Toward a Black Feminist Criticism
do not know where to begin. Long before I tried to write this I realized that
I was attempting something unprecedented, something dangerous, merely by writing
about Black women writers from a feminist perspective and about Black lesbian
writers from any perspective at all. These things have not been done. Not by
white male critics, expectedly. Not by Black male critics. Not by white women
critics who think of themselves as feminists. And most crucially not by Black
women critics, who, although they pay the most atten-tion to Black women writers
as a group, seldom use a consistent feminist analysis or write about Black lesbian
literature. All segments of the literary world-whether establishment, progressive,
Black, female, or lesbian---do not know, or at least act as if they do not know,
that Black women writers and Black lesbian writers exist.
For whites, this specialized lack of knowledge is inextricably connected to their not knowing in any concrete or politically transforming way that Black women of any description dwell in this place. Black women's existence, experience, and culture and the brutally complex systems of oppression which shape these are in the "real world" of white and/or male consciousness beneath consideration, invisible, unknown.
This invisibility , which goes beyond anything that either Black men or white women experience and tell about in their writing, is one reason it is so difficult for me to know where to start. It seems overwhelming to break such a massive silence. Even more numbing, however, is the realization that so many of the women who will read this have not yet noticed us missing either from their reading matter, their politics, or their lives. It is galling that ostensible feminists and acknowledged lesbians have been so blinded to the implications of any womanhood that is not white womanhood and that they have yet to struggle with the deep racism in themselves that is at the source of this blindness.
I think of the thousands and thousands of books, magazines, and articles which have been devoted, by this time, to the subject of women's writing and I am filled with rage at the fraction of those pages that mention Black and other Third World women. I finally do not know how to begin because in 1977 I want to be writing this for a Black feminist publication, for Black women who know and love these writers as I do and who, if they do not yet know their names, have at least profoundly felt the pain of their absence.
The conditions that coalesce into the impossibilities of this essay have as much to do with politics as with the practice of literature. Any discussion of Afro-American writers can rightfully begin with the fact that for most of the time we have been in this country we have been categorically denied not only literacy but the most minimal possibility of a decent human life. In her landmark essay, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," Alice Walker discloses how the political, economic, and social restrictions of slavery and racism have historically stunted the creative lives of Black women.1
At the present time I feel that the politics of feminism have a direct relationship to the state of Black women's literature. A viable, autonomous Black feminist movement in this country would open up the space needed for the exploration of Black women's lives and the creation of consciously Black woman-identified art. At the same time a redefinition of the goals and strategies of the white feminist movement would lead to much-needed change in the focus and content of what is now generally accepted as women's culture.
I want to make in this essay some connections between the politics of Black women's lives, what we write about, and our situation as artists. In order to do this I will look at how Black women have been viewed critically by outsiders, demonstrate the necessity for Black feminist criticism, and try to understand what the existence or nonexistence of Black lesbian writing reveals about the state of Black women's culture and the intensity of all Black women's oppression.
The role that criticism plays in making a body of literature recognizable and real hardly needs to be explained here. The necessity for nonhostile and perceptive analysis of works written by persons outside the "mainstream" of white/male cultural rule has been proven by the Black cultural resurgence of the 1960s and 1970s and by the even more recent growth of feminist literary scholarship. For books to be real and remembered they have to be talked about. For books to be understood they must be examined in such a way that the basic intentions of the writers are at least considered. Because of racism Black literature has usually been viewed as a discrete subcategory of American literature, and there have been Black critics of Black literature who did much to keep it alive long before it caught the attention of whites. Before the advent of specifically feminist criticism in this decade, books by white women, on the other hand, were not clearly perceived as the cultural manifestation of an oppressed people. It took the surfacing of the second wave of the North American feminist movement to expose the fact that these works contain a stunningly accurate record of the impact of patriarchal values and practice upon the lives of women, and more significantly, that literature by women provides essential insights into female experience.
In speaking about the current situation of Black women writers, it is important to remember that the existence of a feminist movement was an essential precondition to the growth of feminist literature, criticism, and women's studies, which focused at the beginning almost entirely upon investigations of literature. The fact that a parallel Black feminist movement has been much slower in evolving cannot help but have impact upon the situation of Black women writers and artists and explains in part why during this very same period we have been so ignored.
There is no political movement to give power or support to those who want to examine Black women's experience through studying our history, literature, and culture. There is no political presence that demands a minimal level of consciousness and respect from those who write or talk about our lives. Finally, there is not a developed body of Black feminist political theory whose assumptions could be used in the study of Black women's art. When Black women's books are dealt with at all, it is usually in the context of Black literature, which largely ignores the implications of sexual politics. When white women look at Black women's works they are of course ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of racial politics. A Black feminist approach to literature that embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women writers is an absolute necessity. Until a Black feminist criticism exists we will not even know what these writers mean. The citations from a variety of critics which follow prove that without a Black feminist critical perspective not only are books by Black women misunderstood, they are destroyed in the process.
Jerry H. Bryant, The Nation's white male reviewer of Alice Walker's In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, wrote in 1973:
The subtitle of the collection, "Stories of Black Women," is probably an attempt by the publisher to exploit not only black subjects but feminine ones. There is nothing feminist about these stories, however.2
Blackness and feminism
are to his mind mutually exclusive and peripheral to the act of writing fiction.
Bryant of course does not consider that Walker might have titled the work herself,
nor did he apparently read the book, which unequivocally reveals the author's
In The Negro Novel in America, a book that Black critics recognize as one of the worst examples of white racist pseudoscholarship, Robert Bone cavalierly dismisses Ann Petry's classic, The Street. He perceives it to be "a superficial social analysis" of bow slums victimize their Black inhabitants. He further objects:
It is an attempt to interpret slum life in terms of Negro experience, when a larger frame of reference is required. As Alain Locke has observed, "Knock on Any Door is superior to The Street because it designates class and environment, rather than mere race and environment, as its antagonist."3
Neither Robert Bone nor
Alain Locke, the Black male critic he cites, can recognize that The Street
is one of the best delineations in literature of bow sex, race, and class
interact to oppress Black women.
In her review of Toni Morrison's Sula for the New York Times Book Review in 1973, putative feminist Sara Blackburn makes similarly racist comments:
Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life. If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves, she is going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel. And if she does this, it seems to me that she might easily transcend that early and unintentionally limiting classification "black woman writer" and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.4[Italics mine]
exquisite gift, Blackburn unashamedly asserts that Morrison is "too talented"
to deal with mere Black folk, particularly those double nonentities, Black women.
In order to be accepted as "serious," "important," "talented,"
and "American," she must obviously focus her efforts upon chronicling
the doings of white men.
The mishandling of Black women writers by whites is paralleled more often by their not being handled at all, particularly in feminist criticism. Although Elaine Showalter in her review essay on literary criticism for Signs states that "the best work being produced today [in feminist criticism] is exacting and cosmopolitan," her essay is neither. If it were, she would not have failed to mention a single Black or Third World woman writer, whether "major" or "minor," to cite her questionable categories. That she also does not even hint that lesbian writers of any color exist renders her purported overview virtually meaningless. Showalter obviously thinks that the identities of being Black and female are mutually exclusive, as this statement illustrates:
Furthermore, there are other literary subcultures (black American novelists, for example) whose history offers a precedent for feminist scholarship to use.5
The idea of critics like
Showalter using Black literature is chilling, a case of barely disguised
cultural imperialism. The final insult is that she footnotes the preceding remark
by pointing readers to works on Black literature by white males Robert Bone
and Roger Rosenblatt!
Two recent works by white women, Ellen Moers's Literary Women: The Great Writers and Patricia Meyer Spacks's The Female Imagination, evidence the same racist flaw.6 Moers includes the names of four Black and one Puertorriquena writer in her seventy pages of bibliographical notes and does not deal at all with Third World women in the body of her book. Spacks refers to a comparison between Negroes (sic) and women in Mary Ellmann's Thinking About Women under the index entry "blacks, women and." "Black Boy (Wright)" is the preceding. entry. Nothing follows. Again there is absolutely no recognition that Black and female identity ever coexist, specifically in a group of Black women writers. Perhaps one can assume that these women do not know who Black women writers are, that like most Americans they have little opportunity to learn about them. Perhaps. Their ignorance seems suspiciously selective, however, particularly in the light of the dozens of truly obscure white women writers they are able to unearth. Spacks was herself employed at Wellesley College at the same time that Alice Walker was there teaching one of the first courses on Black women writers in the country.
I am not trying to encourage racist criticism of Black women writers like that of Sara Blackburn, to cite only one example. As a beginning I would at least like to see in print white women's acknowledgment of the contradictions of who and what are being left out of their research and writing.7
Black male critics can also act as if they do not know that Black women writers exist and are, of course, hampered by an inability to comprehend Black women's experience in sexual as well as racial terms. Unfortunately there are also those who are as virulently sexist in their treatment of Black women writers as their white male counterparts. Darwin Turner's discussion of Zora Neale Hurston in his In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity is a frightening example of the near assassination of a great Black woman writer.8 His descriptions of her and her work as "artful," "coy," "irrational," "superficial," and "shallow" bear no relationship to the actual quality of her achievements. Turner is completely insensitive to the sexual political dynamics of Hurston's life and writing.
In a recent interview the notoriously misogynist writer Ishmael Reed comments in this way upon the low sales of his newest novel:
... but the book only sold 8000 copies. I don't mind giving out the figure: 8000. Maybe if I was one of those young female Afro-American writers that are so hot now, I'd sell more. You know, fill my books with ghetto women who can do no wrong.... But come on, I think I could have sold 8000 copies by myself.9
The politics of the situation
of Black women are glaringly illuminated by this statement. Neither Reed nor
his white male interviewer has the slightest compunction about attacking Black
women in print. They need not fear widespread public denunciation since Reed's
statement is in perfect agreement with the values of a society that hates Black
people, women, and Black women. Finally the two of them feel free to base their
actions on the premise that Black women are powerless to alter either their
political or their cultural oppression.
In her introduction to "A Bibliography of Works Written by American Black Women" Ora Williams quotes some of the reactions of her colleagues toward her efforts to do research on Black women:
Others have reacted negatively with such statements as, "I really don't think you are going to find very much written," "Have 'they' written anything that is any good?" and, "I wouldn't go overboard with this woman's lib thing." When discussions touched on the possibility of teaching a course in which emphasis would be on the literature by Black women, one response was, "Ha, ha. That will certainly be the most nothing course ever offered!"10
A remark by Alice Walker capsulizes what all the preceding examples indicate about the position of Black women writers and the reasons for the damaging criticism about them. She responds to her interviewer's question, "Why do you think that the black woman writer has been so ignored in America? Does she have even more difficulty than the black male writer, who perhaps has just begun to gain recognition?" Walker replies:
There are two reasons why the black woman writer is not taken as seriously as the black male writer. One is that she's a woman. Critics seem unusually ill-equipped to intelligently discuss and analyze the works of black women. Generally, they do not even make the attempt; they prefer, rather, to talk about the lives of black women writers, not about what they write. And, since black women writers are not-it would seem-very likable-until recently they were the least willing worshippers of male supremacy----comments about them tend to be cruel."11
A convincing case for Black
feminist criticism can obviously be built solely upon the basis of the negativity
of what already exists. It is far more gratifying, however, to demonstrate its
necessity by showing how it can serve to reveal for the first time the profound
subtleties of this particular body of literature.
Before suggesting how a Black feminist approach might be used to examine a specific work, I will outline some of the principles that I think a Black feminist critic could use. Beginning with a primary commitment to exploring bow both sexual and racial politics and Black and female identity are inextricable elements in Black women's writings, she would also work from the assumption that Black women writers constitute an identifiable literary tradition. The breadth of her familiarity with these writers would have shown her that not only is theirs a verifiable historical tradition that parallels in time the tradition of Black men and white women writing in this country, but that thematically, stylistically, aesthetically, and conceptually Black women writers manifest common approaches to the act of creating literature as a direct result of the specific political, social, and economic experience they have been obliged to share. The way, for example, that Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker incorporate the traditional Black female activities of rootworking, herbal medicine, conjure, and midwifery into the fabric of their stories is not mere coincidence, nor is their use of specifically Black female language to express their own and their characters' thoughts accidental. The use of Black women's language and cultural experience in books by Black women about Black women results in a miraculously rich coalescing of form and content and also takes their writing far beyond the confines of white/male literary structures. The Black feminist critic would find innumerable commonalities in works by Black women.
Another principle which grows out of the concept of a tradition and which would also help to strengthen this tradition would be for the critic to look first for precedents and insights in interpretation within the works of other Black women. In other words she would think and write out of her own identity and not try to graft the ideas or methodology of white/male literary thought upon the precious materials of Black women's art. Black feminist criticism would by definition be highly innovative, embodying the daring spirit of the works themselves. The Black feminist critic would be constantly aware of the political implications of her work and would assert the connections between it and the political situation of all Black women. Logically developed, Black feminist criticism would owe its existence to a Black feminist movement while at the same time contributing ideas that women in the movement could use.
Black feminist criticism applied to a particular work can overturn previous assumptions about it and expose for the first time its actual dimensions. At the "Lesbians and Literature" discussion at the 1976 Modern Language Association convention Bertha Harris suggested that if in a woman writer's work a sentence refuses to do what it is supposed to do, if there are strong images of women and if there is a refusal to be linear, the result is innately lesbianliterature. As usual, I wanted to see if these ideas might be applied to the Black women writers that I know and quickly realized that many of their works were, in Harris's sense, lesbian. Not because women are "lovers," but because they are the central figures, are positively portrayed and have pivotal relationships with one another. The form and language of these works are also nothing like what white patriarchal culture requires or expects.
I was particularly struck by the way in which Toni Morrison's novels The Bluest Eye and Sula could be explored from this new perspective.12 In both works the relationships between girls and women are essential, yet at the same time physical sexuality is overtly expressed only between men and women. Despite the apparent heterosexuality of the female characters, I discovered in rereading Sula that it works as a lesbian novel not only because of the passionate friendship between Sula and Nel but because of Morrison's consistently critical stance toward the heterosexual institutions of male-female relationships, marriage, and the family. Consciously or not, Morrison's work poses both lesbian and feminist questions about Black women's autonomy and their impact upon each other's lives.
Sula and Nel find each other in 1922 when each of them is twelve, on the brink of puberty and the discovery of boys. Even as awakening sexuality "clotted their dreams," each girl desires "a someone" obviously female with whom to share her feelings. Morrison writes:
... for it was in dreams that the two girls had met. Long before Edna Finch's Mellow House opened, even before they marched through the chocolate halls of Garfield Primary School . . . they had alreadymade each other's acquaintance in the delirium of their noon dreams. They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream. When Nel, an only child, sat on the steps of her back porch surrounded by the high silence of her mother's incredibly orderly house, feeling the neatness pointing at her back, she studied the poplars and fell easily into a picture of herself lying on a flower bed, tangled in her own hair waiting for some fiery prince. He approached but never quite arrived. But always, watching the dream along with her, were some smiling sympathetic eyes. Someone as interested as she herself in the flow of her imagined hair, the thickness of the mattress of flowers, the voile sleeves that closed below her elbows in gold-threaded cuffs. Similarly, Sula, also an only child, but wedged into a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors, spent hours in the attic behind a roll of linoleum galloping through her own mind on a gray-and-white horse tasting sugar and smelling roses in full view of someone who shared both the taste and the speed. So when they met, first in those chocolate halls and next through the ropes of the swing, they felt the ease and comfort of old friends. Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula's because he was dead; Nel's because he wasn't), they found in each other's eyes the intimacy they were looking for. (Pp. 51-52)
As this beautiful passage shows, their relationship, from the very beginning, is suffused with an erotic romanticism. The dreams in which they are initially drawn to each other are actually complementary aspects of the same sensuous fairy tale. Nel imagines a "fiery prince" who never quite arrives while Sula gallops like a prince "on a gray-and-white borse."13 The "real world" of patriarchy requires, however, that they channel this energy away from each other to the opposite sex. Lorraine Bethel explains this dynamic in her essay "Conversations With Ourselves: Black Female Relationships in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love and Toni Morrison's Sula "
I am not suggesting that Sula and Nel are being consciously sexual, or that their relationship has an overt lesbian nature. I am suggesting, however, that there is a certain sensuality in their interactions that is reinforced by the mirror-like nature of their relationship. Sexual exploration and coming of age is a natural part of adolescence. Sula and Nel discover men together, and though their flirtations with males are an important part of their sexual exploration, the sensuality that they experience in each other's company is equally important. 14
Sula and Nel must also
struggle with the constrictions of racism upon their lives. The knowledge that
"they were neither white nor male" is the inherent explanation of
their need for each other. Morrison depicts in literature the necessary bonding
that has always taken place between Black women for the sake of barest survival.
Together the two girls can find the courage to create themselves.
Their relationship is severed only when Nel marries Jude, an unexceptional young man who thinks of her as "the hem-the tuck and fold that hid his raveling edges" (p. 83). Sula's inventive wildness cannot overcome social pressure or the influence of Nel's parents who "bad succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had" (p. 83). Nel falls prey to convention while Sula escapes it. Yet at the wedding which ends the first phase of their relationship, Nel's final action is to look past her husband toward Sula,
a slim figure in blue, gliding, with just a hint of a strut, down the path towards the road.... Even from the rear Nel could tell that it was Sula and that she was smiling; that something deep down in that litheness was amused. (P. 85)
When Sula returns ten years later, her rebelliousness full-blown, a major source of the town's suspicions stems from the fact that although she is almost thirty, she is still unmarried. Sula's grandmother, Eva, does not hesitate to bring up the matter as soon as she arrives. She asks:
"When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It'll settle you.... Ain't no woman got no business floatin' around without no man." (P. 92)
replies: "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself"
(p. 92). Self-definition is a dangerous activity for any woman to engage in,
especially a Black one, and it expectedly earns Sula pariah status in Medallion.
Morrison clearly points out that it is the fact that Sula has not been tamed or broken by the exigencies of heterosexual family life which most galls the others:
Among the weighty evidence piling up was the fact that Sula did not look her age. She was near thirty and, unlike them, had lost no teeth, suffered no bruises, developed no ring of fat at the waist or pocket at the back of her neck. (P. 115)
In other words she is not
a domestic serf, a woman run down by obligatory childbearing or a victim of
battering. Sula also sleeps with the husbands of the town once and then discards
them, needing them even less than her own mother did for sexual gratification
and affection. The town reacts to her disavowal of patriarchal values by becoming
fanatically serious about their own family obligations, as if in this way they
might counteract Sula's radical criticism of their lives.
Sula's presence in her community functions much like the presence of lesbians everywhere to expose the contradictions of supposedly "normal" life. The opening paragraph of the essay "The Woman- Identified Woman" has amazing relevance as an explanation of Sula's position and character in the novel. It asks:
What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be amore complete and freer human being than her society-perhaps then, but certainly later-cares to allow her. These needs and actions, over a period of years, bring her into painful conflict with people, situations, the accepted ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, until she is in a state of continual war with everything around her, and usually with herself. She may not be fully conscious of the political implications of what for her began as personal necessity, but on some level she has not been able to accept the limitations and oppression laid on her by the most basic role of her society-the female role. 15
limitations of the Black female role are even greater in a racist and
sexist society, as is the amount of courage it takes to challenge them. It is
no wonder that the townspeople see Sula's independence as imminently dangerous.
Morrison is also careful to show the reader that despite their years of separation and their opposing paths, Nel and Sula's relationship retains its primacy for each of them. Nell feels transformed when Sula returns and thinks:
It was like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed. Her old friend had come home. Sula. Who made her laugh, who made her see old things with new eyes, in whose presence she felt clever, gentle and a little raunchy. (P. 95)
Laughing together in the familiar "rib-scraping" way, Nel feels "new, soft and new" (p. 98). Morrison uses here the visual imagery which symbolizes the women's closeness throughout the novel. Sula fractures this closeness, however, by sleeping with Nel's husband, an act of little import according to her system of values. Nel, of course, cannot understand. Sula thinks ruefully:
Nel was the one person who had wanted nothing from her, who bad accepted all aspects of her. Now she wanted everything, and all because of that Nel was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew, who had seen as she bad the slant of life that made it possible to stretch it to its limits. Now, Nel was one of them. (Pp. 119-20)
Sula also thinks at the realization of losing Nel about bow unsatisfactory her relationships with men have been and admits:
She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be-for a woman. (P. 121)
The nearest that Sula comes
to actually loving a man is in a brief affair with Ajax and what she values
most about him is the intellectual companionship be provides, the brilliance
he "allows" her to show.
Sula's feelings about sex with men are also consistent with a lesbian interpretation of the novel. Morrison writes:
She went to bed with men as frequently as she could. It was the only place where she could find what she was looking for: misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow.... During the lovemaking she found and needed to find the cutting edge. When she left off cooperating with her body and began to assert herself in the act, particles of strength gathered in her like steel shavings drawn to a spacious magnetic center, forming a tight cluster that nothing, it seemed, could break. And there was utmost irony and outrage in lying under someone, in a position of surrender, feeling her own abiding strength and limitless power... When her partner disengaged himself, she looked up at him in wonder trying to recall his name ... waiting impatiently for him to turn away ... leaving her to the postcoital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony. (Pp. 122-23; italics mine)
Sula uses men for sex which
results, not in communion with them, but in her further delving into self.
Ultimately the deepest communion and communication in the novel occurs between two women who love each other. After their last painful meeting, which does not bring reconciliation, Sula thinks as Nel leaves her:
"So she will walk on down that road, her back so straight in that old green coat ... thinking bow much I have cost her and never remember the days when we were two throats and one eye and we bad no price." (P. 147)
It is difficult to imagine
a more evocative metaphor for what women can be to each other, the "pricelessness"
they achieve in refusing to sell themselves for male approval, the total worth
that they can only find in each other's eyes.
Decades later the novel concludes with Nel's final comprehension of the source of the grief that has plagued her from the time her husband walked out:
"All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude." And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. "We was girls together," she said as though explaining something. "0 Lord, Sula," she cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."
It was a fine cry-loud and long-but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. (P. 174)
Again Morrison exquisitely
conveys what women, Black women, mean to each other. This final passage verifies
the depth of Sula and Nel's relationship and its centrality to an accurate interpretation
of the work.
Sula is an exceedingly lesbian novel in the emotions expressed, in the definition of female character, and in the way that the politics of heterosexuality are portrayed. The very meaning of lesbianism is being expanded in literature, just as it is being redefined through politics. The confusion that many readers have felt about Sula may well have a lesbian explanation. If one sees Sula's inexplicable "evil" and nonconformity as the evil of not being male--identified, many elements in the novel become clear. The work might be clearer still if Morrison had approached her subject with the consciousness that a lesbian relationship was at least a possibility for her characters. Obviously Morrison did not intend the reader to perceive Sula and Nel's relationship as inherently lesbian. However, this lack of intention only shows the way in which heterosexist assumptions can veil what may logically be expected to occur in a work. What I have tried to do here is not to prove that Morrison wrote something that she did not, but to point out how a Black feminist critical perspective at least allows consideration of this level of the novel's meaning.
In her interview in Conditions: One Adrienne Rich talks about unconsummated relationships and the need to reevaluate the meaning of intense yet supposedly nonerotic connections between women. She asserts:
We need a lot more documentation about what actually happened: I think we can also imagine it, because we know it happened-we know it out of our own lives. 16
Black women are still in
the position of having to "Imagine," discover, and verify Black lesbian
literature because so little has been written from an avowedly lesbian perspective.
The near nonexistence of Black lesbian literature which other Black lesbians
and I so deeply feel has everything to do with the politics of our lives, the
total suppression of identity that all Black women, lesbian or not, must face.
This literary silence is again intensified by the unavailability of an autonomous
Black feminist movement through which we could fight our oppression and also
begin to name ourselves.
In a speech, "The Autonomy of Black Lesbian Women," Wilmette Brown comments upon the connection between our political reality and the literature we must invent:
Because the isolation of Black lesbian women, given that we are superfreaks, given that our lesbianism defies both the sexual identity that capital gives us and the racial identity that capital gives us, the isolation of Black lesbian women from heterosexual Black women is very profound. Very profound. I have searched throughout Black history, Black literature, whatever, looking for some women that I could see were somehow lesbian. Now I know that in a certain sense they were all lesbian. But that was a very painful search. 17
is usually the only privilege that Black women have. None of us have racial
or sexual privilege, almost none of us have class privilege; maintaining "straightness"
is our last resort. Being out, particularly out in print, is the final renunciation
of any claim to the crumbs of "tolerance" that nonthreatening "ladylike"
Black women are sometimes fed. I am convinced that it is our lack of privilege
and power in every other sphere that allows so few Black women to make the leap
that many white women, particularly writers, have been able to make in this
decade, not merely because they are white or have economic leverage, but because
they have had the strength and support of a movement behind them.
As Black lesbians we must be out not only in white society but in the Black community as well, which is at least as homophobic. That the sanctions against Black lesbians are extremely high is well illustrated in this comment by Black male writer Ishmael Reed. Speaking about the inroads that whites make into Black culture, he asserts:
In Manhattan you find people actively trying to impede intellectual debate among Afro- Americans. The powerful "liberal/radical/existentialist" influences of the Manhattan literary and drama establishment speak through tokens, like for example that ancient notion of the oneblack ideologue (who's usually a Communist), the one black poetess (who's usually a feminist lesbian).18
To Reed, "feminist"
and "lesbian" are the most pejorative terms he can hurl at a Black
woman and totally invalidate anything she might say, regardless of her actual
politics or sexual identity. Such accusations are quite effective for keeping
in line Black women writers who are writing with integrity and strength from
any conceivable perspective, but especially ones who are actually feminist and
lesbian. Unfortunately Reed's reactionary attitude is all too typical. A community
which has not confronted sexism, because a widespread Black feminist movement
has not required it to, has likewise not been challenged to examine its heterosexism.
Even at this moment I am not convinced that one can write explicitly as a Black
lesbian and live to tell about it.
Yet there are a handful of Black women who have risked everything for truth. Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, and Ann Allen Shockley have at least broken ground in the vast wilderness of works that do not exist.19 Black feminist criticism will again have an essential role not only in creating a climate in which Black lesbian writers can survive, but in undertaking the total reassessment of Black literature and literary history needed to reveal the Black woman-identified women that Wilmette Brown and so many of us are looking for.
Although I have concentrated here upon what does not exist and what needs to be done, a few Black feminist critics have already begun this work. Gloria T. Hull at the University of Delaware has discovered in her research on Black women poets of the Harlem Renaissance that many of the women who are considered "minor" writers of the period were in constant contact with each other and provided both intellectual stimulation and psychological support for each other's work. At least one of these writers, Angelina Weld Grimké, wrote many unpublished love poems to women. Lorraine Bethel, a recent graduate of Yale College, has done substantial work on Black women writers, particularly in her senior essay, "This Infinity of Conscious Pain: Blues Lyricism and Hurston's Black Female Folk Aesthetic and Cultural Sensibility in Their Eyes Were Watching God, " in which she brilliantly defines and uses the principles of Black feminist criticism. Elaine Scott at the State University of New York at Old Westbury is also involved in highly creative and politically resonant research on Hurston and other writers.
The fact that these critics are young and, except for Hull, unpublished merely indicates the impediments we face. Undoubtedly there are other women working and writing whom I do not even know, simply because there is no place to read them. As Michele Wallace states in her article "A Black Feminist's Search for Sisterhood":
We exist as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle-[or our thoughts].20
I only hope that this essay
is one way of breaking our silence and our isolation, of helping us to know
Just as I did not know where to start I am not sure how to end. I feel that I have tried to say too much and at the same time have left too much unsaid. What I want this essay to do is lead everyone who reads it to examine everything that they have ever thought and believed about feminist culture and to ask themselves bow their thoughts connect to the reality of Black women's writing and lives. I want to encourage in white women, as a first step, a sane accountability to all the women who write and live on this soil. I want most of all for Black women and Black lesbians somehow not to be so alone. This last will require the most expansive of revolutions as well as many new words to tell us bow to make this revolution real. I finally want to express how much easier both my waking and my sleeping hours would be if there were one book in existence that would tell me something specific about my life. One book based in Black feminist and Black lesbian experience, fiction or nonfiction. just one work to reflect the reality that I and the Black women whom I love are trying to create. When such a book exists then each of us will not only know better how to live, but how to dream.
1. Alice Walker, "In
Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," in Ms., May 1974, and in Southern Exposure
4, no. 4, Generations: Women in the South 1 (Winter 1977): 60-64.
2. Jerry H. Bryant, "The Outskirts of a New City," 7he Nation, November 12, 1973, p. 502.
3. Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958), p. 180. Knock on Any Door is ang1033 a novel by Black writer Willard Motley.
4. Sara Blackburn, "You Still Can't Go Home Again," New York Times Book Review, December 30, 1973, p. 3.
5. EIaine Showalter, "Literary Criticism," Review Essay, Signs 1 (Winter 1975): 460,445.
6. Ellen Moers, Literary Women: 7-he Great Writers (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1977),- Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (New York: Avon Books, 1976).
7. An article by Nancy Hoffman, "White Women, Black Women: Inventing an Adequate Pedagogy," Women's Studies Newsletter 5 (Spring 1977): 21-24, gives valuable insights into bow white women can approach the writing of Black women.
8. Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971).
9. John Domini, "Roots and Racism: An Interview with Ishmael Reed," Boston Phoenix, April 5, 1977, p. 20.
10. 0ra Williams, "A Bibliography of Works Written by American Black Women," College Language Association Journal 15 (March 1972): 355. There is an expanded book-length version of this bibliography: American Black Women in the Arts and Social Sciences: A Bibliographic Survey (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973; rev. and expanded ed., 1978).
11. John O'Brien, ed., Interviews with Black Writers (New York: Liveright, 1973), p. 201,
12. Toni Morrison, 7he Bluest Eye (1970- reprint ed., New York: Pocket Books, 1972, 1976) and Sula (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974). All subsequent references to this work will be designated in the text.
13. My sister, Beverly Smith, pointed out this connection to me.
14. Lorraine Bethel, "Conversations With Ourselves: Black Female Relationships in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love and Toni Morrison's Sula, " unpublished paper written at Yale University, 1976,47 pp. Bethel has worked from a premise similar to mine in a much more developed treatment of the novel.
15. New York Radicalesbians, "The Woman-Identified Woman," in Lesbians Speak Out (Oakland, Calif.: Women's Press Collective, 1974), p. 87.
16. EIly Bulkin, "An Interview With Adrienne Rich: Part I," Conditions: One I (April 1977): 62.
17. Wilmette Brown, "The Autonomy of Black Lesbian Women," manuscript of speech delivered July 24, 1976, in Toronto, Canada, p. 7.
18. Domini, "Roots and Racism," p. 18.
19. Audre Lorde, New York Head Shop and Museum (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974); Coal (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976); Between Our Selves (Point Reyes, Calif.: Eidolon Editions, 1976); The Black Unicorn (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).
Pat Parker, Child of Myself (Oakland, Calif.: Women's Press Collective, 197 2 and 1974); Pit Stop (Oakland, Calif.: Women's Press Collective, 1973)- Womanslaughter (Oakland, Calif.: Diana Press, 1978); Movement in Black (Oakland, Calif.: Diana Press, 1978).Ann Allen Shockley, Loving Her (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974).
There is at least one Black lesbian writers' collective, Jemima, in New York. They do public readings and have available a collection of their poems. They can be con-tacted c/o Boyce, 41-11 Parsons Boulevard, Flushing, N.Y. 11355.
20. Michele Wallace, "A Black Feminist's Search for Sisterhood," Village Voice, July 28, 1975, p. 7.