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’.



Teaching Consent; Re-thinking “the sex talk” and ongoing sex education

Our class discussion today covered a lot of (versatile, important) ground, but one of the things that has absolutely cemented itself in my head for the day was our discussion of Esch’s “sexual exploration,” and more importantly, of her sexual agency – whether/to what degree she has any. From this point, we moved on to the very flawed dynamics that the American education system has with sex ed, and the fact that a lot of people/institutions believe that sex education is something exclusively for the parents/guardians/family to teach and talk about. Obviously, this is flawed (as many people pointed out today), because some people don’t have a home that they return to, or if they do, will have parents who are equally uncomfortable talking about these things as they are with the matter being taught in children’s schools.

All of this is a very long-winded setup to say that this discussion made me think of an article I read about a year ago from a website called The Good Men Project (super humble title, I know), titled “The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21.” (Available here:  )

Though it may not be perfect, this particular piece offers a lot of easy, awkwardness-diffusing advice so that kids grow up learning to be comfortable with discussions of sex – and especially with talking about consent; it stresses the importance of teaching and respecting a child when they say “no”, so that the child can understand the power and weight of that word, and can feel comfortable using it. (Unlike Esch, who found losing her virginity easy than saying//explaining “no”.) Of course, this article frames a kind of idyllic family situation as well – it assumes there are concerned guardians, listening children, etc. But I think a lot of its points are useful, and though they are presented as parenting tips, it seems to me they could be incorporated in some teaching practices for the marked ages – especially the frank discussion and strict adherence to the words ‘no’ and ‘stop’. Again, it is not a perfect formula, but it made me think of entry points into a very difficult and important conversation, and about how these talking points can be incorporated and reinforced over time. As I work at an childcare center during the summer, I found the “for very young children” section particularly helpful and thought-provoking; that kids can be taught and learn, at such a young age, the power of certain words and actions, is incredible to me – both because children are ridiculously smart and intuitive, and because it’s appalling that our education systems fail to incorporate these kinds of lessons early, often, or at all.

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Toxic Viscosity in Salvage the Bones

In our class discussion of Salvage the Bones yesterday, one of the points we focused on was Ward’s techniques for setting up what will occur later in the novel, the way she mounts our anxieties by teasing us with lengthy descriptions of water, of swimming, hinting at storms here and there, but not allowing anything destructive or powerful – at least in terms of the elements – to happen quite yet. Actually, Dr. Hoffpauir said that the book is nearly “pregnant” with the expectation of waiting for the hurricane to strike, and this is an excellent way to describe Ward’s tactics – she meters out hints and descriptions to a point that is so saturated, the reader feels ready to burst, ready to deal with the next part of the plot. Although Ward does this very well with the water imagery (particularly the passages related to swimming), I noticed that she creates concern around a great deal of other fluids as well.

Early in the novel, Esch cuts her hand on a piece of glass, and is told that she must push on the wound “until it stops hurting” (12) to combat the bleeding. This act of applying pressure to the flow of blood, of a willful, deliberate resistance to the force flowing out of her, offers a subtle dose of foreshadowing. Furthermore, blood is addressed again, when Esch, Skeetah, and Big Henry encounter the couple who were in an auto accident along the side of the road: “the blood has beauty contestant sash across [the man’s] chest.” (31) Here the blood is not contained, has not stopped; it covers the man, even leaves polka-dots on his cell phone (32) – the blood has overtaken him.

Ward presents alcohol as another fluid that can, potentially, overtake a person – Esch’s father clearly struggles with alcoholism. He has brief moments of poignancy when he is sober, but is made unpredictable and irritable when he drinks, which is more often than not.

Even China, when birthing her puppies, expels some grotesque mucilage, clots her newborn puppies’ fur with the fluid that had previously encased them. While all of these elements seem disparate,it seemed to me that Ward is using them all to highlight the fraught relationship any substance can impose; when not properly contained or controlled, any of these (water, blood, other bodily fluids, alcohol) can be overpowering, even lethal. Actually, most of these (possibly with the exception of alcohol), can often be classified as life-affirming substances; it is the weight, the volume, the lack of control of them that becomes destructive. This got me thinking about viscosity – the actual definition of which  reads as “the state of being thick, sticky, and semifluid in consistency, due to internal friction” – how each of these fluids, some thicker than others, have internal friction, can both sustain or end life. As many of the themes in this novel are centered around dichotomies (natural vs learned motherhood, loving/close vs perfunctory/distant familial relationships, control vs chaos), Ward’s greatest strength thus far is highlighting these inherent tensions, especially in mundane things, such as water, such as the blood pulsing through the protagonist’s veins.

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On Fragility, Impatience, and Identities

On page 257 of Americanah, the narrator, speaking about Curt, states “There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing.” Although this line is not directly important to any major plot point, or even gravely relevant to the most important characters, it still resonated with me. Adichie demonstrates here, as she does so frequently and thoroughly throughout the novel, her grand ability to give name to what is otherwise understood or characterized as a sort of ineffable, but certainly recognizable, gut feeling of unease, an immediately identifiable but abstract sensibility, which she makes concrete. By describing Curt in this way, she achieves two distinct things: first, she addresses and highlights the constancy of the fragility of the male ego, which she further illuminates/explains in her TEDxTalk; secondly, she conveys the unspoken, underlying exasperation that Ifemelu develops in her relationship with Curt, with this fragile psyche of his that requires incessant maintenance. The reader, intuiting this sense of exasperation, thus learns more about Ifemelu from this line as well; in her exhaustion, it is clear that Ifemelu harbors little respect for people who have an eager, obvious discomfort with themselves, who actively seek the validation of others. It is likely that this mild impatience stems from Ifemelu’s own struggles and triumphs with her previously conflicted sense of identity, as in when she stops affecting her American accent, and slowly begins the process of lending her identity back to herself.Since Ifemelu personally, though perhaps gradually, has given herself a sense of authority within her world, has validated herself, she is saddened by and possibly resentful or ashamed of those who fail to do similarly. (Especially since, ostensibly, in Curt’s case at least, he has less overt need for validation from others; as a rich white man, the world that he must navigate is made to seem easier, more fluid, than Ifemelu’s – this, too, may inform why Ifemelu does not care for this quality particularly in Curt.)

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(Counter) Narratives and Counter Truths

I’m really digging Americanah thus far, but I haven’t fully sorted out my thoughts on it yet, so I want to draw back to something we discussed, very briefly, in class on Monday. This notion of “counter” narratives (from a Critical Race Theory perspective, or so our notes will delineate), has me assessing how the ‘dominant’ or ‘normative’ narratives are structured, and why any non-majority/non-normative narrative must be in direct opposition to  – i.e. counter – these particular narratives. As Dr. Hoffpauir mentioned, in the example with the slave cemetery near Blue Hole, counter narratives hardly exist, if they do at all — or, if they do exist, they are glossed over, or literally whitewashed, in a way that makes them seem more ~palatable~ to the “majoritarian storytellers”. This catering to the fragile ego of the dominant makes me think of a term that I encountered recently, which I think goes along with Western majoritarian stories: “creative truth-ing”. (I learned this term, by the way, while attempting to explain to my four-year-old cousin exactly how long I would be staying with his family. My uncle kindly explained to me that it would take some ‘creative truth-ing’ to tell my cousin that I would return there later, after he was asleep. This isn’t highly relevant to the rest of my point, but I the term warrants some kind of explanation.) This sort of whitewashed, dominant (re)telling of someone else’s past, or, the notion of people of color “buying into/reciting majoritarian stories” seems to me to fit this sort of bastardized-into-optimism worldview, in which the dominant narrative/ego must be served and placated at all times for fear of upsetting it, or telling something deemed too ‘unsavory’. These are just sort of initial thoughts on the matter, but the idea that this even happens in place of counter-narratives (again, itself a slightly problematic term – simply in that it is ruled ‘alternative’) is deeply upsetting.

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Women Helping Women

One of the consistently resonant, though I feel under-explored, aspects of The Color Purple is Walker’s ability to demonstrate how women interact with, and more importantly, care for and help one another in an otherwise suffocating, unsafe setting. Walker does this with great subtlety and aplomb: while Celie’s letters/prayers more overtly describe a life that is a product of a horrific system of oppression, they also offer small moments of beauty in which the women in her life bolster and vilify each other. Celie presents these moments as pure fact, often with no introduction or elaboration – perhaps because she overlooks (or does not yet recognize) their power. They occur in swift vignettes, with various women, casually and quickly informing the larger part of Celie’s story, often without her fully realizing it.

Early in the novel, Celie goes shopping with Kate, one of Mr. __’s sisters. (Rather, I should say, Kate takes Celie shopping for new clothes; at this point in the novel, Celie still does not consider herself, does not have the agency or the freedom to luxuriate in such a thought as wanting brand new clothes for herself. Even this act in itself – the suggestion by Kate that Celie should go and purchase new clothes – is a form of care, of an act of solidarity.Additionally, it should be noted that for all the cold distance of Celie’s marriage with Mr.___, that does not stop his sisters, or at least one of them, from interacting openly and warmly with Celie, treating her as an easy friend.) Celie, overwhelmed at the prospect of having clothes made for her, of picking out beautiful colors, “try to tell Kate what it mean””…to which Kate responds “You deserve more than this” (21). At this moment, Celie has an inkling that maybe she does deserve more, but it takes her a long while to embrace (and act on) the idea fully; at any rate, this is probably the most overt (perhaps because it is the first) exchange like this between women — certainly its power is not lost on Celie; it seems her recording of this moment is done with more reverence/understanding than the quick exchanges that happen later.

Later, in a passage at once heartbreaking and comical, Shug encourages Celie to take a mirror into the bathroom and look, really look at her vagina – to look at herself and to understand herself, and ultimately, to love herself. The pace of the passage (pg. 77-79) is such that it feels funny, urgent – the tone downplays the tragedy of the underlying message, which is that Celie has never thought of herself in any sort of beautiful, positive, or pleasurable way – she has only seen herself in terms of her function(s) for others. In this scene, though, the easy camaraderie between her and Shug is uplifting, one of very few constructive (or even fun) moments in Celie’s life.

As Celie grows more comfortable with the idea of her own strength, she even becomes one of these positive forces, at least momentarily. Celie implores Harpo’s girlfriend – “Squeak” – to demand (especially of Harpo) to be called by her real name, Mary Agnes, so that Harpo will take her seriously when she is upset (84). This is a snippet at the end of their conversation, and the moment passes quickly. All of these little moments (and there are undoubtedly others that I have omitted) serve to form a safe, if invisible. if fleeting, sense of community for the women whose lives are dominated by volatile, violent, misunderstanding men. The women create this space for each other, however briefly, seemingly at the exact moments when it is needed most; this space is fluid, it can be passed from woman to woman in the form of help, advice, or any other wise sort of kindness they display. Walker’s ability to include something so empowering, yet gentle, in a a novel replete with brutality is a truly stunning feat.

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Thoughts on Denver

As I read Beloved, I am having an incredibly difficult time sorting out how to feel about Denver. Especially in the early passages of the novel, she struck me as a greedy, petulant child – completely self-absorbed and unwilling to comprehend the motivations (or even the needs) of others. As the narrative goes on, though, I am, reluctantly, finding her to be a more sympathetic character, if only slightly. The more I consider it, the more it makes sense to me that she would be hardened and selfish: She has suffered great loss in her life (Baby Suggs, her brothers, even Beloved, though she does not technically consider any of these ‘her” loss), and after this, grew accustomed to living with only Sethe. As some sort of constant, a form of relationship that actually lasts, I can understand why Denver might be wary of Paul D – not only does he upset the already fraught house dynamic, but he is a very tangible sign that even Denver’s mother can drift away from her. Despite all this, though, I still find it frustrating that Denver – who we are to believe is about 18 years old – responds in a very childlike way to a lot of the events we have seen thus far; while there are certainly lots of ways to respond to change, trauma, loss, I still find her ultimately difficult. I sort of understand her wanting to have something of her own, and maybe part of the great tragedy of the narrative is that Sethe cannot convey this to Denver, that in their world, you can never truly have or hold on to anything, not permanently, not with any authoritative sense of ownership. So while I understand that half of Denver’s line of thinking, it is appalling to me that she refuses to let her mother find joy in the few areas of life where she still searches for it (as with Paul D, as with nursing Beloved back to health). This is further complicated, though, upon reading that Denver has struggled with the question for years of whether her own mother might be a murderer. I don’t have any conclusive thoughts, yet, as to Denver — I don’t want to form a full opinion until I finish the novel, but I think going deeper into the story is at least explaining her side of things more; allowing her to seem less childish, perhaps, and more (understandably) resentful, at having harbored these dark thoughts about her mother for so long.