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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 Six: Conclusion


← 156 | 157 → CHAPTER SIX

In Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed tells the reader, using a dictionary definition, that the term Mumbo-Jumbo is a corruption of an African term for a “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away” (1972, p. 9). This theme underlies Mumbo Jumbo the novel, and Reed comes back to it again in Flight to Canada. However, one should keep in mind how Reed is interested in pointing out not only how white culture appropriates black stories, but also how African American novels, such as his, proceed to take them back, to correct the past, and then to appease somewhat the spirits of the troubled ancestors. If this motive is not an achievable end, the novels can at least serve to point out that the ancestors and their stories deserve to be appeased in the first place. It is metaphorically possible, however, to actually appease them, to take their stories back and place them in their proper mood and cultural context from point of cultural origin. One might compare this sense of imbuing a text with a special purpose with the nature of the Jes Grew story-spirit from Mumbo Jumbo, which seems to act with a will of its own in seeking out its holy book.

Certainly these choices on Reed’s part are in opposition to entrenched cultural expectation. Colson Whitehead sometimes seems to apply this oppositional approach to plot itself by thinking about what would be typical and choosing a path...

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