Analysis of Joseph Zobel’s Black Shack Alley

Black Shack Alley is Keith Q. Warner’s English translation of the classic French novel La Rue Cases-Nègres by Joseph Zobel (1915–2006). The title of Zobel’s work means “Breaking Negroes [Slaves] Street.” Black Shack Alley is an autobiographical text that evolves around Zobel’s coming of age in postslavery Martinique. José represents Zobel in the novel, and M’man Tine is José’s grandmother and guardian.

Black Shack Alley discloses what life is like for José and M’man Tine, as well as for other impoverished blacks who live in shanty towns and work in the sugar cane fields of the French Indies. The novel delves into the hardships, culture, and spirituality of an otherwise invisible people. They are a people once enslaved by French aristocracy, and while they are “emancipated,” they are still oppressed, poor, and inextricably bound to the cane fields. While Black Shack Alley sheds light on the perils of colonialism for those who are colonized, Zobel achieves this in a rather innovative way, one that distinguishes him among other writers in the Black Arts Movement and their predecessors, Harlem Renaissance writers.

Joseph Zobel

Zobel intimately tells the story of an oppressed people instead of a story about how the oppressed interacts with their oppressors. Ironically, Zobel’s book was influenced by Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy. Although Zobel’s and Wright’s works share common themes—poverty, oppression, and intellectual pursuits—they have distinctly different approaches. Wright’s Black Boy is a blatant condemnation of racism and European domination; the work sustains itself on hostile encounters between whites and blacks. To the contrary, Zobel’s Black Shack Alley focuses on a community of poor black Martinicans; thus, white people are rendered invisible.

Zobel’s approach manifests indelible realities: Despite being colonized by the French, Africanisms thrive in black West Indian culture, and oppression and poverty go hand in hand. Zobel’s vividly detailed descriptions also evoke an unforgettable sense of time, place, and circumstance. His approach to storytelling allows readers to glean the truth for themselves; Black Shack Alley condemns imperialism without overstatement. Throughout the novel there are rich examples of mores, taboos, and rituals that are rooted in African ideology. Nowhere is this more evident than in the belief that spirits are actively involved in daily life. Young José knows many of the superstitions by heart: “Never say good evening to a person you meet on the road when it is beginning to get dark. Because if it’s a zombi, he’ll carry your voice to the devil who could then take you away at any time. Always close the door when you’re inside the shack at night. Because evil spirits could pelt stones after you, leaving you in pain the rest of your life.”

Another enduring pastime of African culture is the African storytelling tradition. In Black Shack Alley, Mr. Médouze embodies this tradition. He is an elder, a former slave and someone whom José greatly admires and enjoys listening to. Mr. Médouze’s tales begin with the customary West Indian incantation “Eh cric!” and José responds “Eh crac!” This incantation exemplifies the call and response aspect of the African storytelling method, whereby the speaker ensures that he has the attention of his audience. Next, Mr. Médouze begins a fantastic tale that intrigues José: “Well, once upon a time . . . when Rabbit used to walk around dressed in white calico suit and Panama hat; when all the traces on Petit-Morne were paved with diamonds, rubies, topaz (all the streams ran gold and Grand Etang was a pool of honey). . . .” Mr. Médouze’s stories provide José with an escape from an oftentimes bleak reality— the reality of abject poverty.

Zobel skillfully portrays the vast degree of poverty among the poor of Petit-Morne. He illustrates deprivation in every area of their lives, whether it be monetary, shelter, food, or clothing: “Indeed, the dingy jacket clothing Tortilla’s body had shrunk, and if I couldn’t see that the number of knots that made up the texture or if had increased, I was nonetheless aware that my good friend was all the more naked for it.” Sadly, though M’man Tine labors from sunup to sundown, money is something that she never has enough of: “. . . M’man Tine came home, her rags and her skin weatherbeaten, soaked like a sponge wanting to send me to the store, she looked in vain for the missing cent in every corner of the room.”

The sugar cane fields undoubtedly serve as a catalyst of sorts for Black Shack Alley since so much of the novel is intertwined with the fields. José’s attitude toward the fields is one of paradox and pain: “Despite all the pleasure I had nibbling on and sucking pieces of sugar cane, a field still represented in my eyes a damnable place where executioners, whom you couldn’t even see, condemned black people from as young as eight years old, to weed, to dig, in storms that caused them to shrivel up and in the broiling sun that devoured them like mad dogs. . . .” The characters in Black Shack Alley spend a great deal of time in the fields; essentially their lives depend on sugar cane, but it is a difficult way of life. The cane fields symbolize oppression. Yet in spite of all the sorrow and blighted conditions surrounding José, beauty, joy, and vitality are also present.

There are numerous scenes in the text redolent with aesthetic beauty, eroticism, and pleasure. Zobel creates this memorable imagery with well-crafted descriptive prose. The following passage depicts the exuberance and cadence of villagers dancing to the tom-tom: “Everything—the purulent feet, the quivering breasts, those male shoulders and frenzied hips, all those glassy eyes and rainbow smiles, all these people, satiated, drunk and forgetting all cares, blended into one burning, invading babel, like a fire, flaring into dancing, dancing, dancing.”

Black Shack Alley offers a window into a specific time and place as it chronicles the evolution of an artist. Zobel’s novel is successful on manifold levels. It demonstrates that while Africans can be taken out of Africa, it is harder still to take Africa out of the African, that subliminal prose can aptly reveal truth, and that one people’s paradise is another people’s hell.

Gallagher, Mary. Soundings in French Caribbean Writing 1950–2000.
The Shock of Space and Time. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Zobel, Joseph. Black Shack Alley. Translated by Keith Q. Warner. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1980.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: