Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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


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A Contrarian Chimes In

I haven’t really known what to write for this first blog post, since I generally analyze literature for discussion papers, as opposed to non- fiction articles. So the next best thing for me to discuss is my reaction to things covered in our last two class discussions. The biggest thing that I reacted to, and what I want to focus on in this blog post, is the brainstorming session that we had on Monday. During the class, I liked that we were discussing actual ways to help bring about political and social changes, trying to figure out the logistics to bring awareness to this social issue still residing within our culture today.

Unfortunately, much of the ideas suggested seemed a bit idealistic in my experience. While holding panel discussions and lunch tables are really good ideas, they won’t help spread interest and awareness about the existence of these issues outside of the people already interested in them. Until we can bring outsiders in and make them feel like a part of the movement- as opposed to feeling attacked by it (re: Othering the majority)- the purpose of salons such as these will be moot, as there will be no one to attend them. They’re really great for bringing people together who are already interested in the issue, fostering discussion, exchanging ideas and brainstorming steps to be taken in order to bring about acceptance and reformation of the issue, but to get people there, we have to go to them. Acquaint them with the issues and why they’re important (Get people to care who might not be effected by the issues, or even harmed by them) on their own turf, in their own terms. If we can get that to happen, the rest of the suggestions in the brainstorming session will finally be able to have the effect they were intended to have.


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fetishization

I’ve been struggling to settle on a topic for this first blog post, not because of a lack of options, but rather due to a wealth of them; each day during class, it seems there are a million little tangents I want to explore and things that could easily be discussed further. Of course, as soon as I get home, I forget half of the points I want to make/questions I want to ask, but one of the themes/topics that has stayed wedged in my brain since we discussed it a few sessions ago is that of the fetishization of black women. We discussed how black women’s bodies – when considered at all – are considered as fragments; beyond this, they are (over)sexualized or made a spectacle of — the part, the imagined object, becomes more valuable or more coveted than the whole; the fetishization, like other modes of oppression,  ultimately negates personhood, as it instead favors a piece, an object, rather than the whole, the soul behind it. While processing the absolutely disgusting implications of this – that individuals, but also a group of people can be simultaneously (however falsely) ‘desired’ and negated seems to accurately summarize the overarching oppressive powers that we have discussed – only this power may deem which part of you (in this case, ‘you’ being a black woman) is valuable, is worthy, only this power may enjoy certain aspects of you. In short, the fetishization concept deftly (and tragically) highlights the sick flaws that the systems of oppression produce.

While considering this, I was also reading a Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh for my Capstone course. In the novel, Chabon – a ‘problematic fave’ if ever there was one, to be sure – describes a party that his white protagonist is whisked into, and the whole passage reads in a leering, fetishizing tone that made me queasy upon reading it: “she had an eagling kind of beauty, hooked and dark, and mean about the eyes…I stayed [at the party], and surveyed, and wondered at all the handsome women of many lands…” (Chabon, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, 26-27) The passage goes on, even describing the music and settings of the party as “large and dark” as well as “villainous” and “ornate”. The repetition of these somewhat discordant adjectives suggests an odd fascination, a fetishization, really, of the ‘others’ that this character encounters – indeed, later in the novel, this party is referred to as a “U.N. Party”, which again, forces an uncomfortable discourse of exoticizing (rather than merely depicting or actually admiring) the unfamiliar, the “rare” group. I apologize if this comes off as a bit of a digression, but within the course of a novel, this is truly an uncomfortable, glaring halt that stops to describe women of color as ornamental, foreign, and unexpected. There is no true interaction between the protagonist and the women at this party, either; he just gawks at them. I kept coupling this passage with our discussion of fetishization in my head, as it seemed an immediate example of the kind of praise of part – rather than whole, rather than person – that we had been exploring.


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the connectivity of oppression

Today in class we discussed the issue of drug use in black neighborhoods. self destructive drug use was discussed as being catalyzed by internalized rage. This conversation reminded me of the nonfiction book Random Family, which is a novel written by journalist, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Random family took LeBlanc more than ten years to research and write and is the art produced from two women and their families living their life in the Bronx.

The book documented struggles that both of the families had with dealing and using heroin (among many other drugs). It often discussed internalized racism, sexism, and self hate. However, I also noticed that many of the family members had to accept alternative/illegal economic opportunities because very few legal job opportunities are within the reach of low income black individuals, especially in the 1990s. It documented how difficult it was to support a large family, with many children, on minimum wage. The economic pressures often caused them to become involved in the drug market. Dealing drugs payed extremely well and the individuals could easily find a point of entry into the market.

This is also connected to the prison industrial complex, which was discussed in class. Many of the black men in Random Family fell victim to this social problem regardless of how involved in drug trade they were. Often they were taken away from their young and sometimes infant children leaving the mothers to have to pay for everything. This has an adverse effect on the children’s mental and physical health as their quality of life is severely degraded. This is indicative of a cyclical issue as generations of children and their potential are stunted by oppression.

 


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My Introduction into a Black Woman’s Struggles

In my Black Women Writers class we started off by reading some articles written at different time periods, by different African American women. These women were interested in bringing attention to their cause it being either: the civil rights movement of black women, black women writers or black women feminist writers.

Barbara Smith wrote “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” which was written during 1977, and during this time black women writers were not recognized or looked at by other writers. Barbara Smith was trying to bring attention onto a subject that had never been given much thought or respect, and from the very beginning she says, “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.” (Barbara Smith) She describes how black women writers are oppressed by using words such as “invisibility”, “silence”, and “blindness” to describe their situation. Smith explains that since they are women and black and feminists that they are facing more problems, and they have to face these problems all at once at a time when no one really understands what they are truly facing. (Barbara Smith)

I also read Ann duCille’s “The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminists Studies”. This had a bit more explanations of why black women were not really understood, and due to this missed knowledge more problems were caused. It brought this new idea of “Other Otherness” where they could not connect to other groups, and where duCille described as a “three way intersection” where they were always in danger of being run over by traffic (duCille). There was an abundance of problems that black women writers had to face by themselves because no one else outside of their group could fully understand. duCille put a lot of emphasis on the fact that not a lot of people tried to talk about race and gender from a black woman’s perspective, but instead of being informed and trying to understand fully they made assumptions, and tried to fit a black woman’s world into their own experiences. duCille explicitly explains that critics are trying to put black women feminist writers in a box that they don’t belong to when she says, “…that in order to grieve “universally,” to be “concrete,” to have “larger meaning,” the flesh of these bones ultimately always must be white or male” (duCille).

These articles have brought to my attention details and realities that I have never thought of before, and made me angry that this prejudice was so strong it pushed an essential group to the side to be forgotten. These issues should not be pushed to the side, or ignored because to hope to overcome this we must always talk about it.

Bibliography:

Smith, Barbara. “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” Jstor.org. University of Illinois Press, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

duCille, Ann. “The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies.” Jstor.org. University of Illinois Press, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.


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Invisible woMan

Currently I am taking a class (with a very long name) called: “Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” in essence, it is a case study on prison narratives. So far we have been working our way through Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison. Bear with me here when I discuss a book from another class, it connects, I swear. The title, Invisible Man, is apt because the reader does not know the narrator’s name which emphasizes his loss of identity, therefore his invisibility. Other characters (specifically white) also do not treat him like he is fully human. But in my opinion the “man,” the narrator, in this title is not truly the most invisible, he has a voice (his narration), he has a place in the novel, he learns lessons, has conversations, and does actual things. In my opinion, (at least in the first half of the novel because that is as far as I am in…) the women are the most invisible. The mentions of women in the book are so superficial and rare that they could be counted on almost one hand and the words about them on two. When I say “mentions” I mean that sometimes there is only a couple of descriptive words before the narrator’s focus switches to his own thoughts or to another’s (specifically a man’s) actions.

The invisibility of women in Invisible Man is pertinent to this course because their invisibility can help one understand at least in some partiality the frustrations that were expounded upon in the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) and in Barbara Smith’s article “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977). Although the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s was seen as fighting for equality for all, it seems counterintuitive that Invisible Man, an artifact of the time, a narrative piece devoted to discussing racism, contains only one gender’s struggles.


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Be Freaking Loud

blog #1

So initially it took me a while to figure out what I was going to write about. It’s tough to find something insightful when you’re preaching to the choir. Then I remembered an interesting thing I learned in my race, ethnicity, communication class with Dr. Underwood–phenomenal class btw. Here it is.
In the Combahee River Collective, Smith acknowledges their struggle with black men regarding solidarity. In my other class we talked about the Prison Industrial Complex and mentioned the question of, “Where have all the black men gone?” Well clearly they haven’t fallen off the face of the earth. They’ve just been put in a cage and the key has been thrown away. 1 in 4 black men are arrested every day. In Chicago black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. Sorry to digress.. The article we read last semester talked about a silence from black women when this issue was brought up. (internalized oppression anyone?) Either the women are in denial of they have just come to accept it. This is unfortunate and counterintuitive to the movement of black freedom. While I can sympathize with these women, to me silence is surrender. So the only solution I can think of is to keep talking. Always. Which is a common theme in our brainstorming for solutions to “end” racism, but it cannot be stressed enough.
Okay side note LOL when I was back in my hometown, (ugh) —brownsville, tx— I don’t remember how, but I sprung up a conversation about racism with my boyfriend and personal trainer during our workout. Of course he said that he didn’t wanna talk about such a touchy subject but I assured him there was no way I’d be offended and that this was why we should definitely have this talk :-). In the end he kept saying, ”It’s a dog eat dog world.” He was asking me what he thought I could do about it. Why talk about it, if there’s nothing you can do? WELL, as I huffed and puffed, I gave him my two cents..or I yakked his ear off but anyhow I stressed the dire need for dialogue about racism to continue happening ESPECIALLY since it’s such a “touchy” subject. Conversations lead to chatrooms, from chatrooms to books, and so on. And do you know what he said? What is a book gonna do. WELL my bf proceeded to tell him that Uncle Tom’s Cabin ended slavery. (not truly but it made a huge impact!) So I concur, talking to people about uncomfortable issues is essential to making any moves forward in the black empowerment movement. Like someone said in class, this is a fight. So don’t think it’s going to come easy. Silence speaks louder than words and in this case that is not what we want. so be FREAKING LOUD.