Book Review: Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic

Perhaps the single most perplexing issue in the discussion African Atlantic aesthetics is the cultural connection among the African peoples who survived the Middle Passage. Drawing on the scholarship of Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, Wilson Harris, and Kamau Brathwaite, Dr. Heather Russell in Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic weaves the authorial strategies of James Weldon Johnson, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, Earl Lovelace, and John Edgar Wideman into a compelling model for Black Atlantic hermeneutics.

As if to disprove the notion that vibrant cultures could not be built on the holocaust of the African Atlantic, Dr. Russell introduces the concepts of the “jazz novel,” Legba Principle, “quilting,” and Great Time in three sections: Interruptions, Disruptions, and Eruptions. In Interruptions, she discusses the work of James Weldon Johnson and Audre Lorde vis-a-vis the Legba Principle: “the recognition that semantic open-endedness and indeterminacy are always mutually entwined with potentially life-enhancing lessons of the crossroads” (54). What fascinates Russell in her examination of Johnson and Lorde is the “breaking free from the discursive and epistemological expectations of the conventional form” of the autobiography (165). Form is the method by which cultures transmit values and Johnson’s and Lorde’s interruptions suggest alternative methods which ultimately challenge hegemonic notions of race and class.

Building on the ideas of the interruptions of form, Russell introduces two other models of African Atlantic hermeneutics: “quilting” and the “jazz novel.” In No Telephone to Heaven, Russell notes: “Michelle Cliff’s ‘quilted structure’ of narration tasks readers with acquiring an ‘African Atlantic literacy’ in order to glean more fully enduring legacies of the ravages and challenges of colonialism that African Atlantic peoples face in the context of colonialism’s inherited hierarchies of color and class” (166). No Telephone to Heaven, Russell contends, serves as a “tool for powerfully interrogating questions of race, imagination, and of course, the nation” (107).

With Earl Lovelace’s Salt, however, Russell offers a different exegetical model that derives from poet-critic Kamau Brathwaite’s “Jazz and the West Indian Novel”: “it will try to express the essence of this community through its formand its concern will be with the community as a whole, its characters taking their place in that community, of which they are felt to be an integral part” (127). In praxis the characters and narrator in Salt, Russell asserts, ‘jam’ on the viability of achieving racial understanding, political inclusion, and economic enfranchisement” (127). As with his previous novels, The Dragon Can’t Dance and The Wine of Astonishment, Russell observes, “Lovelace crafts enduring characters, all of whom wrestle with the challenges of national development… and the historic disenfranchisement of blacks" (109). Yet with the democratization of the narrative in Salt, which at times veers seemingly toward chaos, Russell again urges the development of an “African Atlantic literacy”: “Salt teaches us to dream and found the nation in steady ways based upon one multivocal foundation and writerly theoretical exemplum” (138).

The logical conclusion to Russell's hermeneutics is John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing in which the narrative strategy is built around the concept popularized by Mircea Eliade, Great Time, so that the “hegemony of Western linear, cause-and-effect discursive practice is exposed and critiqued” (143). Implicit in Wideman’s anlaysis is that the texts “symbolically ‘redress’ racist historical misrepresentation” (143). Specifically, this has meant that Wideman’s stories uncover “’false prophecies’ (Wideman’s phrase for dominant racist discourses, i.e. the doctrine paradigm of race)” which leads “black subjects to internalize a self-hatred that results in the destruction and death of black bodies” (144). Wideman’s use of Great Time, in which human agency derives from acts of imagination, subverts the idea of linear time and liberates the individual, especially New World Africans, from Western epistemological constructs.

Although Russell’s conclusions suggest that Legba’s influence can only be recognized in disruptions of form and other variations, Legba’s Crossing signals a new dimension in Black Atlantic hermeneutics. The consolidation of paradigms such as the “jazz novel,” Legba Principle, “quilting,” and Great Time are essential because they expand our understanding of the authorial choices of Johnson, Lorde, Cliff, Lovelace, and Wideman and increase our “African Atlantic literacy" of which Russell has become its most lucid advocate.

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