‘The possibilities of an elsewhere’: Re-imagining the color line in ‘The Darker Face of the Earth’ by Rita Dove

‘Our work begins with an engagement with the past, out of which we imagine, create and dare to

secure a future.’

(Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts)

‘…what is the fate of great nations but a summation of the psychic changes in individuals?’

(Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious)

Rita Dove’s play The Darker Face of the Earth, first published in 1994 with a revised second edition appearing in 1996, is a re-reading of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex imbued with a richly imagined African identity, primarily provided by the percussive and vocal presence of the slave chorus. The play provides a space for the negotiation of American identity through the interweaving of the established narrative of the Euro-centric myth and the history of slavery in the United States. The protagonist Augustus, whose mother is a white plantation mistress and whose father is a black African slave, embodies this dual identity reflected in the form of the play.  Dove uses this hybrid form to question the authenticity of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ as separate entities and imagine the possibility of a new racial knowledge; a re-imagining of American identity that reads the site of the color-line as the traumatic but potentially transformative space in which American identity is formed. Through her use of heightened language, verse and the traditional chorus of Greek tragedy, here singing ‘sorrow songs’ in the African-American tradition, Dove creates a transcultural space, where ideas of racial identity are renegotiated and an ‘American’ identity formed where ‘every appeal to some originary, authentic, pure identity…can only be an appeal to a mythical purity.’[2] In the heterogeneous, inter-racial identities of contemporary America what additional ontological complexities does the idea of a color-line take on? Are post-racial politics, which move beyond epistemological models of racial identity, possible in the twenty-first century? This essay will argue that Dove’s play examines how the traumatic history of slavery and the color-line have informed the ways we think about race and identity.

The Darker Face of the Earth: Playscript by Rita Dove | Waterstones

In his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk[3], W.E.B. Du Bois states that ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.’ He articulates ‘the strange meaning of being black’ in the United States with the traumatic legacy of slavery and the persistence of the color-line. He argues that, ‘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.’ (Of Our Spiritual Strivings, 3) He argues that the persistence of a racial hierarchy presented black Americans with a crisis of identity, undermining their sense of humanity and creating a ‘veil’ of white supremacy through which they were forced to view themselves. His words were echoed mid-way through the twentieth century by the psychiatrist Franz Fanon, in his 1952 work Black Skin, White Masks: ‘For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man…the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself.’[4] These ‘two frames of reference’ reiterate Du Bois’ ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’, again highlighting the difficulty for African Americans in understanding their identity at a fundamental psychological level; a difficulty created and maintained by the color-line. Fanon argues that, ‘the fact of the juxtaposition of the white and black races has created a massive psychoexistential complex.’ (p. 14)

In ‘Playing in the Dark’[5], Morrison draws attention to the ‘parasitical nature of white freedom’ (p. 57) and describes ‘a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence’ that is tightly woven into the fabric of the American literary canon and is crucial to the sense of Americanness that white writers such as Falkner and Melville explore in their works. She describes ‘American Africanism’ as ‘a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm and desire that is uniquely American’ (p.38) and calls into question the ontology of the ‘whiteness’ that this is used to reinforce. Describing the sense of ‘whiteness’ in the American literary canon as ‘mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable’ (p. 59) Morrison highlights Fanon’s ‘psychoexistential complex’ as pervading the white American experience as well as the black. The multiracial body or text then, in light of the ontological complexities of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’, becomes a site for re-negotiating the meaning of racial identity and the American self. Suzanne Bost posits that ‘the narrative of mixed identity leads back to the unresolved debate between essence and construct, identity politics and postmodern identities. Or perhaps mixture bridges this debate.’[6] Dove’s play creates a space that recognises this debate and the problems at its core. It offers a site for re-imagining the American self; a self that is necessarily understood as a result of the effect of slavery’s traumatic history on both sides of the color-line.

Dove’s play highlights the color-line through its subject matter whilst providing a space for dismantling it through the inter-dependency of racialized cultural forms and the trope of knowledge, as articulated through reading and writing. Morrison draws attention to the vulnerability of a ‘certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted…as “knowledge” that keeps the ‘Americanness’ of the literary canon of the USA, ‘separate from and unaccountable to’ this Africanist presence. This ‘knowledge’, that of the academy, tradition and ‘whiteness’, can only be arrived at by creating an opposing ‘knowledge’, one of blackness, primitivism and darkness that reinforces the superiority of the ‘white’ knowledge. ‘The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination,’ Morrison states. It is the contemplation of this presence and the possibility of alternative types of knowledge that Dove’s play illuminates through its formal structure, language and the presence throughout of the slave chorus.

The play’s title suggests a world divided into two parts, one dark and one light, whilst retaining the possibility of wholeness. This wholeness or ‘one-ness’ created by two seemingly opposing forces, necessarily connected to reveal a new, more profound truth, recurs in both the form and narrative of Dove’s play. The traditional Greek chorus, often used to represent marginalized voices separated from the hero’s world[7], becomes the slave chorus on the South Carolina plantation and the counterpoint to Augustus’ battle against fate. John Gould argues that the chorus in Greek tragedy ‘…bring to the imagined world and its terrible events the ballast of memory. It is that memory which stabilizes and centralizes experience as the experience of a group that exists in and through time: the past is made meaningful by being shared with others who draw on the same collective memory, and it is the past which alone can ‘place’ and stabilise the present.’ (p. 390) The effect of the legacy of slavery and the color-line on the present is a central aspect of Dove’s play, represented through the central tragic curse. But the play does not allow the past to remain as only an effect. In the words of Homi Bhabha it ‘does not merely recall the past as social cause, or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent “in-between” space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The “past-present” becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living.’[8] Doves play becomes the ‘in-between space’ where the impact of slavery on the formation of ‘American’ identity must be recognised.

The characters of Louis and Scylla can be seen to represent two opposing systems of knowledge in The Darker Face of the Earth; Louis as a white, male slave-owner represents science, reason and the unquestioned logic of patriarchy whilst Scylla, the prophesying slave woman, represents African heritage, magic, ritual and community. However, over the course of the play, any possibility of binary opposition is removed. By the end of the play, the ‘science’ of Louis’ star-gazing resembles Scylla’s prophetic mysticism. ‘Beware of the Moon in the house of Mars! The stars can tell you everything-’ he shouts, when Augustus discovers him. This acceptance that ‘reading’ the signs in the fabric of the universe can reveal one’s fate changes the notion of what it is possible to ‘know’ and opens the way to the possibility of new, broader understanding. This new understanding is hinted at earlier in the play when Louis addresses an unknown cosmic entity, ‘You can’t hide forever./There’s a hole in the heavens/and you’re throbbing right behind it.’ The imagery of fabric, perhaps woven by the Fates, conjured by the ‘hole in the heavens’ and the pulsing proximity of a new entity waiting to push through and reveal itself, echo the structure of the play as it builds towards a new consciousness.

This new consciousness is heightened by Dove’s use of verse throughout the play, which gives the dialogue a poetic sparseness and sense that a creative force beyond the realm of the stage is driving the action; a place ‘where words are secondary to their embodiment’. (Steffen, p.173) This poetic sensibility combined with the vocal and percussive ‘presence’ of the chorus throughout, produces an ethereal quality. However, the rhythms and melodies of the chorus harmonise with the dramatic action, creating a co-dependence between the ‘Africanist presence’ and the unfolding narrative of the Greek myth.

Augustus is ‘educated in the European tradition’ (Carlisle, 142) during his travels with the sea-captain and this has distanced him from the knowledge associated with his African heritage. This is primarily represented through his distrust of Scylla and her prophesy: ‘You feed on ignorance and call it magic./What kind of prophet/works against her own people?’ (p.43) With dramatic irony, Augustus tells Amalia that, ‘In my opinion, the Greeks/were a bit too predictable.’ (p.56), reinforcing the idea that he is not able to comprehend his own fate. The ‘narrow cage’ he finds himself in eventually forces him to accept new knowledge, that reconnects him with his authentic roots, however problematic these might be. This knowledge, or new self-consciousness, has the potential to provide ‘incredible freedom’ but is thwarted by the power structures of slavery. This formulation of a new ‘mixed’ self-consciousness, distinct from ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’, taps into contemporary debates about racial formation and identity.

In Dislocating the Color Line, Samira Kawash argues that the ‘overlap of metaphor and materiality points to the complexity of the color line, both as it is inscribed on particular bodies and as it organizes, codifies, regulates and impacts on various forms of social interaction.’[9] The problematic ontology of the colour line as both metaphor and material reality is exemplified in Dove’s play by the juxtaposition of myth and recognisable historical context. Dove states that she wanted ‘the audience to always be aware that the time is not real time, and that the reality they’re seeing is metaphorical. I think what happens in The Darker Face is powerful because the language is so heightened. We can not forget for a minute that we are in an abstract situation.’ (Steffen, p. 173) The mythic nature of the plot and the musicality of the language both serve to create a space separate from the real world but with recognisable similarities, such as the legacy of slavery. The physical space of the play, consisting of ‘the big house’, the slave dwellings and the swamp, embodies the social geography of the color line. The metaphorical nature of this setting is heightened at the beginning of Act 1 by allusions to the space outside the plantation, which is firmly demarcated as ‘other’ to the world of the play. ‘As far as you concerned/there’s nothing in this world/but South Carolina and this here plantation.’ (p.30) Alexander warns Diana, a notion immediately denounced by Augustus who tells of the world beyond the swamp. This highlights the broadening of Augustus’ consciousness by his experiences, however problematic they are due to his tutelage on a slave ship. This ‘othering’ of the outside world of the play also highlights the ‘Americaness’ of the narrative and this contributes to the reading of the play as a negotiation of the centrality of slavery’s legacy in the American identity.

In a 1996 interview, Therese Steffen asks Dove how she views ‘the suspicion of form in African-American writing’ and the concern that focus on form can lead to unwarranted abstraction. Dove responds that for her ‘…the space of the poem is a narrow cage whose bars I am always trying to bend…I relish the challenge of the walls and the fact that an incredible freedom can be found within.’[10]  This idea that ‘incredible freedom’ can be found within a rigid structure or ‘narrow cage’ is central to Dove’s use of form in The Darker Face of the Earth. Dove tells Steffen, in the 1996 interview, that she was ‘fascinated by the way the concept of fate in Greek myth was analogous to the African American experience… How does an individual struggle against overwhelming fate?’ (p.171-2). This parallel is exemplified by the protagonist Augustus, who is trapped within both the perverse politics of slavery and the inevitable fate of the Greek myth he enacts. As Carlisle states, ‘The public scourge of slavery is reduplicated in a private curse whose cause lies shrouded in mystery.’ (p. 139) However, the ‘curse that came over the hill’ in Scylla’s prophesy is intimately linked to the structure of slavery, as Augustus’ fate is only brought about due to the existence of the color-line.

The slave chorus in ‘The Darker Face of the Earth’ embodies the amalgamation of Greek tragic theatrical convention and the sorrow songs of African-American plantation slaves. As the playwright’s notes state, ‘Individual characters are bound by time and circumstance; the chorus of slaves is more detached and omnipotent. By moving and speaking in a ritualized manner, they provide vocal and percussive counterpoint to the action.’ [11] The slave chorus can be read as a ‘collective unconscious’ or the ‘prosthetic memory’[12] of the racialized history of the USA and the legacy of slavery. This ‘vocal and percussive counterpoint to the action’ is described in by Augustus as ‘the sorrow songs’. It is significant that Amalia demonstrates an inability to comprehend the meaning of the sorrow songs. She asks Augustus how it is that they all sing together and ‘how can they have songs left?’ His response that there are, ‘As many songs as sorrows’, suggests that the sorrows continue to grow in number as long as the color-line and slavery persist. The songs continue as direct responses to the color-line, produced directly from the site of trauma.  Du Bois writes that the sorrow songs are ‘full of the voices of the past’ and ‘the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.’[13] Dove’s placing of the sorrow songs as a central element to the play, embodied in the slave chorus that is ‘both detached and omnipresent’ (Dove p.6), brings the ‘voices of the past’ directly into contact with the events of the present, symbolising a Freudian ‘return of the repressed’. The fact that Amalia cannot understand the meaning of the songs represents an absence at the heart of the white American identity, as conceptualised through the institution of slavery and the racial hierarchy of the color-line. W.E.B. Du Bois states that, ‘there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African’ (Chapter 1, Of Our Spiritual Strivings). The color-line, then, has alienated the white woman, not only from her lover and son but also from her self.

Danny Sexton reads the final edition (1996) of Dove’s play against previous versions, highlighting changes in tone and plot that demonstrate a renewed consideration of W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of double-consciousness.[14] He highlights the greater emphasis placed on the slave chorus in the later edition and reads this as placing ‘a greater emphasis on community’. He connects this to Du Bois and how he ‘repeatedly emphasizes the need for strengthening the black community.’ (p. 786) This increased role of the chorus can also be read as a strengthening of the theatrical traditions of Greek tragedy in the form of the play, which in turn heightens the sense of metaphor or abstract world that Dove intends. Carlisle identifies the centrality of the chorus and suggests that ‘the full interplay of various choral elements is at the heart of this drama, suggesting a spiritual dimension far surpassing the role of purveyor of common sense and folk wisdom ordinarily allotted the choruses in Greek tragedy.’ (p. 141) The importance of the slave chorus in bringing the ‘Africanist presence’ into the centre of the Euro-centric myth, highlights the importance of the sense of community in forming racial identity. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, drawing on ‘Satre’s fused (consciously collective) and serial (isolated individual) dimensions of identity’, see race as ‘a uniquely socio-historical construct…a crossroads phenomenon’[15]. The social history of America is alive in Dove’s play, alongside the individual story of passionate and equal love between Hector and Amalia.

The re-imaging of racial identities that this ‘new consciousness’ requires is far from simple to articulate. Kawash argues that ‘hybridity is a challenge, not only to the question of human “being”, but to the status of knowledge itself, the question of how and if we can know identity and hybridity.’ Augustus is unable to know his mother and father and this estrangement leads in part to his fulfilment of the prophesy. As Carlisle articulates, ‘Augustus loses his power to recognize parricide and incest because he has been denied the freedom to know his parentage.’ (p. 140) The color-line and the institution of slavery that is built upon it, become a site of absent referents for Augustus and Amalia. The way to knowledge and self-identification must be re-imagined and Dove’s play provides a space where this is acknowledged. Referring to Playing in the Dark, Carlisle highlights Morrison’s interest in ‘not the reader-writer dichotomy but the reader/writer identity’ and the significance of this dual identity in interpretive acts. Reading, and to some extent writing, are tropes of Dove’s play and the power dynamic inherent in the reader-writer dichotomy is broken down, showing that they are necessarily inter-related – two parts of one creative act. When ‘read’ in the context of Dove’s play, the focus then becomes not on the black-white dichotomy but the black/white identity; the identity of the interracial body.

Carlisle identifies Dove’s play as ‘possessing a “two-toned” heritage’, after Henry Louis Gates Jnr. But is it possible to read the play as not just “two-toned” but, through its very form, challenging notions that these ‘two tones’ are truly separable and creating a space where a new ‘tone’ is imagined, albeit not without ontological problems of its own? Carlisle highlights the trope of reading that is present throughout Dove’s play and argues that the scene in which Augustus and Amalia first interact presents the question of reading and ‘presages the path of the drama itself, as a search for an authentic and creative way to read.’ (p.136) In this scene, Dove is highlighting the identity of the play as a re-reading of an existing text. Here, the play is self-consciously drawing attention to its own ‘re-reading’ and the creative acts necessary in this re-reading/writing. The power and importance of reading as part of the act of writing is central to Dove’s play. She re-reads the Euro-centric Oedipal myth within the framework of the United States’ racialized history, and also the ‘sorrow songs’ of the African American tradition, separating the ‘African’ heritage from the ‘African American’. Du Bois makes the distinction between ‘African’ and ‘African American’ sorrow songs, a distinction that is reflected in Dove’s use of them in the play. Hector’s funeral is accompanied by traditional African music and Yoruba incantations, which Carlisle sees as giving ‘the African words the dignity of context.’ (p. 145) The funeral can also be read as a mourning or passing of the African tradition, when in later scenes the slave chorus sing ‘Steal Away’, as song Du Bois defines as inherently ‘African American’.

Kawash points to Robert Young’s insistence that ‘we ought to consider the idea of hybridity as always double-voiced.’ For an entity to be ‘hybrid’ suggests that two distinct entities have become mixed and this mixing has created a new third entity. Kawash argues that this problematises contemporary theorising around the possibility of ‘absolute heterogeneity’, as articulated through the discourse of postmodernity. Hybridity conceptualised in this way reinforces the opposition and potential purity of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’, leading to a paradox. This paradox mirrors Du Bois’ identification of the ‘double-consciousness’ of the man who is both ‘Negro and American’ and the ontological crisis this presents to the African-American identity. The form of Dove’s work can be said to highlight this sense of ‘doubleness’, firstly as a play and secondly, as verse. For Carlisle, ‘theatre artists…are, all in their own rights, both readers and creative artists who will “write” an ongoing series of performances. It is in this sense that performance is by its very nature ‘double-voiced’. (p.137) As a play, Dove’s work demands re-interpreting and re-performing. The traumatic narrative at its core is equally re-imagined and re-interpreted in formations of racial identity. The Darker Face of the Earth operates as a space where the ‘double-voice’ of past and the present continues to emphasise the common humanity disguised by the color-line.

In Playing in the Dark, Morrison states that: ‘The imagination that produces work which bears and invites rereading, which motions to future readings as well as contemporary ones, implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language. Readers and writers both struggle to interpret and perform within a common language shareable imaginative worlds. And although upon that struggle the positioning of the reader has justifiable claims, the author’s presence-her or his intentions, blindness, and sight-is part of the imaginative activity.’ (xiv) Dove’s ‘imaginative activity’ in re-reading the Oedipal myth and interpreting the central curse as slavery presents audiences with a ‘shareable imaginative world’ where the necessity for new models of racial identity are impressed upon us. There is the possibility that ‘future readings’ of The Darker Face of the Earth, when imagined in the context of Paul Gilroy’s utopian vision for a color-blind future, render the tragedy that befalls Augustus as impossible because bodies are no longer racialized. Gilroy states that: ‘Black and white are bonded together by the mechanisms of “race” that estrange them from each other and amputate their common humanity.’[16] Dove’s play creates a space where the violence of this ‘amputation’ and estrangement become embodied in the figure of Augustus and the stage is set for a new, self-conscious American identity to emerge from the recurring ‘doubleness’ of form and narrative.

This essay was originally written in 2008 as part of my MA in American Lit and Culture

[2] Kawash, Samira, Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity and Singularity in African-American Literature (Stanford UP, 1997)

[3] Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; [Cambridge]: University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A., 1903; Bartleby.com, 1999. <www.bartleby.com/114/>. [Accessed 8th December 2008].

[4] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), (London: Pluto Press, 1986)

[5] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 2nd ed. (London: Picador, 1993)

[6] Suzanne Bost, Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000, (University of Georgia Press, 2005)

[7] John Gould, Myth, Ritual, Memory and Exchange: Essays in Greek Literature and Culture, (Oxford UP, 2001)

[8] Homi Bhabha, ‘The Location of Culture’ (1994)  in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.) Literary Theory: An Anthology, Oxford, 7th ed. (Blackwell, 2001) 936-944

[9] Kawash, Samira, Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity and Singularity in African-American Literature (Stanford UP, 1997)

[10] Therese Steffen, Crossing Color-Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove’s Poetry, Fiction and Drama (Oxford UP, 2001)

[11] Dove, R., The Darker Face of the Earth, Oberon Books Ltd, London, 1999, p. 6

[12] Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (Columbia University Press, 2004)

[13] Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk, ‘Chapter XIV, The Sorrow Songs’,

[14] Danny Sexton, ‘Lifting the Veil: Revision and Double Consciousness in Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth’, Callaloo, vol. 31.3 (2008) 777-787.

[15] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, ‘Once More, with Feeling: Reflections on Racial Formation’, PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5 (2008), 1565-1572

[16] Paul Gilroy, Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race, London, (Routledge, 2004)

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