Friday, October 11, 2013

Justine McConnell's "Black Odysseys"

Justine McConnell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford University. She is co-editor of Ancient Slavery and Abolition: from Hobbes to Hollywood, and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora since 1939, and reported the following:
What is a hero? And what kind of hero do we need now, asks Ralph Ellison in his seminal 1952 novel, Invisible Man. In that era immediately preceding Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X’s rise to prominence, Ellison was disappointed in those who purported to lead African American communities in the United States. In his novel, he offers a selection: the obsequious yes-man; the Communist Party devotee who sacrifices racial concerns to those of class; the tragic figure who cannot live with what he sees as his own betrayal; even the wise sweet-potato-seller who leads the protagonist to the punning realization that ‘I yam what I am!’; and the violent rabble-rouser, Ras the Exhorter, who is centre-stage at page 99 of my book.

This page also considers Ellison’s ever-unnamed protagonist’s relationship to the ancient Greek hero, Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myth). A persistent motif throughout the novel, it is combined with allusions to the Brer Rabbit stories in a kind of triangle of influence. As Ellison once wrote,

‘I knew the trickster Ulysses just as early as I knew the wily rabbit of Negro American lore, and I could easily imagine myself a pint-sized Ulysses, but hardly a rabbit, no matter how human and resourceful or Negro’.

Ellison’s prioritization of the European myth here is problematic, but the negotiations that he is making, his combination of the European canon with the folklore of the African diaspora as well as with his contemporary socio-political situation is fascinating and powerful. It is this that lies at the heart of my own book: Black Odysseys is interested in the creative works of writers such as Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris, and Njabulo Ndebele, as well as Ellison. I look at the ways in which these writers engage with that founding work of the Western canon, Homer’s Odyssey, often in radical, resistant ways which demand that we reassess our traditional interpretations of it. The modern works are compelling and important in their own right, and can well be read without focusing on these classical strands; but examining these threads too illuminates both the modern and the ancient, and enriches our reading of them all.
Learn more about Black Odysseys at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue