“African American Literature is a thematically arranged, comprehensive survey of African American literature” (Gilyard 1). Gilyard notes that “the unique thematic organization of the anthology allows for a concise and coherent assessment of African American literature” (1).
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An important tactic of African American literature is parody, a form that allows the writer to take on important qualities of a prior text or a literary tradition, and modify them with subversive intent.
This tactic has been employed by Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed to parody the work or earlier writers thus, making important cultural points. This paper examines how the use of parody is symbolic in the African American literature.
Hutcheon argues that “parody is repetition, but repetition that includes a difference; it is imitation with critical imitation distance, whose irony can cut both ways” (37). Parody utilizes two ironic versions that include trans-contextualization and inversion, in its formal operatives.
Pragmatic ethos of parody ranges from scornful ridicule to reverential homage (Hutcheon 37). On the other hand, the English Oxford dictionary (1182) defines parody as “a composition in prose or verse in which the characteristic turns of thought and phrase in an author or class of authors are imitated in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous, especially by applying them to ludicrously inappropriate subjects; an imitation of work more or less closely modeled on the original, but so tuned as to produce a ridiculous effect”.
“A critical distance is implied between the original text being parodied and the new in cooperating work; a distance usually signaled by irony” (32). The pleasure of parody’s irony comes not from humor in particular but from the degree of engagement of the reader in the intertextual bouncing between complicity and distance (as cited in Foster).
Thus, parody is an imitative work written to comment upon the original work, trivialize or mock at it. Humorous, ironic and satiric imitations are used in a parody. Parody is an important tactic of African American literature, a form that allows the writer to take on important qualities of a prior text or a literary tradition and modify them with subversive intent.
Bright examples of parody may be observed in the works written by Ralph Ellison namely “Invisible Man” and “Mumbo Jumbo” written by Ishmael Reed. It should be noted that the parody used in Reed’s and Ellison’s works is primarily parodic narration or internal polemic.
Through reviewing Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”, this paper demonstrates the general peculiarities of African American literature where parody is skillfully used and plays an important role. The review of secondary sources allows for a deeper understanding of the peculiar characteristics of Reed’s and Ellison’s parody by black writers.
In his book titled “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism”, Gates Henry takes into account the parody in African American literature. Gates argues that at the time when the study of literature is characterized by what many scholars feel to be undue concern with literal theory, parody should not lead to a drift from the original text.
He suggests that the primary aim of parody should be elaborative. Gates quotes the Russian scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin, who observes the use of parody through double-voiced discourse subdivided in parodic narration and internal polemic. These two types of double-voiced discourse are merged together in Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”.
The author points out the correlation or as he calls them “the direct black lines” which connect Ishmael Reed with Ralph Ellison, Hurston and Toni Morrison (Gates, 111). Reed uses two autonomous narrative voices, which is the parody of two simultaneous stories of detective narration. The narrative of the past bears an ironic relation to the narrative of the present.
Criticism of the text is a sort of self-parody which is extensively used in Reed’s works. In addition, Reed imitates the dualism used by Ralph Ellison in his “Invisible Man”.
Gates notes that novelists such as Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed created texts that are double voiced in the sense that their literally antecedents are both black and white novels, but also modes of figuration lifted from the black vernacular tradition.
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Gates further argues that black tests are “mulattoes’, with a two toned heritage. These two texts speak in standard Romance or Germanic languages or literally structures.
Thus, to locate and then theorize about, these formal differences are to utilize certain tools of close reading that facilitate explication. Gates notes that the black tradition has theorized about itself, explicitly.
Whereas Reed seems to be about the clearing of space of narration, Walker seems to be intent on underscoring the relation of her text to Huston’s in a joyous proclamation of antecedent and descendant texts.
Benard Bell in his book entitled “The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches” critically analyzes the works of African American writers including Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed.
Parody is one of the ethic forms of oratory, the black vernacular, which is first developed by boys in play to assert masculinity among people and to achieve the sense of security in their contact with the hostility of a larger society (Bell, 79).
These ethnic forms of speech are used by a number of black novelists such as Charles W. Chestnut, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed, John O. Killens and others.
Benard wonders whether race class or gender is the dominant issues in Afrocentric, Eurocentric and Americentric cultural theories. Bell agrees with many black African feminists who contend that race, class and gender are inseparable matrix (13).
Bell argues that in practice the social, cultural and literal criticism of popular black feminists like Bell Hooks, invariably privileges the empowerment of women over the two. Benard Bell agrees with Bell Hooks’ idea that patriarchy is the arch enemy of social systems.
Bell also agrees with his peers including Reed and Ellison that race, ethnicity, class and gender are intimately linked. However, Benard Bell stresses ethnicity and race over class and gender for three reasons.
First, Benard Bell questions the authority of post colonial discourse on immigrant groups crossing boundaries and assimilating into a nation that misleadingly stresses surface similarities over historical, geographical and cultural differences.
Second, Benard Bell challenges the authority of agency of the implied authors, narrators and characters who believe that man corrupts everything and that the feminization of men is the panacea of patriarchy as system of male domination.
Third, Benard Bell feels compelled to respond to narratives and discourses by black feminists, critics and pundits that reinforce and perpetuate negative images of black males. Such black feminists see black males as drug addicts, domestic abusers, moral degenerates, sex-crazed dogs and dead-beat dads. Ellison narration shows how he had hated his grand father.
He believed that his misfortunes were caused by the grandfather. Bell seems to parody Ellison’s work by distancing himself from ‘tainting’ the image of black men as he puts it. Benard Bell puts it clear that his neither an Africanist nor Egyptologist and that he is not concerned with the African discourse on the ancient civilianization during pre-colonial, African past.
Instead, he is concerned with renewing and reinvigorating discourse on the liberating impact of cultural and literally production by Americans of African origin (Bell14).
Page is another author who points out the role of parody in the development of African-American literature. In his book titled “Icons of African American Literature: The Black Literary World”, Page uses parody in evaluating various authors of African American literature.
Apart from this, the book is devoted to the bright representatives of African American literature who have influenced the history of this literature. Ralph Ellison’s works are observed particularly, namely “Invisible Man”. Ellison uses the background voices of various strains of Black Nationalists, Marxists, and religious leaders in his “Invisible Man”.
Page provides basic motifs covered in African American literature and the use of parody to reinforce the actuality of these topics. Page argues that iconic authors like Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed and their works, have played a significant role in the canonization of African American Literature.
Page argues that although Ellison was given a National Book Award, he could not escape from the fact that in many circles, he was a black writer who had written what many considered another facet of the black experience. In fact, white publications and publishers’ sought Ellison’s pronouncements, on the latest black novel. However, Ellison invariably refused to do so.
Page indicates that Ellison believed that the racial novel did not exist and that black writers should stay away from racial polemic. This opinion has been seconded by Page. Page notes that the literary legacy of Ralph Ellison continues as successive generations have evaluated and reevaluated the breath and scope of his literal intellect.
Page appreciates the recognition that Ralph’s work gets. Every year, a new perspective of the Invisible Man in the form of dissertations and critical essays and a scholarly appreciation of Ellison’s work essays on Jazz and African American Culture occurs. Page clarifies that biographer Rampersad also analyzed Ellison’s work.
Rampersad notes that Ellison pointed antipathy directed towards the emergence African American female writers during the 1970s. The African American female writers severely criticized the depiction of black women in the Invisible Man especially his depiction of the wife and daughter of the incestuous sharecropper, and the Mummy like figure of Mary Rambo.
Page argues that Invisible Man, perhaps, makes more sense today than it did in 1952 because its scope and structure were an unknown territory for African American writing. Page notes that although the work has been hailed as an exploration universal modern man, it is unmistakably black in its use of signification, African American folks and musicality (34).
On the other hand, Bruce and Zemliansky argue that the most controversial and innovated novelist of African American literature is Ishmael Reed. The two writers parody nine novels written by Ishmael Reed.
They observe Reed’s Neo Hoodoo aesthetic, which combines parody and satire, fantasy and comedy, myths, history, African and American religions, and other forms of culture. They observe double-voiced discourse in reed’s works and its role in passing to the reader the main ideas.
Observing the parody used by Reed in his works, the authors highlight how the use of parody is important in the African American literature. Bruce and Zemliansky argue that Reed has emerged as the most innovative and controversial African American writer despite his belief that he and other black male writers have been misinterpreted and virtually ignored in the press (2).
In addition, Nadel Alan points out the role of parody in Ellison’s works in his book titled ‘Ralph Ellison and American canon: invisible criticism’. Ellison employs modernist techniques such as the use of parody to establish his ethnic identity and the more we examine his text as a modernist one, the more it reveals that black American identity.
Nadel refers Ralph Ellison to the American literature canon demonstrating that allusions from “Invisible Man” changed readings of such American writers as Twain, Emerson and Melville (4). Ellison uses the parody, which does not mock at other literary works, but he imitates the style of writing of many writers of the American canon.
Nadel argues that the issue of canon formation has elicited a great deal of attention, a phenomenon not incidental to the influence of literary study of post structuralism, feminism and, ethnic consciousness. These approaches mandate modes of thinking which urge distance and skepticism.
Applying such modes to the realm of literature makes it hard to take it for granted the great authority canons have wielded over the last century. Nadel notes that the problem of speaking form invisibility and making the absence visible pertains not only to the public functions, but also to the speech itself.
Nadel points out that Ellison demonstrates this memorably when his invisible and nameless narrator speaks to an invisible and nameless audience, attempting to uncover in their shared otherness the voice which had encoded into silence, excised from the canon. Nadel narrates that the aim of the Ellison’s work, Invisible Man, is deeply informed and framed by the issue of canonicity.
The phenomenon enables a writer to speak to, and through tradition without sacrificing the speaker’s voice or denying the tradition it tries to engage. Nadel argues that this engagement with tradition is necessitated by a complicated interaction of historical and critical events which affected the erasure of the black’s role in the crucial parts of American history and literary history (1).
According to Nadel, Ellison used allusion, consistently and effectively to engage the issue of canonicity. In Nadel’s parody of Ellison’s work of the Invisible Man, the systematic use allusion exploits literal critical potential and creates a coherent subtext of literal criticism.
The subtext created by Ellison is one that engages the issues of marginality and decentering, of ethno- and logo centrism. This allows for encoding and interpretation in ways which anticipate much more contemporary European theory, and much American ‘rehistoricizing’ in regard to the role of the black in the American canon as the sense of canonicity itself (2).
Moreover, Braman parody of reeds work suggests that in Mumbo Jumbo, there are fundamentally two sides of humanity. One side is familiar to any reader and is, in essence, the society in which one lives.
Characterized by organized, serious, characteristically white people, this side of humanity populates most schools, governments and industries. Those who live in a controlled society habitually go through life as if it were a business transaction. As the title, Controlled Society suggests, people who survive this way are very controlled as well as petty.
Rarely happy, these people believe in absolute truths that lack an innate, humanistic foundation. This was the life style of the black community in the pre-colonial period (Braman 1). Brahman argues that this phenomenon has been illustrated by Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Thus, organized and monotheistic religions reign absolutely.
They are untrue to themselves and contain their genuine emotions, wants and needs. It seems that people who live under a controlled society voluntarily sacrifice their human natures for the ‘greater good,’ but it becomes apparent that they are simply unable to have a human nature in the first place. These people treat art as they would treat a religion; they are happy to be simply in its presence.
This lack of depth is represented in Mumbo Jumbo’s art heist, and supports John Locke’s theory in Two Treatises of Government that people who comprise a society voluntarily forfeit a portion of their freedom to maintain a common public authority (Braman 1). They do not live, they merely subsist.
Ishmael Reed’s and Ralph Ellison’s lists of published, stirring works are impressive and their stylistic, fervid writing has become a critic’s reverie. Not only Reed and Ellison are notorious authors, but their proficiency of professing their knowledge is known in various schools like Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth.
What their students do not know is that most of Reed’s and Ellison’s novels and poetry are brimming with satirical representations of American religion and government, calling to question the ideals that existed in America hundreds of years ago.
The paper has elaborated the importance of parody as a tactic in African American literature. The paper has discussed how the parody of Reed’s and Ellison’s top work has been used to make important cultural pints.
The paper has used Hutcheon’s definition of parody. Hutcheon argues that “parody is repetition, but repetition that includes difference; it is imitation with critical imitation distance, whose irony can cut both ways” (37).
The paper first examined “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism”, in which Gates Henry parodied African American literature. Gates pointed out parody should not lead to a drift from the original text. The paper then examined Benard Bell’s book entitled “The Contemporary African America.
Bell argued that Parody is one of the ethic forms of oratory, the black vernacular, which is first developed by boys in play to assert masculinity among people and to achieve the sense of security in their contact with the hostility of a larger society (Bell, 79).
The paper also examined Page’s book titled “Icons of African American Literature: the Black Literary World”, in which the author indicated that Ellison believed that the racial novel did not exist and that black writers had to stay away from racial polemic.
The paper also illustrated how Bruce, Zemliansky and Nadel parody Ellison’s and Reed’s work in their books titled “The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed’ and Political Philosophy of John Locke respectively. Moreover, it concluded by examining Braman’s parody of Reed’s top creativity as illustrated in Mumbo Jumbo. This paper has demonstrated how the use of parody is symbolic in the African American literature.
Bell, Benard. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its folk roots and literary branches. Massachussets: Massachussets University Press, 2004. Print.
Braman, C. Political Philosophy of John Locke. Chuck Braman 1996. Web.
Bruce, Dick and Zemliansky, P. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. California: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
English Oxford Dictionary. Parody. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.
Gilyard, K. African American Literature. New York: Longman, 2004.
Hutcheon, Linda. A theory of parody: the teachings of twentienth century art forms. London: Routledge, 1985.
Nadel, Alan. Ralph Ellison and the American Canon: Invisible Criticism. Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1988. Print.
Page, Yolanda. Icons of African American Literature: the black literary world. Washington: Libray of Congress Publishing, 2011. Print.