Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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


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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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Romance for Esch

Due to the lack of traditional forms of love in Esch’s life, I’m finding it interesting to watch the ways she navigates that whole sphere of life.

Clearly her relationship with Manny is not a healthy one. Yet because he pays attention to her in a (purely) sexual manner, she gets the impression that a deeper relationship could form (even though he’s not really even paying attention to her in a sexual manner. He’s paying attention to what her body can do for him). The lack of outright romantic love in Esch’s life prevents her from having a background knowledge to know the signs of a healthy relationship and the those of an unhealthy one.

The relationship with Skeetah is an interesting one. The amount of attention she spends on him and his body far exceeds the time spent on everyone else. We discussed in a previous class that Ward was influenced in her writing style by Faulkner, so I don’t feel that it is a big leap to suggest that Ward could also have picked up on some of his themes, namely that of incest. In The Sound and the Fury * fixates on his sister Caddie for the vast majority of his chapter. This has lead a number of critics to draw the conclusion that this fixation is a form of incest. Therefore, the predominant fixation of Esch on Skeet is also a form of incest. Its actually a really interesting inversion of gender norms that Ward does with this relationship. Esch spends a lot of time paying attention to Skeet’s body and how it moves, much in the same way that women’s bodies are paid attention to closely and objectified. So this way its the woman who is in power, judging the other gender’s body and importance. Its still not a good thing, but I think it runs along the same lines as equating mythology to a black character and creating a dialogue with it that didn’t otherwise exist.

And finally Big Henry. If this were another kind of novel, I would probably speculate that the two of them would end up together. While Esh doesn’t fixate on him much, especially in comparison to the other guys I mention in this post, what we do see of him is very caring and gentle. He pays particular attention to Esch and her unspoken needs.


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Race & Rape Poetry

Hi everyone,

A few weeks ago I randomly started writing this poem and just recently got it to a place I really like. I was reflecting a lot on the topic of the class and its correlation to the sexual assault and rape culture dialogue that the campus had at the end of February while I was writing it. Let me know what you think:

“Keep Seeing?”

Race

Rape

Just one letter of difference

C

P

C p

K p

Keep

Keep

Keep c

Keep c-ing

Keep seeing what?

Race?

Is that a good thing? To see a person’s race

You keep yourself in line and aware of your actions

But you keep yourself in line

Reserved and obviously aware that they are different

From you

Keeping them away

From you

So by keep seeing race you keep seeing difference

But ignoring the c

Keeping the C in place

Keeping race in place

But we cannot pretend

Not to see the C

We erase what makes them unique

We erase their life experiences

We erase the parts of them outside our lines

We erase them

We erase

C

So we don’t have to see

R A C E

We erase

Because we feel they put us out of place

Place

What is our place?

What is our place, as women?

Why is there a correlation between women, submission, and rape?

Its incessant, and incorrect

Women shouldn’t have to submit

Women shouldn’t be raped

Why is it only focused on how women fall victim

Are forced to submit

Why is it not mentioned of men as well?

Why do we keep seeing the mention of women being raped

And not men?

Why do we keep seeing women raped?

Why do we keep seeing rape?

Why do we keep seeing rape?

Why do we keep seeing rape?

Why do we keep seeing rape?

Why do we keep seeing rape?

Why do we keep seeing rape? When do we

Snap out of it

Rape

Assault

A salt

A salt in our wounds

A grain of salt in our wounds, rubbing around

Incessant

Incessant

Incessant. Rape.

Incessant.

Sexual Assault.

It is incessant.

I keep seeing it

I keep meeting it.

Not introduced but I see it, I see it around

Keeping the P in place

Keeping it inside

Without invitation

What happens when it refuses to budge?

Race

Rape

C P

If we eliminate the two letters, we find

R A E

Ray

A ray of hope

For our society, could become something better

But will it?

Neither C nor P

Nor R A E will do it

The problem needs Y O U

And U S


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Buzzfeed FTW

Hey everyone!

I was watching a bunch of Buzzfeed videos toward the end of last week and came across this video that perfectly corresponds with our discussion on Friday. Enjoy!

In addition to that video, I thought this one would be interesting to watch as well:


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Slavery Museums & Black/ American Holocaust

A week or two ago, I came across an article about “America’s first slavery museum” being built on a former plantation west of New Orleans and shared it on Facebook. My cousin (an SU alum, no less) commented on my post, telling me that there already were slave museums in the US, so the story wasn’t entirely accurate. In the museum’s defense, they never claim to be the first slave museum, that was the journalist’s doing. Their claim to fame, in their own words, is that they are “the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.” The article the museum was featured in reminded me of a class discussion that we had a while back about the lack of such museums in America. I looked into the existence of slave museums, and like Dr. Hoffpauir said, there are a number of museums who have exhibits about slavery, but no museums devoted directly to slavery. I did come across a really cool museum, the closest one I could find to being a slave museum, which was named America’s Black Holocaust Museum. This museum was created by the only known lynching survivor, Dr. James Cameron, in order to commemorate the holocaust that black people experienced at the hands of whites and the effects that they are still experiencing today. This digital museum is exceptional because it seeks to create a dialogue around the American Holocaust (as I think it should be called, although considering these criteria: http://abhmuseum.org/2013/02/what-is-the-black-holocaust/ America probably has two simultaneous Holocausts– against blacks and against Indians/ Native Americans, so I’m not sure that I can identify the Black Holocaust as THE American Holocaust.) One criteria that surprises me is the “Medical experimentation,” I haven’t heard of slaves being experimented on, but that could go back to how little we’re told about slavery/ this Holocaust. Same goes for Indians.

So, to sum this post up, I think the Black Holocaust Museum is the first valid slavery museum, and its emphasis on a dialogue about slavery and the Black Holocaust is essential and there should be more institutions that do this. At the same time, Whitney Plantation Museum is also the first slave museum because visitors can actually see the boundaries of a slave’s world in person and seeks to get visitors to understand what it was like to be a slave and experience slavery during the Antebellum, as opposed to focusing on the after effects of it. Both are vital parts to understanding the atrocities committed in this country and learning from them/ commemorating them/ remembering them/ preventing them from ever happening again.

Here are the links to the websites to each museum:

America’s Black Holocaust Museum: http://abhmuseum.org/2012/09/our-mission/

Whitney Plantation Museum: http://www.whitneyplantation.com/index.html


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Hands

I really identified with the line in Silver Sparrow “Her hands were made for making sandwiches.” I didn’t initially think much about it when I read it, but when it resurfaced in our discussion on Monday, it made me think of my grandmother. About 6 years ago, she turned 90 and her whole family (Which consists of 7 children and 15 grandchildren, not to mention extended family, family friends, and a veritable mob of friends) had a party. For the party, pamphlets were printed that retold some of our favorite family lore about her, as well as her impact upon our family, esp. the women. The picture that was printed on the front of the pamphlet was later copied and all of her offspring and offspring’s offspring received a framed photo of her for Christmas. The reason I bring this up is because when my aunt was taking the photo that was to be her party portrait, my grandmother instructed her- as was very much her style- that she wanted her hands in the portrait. The reason, she said, was “because my hands made me.”

I was struck by the way something so humble and unassuming as a pair of hands could be given credit as being the foundation for a person’s world (although in the case of Charsh, I feel ’empire’ is a better noun). She was right to give them credit, but you just don’t hear it very often. Especially since my grandmother was definitely the matriarch of our family, giving credit to something so humble for giving her the power that she had gave me hope that I might one day be able to be just as assertive as her one day.

And I said that she was the matriarch of the family, and she definitely was, but that doesn’t mean that she emasculated her husbands. I do not know what her relationship with her first husband was like, but if her relationship with my grandfather is anything to go off of, it was a healthy, ‘collaborative’ relationship (as we said in class today) and her possession of power did not remove or take away from him. The best way I’ve heard it put was from someone featured on Humans of New York who was actually talking about envy and success, but their message works just as well if you use power; he said something to the effect of “there isn’t an absolute and finite amount of success. Someone gaining success did not mean that I lost any success that I had already achieved.”


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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.