Building Worlds with Both Hands: Mythography in Twentieth-Century African American Literature
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While location-specific literature, such as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, exists in a variety of cultural forms, twentieth-century African American authors have produced some of the finest examples of novels set in a specific place. African American writers also frequently construct entire histories for their fictional locations, which become an engrained mythology of the text. The cosmology of an author’s universe shapes the narrative of the novel and determines the rules by which the characters play their parts. In a distinct selection of twentieth-century African American novelists, we can see how writers Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, and Randall Kenan construct their towns—and worlds—using a particular set of tools. These tools include the use of folkloric character types drawn from the African American tradition—as well as original reinterpretations or deconstructions of those types, a particular focus on the relationship of a community to a central text, the inclusion of a doomsday or ‘Ragnarok’ event in the historic formation of the town or group, and an incorporation of non-African American ‘Others’ within the story of the place. Characters like prophets and sorcerers appear in Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-down and Mumbo Jumbo, Morrison’s Sula and Paradise, Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Wild Seed, and Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Morrison’s Ruby, Oklahoma, expends an extraordinary amount of energy trying to determine if an inscription on a town monument should read “Be the Furrow of His Brow” or “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” while Butler’s Parable protagonist, Lauren Olamina, develops an entire religious text within the text, called “Earthseed: The Books of the Living.” Randall goes so far as to title one of his Let the Dead chapters “Ragnarok!” and Reed’s Radio begins with a massacre of a town full of children. Butler’s Wild Seed and Parable both focus on expanding genetic diversity by mating characters of different races—sometimes in a particularly calculating way—and Morrison’s Oklahoma residents still feel the echoes of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Native peoples haunting their town. The tools deployed by these authors build to an mutually shared goal: empathy and compassion, a need for communities to extend understanding to their members and to outsiders in order to thrive and grow. Drawing upon the novels of—and criticism of—these mythograpic writers, this paper makes the case that identifying the tools of mythcraft in locational literature helps readers to understand a broader current of thought within African American writing. By seeing patterns of cosmological construction in these novels, we can learn a great deal about the ways in which some African Americans deal with cultural history and the values which they think will enable future generations to grow communities.