Chapter Three: Remembering Difference; Working Against Eurocentric Bias in Contemporary Scholarship on Trauma and Memory

It’s not how little we know that hurts so, but that so much of what we know ain’t so.

—Toni Morrison, quoting the old folks

In the 1980s, psychological trauma surfaced as a topic of serious and intense debate within the community of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists. In that decade, Brunner Mazel initiated its substantial and respected series on Psychosocial Stress, DSM III approved the inclusion of a definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies was founded, the Veterans Administration created a whole new division to study post-combat stress in veterans, and communities of survivors (including Holocaust survivors, combat veterans, natural disaster, and sexual abuse survivors) declared their interest in the disorder and its definition. By the mid-1990s, trauma therapies had mushroomed into an entire industry. The disorder’s acronym, PTSD, became a household word, a metonym that stands for a whole constellation of symptoms, reinforced by popular culture images ranging from the now well-known phenomenon of “flashbacks” to the stereotype of the “crazy vet,” to the claims of some women that they have recovered memories of child sexual abuse.

Literary interest in trauma and traumatic events is long-standing, and the works of both creative artists and critics have always reflected (and helped to shape) contemporary cultural understanding of the nature of psychological trauma. In the last decade, we’ve seen a revival of critical interest in the subject that, though it has not matched the rapid (one might say frenetic) growth of clinical investment in trauma, nonetheless signals a New Wave of literary study. Book-length literary critical studies published since 1990 include those discussed in the last chapter (Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (1991), Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992)) as well as Jonathan Shay’s controversial Achilles in Vietnam (1994), Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (1996), and the first edition of my own Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (1996). In addition to these books there have been scores of articles, and a general concern with questions of memory, trauma and interpretation that has manifested in popular culture venues from talk shows to Hollywood films to recent fiction and poetry.

Much of the recent literary critical writing on trauma and memory is rooted in psychoanalytic approaches to literature and to trauma. As a body, it draws heavily on Freud and Lacan, and appears to accept as a given the primary importance of Freud as an illuminator of the human psyche. Much of it is also a product of scholars associated with or trained in the “Yale School” of criticism, the postmodernists heavily influenced by de Man and Derrida, who embrace and promote fragmentation, multiplicity, simulacra and substitution as metaphors for ways of knowing the world and describing the (dissolution/impossibility of the) self. Notably absent from the bulk of this recent writing are theories of trauma and memory that attempt to integrate recent work in the fields of postcolonial, feminist and African American studies. This chapter argues that integrating that work into studies of trauma and memory forces a radical shift in the critic’s perspective, and exposes the failure of the psychoanalytic method to account for traumatic events that occur in the context of a long-term pattern of oppression or persecution based on group identity, including race, gender and class.

The cultural representations of trauma (including its representation in literary critical texts) are contested sites—different groups with different politics have an interest in determining those representations. Although the definition of trauma was recently revised in DSM IV, and no longer includes the claim that a traumatic event is one that lies outside the realm of “normal human experience,” the pervasiveness of trauma is elided in most contemporary critical work. Feminist clinician Laura Brown suggests that psychic trauma, far from being an unusual occurrence, is common, particularly for members of oppressed and disadvantaged groups, and that it is only the members of a small privileged class who can reasonably expect to live their lives without suffering traumatic stress.[1] Jungian clinician Emmett Early agrees:

The reason that trauma disorder has only recently been discussed as a problem… is not because it is more common now, but rather because it has only recently become uncommon enough to be considered beyond the norm…. It has only been in this century, in the past fifty years, that someone could reasonably hope to live a life without psychological trauma.[2]

So why continue to present trauma as if it is exceptional? Brown argues that the privileged classes have an investment in making the traumatic experiences of the oppressed classes invisible:

To admit that these everyday assaults on integrity and personal safety are sources of psychic trauma, to acknowledge the absence of safety in the daily lives of women and other nondominant groups, admits to what is deeply wrong in many sacred social institutions and challenges the benign mask behind which everyday oppression operates.[3]

Recent literary critical works on trauma are produced predominantly by and for members of privileged classes—they are based in the assumptions of that class and reproduce the lacunae of class members. With the exception of my own work, trauma studies scholars rarely reference the work or theories of African American critical thinkers. They rarely refer to the work of feminist theorists who lie outside the immediate circle of critics writing about trauma and memory. The body of postcolonial theory generated in the last two decades is entirely ignored by trauma scholars. Such ignorance—while probably not deliberate—is puzzling, given the preoccupation of minority writers and women with questions of trauma, memory, silence, dissociation. In this chapter, I introduce elements of African American and feminist critical theory that call into question the conclusions drawn by white critics of memory and trauma. I suggest new avenues of inquiry and interpretation, and demand a political and ethical dimension be reintroduced to interpreting texts about trauma and memory.

In the last chapter, I examined assumptions about the nature of trauma in the work of Felman and Laub. Here, I will focus primarily on the work of Cathy Caruth and refer back to my critique of Felman. I spotlight Felman and Caruth because they represent New Wave literary critics, and because they’ve actively built an academic community of writers and readers who focus with trauma, and work with other scholars in and outside their disciplines to accomplish that end. Both Felman and Caruth have ties to the clinical community (primarily through their association with Dori Laub), and draw heavily upon psychoanalytic theory to support their assertions. Neither goes outside the European tradition to construct her notions of trauma and memory, and neither incorporates any substantive gender, race or class analysis into her work.

In Testimony, Felman places the act of “bearing witness”—the narrative recapitulation of trauma—in Freudian psychoanalytic terms, as a “psychoanalytic dialogue, an unprecedented kind of dialogue in which the doctor’s testimony does not substitute itself for the patient’s testimony, but resonates with it, because, as Freud discovers, it takes two to witness the unconscious.”[4] The doctor (or the interviewer in oral history) serves as the enabling force, without whom the survivor would be unable to testify. The problems with this critical construction are manifold, and have been discussed thoroughly in the preceding chapter.

Caruth’s work, while less immediately problematic than Felman’s, also frames the traumatic experience as essentially unknowable except in its recapitulation in the presence of an outside observer.

It is this literality and its insistent return which thus constitutes trauma and points toward its enigmatic core: the delay or incompletion in knowing, or even in seeing, an overwhelming occurrence that then remains, in its insistent return, absolutely true to the event. It is indeed this truth of traumatic experience that forms the center of its pathology or symptoms; it is not a pathology, that is, of falsehood or displacement of meaning, but of history itself.[5]

Caruth believes that there is something “true” or “literal” about the memories encapsulated in the flashbacks of the survivor. Hers is an inherently romantic construction that regards the traumatic experience as an exceptional event, defined by the mysterious counter-clockwise process of first forgetting and then remembering. “Truth” may be uncovered only in the face of a primary absence, a vacancy that in its rediscovery opens the pathway to revelation.

She urges us to embrace the idea that traumatic experience is unique in its relation to history:

For history to be a history of trauma means that it is referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully perceived as it occurs; or to put it somewhat differently, that a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence.[6]

Those trained as historians might scratch their heads in puzzlement at Caruth’s claim. One could easily assert that this definition is as true of history generally, as it is true of a history of trauma, since history is a compendium of past, and therefore inaccessible events—events not fully perceived as they occur—given meaning later in a process of narrative construction. Caruth’s description of this inaccessibility as somehow unique in regards to trauma (rather than as another instance of the ongoing process of generating narrative meaning out of an irretrievable past) is both unwarranted and misleading.

Because she believes in the literal “truth” of flashback memories, Caruth privileges the allegedly special knowledge of the survivor. Caught in a “collapse of witnessing,” the survivor is transformed into an eidetic device—a medium upon which the truth is inscribed (like an image on a videotape), and through which it can be played back again and again without degradation of quality. The survivor, however, can no more understand or assimilate the truth (“the impossibility of knowing”) than a video tape can, and it is left to the psychotherapist/reader to impose meaning on the events that the survivor/tape has merely recorded. Caruth’s sense of the survivor as medium is underlined by her claim “that the history of a trauma, in its inherent belatedness, can only take place through the listening of another.”[7] In other words, if a video tape is played without an audience, the events it records might as well not have occurred.

Borrowing loosely from recent neurological studies that indicate transformations in brain chemistry result from traumatic stress, Caruth formulates a theory in which “the elision of memory and the precision of recall” create a “history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of its occurrence.”[8] She returns, again and again, to the “exactness” of the recollection, its “etching into the brain,” and seems to forget—in her repetition of the word “truth”—that there is a vast difference between precision and accuracy. Caruth doesn’t consider the possibility that the encapsulated memories are not, in fact, perfect records of actual events but are already interpretations, revisions, mediated images shaped or influenced by the perceptual framework within which they were received. Clinical studies might demonstrate that trauma survivors have precise memories; however, they cannot demonstrate that such memories always document historical events in a faithful fashion. Caruth’s theoretical position is based on her unsupported assumption that traumatic memory does possess a certain authenticity.

From her position—gained when authority is shifted from medium to interpreter—Caruth can suggest that “trauma itself may provide the very link between cultures: not as a simple understanding of the pasts of others but rather, within the traumas of contemporary history, as our ability to listen through the departures we have all taken from ourselves.”[9] It’s hard to figure out what Caruth really advocates here, since she posits that an audience exposed to trauma “tapes” would not be rewarded with traditional narrative histories, but with a special skill (“listening”) learned by paying attention to their own internal “departures” (by which she appears to mean traumas—those spots in our own lives that we cannot know). Caruth does not explain how we are to access those encapsulated memories in order to use them in the work of empathizing with others. In fact, she does not even raise the question. Since Caruth is a psychoanalytic critic, such a process would surely require that each one, in turn, have a “listener” to assist in the creation of a history, but where, then, is the genesis of such a process?

In her 1996 monograph, Unclaimed Experience, Caruth expands upon her ideas, arguing that it is “at the specific point at which knowing and not knowing intersect that the language of literature and the psychoanalytic theory of traumatic experience precisely meet.”[10] In this work, Caruth relies heavily upon Freud to provide her with a framework for her examination of trauma, returning again and again to passages in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Moses and Monotheism. Repeating the assertions about trauma and history she made in the introduction to the 1995 anthology Trauma, she now fleshes them out fully in her reading of Moses as, itself, “the site of a trauma,” the “very bearer of a historical truth that is itself involved in the political entanglement of Jews and their persecutors,” concluding, finally, that “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, that history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.”[11] But Caruth’s claim that trauma can link different cultures is not borne out in her own work, in which she makes reference only to Euro-American thinkers and scholars, and reinscribes Western colonialism upon the body of the alien Other.

In addition to her discussions of Freud, Caruth has added a study of Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras (based on Duras’ novel). This section is particularly revealing in its blindness to the difference between intercultural exchange and radical appropriation of the racialized Other. In her reading, she lauds the filmmakers for creating a vehicle in which the trauma of Hiroshima overlays the traumatic memories of a French survivor of World War II. She mentions Resnais’ decision to undertake this unusual project by repeating, without comment, the filmmaker’s explanation that he did not want to make a documentary film because “such a film would not significantly differ from his previous documentary on concentration camps.”[12] Far from seeing this comment as a danger sign—a red flag indicating Resnais’ disinterest in cultural or contextual particulars—Caruth takes it as a signal that Resnais and Duras are engaged in a grand project, the creation of “a faithful history in the very indirectness of this telling.”[13] The “faithful history,” however is the history of European sentiment at the expense of Japanese perspective, an appropriation of Japanese pain in the service of European “truth,” quite literally projected upon the screen of the tortured and mutilated exotic Japanese body.

The film centers on the relationship between a French woman who loved a German officer killed at the end of the war, and a Japanese man whose family perished at Hiroshima while he was away fighting. It is almost entirely in French. Given Caruth’s concern with speech and aphasia, it is not surprising that she spends some time considering the implications of the language of the film, and its effect on voice and meaning. She quotes an interview with the French female lead, Emmanuelle Riva:

I: You say that you communicated with your Japanese partner [the actor Eiji Okada] thanks to an interpreter. Then he didn’t speak French?

ER: Not a word. He learned everything phonetically. What a performance![14]

Caruth reads a great deal into Okada’s status as a non-French-speaking Japanese, claiming that his “true” (wholly Japanese) identity works against the fictional identity of the French-speaking character whose use of that alien tongue, like the French woman’s love for the German officer, might be seen in a continuum of collaboration. But the purity of Eiji Okada’s position in this construction rests solely on Caruth’s acceptance of Riva’s claim that Okada “learned everything phonetically,” that, in effect, he was merely a medium (“tape”), for the French words he did not understand and which, thus, did not pollute his Japanese essence:

Unlike the Japanese lover, who has learned a foreign language that momentarily takes over his own, the Japanese actor only voices the sounds of a language he has phonetically memorized…. Okada thus introduces a mode of speaking that, quite in line with the philosophy and the profound human truth articulated by the film, does not own or master its own meaning, but uniquely transmits the difference of its voice.[15]

Just as the survivor cannot know his or her own “truth,” neither can Okada know the “truth” of the words that he says, since the meaning is apparent only to the French-speaking listener.

Caruth’s interpretation depends upon Okada’s inability to comprehend the French that he speaks, but, strictly scrutinized, such a complete lack of attachment to meaning is unlikely, if not impossible. Singers and actors regularly learn lyrics and recite lines in languages that they do not speak. This is not generally understood to indicate, however, that they do not know what they are saying. The script or song lyrics are translated for them because sheer recitation cannot convey appropriate attitude and emotions, or proper inflections and nuances of speech.[16] Since Riva also mentions the high caliber of the Japanese-French translators, it’s almost certain that Okada was aware of the content of his speech as he played each scene, just as a French-speaking actor would take the time and trouble to learn the meaning of the words that he or she voiced in Japanese. Furthermore, a fine Japanese actor who memorized an entire script in French would more than likely retain at least some of the French in his memory—along with its translation. In these circumstances it could be as easily claimed that playing the role “tainted,” rather than preserved, the cultural and racial identity of the actor.

Edward Said wrote, “I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism.”[17] But Caruth approaches Hiroshima Mon Amour naively, unselfconsciously. It’s difficult to conceive of a European or American critic arguing that a German actor would be such a neutral medium if he or she were similarly cast in a French-language film. Caruth’s own tendency to exoticize the Japanese, to believe in the alien quality of the Asian actor, leads her to unquestioningly embrace an ethnocentric and racist perspective. It’s no accident that a reading of the culturally appropriative Hiroshima Mon Amour leads Caruth to conclude that “it is in the event of this incomprehension and in our departure from sense and understanding that our own witnessing may indeed begin to take place.”[18] Euro-American psychoanalytic treatises on trauma and memory are usually preoccupied with “our own witnessing”—the witnessing of Euro-Americans—at the expense of witness of a more inclusive sort, a witness that does not locate Euro-Americans in the subject position.

I do not exaggerate the grandness of Euro-American critical claims. In Unclaimed Experience Caruth says plainly: “It is only by reading the theory of individual trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in the context of the notion of historical trauma in Moses and Monotheism that we can understand the full complexity of the problem of survival at the heart of human experience.”[19] The truth is to be found only in these two texts, and the truth is, without equivocation, Freud’s. Only Freud’s truth can lead us to understand “the full complexity of the problem of survival at the heart of human experience.” Freud’s value in the interpretation of non-Western culture and psychology is often questioned, and far from established, but that’s of no concern to Caruth or other Euro-American psychoanalytic critics: when they are writing about “human experience,” they are not really referring to the experience of the bulk of the world’s population, but to the experience of a small segment of humanity raised within a European and American cultural tradition.

There are, however, a great many resources that might be considered useful—or even seminal—in developing a theory of trauma and memory that truly accounts for cultural differences, as well as allowing room for the critic to factor in race, class and gender locations of traumatized populations. Instead of (or in addition to) turning to Freud for explanations of dissociation, trauma, memory, rupture, fragmentation, one place we can turn is to a body of African American critical theory. African American theorists began to develop a vocabulary to express such concepts in 1903, with the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’ classic was penned more than thirty years before Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, and it arguably embodies a similar internal struggle to reconcile history and individual, personal trauma. In Souls, Du Bois declares:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in the same dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self…. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.[20]

Readers will note in Du Bois’ work many of the themes found in contemporary Euro-American discussions of trauma and history. First among them is the notion of an internal division, strikingly similar to that described by Henry Krystal as characteristic of trauma, “an impoverishment of the areas of one’s mind to which the ‘I’ feeling of self-sameness is extended, and a hypertrophy of the ‘not-I’ alienated areas.”[21] Robert Jay Lifton says that “extreme trauma creates a second self,” a form of “doubling in the traumatized person” that serves a life-enhancing purpose.[22] Du Bois refers, also, to the phenomenon of dissociation (“always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”) and to the stress of repeated trauma suffered by black Americans. But though Du Bois’ work addresses several themes also taken up in Euro-American studies of trauma and memory, his position (as survivor and as critic) is entirely different. An often-overlooked chapter of The Souls of Black Folk describes Du Bois’ reaction to his own infant son’s death. Rather than dwelling upon the meaning of the event to him, personally, he “deploys the racially particular as a deliberate tactic for seizing hold of the universal tragedy involved in parental grief,”[23]

The perspective on trauma offered by Du Bois and his intellectual heirs provides students of trauma and memory useful tools for their analysis. “Double-consciousness” is one of the foundation metaphors of African American literary and cultural criticism, and is, among other things, a graphic and apt descriptor of the effects of traumatic stress on an oppressed population. Unlike the traditional psychoanalytic model, in which reintegration is accomplished through the exchange between the patient (carrier of unprocessed memory) and the therapist (interpreter and facilitator), the African American model of double-consciousness is one in which individuals and communities often seek to overcome internal strife at the same time they embrace multiplicity (that is, they do not always seek integration, but rather a sort of peaceful co-existence), and, when they do work towards wholeness or assimilation, it is through the participation of equals rather than through a hierarchical relationship such as the one exemplified by the psychoanalyst and his or her patient.

If we read Du Bois, we can see the reason African Americans (like members of other oppressed populations) might reject a structure that resembles psychoanalysis. A population that has the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” would hardly be in a rush to lie on the therapist’s couch, particularly if the therapist belonged to the dominant group, the members and institutions of which were always measuring his or her soul.

The problem is not in the therapeutic mechanism (the process by which a patient and therapist work together to assist the patient in becoming self-conscious), but in the therapist’s failure to recognize that his or her interpretive structure is shaped by certain prejudices and biases. Therapeutic structures are always already supported by ideological structures, that then shape and contain the dissent and dissatisfaction of patients as they enforce hegemony. Freud’s tendency to universalize and to submerge his own ideology in talk of “nature” and “civilization” (as if either could be conceived outside of an ideological framework) fed the beliefs of subsequent generations of psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic critics that they were engaged in the explication of a generally applicable model of the “human” psyche.

It would be fascinating indeed to examine the writings of Du Bois and Freud in a comparative study, and I hope that someone will do so, but that is not the intent of this chapter. My purpose here is to open the door to the multiple perspectives of trauma and memory that exist in contemporary U.S. culture, and to suggest that, if views of trauma are so diverse even in this relatively small arena, then widening our view to include theorists and creative artists from other cultures and traditions can only enhance our understanding of the complex nature of the task we undertake.

The steadfast ignorance of African American literature and literary theory evidenced by Euro-American critics would be less clearly racist if African American literature were not so insistently and aggressively concerned—one might even reasonably say consumed—with questions of trauma and memory from its inception. The whole history of African Americans has been one of brutal and traumatic removal from their homelands, brutal and traumatic enslavement for a period of over four hundred years, and brutal and traumatic oppression ever since, combined with both deliberate and incidental erasure of whole cultures and histories within that population. To be an American critic and to turn one’s eyes to Europe, to the Holocaust for an example of a traumatized population while at the same time steadfastly refusing to look at any aspect of the African American experience (or, for that matter, the experience of Native Americans) is to perpetuate the racist and Eurocentric structures that were responsible for the traumatization of those populations in the first place.

To accept an entire body of Euro-American criticism that sustains such an elision is to be complacent within a racist structure and to stand in opposition to the very principles (of humanity, of cross-cultural connection) ostensibly espoused by critics concerned with trauma and memory. This is a strong statement, to be sure—but I cannot conceive of a reasonable argument against it. To the end of creating complexity and forcing open that door, I will commit the rest of this chapter to a discussion of contemporary African American criticism and its bearing on our understanding of trauma and memory, focusing in particular on the work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Paul Gilroy, bell hooks, and Mary Helen Washington.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gives us a representation of the slave narrative that ought to perk up the ears of any contemporary Euro-American critic concerned with trauma and memory:

The slave, by definition, possessed at most a liminal status within the human community. To read and to write was to transgress this nebulous realm of liminality. The slave’s texts, then, could not be taken as specimens of a black literary culture. Rather, the texts of the slaves could only be read as testimony of defilement: the slave’s representation and reversal of the master’s attempt to transform a human being into a commodity, and the slave’s simultaneous verbal witness of the possession of a humanity shared in common with Europeans. The chiasmus, perhaps the most commonly used rhetorical figure in the slave narratives and throughout subsequent black literature, is figured in the black vernacular tradition by tropes of the crossroads, that liminal space where Esu resides. The slave wrote not primarily to demonstrate humane letters, but to demonstrate his or her own membership in the human community.[24]

Though Gates’ discussion contains elements familiar to Euro-American critics, his position—and his relation of the slave’s position—is different from the outset. Psychoanalytic criticism frames the act of testimony as an exchange between the survivor and a willing witness. The necessity of a willing audience is underlined in the tendency of trauma critics to refer to Martin Buber’s response to Ghandi’s statement that Jews could overcome Nazism with nonviolent protest. (Buber replied angrily that “‘testimony without acknowledgment’ could paralyze the will.”[25], and is repeated as a founding assumption the works of the Felman, Laub and Caruth, among others. The psychoanalytic relationship, though paternalist in its structure, is premised on a kind of sameness, a sense that patient and analyst have shared goals, and that the analyst is a benevolent force in the life of the patient. In Gates’ description, though, the survivor’s testimony is resisted by a social and institutional structure which is determined to deprive the author of his or her humanity, and in which the slave’s act of testimony is an act of resistance, of self-definition by appropriation of and signification on the forms “natural” to the oppressor, and by which the oppressor determines who does and does not meet the criteria of “humanity.”

Gates also gives liminality a positive spin and a kind of power that is notably absent from Euro-American critical narratives—it is a precondition for “chiasmus,” which is simultaneously the rhetorical strategy of reversal within a narrative and the invocation of the chiasma (an anatomical term indicating the crossing or intersection of two tracks, as of nerves or ligaments) figured in Gates’ work as the metaphor of the crossroads. Crossroads, in turn, refer back to the traditional liminal space of West African religious culture, where the Yoruba messenger-god, Esu-Elegbara, stands guard:

…he who interprets the will of the gods to man; he who carries the desires of man to the gods…. master of style and of stylus, the phallic god of generation and fecundity, master of that elusive barrier that separates the divine world from the profane…. connecting truth with understanding, the sacred with the profane, text with interpretation, the word (as a form of the verb to be) that links a subject with its predicate. He connects the grammar of divination with its rhetorical structures. In Yoruba mythology, Esu is said to limp as he walks precisely because of his mediating function: his legs are of different lengths because he keeps one anchored in the realm of the gods while the other rests in this, our human world. [26]

Far from being an impotent aphasiac in need of an interpreter, Gates’ traumatized individual, his eloquent slave, is the sophisticated straddler of worlds, negotiating hostile territory from a position of disadvantage which he turns to advantage through reversal, choosing, at the crossroads, a new path to walk. And while the Euro-American figure of the traumatized individual is often stripped of sexuality, Esu-Elegbara is super-potent, often portrayed with an exaggerated penis, pregnant with possibility. Where Terrence De Pres[27] and later literary critical writers on trauma saw the survivor as a kind of Cassandra figure, a representation of truth (or, in Caruth’s terms) a medium through which the “truths” of history are conveyed to us, Gates sees the survivor as an agent, a witting and powerful, though apparently wounded (limping) messenger.

Far from being the only contemporary black critic who sees response to trauma as a factor shaping black literature and literary theory, Gates is merely the crest of a wave. Paul Gilroy sees a “rapport with death” as a crucial element in the work of African Americans and other blacks in diaspora in the region he calls “the Black Atlantic.”

It is integral, for example, to the narratives of loss, exile, and journeying which… serve a mnemonic function: directing the consciousness of the group back to significant, nodal points in its common history and its social memory. The telling and retelling of these stories plays a special role, organising the consciousness of the “racial” group socially and striking the important balance between inside and outside activity—the different practices, cognitive, habitual, and performative, that are required to invent, maintain, and renew identity.[28]

Gilroy’s ambitious and critically acclaimed Black Atlantic also integrates contemporary critical work on the Holocaust into its understanding of the meaning of trauma to the black diaspora, showing a respect for Euro-American scholarship which that institution has consistently failed to return to black critics. In the conclusion of his work, “‘Not a Story to Pass On’: Living Memory and the Slave Sublime,” Gilroy adopts the concept of diaspora

…an underutilised device with which to explore the fragmentary relationship between blacks and Jews and the difficult political questions to which it plays host: the status of ethnic identity, the power of cultural nationalism, and the manner in which carefully preserved social histories of ethnocidal suffering can function to supply ethical and political legitimacy.[29]

Paying careful courtesy to the Euro-American preoccupation with the Holocaust as “unique,” he still manages to point out the role played by Eurocentrism in preserving the belief in Holocaust exceptionalism, focusing on the “lines of descent linking contemporary racisms with the Nazi movement.”[30] Gilroy draws on Primo Levi “to locate the parameters of a new approach to the history of those modern terrors that exhaust the capacity of language.”[31] He also acknowledges that there is resistance in the black community to opening a dialogue which would expand beyond the usual “my trauma is worse than your trauma” comparisons of the Middle Passage and the Holocaust, noting the “dangers for both blacks and Jews in accepting their historic and unsought association with sublimity.”[32] When Gilroy turns to the novels of Toni Morrison, Sherley Anne Williams, Charles Johnson and David Bradley, he reads them within the paradigm of writing through trauma that he has constructed in Black Atlantic, a rich interpretation which accounts for “mutation, hybridity, and intermixture en route to better theories of racism and of black political culture than those so far offered by cultural absolutists of various phenotypical hues.”[33]

That Gilroy’s decision to directly address and compare black and Jewish responses to traumatic experience (the Holocaust; the Middle Passage and the institution of slavery) has been utterly ignored by contemporary Euro-American critics concerned with trauma and memory—considered, unilaterally, outside the bounds of their conversation—is astonishing, particularly in light of the publicity Gilroy’s views received, including lengthy articles and reviews in major papers ranging from The Washington Post to The Nation to The Chronicle Of Higher Education. Or perhaps it is not astonishing, since absence is the (lack of) essence of Euro-American (non)reception of black (and other minority) texts.

In what are surely the most quoted two paragraphs in African American literature Ralph Ellison wrote:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then, too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist.[34]

Not only does this characterize the invisibility of black critics in a Euro-American-dominated profession, but the reader of trauma narratives will notice an echo, a resemblance to those probably more familiar narratives of Jewish identity in the face of Nazi persecution. These paragraphs open what is clearly—to the clear-sighted—a novel of trauma, survival, memory and identity, and it has been discussed as such, again and again, for almost half a century in the writings of African American literary critics, and of Euro-American critics who study African American literature. In fact, layer after layer of traumatic experience is uncovered in the lives of the novel’s characters, ranging from lynching, to physical abuse, to illness to incest. Not once, however, have I caught reference to this text in any contemporary Euro-American critic’s writings about trauma and memory (with the exception of an unpublished manuscript by critic Elizabeth Wilson, who explores the incest episode); instead, the focus is entirely on white European and Euro-American narratives. I do not claim it is a deliberate elision—in all likelihood it is caused by the lack of familiarity of Euro-American critics with even the most famous African-American texts and, even if they have read the text, a failure to contextualize it as anything other than “African-American literature.” Invisible Man‘s absence marks the boundaries of a lacunae in the current Euro-American scholarship.

Discussion of trauma, memory and identity in the context of African American critical discourse has grown so sophisticated, and the exchange between artists, writers and critics has waxed so rich that it’s a testimony to the segregation of contemporary critical thinking that Caruth, Felman and their fellows have utterly missed it. Almost fifteen years ago (well before the first of the “New Wave” studies on trauma and memory revived the field for Euro-American scholars), Mary Helen Washington wrote a powerful essay titled, “‘Taming all that anger down’: rage and silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maude Martha.” One among several essays in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s landmark collection, Black Literature And Literary Theory, which focuses on the intersection of trauma, memory and identity, it’s remarkable chiefly because it is already engaged in the project of reclaiming black women’s writing, and placing it in the context of other novels that describe the crisis of black identity. Ironically, Washington is contrasting the dismissive reception of Brooks’s novel as a domestic tale with the general recognition that Invisible Man received as “a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger.”[35] She directly addresses the condition of aphasia, arguing that the book’s “discontinuous and truncated chapters, its short, angry sentences, its lack of ornamentation an freeze-frame endings represent structurally the entrapment of women expressed thematically in the earlier narratives of black women,”[36] and Washington constructs a matrilineal context for Brooks’s work, which includes writers like Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Dorothy West and Harriet Jacobs—all women who, arguably, wrote from the perspective of the trauma survivor.

One of the most interesting new theories about the interaction between trauma, memory and cultural identity comes from critic Houston A. Baker, whose work on the black public sphere recognizes the centrality of the traumatic image in black self-representation, and the recuperation and reversal of that image (chiasmus, again) so that it comes to represent it’s opposite—liberation. In the early years of the civil rights movement, Baker claims

Suddenly, the entire apparatus of white policing and surveillance, which had evolved from the “patter-rollers” in the armed camp of slavery, was converted, mostly by young black students, into a vocational site for liberation. The white-controlled space of criminality and incarceration was transformed into a public arena for black justice and freedom.[37]

By transfiguring mortality, forbearance and white America’s theology of terror with the intellectual and imaginative resources of the black public sphere, King led his followers in the brilliant… sounds of struggle that tumbled the walls of injustice—like the walls of Jericho—and drove the wicked from their seats of power.[38]

Unlike most of the traumatized subjects described by Euro-American critics, the African Americans who inhabit Baker’s public sphere are able to effect a grand reversal, and take control of the moral and ethical high ground. Deeply concerned with the “integrity of critical recall,” Baker emphasizes what he calls “re-membering” (making whole) an African-American history he sees as being “dis-membered” both by white power structures and the seduction of black nostalgia. After Baker’s introduction, the rest of the essays in the book seek to embody that integrity of critical recall, and provide a variety of answers to our questions about the nature of traumatic memory and its relation to narrative constructions of the self. (Of particular interest to trauma scholars should be Elizabeth Alexander’s essay, “‘Can You be Black and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video[s]” in which she asks the question: “What do the scenes of communally witnessed violence in slave narratives tell us about the way that text is inscribed in African American flesh?”[39]

The black woman critic writing most specifically and insistently about trauma and memory in the black community is bell hooks, whose book, Sisters Of The Yam: Black Women And Self-Recovery, might even be called a self-help manual. She directly addresses the problems of adapting psychoanalytic models to her own community’s needs:

Often when I tell black folks that I believe the realm of mental health, of psychic well-being, is an important arena for black liberation struggle, they reject the idea that any “therapy”—be it in a self-help program or a professional therapeutic setting—could be a location for political praxis. This should be no surprise. Traditional therapy, mainstream psychoanalytical practices, often do not consider “race” an important issue, and as a result do not adequately address the mental-health dilemmas of black people. Yet these dilemmas are very real. They persist in our daily life and they undermine our capacity to live fully and joyously. They even prevent us from participating in organized collective struggle aimed at ending domination and transforming society. In traditional southern black folk life, there was full recognition that the needs of the spirit had to be addressed…. Conversation and story-telling were important locations for sharing information about the self, for healing…. It is important that black people talk to one another, that we talk with friends and allies, for the telling of our stories enables us to name our pain, our suffering, and to seek healing.[40]

hooks neither ignores nor deplores psychoanalysis, but she insists that talking is only effective when black people talk to one another, with friends, and with allies. In her view, talking to hostile outsiders doesn’t further the healing process; in fact, it creates new wounds and deepens old ones.

Until contemporary Euro-American criticism on trauma and memory starts to listen in on the conversations between African-Americans with attention and respect, it will remain stuck within its rigid Eurocentric borders, and will likely not lead to deeper insight than it has so far provided. Its limitations, when faced with questions of race, class, and gender, have already been demonstrated. Progress, as Paul Gilroy noted, lies in dialogue, in exchange, in the process of “mutation, hybridity and intermixture” that stimulates growth in new and previously unimagined directions. Bound by no such provincialism, recent African-American criticism on trauma and memory has far outpaced its Euro-American counterpart, and has left it standing in the station without the sense to even ask how long the train’s been gone.


1. Brown, Laura S, “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma,” in Caruth, Cathy, ed., Trauma: Explorations In Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins) 1995: 105

2. Early, Emmett, The Raven’s Return (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications) 1993: 122.

3. Brown, “Not Outside,” Trauma: 105.

4. Felman, Shoshana & Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises Of Witnessing In Literature, Psychoanalysis, And History (New York: Routledge) 1992.: 15.

5. “Intro,” Caruth, Cathy, ed., Trauma: Explorations In Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins) 1995: 5.

6. Ibid: 8.

7. Ibid: 11.

8. Ibid: 153.

9. Ibid: 11.

10. Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, And History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins) 1996: 3.

11. Ibid: 20-24.

12. Ibid: 27.

13. Ibid: 27.

14. Ibid: 51.

15. Ibid: 51.

16. One can imagine an experimental theater piece in which total lack of such understanding was the intention. Shielding the actor from meaning would require an immense effort.

17. Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon) 1978: 3.

18. Caruth, Unclaimed: 56.

19. Caruth, Unclaimed: 58.

20. Du Bois, W.E.B, Writings (New York: Library of America) 1986.
: 364-365.

21. Krystal, “Trauma and Aging,” Caruth, Trauma: 85.

22. Lifton, “Interview,” Caruth, Trauma: 137.

23. Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity And Double Consciousness (Boston: Harvard University Press) 1993.: 138. This text contains an expanded discussion of Du Bois’ position and his emphasis on the importance of racial terror on black construction of the self.

24. Gates, Henry Louis Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory Of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press) 1988: 128.

25. Buber, Martin, “A Letter to Ghandi (February 1939”, A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 2005: 115.

26. Gates: 6.

27. Tal, Worlds of Hurt: 31-46.

28. Gilroy: 198.

29. Ibid.: 207.

30. Ibid.: 214.

31. Ibid.: 215.

32. Ibid.: 215-216.

33. Ibid.: 223.

34 Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man, 30th anniversary edition (New York: Vintage) 1952: 4.

35. Washington, Mary Helen, “‘Taming all that anger down’: rage and silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Gates, Henry Louis Jr., ed., Black Literature And Literary Theory (New York: Methuen) 1984: 249.

36. Ibid.: 260.

37. Baker, Houston, “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere,” in Black Public Sphere Collective, ed., The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1995: 18-19.

38. Ibid.: 29.

39. Alexander, Elizabeth, “Can you be BLACK and Look at This? Reading the Rodney King Videos,” in The Black Public Sphere: 85.

40. hooks, bell, Sisters Of The Yam: Black Women And Self-Recovery (Boston: South End Press) 1993: 15-17.