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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .

Victims and Heroes
Jerry H Bryant

(Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1997)
392 pp, index, ISBN 1-55849-094-9.
hb $60.00/ 1-55849-095-7 pb $18.95.

At first, it may not seem obvious why a book about racial violence in the African American novel is being reviewed here. But this text offers much more than literary criticism and review. I want to suggest that Victims and Heroes is useful because it contextualizes the moral question at the heart of racism, namely, "should African Americans engage in retaliatory or revolutionary violence against the white majority system that impedes their free search for life, liberty and happiness?"(p.265).

Bryant's text traces the ambivalence of this question through the African American novel from the civil war to the present. I say ambivalent because the dilemma of racial violence is never solved, rather, it is continually held in tension. With that uncertainty as a backdrop, Bryant explains that racial violence requires victims and heroes that are multi-dimensional. In other words, we cannot understand the history of racial violence if we continue to explain it as either black victims of white violence, or black heroes retaliating against white violence in kind. As Bryant argues, African American history is much richer than is allowed for in that formula.

The easiest way to make use of this text is to treat it as a literary history of racial violence - from antebellum lynchings to urbanized ghetto violence. Because nineteenth century slavery prevented the emergence of a 'proper' hero, Postbellum novels offered two heroic forms that continue to resonate: the non-violent Christ figure who resists through moral superiority (forgiveness) by refusing the usual stereotype of the 'black savage', and the violent warrior who gains self respect, dignity and power by acting directly against oppression. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s re-defined the hero/victim formula outside of this heroic sentimentality and concentrated on the everyday violence of black lives. Out of that 'realism' emerged a sense of solidarity that enabled political activism. However, this resistance continued to call upon dominant heroic forms: 'non-violent' resistance in the form of Martin Luther King Jr. and 'violent' revolution in the form of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. Bryant argues that by illustrating the weaknesses in those heroes, and likewise the strengths of those victims of racial violence, African Americans can move towards a multifaceted idea of identity, and ultimately of community.

This text is useful for showing us how our stories are imbued with both power, politics and violence. These images of racial violence in the African American novel are crucial for understanding the wider societal and political implications of any violence motivated by race or ethnicity. Because stories can often be an accessible way into complex moral issues such as racial violence as well as questions about the status of representation and the authority of knowledge, Victims and Heroes might be useful as a teaching tool. Having said that, I think Bryant's text should be used in the way it is intended - as a secondary source that compliments novels such as Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.

Debbie Lisle, Keele University

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