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Flowers’ revision of Hurston’s text offers more than a revised love story,
however; it suggests that both the success of the love plot and the prowess
of the storyteller derive from African-based sources of spiritual power
Books by Arthur Flowers
* * * * *
Review of Another Good Loving Blues
Rootwork: Arthur Flowers, Zora Neale Hurston
and the “Literary Hoodoo” Tradition
By Patricia R. Schroeder
Midway through Arthur Flowers’ 1993 novel Another Good Loving Blues, Zora Neale Hurston appears in a Memphis drugstore where Beale Street intellectuals gather. The time is the 1920s, and Hurston the character is in town to collect local folklore. Her appearance in the novel is short, lasting only six pages, yet her presence is a powerful indicator of Flowers’ novelistic intentions.
Within the plot, Hurston is important as a model of female strength for Melvira Dupree, a conjure woman and one of Flowers’ twin protagonists. In terms of setting and era, Hurston, who did visit Memphis during this period, adds a note of historical authenticity. So does W. C. Handy in his cameo appearance, in which he teaches Lucas Bodeen–a professional bluesman and the novel’s other protagonist–how to read music.
Most importantly, however, Hurston’s presence signals that Flowers’ text both pays homage to and revises Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. By invoking Hurston’s classic text and then amending its plot to include a conjure woman (Melvira), a bluesman (Lucas), and a griot (the narrator, Flowers himself), Flowers reveals his central theme: that connections to African-derived cultural traditions are essential to the spiritual health of African Americans and the survival of the race.
When first published in 1993, Another Good Loving Blues garnered critical praise on a number of counts. The plot of the novel is straightforward, structured on a combination of romance and journey elements.
It begins in Sweetwater, Arkansas, in 1918, where ramblin’, good-timin’ Lucas Bodeen falls in love with the community-spirited Melvira Dupree. Their love survives for several years, until Lucas breaks faith with Melvira in Memphis, spends several years apart from her as the characters pursue individual quests (he to become sober, she to find her mother), and is finally reunited with her in the late 1920s, rekindling their love while riding out a deadly Mississippi flood.
This simple plot, however, is elevated to an almost mythic status by Flowers’ lyrical prose, which often mimics the blues riffs and rhythms performed by the blues musicians about whom he writes. For many reviewers, Flowers’ luminous prose is the key to the book’s success. They note that Flowers “seamlessly blends the rich rhythms of the blues and a Deep South patois in a literary, lyrical style” (Handman), that his style “flows as smoothly as the music that forms [the novel’s] core” (Kilpatrick), that the novel is “full of beauty and magic” (Ducato). Publishers’ Weekly applauds its “sonorous voice.”
The lyricism of the writing is, indeed, a source of “beauty and magic” in the book (Ducato), but balancing this tendency toward fabulation are the detailed depictions of daily life in the 1920s Delta. The mythic quest/romance story is set within a world of small-town gossip, Beale Street honky-tonks, revenge seekers, violence, lynching, and flood. Thomas L. Kilpatrick was just one of several reviewers to recognize that Flowers “captured the time and place to perfection. Readers interested in this culture will be fascinated.”
As we shall see, however, Flowers’ text does more than simply recreate history; rather, his novel insists that it is vital for characters to understand their cultural heritage in order to form connections with their current community-with the time, the place, and the people who surround them. Historical context thus becomes not just a backdrop, but an imperative to meaningful action.
This attention to antecedents and to community is significant in terms of Flowers’ narrative strategy, as well as within the plot. Identifying himself immediately as the narrator, Flowers begins the book by speaking directly to the reader, declaring his own African ancestry and his lineage as a storyteller:
I am Flowers of the Delta clan Flowers and the line of O’Killens-I am hoodoo, I am griot, I am a man of power (1).
A self-proclaimed member of what he has called the “literary hoodoo” school of writing, Flowers sees himself in a direct line of descent that started with the slave narratives, moved into imaginative literature with Charles Chesnutt and Hurston, and is continued by such contemporary writers as Gayl Jones and Ishmael Reed.
Defining himself and such other “literary hoodoo” writers as spiritually inclined heirs to a double literary tradition of Western written forms and African American oral ones (Mojo 75), Flowers sees their transmission of stories as vital to “communal health and empowerment.” “Literary hoodoo” writers thus function as contemporary griots of the West, creating visions necessary for the survival of the race and telling stories that keep the culture alive (78).
His opening invocation, then, establishes this heritage of cultural custodianship, prepares us for the intertextual connections between his novel and Hurston’s, and emphasizes the importance of storytelling to cultural survival.
As Henry Louis Gates reminds us, however, this intertextuality or Signifyin(g) consists not simply of addressing a previous literary work, but also of revising it; it is “repetition, with a signal difference” (51).
Flowers’ introductory acknowledgment of his literary bloodlines thus suggests both his debt to Hurston and this “signal difference” between their texts, for unlike Hurston’s doomed love story between Janie and Tea Cake, Flowers’ novel bills itself from the start as a story of “True love. That once-in-a-lifetime love” between Lucas and Melvira (2). According to Flowers, “Eyes [was] a sweet work. But I had problems with a lovestory component in which all 3 men die, in which she kills 2…. I wanted to do a Delta love story that ended happily ever after” (Mojo 61).
Flowers’ revision of Hurston’s text offers more than a revised love story, however; it suggests that both the success of the love plot and the prowess of the storyteller derive from African-based sources of spiritual power. By embracing t heir ancestors and other African elements of their Delta culture, Flowers’ characters discover that “you take care of the tribal soul and everything benefits. We call that Rootwork” (Mojo 97). And in a metafictional parallel to his characters’ relationships with their ancestors, Flowers the griot/novelist embraces his multiple literary heritages to perform his own “Rootwork” in telling the story.
Of course, the extent to which Their Eyes Were Watching God can even be considered a love story is a matter of some critical controversy. In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road Hurston suggests that it is. She describes herself as being involved in “the real love affair of [her] life” (255) during the writing of the book, and claims that she tried to “embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for [her lover] in Their Eyes Were Watching God (260).
The plot of the novel further encourages readers to interpret it as a love story. Tea Cake arrives in Eatonville after Janie has suffered through two stifling marriages, and their relationship helps her live and love again. Amplifying this new and attractive freedom in Janie’s emotional life is the lush, romantic language that saturates this section of the novel. Tea Cake “could be a bee to a blossom–a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God” (161).
Given this combination of Janie’s release from repression and Hurston’s impassioned language, it is no wonder that readers succumb to the romance of the story. Barbara Johnson, for example, calls the novel “one of the most beautiful and convincing love stories in any literature” (209). Bernard Bell describes it as “Hurston’s best romance” (121). Cheryl Wall claims that Janie and Tea Cake “achieve the ideal sought by most characters in Hurston’s fiction” (92-93). Even Ann duCille, who generally disagrees with these interpretations of the novel, admits that the text “invites such readings” (120).
More wary readers, however, do resist this invitation and, despite Janie’s happiness and the extravagant language, have noted a number of serious problems within Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship. As Michael Awkward succinctly summarizes it, Tea Cake does contribute positively to Janie’s life, but he “also steals from Janie, encourages the advances of another woman, strikes his wife in an attempt to ward off a potential rival for Janie’s affections, and exhibits other evidence of traditional sexist male attitudes concerning women” (17). Sometimes it takes several readings to see this harsh reality behind the glowing prose, as novelist Alice Walker has admitted in her own case (304).
In fact, Hurston herself subverts the love story: When Janie is finally forced to shoot and kill Tea Cake (who has contracted rabies), the romance perforce ends. Some scholars interpret Janie’s action as evidence that Hurston is somewhat critical of the power imbalances in Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage (see duCille; Spillers; Willis). They contend that Tea Cake’s death is necessary for Janie’s developing selfhood (duCille 120) and that Hurston, while perhaps euphoric over her own real-life romance as she wrote, still suspected that power inequities and violence were inevitable in heterosexual relationships (Willis 127).
In contrast, Arthur Flowers’ Another Good Loving Blues admits of no such ambivalence. Lucas and Melvira have many things in common with Janie and Tea Cake, both good and bad, and Flowers’ sumptuous language, like Hurston’s, bewitches the reader. Yet by creating specific “signal differences” between his Signifyin(g) text and its literary predecessor, Arthur Flowers revises Hurston’s idealized romance and conjures up a love story that endures.
One important “signal difference” in Flowers’ text is that both Lucas and Melvira have established professions when they meet. These professions afford them individual identity, status within the African American communities of the Delta, the means to contribute to that culture, and a connection to their African heritage. Unlike Hurston’s Janie, who spends most of her life known primarily as someone’s wife, Melvira Dupree is a well-respected conjure woman in her own right when Flowers’ novel begins, an herbalist who communicates with trees, walks the woodlands without crushing living things, sends her “traveling spirit” to gather information.
Known for doing good throughout the community, Melvira earns a reputation even among fellow “conjures” as a “true hoodoo of considerable power” (126). She thus meets Lucas Bodeen on equal footing when he arrives in her hometown of Sweetwater, Arkansas. He introduces himself to her as” ‘a bluesman… and a good one too,'” to which she replies, “‘Melvira Dupree, conjure'” (2).
Bodeen’s status as a bluesman also gives him a sense of purpose and a community standing that Tea Cake never quite attains. Like Tea Cake, Lucas enters the world of his novel as an engaging itinerant, an outsider who wins the heart of a prominent local woman, to the town’s initial disapproval. Also like Tea Cake, he is described in lavish natural images: “He smiled at her, a bright warm sunny day in the middle of March, a hint of springs to come” (3).
Most of all, Lucas offers Melvira the same zest for living that Tea Cake brings to Janie. We are told that, although Melvira is a serious person who rarely laughs, Bodeen could “make a laugh out of any old thing, good times and bad. Blues training. A magic she found hard to resist” (12).
It is this very “blues training” that differentiates Lucas from Tea Cake and makes Lucas’s individual development and relationships with others (Melvira and the community) possible and positive. Madelyn Jablon has noted that Another Good Loving Blues “traces the history of the blues from the lone traveling blues man to the big bands and race recordings” (59), documenting the “increasing professionalism” of blues musicians like Lucas (70).
Tea Cake, in contrast, plays a guitar simply for pleasure. Interested primarily in good times, he spends just as much time rolling dice as he does “pick[ing] the box” (199). As SallyAnn Ferguson observes, Tea Cake is less like a blues musician than a character in a blues song (such as Stackolee), because he steals Janie’s money, gambles, parties, boasts, and fights (193).
“SweetLuke” Bodeen is not immune to such dissipated habits, and spends several years in a drunken, drug-addled slide to homelessness and despair before he reaches rock bottom. From there, he gets sober, reclaims himself as a bluesman, and wins back Melvira’s love. His profession as a blues piano player redeems him. During the course of the novel we see him gradually develop from a ragtime player into a blues innovator, learn to read music, and discover the survival lessons that the blues teaches.
Furthermore, Bodeen’s immersion in the blues offers him a way to connect with and strengthen the community. Watching some dancers move to his music one night, “Bodeen couldn’t help but smile. Blackfolks and the blues. Finessing the hardtimes and celebrating the goodones. Extracting strength from adversity. His eyes misted. It made him feel good to do for blackfolks. To be able to” (40). Clearly Lucas’s blues musicianship provides him with a sense of self-worth and a lifeline to his people.
This link between the characters’ occupations and the community is another significant distinction between Flowers’ text and Hurston’s. Despite the novel’s emphasis on the love between Janie and Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God is essentially the saga of Janie’s coming to awareness and developing a voice; it is her story, and Tea Cake is important primarily as a catalyst to her growth.
Another Good Loving Blues, in contrast, alternates between Lucas’s and Melvira’s viewpoints throughout the novel, creating the literary equivalent of the call-and-response pattern so central to African American musical forms. As this communally based, call-and-response pattern suggests, the story that they share involves not only their individuation and their love for each other, but their connections with and service to the African American community.
Bodeen is aware from early in his career that the blues are important to African American culture and history, that “long before books and poems, it was the blues that kept the record. The blues told the stories, they held the delta’s history, they held the delta’s soul” (39). The extent to which Bodeen’s blues reflect and respond to his community is clear in every passage describing him at work, but most especially in the scene where, for the first time since he has quit drinking, he sits down, nervously, to play the piano:
. . . he took a deep breath and played some tentative chords, cold dead licks. They could tell he was struggling with it. Then Joyce [his old friend, a singer] put a note on it for him, a high warbling note that filled the juke. One note of a whole song. He answered her almost instinctively with a walking bass. She came back with a lyric riff, and before you know it they were playing the blues. The crowd yelled appreciation. (142)
From this call-and-response interaction with Joyce, Lucas gains strength, and from their musical fusion emerges the blues catharsis that defines him and inspirits his people.
The community focus of Melvira’s conjuring work is even more apparent, since she does not use her powers for herself. She refuses, for instance, to “hoodoo” Lucas to prevent his leaving.
Instead, she preserves the good of the African American community. She believes that “to cut out the tribal poisons was her job” (150), and her sense of mission deepens under the mentor-ship of Hootowl, an elderly conjure man she meets in Memphis. Hootowl is troubled by the migration of indigent and disheartened African Americans from their failed sharecroppers’ farms to the city.
He tells Melvira: “‘I know you see what I see, and I know you realize that they are our responsibility. Always have been. Just like you took care of your folks back in Sweetwater you got to do for the race'” (152). Under Hootowl’s tutelage, Melvira comes to see herself as “Tribal Guardian. Tribal Guide” (161).
Melvira’s meeting with Zora Neale Hurston takes on added import in this context, for after this encounter she learns that her conjuring and Hurston’s writing do similar cultural work. “Melvira hadn’t really thought about coloredfolks as writers,” the narrator tells us, but one of the drugstore regulars opines that “‘literature and hoodoo… both are tools for shaping the soul,'” and Hootowl concurs (119).
“‘Spiritwork,'” he calls it, claiming that “‘if you would provide tribal guidance, you must work with the tribal soul…. if you want to have fundamental influence on the colored race’s destiny, you shape its soul and the soul shapes everything else. Rootwork'” (120).
During his youthful travels throughout the African diasporic world, Hootowl discovered the African basis of the diverse religious practices of New World blacks. He sees the commonalities in Haitian voodoo rites, Cuban Santeria, Jamaican Obeah, and his own hoodoo conjuring. In the United States, however, Hootowl finds true spirituality deteriorating into “hucksterism,” and he “felt with all his heart that the colored race deserved a spiritual tradition of its own. Needed one desperately” (125).
When he meets Melvira Dupree, conjure and Baptist, able to read roots and the Bible with equal facility, “he saw the future and the future was good…. He saw in Melvira Dupree his last chance to serve the colored race. [She had] true power, true vision, true compassion. She was the one…. Oluddumare mojuba [‘God’s blessings on us all’]” (126).
Given Flowers’ opening invocation of the African ancestry of his own art, it is significant that both Melvira and Lucas practice arts designed to heal the spiritual malaise of the African American community, and that both are based partly on African traditions.
Just as hoodoo resembles the spiritual practices of other African diasporic religions that combine African and Christian elements, the blues emerged from the combination of Western elements (language, situation, instruments) and African musical techniques (blue notes, the call-and-response pattern, contrapuntal rhythms) that the slaves brought with them. And a primary function of the blues is to raise the spirits of both blues performer and audience.
As Flowers’ Swampdog, a juke joint owner, recalls,” ‘No matter how much trouble you got in mind, the blues tend to remind you that the sun is going to shine in your back door someday'” (156).
Lucas’s twentieth-century blues and the twentieth-century form of conjure that Melvira practices thus overlap in heritage and function: Both blend Western and African influences to nourish the people’s spirits. Flowers has identified both blues and conjure as African spiritual retentions in the Americas (Mojo 20), and many blues critics agree on the similarity between them. William Ferris asserts that “blues singers are associated in folk tradition with Voodoo. … When he links his music with Voodoo, the bluesman is doubly effective, and many singers actually boast of their supernatural powers” (77).
Julio Finn concurs, noting that “the blues is the culmination of a tradition of which conjuring is an indivisible part” (209).
Such interpretations are validated by the recurring hoodoo men, black cat bones, mojo hands, John the Conqueror roots, and bad signs that pervade blues lyrics. Within the novel, Flowers emphasizes this concurrence between hoodoo and the blues near the end, when Lucas and Melvira set off together to New Orleans, the voodoo capital of the United States and the birthplace of jazz, to enlarge their roles as “Tribal Guides.”
Before Lucas and Melvira are ready to walk off into the Southern sunset and live happily ever after, however, they must each complete another task central to African-based cultures: They must achieve peace with their ancestors. Deep and lasting relationships with ancestors, whether people remembered by the living or spirits of the long dead, are common in African religions (Floyd 15-17). According to novelist Toni Morrison, this tradition of ancestor contact characterizes much contemporary black fiction, and a character’s relationship to an ancestor can be seen as a barometer of his or her spiritual health.
For Morrison, these “ancestors” are parents or other elders; “they are sort of timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom” (343). Hootowl is obviously one such “ancestor” for Melvira, but both Lucas and Melvira must seek reconciliation with a birth parent before they can achieve spiritual wholeness and a union with each other. As Morrison notes, often “the presence or absence of the [ancestor] figure determine[s] the success or happiness of the character” (343).
This relationship with an ancestor is another “signal difference” between Flowers’ characters and Hurston’s. Tea Cake has no family, no history that we know of; he is detached, a travelin’ man. While his and Janie’s journey “to de muck” is often read as a spiritual journey to a primeval place and a deeper connection with nature and spirit, Tea Cake has no ancestor there, no elder to guide him or show him the way.
Janie’s lack of a guiding ancestor is even more pronounced. Nanny, the grandmother who raised Janie, did her best to protect Janie, but the fears born of Nanny’s life in slavery do not serve Janie well. Nanny’s loss of contact with ancestral powers is suggested in this description of her:
Nanny’s head and face looked like the standing roots of some old tree that had been torn away by storm. Foundation of ancient power that no longer mattered. The cooling palma christi leaves that Janie had bound around her grandma’s head with a white rag had wilted down and become part and parcel of the woman. (26)
Through a lifetime of slavery, economic hardship, and loss, Nanny’s spirit has been beaten down. She is primordial, part root and part leaf, but she is impotent, with no true wisdom to offer Janie in seeking spiritual wholeness. (2)
Melvira, like Janie, was abandoned by her mother and raised by an old woman, Maggie, who taught Melvira the conjuring arts. Flowers’ description of Maggie both echoes and revises Hurston’s description of Nanny and suggests the ancestral power Maggie has retained through her conjuring- her literal rootwork: “Her broad mahogany features were weathered into agelines as rough as the bark on the oldest tree in the forest” (14).
Like Nanny, Maggie is connected to ancient nature and the timeless, but unlike Nanny, she has roots and can pass on some valuable skills to her charge. Despite this important ancestral connection, however, Melvira has always felt abandoned by her birth mother, so she leaves Sweetwater to seek her.
In the last chapter of the novel, aided by the now-sober Lucas Bodeen, Melvira completes the journey to Taproot, Mississippi (an obviously significant name), where she finds her mother on her deathbed. After an angry outburst, Melvira accepts her mother with these words: “‘You are my ancestor,’ said Melvira Dupree, in the solemn monotone of ritual, ‘and I have found you'” (208).
With this forgiveness the mother dies, and when Melvira buries her mother with one of Maggie’s mojohands, the narrator’s voice fuses with ancestral ones to tell us that “The ancestors approve. She does us well doesn’t she? She does us proud” (209). Unlike Janie, then, Melvira learns to accept her past, her family, her upbringing, and her ancestors. From these connections she can establish the strong sense of identity she will need to match up with Lucas Bodeen and serve as an effective Tribal Guardian.
Bodeen must also make his peace with a living ancestor, in this case his father, before he can accompany Melvira to Taproot and beyond. A conversation with his father late in the novel is pivotal for Lucas, allowing him to make peace with the old man, who dies shortly thereafter, at peace himself.
After this encounter, Lucas determines to be a man his father could be proud of, and when he later confesses to Melvira that he has fathered several children whom he does not know, Luke “could feel his daddy frowning down on him. Ancestor embarrassment. I’ll make it up to em daddy. I swear” (186). Armed with this new sense of responsibility to the family, as well as the bluesman’s commitment to the community, Lucas too becomes whole.
This restored connection to the ancestors shows yet again that African traditions strengthen Lucas and Melvira. Armed with healthy individual identities and professions that contribute to their culture, connected to African-derived power in their conjuring and blues playing, and at peace with their ancestors, Lucas and Melvira are equipped with the tools they need to survive disaster when it strikes. And strike it does.
Like the devastating Florida hurricane that brings on Tea Cake’s death near the end of Hurston’s novel, a great Mississippi flood provides the climactic action for Flowers’ text. These analogous scenes indicate forcefully that Flowers is Signifyin(g) on Hurston’s text, and the different outcomes for the two sets of characters highlight the importance of Lucas’s and Melvira’s African-based sources of strength.
In Hurston’s novel, Janie and Tea Cake ignore hurricane warnings from fleeing animals and native people. Instead of trusting the natural signs that the Native Americans and the Bahamians read, Tea Cake decides (apparently without consulting Janie) that the money’s too good to leave. When he finally does choose to leave, he does so over Janie’s protestations.
After being bitten by a rabid dog, Tea Cake ignores Janie’s repeated injunctions to see a doctor about the dog bite, an error in judgment that leads to his tragic death. This sequence of events reveals that, despite the love and joy Tea Cake brings to Janie’s life, he and Janie do not, in fact, share an equal partnership. Finally, it suggests that despite his introducing Janie to the mythic, primeval life on the muck, Tea Cake has lost touch with many truths evident in nature.
Lucas and Melvira make none of these mistakes. As they take refuge for the night in an empty barn on the road to Taproot, Melvira sends forth her traveling spirit, and sees “animals of the field and farm, house and woods in communal flight, and she felt the earth trembling in fear.” She wakes Lucas with the unadorned announcement, “‘River’s coming,'” to which Lucas responds by springing into action, despite the fact that he hears nothing but rain.
In Lucas’s mind, “if Melvira Dupree said the river was coming, then the river was coming.” Leaving the barn they see animals running by, “deer and wolf side by side, wild dog and tame,” and once Lucas is behind the wheel of their car, “instinctively, he followed the rest of the fleeing animals” (191). The contrast between this flight and that of Tea Cake and Janie is clear: Melvira has unique powers, Lucas trusts them, and they both trust nature to lead the way to safety.
Lucas is just plain luckier than Tea Cake, too, for his flight involves no contest with a rabid dog. As they await rescue on high ground, however, Melvira predicts that Lucas “got a fever coming” (197), and when she decides to seek help from a passing rowboat, he follows her advice in time to save his life.
As the novel draws to a close, Lucas notes that “‘A good woman sure do work a man hard,”‘ but no harder, retorts Melvira, “‘than a good man work a woman.'” And on that progressive note they walked hand in hand off into the wooded sunset” (211), survivors by virtue of their rootedness in African-based traditions and their equal trust in each other.
The fact that Lucas and Melvira “lived happily ever after” (211) is not, however, the conclusion of the book. Instead, Flowers returns in his role as storyteller to have the last word, even as he had the first word in asserting his lineage. The last page of the novel reads:
Such is my myth
and so it is written
I have spoken
Now it is so
That is all (213)
This final nod to the power of the storyteller is also a final reminder of Flowers’ Signifyin(g) on Zora Neale Hurston–his own metafictional connection to an ancestor. In one respect, this passage, as Madelyn Jablon notes, “re-creates the oral tradition of storytelling. It emphasizes the importance of storyteller-audience interaction” (77) that is so important in Their Eyes Were Watching God, as reflected in the lively tale-telling on Joe Starks’ porch and in Janie’s framing narration to Pheoby.
But Flowers’ concluding invocation of Nommo, or “the magic of words to forge reality” (“Big Nommo” 148), includes both oral and written forms: He has spoken, and it is written. This final bow to the double tradition of “literary hoodoo” writers, to the equal power of spoken words and written texts, echoes Hootowl’s comments on Zora Neale Hurston’s writing within the world of the novel. Hootowl (the elder, the wise ancestor) has already recognized Melvira as the powerful culmination of mingled African and Western spiritual traditions–as conjure and Baptist.
He has also proclaimed Hurston’s writing and Melvira’s hoodoo as equally effective and important “Spiritwork” or “Rootwork,” suggesting that a printed text–such as a novel–can also provide necessary guidance for the tribal soul. Hootowl tells Hurston:
Strategies now, they change with time and circumstance. Each makes its contribution in its proper time and place.(120).
Hootowl’s comment that the methods of “Rootwork” change with time and place is significant in understanding Flowers’ Signifyin(g) on Hurston.
For unlike the ancestor acknowledgment of his characters, which is made, finally, in a spirit of uncomplicated reverence, Flowers’ revision of Hurston’s work involves a degree of criticism: He is both celebrating her storytelling and rewriting her story. Nor is Another Good Loving Blues the only text in which Flowers engages in this approach to Hurston’s work: His first novel, De Mojo Blues (1986), was written explicitly to reclaim the myth of High John the Conqueror from Hurston’s use of it in her folklore.
In describing the genesis of De Mojo Blues, Flowers both applauds and critiques Hurston’s work:
Zora did a sweet Highjohn riff. Only problem was that she goes through this “and now we give him to you America” bit and I was offended. It was at the start of WWII and she was trying to make the country feel good. I wanted to take the myth back. Zora’s was the most definitive work on Highjohn so I decided that I would try to work him into a myth that would replace hers. (Letter)
Here, Flowers seems to echo Hootowl: He celebrates Hurston’s incorporation of African American oral tales into her written text, but concludes that her use of the legend was appropriate to her time and place, not to ours. This suggests that a “literary hoodoo” writer must not only recognize traditions and ancestors, but also attend to his or her own historical context, to changes in literary form determined by time, place, and audience.
Madlyn Jablon touches upon this revising of strategies in her discussion of Another Good Loving Blues as metafiction.
For Jablon, what Gates has called Signifyin(g) can also be seen as a form of metafiction inherent in African American literature, a “by-product of the contemporary [African American] writer’s dialogue with literary predecessors” (4). Flowers clearly participates in this project. He acknowledges his debt to Hurston (a literary ancestor) and borrows her emphasis on orality.
At the same time, he updates his storytelling to include contemporary Western metafictional techniques, inserting himself into the novel and joyfully reveling in his storytelling prowess. This blending of cultures and techniques suggests a way for contemporary African American writers to become “contemporary griots of the West,” to extend and develop the “literary hoodoo” tradition and preserve its significance in the twenty-first century.
In Another Good Loving Blues, then, Arthur Flowers has created a “sacred text,” one that “record[s] a culture’s spiritual and social wisdom” (Mojo 97). Like Lucas Bodeen’s blues piano playing and Melvira Dupree’s conjuring, Flowers’ novel offers redemptive possibilities for other writers, for his readers, and for his double culture. In his fusion of oral and written forms, of African and Western sources of power, Flowers has created a work that provides the same sort of spiritual uplift that his characters strive to offer:
It is the story of a love that survives, infused with a metaphysic of African spirituality and narrated in a modernized griotic tradition. Like the blues, like conjuring, and like Hurston’s written works in their time, Another Good Loving Blues exists in its time and place as evidence of Arthur Flowers’ literary “Rootwork.”
(1.) According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s much cited discussion in The Signifying Monkey, Signifying(g) refers to the practice by black authors of addressing and revising previous texts by earlier black writers. Signifyin(g) is “black double-voicedness, because it always entails a formal revision and an intertextual relation” (51).
(2.) Sandra Paquet also discusses how Nanny has alienated Janie from her culture in debilitating ways. While noting the importance of ancestors, however, and Nanny’s failure to act as one, Paquet also argues that Tea Cake serves as an ancestor to Janie by taking her to the muck. While Tea Cake does introduce Janie to communal and tribal values formerly unknown to her, he is not her elder, and he too is out of touch with much natural wisdom.
Rev. of Another Good Loving Blues. Publishers’ Weekly 239 (30 Nov. 1992): 35
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Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.
Ducato, Theresa. Rev, of Another Good Loving Blues. Booklist 89 (15 Jan. 1993): 876-77.
duCille, Ann, The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Ferris, William. Blues from the Delta. Garden City: Anchor, 1979.
Finn, Julio. The Bluesman: The Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas. New York: Interlink Books, 1992.
Flowers, Arthur. Another Good Loving Blues. New York: Ballantine, 1993.
. “The Big Nommo: The Writer as Prophet.” Defining Ourselves: Black Writers in the 90s. Ed. Elizabeth Nunez and Brenda M. Greene. New York: Lang, 1999. 147-54.
. De Mojo Blues. New York: Ballantine, 1986.
-. Letter to Patricia R. Schroeder. 1999.
. Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman. New York: Wanganegresse P, 2001.
Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Handman, Fran. Rev, of Another Good Loving Blues. New York Times Book Review 7 Mar. 1993:23.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. 2nd ed. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984.
. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1978.
Jablon, Madelyn. Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997.
Johnson, Barbara. “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen, 1984. 205-20.
Kilpatrick, Thomas L. Rev, of Another Good Loving Blues. Library Journal 118 (Jan. 1993): 164.
Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Marl Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 339-45.
Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. “The Ancestor as Foundation in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tar Baby.” Callaloo 13.3 (1990): 499-515.
Spillers, Hortense. “A Hateful Passion, A Lost Love.” Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.181-207.
Stepto, Robert. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983.
Wall, Cheryl A. “Zora Neale Hurston: Changing Her Own Words.” Gates and Appiah 76-97.
Willis, Susan. “Wandering: Hurston’s Search for Self and Method.” Gates and Appiah 110-29.
[c] 2002 Patricia R. Schroeder African American Review Summer, 2002.
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Arthur Flowers, a Memphis native, is the author of two novels, De Mojo Blues and Another Good Loving Blues (Ballantine Books), and a children’s story, Cleveland Lee’s Beale Street Band. He is a Vietnam veteran, blues singer, co-founder of the New Renaissance Writer’s Guild. In addition, he is the webmaster of Rootsblog: A Cyberhoodoo Webspace and a performance artist whose presentation, Delta Oracle: A Griot Speaks in Tongues, keeps him busy and Professor of MFA Fiction at Syracuse University.
Patricia R. Schroeder is Professor of English at Ursinus College, where she teaches American literature, Blues literature, and modern drama. Author of numerous essays and several books on American drama, Schroeder’s most recent book, Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture, will be published 2004 by University of Illinois Press. She is currently designing an American Studies course called “The Life and Times of Robert Johnson,” and, in her spare time, hanging around in blues clubs.
Patricia Richards Schroeder, Ph.D., Professor of English (1983) B.A., Ursinus College; M.A., Ph.D., University of Virginia. firstname.lastname@example.org
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By Michelle Alexander
The mass incarceration of people of color through the War on Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites. Most people seem to imagine that the drug warwhich has swept millions of poor people of color behind barshas been aimed at rooting out drug kingpins or violent drug offenders.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This war has been focused overwhelmingly on low-level drug offenses, like marijuana possessionthe very crimes that happen with equal frequency in middle class white communities.
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By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama . . .
The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism. Recalling some of the criticisms of Americas past made by Mr. Obamas former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.
His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him boy, and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis quip that the Vietcong had never called him nigger. The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
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By Mary L. Dudziak
Thurgood Marshall became a living icon of civil rights when he argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Six years later, he was at a crossroads. A rising generation of activists were making sit-ins and demonstrations rather than lawsuits the hallmark of the civil rights movement. What role, he wondered, could he now play? When in 1960 Kenyan independence leaders asked him to help write their constitution, Marshall threw himself into their cause. Here was a new arena in which law might serve as the tool with which to forge a just society. In Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey (2008) Mary Dudziak recounts with poignancy and power the untold story of Marshall’s journey to Africa
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By Andrew B. Lewis
With deep admiration and rigorous scholarship, historian Lewis (Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table) revisits the ragtag band of young men and women who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with what they considered the overly cautious and accommodating pace of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr., the black college students and their white allies, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and moral integrity, risked their lives to challenge a deeply entrenched system. Fanning out over the Jim Crow South, SNCC organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, Freedom Schools and protest marches. Despite early successes, the movement disintegrated in the late 1960s, succeeded by the militant Black Power movement.
The highly readable history follows the later careers of the principal leaders. Some, like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, became bitter and disillusioned. Others, including Marion Barry, Julian Bond and John Lewis, tempered their idealism and moved from protest to politics, assuming positions of leadership within the very institutions they had challenged. According to the author, No organization contributed more to the civil rights movement than SNCC, and with his eloquent book, he offers a deserved tribute.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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