Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog


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Free Angela

ImageFYI (I love posting FYIs, if you can’t tell)– there’s a new documentary about Angela Davis that’s scheduled for limited release next weekend.  Unfortunately, Austin isn’t on the list, but I’m hoping it will make its way in our direction. Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners is directed by Shola Lynch (and produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z), and it covers Davis’s 1970 arrest on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy.  It includes interviews with Davis, and tons of other great archival footage. Shola Lynch has said this about her project (via Okayplayer)

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is a documentary movie that asks how a bookish 26-year-old philosophy professor ends up on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and an international political icon in the early 1970s. The story is a political crime drama with a love story in the middle and many questions that can’t be answered.”

Here’s the trailer:

I also strongly recommend The Black Power Mixtape, another fantastic documentary about this period (if you have Netflix, it’s available streaming).


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Dana’s Journey

As we have just finished reading Kindred, I’d like to reflect on my overall reaction to the novel. Overall I really enjoyed reading this novel. I think Octavia Butler has put together a really great story. One element that is present in a large amount of good art, literature, and film is the element of discomfort. Often the best creative works are those that pull us out of our comfort zone and make us sad, angry or uncomfortable. I experienced each of these emotions while reading this novel. I think that it is so interesting to see Dana’s experience through all of this. She goes from her comfortable life with her husband as they move into their first house together, and is thrust into the ante bellum south and is treated like a slave for months at a time. Yes, there is the fact that she can escape from time to time, but that experience would be traumatic for anybody. It’s the most extreme case of culture shock that I can imagine.

 

I also find Kevin’s roll in all of this very interesting. I agree with what we said in class the other day, I’d be interested to hear more about his life in the five years that he was stuck in the past. I also really didn’t know how to feel about Kevin through most of the book. A big part of me was mostly skeptical because of the way that men have been portrayed in the previous books we’ve read. I was definitely worried during the moments that Dana said he almost sounded like Rufus or his father, I was worried that maybe the south had rubbed off on him in the five years he was there, I was really glad when I was wrong.

 

However, there is one lingering question that I still have after reading the novel. It’s very possible that I just missed this point, but I’m still curious as to why it was that Dana had to keep traveling back to save Rufus. I understand that it probably helped her to appreciate the life she had at home, but I don’t think this was the primary point, as there was no real point of revelation in this department. I also realize that if she hadn’t been there to save Rufus all of those times, there would be no Rufus, and no Hagar, and thus, no Dana. So it is possible that she was just saving herself by saving Rufus. But part of me still feels like there’s more to why she had to go back that I’m just missing after having read the novel.  


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There and Back Again

I wanted to address Dana’s misfortune in relinquishing her arm to the past.  After wrestling free of Rufus and delivering the killing blow, only to be ensnared in the pale pink fingers on his hand, Dana is hurled forward in time “but was still caught somehow, joined to the wall as though [her] arm were growing out of it – or growing into it” (Butler 261).  A significant part of her, even after ending Rufus’s life, is irreversibly attached to his body and, in extension, the Weylin plantation itself.  “From the elbow to the ends of her fingers, [her] left arm had become apart of the wall”, the “wall” is steadfast, concrete, and unyielding (Butler 261).  The “wall” is resolute, solid, and indelible, it is the completed events of the story, the components of Dana’s ancestry which culminated in her existence.  Through bondage, rape, and generations of struggle, that world created her.  Without slavery, there would be no Kindred.

Dana’s loss of her arm to the “wall” is as much a psychological and philosophical confrontation with the past as it is a physical injury (Butler 261).  Upon visiting the plantation, now free of slavery and with her husband, she overlooks the stage of her daily tragedy while touching “her empty sleeve” (Butler 264).  “‘Why did I even want to come here”, she says, “You’d think I would have had enough of the past” (Butler 264).  Apart of Dana is missing, there is a hole, an empty space, a void previously occupied by the security of ignorance.  Dana could only read and imagine at what her ancestors endured, her time warps served to enlighten her with the awful reality of the country’s past as well as her own.  Now she is changed, and made to bear the scars and ailments.

Although Dana herself was never an overseer, rapist, or slave owner, she would not be alive if such men did not exist.  Kindred seeks, through this fantastical narrative, to examine a fictional past in an all too familiar point in American history.  Through her confrontation  Dana learns that she is susceptible to the culture she inhabits and capable of murder.  Such a realization leaves her less than when she began.

No past is untarnished, what’s important is that you learn more than what is taken away.


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We touched on this a bit in class, I just wanted to offer my own opinions on the matter. Butler stated in an interview that her objective with “Kindred” was to let readers “experience slavery.” Superficially, this might come across as a lofty claim, but there was far more to it than a boast of writing prowess. In fact, that had naught to do with the matter. I think Butler made a very careful decision in involving a character from the future anomalously transported to the past. This character, closer to our present day, is of course meant to be the link for the reader, the avatar by which our modern-day understandings are sent back in time to an era of even greater discrimination and racial bigotry. (Not I said “even more.” I’m not saying our era lacks discrimination and bigotry, just that we’ve progressed since the grim times of slave-holding.) Having a character come from a roughly modern time frame allows for the reader to establish a connection with this seemingly alien era. For that is often a problem with reading of the past: we do not connect with it, we see it as the past and recognize its influence, but often there is an emotional distance. Painful as the past can be to consider the past, we cannot actually, physically feel the agony of ancestors. A book like “Kindred” allows the reader a close and personal glimpse into this world through a clever plot device, rendering it less a “bygone era” and more the horrific sequence of events it truly was. This employing of a modern character, a solid link to the past, both affords us a more palpable picture of a tragic period in our history, and demonstrates how that past can and does resonate startlingly within our modern lives.


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The Degendering of the Body during Lashing

After his death, I found Dana’s perceptions of Tom Weylin as a man and a slaveholder rather interesting.  One particular assertion about Weylin that stuck with me occurs when Rufus sends Dana to the fields with Fowler as overseer.  During her first attempt, she is only able to partially cut a stalk.  As a punishment or motivation, depending on how you look at it, Fowler whips her across her back.  Then according to Dana, “Unimpressed, he hit me across the breasts” (Butler 211).  What I find particularly intriguing about this moment is the comparison that Dana makes between Fowler and Weylin.  She does not hesitate in saying, “Even Tom Weylin hadn’t hit slave women that way – any more than he’d kicked slave men in the groin.  Fowler was an animal” (211).  After reading this comparison, I could not stop myself from wondering what, if any, is the significance that Fowler would lash Dana across her breasts.  My reasoning for this act being symbolic was the fact the Fowler gets deemed an animal because of it, as opposed to Weylin who, despite his transgressions, is never called an animal.  To me, this seemed to suggest that “hitting below the belt” was an act viler than regular slave lashings/punishments.

After today’s class, I began thinking of how this scene in Kindred could work in conversation with Angela Davis’ Women, Race, & Class. Specifically, I was curious if the idea that, “where work was concerned, strength and productivity under the threat of the whip outweighed considerations of sex” could be useful in illuminating the interaction between Dana and Fowler (Davis 6).  Furthermore, I considered the argument that “when it was profitable to exploit them [women] as if they were men, they were regarded, in effect, as genderless” (6).  When taking into consideration the idea that in the fields (i.e., a place where all slaves were equally profitable) female salves where seen as genderless, I believe Fowler’s lashing of Dana’s breasts could be seen as a method of degendering her body.  When reacting to the lashing, Dana automatically equates a man’s groin to a woman’s breasts, suggesting that these two physical features can be considered gender-specific.  That is, at a basic level we know that a man is a man because he has a penis and that a woman is a woman because she has breasts. Therefore, should a man not have a penis (or have a dysfunction with said penis) or should a woman not have ideal breasts, then they could potentially be seen as not being part of that gender.  In a similar manner, by marring Dana’s breasts, Fowler is in a way demonstrating his disregard for Dana as a true woman.  He is taking on physical aspect that signals Dana as a woman and damaging it.  In a way, it is like adding insult to injury such that a back-lashing is not enough to illustrate to Dana that she is like any other field salve (man or woman), so he feels the need to mark Dana in a place that simultaneously reminds her that she is a woman but that her womanhood does not exempt her from the harsh treatment of those who are more powerful than her.  In essence, Fowler’s particular treatment of Dana could be read as a lesson to teach her the she is a slave and nothing more.                      


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The supposed problem of a matriarchal family structure

One thing I found extremely interesting – and troubling – in Davis’s article was its discussion of the perception of a matriarchal black family structure. As I read, I realized what is so problematic about documents like the Moynihan report and its supporters’ views, beyond their already disturbing implication that the black family’s supposed deterioration is completely divorced of any larger economic context and should be worked out by the black community itself: it is the assumption that this family structure is inherently doomed because it is matriarchal.

If we’re to follow the idea that this family structure originated in slavery, it’s worth examining Davis’s idea that there is a “spirit of independence and self-reliance [that] Black women necessarily developed” (14).  As she mentions, women were already expected to be “masculine” when they performed their work (11), and their children and husbands could be sold without regard for family ties. It’s here that Kindred offers a more in-depth, personalized understanding of how this might have created a necessary self-reliance. Sarah is probably the best example of this; over the course of the book, she watches three of her four children, as well as her husband, get sold. However, in order to survive plantation life, and monitor the wellbeing of Carrie, she is forced to overcome these obstacles and largely rely on and find strength within herself.

It is interesting that scholars lamented the fact that slave women supposedly did not have a sense of subjugation to male authority, without examining why these women might have been more “masculine” or why this sense of self-reliance came about.

Though, as Davis explores, slave families may have been more egalitarian, the common perception is that they were matriarchal, and that something was “wrong” with them because of this. Why? Why is it easier to ignore, as Davis says, “the racial that produced unemployment, shoddy housing, inadequate education, and substandard medical care” that have heavily contributed to problems in the black community (13)? Why is it easier to place the onus of this on women, who are supposedly too powerful, not submissive enough, emasculating, etc.? I’m not sure if this entry makes much sense…just some ideas that were getting thrown around in my head today.


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Rape As A Tactic

While reading the Davis article, I was especially struck by her discussion of rape as a tactic tactic, both in vietnam and with slaves. The use of rape to assert power is not news to me; I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I knew it had been used in wars before. However, as I thought more about it in class today, I realized that this is still true for our society today. Even if we are not slaves or victims of war, we rape is still used as a sort of war tactic. Even when women are not raped, we know of the presence and likelihood that it might happen, which makes our actions stay in line with those who have survived. While it might seem like a stretch–who plays the part of the master / US army? – I think the outcomes are similar.

 

As I made a list earlier, I realized that rape and the threat of rape keeps women from many things, especially things such as walking around at night or driving with men that we don’t know well. Personally, I often feel very uncomfortable in situations with any man that I don’t know well. I know that I am more sensitive than most women, but many women have variations of this fear, and it all stems from the fear of rape. While it isn’t used to make us do things, it does serve to enforce power and keep women in a place of being timid and afraid. I certainly am not trying to say that women today are treated the same as slaves in the past; but I am trying to draw a connection between the survivors of today and many years ago.