Monday, June 11, 2018

Barksdale: On psychological castration in modern black fiction

Richard K. Barksdale published an article in 1986 about psychological castration in modern black fiction. He taught at the University of Illinois until 1989 and died in 1993.

To give some background about older fiction, Barksdale mentions William Faulkner's Light in August in which the black character Joe Christmas is castrated by Percy Grimm. Barksdale says that Christmas “fits into the Southern gothic tradition” in the way he “puts aside his gun and submits, almost lovingly, to his castration and death.” (Peter Swiggart's book The Art of Faulkner's Novels gives more information about Joe Christmas: “His grandfather, Eupheus (Doc) Hines, kills Joe’s father, a dark-skinned circus man, and allows Joe’s unmarried mother to die in childbirth. Hines believes that Joe represents the very ‘teeth and fangs’ of Satan’s evil...”)

In more recent black fiction, however, such as in “Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man and Corregidora, in Morrison’s Sula, in Walker’s The Color Purple, and in Paule Marshall’s Praise Song for the Widow" the characters experience some “severe psychological mutilation of the black male psyche.” In all these books, the castration is metaphorical, except for Eva’s Man (1976) in which Eva Medina Canada kills her lover Davis Carter by biting off his genitals and leaving him to bleed out. Barksdale comments that “where in Faulkner’s Light in August an act of sexual violence is rooted in an interracial social problem, in Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man the act of sexual violence appears to be an interracial personal problem.” He concludes that

“some recent black American novelists have introduced male characters who, because of their penchant for sexual violence and because of their brutal insensitivity, deserve castration; and there are other male characters who, because of circumstances beyond their control, have been symbolically castrated and are hence the ‘wounded Adams’ of the black experience."


Richard K. Barksdale. "Castration symbolism in recent black American fiction." CLA Journal. Vol. 29, No. 4 (JUNE 1986), pp. 400-413.

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