Postcolonial Representations of Memory: The Symbol of Home in Black “Minor” Writings

Christine DualéUniversité Toulouse Capitole
Anne Garrait-BourrierUniversité Clermont-Auvergne
Paru le : 18.11.2018

Les écrits des auteurs noirs appartenant à l’ère moderne et contemporaine peuvent être considérés comme des substituts de la mémoire, et la création de la mémoire résiliente. C’est là un nouvel espace culturel. Afin de traduire et restituer la mémoire traumatique de la diaspora noire, les écrivains « mineurs » contemporains passent par la création d’une nouvelle forme d’expression, une fiction autre et renouvelée ou encore ce que Homi Bhabha définit comme « a house of fiction ». Les textes des modernistes Langston Hughes et Zora Neale Hurston et ceux de leurs contemporains, Toni Morrison et Caryl Phillips, révèlent des stratégies différentes où la mémoire et le passé sont remis en scène.

Garrait Bourrier DualéPost Colonial Légende(2)
Zora Neale Hurston, American author. Between 1935 and 1943. Source U.S. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USZ62-62394 (©Wikimedia)
Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. From the collection of the Library of Congress and in the public domain. Image copied from Wikimedia commons (©Wikimedia)
Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. From the collection of the Library of Congress and in the public domain.

Blackmodern and contemporary writings can be understood as surrogate spaces for the re-creation of a resilient memory, a new “location of culture”. To express the memory of former traumas (genocide, deportation, diaspora) minorized modern and contemporary writers had to invent a new form of expression and new genres: a new “house of fiction”. By entering this house of fiction, they “invade, alarm, divide and dispossess, they also demonstrate the contemporary compulsion to move beyond; to turn the present into the ‘post’.” (Bhabha, p. 26) This era of a “post” testimony is that of postcolonial writings, and aims at reactivating memory.

The writing of the trauma varies according to black minor writers as they offer complex figures of past and present, of difference and identity. Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston “asserted their cultural tradition to retrieve their repressed histories.” (Bhabha, p. 13) On the other hand, contemporary black writers, like the American writer Toni Morrison and the Caribbean author Caryl Phillips, redraw memorial spaces to relate “the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence.” (Bhabha, p. 15)


The emphasis placed by “minor” authors, to use Deleuze’s perception of minorization (see What Is a Minor Literature?, 1983), on the relations existing between imagination and the representations of family (family as home and homeliness) in fiction is at the same time a way to re-install family bonds in the realm of fiction—the “house of fiction”—and present the symbols attached to houses and homes as “characters” representing, in most cases, the phantasm of Africa as an idealized continent. The “millions of windows” emphasized by Henry James in his analysis of the preface to The Portrait of a Lady are seen by Caryl Phillips or by Morrison as means of using fiction so as to question preconceived definitions of gender, and race and the stereotypes related to them. To modern writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, their own house of fiction was a means of re-inscribing African Americans in history and of interfering in “the cultural interstices that introduce creative invention into existence.” (Bhabha, p. 12) As Homi Bhabha explicitly states (p. 26-27), there is no space left for memory for diasporic peoples other than the “house of fiction”, the symbol of a historical displacement.

Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston used memory differently from Morrison and Phillips. Hughes re-appropriated the past to portray and rebuild lost memories through his well-known character, Simple, when Zora Neale Hurston used the mythic vision of the South and her recollections of Eatonville, an all black town where she grew up, to describe the evolution and the quest for a voice and the identity of her feminine character.

Simple’s stories (written in the 1940s) can also be understood as protest literature as they re-invest the past to de-construct preconceived ideas and stereotypes against blacks. “Simple is an advocate for African American rights.” (Sullivan Harper, p. 21) Simple was also a way of creating new spaces “for the development of African American culture” (Hutchinson, p. 208), as well as an approach sensitive to the black working class. By so doing, Hughes not only gave black History its respectability, he also re-wrote the lives and histories of Black Americans of his time against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance to question stereotypes and social issues and to revive the blues and jazz.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God the rewriting of history and the assertion of black values in the American context are also present but the novel is mainly concerned with gendered history, and with exposing black female history. Janie’s story of self-discovery describes black women’s domination in a patriarcal society. To Hurston, it was a pretext to redefine black women and their role in society. (see Boyd, p. 304)

Hurston’s “houses of gendered memory” and Hughes’s “houses of racial memory” constructed a metaphoricity of “houses of fiction”, an “inscape” of black memory and history. They articulated new cultural representations of racial, social and gendered history.

The memory of Africa is never bluntly depicted in Their Eyes nor in Simple’s stories, but the hint at the African oral tradition is made clear in both works. Simple is reminiscent of the griot, and the third person narrative of Janie’s story added to the storytellers on the porch are hints at the oral tradition. In the same way as the African griot is responsible for maintaining tribal history and practices, the narrative modes of both stories ensure the recording and transmission of black history, where the personal becomes part of collective history and vice versa. The quest of a home and the house are other symbolic tools of black minor writings. The symbol of home permeates each writings to a different degree, and is dealt with in a different way by the four writers. The modern era approach (Hughes and Hurston) evidences other perspectives and issues than those raised by contemporary writers (Morrison and Phillips).


As Bhabha states, “the recesses of domestic space become sites for history’s [and we may add “for memory’s”] most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.” (p. 13) In these post-colonial conditions, family bonds, surrogacy and home constitute powerful symbols allowing memory to speak, to be told, and written. In the same way, the four writings we are analyzing explore the idea of surrogacy as the result of the various forms of dislocation undergone by the characters, but also as the way to fill up by fiction some of the gaps in historical memory. In Their Eyes Nanny plays the role of Janie’s surrogate parents. Nanny is literally and symbolically a surrogate for family roots. Surrogacy needs to be analyzed at a more hypotextual level, that of the subterranean encoded language of the imagination, that of “minor literature,” as coined by Deleuze. As a surrogate mother, Nanny plays her parental role with Janie to protect and guide her. That is why she wants to see her granddaughter married, with a home of her own before she dies. (Neale Hurston, p. 13)

Home and the symbols attached to it are recurrent in Philips’s and Morrison’s texts. Home is often portrayed as a substitute for Africa and a place to look for. It is seen differently in Hughes’s stories of Simple. Possessing a home was impossible for those escaping a segregated South and in search for a better life in the Northerner cities. The Wishing Well bar represents home for Simple and Harlem life in miniature. The bar is a substitute for the house.

Zora Neale Hurston’s personal vision of the rural South of her childhood is subsumed in the front porch. For Janie, the porch is “home” and can be interpreted as the place to elaborate a new life and a new identity. This is the place where people gather to talk and to meet Janie who has just settled with Joe Starks; the place where social life unfolds. Interestingly enough, home is not reminiscent of Africa and of a mythic continent; on the contrary home sends back to history in America. Slavery and the memory of slavery are recaptured with Joe Starks’ house as its depiction is reminiscent of the master’s house on a Southern plantation: “The rest of town looked like servants’ quarters surrounding the ‘big house’ ” (Neale Hurston, p. 47). On the other hand, Hughes’s description of the Harlem neighborhood appears as the collective home for millions of Southern blacks. Harlem is home for people who dreamt of a better life, of a symbolic heaven. Harlem must be understood as both heaven and hell in Hughes’s words. Therefore, if the quest for an idealized Africa is present in black contemporary writings, to Hughes, a fantasized Harlem functions as the quest for home for urban blacks.

The political commitment of black minor writers varies according to time. Morrison’s and Phillips’s perspectives offer a contemporary counterpoint to the modernists as each of them “historicize the event of the dehistoricized” (Bhabha, p. 283) through a different mode and a different temporality to “memorialize” their fictions and articulate their personal “rememoration” or popular memory.

Street art photography: "Know Your Right". Harlem, New York City, October 2013. © Christine Dualé
Street art photography: “Know Your Right”. Harlem, New York City, October 2013. © Christine Dualé



To Toni Morrison, recreating popular memory is an act of “rememoration”—she coins the word “rememory” in Beloved and uses it both as a verb and as a noun—which “turns the present of narrative enunciation into the haunting memorial of what has been excluded, excised, evicted, and for that very reason becomes the unheimlich space for the negotiation of identity and history.” (Bhabha, p. 284) The situation is much more subtle and cryptic with Phillips. His own political commitment has to be decoded and actually becomes really “audible” at the end of Crossing the River. One first has to look for what Kathie Birat calls the  “textual encoding of reality” (Birat, 2016, p. 93) in Phillips’s novel so as to reach the profound message delivered by the author.


In his novel Phillips gives the “real” father—be he absent or flawed—pride of place in his novel, which is not without political consequences. Phillips clearly polarizes the notions of “dwelling” and “traveling” (DeLoughrey, p. 217) into quite neat gender roles: women/sisters do not travel oceans (while males do) and are more related to  the domestic sphere of “dwelling,” while males are more classically related to power and “traveling” the seas. It is not surprising then to notice that Africa—the land of the original home and domesticity—is re-gendered from motherland to fatherland. As a matter of fact, this choice brings Phillips closer to Gilroy’s “patriarchal genealogy” of The Black Atlantic, that is to say to the birth of a new culture of blackness where women are left behind (see DeLoughrey, p. 217-18), and which is not just made accessible by the re-crossing of an ocean but also by the fictional creation of a polyphonic song composed of aggregated male voices.

The novel examines the role of cultural myths related to family and places women in situations which subvert the standards and codes related to family, ending on the presentation of an idealized vision of “brotherhood” eradicating women. The masculine and brotherly re-Africanized “hopeful horizon,” based on songs and chants, which is presented by Phillips as the only future for the Black Atlantic is based on black vocal art. It is a re-gendered “nation” of Brothers.


If “home” is masculinized in Phillips’s text, the “house” is given a major role as a female symbol in Morrison’s. The “house” is not necessarily “homely” and it is certainly not manly in Morrison’s novel. Logically enough, openings are meant to situate the main action, introduce the key characters, settle or foreshadow the basic atmosphere of the novel, even sometimes its genre. But Morrison’s introductory chapter does not fit in this general pattern.

The references to historical time are numerous in this strange opening. This dramatic oppressive situation is thus really anchored in normal human time, even in historical time with the clear reference to the passage of the territory of Ohio to a “state” at the turn of the 19th century (1803). And yet, the departure of the two boys (Sethe’s sons) is not related to any specific date and is surrounded by vague temporal references. The two boys belong to a former period of time and will not be part of the post-1873 story. They become “rememories” and are absorbed by the past. The main effect created by this strange way of characterizing the main protagonists, by the mixing of alive and dead elements, is the ominous feeling of unease and fear. Thus, the house may be considered as a metaphor of slavery itself, and as the memory of slavery, of a dehumanizing system shattering the people living in it. The house symbolizes trauma, the “rememory” of slavery, and the abandonment of Africa.

If in Morrison’s text the memory of Africa cannot feed the slave with culture, recapturing the past in America is a way for Hughes to fight for cultural survival and to offer an attempt at reviving and celebrating Black history and with it, at capturing black soul.


The experience of looking for a safe place is a shared experience of escaping which resonates within the extended “family” identified by Paul Gilroy as “the black Atlantic culture” (1995). What emerges from the merging of cultures implied by this concept is something new (see Gilroy, p. 2). This vision—shared by the four writers analyzed in this paper—offers what Bénédicte Ledent calls “an alternative to binary absolutisms, whether ethnocentrism and nationalism on the one hand or pluralism and anti-essentialism on the other” (see Caryl Phillips, p. 125) and allows a creative and mobile re-reading of the history of the African diaspora, or of this “historical conjunction” to quote Gilroy (p. 3). Each writer puts forward their own perception of black history and their personal excursion but also incursion into memory. Therefore, the black Atlantic functions “as a cultural and political system [forced] on black historiography and intellectual history […]” (Gilroy, p. 15) that helps demonstrate the literary patterns forged by black minor writers on the basis of disparate sources and during two epochs.


The background of the Harlem Renaissance was a way for Hughes to expose the reality of common black people of the 1920s and to show the slow evolution by the 1940s (when the stories were written). Music is a cultural aesthetic form central to blacks which emerged from the oral structures allowed on the plantations. According to Paul Gilroy, dealing with music helps clarify black cultural and oral structures and the significance of language. (Gilroy, p. 90) Blues and jazz are evoked by Phillips in the epilogue of Crossing the River as structuring cultural elements; they are also omnipresent in the whole stories of Simple and are part of the memorial process invoked by Langston Hughes. Music is not only present in the character’s life it is also inherent to the writing itself. Hughes did not hesitate to flout literary conventions to experiment the possibilities of blues and jazz in some of his poems. With Simple’s narrative, Hughes reverted to the first choices which had guided his poetry.

Hughes introduced music through the call and response pattern which is suggested by the movement back and forth between the main character (Simple) and the narrator (Boyd). Such pattern is closely linked to black culture, and shows the importance of the oral voice in the book. Black music was thus thematized every time Hughes had the opportunity to do so. In “Jealousy,” the reader can hear the rhythm of jazz when Simple describes one of his nights in a club: “They was humming and strumming up a breeze with the bass just a-thumping, piano trilling, and electric guitar vibrating with every string overcharged.” (p. 40) Or also when he says: “The joint were jumping, rocking,  rolling, whooping, hollering, and stomping. It was a far cry from ‘Stardust’ to that spider walking up the wall.” (p. 41)

As a typical bluesman, Simple often goes through periods of euphoria and despondency and his blues represents the memory of blacks’ Southern roots, of the sufferings of black people. With this form, Hughes subtly made visible and audible the history of slavery and erased the frontiers between an exclusively white Anglo-Saxon culture and a black culture.

The oral and musical orientation that permeates Hurston’s text also reveals a culture influenced by the oral tradition and the aesthetic of orality. The mellifluous quality of the oral voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God shapes the narrative and gives all its originality to the text. As Hurston cleverly demonstrates “her use of orality is created by, and itself creates, a community around music, language, story, and sound. Drawing on oral storytelling techniques from an African American cultural context, and situating her firmly within the literary and musical worlds of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston’s orality stretches far beyond the use of spoken dialogue or dialect in a text.” (Frever, p. 2) By interweaving oral storytelling to her story, Hurston cuts the linearity of her text. “While some narratives may create tension or dis-ease when combining print and orality, Hurston creates oral-print as a narrative dance: two partners with individual styles, coming together to create something new and beautiful through their collective motion.” (ibid., p. 7) Hughes and Hurston thus offered a new American culture rich of its African American experience and haunting memory, paving the way for contemporary black writers who, in their turn, would reinforce the memory and culture of the diasporic community—and also use music—as the new place for identity.

Phillips’s jazzy narration is in itself a tribute to music as a structuring pattern. The continual modulation of purposeful words such as “listen,” the variation of rhythms through punctuation and stressed/unstressed syllables, the use of repetitions and reiterated elements, create a musical scheme that frames his novel. In the same way, when Morrison introduces her novel by asking his readers to listen to the “vocal ghosts” of her story, she opens their sensitivity to some inner music, that of empathy and compassion.

The act of representing memory and memories is linked with “the circulation of meaning”, to quote Bhabha (p. 287). The subversion of language for Hughes and Hurston constitute acts of resistance for the survival of black culture and memory. These forms of writings testify to “the postcolonial intellectual attempt,” modern and contemporary attempts, “to elaborate a historical and literary project.” (Bhabha, p. 248) To paraphrase Gilroy, these texts are inscribed in the political culture of blacks and symbolize “the struggle to have blacks perceived as agents, as people with cognitive capacities and even with an intellectual history.” (Gilroy, p. 6) These black minor writers thus symbolize the circulation between diasporic history and   cultures. They unveil the intimacy of the crypted message they convey and redefine the present by restaging memory and the past, “but a past whose iterative value as sign reinscribes the ‘lessons of the past’ into the very textuality of the present that determines both the identification with, and the interrogation of, modernity […].” (Bhabha, p. 354)


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Publié dans Mémoires en jeu, n°6, mai 2018, p. 115-119.