Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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

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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



Earth Day musings

Today in my climate science class we were discussing the problems surrounding slash and burn deforestation and the devastating effects it has on climate change.

In Indonesia palm trees grow prolifically and there is a lot of money to be made from the palm tree plantations, namely because palm oil is a hot commodity. Palm oil is a major ingredient in a lot of store bought packaged foods here in America, and I am sure all over the world as well. However, because palm oil is so profitable, Many plantation owners use slash and burn techniques to produce as much palm oil as possible and as quickly as possible. But this releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas.

So Indonesian politicians decided to draft a policy on palm tree plantations and designated national parks to protect land from deforestation. Unfortunately, the effects of capitalism are strong and many of the national parks are still vulnerable to slashing an burning. Because of corruption in the political system in Indonesia the policy on national parks and slashing burning is not being respected by enforcers or by farmers. There is far too much money to be made.

This led me to wonder… what can we do? If policy change doesn’t work, what is a more effective avenue. So I asked this question in class. The answer I was given… left me feeling even more helpless. I was told that the responsibility falls on the backs of consumers and companies. Both companies and consumers need to be more environmentally conscious. But not everyone can afford to be environmentally conscious. Palm oil is an ingredient that makes many products cheaper. The highest consumers of palm oil are more likely to be people who cannot afford to buy alternative organic and environmentally conscious products.

We know that class is racialized and gendered. The poorest members of our (United States) community are overwhelmingly minority women (U.S Bureau of the Census, 2010).

So not only is climate change going to most harshly affect the poor, who are mostly Hispanic and Black women, but the poor have the least ability to make environmental change happen.

In (Black Women Writers) class on Monday, we discussed Naturalism, which is a pessimistic form of realism that assumes human have little free will to change their circumstances. After receiving the answer to my question in climate science class, it was immensely difficult for me not to feel helpless and pessimistic.

It left me with my current question. How do we convince people to care more about each other? How do we convince each other that every life is just as valuable as our own. The Earth is shared by everyone. An injury to one of us, is an injury to us all.

I hope this Earth Day post doesn’t leave you feeling helpless. Please let it inspire you. If you have the means to support our environment, do it.


Words as weapons

I did a close reading of the scene, from Americanah on pages 797-798, in which Ifemelu confesses to sleeping with a man in her apartment, Rob, and Curt becomes incensed and calls her a bitch.

“‘You gave him what he wanted,’… it was an odd thing for Curt to say, the sort of thing Auntry Uju, who thought of sex as something a woman gave a man at a loss to herself, would say.

In a sudden giddy fit of recklessness, she corrected Curt. ‘I took what I wanted. If I gave him anything, then it was incidental.’

‘Listen to yourself, Just fucking listen to yourself!’…

‘You won’t forgive me,’ she said, a half question.

‘Bitch,’ he said.

He wielded the word like a knife; it came out of his mouth sharp with loathing. To hear Curt say ‘bitch’ so coldly felt surreal, and tears gathered in her eyes, knowing that she had turned him into a man who could say ‘bitch so coldly, and wishing he was a man who would not have said ‘bitch’ not matter what”

Ifemelu is sexually objectified by Curt and this is revealed when he says “you gave him what he wanted”. This shows that he sees her as a commodity to be passed between men to get what they want out of her (sex). It is not until she corrects him and pushes back against this type of thinking that he calls her a bitch.

The use of the word bitch is a controlling image. Women are not allowed to have the same quality of sexual freedom that men have and when they try to break those boundaries, controlling images are used as a last resort to deplete self assurance and self made independence. When Curt called Ifemelu a bitch, he was trying to plant a seed of doubt in her.

comparing the word bitch to a knife was so shocking to me. It made me realize how violent of a word it is. One that is founded in so much oppression and even self hate. In Ifemelu’s reflection after the incident she says that “she had turned him into a man who could said bitch so coldly”. Ifemelu is reacting to this abuse in a way that puts the blame on herself.

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Musings on To Pimp A Butterfly

Over the past week Kendrick Lamar released his newest album To Pimp A Butterfly. I highly recommend giving a thoughtful listen to (at the very least) King KuntaInstitutionalized, Hood Politics, You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma said), and Mortal Man. Mortal Man includes an amazing remastered interview with Tupac that is spliced with questions Kendrick has for Tupac past the grave. 

Kendrick has been known not to shy away from hard conversations and To Pimp A Butterfly is no exception.

I was listening to one of the tracks on this album titled Complexion (a zulu love), which features a black female rapper named Rapsody. This song discusses skin color politics and their affect on self love and community love. Kendrick makes several allusions to slavery throughout the song and uses imagery to illustrate and represent different skin shades. I am going to do a close reading on the following verse from Rapsody.

Keep your head up, when did you stop loving thy

Color of your skin, color of your eyes

That’s the real blues, baby, like you met Jay’s baby

You blew me away, you think more beauty in blue, green and grey

All my solemn men up north, 12 years a slave

12 years of age, thinkin’ my shade too dark

I love myself, I no longer need Cupid

Enforcin’ my dark side like a young George Lucas

Light don’t mean you smart, bein’ dark don’t make you stupid

And frame of mind for them bustas, ain’t talkin’ “Woohah!”

Need a paradox for the pair of daughters they tutored

Like two ties, L-L, you lose two times

If you don’t see you beautiful in your complexion

It ain’t complex to put it in context

Find the air beneath the kite, that’s the context

Yeah, baby, I’m conscious, ain’t no contest

If you like it, I love it, all your earth tones been blessed

Ain’t no stress, jigga boos wanna be

I ain’t talkin’ Jay, I ain’t talkin B

I’m talkin’ days we got school watchin’ movie screens

And spike your self esteem

The new James Bond gon’ be black as me

Black as brown, Hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea

And it’s all beautiful to me

Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens

We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing

In this verse Rapsody discusses past contempt for her skin color and her community’s internalized self-contempt. She uses pop culture references (Jay Z, Beyonce, 12 years a slave, James Bond, etc.) to address black representation in our media.

The line “If you don’t see you beautiful in your complexion – It ain’t complex to put it in context – Find the air beneath the kite, that’s the context – Yeah, baby, I’m conscious, ain’t no contest”, seems to be comparing self love and respect to the wind that keeps a kite soaring. This communicates that it is an active self love struggle, against a culture that believes black to be ugly/stupid/dangerous, that will allow a black female to soar.

The line “Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens – We all on the same team”, was especially moving to me and brought me to tears. I especially love that Rapsody addresses the controversy of divisiveness between the sexes within the black rights movement and makes it clear that there must be a strong and crucial partnership between the sexes. Lastly, Rapsody successfully discredits ideas on color blindness and it’s faux-morality when she says “blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing”.

Here is the full song! I hope everyone enjoys! I want to hear any thoughts you may have on the slavery allusions Kendrick makes. What do you think their poetic purpose is?

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More on Mammy

I found the discussion in class on Black women stereotypes to be really interesting so I decided to look up some information on the actress who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind. 

Mammy was played by Hattie McDaniel, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniel was the first Black American to win an Oscar (and was also the first to be nominated).

Hattie Mcdaniel received a lot of positive attention, though it was within its bounds, from the White audience and simultaneously received flack for her role as Mammy from Black audiences. Many Black Americans felt she shouldn’t be taking parts that perpetuated such oppressive stereotypes of Blacks (servants/slaves who were completely content in being less human than the whites being waited upon).

Her response to this was, “I can either work in hollywood as a maid making 700 dollars a week, or I can work as a maid and make 7 dollars a week”. I found this especially striking when juxtaposed against Patricia Collin’s argument on controlling images. Collins argues that adaptation to these stereotypes goes hand in hand with survival. McDaniel didn’t have the choice to play an independent, smart, well rounded protagonist as that wasn’t a “realistic” story/ common stereotype.  The media wanted these controlling images, as the media was and mostly still is controlled by white bureaucratic men. The controlling images of Black women, portrayed in our media, are”designed to mask this economic exploitation of social class”, which in effect provides the white audience with a justification for Black women’s oppression (Collins 74). Essentially, McDaniel’s rendition of Mammy was used to to satiate white audiences and stroke white fragile egos.

I also found it interesting that the makers of Gone with the Wind chose to cast a comedian in the role of Mammy. Is it because White audiences most enjoy laughing at the misfortunately low status of Black women? Does the comedy cut the bitterness of the stereotype? I would argue it plays it up even more. I want to hear your take on why the producers of Gone with the Wind, chose to make something funny out of an obviously dark archetype.

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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



cyclical nature of rage in TCP

In my reading of Bell Hook’s piece Imperialism of Patriarchy, there was a section that so clearly summed up a lot of major ideas.

“often in feminist writing, women express bitterness, rage and anger about male oppressors because it is one step that helps them to cease believing in romanticized versions of sex-role patterns that deny woman’s humanity. Unfortunately, our emphasis on the male as oppressor often obscures the fact that men too are victimized. To be an oppressor is dehumanizing and anti- human in nature, as it is to be a victim. Patriarchy forces fathers to act as monsters, encourages husbands and lovers to be rapists in disguise; it teaches our blood brothers to feel ashamed that they care for us, and denies all men the emotional life that would act as a humanizing, self-affirming force in their lives” (114).

I found this so relevant to many of the relationships depicted in The Color Purple. Harpo and Mr. _____ are in perpetual communication gridlock, and express this exact predicament. I find it very perceptive and emotionally brave of walker to have this type of relationship depicted in her novel. For example, Harpo first complains to Mr.____ about Sofia and Mr.____ asks if he had ever hit her. Harpo “look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass”(77).

Consequentially, Harpo and Sofia’s relationship is incredibly violent and abusive. Sophia, explains being the only girl growing up as the reason she is motivated and knows how to defend herself and fight back. Sofia is determined to protect any type of autonomy she has and refuses to submit to Harpo. Sofia’s rage reminds me of Bell Hook’s explanation for the use of anger in feminist writing.

Harpo is made to feel emasculated by Sofia’s refusal to submit, which only produces more resentment between Harpo and his father as well as between Harpo and Sofia.