Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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

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Janis Joplin and the Rejection of Heteronormativism

The fluid nature of the relationship between Celie and Shug reminded me of one of my favorite blues artists, Janis Joplin. She was one of the first famous, vocal advocates of non-heteronormativism and a member of the free love movement. In the video I have linked, the first person brought up on stage during her song, “Piece Of My Heart” is a woman that she specifically picks out. Even though her lyrics are directed at a person using “he” pronouns, she shows her rejection of the notion that only a man and woman can share romantic relations by doing this, helped make bisexuality and homosexuality more mainstream, and did wonders for the self-expression of women by brandishing tattoos on her breast and wearing wild hairstyles.

She also pushed against the objectification of women by not pandering to the typical standards of beauty or femininity that America held then and still holds today. Easily heard and seen in the video, Joplin doesn’t sound or look like what an extremely successful and popular female artist of today does, but many people could, and can still, identify with being cast outside the norm of society. She died in 1970 at age 27, but if she hadn’t, what could she have continued to do for gay rights, feminism, and the artistic expression of women?




As I was reading Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”, I was struck by the question: just how many women throughout history have been denied reaching their full potential?

In the piece, Walker talks about how black women of the past were never allowed to reach their full potential. Instead, they were seen as next to nothing, unable to create things or be fantastic in any way. She says, “Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society, “the mule of the world,” because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else – everyone else – refused to carry.” (pg 405)

She brings up many powerful women, including Phillis Wheatley and her own mother, in order to bring home the point: all of these women could have been so much more if society hadn’t been forcing them down at every turn.

Walker asks, “How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write?” (pg 403)

Things aren’t that bad today, but we still have a ways to go. For instance, if a woman is working as a nurse or a stay at home mom or a secretary, no one says they aren’t reaching their full potential. But a man in the same job probably would be told that more than once. Why is that?


Movie/Book Combos

I wanted to talk about something a little more simple tonight. Being that I was not in class today, I was not able to finish the movie with y’all in class, which of course I am very upset about. Nonetheless, I had seen enough. Meaning that I have seen enough of movies not getting it right. I do think that the movie The Color Purple was good, but I truly felt that something was missing. I think that not a lot was cut from the movie, but the order of things was just a little off, don’t you think?

I especially think that the relationship between Shug and Celie was downplayed heavily in the movie compared to the book. Their first encounter they had together was much less explicit in the movie rather than the book, this includes not only their intimate relationship, but also their friendship. I think that of course this has to happen (insert sarcasm) though because of the time the movie was produced. During this time period, female relationships were not socially accepted, so this would make sense as to why Spielberg had to produce the movie the way he did, but that does not make it right. I would be offended if I were Walker. She wrote about these things for a reason, because they happened, no matter what the public thinks or not. She is trying to shed light on this fact. I don’t know, maybe I am taking it too personal, but if I wrote a novel and wanted certain aspects to stand out, I certainly would not want anything to be downplayed or cut from the film at all.

On that note, it seems that most of the time this is how the world NOW works, probably not so much back then (that the general public would much rather see the movie over reading the book). One does not get the FULL story, quite literally actually, if they just watch the movie. SO many things are cut out people!! READ!

For example, just to give an easier distinction for people who will have most likely either seen or read these young adult books: books such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, Water For Elephants, Lovely Bones, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades Of Grey (yes judge me), Gone Girl, Beautiful Creatures, Friday Night Lights etc.. most all of these book/movies will have left something out, or even added something in because that is, I am assuming, Hollywood’s way of making money, or making a statement of some kind.

For those of you who have not read or seen these movies here is my opinion of them: Lovely Bones is probably the only one that I will say that the movie is better, other than that the books of these book/movie combos, the books are better. Which is usually what happens ALL the time. I think that the general public already knows this, and I know that not everyone has time to sit down and read (which is probably another reason this day and age people just succumb to watch the movie), but reading is obviously better probably 99.8% of the time. 🙂 I know I am also biased because I am an English major, but I usually read the book and then see the movie, and there are even some movies out there that I refuse to see because I have not read the book yet. This is just me and my humble opinion, so take it as you wish. 🙂

Also, random thought: Big Hero 6 is a GREAT film. It is so cute!! I highly recommend it! I am sad to say that I did not know that it was comic book before it was a film, but I am not too into comic books, so this is why I did not hear about it. I will get on that though, reading the comic book!

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recognizing and elevating women’s artistry

I commented on the post titled Bell Hooks / Angela Davis and provided a quote from Hillary Clinton that reads, “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world”.

I am again reminded of this quote upon my reading of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. Walker discusses the constraints that were (and still are) placed on Black women. She discusses the legally enforced illiteracy of Black Americans in earlier America but also the social discouragement of Black,  female, and Black women artistry.

Walker discusses the same idea that Hillary Clinton became famous for saying (ironic isn’t it?) except she goes further by discussing how Black women, in particular, have not been recognized for their talent or allowed to hone and express their artistry. I feel the following quote expresses the same idea that Clinton expressed but is successful because of her specific recognition of Black women:

“The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short-Story Writers (over a period of centuries), who died with their real gifts stifled within them” (Walker 403).

I was also struck by her discussion on how Black women expressed their artistry, considering that they were so confined by social norms and gender roles. She discusses the quilt that hangs in the Smithsonian Institution that is credited to “‘an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago'” (Walker 407). I was reminded of one of my favorite feminist art pieces titled “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago.

“The Dinner Party” is a giant triangular banquet table with thirty-nine place settings that honor historic women whose accomplishments went mostly unrecognized because of our male dominated history recitations. The table is also resting upon beautiful shining tiles with 999 names of other important women. Chicago purposefully chose artistic mediums that are traditionally associated with women in our culture- such as weaving, quilting, needlework, ceramics, china painting, cooking / homemaking, etc. Her use of these mediums elevates their artistic status and celebrates these skills as they so deserve.

Here is a picture of the full piece as well as the place setting of Sojourer Truth. 8099798678_d0f12165ab_z


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Pronouns, on Pronouns, on Pronouns

While reading The Color Purple, I noticed that Walker was very particular on her use of pronouns and possessive pronouns. One example is when Shug and Celie have a conversation about God and whether or not God is gendered. Shug uses “it” as the pronoun for God: “God ain’t a he or a she, but a It” (Walker 195); While Celie uses “he” for God because she feels betrayed that he has ignored her: “the God I been praying and writing to is a man” (Walker 192). To Shug, men and women are inwardly the same that there is innately love and good in both genders. While Celie understands the masculine God as perpetuating her oppression; therefore, she is unable to love God in a way that is beneficial for her. Eventually, she readjusts her understanding and begins to see God as an “It,” like Shug, as well as transcendent.

Another important use of pronouns is when Celie talks about her children, Adam and Olivia. In letters sent to Nettie and also in the final letter Celie sends to God/the world, she refers to her children as “our” children, her and Nettie’s children. But also because the final letter is to God, the second person point of view of the letter, and the direct conversation with God that the letter is proposing, changes the meaning of “our” to also mean God and her children. This idea ties into the dual narratives of Nettie’s life in Africa and Celie’s life in the United States having similar themes and ultimately posits that Africans and African Americans are one community, because everyone is God’s children.


Pipe-Smoking and Pant-Sewing

As The Color Purple has progressed, I have increasingly been interested in the gender fluidity of the novel, which is especially apparent within the last 30 pages. I first noticed it as a major pattern with Celie and her pant sewing business. Not only are pants during this period seen as specifically a male garment, but running a business was a man’s job. So the fact that she was doing both was really impressive. Then it turns out that she and Nettie were left their childhood home and the general store in town, so Ceile is once more a business owner.

What I’m trying to say is that the gender attributes that are strictly held in white society are not by the characters in this book. Sure, Harpo* was expected to beat his wife and have her mind him and when she retaliated with equal force, he sought to cover up his bumps and bruises and saving face by telling his father tall tales. But for the most part, gender norm violations are not made a big deal of. They are what they are the fact of their existence is accepted without batting too many eyelashes. And that’s what’s astounding about this: Its actually a very gender fluid book, and it doesn’t make a big deal about it. These are the kinds of books that will help pave the way to accepting gender fluidity fully into our culture in the future because people will be able to see what it would look like, see it as a normal thing.

The best illustration of this idea is one sentence on 272: “Now us (Celie & Mr. _____) sit sewing and talking and smoking our pipes.” The two of them are sitting on the porch, passing time pleasantly, not worrying who has the power. Celie narrates this scene nonchalantly, stating as fact and not making a big deal of the fact that they were passing time doing girly things (sewing) and manly things (smoking pipes) at the same time.

*Sidenote: I’ve been wondering something for the entire book- Is Harpo named after Oprah? I’m pretty sure that there is a correlation between them somehow. Oprah’s company is named Harpo Studios and Oprah spelled backwards is Harpo. The Color Purple was printed in 1982 and Harpo Studios was created in 1986.

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God and the White Missionary Community.

One thing that really fired me up about The Color Purple was the way in which she so eloquently portrays the falsity of the White Christian Community, particularly as she brings into character the missionaries and Corrine and Samuel’s aunts.

The women are crafted to sit around and throw small tea gatherings in order to discuss their marvelous feats and adventures during their days with the savages, tales that Corrine and Nettie could only laugh about in stifled giggles. Personally, I roiled in the moment at which their lies and exaggerations were exposed by the young Harvard Scholar, who, u[on the beginning of Aunt Theodosia’s display, “had heard this tale before and was not prepared to endure it a second time” (237).

The reaction of Aunt Theodosia is priceless, and Walker’s commentary upon the situation provides key insight. As silence smacks the room flat, she comments that “There’s something in all of us that wants a medal for what we have done. That wants to be appreciated. And Africans certainly don’t deal in medals. They hardly seem to care whether missionaries exist” (237). Thus the great irony of the missionary women and their mission… Rather than actually travel to Africa to help the natives, they are there only to inflate their own egos and find comfort in a lie.

The white woman upon the ship as Samuel and Nettie return holds a similar space, who cultivated a pious interest in heathens, Fooled her parents. Fooled the Missionary Society” (230).

I wonder a lot why Walker included such characters in the book; what point she was trying to make about God and the Christian community in general. Perhaps she is displaying this way of raping God for self gain in order to parallel how the white community sees the world, exposing the beauty of a God that becomes “stars, trees, sky, peopled. everything” through the lips of Celie (285).

Curious for your thoughts —