As I was contemplating writing a post on the issue of race in America, I thought about the best ways to approach such a thorny subject. Luckily, I love to read so I thought I would discuss one of my favorite books which focuses on race as a central issue. That’s why I want to discuss Sherley Anne Williams’ novel, Dessa Rose. Williams as a Black American author tries to expand American literature which is very similar to Morrison’s Beloved exploring themes within the Black community through the use of a neo-slave narrative.
Dessa Rose, is written in modern times but the plot takes place in slavery and uses a neo-slave narrative or in other words a biographical literary style. The novel is written about two women in the South who meet during slavery. The main character is Dessa, a black female slave and pregnant, who is imprisoned for attempting a slave rebellion. Her friend, Ruth, is a white woman who was a former slave owner but has recently endured financial hardships due to her husband’s abandonment. The story is based on their unlikely relationship and the events surrounding the women’s journey to freedom, love, and happiness. The premise of the book is based on real events where a pregnant and enslaved black woman helped start a slave rebellion and a white woman helped hide slaves in the underground railroad to freedom.
In the 80s, Williams writes Dessa Rose, because she sees the need for strong bonding between men and women, particularly within the Black American community. In Dessa Rose, the women help to heal Dessa, but salvation comes primarily from men, especially Harker and Desmond. For the characters in Dessa Rose, community precedes autonomy, and only collective consensus permits personal ambitions. Williams’ implication is clear: A total community of lovers, bloodkin, and friends must empower its members, or face its own demise.
In reality of white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy, Dessa tries to understand her self-worth as a woman and mother, not an enslaved female commodity. It is through the help of Kaine, Jeeter, Cully, Nathan, Harker, Desmond, and Ned that she can transition from the darky, to the wench, and finally transform into the negress. From start to finish Dessa’s story is one of struggle not only with self-love but also her struggle with loving her Black community and her white friend, Ruth. By the end, all of the characters were able to learn to love others in a sacrificial, communal love that transcended racial and gender boundaries. Throughout Dessa Rose, Williams engages the reader in lessons of pluralism and cooperation: emphasizing the necessity of breaking down barriers and establishing community across color, culture, and gender lines.
Williams and many other contemporary neo-slave narrative writers such as Toni Morrison are African American women writers who are able to use the slave narrative genre, feminist thinking, and love ethic theory to go beyond the literal historical accounts and to create their own accounts of history. Mitchell asserts that contemporary black women writers like Williams, “Share the personal and political imperative to address the black woman’s legacy of enslavement and dispossession in America and to use this knowledge in the “reclamation and celebration of their racial and gendered selves and heritage” (2000). Through Dessa Rose, Williams boldly stakes her claim to ‘signifyin(g) and questioning of historical representation. Mitchell argues that Williams constructs alternative realities of the enslaved characters, especially Dessa. Williams’ ability to expose the inner thoughts and processes of enslaved men and women is rare since American literature has been prone to neglect or dismissal throughout history of Black character development.
As a society, we need to question the diversity of American literature and explore the issues surrounding race because works of literature are a cultural interpretation of American life. Therefore, it becomes important to critique because, as bell hooks encourages, Americans, especially Black Americans, must carefully question works of merit for good and bad representations of Black American life. These critiques and analysis produce diverse viewpoints to decolonize the images of Black American women and men. As consumers of information, we can explore the truth among diverse perspectives on the issues of race to expose the subtle and yet deceiving stereotypes of different peoples. Cultural criticism does not just involve criticizing great books of literature, but rather acts as a tool enabling readers to gain a more complete understanding of how literature constructs culture and vice versa.
PlainSpeak (PS): Critique is necessary in life and contested knowledge is just as beneficial. Therefore, diversity and race can open our imagination, fiction, and love.