Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist


Poet, novelist, essayist, editor, anthologist, lexicographer, and painter, Clarence Major is one of the most challenging, prolific, yet underappreciated contemporary African American artists. This collection combines poetry, prose, and art by Major with critical essays by leading scholars that showcase Major's aesthetic movement across literary, cultural, and political boundaries and illuminate the complex relationship between the artist's writing and painting.

Although Major's ...

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Poet, novelist, essayist, editor, anthologist, lexicographer, and painter, Clarence Major is one of the most challenging, prolific, yet underappreciated contemporary African American artists. This collection combines poetry, prose, and art by Major with critical essays by leading scholars that showcase Major's aesthetic movement across literary, cultural, and political boundaries and illuminate the complex relationship between the artist's writing and painting.

Although Major's artistic vision is grounded in the historical experiences of black and Native American peoples, he boldly experiments with crossing boundaries of all types. His use of different narrative voices is evidence of what editor Bernard Bell calls Major's "double consciousness" as an African American artist.

This collection highlights the breadth of Major's work, his transformation into a postmodern artist, and the hybrid voices of his literary and visual productions. By presenting Major's poetry, novels, and paintings alongside critical interpretations of these works, this book makes possible a long-overdue examination of a multitalented artist.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Employing his formidable critical skills, Bernard W. Bell investigates the work of one of the century's most complex artists. (Ishmael Reed, University of California, Berkeley)

Bernard Bell's expansive anthology of writings by and about this protean figure in American arts is itself a major venture. It is an excellent collection of instigating essays that present valuable debates among themselves, debates about the changing nature of contemporary African-American writing and disputatious views on the subject of the postmodern. (Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Loyola Marymount University)

Ishmael Reed
Employing his formidable critical skills, Bernard W. Bell investigates the work of one of the century's most complex artists.
Aldon Lynn Nielsen
Bernard Bell's expansive anthology of writings by and about this protean figure in American arts is itself a major venture. It is an excellent collection of instigating essays that present valuable debates among themselves, debates about the changing nature of contemporary African-American writing and disputatious views on the subject of the postmodern.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807848999
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 1/22/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.17 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernard W. Bell is professor of American and African American literatures in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University. He is author, editor, or coeditor of seven previous books, including The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition and Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of African American Literary Tradition.

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Clarence Major and His Art

Portraits of an African American Postmodernist

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2000 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-4899-9


Although Clarence Major's poetry is known in some circles and his novels in others, the full range of his work is neither widely known nor generally taught, even in black institutions. Poet, novelist, essayist, editor, anthologist, lexicographer, and painter, Major is one of the most compelling, challenging, prolific, and multitalented contemporary American artists of African descent. Inspired as a teenager by the impressionistic paintings of van Gogh and the symbolist poetry of Rimbaud, as well as by such black writers as Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and Willard Motley, Major has produced a collection of art whose trajectory suggests the complex dynamics of his transgressive voice and double consciousness as an African American postmodernist artist. By transgressive I mean boldly moving beyond traditional literary limits and cultural boundaries in experimenting with different, occasionally multiple, narrative voices. Although voice refers basically to informal everyday speaking and to formal public oratory, it is used here primarily to signify the reader's sense of the particular qualities of the human presence, especially intellectual, political, and moral sensibility, that has selected, constructed, and expressed the pattern of materials in the text. By double consciousness I mean, on the most basic level, the sociocultural and sociopsychological doubleness or dualism of Major's cultural productions. This double consciousness ranges from editing the Journal of Black Poetry and writing "A Black Criteria" in the late 1960s to writing a column for the American Poetry Review in the 1970s and founding the Fiction Collective with Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and other white writers in order to control the production and distribution of their avant-garde publications.

Some readers may resist-or reject-Major's bold assumption of the consciousness and voices of a Navajo guitar player and folksinger in his novel Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar (1988), of a black southern matriarch in Such Was the Season (1987), and of blues singers in Dirty Bird Blues (1996). But as his boundary-crossing in these books and the discussion of hybrid identities in the introduction to his anthology of twentieth-century African American short stories, Calling the Wind (1993), make explicit, Major believes that "to some degree doubleness describes the condition of all Americans, whether or not they know it" (Calling the Wind xviii). A 1993 California exhibition of his watercolor paintings and the 1994 publication of Juba to Jive, the revised and expanded edition of his 1970 dictionary of African American slang, are additional milestones that chart the ironies and paradoxes of the boundaries Major has crossed to become one of the most critically respected black American postmodernist artists. Moving beyond the apparent academic exclusivity, aesthetic elitism, and critical jargon of much postmodern art, Major invites general readers and students, as well as book reviewers and literary critics, to join him in becoming explorers of interior landscapes and the complex contemporary relationships of life to art and language to literature.

Major's complex style and structure may be the primary reasons that we find his books on neither the New York Times's best-seller lists nor Oprah's Book Club. Many readers, especially African Americans, not only reject a willing suspension of disbelief to experimental fiction by black writers but also resist the authority and authenticity of a black American postmodernist artist who seeks to reduce reality and the quest for an imaginary new democratic social order to a linguistic invention. But like Ishmael Reed, the most frequently identified and critically acclaimed African American postmodernist, Major responded to the excessive violations of artistic freedom and racial chauvinism of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s by rejecting social realism. His imaginative processes and products are nevertheless still grounded in a compelling, occasionally playful blend of visual, visceral, and cerebral interior responses to social reality. Turning to a different muse and joining a Fiction Collective of white experimental writers to publish his novels during the 1970s and 1980s, Major challenges readers to join him in subordinating race to impressionistic and expressionistic explorations of sex, language, identity, and cultural hybridity as a liberating, imaginative construction and affirmation of self.

On one level, then, the dialectic and dialogic tension in Major's art is between Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism. Afrocentrism means many things to many people, based on their ideological position; it is not necessarily the demonizing of whites, the deification of blacks, or the disuniting of America. In contrast to the paradoxical enslavement and enlightenment of nonwhite, non-Western peoples by the Christianizing, civilizing agents of Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism is most constructively defined and practiced as a pedagogical mode of humanistic, critical inquiry that is grounded in the experiences of peoples of African descent. Unlike Eurocentrism, it does not legitimize itself by suppressing other points of view (Wiley 20-21). Instead, by affirming the evidence of paleoanthropologists, molecular biologists, and population geneticists that Africa was the cradle of humankind, Afrocentrism at its best seeks to validate and valorize a nonhierarchical, multiracial, multiethnic world order. Therefore, readers who respond to Major's cultural syncretism and to highly selective details of the shifting moods of characters and scenes at specific moments will discover alternative, nonlogical ways of knowing and being in the world with others.

Mapping the historical trajectory of the frequently quoted classic definition of double consciousness by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Major glosses the comments on American ethnic identity by George S. Schuyler, Toni Morrison, Jack Hicks, William Boelhower, and Werner Sollors. He writes in his introduction to Calling the Wind:

The American presence is so varied and so complex that exchange and conflict between the black image and the white image tend absurdly to diminish the richness of a network of ethnic cultures that truly is the American human landscape. Most individuals in these groups feel some sense of doubleness, feel their otherness and their Americanness. One indication of an internal struggle can be seen in their tendency to hyphenate the names signaling the two different selves-African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, and so on. (xviii)

Black American postmodernism, in other words, strongly suggests a specific racial, historical, and cultural relationship to white American modernism and postmodernism. This relationship is best expressed through some form of oppositional discourse or dialectic derived from and appropriate to the particular experiences of difference, marginality, and Otherness that have shaped the consciousness of the artist, especially, in this case, his attitude toward life, art, language, and literature.

Even though he wrote the frequently anthologized "A Black Criteria" (1967), which called for black poets to destroy the hold of white standards on their minds and work, edited the Journal of Black Poetry (1968) and The New Black Poetry (1969), and published the often-quoted Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), Major disavows ever being a black cultural nationalist. Because black cultural nationalism ranges widely in meaning from racial and ethnic pride to radical Pan-Africanist activism, and because he has long resisted violations of artistic freedom from blacks as well as whites, this disavowal reinforces Major's practice of subordinating politics to his aesthetic principles. Responding in 1973 to a question about the thesis of "A Black Criteria," he stated that he found "repulsive the idea of calling for black writers to do anything other than what they each choose to do.... No style or subject should be alien to them. We have to get away from this rigid notion that there are certain topics and methods reserved for black writers. I'm against all that. I'm against coercion from blacks and from whites" (O'Brien 129). In 1986 he told a reporter, "Even from the first, I kept writing about the human condition, not necessarily the black condition.... I do not write racial literature. I am a human being first, and then a black man. I write books about people who are black, yes, but they are human beings first. Of course, I am a member of my family, my race, my culture, but I feel a kinship with people of good will and integrity, no matter their color or background" (Carlin 35). For many readers this statement probably evokes disturbing memories of their own double consciousness, as well as that of important modernist black writers, ranging from Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen to Robert Hayden and James McPherson.

Unlike these black modernists, and like white European American postmodernists Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, and Ronald Sukenick, Major believes that the novel is a linguistic invention that exists on its own terms. He is therefore concerned, he explains to an interviewer, with writing "one that takes on its own reality and is really independent of anything outside itself.... You begin with words and you end with words. The content exists in our minds. I don't think that it has to be a reflection of anything. It is a reality that has been created inside of a book. It's put together and exists finally in your mind" (O'Brien 130).

How, then, is black postmodernism different from modernism? For many white academic literary critics the term modernism generally refers to the radical loss of faith in traditional nineteenth-century beliefs and values concerning the stability, order, and continuity of Western culture and civilization. This social and moral crisis was largely the result of developments in science and philosophy by people like Darwin, Marx, and Freud, as well as of the carnage and subjugation of peoples by machines, nationalism, and colonialism in the First and Second World Wars. Painters like Picasso and writers like Conrad, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett led impressionistic and expressionistic experiments in subject matter, style, and structure to reconstruct their personal anxiety about and alienation from the nature of modern reality, scientific truth, and conventional authority.

For most black academic literary critics and artists, modernism is related to the mass migrations during the world wars of blacks from the natural disasters, white terrorism, and deadly daily indignities of the rural, agrarian South to the illusory refuge and opportunities of the urban, industrialized North. Modernism for many of them meant the irresistible attraction of the radical cultural redefinitions of white and black American identities during the New Negro (Harlem) Renaissance of the 1920s and the continuing search into the 1940s for new modes of vernacular and formal artistic expression. These new modes of expression included innovative reconstructions and improvisations of black speech, myths, legends, rituals, and music. Thomas Dorsey, W. C. Handy, Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolph Fisher, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, Sterling A. Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, and Robert Hayden were among the stars of these decades of black modernism.

In contrast, as Cornel West observed in 1989:

The current "postmodernism" debate is first and foremost a product of significant First World reflections upon the decentering of Europe that take such forms as the demystification of European cultural predominance and the deconstruction of European philosophical edifices. With the emergence of the United States as the world center for military arms, political direction, and cultural production and the advent of Third World politically independent nations, the making of a new world order seemed quite likely. Ironically, most First World reflections on "postmodernism" remain rather parochial and provincial-that is narrowly Eurocentric. For example, Jean-Francois Lyotard's well-known characterization of the postmodern condition, with its increasing incredulity toward master (or meta) narratives, a rejection of representation, and a demand for radical artistic experimentation, is an interesting but insulated Eurocentric view, a kind of navel-gazing in which postmodernism becomes a recurring moment within the modern that is performative in character and aesthetic in content. (87-88)

The ahistoricism of postmodernism, in short, undermines for many people its philosophy and rhetoric about the absence, silence, and impotence of those subjects-persons who are the sum of the psychic effects of their interactions with cultural and institutional codes-viewed as marginal and Other, especially blacks and women. Cultural critic bell hooks perceptively asks: "Should we not be suspicious of postmodern critiques of the 'subject' when they surface at a historical moment when many subjugated people feel themselves coming to voice for the first time?" (28).

Addressing the reinscription in much of postmodern theory of the absence of black women and the resistance of most black people to the relevance of postmodernism to their experience, bell hooks writes:

Radical postmodernist practice, most powerfully conceptualized as a "politics of difference," should incorporate the voices of displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed black people. 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 that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge. If radical postmodernist thinking is to have a transformative impact, then a critical break with the notion of "authority" as "mastery over" must not simply be a rhetorical device. It must be reflected in habits of being, including styles of writing as well as chosen subject matter. (25)

Postmodern theory and practice, in short, must be transgressive in order to be transformative.

Black modernists and postmodernists are obviously influenced on some level by the traditions of Western culture and committed to the freedom of hybrid narrative forms. However, because the legacy of institutional racism and sexism that shaped and continues to shape their consciousness fosters ambivalence about their culture, and because the struggle for social justice continues, most modern and postmodern African American novelists, for example, are not inclined to neglect moral and social issues in their narratives. Unlike white postmodernists, they are deeply concerned with fictive visions that focus on the truths about the perversity of American racism and the paradoxes of African American double consciousness. Unlike their white contemporaries, black American modernists and postmodernists like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Ishmael Reed, John Edgar Wideman, and Charles Johnson are not merely rejecting the arrogance and anachronism of Western forms and conventions; they are also rediscovering and reaffirming the power and wisdom of their own vernacular expressive tradition: African American ways of seeing, knowing, and expressing reality, centering especially on black speech, music, and religion.

But Major moves beyond black sites of cultural production and consumption, as well as beyond thematic and structural concerns with racial and political consciousness, to a preoccupation with exploring the boundaries of language and imaginative consciousness. This transgressive movement can be traced in his trajectory as a black postmodern artist, especially in his eight novels. Except for Such Was the Season and Dirty Bird Blues, they are primarily transracial, transcultural, expressionistic narratives that thematize a self-reflexive process of creation of a dynamic, multifaceted self and art. Each novel is told by an unreliable, dramatized narrator who is generally a black male and is often the protagonist. Except for the latest three, each is more fragmented, discontinuous, and open-ended in structure than its predecessor. Finally, each engages in self-conscious linguistic play that blurs the line between the worlds of fantasy and social reality.


Excerpted from Clarence Major and His Art Copyright © 2000 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Clarence Major's Transgressive Voice and Double Consciousness as an African American Postmodernist Artist 1
The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage 13
Inscription for the First Baptist Church as It Comes Out on Saturday to Park 27
The General Sense of Self 28
Conflict 29
The Unfaithful Wife: A New Philosophy 30
Private Line 31
Motion Picture 32
Vietnam 33
Author of an Attitude 34
Dismal Moment Passing 35
My Child 36
The Design 37
Overbreak 39
Excerpt from Dirty Bird Blues 43
Excerpt from Such Was the Season 46
Excerpt from My Amputations 50
Excerpt from Reflex and Bone Structure 54
Excerpt from All-Night Visitors 57
Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer 63
"I Follow My Eyes": An Interview with Clarence Major 77
Reading the Painterly Text: Clarence Major's "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage" 101
To Define an Ultimate Dimness: The Poetry of Clarence Major 133
Clarence Major's Innovative Fiction 151
The Double Vision of Clarence Major: Painter and Writer 161
Reflex and Bone Structure: The Black Anti-Detective Novel 175
Clarence Major's All-Night Visitors: Calibanic Discourse and Black Male Expression 189
"I Was a Weird Example of Art": My Amputations as Cubist Confession 207
Clarence Major's Homecoming Voice in Such Was the Season 219
Against Commodification: Zuni Culture in Clarence Major's Native American Texts 227
Clarence Major's Singing Voice(s) 243
Selected Bibliography of Clarence Major's Works 265
Contributors 273
Index 275
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