African Studies Quarterly

Textual Politics from Slavery to Postcolonialism: Race and Identification. Carl Plasa.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. 172pp.

Carl Plasa specifies in the introduction to Textual Politics that the book focuses on a wide variety of literature: works from diverse cultures, historical periods and “racial” perspectives.  He states that the breadth and diversity of the source material is both deliberate and important because "the inscriptions of racial crossing with which the book deals themselves participate in larger networks of transhistorical and cross-cultural dialogue, revision, interchange and contestation" (p. 3).  With this in mind, Plasa developed a study that crosses a wide range of cultures.  He interprets work such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1789); Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814); Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847); Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966); The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970); and Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). 

Some readers, however, might consider the almost two hundred year span to include too many literary and historical time periods to adequately cover.  Others might take issue with the way Plasa moves from Iboland (in present-day Nigeria) to England to the Caribbean to the United States and finally to Zimbabwe.  Nonetheless, this discursive approach notwithstanding, the theoretical perspective and the focus on identity and cultural identification unify the text specifically and strategically to render the ambitious scope manageable. 

Plasa draws extensively from Homi K. Bhabha and Frantz Fanon for the postcolonial theoretical perspective to unify his analysis of the texts, with excursions into the fields of feminism, deconstruction and psychoanalysis which help him develop more thorough readings of the texts under discussion.  Because Plasa is dealing almost exclusively with novels written by women, one wonders why he has not chosen the works of postcolonial feminists such as Gayatri Spivak, Hortense Spillers and Amina Mama as additional works for his analysis.  However, identity and identification have historically been associated with the male persona.  Thus, when Plasa contextualizes both the works under study and his analysis of them, it is within the larger political arena of male identity that all must operate.

Indeed, Plasa configures this male identity from the beginning, with his initial essay about Olaudah Equiano and his search for identity and the power of self-definition.  In this chapter of Textual Politics, Plasa provides the reader with an analysis of the literary discourses available to Equiano through which he could construct himself and the narrator of his text, which is simultaneously a slave narrative, an autobiography, a political treatise, a coming of age story and a picaresque adventure-quest.  In crossing all these genre “boundaries,” just as he crosses multiple political, economic and religious markers, Equiano presents himself, argues Plasa, as “a black subaltern who figures himself as a white colonizer/imperialist,” while at the same time exploring his essence as a Christian convert (p. 31).  Equiano uses this crossing-over technique, he further suggests, to blur the binary oppositions (such as white-black, colonizer-colonized, and master-slave, among others) that were the foundation of Western peoples’ notions of themselves and the world.  In this process, Plasa points out, Equiano demonstrates “the inessentiality of race as a marker of difference,” driving home the fact that European fortunes, European notions of world order and European political systems were built on illusions.

In his four middle chapters on the development of female characters and female identity in Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye, Plasa spans over a hundred years and three different areas of the globe.  However, all of these places and time periods are connected by the Atlantic Ocean, the slave trade and the colonizing forces of European males.  Plasa’s analysis of the construction of the identity and self of the women characters are necessarily intertwined, since periods of history are never discrete.  Moreover, the various cultures that these books represent can never be "hermetically sealed off from one another"; instead, they must be analyzed and absorbed as "elements in a constantly shifting network of relations, responses, crossings and hybridities” (p. 99).

In the final chapter, Plasa draws together the texts and eras under discussion (and others such as Coriolanus by Shakespeare) in an analysis of the relationship between Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849).  He indicates in this chapter that, not only does Dangarembga position her text within a Fanonian frame of reference, but she also "extends and revises [it] from a black feminist perspective” (p. 122).  Plasa also specifies that both Dangarembga and Bronte locate the ability to control and define self in the heroines of their novels in the women’s control over their bodies.  Dangarembga forces this issue of control and self-definition one step further, though, when she presents a young Zimbabwean girl as anorexic. 

Women’s identity, then, in the face of the Fanonian male frame of colonialism and the colonial powers’ dictation of what and who their colonial subjects could be, is developed and explored as a reaction to control.  Because women are valued in male systems only for their reproductive and nurturing functions (that is, because they can produce and take care of families), the locus of their identity rests in their bodies—body, not mind, spirit, or soul, establishes who and what a woman is.  Nyasha, one of the main characters of Nervous Conditions, like Caroline and Shirley of Shirley, define themselves by controlling the only aspect of their identities that they thought open to women—their bodies.  As Plasa points out, though, Dangarembga is crossing boundaries with this depiction of an African girl with anorexia, for she thus "challenges the Western feminist consensus that anorexia is a disease typically afflicting the white middle-class female subject,” (p. 130).  Such crossings, as Plasa has so aptly demonstrated, have been a mainstay in the literature of women and the colonized for two centuries.

Textual Politics from Slavery to Postcolonialism: Race and Identification is a valuable addition to the growing body of secondary literature centering on slavery, colonialism and postcolonialism as they are evidenced in literary texts.  Although he is using sophisticated, sometimes dense literary and cultural theory to analyze diverse works of literature, Plasa is eminently readable and always thought-provoking.  This text is appropriate for advanced undergraduates, graduate students and other scholars in postcolonial and literary studies.

Samantha Manchester Earley
Indiana University Southeast