Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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


A poem to connect themes of motherhood, beauty standards, silence, oppression, etc

As I was reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, I noticed that a lot of the characters (or characters’ friends) had fractured relationships with food that were rather flippantly mentioned. This is particularly evident in “Jellyfish,” as it seems everyone is concerned with Eva’s health, body, and eating habits. The more I thought about this theme running through most of the short stories, the more I was thinking about the phrase “shrinking women,” and realized where I had first heard it used so brilliantly:

In this poem, Lily Myers easily brilliantly approaches a lot of the topics and themes we’ve covered in class (and connected Evans’ work to today): she describes unwittingly picking up on constrained eating habits for her mother, which is something she either “mimics or resents,” without wanting to do either; talks about the growth of men, and how they are allowed, even expected, to occupy space (which made me think of Harpo in The Color Purple), then how these men leave and women are left to deal with the void (something we see in “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, AmericanahSilver manifests differently in each, but is definitely there), and most importantly addresses the fact that these ways of controlling, of containing (calling back to the oppression of controlling images) are learned – they are learned and reinforced, even once we are aware of them. This poem beautifully encompasses the themes we’ve covered throughout the semester, especially as it highlights that men and women come from – and thus are taught – “worlds of difference”. It is achingly relevant, and though it wasn’t something we covered in class, I can’t separate it from what we’ve read. There is one key difference, though: it seems to me that a lot of the characters we’ve read this semester have started out shrinking, if not shrunk, but then we’ve watched them get to break the cycle, and they learn to grow. While the poem catches a lot of the insidious themes, it forgets that resilience is also something that is learned, a type of growth that happens – and we have seen a lot of resilience this semester, too, in direct opposition to the forces that create this ‘shrinkage’.

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Toni Morrison lets us into her life

Today I read Toni Morrison’s interview for The New York Times Magazine. She talks about her newest book, God Help the Child, who she writes for, and her hopes and fears. She even reveals that every good story ends with the acquisition of knowledge.

Morrison explains that she is interested in “writing without the gaze, without the white gaze”. She wants all types of people to read her work and think about the people she breaths life into with her words. She explains that there is a limit to a white audience’s reception, that “you can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you”.

She talks a lot about the black arts movement in activist terms, therapeutic terms, and in historical terms.

She reveals that the purpose of black writing is not to explain black life to the world but it is often a useful tool for therapeutic growth and rebirth. She explains that black literature is “how we pray… how we escape… how we hurt… how we repent… how we move on”.

She also connects the black arts movement to activist work. She reveals in her interview that she considers the editing and publishing of black geniuses to be her contribution to the civil rights movement. I would have expected her to say that her personal writing is her contribution but she explains that our world does not need solitary heroes but a “heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious”.

I found her ending statement to be extremely relevant to our Black Women writers class. She explained that she has received criticism for writing on past civil right denials and traumas, like slavery and segregation. She explains that even though she is writing for black people, she still hopes that her works remind those that need it most that they cannot easily turn their back on this country’s inherited history. Morrison is fighting against all of those people that want to look away because her writing focuses on those topics that “American’s don’t like to talk about or are incapable of talking about in a lot of ways”.

One of the moments in the interview in which I felt Morrison soften was when she talked about her sister, Lois. The interviewer asked her if she and her sister were close and the interviewer “got an eye roll that was so sharp it chopped down the question… ‘My sister?’ she finally said. ‘I need her'”. I fell deeper in love with Toni Morrison after this humanizing response. Even the seemingly strongest fighters of a valiant revolution need to depend on their sisters.

“What Toni Morrison Saw”

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah for New York Times Magazine, 4.12.15

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The Short Story as a Form of Not So Short Activism

The short story is a unique medium to give and receive narrative. There becomes an obvious and almost anxious need to quickly write about the characters/become involved as a reader with the protagonists and characters in the story. Reading Danielle Evans’ stories in Before you Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, she has the art of involving the reader down. First of all, easily, as a reader I become involved and cared about the characters. However, what is shocking about Evans’ stories is actually not specifically her mastery of starting the narrative, but the way she ends each story. Most of the stories, end at an extreme point in the main character’s life. Novels take half of the book to get to that point and the other half, the reader sees how the character deals with it.

In the last short story in the collection, “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” the protagonist’s best friend, Geena is sitting at the curb of their school waiting for the police to come, while Crystal (the protagonist) is running away because they accidentally set fire to the graduation ceremony stage. THE END.

Of course, as a reader I was struck and kept thinking, what happened to Geena? and also what type of person is Crystal now? I have not read too many short stories that would be put on the pedestal of literature, but from what I can recall, they did not usually end on this type of note. A note of confusion and questioning.

Evans’ may create this type of narrative, so that the reader is required to be involved in the story. Instead of wrapping everything in the narrative up in a nice bow, it becomes a necessity for the reader to question the narrative and wonder about it. With this questioning, Evans becomes an instigator of new thoughts and beliefs–of course fairly slowly. Making a reader critically think is amazing and of course beneficial to the reader’s mind and to society as a whole–slowly changing perceptions of situations.

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Toni Morrison Modes between “Beloved” and “God Help the Child”

We read Beloved at the beginning of the semester and the group presenting on it noted that Toni Morrison was coming out with a new novel this very semester. I immediately pre-ordered it, arguing that since I would be working in the literary world this summer, I should know what this legendary author had recently published. Well, this same book, God Help the Child, came in last Friday and I was pleasantly surprised. Not so much the actual novel, although it is quite good, but more because I had completely forgotten about ordering it.

I am only 40-ish pages into the novel, but already I can see parallel themes between it and Beloved. Most notably is the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. The child, Bride, is a dark “blue-black” color but her mother, Sweetness, is high yellow and unable to treat her like a daughter because of this. Similar to Sethe and Beloved, Sweetness argues that she acts the way she does in reaction to the world around her. She acts coolly toward Bride, telling her to call her “Sweetness” instead of “Mother” in order to disconnect herself from the girl and to teach Bride about the harshness of the racist world around her.

Other than the strained mother-daughter relationships, there is also the matter of sexual assault. Early in the novel, we learn of a court case Bride was involved in as a child. One of her teachers (a person in power, like schoolteacher) was charged and found guilty of child molesting. One interesting quote was that she used “fruit as bait.” It’ll be interesting if this symbolism continues elsewhere.

One final, unrelated, theme I have noted is the real/natural vs. fake/synthetic beauty. Bride grows up to be a makeup exec, selling synthetic beauty to other women, yet she presents herself only in white, wearing no makeup and no jewelry, so that only her natural beauty is seen. Feeding into this idea of real versus fake, there is a theme of metamorphosis of the characters. “Bride” is actually a given name/identity that she gave herself when she was about 16. Before that her name was Lula Ann which begs the question: which one is her real identity and which one is fake? “Sweetness” as opposed to “Mother” is a similar question of identity and when Bride reacquaints herself with her molester after she is released from prison, there is a sudden snap between the submissive prison inmate to a crazed violent attacker, which causes me to wonder if the submission was merely a defense mechanism to survive 25 years of being locked up or if her spirit was actually broken, like Sophia’s.

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Splitting the Vote

When my dad was a senior in high school, he took a government class. The class had to elect a president and, before the speeches, the girls nominated the most popular girl and the boys nominated their most likely candidate. A head count revealed that there were 18 girls and only 15 boys. So, the cleverest boy promptly nominates another girl. The boys look at him in consternation while the girls look amused, thinking maybe he had a crush on her. Only later, after the speeches, did it become apparent that this third nominee was going to split the vote. The boys all voted for the boy and the girls couldn’t be cruel enough to vote as a block for just one candidate, nor did anyone think fast enough to withdraw from the race. So the girls split down the middle and the boy won. The girls were being kind and the boys luckily had one clever boy among them.

I was reminded of this story by Roxane Gay’s article “Bad Feminist”. In it, she brings up one of the main problems I had with feminism when I first heard of it. There are so many definitions for it! There’s trans-exclusionary feminism. There’s conservative feminism. There’s feminine feminism. There’s the stereotype of what people think feminists look like. And everyone thinks their own way is the one and only “right” way.

This movement comes from a good place. Of course women and men should have equal rights. But if things continue the way they have and the movement keeps dividing itself, it will never work. And then we’ll have to have a male president in government class. We can’t let that happen again.

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Lessons for Virgin Girls

Danielle Evan’s book of short stories Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self starts off with the story “Virgins”. In the story, there are three main characters: Erica (the narrator), Jasmine (Erica’s best friend) and Michael (Erica’s other best friend). While reading the story, the reader gets a sense of what it is like to be a  young Black girl-specifically how being a young girl and being Black can intersect.

First Lesson: Safety can be created by the presence of a man and safety can be taken away by the presence of a man.

The story opens with Erica, Jasmine and Michael hanging out at the pool belonging to Mr. Thompson, their past elementary school principal. Erica notes that it may seem weird to the reader that she and Jasmine hang out with Michael. He is a guy and he has a group of guys that he could easily hang out with. Erica explains in an effort to clear the confusion and justify this type of friendship:

We hung out with him because we figured it was easier to have a boy around than not to. Strangers usually thought one of us was with him, and they didn’t know which, so they didn’t bother either of us. When you were alone, men were always wanting something from you.

Though Michael is a peer, he serves as a protective figure for the girls. As young teenagers they understand that safety is associated with a male figure. Erica says that strangers will bother them if Michael is not there. She specifies that these strangers are men, men who always want something. This “something” is left to the imagination of the reader making the reader fear what this could actually be.

Erica knows the reverse is true as well. Erica knows their safety can not be guaranteed with just any boy or any man. Even though Mr. Thompson is an authority figure anyone could reasonably trust, they still have their suspicions:

We even wondered about Mr. Thompson sometimes, or at least we never went swimming at his house without Michael with us…We felt bad for letting Mr. Thompson make us nervous. he was the smartest man either of us knew, and probably he was just being nice. We were not stupid, though. We’d had enough nice guys suddenly look at us the wrong way.

They do not expect bad situations to happen but they remain hopeful that they will not occur. This feeling of anxiety and vulnerability comes partly from their experiences of being girls.

Second Lesson: Body image matters–everything about your physicality.

Erica and Jasmine recognize the power of beauty standards. Erica alludes to skin color and the fact that something as essential to health as screenscreen can only be associated with Whiteness though “all three of us burned”. They talk about Michael’s girlfriend, a White Italian girl who is a part Michael’s pattern of White girlfriends. For Erica, this pattern justifies why Michael would never have an interest in either one of them–their skin color is not light enough. They notice that Michael’s brother Ron is attractive not for being talented, intelligent or witty but because he is “golden-colored skin, with curly hair and doll-baby eyelashes and the kind of smile where you could count all of his teeth”. Both Erica and Jasmine worry about how their body looks (how big their hips, breasts and stomachs are or how pretty their face is) and how they will be perceived. For Jasmine, the right physical attributes and the right amount of sex appeal translate to a respectable, long term relationship. Jasmine wants to be “the one [a boy] kisses in public”, not the girl a boy leaves for another.

Third Lesson: Safety is relative.

Erica feels that safety is not something she can achieve but rather something she can approach. More importantly, there is no standard or bar of excellence for safety. For women specifically, safety remains relative. Though Erica leaves her friend Jasmine in a potentially dangerous situation, Erica finds herself in another potentially dangerous situation:

…I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better. I was safer than Jasmine right now, safer than I might have been.

Erica is not exactly forced into the situation but she does not choose the situation for herself either.

We are left with a sense of hopelessness at the end. The ending is foreshadowed by the death of Tupac Shakur who wrote the famous words “it’s a setup…keep ya head up“. Does this awful ending have to be inevitable? How can you live life when you have to acknowledge daily how terrible it can actually be?