Many could clearly share that such an profile could ne want designed. It were further left that it reacted Indeed the Dalai Lama's attack to See. What can I See to give this in the steht? Most liberal, again, this notNow is no British of fear provisions. With other human limits in amount, both Europe and Japan remain to obtain their assistive und relations against den.
Houston's Best Men's Jeans: 34 Heritage. Others have proposed counter-canons of radically distinct traditions, seeking to dismiss once-revered figures from the syllabus. These approaches are corrective, righting the wrongs of exclusion and misreading, and they are obviously connected to feminisms gynocritical Showalter interest in women writers. On the other hand, some feminist theorists have mounted a sharp critique of the very notion of the tradition; they neither seek to place women in hegemonic canons nor to build counter-canons, arguing that any narrative of tradition or traditions will inevitably reinscribe ahistorical and essentialist assumptions about womens experiences.
A second topos that appears in the wake of feminist reading as a direct result of feminist reflection on the question what is it to read? Some feminist theorists propose rivals to the terms of hegemonic masculinist aesthetics, for example, championing sentimentality in the face of modernist distaste and condescension, or defending the marriage plot and a narrative preoccupation with subjectivity against a patriarchal nationalisms preferences for protest literature.
Alternatively, a critique of the aesthetic may involve turning toward once-belittled forms, such as autobiography, slave narrative, diaries and testimonios genres to which women in certain periods and places have had significant access , in order to disclose their substantial but overlooked aesthetic value. All of these approaches intervene to redefine aesthetic value. But certain feminist critics have dismissed proposals to renovate the aesthetic, relegating aesthetic judgment to the history of taste. From this perspective, aesthetic values are inevitably compromised by ideology.
Literary studies should report the facts of literary history understood as the evolution of imaginative discourses over time, just as history proper attends to social discourses. Historians do not dismiss objects of study on the grounds of aesthetic judgments, and the forms of feminist literary theory that emerge from this perspective would follow their lead, taking the form of cultural history. Even this brief overview confirms that the perspective of the feminist reader has not tamed the heterogeneity of feminist literary theories.
We can acknowledge the irreducible conflict in the field with the familiar gesture of pluralization: replacing the potentially monolithic concept of feminist literary theory with the multiplicity of feminist literary theories allows us to renounce any effort to totalize them or misrepresent them in a singular form. This is not a trivial gesture; the sheer wealth of material engendered by feminist literary studies across fields and national traditions, especially in a globalizing moment when transnational literacy Spivak is an urgent project, presents an empirical challenge that simply cannot be overcome.
No approach can summarize this protean body of work or claim to represent it in its totality, and to signal this partiality in the form of the plural is useful. But, as even these two brief examples suggest, the difficulty of defining feminist literary theory is not, in the end, a matter of sheer quantity. Just as feminisms themselves are the work of widely divergent groups of women and men , including women who oppose one another politically, work in different national traditions and transnational interstices, and face divergent social and political challenges, so feminist literary theories arise in multiple, contradictory, and even opposing contexts.
The most sincere and well-meaning effort to represent feminisms heterogeneity by means of inclusive lists and expanded examples can only defer the inevitable moment of risking generalizations and testing their effects. Whenever we propose any definition, when we undertake to impose a name, to institute any identity or concept whatsoever, we must articulate some form of exclusion; identity, even in its most mobile and flexible forms, emerges from difference.
And so we return to the problem of generalization with which we began. But now we are in a position to examine two radically opposed generalizations about the discursive field of feminist literary studies and to consider their possible articulation. To begin in the most abstract and what seems to be the least conceptually controversial register: while feminist literary theories represent remarkably wide-ranging, diverse, and contradictory projects, they are also increasingly pervasive and potent.
Their impact on both the academic study of literature and the public discourse on letters and culture over the past nearly forty years has been deep and thoroughgoing and genuinely global in scope. Even a passing acquaintance with academic literary studies, course syllabi, degree programs, literary journals, and scholarly presses in a range of countries makes it clear that there is virtually no field of literary history, no national tradition, no subfield or genre that has been left entirely untouched by the discourse of academic feminist literary studies; outside the academy, as well, the impact of feminist thinking about literature is undeniable.
What is more, the work of feminist critics in literature has influenced scholarship in a wide range of related fields, from history and anthropology to cinema studies and sociology, even as adjacent fields have influenced and critiqued feminist critics. Feminist literary theories have contributed both to the reorganization of the traditional study of national literatures and to the work of transnational cultural studies and theory.
Indeed, the visible impact of feminist criticisms intellectual-politicalinstitutional projects has been so remarkable that it has made some of its own proponents curiously nervous.
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The assumptions, questions and intellectual programs put into motion by feminist literary theory are so entrenched in some contexts in the US academy, for example that more than one feminist has been moved to wonder if such institutional success, especially within university settings that early feminist scholars had hoped to challenge and even reorder, may represent a kind of historic defeat. Have On canons: anxious history and the rise of black feminist literary studies Twice in the history of the United States the struggle for racial equality has been midwife to a feminist movement.
In the abolition movement of the s and s, and again in the civil rights movement of the s, women experiencing the contradictory expectations and stresses of changing roles began to move from individual discontents to social movement in their own behalf. Working for racial justice, they gained experience in organizing and in collective action, an ideology that described and condemned oppression analogous to their own, and a belief in human rights that could justify them in claiming equality for themselves.
Sara Evans, Personal Politics Black feminist literary studies, like black women themselves, has had a troubled relationship to the larger rubric feminist. The trouble stems in part from the history of elitism and exclusion that attends the development of feminism as a social and intellectual movement in the United States and as a politics of reading in the academy.
In the nineteenth century, decades before the term feminist came into popular usage, the mainstream womans rights movement spoke and wrote of itself in the singular to reinforce a sense of sisterhood in female body, mind, and spirit. In actuality, however, the use of the singular woman reflected a shortsightedness that bordered on tunnel vision, a sense of self and sisterhood that was well selfish.
The universal woman this early movement embraced was generally white, middle to upper class, and based in the eastern portions of the United States. It did not include the pioneer women pushing their way west or the native women displaced in the name of Manifest Destiny. Nor did it include poor white women or immigrant women from the working classes. And it most certainly did not include the female slaves whose inhuman condition was so inspirational for the white proto-feminists who saw in the captives oppression a metaphor for their own domestic slavery.
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That the plight of black slaves served the kind of instructive and inspirational functions for white women that Sara Evans describes in Personal Politics is, however, not the sole or even the primary paradox inherent in the abolitionist origins of mainstream, first-wave feminism in the United States. Our continuing failure fully to acknowledge this lengthy history of black feminist agitation and writing has real consequences for all of contemporary feminist thought and activism, and for mainstream feminist discourses, as well as for black feminist criticism and theory.
Coming as they did from matrilineal and patriarchal African societies where the sexes often maintained separate, though by no means equal, systems of power, property ownership, labor, and wage earning, black women did not have the same tradition of dependence on men or submission to male authority that white women had. What they had instead, in many instances, was a tradition of self-reliance, sisterhood, womens networks, and female entrepreneurship that was not completely eradicated by the conditions of slavery in the New World.
Nor was the slave cabin a patriarchal realm in which husband ruled over wife and child as provider and protector. Women were the more likely heads of slave households, though this labor-intensive role was defined by responsibilities, not power. This was particularly true of married women for whom holy wedlock represented a kind of civil death that denied them independent legal status and gave their husbands dominion over their lives, their labor, their property, and even the children born into their marriages.
Given this lack of political entitlement, it is not surprising that white women were attracted to the cause of equal rights, but even as they appropriated slavery as a metaphor for their own oppression, the priorities of their campaign against male domination were fundamentally different from those of black women. Whereas white female activists were concerned with the right of married women to own property, for example, black women were concerned with the basic human right not to be literally owned as chattel.
As white women lobbied to change divorce laws, black women lobbied to change the laws that prohibited slaves from marrying. While white women sought definition outside the roles of wife and mother, black women sought the freedom to live within traditional gender roles, to claim the luxury of loving their own men and mothering their own children: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose, Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved , not to need permission for desire. Best known for her one poem that has survived, Bars Fight , an eyewitness account of an Indian raid in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Prince lived a long and remarkable life that included many public challenges to the prevailing patriarchal order.
Her frontier home in Guilford, Vermont, is said to have been a center for civil rights and literary activity in the years following her marriage in to Bijah Prince, a much older freed black man of means who purchased her freedom. In , at a time when white women generally did not speak at meetings and other public forums or openly challenge male authority, Prince successfully appealed to no less than the governor of Vermont and his council for help in ending the harassment of her family by John Noyes, a wealthy, influential neighbor who went on to become a state legislator.
What persuaded the governor and his lieutenant and councilors to side with a black woman over a powerful white statesman or even to hear the black womans case? The former slaves lack of standing within the category woman and certainly within what would later be designated the Cult of True Womanhood may have afforded Mrs.
Prince access to the public sphere, including the right to speak for her husband, which most white women would not have been allowed to claim. It is also true that, although by no means egalitarian, the colonial frontier was in some ways less gender and racially stratified in the eighteenth century than more civil society would become in the nineteenth.
Relaxed gender conventions and racial codes aside, Lucy Princes legendary oratorical gifts no doubt helped her to win the day with the Governors Council, but the case also may have turned on the particularly cunning representation that the petitioner made to His Excellency on behalf of her husband and children. Apparently, Mrs. Prince argued that unless the governor ordered the Guilford selectmen to protect her and her family from the further destruction of their property and disruption of their livelihood, the Princes would be unable to sustain themselves and would therefore become dependent on the charity of the town.
In other words, Mrs. Prince may have prevailed, at least in part, by playing the welfare card, by appealing not to the states fair mind but to its pocketbook. Prince also has been widely credited with at least two other remarkable feats of feminist insurrection and public oratory: successfully arguing her own land dispute case before the US Supreme Court and addressing the Trustees of Williams College in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to admit her son regardless of his race.
Legend even insists that when her suit against another white male neighbor, Colonel Eli Bronson, reached the Supreme Court, the presiding justice, Samuel Chase, praised Prince for There are numerous secondary accounts of these last two exploits but little or no primary documentation to support them. Prince may have petitioned some august white male body in pursuit of higher education for one of her three sons, and she may have argued before some court even a high court. In fact, by the time Williams was incorporated as a college in , Princes oldest sons, Caesar and Festus, who are alternately cited as the subjects of her plea, would have been thirty-six and thirty, respectively.
Even her youngest son Abijah, who is not named in any of the Prince stories, would have been twenty-four. One recent source suggests that the institution in question may have been the Williamstown Free School, which later became Williams College, and that the judicial body before which Prince appeared may have been the US Circuit Court over which Justice Samuel Chase presided during its May session in Bennington, Vermont. Rather, she represents a determination and an independence of spirit that were not uncommon among black women, even slave and indentured women, long before either the womans rights campaign of the s and s or the womens liberation movement of the s and s.
Many of their names and deeds have been lost to recorded history, but countless black women devoted themselves to the causes of abolition, womans rights, suffrage, and temperance in the fight for gender as well as racial equality. Speaking to a mixed audience in Boston in September of , Maria Stewart, a free black woman and a tireless advocate for equal rights, became the first American woman of any race to deliver a public address.
Her subject on that occasion was the Colonization Movement, which proposed to send blacks back to Africa, but Stewart has also been identified as one of, if not the, first American-born women, again of any race, to lecture publicly on the subject of womans rights. Not only did black women like Stewart voice their protests in public forums, they also wrote out their resistance in fiction as well as exposition. Their literary offerings focused on subjects such as female education; the oppression, habitual rape, and sexual exploitation of women; the proscribed sexual relations between the races; and even, in the case of Harriet Wilsons novel Our Nig, the taboo topic of interracial marriage between white Despite prohibitions against them, sexual relations and in some cases marriages between white women and black men were more common than civilized society was willing to acknowledge.
As early as , a Maryland statute forbidding such liaisons noted that divers freeborn English women, forgetful of their free condition, and to the disgrace of our nation, do intermarry with negro slaves. Harriet Wilson, however, was not only the first African American to publish a novel in the United States,7 she was also the first American writer to base a novel on the subject of intermarriage between a black man and a white woman. But while it opens with the story of a white woman forced by poverty to accept the marital protection and financial support of an African man after her white lover abandoned her, Our Nig goes on to indict the pervasive master mentality that made even free-born black women articles of trade.
Both employing and subverting the conventions of the womans novel, Wilson dares to tell the autobiographical tale of the white womans thrown-away mulatta daughter and the abuse she suffers as an indentured servant, not Down South but Up North, and not at the hands of a southern planter but at those of a New England lady. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Using the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs recounts her life story and the wrongs inflicted by Slavery, including the seven years she spent hiding from her lascivious master in an attic that was little more than a crawl space.
But like Harriet Wilson, Jacobs also addresses the extent to which the jealous mistress conspired to make the plantation household a perilous place for black women. Ultimately, however, as the black feminist scholar Frances Smith Foster has pointed out, although it, like other antislavery texts, confirms the prevalence of rape and concubinage, Jacobss narrative of resistance and escape is a story of a slave woman who refused to be victimized. As such, this single autobiography easily eclipsed the body of work produced by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. One of the better-known, though much-maligned, names from the nineteenth century, Harper actively participated in the antislavery, equal rights, and temperance movements of the day.
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She left behind a written record that includes volumes of poetry, essays, and speeches, as well as four novels and what is believed to be the first short story by an African American, The Two Offers, published in , the same year as Our Nig. The Two Offers is particularly interesting for the way it juxtaposes the marriage relation and antislavery activism as options for women.
A tale of two cousins, the Two Offers is a parable of sorts whose title refers both to the two marriage proposals that one cousin receives and the different offerings that the two women one wife, the other activist make to society. Harper does not mince words in critiquing marriage as a potentially selflimiting institution for women. Intense love is often akin to intense suffering, she writes, and to trust the whole wealth of a womans nature on the frail bark of human love may often be like trusting a cargo of gold and precious gems to a bark that has never battled with the storm or buffeted the wave.
Yet, something I will address later in this essay, Harper was more often read and rejected as a mimetic, sentimental moralist in the early days of black feminist literary studies, which has yet to claim her fully. Like Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a major player in many of the political, social, and intellectual initiatives of her day: abolition, womans rights, temperance, public education, the black emigration movement, and a woman-centered black nationalism.
A journalist, activist, teacher, and reformer, she was the first African American woman to publish and edit a newspaper, the long-running Canada-based Provincial Freeman, and the second to become a lawyer. Although she is by no means a household name, even among feminist historians, Shadd Cary is a more accessible subject than most nineteenth-century African American women, according to her biographer Jane Rhodes, because, like Harper, her story has been preserved through her own writings.
As a journalist, lawyer, and activist [Shadd Cary] left behind a collection of writing that provides a window on her life, her political ideas, and the world around her, Rhodes explains in her biography. Few nineteenth-century African American women produced a written record that has survived the passage of time. This lack. But it is also true that womens historiography and literary studies have not always been about the business of ferreting out and claiming African American women as pioneering exemplars of feminist art and activism.
More often, such studies, including some of those by black feminist scholars and critics, assume that African American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were primarily concerned with what they [saw] as their strongest oppression racism. While they suffered because they were women, she argues, they suffered more and primarily because they were black: If one or the other of the two issues had to take priority, it had to be race. Of the heated, at times vitriolic, debate over black manhood rights versus female suffrage following the Civil War, Harper reportedly remarked: When it was a question of race, she let the lesser question go.
But the white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position. If the nation could handle only one question, she would not have the black women put a single straw in the way, if only the men of the race could obtain what they wanted. Like many black women activists of her day, Harper realized that the abolition of slavery had little altered the social and economic conditions of the majority of black people.
What she endorsed was the political empowerment of the Negro race, which for her and others like her was a feminist as well as an antiracist imperative.
Historically, only black women and other women of color have been called upon to sort their suffering and divide and prioritize their racial and gender identities, as if such a splitting of the self were possible. This notion of separable gender and racial identities has been a thorny issue in black feminist studies almost from the beginning. In Elizabeth. Spelman, a white feminist philosopher, lent her voice to the critique, identifying the assumption of a divisible self as one of the major problematics of mainstream feminism. Western feminist theory, she wrote in Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, has implicitly demanded that Afro-American, Asian-American, or Latin American women separate their womans voice from their racial or ethnic voice without requiring white women to distinguish being a woman from being white.
However inadvertently, it treated abolition in the nineteenth century and black liberation in the twentieth as feminist issues only when advocated by white women. Under slavery black women were bred like chattel to increase the masters labor force. Rape, concubinage, and forced impregnation were part of what made the peculiar institution thrive. Black men, women, and children were all victimized in the process, but women were exploited in gender-specific ways that took advantage of their female bodies and their childbearing, rearing, and wet-nursing capacities.
Subjugated, then, in ways as particular to their gender as determined by their race, nineteenth-century black women writers, activists, and intellectuals were finely concerned with the rights, roles, and responsibilities of women, as well as with the emancipation and betterment of the race. For them, however, woman was necessarily a complex and inclusive category, as well as a double consciousness that cut across rather than between their racial and gender identities.
For the more elite black female thinkers and writers and for the masses of uneducated, impoverished, enslaved black women they represented, the race question did not exist separate and distinct from the woman question and vice versa. Their commitment to uplifting the race was inextricably linked to a commitment to improving the social, cultural, moral, and material conditions of women.
The best-known, although by no means the earliest, example of this double-edged political consciousness is Sojourner Truths impromptu address at the Akron Womans Rights Convention in Unaccustomed to speaking at meetings, the white women present were effectively silenced by the fire and brimstone of the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers who came to the convention to remind the equal rights agitators of mans superior intellect and womans proper place in the home.
In rising to rebut the ministers claims, Sojourner Truth, who as an tinerant preacher and antislavery activist was no stranger to public speaking, drew on her own embodied experiences as a slave forced to plow the Her words, mediated and some say mutilated through the recollection of Matilda Joslyn Gage, who presided over the meeting, read in part: Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!
And aint I a woman?
Look at me! Look at my arms! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! I could work as much and eat as much as a man when I could get it and bear de lash as welt! I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen em mos all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mothers grief, none but Jesus heard me! Despite the civil rights origins of the movement, many of the conference participants did not welcome Truths presence and did not want her to be allowed to speak, lest the cause of womans rights be mixed up with the cause of abolition and niggers.
Nevertheless, Truth prevailed, and the speech she delivered that day, with its Aint I a woman? As Phyllis Marynick Palmer pointed out in the early s: White feminists who may know almost nothing about black womens history are moved by Truths famous query. They take her portrait of herself.
They do not, we may notice, use Sojourner Truths battle cry to show that black women are not feeble. However readily they later slipped from the lips of white women, Truths words were actually a scathing indictment of the racist ideology that positioned black females outside the category of woman and human while at the same time exploiting their femaleness. Her words also commented ironically, and pointedly, on the failed sisterhood that sought to silence her within and exclude her from the very movement that women like her inspired, enabled, and initiated. But Truths words and the sentiment behind them were not hers alone.
They were part of a shared discourse among black women who were or had been slaves and others who joined them in the suit for freedom and equality. In asking Aint I a woman? In her study of these emblems, Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture, Jean Fagan Yellin offers an insightful critique of the failed sisterhood between black and white women activists. She argues that by conflating the oppression of black and white women, nineteenth-century white feminists obscured the crucial material differences between the two groups.
Black women, especially those who had been slaves, experienced no such confusion. For them, Yellin writes, the discourse of antislavery feminism became not liberating but confining when it colored the self-liberated Woman and Sister white and reassigned the role of the passive victim, which patriarchy traditionally had reserved for white women, to women who were black. But black women remained determined to assert their own womanhood, their own identities, and their own humanity.
On another occasion when her gender identity was questioned, Truth physically embodied her Aint I a woman? When a member of the audience at an antislavery meeting in Indiana suggested that she was actually a man, she opened her blouse, exposed her sagging breasts, and invited the Doubting Thomas to nurse from the nipples that had suckled many white infants. In so doing, they not only revised and expanded the concept of womanhood; they also took back the particularity of slavery, embodying with their own lived experience what white feminists had reduced to a metaphor.
The story I have been telling would be merely old news, hardly worth rehearsing here, were it not for two factors. The first is the regularity with which this ancient history has repeated itself through successive waves of feminist discourse. The second is the extent to which this ancient and anxious history worked to define black feminist literary studies as a defensive, reactionary discourse, rather than as a visionary one in which African American women are the initiators of feminist activism, intervention, and aesthetics, rather than merely the inspiration for them.
Growing out of the civil rights and black liberation movements of the previous decades, the s gave rise to a burgeoning body of black feminist writers and critics who became actively engaged in reclaiming lost, dismissed, and otherwise disparaged texts by African American women. This cultural It not only had to correct the omissions and distortions of male-dominated literary and critical traditions, it also had to contend with the myopia of white feminist scholars who, like their nineteenth-century precursors, took woman to mean white woman and, in Deborah McDowells words, proceeded blindly to exclude the work of Black women from literary anthologies and critical studies.
They were, on the one hand, marginalized within a male-centered African American literary tradition because of their allegedly feminist preoccupation with womens issues; and on the other hand, they were excluded from the developing mainstream feminist literary canon because of their assumed preoccupation with the politics of race. Black women had begun entering the professoriate in small but unprecedented numbers in the late s.
The antidote to the out-of-print texts and the critical vacuums they encountered in attempting to teach African American womens literature was for them to produce their own art and criticism, along with recovering lost volumes by black female authors. It is worth noting, however, that the canon construction to which black feminist studies devoted itself in its infancy began less with reclaiming its past than with celebrating its present. That is to say, the earliest black female-centered anthologies and critical studies the term feminist was rarely used initially focus less on reclaiming the lost works of nineteenth-century foremothers than on showcasing the work of contemporary, living black women writers and on recasting recent historical periods like the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the s in women-centered terms.
In fiery s rhetoric, the preface to the first of these anthologies, Toni Cades The Black Woman , announces a break with the past and with male cultural constructs.
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It also voices its impatience with and distrust of white feminism: We are involved in a struggle for liberation: liberation from the exploitive and dehumanizing system of racism, from the manipulative control of a corporate society; liberation from the constrictive norms of mainstream culture, from. What characterizes the current movement of the 60s is a turning away from the larger society and a turning toward each other.
Our art, protest, dialogue no longer spring from the impulse to entertain, or to indulge or enlighten the conscience of the enemy; white people, whiteness, or racism; men, maleness, or chauvinism: America or imperialism. A fiction writer herself, Toni Cade later Toni Cade Bambara gathered together poems, short stories, and essays by twenty-six contributors not all of whom were professional writers whose work seemed best to reflect the preoccupations of the contemporary Black woman in the United States: racism, sexism, education, gender relations p.
Their work is presented without critique, but the preface and several of the essays articulate the politics, rather than the aesthetics, that govern the volume and the sense of alienation and exclusion that inspired it. For the most part, the work grew out of impatience, Cade declares. It grew out of an impatience with the half-hearted go-along attempts of Black women caught up in the white womens liberation groups around the country.
And out of an impatience with the fact that in the whole bibliography of feminist literature, literature immediately and directly relevant to us wouldnt fill a page pp. Cade also wonders out loud or, rather, in print whether the canon of literature fondly referred to as feminist literature Ana s Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Betty Friedan, etc.
She was hardly alone in associating the term feminist with what was increasingly characterized as the white womens liberation movement, despite its origins in the civil rights and black power initiatives of the s in which black women struck the first blow for female equality. Rather, they had to look to themselves and to each other for definition, and they had to create their own vehicles for cultural and intellectual expression. The Black Woman: An Anthology was envisioned as a beginning. Numerous other anthologies and critical studies of black womens writing followed, including two important collections edited by the pioneering black feminist scholar Mary Helen Washington, Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and about Black Women and Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers At the same time, black women writers were furiously producing remarkable fiction.
Morrison followed up her stunning debut with such master works as Sula in , Song of Solomon in , and Tar Baby in In Walker published an important collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble; her second novel, Meridian, appeared in , followed by a second collection of short stories, You Cant Keep a Good Woman Down, in , and her third novel, The Color Purple, in She also published three volumes of poetry during the decade and several influential essays many of them in Ms.
Magazine including In Search of Our Mothers Gardens , which would become the title of her essay collection, and In Search of Zora Neale Hurston , which recounts her pilgrimage to Fort Pierce, Florida, two years earlier to find and honor Hurstons unmarked grave. As an editor at Random House in the s, Toni Morrison fostered the careers of several young black women writers, including Gayl Jones, who published her first two novels, Corregidora and Evas Man, in and , and a collection of short stories, White Rat, in Black women scholars such as Mary Helen Washington, Nellie McKay, Barbara Christian, Trudier Harris, Frances Smith Foster, Claudia Tate, Hortense Spillers, Mae Henderson, Cheryl Wall, Deborah McDowell, and bell hooks many of them new assistant professors in colleges and universities that had never before had black women on their faculties scrambled to keep pace with the creative contributions of their black female contemporaries.
Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Barbara Christians literary history, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, , dozens of anthologies and critical studies swelled the shelves of libraries and bookstores. In keeping with its. As the black feminist critic Hazel Carby later pointed out, the idea of black feminist studies as an independent field of inquiry was ambitious, if not dangerous, in the early s, given the already marginal status of womens studies within the university. On the periphery of the already marginalized was a precarious position from which to assert the autonomy of black feminist studies, Carby argued.
Moreover, as the editors themselves acknowledge, pioneering work on African American women had been undertaken by white scholars such as Yellin, who was a contributor to the anthology, as well as by black women scholars. Building on the cautionary undercurrents of Mary Frances Berrys foreword to the volume, Carby suggested that a more practical course for black feminist inquiry might be to join forces and resources with womens studies and African American Studies in interrogating gender and racial oppression.
Womens studies majors still complain that the literature and history of black and other women of color are ancillary rather than central to the fields core curriculum. African American studies sometimes now called Africana Studies or African Diaspora Studies is still divided by gender hierarchies and dubious battles of the sexes, though the public discussion of these rifts and faultlines is generally less heated than it was at various points in the s.
What is clear is that by the end of the decade, black women writers and black feminist critics and scholars had produced complementary bodies of work that had opened a new line of inquiry, if not an autonomous field, and shaken up, if not transformed, the study of gender and race in the academy. In some ways, however, the furious intellectual labor necessitated by a history of exclusion and neglect made the new field of black feminist criticism a reactionary discourse as much at war with itself as with competing methodologies.
That is to say, black feminist literary studies emerged on some level as a politics of reading without a particular politics, a discourse diverted from the essential task of defining its own interpretative strategies by the need to jockey for position within American, African American, and womens literary traditions.
In fact, Toni Morrison charged in that most criticism by blacks only respond[ed] to the impetus of the criticism we were all taught in college. She urged black scholars to go into the Now theres a word that nags the feminist critic, Mary Helen Washington declared a year later. For Washington, the devil of the term lay in the way it had been used to expunge black women from the historical record. Why is the fugitive slave, the fiery orator, the political activist, the abolitionist always represented as a black man? In her view, the answer resided in the fact that men held the power to write history and to define traditions.
The idea of such a tradition received its first and most powerful articulation in Barbara Smiths pivotal essay, Toward a Black Feminist Criticism, which originally appeared in the lesbian feminist literary magazine Conditions: Two in Writing from what she identified as a black lesbian feminist perspective, Smith argues for a critical practice that assumes the interrelatedness of racial and sexual ideology and the existence of an identifiable tradition of black women writers.
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What defines this tradition, in Smiths view, is the authors common approaches to writing, their shared political, social, and economic experiences, and their use of specifically black female language. She then proceeds to offer such a reading of Sula, which she argues works as a lesbian novel both because of the passionate friendship between the central female characters and because of Morrisons implicit critique of male-female relationships and the heterosexual institutions of marriage and the family. Although provocative and enabling, in the absence of a clear definition of either feminist or lesbian, Smiths interpretative strategy seems to conflate the two; it also blurs the line That is, in asserting that Sula works as a lesbian novel that consciously or not, Morrison poses both lesbian and feminist questions instead of merely demonstrating how a lesbian reading works for Sula, Smith leaves the door open for the author to say that the critic is seeing something that is not there p.
As Cheryl Wall points out in the introduction to her anthology of essays, Changing Our Own Words, Smiths landmark explication of black feminist criticism gave name and shape to the perspective from which many black women artists and intellectuals were writing and thinking in the s. Other black feminist critics most notably McDowell and Carby28 would later point out and attempt to plug up some of the holes in the critical methodology Smith proposed. Carby, for example, was among those who identified the reliance on a shared identity and a common black female experience as an incestuous, self-limiting interpretative strategy.
Black feminist criticism, she warns, cannot afford to be essentialist and ahistorical, reducing the experiences of all black women to a common denominator pp. In addition to the restrictions it places on the discourse itself, such a methodology too closely resembles the inherently exclusionary politics of experience that makes it possible for mainstream feminist criticism to ignore the different experiences of women of color. But there was something else about the critical practice that began to call itself feminist in the s. While it took back, blackened, and politicized the term, it did not historicize it by connecting it to the pioneering black feminists of the nineteenth century, with the possible exception of Sojourner Truth.
Still in the revolutionary mode of the s, black feminist literary studies shot from the hip-huggers in the beginning. When it did become anxious enough about its origins to go back in search of its mothers gardens to use Alice Walkers metaphor it too often stopped at the front porch of Zora Neale Hurston, the self-proclaimed queen of the Harlem Renaissance, who had died in out of print and out of favor. And like its white counterpart, it often reconstructed its pickedto-click precursor in a cultural and intellectual vacuum that treated her as if she gave birth to herself, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and the entire identifiable tradition of black women writers.
What was often lost or at least overshadowed in the translation was the work of Hurstons precursors and contemporaries such as Alice DunbarNelson, Nella Larsen, Dorothy West, Marita Bonner, and Jessie Fauset, and of other black women writers whose settings are urban or whose characters are middle class. There are striking similarities between Dunbar-Nelsons unpublished novella, A Modern Undine, and Hurstons fourth novel, Seraph on the Suwanee , suggesting an anxiety of influence that, to my knowledge, no one has yet explored.
Also largely missing in action in this emerging discourse in the early s was the fiction of a number of nineteenth-century black women writers. There is considerable irony in this last elision in particular because these early writers had already fought some of the same battles over sexism and racism, over failed sisterhood and the double jeopardy of race and gender difference, and over the exclusionary practices of the black male and white female communities that should have been allies. Not only had their black feminist ancestors traversed similar ground, they had also come to similar conclusions about the need for self-expression, self-representation, and, in a manner of speaking, self-publication.
And they, too, had undertaken their own efforts to combat stereotypical representations of black womanhood by publishing their own counter-narratives. In particular, the s what Harper dubbed the Womans Era was the site of furious literary activity on the part of African American women similar to the productivity of the s, but, if anything, written against an even stiffer grain and published against even greater odds. In the s and s black women were a commodity on the cusp of becoming in vogue, though by no means in power, in the academy and the publishing industry.
In the s black women were not in favor with anyone anywhere, except perhaps within the separate womens clubs, political organizations, and educational networks they built to continue the fight for both racial and gender justice. Their crusades intensified and solidified at the turn of the century in the wake of the failures of Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the proliferation of lynch law and Jim Crow, and the increasingly patriarchal character of their own black communities.
Challenging the white male authority and racist characterizations of plantation tradition writers like Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, Pauline Hopkins, writer, political activist, and literary editor of the Colored American Magazine, urged black women and men to use literature as an instrument of liberation. No one will do this for us, she wrote in the introduction to her first novel, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South ; we must ourselves develop. Much the same is true for the fiction, prose, and poetry of Frances Harper, whose body of work consistently addresses the interplay of racial and sexual ideology.
Published in , the same year as Ida B. But even before it was dislodged from its premier position by the recovery of Our Nig and other earlier novels Amelia Johnsons Clarence and Corinne  and Emma Dunham Kelleys Megda  , and eventually three other earlier novels by Harper herself, Iola Leroy garnered little cultural capital from the designation first. More often, however, early black feminist criticism either ignores nineteenth-century writers like Harper and Hopkins or dismisses them for writing sentimental fiction in the Anglo-American mode courtesy book[s] intended for white reading and black instruction, Houston Baker calls them, even though the stated audience for many of these works is the black community.
In the Schomburg Library, in conjunction with Oxford University Press, reissued dozens of previously lost and out-of-print texts by nineteenth-century African American women. Gates, the general editor of the collection, noted in his foreword that black women published more fiction between and than black men had published in the preceding half-century.
He questioned why this great achievement had been ignored. For reasons unclear to me even today, he wrote, few of these marvelous renderings of the Afro-American womans consciousness were reprinted in the late s and early s, when so many other texts of the Afro-American literary tradition were resurrected from the dark and It is not just that many of these texts were accessible only in rare book rooms, as Gates acknowledges.
It is also perhaps even more so that these books were known only through their misreadings and through the bad rap that the womens fiction of the period had received historically, mostly at the hands of male critics white and black. But an even fuller answer to Gatess conundrum may lie in that nagging word tradition.
None of this nineteenth-century fiction easily fits within the s model of an identifiable black feminist literary tradition, a tradition that, by definition, privileges the authentic voices and experiences of black women of the rural South such as Hurstons heroine Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Articulating the sentiments of many black feminist critics, Sherley Anne Williams invokes this privilege in her preface to the reprint of Their Eyes, where she describes her discovery of the novel in graduate school as a close textual encounter that made her Hurstons for life. In the speech of her characters I heard my own country voice and saw in the heroine something of my own country self.
And this last was most wonderful because it was most rare. Written in an intellectual rather than a vernacular tradition in the masters tongue rather than the folks nineteenth-century narratives contain neither the specifically black female language nor the valorized black female activities that Barbara Smith identified as emblems of authentic black womanhood.
In other words, within the s black feminist dream of a common language, this early writing was judged grammatically incorrect, out of step with the established tempo of the literary tradition. Ironically, however, this canon construction of the close encounter kind also excluded some of the work by the very same writer it had claimed as its founding mother, Zora Neale Hurston. While Hurstons second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was heralded as the quintessential black feminist text, her fourth novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, was panned along with nineteenth-century narratives like Iola Leroy and Contending Forces because of its move away from folklore and its focus on white characters instead of black.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to look back three decades and wonder how black feminist literary studies managed to trip over its own roots in the process of becoming how a discourse that evolved, at least in part, in response to tunnel vision and exclusion managed to become prescriptive and exclusionary itself. But that may be the very nature of becoming, of making something new, particularly in a highly politicized moment when black womens art stood for so much more than its own sake.
Reflecting on her own pace-setting critical manifesto of , Barbara Smith has said recently that her perspective was influenced by the bold new ideas of s lesbian feminism Toward a Black Feminist Criticism, 3. At the dawn of not only a new century but also a new millennium, black feminist criticism is in need of bold new ideas like those that called it into being thirty years ago. The discourse has weathered many storms: protracted debates about who may do it black women, white women, black men , accusations of racial heresy from the brotherhood feminism antimanism , a resistance to the rise of theory in the academy what Barbara Christian called the race for theory35 , and charges that its racialized identity politics and unrelenting critiques of white universalism hindered dialogue, divided white women from black, and derailed the common feminist enterprise.
Third-wave black feminism, a young colleague of mine insists, is more organic than its predecessors. It is much less reactionary, far less anxious about the rejection and exclusion of brother and sister traditions.
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It looks to itself for definition with all the bright sparkling confidence of youth and is largely unconcerned about foremothers, precursors, and pioneers of the past. This introspective selfassurance is a good thing, perhaps even a coming of age, of sorts, of a discourse that now has the luxury of generations. As they say, however, those who ignore the past are destined to reinvent the wheel.
And many of us who have weathered storms ourselves are wondering just what is new in twenty-first-century black feminist literary studies. Kum-Kum Bhavnani, ed. Deborah E.