Black Women and Their Fictions in the Twentieth Century

RATIONALE

As collaborators in the creation of African-American and American culture, black women have written perceptively about the precise inflections of racial and gender difference in their experience of being both black and female. I emphasize the fictions of black women in representing this field because I see this list as focusing on the textual representations of color, class, and cultural differences within the African-American community, especially as these differences influence constructions of racial, gender, and sexual identity. To some extent, all of these texts speak through and about the mythologies of blackness that we inherit as a culture that bears the historical mark of slavery and the privileging of whiteness in American society. In this way, I am interested in the ways in which these texts explore what the black female body comes to signify in the American narrative, at the same time, that they problematize that process of signifying. If black female sexuality is in part viewed as a product of the white male gaze, how is it also linked to black male sexuality? What are the desires of the black woman as she is represented in these diverse texts?

By focusing primarily on novels by black women in the twentieth century, I will examine how these writers respond to a crisis of representation for black women in American culture. In other words, how do these writers take up the project of remembering as Ntozake Shange's suggests "the slaves who were ourselves," while also reimagining what Audre Lorde calls "the forward vision of all our lives"? Intrinsic to this discussion of the representation of the black woman in fiction is, of course, the issue of who and what is then marginalized in the process of focusing on these particular experiences of black women.

In addition to these issues, I am also interested in thinking about how black women writers of the twentieth century take up the struggle between stasis and mobility as a trope of African-American history. In other words, how can the process of imagining where it is possible to go in order to be free be seen as perpetuating a cycle of oppression as opposed to changing the situation entirely so that wherever you are, you can define yourself as free.

Finally, I see these writers as exploring how language itself is coded in African-American and American culture. In the case of vernacular culture, language is viewed as having shared codes and patterns of imagery. Yet I think these writers also begin to question what happens when these codes begin to take on different meanings. If writing represents a process of not simply using language as a code but also as a means of mythmaking and reinscribing meaning, what are the subsequent tensions that are created in African-American culture as well as in American culture through these fictions?



 


PRIMARY READINGS

Frances Harper
— Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, 1892
Pauline Hopkins
— Of One Blood, 1903
Jessie Fauset
— Plum Bun, 1928
Nella Larsen
— Quicksand, 1928
Zora Neale Hurston
— Their Eye Were Watching God, 1937
— "Characteristics of Negro Expression," 1934
Ann Petry
— The Street, 1946
Gwendolyn Brooks
— Maud Martha, 1953
Paule Marshall
— Brown Girl, Brownstones, 1959
— The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, 1992
Adrienne Kennedy
— Funnyhouse of a Negro, 1962
— The Owl Answers, 1963
Toni Morrison
— The Bluest Eye, 1970
— Sula, 1973
— Song of Solomon, 1977
— Beloved, 1988
Alice Walker
— "Everyday Use," 1974
— "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," 1974
— "Looking for Zora," 1975
— The Color Purple, 1982
Gayl Jones
— Corregidora, 1975
Ntozake Shange
— for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, 1975
— Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, 1982
Toni Cade Bambara
— The Salt Eaters, 1980
Audre Lorde
— Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, 1982
Gloria Naylor
— The Women of Brewster Place, 1982
— Mama Day, 1988
— Bailey's Cafe, 1992
Octavia Butler
— Kindred, 1988


 


SECONDARY READINGS

Hazel Carby
— Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, 1987
Mari Evans
— Black Women Writers (1950 - 1980): A Critical Evaluation, 1983
bell hooks
— Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1981
Claudia Tate
— Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century, 1992