Recent African American Women's Fiction: Teaching and Finding Voices

By Watts, Linda | Transformations, September 3, 1992 | Go to article overview

Recent African American Women's Fiction: Teaching and Finding Voices


Watts, Linda, Transformations


Recent African American Women's Fiction: Teaching and Finding Voices

How does a group of people assembled by a university schedule grid, a registrar's computer, and a checklist of institutional degree requirements transform itself into a community? 1 This dilemma endures in university study, and was particularly vital to a group of people enrolled in a discussion-driven course devoted to issues in "Recent African American Women's Fiction." (See Appendix A.) An old protocol preceded us, warning us that conversationalists do well to avoid subjects such as politics, religion, sex, and race. Still, that remained our charge as a community constituting itself and learning to speak. In designing and implementing this course, I sought to promote this finding-of-voices through alternative classroom practices, such as advocacy readings, affinity groups, communal projects, multivocal discourse, and process journals.

To set an agenda for the course, then, I incorporated in the first class session an audiotaped excerpt from Ntozake Shange's novel-in-progress, La Luta Continua. I chose a passage that raises questions of intimacy, alienation, and identity in language. The excerpt we heard reads as follows:

I am a nice fella, but I had to get her to where she spoke my language. I had to get her to where she knew that nobody could understand her but me. Nobody could insist upon that particular tongue but me ever, not a soul. Lilian resisted, as she had to--she was an intellectual. The girl truly believed certain thoughts, even certain gestures, were impossible in certain languages.

She was driven by some power I never understood to learn every language--slave language--any black person in the Western Hemisphere ever spoke. She felt incomplete in English, a little better in Spanish, totally joyous in French, and pious in Portuguese. When she discovered Gullah and Papiamentu, she was beside herself. I kept telling her--wasn't no protection from folks hating the way we look in any slaveowner's language, but she had to believe there was a way to talk herself out of five hundred years of disdain, five hundred years of dying `cause there is no word in any of those goddamn languages where we are simply alive and not enveloped by scorn, contempt, or pity. "There is no word for us" -- I kept telling her this--`no words, but what we say to each other, and that nobody can interpret." 2

I wished those students hesitant about sharing their responses to controversial matters such as race to become aware that part of the problem is a finite, historically-grounded (and so historically-implicated) language/medium. Can a language once used to validate and preserve such social relations as slavery ever rid itself of that residue, regardless of who is speaking? The above excerpt from Shange conjures both one's yearnings and one's fears concerning an alternative: a privately shared language. Must one exist only in an inherited tongue--be named by it? Or is it possible to name oneself within a language of one's own making? Would this make for too insular, too airless a language? Would its challenges offset its costs?

Much, though perhaps not yet enough, has been said within literary studies about these expressive limits of language. Constraints of self-representation are additionally (as well as differently) a feature for speakers/writers of color in a society that all too often sees their language patterns as substandard. Because an important part of the process of coming into language occurs through education, African-American writers frequently remark that school systems produce an embattled, and at times even embittered, bilingualism. For instance, in the Langston Hughes' poem, "Theme for English B," a student of color feels isolated in/by his recognition that teaching practice indoctrinates as well as illuminates. Hughes writes:

The instructor said,

"Go home and write

a page tonight.

And let that page come out of you -

Then, it will be true. …

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