Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity


Raising the Dead is a groundbreaking, interdisciplinary exploration of death’s relation to subjectivity in twentieth-century American literature and culture. Sharon Patricia Holland contends that black subjectivity in particular is connected intimately to death. For Holland, travelling through “the space of death” gives us, as cultural readers, a nuanced and appropriate metaphor for understanding what is at stake when bodies,
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Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity

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Raising the Dead is a groundbreaking, interdisciplinary exploration of death’s relation to subjectivity in twentieth-century American literature and culture. Sharon Patricia Holland contends that black subjectivity in particular is connected intimately to death. For Holland, travelling through “the space of death” gives us, as cultural readers, a nuanced and appropriate metaphor for understanding what is at stake when bodies,
discourses, and communities collide.
Holland argues that the presence of blacks, Native Americans, women, queers, and other “minorities” in society is, like death, “almost unspeakable.” She gives voice to—or raises—the dead through her examination of works such as the movie Menace II Society, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, and the work of the all-white, male, feminist hip-hop band Consolidated. In challenging established methods of literary investigation by putting often-disparate voices in dialogue with each other, Holland forges connections among African-American literature and culture, queer and feminist theory.
Raising the Dead will be of interest to students and scholars of American culture, African-American literature, literary theory, gender studies, queer theory, and cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Raising the Dead is a tour de force filled with provocative, original, and imaginative observations and insights. Sharon Holland draws on a dazzling range of influences and interprets an impressive array of diverse cultural forms as she asks and answers crucial questions about ancestry, origins, and heritage in African American and Native American life and culture.”—George Lipsitz, University of California, San Diego

“A thorough, challenging, and compelling investigation of the themes of subjectivity, death, and their interrelation in twentieth-century American literature and culture.”—Emory Elliott, University of California, Riverside

“A work of theoretical power and brilliant interpretive prowess.”—Wahneema Lubiano, Duke University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822324751
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Pages: 248
  • Lexile: 1500L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharon Patricia Holland is Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University.

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Read an Excerpt


Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2499-7

Chapter One

Death and the Nation's Subjects

What the eye is to the lover-that particular, ordinary eye he or she is born with-language-whatever language history has made his or her mother-tongue-is to the patriot. Through that language, encountered at mother's knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed. -Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

Orlando Patterson's landmark observations in Slavery and Social Death provide a cornerstone for the discussion of marginality, blackness, and death throughout this chapter. Examining the practice of slavery from premodern to modern societies, Patterson argues that enslaved peoples experienced varying degrees of "social death." The crux of his project rests on a series of bold introductory statements; the most compelling is certainly the following:

Not only was the slave denied all claims on, and obligations to, his [sic] parents and living blood relations but, by extension, all such claims and obligations on his more remote ancestors and on his descendants. He was truly a genealogical isolate. Formally isolated in his social relationswith those who lived, he was also culturally isolated from the social heritage of his ancestors. He had a past, to be sure. But a past is not a heritage.... [Slaves] were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory.

For Patterson, enslaved subjects are genealogical isolates because they are denied access to the social heritage of their ancestors. Although it is outside the scope of this project to ascertain the commitment of enslaved peoples to their own religions or kinfolk, it is possible to interpret the "social death" in slavery as continually plagued by tacit and sometimes overt manifestations of ancestral strength and/or recognition that punctured the rigid boundary between freed and enslaved subjectivity. What seems to contradict the impossibility of reviving a past, achieving a heritage, is the relationship of enslaved peoples to their legion of unnamed and unrecognized ancestors-the same ancestors who are designated as the "Sixty Million and more" lost to the middle passage in Toni Morrison's dedication of Beloved and the unnamed "Sixty million Native Americans [who] died between 1500-1600" in the frontispiece to Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead. In sum, it is the dead, present as ancestors, who make the complete social death of the slave, and therefore the categories of freed and enslaved, unstable at best.

Focusing as he does on enslaved subjectivity, Patterson is less likely to extend his theory of genealogical isolation to the community of masters. If we take his observations out of their global context and focus on slavery as practiced in the United States, then a series of conditions present themselves. Parallel to this phenomenon of social death for enslaved peoples is the common experience of white subjects enabling a legal discourse that extends its umbrella to them as well. Under this umbrella white subjects who produced children from unions with enslaved peoples, but were unable and unwilling to claim such progeny in their own genealogical narratives, nevertheless experienced a similar lack of heritage. The condition of manumission further exacerbated the problem of how white subjects should relate to black counterparts, some of whom were their children.

Formal emancipation called for an abrupt about-face for a system too entrenched to change as mandated by law. Manumission dictated that the peculiar social status of enslaved people be transferred to and shared by another space altogether. Not willing to comprehend fully the freed state of formally enslaved subjects, masters and their kin reserved a special place in their imaginations for this new being. Although seeing the black subject as a "slave" was now prohibited by law, there was no impediment to viewing this subject in the same place s/he had always already occupied. In this way the enslaved-now-freed person, either "black" or close enough to this category, began to occupy the popular imagination. Ultimately, a system such as slavery might be abruptly halted, but its dream lives in the peoples' imagination and becomes fodder for both romantic fictions and horrific realities. bell hooks comments on this customized relationship: "Reduced to the machinery of bodily physical labor, black people learned to appear before whites as though they were zombies, cultivating the habit of casting the gaze downward so as not to appear uppity. To look directly was an assertion of subjectivity, equality. Safety resided in the pretense of invisibility."

The unaccomplished imaginative shift from enslaved to freed subjectivity and the marked gap between genealogical isolation and the ancestral past form the meeting place where the bulk of my ruminations on death and black subjectivity reside. It is possible to make at least two broad contentions here: a) that the (white) culture's dependence on the nonhuman status of its black subjects was never measured by the ability of whites to produce a "social heritage"; instead it rested on the status of the black as a nonentity; and b) that the transmutation from enslaved to freed subject never quite occurred at the level of the imagination. This imaginative element carries itself into the contemporary terrain and formulates this chapter's first query: If black subjects are held in such isolation-first by a system of slavery and second by its imaginative replacement-then is not their relationship to the dead, those lodged in terms like ancestor or heritage, more intimate than historians and critics have heretofore articulated? At this intersection the investigative terrain appears filled with wide open spaces.

In existential terms, knowledge of our own death determines not only the shape of our lives but also the culture we live in. Even though knowledge of death fuels all cultural activity, social and cultural customs prohibit us from conversing about death, dying, or the dead in the course of living. This chapter demonstrates that such a discussion is long overdue and absolutely necessary to an understanding of how some subjects, in particular black subjects, function in the culture. Furthermore, what if we were to entertain another hypothesis about the relationship between the living and the dead: What if some subjects never achieve, in the eyes of others, the status of the "living"? What if these subjects merely haunt the periphery of the encountering person's vision, remaining, like the past and the ancestors who inhabit it, at one with the dead-seldom recognized and, because of the circum-Atlantic traffic in human cargo or because of removal, often unnamed?

On the other hand, if we were in the position of the subject denied the status of the living, how would we illustrate this social predicament? Communities of color often describe their collective experience in the United States as dystopic rather than utopic. The paradise is often within, and "hell" is a condition arising from encounters with whites. When "living" is something to be achieved and not experienced, and figurative and literal death are very much a part of the social landscape, how do people of color gain a sense of empowerment? Toni Morrison once remarked that the second word immigrants to this country learn on their arrival is nigger; the first word is okay. The irony of this simultaneous embracing of an Africanism ("okay") and disparaging of an African American subject is a metaphor for the bittersweet experience of being "black" in the United States. As Anderson reminds us, through language "fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed." Morrison is not speaking about the relationship of one group to another but commenting on the unique place that blackness has as paradigm in the quest for achieving the status of "American." It is a paradigm so powerful that even some of this nation's first peoples buckled under its discursive weight, taking into their ranks thousands of Africans as slaves, and emulating their (white) counterparts. Blackness is the yardstick by which most peoples in this nation measure their worth-by something they are not. I propose that we give blackness its due-not as a universalizing narrative for all marginalized people but as something much more tangible, provocative, and meaningful. I would like to view blackness as a measure of how all peoples in the United States construct an intimate idea of self in relationship to the nation-by having, in that little corner of their imagination a black seed against which all action-and therefore, in the existential sense, all being-is differentiated.

Attempting to devise a category in which liminal subjects can reside and from which they can speak, critics and authors have created terms like marginality and invisibility to aid those outside of master narratives and places of power in articulating a politics of experience. At times this space is empowering, but it also can be mercurial and dangerous. Moreover, as intellectual constructs, theories of the margin hold much promise, but as paradigms for what it is like to be marked as black in this nation, they fall short of the mark. The experience of being in the margin is much like that of skating on thin ice. Josette Feral offers a theoretical tale for just such an experience: "To put discourse into question is to reject the existing order.... It means choosing marginality (with emphasis on the margins) in order to designate one's difference, a difference no longer conceived of as an inverted image or as a double, but as alterity, multiplicity, heterogeneity. It means laying claim to an absolute difference, posited not within the norm but against and outside the norms." I believe that Feral has a point about the alterity of the margin, but I do not think that the marginal space referred to by writers in this book is consistently constructed against or outside the norm. I can see the importance of Feral's offering in terms of traditional power relationships: to speak from the center traditionally means to speak from a position of authority, to speak with the voice of the father, and to utter words from his language. Conversely, to talk (back) from the margin usually implies a formerly denigrated status and a sense of belonging to a tradition conceived by breaking silence. Although this outside status might be empowering on paper, literal existence "outside" makes day-to-day living just short of impossible.

Toni Morrison contextualizes the experience of being "outdoors" by offering the following critique in The Bluest Eye:

Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical act, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on.... Our peripheral existence, however, was something we had learned to deal with-probably because it was abstract. But the concreteness of being outdoors was another matter-like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn't change and outdoors is here to stay.

Morrison's writing about "outdoors" corresponds well with the tenor of this project. In her paradigm, outside becomes "outdoors," and peripheral existence or marginal space describes a living death-a full embrace of the concept of death. Here "outoors" is synonymous with being dead. To resist outsider status, to come back from the dead, is a monumental existential feat in Morrison's world. There is no full embrace of the margin here, only the chance to struggle against both a killing abstraction and a life-in-death; neither choice is an appealing option. More than anything, Morrison's paradigm demonstrates the possibility of being among the dead in the course of living. Abstract theoretical paradigms do not do much to change or challenge the politics of life for people of color, specifically poor black people. Morrison's illustration of a metaphysical condition indicates that theorists have been looking in the wrong sites for their empowering oppositional narratives.

For those beyond the periphery, beyond even a language of the margin, for those literally "outdoors" and therefore dead to others, there needs to be a theory profound enough to explain such a devastating existence. We must investigate the viability of theoretical examinations of the margin in the context of the articulated experiences of those who seem to dwell in what Morrison calls an abstract existence. The impending task is then to define, in as much as possible, the vehicle used by authors writing about traditionally marginal(ized) experiences to speak and to legitimate the power of that discourse. One of the broader tasks of this book as a whole is to bring varying discursive communities into dialogue with one another-a critical jog suggested and performed by Elizabeth Meese in her (Ex)Tensions: Re-Figuring Feminist Criticism. A larger discussion of her work appears in chapter 6. In commencing such a project, it might be prudent to move from the macro to the micro-from larger structures like nations, which help to construct speaking subjects, to smaller arrangements like those between communities and among communities. For the moment I'd like to focus on a discussion of the dead and national character as a means of strengthening these observations.

"It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back"

The dead acknowledge no borders. As an example of such outrageous disrespect for boundaries, both discursive and national, I turn to two disparate genres-black film and anthropological theory-to launch a critique about the relationship among the dead, black subjects, and the nation. An old saying contends that you can tell the strength of a nation by the way it treats its poor; today, one can also ascertain this relative strength by examining the way a nation treats its dead. At the global level the dead appear before the public eye as a sign of another country's lack-of democracy, of civilization, of resources, of compassion. Witness, for example, the coverage of ethnic conflict in Rwanda on the cover of Time or Newsweek-barometers of this nation's ideas about death at home and abroad-and we might say that the dead, in signifying both loss and lack for other countries, represent that entity's national character (see illustrations). The dead embody, and therefore become so much of, what the living are unable to realize. In times of peace the national tone is strident, and we are proud of our dead; in times of war this pride transforms the dead into objects of our most intense and unflattering scrutiny.

In 1993 twenty-one-year-old twins Allen and Albert Hughes released a devastatingly brutal look at life in America, Menace II Society. Menace traces, in "gangster film" vividness, the lives of black youth in Watts almost thirty years after the 1965 riots. Caine (Tyrin Turner) and his friends all deal in the market economy available to them-manufacturing and selling crack cocaine and breaking into and delivering cars for disreputable insurance companies. In the opening sequence of the film the camera follows the cental narrator, Caine, and his gangsta friend O-Dog (Lorenz Tate). On their way to a party O-Dog and Caine stop by a corner store owned by a Korean couple. As they make their way to the beer case, O-Dog repeatedly tells the female shop owner to "stop creepin"'-in other words, to stop following him; the background music intensifies the air of surveillance as the Cutthroats, produced in part by Guru, chant the rap "Stop lookin' at me." With a fortyoz. beer in hand and about to exit with Caine's change, O-Dog hears the Korean man behind the counter say, "I feel sorry for your mother." The shop owner does not know that he has broken an unwritten rule in the black community: you don't talk about someone's mother if you don't know the person. Those in the audience who recognize these cues know what will unfold. O-Dog reels around and asks him, "What did you say about my mama?" In the resulting altercation O-Dog shoots the man and then forces the woman to the back of the store for the video surveillance tape. In the process of retrieving the tape, O-Dog shoots the Korean woman. As he and Caine exit the store, the film fades to black, and Caine begins the story's narration: "Went in the store to get a beer, came out an accessory to armed robbery and murder. It was funny like that in the 'hood sometimes. You never knew what was going to happen or when. After that, I knew it was going to be a long summer."


Excerpted from RAISING THE DEAD by SHARON PATRICIA HOLLAND Copyright © 2000 by Duke University 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: Raising the Dead 1
Pt. 1 Imaginative Places, White Spaces: If Only the Dead Could Speak
1 Death and the Nation's Subjects 13
2 Bakulu Discourse: Bodies Made "Flesh" in Toni Morrison's Beloved 41
3 Telling the Story of Genocide in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead 68
Pt. 2 Dead Bodies, Queer Subjects
4 (Pro)Creating Imaginative Spaces and Other Queer Acts: Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits and Its Revival of James Baldwin's Absent Black Gay Man in Giovanni's Room 103
5 "From This Moment Forth, We Are Black Lesbians": Querying Feminism and Killing the Self in Consolidated's Business of Punishment 124
6 Critical Conversations at the Boundary between Life and Death 149
Epilogue: "I'm in the Zone": Bill T. Jones, Tupac Shakur, and the (Queer) Art of Death 175
Notes 183
Selected Bibliography 209
Index 227
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