The View From the Chinaberry Tree

There was a time, not too many years ago, when quite a few black youngsters in the South shared the dream of wanting to live in New York. As a matter of cultural fact, this ambition was so strong that some religious black mothers are said to have promised their children that if they led exemplary lives and attended church regularly, when they died they would go to New York. But with the end of legal segregation and the recent prosperity of the changing South, the mystique of the city has faded. The once historic migrations out of the South have decreased. For many, the promises held out by the North have not been realized, and popular songs now advise the offspring of previous generations of wide-eyed migrants, living in Harlem, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, to take the “Midnight Train To Georgia,” preferably to Atlanta. This trend is not necessarily a retreat from blocked economic progress in the North; in fact, more people are remaining in the North than are returning to the South. If anything, this shift in focus suggests a re-examination of the group ethos as it exists in the old country. It is a migration of the spirit. Other signs support this conclusion. Much of the political rhetoric has shifted from Nigeria to North Carolina; the afro of the sixties has given way in the seventies to the corn-row hairstyle of the southern past; and writers and musicians are attempting again to express the essential meaning of the group experience as it has been shaped by over three hundred and fifty years of living under all the influences which go into the making of American culture.
Unlike the musician, however, the writer has problems in locating an angle of vision broad enough to encompass the shifting relationships between North and South, past and present, black and white, illusion and the ever-changing American reality. All are essential parts of black American consciousness, yet the image-making powers of fiction often seem insufficient to express the complexity of these relationships. Most “blacks” are in reality part white, part Indian, part African, part southern Americans, whose orientation to the present has been shaped by a historical relationship to the experience of slavery, the Civil War, the Emancipation, and the ideals professed by national documents, as well as by the other influences which touch other Americans. This is the conscious reality out of which the writer must work. Yet very often, the jazz musician seems better able than the writer to suggest these complex relationships; and during the sixties, a preoccupation with ideology delayed some writers in their search for an adequate angle of vision.
Fortunately, in recent years, a few writers have begun to think consciously about ways in which their history can be made accessible as art. For one thing, they avoid ideology. For another, following the example of Ralph Ellison, these writers have discovered in the improvisational range allowed by jazz structure a much broader imaginative framework than that allowed by conventional approaches to the novel form. Several such writers come to mind. John Wideman, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, has written three innovative novels. The Lynchers, his most recent, explores the ways in which the individual can achieve identity and suggests that it is only through an imaginative exploitation of the rituals and symbols of the southern past that the writer can define the values of the group. Leon Forrest, in There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, demonstrates superbly the literary possibilities of the blues idiom. Forrest’s fictional world is a Chicago black community, but his imagination ranges back and forth in time over the events and historical figures which enrich the texture of black American experience. Finally, there is Albert Murray’s TRAIN WHISTLE GUITAR (McGrawHill, $6.95), a novel which seeks to locate a world of its own in a very small town in Alabama during the 1920s.
I must admit to a bias in favor of Albert Murray’s novel, partly because it is located in the South, the ancestral home of most black Americans, but more specifically because it endeavors to re-create a community of black people who have a clear perspective on themselves and the world about them. Murray’s is a vision of human beings who feel good about themselves. Train Whistle Guitar is the story of one boy’s exploration of the possibilities offered by his community. Scooter, the narrator, is a preadolescent who springs directly from the Negro American briarpatch. He is an embodiment of tradition. And while Scooter’s voice is not that of a preadolescent, one can overlook this in view of Murray’s inventiveness. The rhythms of the blues idiom inform his prose. The book is thin because of its condensation, and because of the limitations imposed by its innovative structure. The music of a guitar re-creating a train whistle provides the framework; the book’s episodes are calculated to intrude into the reader’s consciousness like the image-provoking sound of a train whistle, imposing rhythmic order on the poetry inherent in Scooter’s memory.
Scooter prides himself on the extent of his involvement in his community. The point of observation in his world is the chinaberry tree in his front yard. Up in its branches the preadolescent surveys his community, north, south, east, and west, in order to get his bearings and to begin to perfect a design for living in terms of the entire world. His is a town rich in mythic possibilities. Its name is Gasoline Point, Alabama; but, the narrator cautions, the town is also the briarpatch, and “more a location in time than an intersection on a map.” The black citizens of Gasoline Point refuse to see themselves as victims, refuse to allow their imaginations to become limited by color; and most important of all, they refuse to concede that human style and conscious extension of the imagination are not the most important matters in life. Scooter learns from them. In his imagination, he is also Jack the Rabbit and Jack the Bear and Railroad Bill and Jack Johnson. His chinaberry tree is also a beanstalk and a spyglass tree. Nestled high in its branches, Jack the Rabbit studies the life lessons, provided by a neighborhood of seif-defining people, which when mastered will allow him to graduate from the briarpatch.
Scooter’s favorite hero is Luzana Cholly, who, at least from the perspective of a boy, is a freight-trainblues-seeming, tobacco-smoking, guitar-strumming maker of myths and a blues extension soloist par excellence. The boy resolves to grab a freight, like his hero, and thunder off to adventures in New York. World-wise from his own experience of freight trains and chain gangs, Luzana Cholly is obliged to instruct Scooter in the skills and wisdom which must be acquired before any would-be hero can confront the city. One must first learn discipline and transcendence and craft. For instruction in these, Luzana Cholly is inadequate, and Scooter must seek other mentors.
But mentors and learning situations abound in Gasoline Point. What emerges most vividly from this novel is Murray’s evocation of the richness of Scooter’s community and its dramatic sense of human experience. Scooter finds within the experience of his community all the styles, ambiguities and affirmations necessary to initiate him into the responsibilities of manhood. He discovers the randomness of death, the limitless magic of the human imagination, the delights of sexual experience, and the proper measurements of manhood and heroism. He also acquires an appreciation of irony, which should be the essential instruction of a community immersed in the vitality of the blues idiom:
Sometimes when you heard somebody singing something other than church music over in Gins Alley on Monday morning it used to be Mrs. Honey Houston, whose house was next door to Miss Pauline’s Cookshop, and who always used to begin with the same opening verse: Going to see Madame Ruth/Going to see Madame Catherine/Going to tell Madame Ruth/Going to tell Madame Catherine/Got a world full of trouble/And sweet daddy so doggone mean.
Other mentors besides Miss Honey Houston provide an extended family of interacting images, in terms of which Scooter creates himself. There is Stagolee Dupas (fils), the rough-and-ready piano player over in neighboring Tin Top Alley; Blue Gum Silas, the pigeontoed West Indian (“known as Geechee Silas because of the abba abba way he talked”); Unka JoJo the African, whose arrival on the last slave-bearing ship and subsequent clinging to an African identity limit the extent of his involvement in the Gins Alley community (“all the time free in the old country”); Elroy Augustus Gaither, or Gus the Gator, the long-legged, sleepy-walking baseball star; Papa Gumbo Willie McWorthy, the barber in whose shop humor, wisdom, and style are absorbed by Scooter; Miss Lexine Metcalf, the teacher whose encouragements “could change you into Prince Charming or Roland or Siegfried or Sinbad or Ulysses”; Uncle Jerome, the sometime preacher, whose impromptu sermons extract history lessons from the pictures on paper currency; and Soldier Boy Crawford, World War I veteran, whose expertise extends to lessons in tactics, daring, and French manners. Scooter gets a perspective on them from his position in the chinaberry tree, in the barbershop, or by the fireside at home. He becomes all of them, and yet his own man, because, collectively, they represent as varied a group of individuals as he will ever confront up North in the city.
Much of Albert Murray’s nonfiction has been devoted to the clarification of those areas of black American experience which, in recent years, have been drawn into the categories of the social science technicians. But unlike many other black writers, especially some who began writing during the sixties, Murray has refused to make his counter-statements in the terminology of social science. In The OmniAmericans (1970), he emphasized this refusal by challenging those black writers who depicted their own experiences, or the experience of the group, in terms of conformity to or deviance from white middleclass norms. While well-intentioned writers as diverse as Richard Wright, Kenneth Clark, Claude Brown, James Baldwin, and Gordon Parks paid homage to the norms and definitions of the social science technicians, Murray maintained that social science methodology was insufficient to deal with the richness and complexity of human experience in general and black American experience specifically. Far from being the pathological victims of white oppression, he argued, in their music, speech, styles, and attitudes, black Americans exhibited a resilience, a self-esteem, and an orientation to continuity in the face of adversity that are downright enviable.
In The Hero and the Blues (1973), Murray takes to task those writers who abandon to the social sciences the storyteller’s role as mythmaker and value-maker. “If the storyteller subordinates his own legitimate esthetic preoccupations to those of the social and political technicians,” he warned, “he only downgrades the responsibility which he alone has inherited.”
Far from extending the implications of the traditional literary categories, according to Murray, contemporary American social science very often corresponds to an oversimplification of the melodramatic success story by its insistence that “the essential problems of humanity can either be solved or reduced to insignificance by a hero or man of good will who can apply adequate scientific insights to Public Administration and medicine.” As a result, those black writers who view their experience from the perspective of the social technician avoid confronting those problems inherent in the human condition. If they project a hero at all, Murray argues, he is a social science hero, “a cripple among cripples,” whose only function is to indict the system by displaying his wretchedness. Murray rejects this finger-pointing victim, whether in the fiction of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or black polemicists, because for him the function of any storybook hero is not to address himself to the humanity of the dragon, but to forge a sword with which the dragon can be conquered. His conception of heroism, and his knowledge of the circumstances which produce heroic action, will not concede validity to such a dimensionless protagonist.
Instead, Murray reminds his readers of Ernest Hemingway’s remarks that writers are forged in injustice, poverty, and war; that perhaps the best early training for a writer is an unhappy childhood. To Albert Murray, these observations have particular implications for those who would regard the black American experience as a rich source for fiction. In his view, the image of the sword being forged is inseparable from what he terms “the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation”—a concept as indispensable to any fundamental definition of heroic action as it is to an understanding of the tradition of confrontation and improvisation which finds expression in the blues idiom of black Americans. “All good storytellers,” he says, “have always known that irony and absurdity are not only thorns in the briarpatch in which they themselves are born and bred but are also precisely what literary statement is forever trying to provide adequate terms for.” Heroes are not produced by predictable circumstances. Rather, it is the extraordinary individual who gains heroic stature in proportion to the number of obstacles he overcomes in his effort to confront the dragon with a wellforged sword in hand. And for Albert Murray, the hero most compatible with the existential absurdity of contemporary American life is the master craftsman, one for whom knowledge and technique, or style, have become that with which he not only performs, but also plays, “as the hero in combat and the blues musician in a jam session can maintain the dancer’s grace under the pressure of all tempos.”
Train Whistle Guitar, then, represents Murray’s fictional statement of the blues idiom definition of heroic action. Scooter becomes an imaginative extension of Luzana Cholly, Soldier Boy Crawford, and all the other residents of Gasoline Point. These people confront, acknowledge, and proceed, in spite of as well as in terms of, “the ugliness and meanness inherent in the human condition.” What is more, they do it with style, sustaining their integrity and human dignity even while experiencing personal tragedy. They are a community of people who exhibit the dancer’s grace under pressure.
The work of Albert Murray, like that of Leon Forrest, should prove instructive to those writers attempting to find literary solutions to the problem of achieving an adequate perspective on a broad area of American life. The incorporation of blues idiom techniques into prose may well provide a means of reducing part of the rapid change we see about us to manageable form. For those who seek an uncluttered understanding of the quality of life among black Americans, Train Whistle Guitar offers valuable insights. It is to be hoped that more such imaginative re-creations of folk experience will emerge from those black writers who are now exploring the blues territory in the South.