Imaginative Freedom in Literature

While reviewing my notes I revisited the introduction of Fredrick Douglass’ text and found the statement that black literary art is a reminder of “imaginative freedom that we can claim within a painful history.” Looking back at the course texts and attempting to unify them in my mind, perhaps I can consider them each an act of imaginative freedom. Certainly authors like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison, and Octavia Butler use their imagination freely to express any number of ideas. The statement is more complicated on the back end though, with the reminder of “painful history.” If we read all black literary art within the context of “painful history,” we are limiting African American authors. A course epigraph from Toni Morrison states, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Douglass’ fugitive slave narrative is momentous and of course there are sociological understandings that can come from it, but we can’t read every work of black literature like we would read Douglass. If you’re reading with the intent of picking out oppression, outcasts, abolitionist intent in every course text, you will miss everything else that is being said. That lens can even cause confirmation bias, causing readers to see slavery where it isn’t. In the Afterword of “Bloodchild,” Octavia Butler shares that she was surprised at how many people read the work as being a comment on slavery. In reality, the work came from her curiosity about bot flies and about the idea of a male pregnancy. As an author she should have the right to explore those ideas and be understood. She should have imaginative freedom to not write within the context of a painful history.

And after much consideration, I think that perhaps it’s for the best if I don’t unify the texts except by the identity of the authors. If I do not expect all women authors to share some aspect of style or content, I certainly can’t do so for African American authors. I do not want this course to be a single story. That’s why the first blog post stating our goals for the semester is so essential as a way to focus readers when things seem random. My original goal was to pay attention to the use of space within and around the texts. Which spaces do characters take up and which spaces are allotted for the authors? This was most interesting to me when I considered in an earlier blog post which texts fill classroom library bookshelves. It’s no surprise that I found it interesting because it is relevant to my Education major. And I grew a lot from our conversations about non-sexual consent in a college context, because again, this topic was relevant to my life. What stood out to me throughout the semester was not the marginal spaces, but rather the way that texts moved me to consider my own identity and the world around me. If I were to make an obscenely broad statement about literature, it would be that literature is meant to prompt the reader to consider the human experience. Like all quality literature, our course texts did that for me.

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