Academic journal article African American Review

White Islands of Safety and Engulfing Blackness: Remapping Segregation in Angelina Weld Grimke's "Blackness" and "Goldie"

Academic journal article African American Review

White Islands of Safety and Engulfing Blackness: Remapping Segregation in Angelina Weld Grimke's "Blackness" and "Goldie"

Article excerpt

We with our blood have watered these fields And they belong to us.--Margaret Walker, "Delta" (1942)

I. Introduction: Loss and the Literary Landscape

Jim Crow apartheid and northern segregation alike operated through the racialization of space, in which geography and the environment produced and expressed 'the inequitable power relations between races" (Mohanram 3). Memory turns space into place, and a sense of place is "central to the formation of racial identity. The category of 'black body' can only come into being when the body is perceived as being out of place, either from its natural environment or its national boundaries" (Mohanram ix). Segregation in the United States was all about place, the ownership of physical space conferred by memory, tradition, and the law, but also the elaborate social and symbolic code that signified such ownership. Knowing one's "place" for African Americans required giving up rights to physical space, including freedom of movement within and inscription of one's presence on the landscape. Particularly prohibited, in the North as well as the South, were public monuments commemorating and celebrating the African American experience. The spatial environment thus normalized the silences and erasures of racial apartheid (as well as visual spectacles such as public lynching), making them seem indigenous to the land. (1)

What does it mean to commemorate and to mourn your losses on a landscape designed to erase all traces of your presence? After catastrophe, memorials provide the "foci of the rituals, rhetoric, and ceremonies of bereavement," underlining the crucial importance of returning to the place of loss, or at least having a place that "embodies that loss and allows collective mourning" (Winter 78). In the case of those displaced or traumatized by lynchings and race riots, what forms of commemoration are possible when there is no place to return to? Craig Barton explains that the intersection of space and race produced "separate, though sometimes parallel, overlapping or even superimposed cultural landscapes for black and white Americans," resulting in a "complex social and cultural geography in which black Americans occupied and often continue to occupy distinct and frequently marginalized cultural landscapes" (xv). Barton insists, moreover, that the presence of "larger cultural landscapes, defined by custom and events as much as by specific buildings, and represented in text, image, and music" provides "invaluable insights into the memory of a place" (xvi). When the physical landscape remains mute, stories, images, and songs carry the burden of memory.

In this article, I examine mourning and memory, motherhood and citizenship, body and land in Angelina Weld Grimke's 1920 short story, "Goldie," and an earlier unpublished version titled "Blackness." These stories were based on the 1918 lynching in Valdosta, Georgia, of an eight-months-pregnant woman named Mary Turner--an event that I suggest constituted a primal trauma for the African American community. I place Grimke's text in the context of other African American women writing at the end of the First World War, particularly in reaction to the violence against women and children epitomized by the East Saint Louis Riot of 1917, and continuing into the "Red Summer" of 1919. At the crest of this wave of violence, the killing of Mary Turner and her child because she protested her husband's lynching raised profound questions about how it could be possible to live in an America that had become a "sorrow home." (2) For Grimke, witnessing and mourning demanded breaking through violently maintained boundaries of "blackness" and "whiteness," those lines of force constructing the US landscape as always raced white and gendered male. I argue that Grimke uses landscape images--the lynching tree, "white islands of safety" on segregation's road, and an unguarded house in the clearing--to mourn the violence done to Turner, her husband, and her child, to protest racial oppression, and to highlight white vulnerability in the face of certain retribution. …

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