Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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



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.


2 thoughts on “fetishization

  1. Not at all a digression! In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison presents an argument that I will badly paraphrase as, “all literature is about race,” even literature that purports to not be about it (she says it much more beautifully, so if you’re interested check it out).

    I’m wondering whether the scene you mention could be categorized as a classic case of postmodern complicitous critique. Even as Chabon’s work might demonstrate awareness of the problematic fetishizing gaze, the text can’t help but participate in it. In my capstone course in the fall, we discussed some similar stuff with exoticized women of color in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s interesting to me that postmodern irony can’t quite escape that which it claims to mock.

  2. I really like that concept of all literature being about race (whether or not it actually endeavors to be) – that is extremely poignant, especially considering what (or rather, who) is omitted. The point about ‘postmodern complicitous critique’ absolutely fascinates me — I wouldn’t have considered that, at least not here, and but I’m sure that explains a lot of (white) authors’ forays into awkwardly discussing or describing race. Unfortunately, as far as Chabon goes, I don’t think this is the case. I’ve only read two of his other works thus far (Summerland, his YA novel, and Telegraph Avenue, his most recent novel {2012, I think?}), but even in his later work, Telegraph Avenue, in which two of the main characters are black, his writing about them is stilted, awkward, and ultimately token-esque. Briefly, biographically, Chabon grew up in a very intentional planned community, where each house/family was situated as black-white-black-white [referred to on his Wikipedia page – lazy research, I know, and I apologize, as “a progressive planned living community in which racial, economic, and religious diversity were actively fostered.”]; after leaving this harmonious, optimistic place, Chabon tried to seek and establish that same sort of harmony. His writing tries to do the same – his writing about race (and race relations) is weirdly optimistic but almost always comes off as clunky and awkward, inelegant, or stilted from not knowing how to bridge the gap of tension that talking about/describing race creates. The tone rarely seems mature or fully developed, it is something that he chips away at from an observer’s point of view, and that observer almost always comes off as fetish-y rather than narrative. Having said all this, now (which again is absurd in its specificity and I apologize), this is certainly I’ll keep a watch for/examine more closely as I press on in reading his earlier works.

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