Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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


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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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The Storm

The events leading up to the hurricane are honestly scary enough to be in a horror movie. It’s a slow build that the characters barely notice, but the reader immediately picks up on. It’s chilling to know that real people have and will go through this.

On page 207, Esch notices the birds flying away. “When I look up into the sky, I see birds in great flocks that would darken the sun if we could see it through the thickening clouds. They are all flying away, all flying north” (pg 207). She and her brother Randall go to the white family’s house to get supplies. All of the cows and egrets are gone and it’s eerily quiet. Finally, Esch and Randall realize the house is empty and figure out why: the white family has evacuated. Just like should have, but couldn’t do.

Directly before this scene, Esch tells Manny that she’s pregnant with his child. He rebuffs her and calls her nothing. She’s crying when Randall finds her, but, instead of running away like Manny and the animals, she follows her brother.

Eventually, Esch comes to terms with the fact that she can’t run away from this, physically or emotionally. She mentions what she thought when she first learned what a hurricane was. “. . . I thought that all the animals ran away, that they fled the storms before they came, that they put their noses to the wind days before and they knew. . . . But now I think that other animals, like the squirrels and the rabbits, don’t do that at all. Maybe the small don’t run. . . . they prepare like us” (pg 215).

She knows now that, as much as she may want to, she can’t run from the storm or from Manny’s betrayal. Even though she saw both coming ahead of time, she didn’t run.   She chooses to prepare instead and face things head on instead.


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Manny

Manny’s a jerk. That may not be the most academic of observations, but it comes from the heart. And it’s very, very accurate (if I do say so myself). But, to his credit, Manny’s character always reminds me of something very important. Esch is young. So, so young.

A lot of the things Esch says about Manny are very juvenile, teenager-y things to say. But that’s understandable. Because she’s a teenager. She’s only fifteen. That’s very easy to forget, considering all she’s going through.

Esch compares sex to swimming (pg 22) and condoms to chocolate coins (pg 30). It’s when she’s referring to most mature things that she seems the youngest.

The very first reference to Manny in the book is through Esch’s eyes. It’s very adorable and sweet. “Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.” (pg 5) It’s such a beautiful thing to think about someone else, but also something a child would write in her secret Barbie-pink diary. And it also makes things even more heartbreaking when we actually get to know Manny and find out he’s a jerk.

On pg 16, the very next time we see Manny, he forcefully has sex with Esch. On the next page, Esch describes how kind China is being to her puppies, especially when she expected her to hurt or kill them. Esch sees/experiences these two kinds of love throughout the book: one that’s expected to be kind, but is harsh and one that’s expected to be harsh, but is kind.


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Sassy

On pages 200 and 201, Ifemelu is called ‘sassy’ by one of her friends.  She had just made an observation about a picture in a magazine of a white woman surrounded by African children.  “And she’s just a skinny as the kids, only that her skinniness is by choice and theirs is not by choice.” (pg 200)  After Laura calls her sassy for this observation, Kimberly waits until she and Ifemelu are alone and apologizes for her.  Instead of being comforted by this apology however, Ifemelu is upset because Kimberly believes she’s making everything okay.

This reminded me of a scene in a show I like.  The director in the show asks the black woman to play it “more . . . what’s another word for ‘happy/threatening’?”  In an aside, the actress says, “The word he’s looking for is ‘sassy’.  He better pray he doesn’t find it.”  This scene was based off the real experiences of this actress where directors wouldn’t exactly say they wanted her to play it sassier, but that’s totally what they meant.

Another thing this quote made me realize is that, even though it’s considered to be a nice thing to apologize for someone else’s actions, Ifemelu’s reaction is completely justified and understandable.  Third party apologies aren’t going to fix any problems.  If anything, they’re just going to make things worse.


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Family

All of the books we have read so far, sans Americana because I don’t want to pass judgment on that just yet, have been primarily about family.

Beloved is about a family that has been through hell and back. Sethe has been through slavery, loses her love, has her child taken away from her, murders a different child of hers, and remains haunted by these events for years and years after the fact. The book is about the relationship between Sethe and her dead daughter, Beloved, and her alive daughter, Denver, and how/if they can be a family.

The Color Purple is about Celie and the terrible (and not so terrible) people in her life. It’s about sexism, racism, sexuality, and the ability to face the world even after horrible events. But most of all, it’s about Celie, her sister Nettie, and their relationship. The sisters’ bond transcends time and distance and lies, bringing them back together again by the end.

Silver Sparrow is about two families tied together by the same man. The book is about the relationship between the two sisters, between the two wives, between the husband and his wives, and between the father and his daughters. This book looks at this family from every possible angle, showing that family doesn’t always have one set definition and that familial love doesn’t always have to be unconditional.

Daughters of the Dust isn’t a novel. But it is about family. The people on the island are all bound by a familial bond, purely because they are inhabitants of the island together. There are feuds, disputes, rejections, and false claims of ownership. The movie is about how far family will really go for one another.

As I said before, I don’t want to pass a judgment on Americana just yet. However, if one of its major themes turns out to be ‘family’, I won’t be too surprised.


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Guilt

Every single character in Silver Sparrow has a secret. This ultimately ties them all together. However, every character also has crushing amount of guilt and shame. And usually, the guilt they feel has nothing to do with anything they’ve personally done.

Gwen admits to feeling guilty for having a good job and better opportunities than the women who came before. “She felt a little guilty, enjoying this good job up in gift wrap, the very first colored woman to hold that post. . . . she had not fought for them . . . It would have been difficult to explain her shame even if she had anyone to explain herself to.” (pg 18)

She feels bad for being more focused on being a wife than supporting civil rights. “Where had Mother been when all of this was going on? She was busy learning to be a wife.” (pg 24)

This parallels with Laverne who is also embarrassed and shamed (for no reason) by luxury. “The bed was so large that it embarrassed her.” (pg 170)

Gwen and Laverne are irrevocably tied by their shame. However, their daughters are not, thanks to how differently they were raised and how different they are naturally.

Dana never admits to feeling guilty in her narrative. Chaurisse, on the other hand, is “embarrassed to be caught admiring [her]self in public” (pg 197) when she first meets Dana and feels embarrassed for not having an ice maker (pg 213). The two girls serve as examples of how a mother’s burdens may or may not be passed on to her children.


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What It Feels Like To Be Black

Silver Sparrow is heartbreaking. I’ll just start there.

It’s not heartbreaking in the same way that The Color Purple or Beloved were. None of the characters have experienced slavery firsthand and we don’t have to worry about Dana getting sold off away from Gwen. We don’t even have to worry about dead baby siblings haunting the place.

What makes it heartbreaking is that this family has their own inner dilemmas that they are dealing with, but we the readers know that it will only get worse as the Dana reaches adulthood. Despite the fact that the book takes place decades after The Color Purple and Beloved, the family still is experiencing strong racism, which will only worsen when Dana leaves the predominantly black neighborhood she’s grown up in. Dana’s friend Ronalda even warns her about it as they apply for colleges.

““But living here, you don’t know anything about white people. Where I’m from, everything is mixed. In Atlanta, at least out here where we stay at, everything is so black that ya’ll don’t know what it feels like to be black.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

“You’ll see,” she said. “You get out to Holyoke with those white people and you will see exactly what I mean.”” (pg 151)

Beloved takes place in 1856 (ish). The Color Purple takes place in the 1930s. Silver Sparrow takes place in the 1980s, less than thirty years ago. And yet, the one striking similarity between the main characters of the books is that they all view being black as the root of most, if not all, their problems. Ronalda’s phrasing ‘what it feels like to be black’ implies that ‘feeling black’ means feeling bad or feeling less than. The hope is that, as time passes, this will become an outdated way of thinking, but how long will that have to take?