Literature: The Cambridge Companion to African American Women's Literature
Armstrong, Jeanne, Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Angelyn Mitchell & Danille K. Taylor, eds., THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN'S LITERATURE. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 306p. bibl. $90.00, ISBN 9780521858885; pap., $28.99, ISBN 9780521675826.
This reference provides concise yet indepth coverage of African American women's literature from the nineteenth century to the present. One in a series of "companions" on topics such as the African American novel and the Harlem Renaissance, this volume follows a format similar to that of other works in the series, with a chronology, a section on historical context, and a section on genres.
Each of the two main sections covers several broad areas of the literature. Part I, "History, Contexts, and Criticism," includes chapters on four historical periods of the literature: the early years of African American women's literature, primarily the nineteenth century; the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s; and the contemporary period, with one chapter on contemporary writers and another on African American feminist theories and literary criticism. Part II, "Genre, Gender, and Race," discusses specific genres--the "slave" or "emancipatory" narrative, autobiography, novels, poetry, performing arts, children's and young adult literature, essays, the short story, and, finally, popular fiction--exploring the characteristics of each and the relevance of African American women's writings in each to the ongoing struggles of resistance to and liberation from racial and gender oppressions. Some authors, such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange, to mention just a few, are discussed in both the historical and the genre sections.
Editors Angelyn Mitchell, associate professor of English and African American Studies at Georgetown University and founder of its African American Studies Program, and Danille K. Taylor, dean of humanities and professor of English at Dillard University, state that The Cambridge Companion to African American Women's Literature "chronicles, interprets, and maps the African American woman's literary tradition and its critical tradition" (p.6). They did not intend this resource to be a comprehensive history of African American women's literature, but "rather ... to offer guidance in reading and studying African American women's writing ... and [to] reveal the plurality and multiplicity of this writing" (p.7). Despite this disclaimer, however, the comprehensiveness of this resource is impressive. The fifteen contributors were obviously selected because of their expertise and breadth of knowledge. Madhu Dubey, for example, who wrote the chapter on novels, is the author of Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, and Cheryl Wall, who wrote the chapter on the Harlem Renaissance, is the author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance.
Part I carefully probes the social, political, and cultural contexts of various historical periods and the challenges the authors faced by being positioned at the intersection of race and gender discrimination. These historical chapters also provide detailed coverage of less-known and better-known authors of each period. Similarly, the chapters about literary genres discuss the complex cultural and political factors that influenced women to write in a particular genre or challenged their access to the genre. Contributors frequently mention the project of recovering works by less-known or forgotten African American women authors.
The editors acknowledge the recovery work of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933, edited by Ann Allen Shockley. They also reference the groundbreaking work of early critical studies such as Barbara Christian's Black Women Novelists: The Development of Tradition 1892-1976 and All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, edited by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Schott, and Barbara Smith. Their mention of these foundational resources grants credibility to the thoroughness of this Companion.
Frances Smith Foster and Larose Davis's chapter on early literature identifies the "earliest known work by an identifiable woman of African descent" as "'Bars Fight,' a ballad that chronicles the people and events of a 1746 battle between settlers and Native Americans" (pp. 15-16). The chapter continues with a discussion of Phillis Wheatley, a slave who not only was able to write poetry, but also managed to find a publisher. This was so unusual in the eighteenth century that her owner provided a biographical preface and eighteen "prominent men" signed a statement attesting that indeed the poems were written by "a young Negro Girl" (p.17). This chapter details how these early African American women writers were denied literacy, agency, and access to publication and shows the ongoing efforts of recovering lost or contested narratives, such as Our Nig, by Harriet Wilson (discovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), as well as Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, Elizabeth Keckley's contested memoir.
As would be expected, Cheryl Wall's chapter on the Harlem Renaissance discusses such well-known writers as Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, mentioning Fauset's connection with Du Bois and The Crisis, Larsen's literary focus on biracialism and "passing," and Hurston's grounding in folklore and the "linguistic richness of black culture," which was considered "heretical" in that era (p.44). Several less-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance, such as poets Anne Spencer and Helene Johnson, are also briefly mentioned.
Eleanor Traylor describes the influences of James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka ("foremost theorist of the Black Arts movement," p.60), and Stokeley Carmichael (leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) on the Black Arts Movement, a period of Black political and cultural activism from the 1960s to the 1970s. Traylor then discusses the women involved in the movement, including Barbara Ann Teer (founder of the National Black Theatre), Ntozake Shange ("poet, linguist and novelist," p.61), singer Nina Simone, and poets Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, and Alice Walker.
Dana Williams traces the development of Black women writers who still identify with Black culture and community, but have begun to critique Black communities from within "for their perpetuation of western beliefs and ideals which stunted the development of black people in general and black women in particular" (p.72). Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is mentioned as possibly the best example of this "critical celebratory dichotomy" (p.72). Williams also discusses Maya Angelou's awareness of the tension between community bonds and a Black woman's freedom to develop. She describes the novels Corregidora, by Gayl Jones, Kindred, by Octavia Butler, Dessa Rose, by Sherley Anne Williams, and Beloved, by Morrison, which all "invoke the slave past and interrogate its role in the construction of the female self" (p.75); as well as Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Walker's The Color Purple, and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, which "explore strategies for healing" (p.76) without explicitly invoking the wounds of slavery.
Robert J. Patterson provides extraordinarily complex coverage of African American feminist theories and literary criticism in his consideration of the "relationship black feminist literary criticism has to black feminist political theory, how black feminist literary theory has redefined its foci and responsibilities ... and finally what tasks continue to lie ahead for black feminist political and literary theory" (p.89). He gives an overview of how Black feminism predated the 1970s with authors such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Wilson, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. He points to novels by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker that begin to critique the Black Nationalist movement's "masculinist norms" (p.92), which maintained Black women's oppression. Patterson cites some of the key Black feminist theorists such as Barbara Smith, Deborah McDowell, Gloria Hull, Hazel Carby, Hortense Spiller, and Sherley Anne Williams, whose political and literary theories explored the intersections of racism and sexism.
Jocelyn Moody mentions the earliest work by an African American woman in the genre of the slave/emancipatory narrative: a 1782 "petition to the state of Massachusetts for reparations for her compulsory, unpaid labor" (p.112), and describes notable examples of these narratives, such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Moody identifies special characteristics of this genre, which was intended both to describe the evils of slavery and to proclaim the ability of slaves to persevere and assert their human dignity through the vehicle of their narratives. For female slaves especially, the genre "enabled the inscription of a distinct black female self: the slave narrative by enslaved and ex-slave women differs from its counterpart by enslaved or ex-slave men in that it emphasizes gender differences in the experiences and treatment of men and women slaves" (p.118). Since female slaves were often sexually violated and treated brutally in other ways as well, the narrative was a crucial opportunity for vindicating the virtue and moral reputation of African American female slaves. These slave narratives also demonstrated female slaves' resistance through practicing contraception and abortion and making verbal retorts, identified as "sass" (p.123).
Joanne Braxton references these slave narratives as the foundation for subsequent autobiographies by African American women, early examples of which were often spiritual in tone or hybrids of history and spiritual memoir, describing the progression from slavery to freedom as being guided by religious inspiration. More contemporary notable autobiographies by accomplished Black women from a variety of professions are discussed, including Ida B. Wells's Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Ethel Waters' His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Nina Simone's I Put a Spell On You, Katherine Dunham's A Touch of Innocence, and Maya Angelou's popular I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Madhu Dubey, in her chapter on novelists, "Even Some Fiction Might Be Useful," emphasizes the "life-saving power of fiction ... as a recurrent motif in African American women's novels published from the mid-nineteenth to the early twenty-first century" (p.150). Early novelists often focused on romance or on racial struggle and uplift. Some later ones wrote about "passing" or about the failure of upward mobility due to ongoing segregation and racist discrimination. The African American women's novel evolved as cultural and historical progress toward increased civil rights and upward mobility provided increased freedom or opportunity for African American women. Yet novels by authors like Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Octavia Butler have continued to explore the haunting presence of slave ancestry and a complex quest for identity that interrogates the relationship of the modern Black woman with "ancestral tradition" (p.163). Recent novelists are exploring a variety of new directions, including contemporary "slave" narratives that represent welfare mothers or illegal immigrants as the enslaved.
The chapters on the genres of poetry, performing arts/theater, essays and the short story provide similar historical overviews of the African American women authors in each genre, with background on the impact of changing cultural and political contexts on the authors. The significance of each genre is highlighted. For example, Keith Leonard proposes that poetry is an important genre for African American women both because of its empowering association with the aspects of the personality, such as emotions and intuition, that patriarchal societies have devalued and because "this act of speaking, of naming one's own reality, has been an act of self assertion as important as protests, lawsuits, and marches" (p.169).
African American women who were involved in anti-lynching and anti-racist movements are considered foremothers to the women who later participated in performing arts, which Olga Barrios considers the genre most suited to highlighting "elements of the African American oral tradition" (p.190). And according to Marilyn Sanders Mobley, the essay allows authors to express themselves without using the language and structure required by more formal genres such as poetry or the novel. Similarly, Crystal Lucky describes the short story as more accessible to some authors simply because a story is shorter than a novel and because it allows for more innovation and experimentation with form and language.
Dianne Johnson quotes the manifesto of Black Creators for Children to emphasize the importance of literature for African American children and adolescents, which can help an African American child "establish a positive sense of self as an individual who participates responsibly in the building and maintaining of his immediate family and community and of [the] African American community as a whole" (pp.211-12). Johnston discusses significant contributions to the genre and identifies resources, such as the Coretta Scott King Award, that can help identify the best African American literature for children and young adults.
The final chapter in this Cambridge Companion proclaims the advantages of popular fiction in blurring the boundaries of the canon, thus encouraging a more complete process of revising the canon. Herman Beavers suggests that popular fiction can serve a transgressive purpose by combing realism and fantasy in speculations on the "shape the future will assume" (p.274). He concludes by suggesting that there is no certainty about when and whether a work of popular fiction will be considered a classic.
Useful features of this resource include a very comprehensive chronology of African American culture and literature, beginning with 1526, the date the first Africans were brought to North America, and ending with the 2006 deaths of Octavia Butler and Coretta Scott King and publication of Alice Walker's We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For. The chronology includes historical events in the emancipation, Civil Rights, and Black Power movements; dates for the first African American woman to receive a college degree, for slave rebellions and legislation, and African American female authors' lives and publications. The extensive twenty-three page bibliography lists numerous fiction and non-fiction works by African American women; anthologies of their works; and books and articles on the history and criticism of African American women's literature. The index primarily lists authors, topics, and the titles of some works.
Overall, The Cambridge Companion to African American Women's Literature is an incredibly comprehensive and indepth discussion of African American Women's literature that can provide background on women authors in particular periods and genres for professors and students in colleges and universities through the graduate level. The contributors do not pretend to appear neutral in their historical discussions of African American women's oppression and the resistance to this oppression as expressed in the literature written by African American women who have long been positioned at the intersection of racism and sexism.
[Jeanne Armstrong is a professor at Western Washington University and is the librarian liaison for several departments and programs, including Women Studies.]
Reviewed by Jeanne Armstrong…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Literature: The Cambridge Companion to African American Women's Literature. Contributors: Armstrong, Jeanne - Author. Magazine title: Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources. Volume: 30. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2009. Page number: 17+. © 2009 Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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