Literary Repetition and Revision as Healing: Harryette Mullen and Suzan-Lori Parks's Collective Solution to Historical Trauma
Music functions as a source of healing in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, both to the bird who is inexplicably sad and for the broken relationship between Violet and Joe, the novel’s two main adult characters. The bird cheers up and regains its appetite once it hears music, and Violet and Joe begin to repair their love after a younger character brings a record player into their home. Borrowing from the musical forms of jazz, and more specifically jazz played by black musicians, Morrison structures her book as a series of solos from various characters, moving forward and backward in time to expand a story through different perspectives. This technique, repetition and revision, echoes the jazz practice of replaying phrases from other musicians with slight variations “found in black music as representative of the African-American oral tradition" (Ludigkeit 166). As pointed out by scholar Chad Jewett, Jazz bases its narrative on the “central structural principle of freedom from set conclusions and strictures” found in modal jazz, a common style of jazz favored by black musicians, and thus the novel exhibits “a move away from composition and future-oriented plot toward new versions of the same familiar prompt” (Jewett 445).
Repetition and revision depart from the constraints of literary convention and bring the collective format of music more directly into a text. When writing about the influence of jazz music on her writing, Parks notes that the use of repetition and revision in a text creates one “which breaks from the text which we are told to write – the text which cleanly ARCS” (Parks 9). The non-linear, spiraling timeline of a text based on repetition and revision thus directly rejects the traditional arc of stories. A re-working of past time and story can also be done quite effectively through conversation with others, leading to another musical technique found in African American postmodern literature – call and response.
This is one of the fundamental characteristics of traditional music across Western Africa, serving as both a musical organizational tool and as a facilitation technique to include participation from everyone, not just specific musicians, as community is a central aspect of music in many traditional African cultures (Mensah). The use of such musical techniques is similar to “Skaz,” a Russian Formalist term for texts that sound “like a combination of the scat and jazz paradigms that permeate the African American oral tradition,” thus rooting the technique used to rework history in African American culture and tradition (Bernard 692-693).
When discussing the purpose of bringing music into her work, Morrison “saw her own work as an attempt to recreate and supplant the music’s power to forge a distinct group identity based on a common cultural tradition” (Ludigkeit 165). The collectivity inherent in music making, and more specifically in these organizational techniques that require interplay between musicians, reinforces the idea that the collaboration of individuals produces great music. Thus, repetition and revision, as well as call and response, serve as a meshing together of collective music, African American tradition, and the physical act of writing in postmodern African American literature to remind the reader that the healing power in music may stem from its collective nature.
Parks and Mullen exploit repetition and revision to rewrite presiding histories through two differing forms: playwriting and poetry. The rupture of linear narrative structure in Parks’s “The America Play” and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” as well as in Mullen’s “Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language,” exposes the duration of trauma that is inflicted on minority populations in the United States by standard historical events and timelines, refusing the notion that history stays in the past. Instead, history, the present, and the future meld to better illustrate the true nature of history, which eludes standard temporality and the confines of neat, teleological representations. In Mullen’s “European Folk Tale Variant” and Parks’s “The America Play” again, repetition and revision highlights the misrepresentation that white-central histories create. The refiguring of language that accompanies the process of repetition and revision indicates that characters “are experiencing their situation anew,” signaling the potential of this technique to rework history anew, and thus repetition and revision becomes the avenue for Parks and Mullen to re-center history on African Americans (Parks 9).
The use of specific form in both Parks and Mullen’s work helps uncover how they accomplish some of this re-centering. Following a question that Parks highlights in her essay “from Elements of Style,” The America Play must be a play because it comments on replication of history, on what is “thuh truth from the hearsay” (Parks 175). In her essay, “Possession,” Parks delineates the purpose of theater as “the perfect place to make history.” History, to Parks, “is a recorded or remembered event,” and since a performance is both recorded and remembered, it is only fitting that a play has the power to create history “where it is and always was but has not yet been divined” (Parks 5).
In poetic forms, Mullen’s work embodies the genre of language poetry because it is primarily concerned with language as a medium, with changing connotations, and with accessibility. The intricacies of poetry frequently demands close reading, making it often inaccessible to a wide range of readers, and thus Mullen writes poetry to dismantle the stereotypes and hindrances that language presents us from the inside out. While a play and a poem may seem to be drastically different genres, the way that Parks and Mullen deal with language as a medium to be played with in order to impart meaning brings them closer than one might originally assume. The use of both these forms is crucial to imparting the idea that centering history on dominant populations misrepresents truth, and it is through a deviation from the norm that the beginnings of truth can be found.
Repetition and revision, when used as an organizational tactic in a play, melts the linearity of history. In Parks’s work, repetition and revision distances the work from standard plays and creates “a dramatic text that departs from the traditional rise and fall of a plot to look and sound more like a musical score” (Parks 9). The first act of “The America Play” centers on a replication, repetition, and revision of a historical scene – when Lincoln was shot – and the second act centers on the aftermath of Act One’s historical replication. In the second act, the passage of time is marked by the stage cue: “(A gunshot echoes. Loudly. And echoes.)” This cue is a revised repetition of the gunshots at the end of each mini-scene in the prior act, in which the Foundling Father re-enacts Abraham Lincoln’s death by allowing tourists to shoot a gun at him after repeating Lincoln’s famous last laughter.
However, the stage cue is not only a revised repetition of the previous act’s events, but is also repeated and revised throughout Act 2, appearing sometimes in parentheses, sometimes not, and culminating with the addition of the line, “The Foundling Father ‘slumps in his chair’” (Parks 198). The use of gunshots and echoes of gunshots to mark the passage of time complicates the notion of a standard timeline: a gunshot’s echo can repeat for a near infinite amount of time, stretching the event of the shooting past its fixed temporal moment. The repetition of a gunshot that only happened once in linear history of Lincoln’s death brings the event out of a static instance and into both the present and future. The replications of Lincoln’s death with slight alterations each time, which each still give the paying assassin the pleasure of enacting the scene, blurs the distinction between historical truth and replication.
To expand on the misrepresentation of history that accompanies generalization, Parks uses irregular formatting in her plays. The conventional format of a play contains a title, characters, a setting, numbered acts, and numbered scenes. However, Parks deviates from this convention. The characters are referred to as “The Roles,” the setting is referred to as “Place,” and the scenes are not numbered but lettered, as well as given a title that is reminiscent of a geological timeline of the planet interspersed with echoes: “Big Bang,” “Echo,” “Archeology,” “Echo,” “Spadework,” “Echo,” and “The Great Beyond.” The use of the big bang, archeology, spadework, and the great beyond takes a stab at the passage of human time on the earth, highlighting our general sense of the history of the earth and how little we actually know. The use of echoes after each main titled event in the scene titles has the same effect as the gunshots and their echoes throughout the play – the linear passage of time ruptures, the echoes twisting the commonly accepted timeline of a series of events into somewhat of a spiral. The use of echoes also brings the past into the present and potential future, creating an infinite possible reaction time to history.
This irregular structure contrasts with the conventional structure of a play when the Foundling Father announces the scenes of “Our American Cousin,” the play that Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was shot. In “The America Play,” the Foundling Father announces the act and scene such as this: “Ladies and Gentlemen: Our American Cousin, Act III, scene 5,” and later in the play he announces scene 2 of the same play (Parks 183, 187). This contrast in structure style emphasizes the potential misrepresentation of time and truth that occurs when standard conventions are forced upon a history or a story. The announcement of scenes in “Our American Cousin” within “The America Play” does not just provide contrast to Parks’s structure; as the Foundling Father announces the scenes in his own replications of the scene of Lincoln’s death, this further convolutes the a-temporal timeline of “The America Play,” once again questioning the authenticity of historical truth versus replication. The setting of “The America Play” in an “exact replica of the Great Hole of History” brings attention to the gaps in history and further questions if history is completely truthful.
Parks uses musical repetition and revision, as well as call-and-response, to accomplish this rejection of the traditional dramatic structure of a clean rise and fall, instead complicating the storyline with memories of the past in new combinations. In “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” dramatic structure twists into a circle through the use of musical techniques. The most evident example of this is the conversation that reappears in multiple places in the text, beginning with the line, “ALL: HAM BONE HAM BONE WHERE YOU BEEN ROUN THUH WORL N BACK A-GAIN.” Immediately following the repeated conversation, a section of call and response ensues between Ham and Prunes And Prisms, rotating around the phrases “I didn’t see you” and “I was there.” Further, the multiple deaths of Black Man With Watermelon, in circumstances such as falling off a slave trade ship or from a 23-story building – suicide from a modern building – connects the brutal history of slavery to the brutal reality of African American life in today’s era, asserting that slavery continues as a part of contemporary history and its existence and effects must still be dealt with. In this, Parks melds the past, present, and future and challenges the reader to engage with a history centered on African American people.
Mullen employs repetition and revision in a strikingly different way than Parks, but produces a similar outcome of refiguring history to centralize African Americans and other marginalized peoples. In her poem, “European Folk Tale Variant,” the traditional story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is retold in a shocking manner. Beginning with the phrase, “The way the story goes,” immediately forces the reader to consider the fact that this story is one that is widely told from one perspective, thus this is a story that everyone will recognize even in a new light. The tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” in Mullen’s poem, represents the way that folk tales, fables, and perhaps even fairy tales, are told. Rather than writing in the dreamy, children’s story tone that usually accompanies such tales, Mullen presents the situation in the style of a newspaper report, describing each event as felonies and referencing law punishments, attorneys, and juvenile detention.
Similar folk tales and fables, which are repeated throughout generations to young children in the process of learning language, provide some of the earliest frameworks for children to measure themselves against. Thus, the use of exclusively positive connotations to a naïve white child who actually does something severely wrong, rather than chastising the perpetrator of a serious crime, will only reinforce the notion that a crime committed by a white child is not taken seriously by society. By repeating this canonical folk tale and revising it to read more like a serious crime report, Mullen calls out the white-centrality of common folk tales as well as the free pass for criminal action awarded to many white youth.
In a similar fashion, Mullen repeats and revises the text of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in her poem “Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language.” Here, Mullen replicates the entire act nearly word for word, except she replaces any instance of “Chinese” with “bitter.” The result of this is often that the words “Chinese labor” or “Chinese laborers” are replaced with “bitter labor” or “bitter laborers.” The word bitter has connotations of anger and resentment due to unjust treatment or negative experiences. The only other direct revision of the historical document in Mullen’s poem is the specification of “be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,” a line that does not appear in the original Chinese Exclusion Act. By spelling out the exact parties responsible for the Act, Mullen reveals causality and sheds light on the bloody hands of all members of Congress.
The repetition and ensuing revision of the Chinese Exclusion Act calls out the past American government for its unjust treatment of Chinese immigrants, which can be seen as a direct healing method for the trauma that the Chinese Exclusion Act inflicted upon Chinese immigrants by uncovering the truth of what happened in history. These traumas are not limited to the late 1800s, however, as the poem’s dedication implies the present tense: “[I am] waking up with Enrique Chagoya.” Furthermore, Enrique Chagoya is a Mexican visual artist whose work focuses on the changing nature of culture, a layer of information that deepens the repetition and revision technique Mullen employs (Chagoya). By linking Mexican culture with the American exclusion of Chinese people, as well as mixing the past with the present, Mullen repeats and revises a historical document to better represent the harm that was and is inflicted on marginalized and immigrant identities by the United States government.
Rather than revising specific historical events and documents, Suzan-Lori Parks uses performance and a repetition-and-revision-based narrative structure to revise the concept of history as a whole, or, perhaps more accurately, a hole. As Sanja Bahun-Radunović’s states in her article, “History in Postmodern Theater: Heiner Müller, Caryl Churchill, and Suzan-Lori Parks,” the “revision of the concept of history” becomes evident in Parks’s work (Bahun-Radunović 447).
Both Parks and Bahun-Radunović comment on performance’s fitting medium for a reworking of history. Parks equates a play to the “blueprint of an event,” or a method of writing history, and because history is comprised of recorded or remembered events, theater is thus the avenue through which Parks creates history (Parks 9). Similarly, Bahun-Radunović states, “history becomes ‘humanized’ and ‘workable’ by/in the very act of a performance,” refiguring historical time into “human time” (Bahun-Radunović 446). Further, Bahun-Radunović attributes the ability of postmodern theater to revise history as a concept to the “questioning of teleological stories and linear patterns,” a task namely accomplished through the use of fragmented and disjointed historical events and the “compulsive repetition of events and quasi-events in the performative present” (Bahun-Radunović 448). Parks’s work elaborates on both of these techniques to include revision – thus repetition and revision leads to the “questioning of teleological stories and linear patterns,” challenging the idea of history as a linear timeline of events and re-centering unrepresented or lost histories.
For example, in “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” various characters repeat and revise the death of the black man throughout the play. Beginning with the eulogy for the last black man given on page 102 by Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, the eulogy repeats in revision by Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut, later by Black Woman with Fried Drumstick again, and so on. Voice On Thuh Tee V repeatedly gives a different eulogy throughout the play, as well. Here, the event – the death of the last black man in the whole entire world – is compulsively repeated and revised and simultaneously presented in disjointed fragments to break up the traditional timeline of a linear storyline and turn it instead into an a-temporal spiral of repetition.
Similarly, in Parks’s “The America Play,” multiple events are compulsively repeated and revised and presented in in disjointed fragments. Most notably, the re-enactments of Abraham Lincoln’s death by the Foundling Father in Act One of “The America Play” creates a “re-membering” of historical events through repetition and revision, serving as Parks’s “honest way to speak of performative recovery of lost histories: not as mimicry or an actual resurrection of the lost, but as a miming effort” (Bahun-Radunović 464).
Parks uses the black hole as a tool to aid in this historical refiguration, the black hole doubling as a representation of the absence of a total black history; it is out of this absence that she uses repetition and revision to refigure history, calling attention to, and perhaps beginning to fill, the Great Hole that is left gaping by received linear history. “The America Play,” set in “an exact replica of The Great Hole of History,” brings to light “the experience of African-American history as that of absences and holes” (Bahun-Radunović 462).
A black hole, which contains compressed and repressed matter, parallels the Great Hole of History in Parks’s play, which contains an abundance of lost artifacts that Brazil and Lucy dig for in Act Two, a status that Bahun-Radunović connects to a “repository of ‘unrecognized’ histories.” Furthermore, time does not exist linearly within a black hole, re-emphasizing Parks’s rejection of linear time and history. Within the black hole, “the past comes after the future,” mirroring the effect of the use of gunshots and echoes to measure time throughout Act Two. The convoluted time-structure and mass of lost artifacts allow the replica of the Great Hole of History to become a “potentially eventful place,” in which “the recorded and unrecorded meet in the performative juncture of linear time and circularity” (Bahun-Radunović 462).
Within the replica of the Great Hole of History, Brazil repeats the “formal stances” of mourning that the Foundling Father taught him earlier, such as the “Wail,” “Weep,” “Sob,” “Moan,” and “Gnash.” Repetition and revision is thus directly employed, as Brazil only learns what these stances mean as they are “re-performed in the replica of this hole,” implying that meaning can be uncovered by repeating and revising (Bahun-Radunović 462). Here, Brazil learns how to mourn his father through a musical act.
It is also notable that the setting of this play is not simply a black hole that represents the absences of black history – it is a replica of the hole. By staging theater in a replica of the absence of black history, Parks creates history where it has been lost; the replication of the Great Hole of History brings the reader back to similar replication in jazz, which is a collective act reminiscent of black oral storytelling (Bernard 692). Thus, the use of repetition and revision to create history where it has not previously existed becomes a collective solution to the traumas inflicted by such an absence.
By examining the close relation of repetition and revision to the African-American literary theory of Signifyin(g), coined by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Mullen’s intricate poetry reveals the nuances of repetition and revision that deal directly with the healing of history. Signifyin(g), as Gates pulls from Roger D. Abrahams, “is the black person’s use of figurate modes of language use,” arriving “at ‘direction through indirection’” (Gates, The Signifying Monkey 259). In simpler words, Signifyin(g) can be understood as applying different connotations to previously known terms, thus creating indirection by refusing the “accepted” connotation of a term, but arriving at direction by creating a new connotation that becomes accepted.
This is akin to Derrida’s neologism, the agnominatio, which is the repetition of a word with an alteration of both one letter and sound to create new meaning, but Signifyin(g) takes this one step further by forgoing the physical revision and instead only altering the latent meaning, the understood connotation (Gates, “Signifyin(g)” 46). Gates refers to Signifyin(g) by placing the final “g” in parentheses to “connote the fact that this word is… spoken by black people without the final ‘g,’” and to ensure that it is not confused with the process of signification, which simply means to associate a common connotation with a word (Gates, “Signifyin(g)” 46). Claudia Mitchell-Kernan identifies Signifyin(g) as a notion that “dictionary entries for words are not always sufficient for interpreting meanings or messages,” and thus Signifyin(g) becomes the difference “between the literal and the metaphorical” (Gates, The Signifying Monkey 262).
Furthermore, Signifyin(g) is inherently built on the concept of repetition and revision – as Gates states, “the ensuing alteration or deviation of meaning makes Signifyin(g) the black trope for all other tropes” (Gates, The Signifying Monkey 262). The “alteration or deviation of meaning” embodies the concept of this jazz technique: repeating a word (or a signifier) and revising its meaning, to create something new. On a broader level, Signifyin(g) can be understood as tropological revision, which, as Gates concludes, is “the manner in which a specific trope is repeated, with differences, between two or more texts” (Gates, The Signifying Monkey 265). Such practices as Signifyin(g) and tropological revision abound in Mullen’s poetry, strengthening her use of repetition and revision to give new meaning to black voices and pay homage to black history.
Two of Mullen’s poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary deal directly with the basic concepts of Signifyin(g) and repetition and revision, entitled “Blah-Blah” and “Jinglejangle.” In “Blah-Blah,” language sounds that have two exact syllables are listed alphabetically, but most of these sounds are not signifiers of existing words. Some examples are “Ack-ack,” “Dee Dee,” “Foofoo,” “Momo,” “ReRe,” etc. However, some of the sounds do signify existing denotations of words, such as “fifty-fifty,” “Berber,” “Mama,” knock knock,” “yo-yo,” etc. The poem “Jinglejangle” is built on the same concept as “Blah-Blah,” but has a much more extensive list and includes longer phrases, more specific terms, and outside references.
The titles of these poems hint to their content – “Blah-Blah” contains sounds that appear to be utter nonsense, though sound-making is the beginning of the language-learning process, and “Jinglejangle” applies these sounds and learning processes to the media and external society, incorporating the theme of advertisements and their commercial “jingles.” By mirroring the process of a child learning and exploring language sounds and connotations, Mullen directly embodies the process of repeating (and revising) sounds to form meaning and break out of commonly accepted meaning. For example, “Jinglejangle” contains the phrase “zoot suit,” a term that came about by reduplication of the word “suit,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Reduplication is a morphological linguistic process that repeats or slightly alters the root of a word or the whole word itself, which is the same process as repetition and revision. Neologisms, or newly coined words, are created through this process, as well as new connotations. Through Signifyin(g), repetition and revision, and reduplication, Mullen shows how the limits of language can be stretched, creating new meaning where there was previously either none or only meaning limited to certain identities.
On a larger scale, Mullen uses tropological revision in “European Folk Tale Variant” to question the way we view history. As previously discussed, the trope of an innocent young girl accidentally perpetrating an extensive crime is repeated and revised from the Goldilocks folk tale by sullying Goldilocks’s innocence with the inclusion of negative modifiers such as “vixen,” “delinquent,” “hoodlum,” “miscreant,” etc. However, the race of the perpetrator is left purposefully ambiguous so as to emphasize the engrained nature of identifying race through modifiers, or meaningless units of languages. By revising the tropes associated with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Mullen exposes the way that linear history, folk tales, and current media use language to signify without directly engaging with meaning. The process of Signifyin(g) creates neologisms – thus repetition and revision literally creates new meaning where it was lacking before; Mullen uses tropological revision to change our perceptions of history, thus healing trauma through music, embodied in a borrowed jazz technique, once more.
Though both Mullen and Parks make extensive use of intricate word play, Signifyin(g), and language devices to rework history, only Mullen’s work falls in the genre of language poetry. As Bahun-Radunović suggests, Parks investigates the “historicity of semantic structures,” confirming that the “main device of Parks’s archeology is etymology,” and providing the groundwork for the creation of a new literary identity and genre: the language playwright. Mullen’s work is incontrovertibly that of a language poet: meaning stems from the deconstruction of individual units of sound, neologisms, Signifyin(g), etc., and comments on the process of language as a concept with boundaries and racism inherent within it.
However, the genre of language plays simply is not defined in the literary world, and thus Parks is not given the title of a language playwright. I believe that Parks, just as Mullen, is undeniably a language playwright, despite the lack of literary scholarship on such a genre and title. Parks herself declares that she is “most interested in words and how… folks physicalize those verbal aberrations,” and how “language is a physical act,” echoing the similar vein in Mullen’s work of making language, language-learning, and language-meaning-making physical acts that the reader re-endures by reading her poetry (Parks 10-11). For Parks, etymology is the link between language and history, as “words are spells which an actor consumes and digests – and through digesting creates a performance on stage,” the performance creating history that is ultimately accomplished through the use of language. And what is language but repetition and revision, especially in Parks’s work?
Arguably, Parks may be a language poet to the same or a greater extent than Mullen – the amount of Signifyin(g) and neologisms, which Parks creates and riffs upon in her work, is astounding. For example, in “from Elements of Style,” Parks gives the reader a list of “foreign words & phrases” that have specific denotations and connotations given to them newly by Parks. Here, the concept of Signifyin(g) is used directly to add new meaning to sounds that might otherwise signify nonsense to the average reader. In her plays, these words and phrases are repeated and revised to create new connotations throughout the work, ultimately resulting in a proposed solution to the absences and incomplete meaning left by received history.
The rewriting of African-American-centralized histories serves as the first steps to acknowledging the traumas created by incomplete, white-central histories, and addresses this pain by attempting to fill in the historical holes left gaping by such received history. In Toni Morrison’s Jazz, music is the impetus for the broken relationships and characters to begin their healing process. The technique of repetition and revision, borrowed from jazz music, serves as a reminder of collective music making and becomes a method of healing in many postmodern African-American works, namely Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary and Suzan-Lori Parks’s “The America Play” and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.”
Here, the uses of repetition and revision are plentiful, ranging from the rejection of linear narrative timelines and highlighting misrepresentation within white-central generalization of history to breaking the racist boundaries of language and writing new history where it has previously been skipped over, and more. By evoking collective black music making, which itself is reminiscent of black oral traditions, the solution to historical trauma becomes rooted in black culture and legacy (Bernard 692). Though the work is ongoing, it is through repetition and revision in their language writing that Mullen and Parks take many large steps to address the traumas left behind by accepted history, an act that is collective because of its roots in collective musical techniques, and that must be collective in order to accurately heal the traumas of all.
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