perceptions of it, which is often done by throwing off racist metanarratives.

Third, “The African-American identity is, and should be, linked to the present, not the past, because there is nothing worthwhile in the past.” Although ← 87...

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