Academic journal article African American Review

"It's a Time in the Land": Gendering Black Power and Sarah E. Wright's Place in the Tradition of Black Women's Writing

Academic journal article African American Review

"It's a Time in the Land": Gendering Black Power and Sarah E. Wright's Place in the Tradition of Black Women's Writing

Article excerpt

The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society. (Carmichael and Hamilton 44)

Written during the height of the Black Power Movement, Sarah E. Wright's This Child's Gonna Live (1969) offers a woman-centered vision of an impoverished, besieged black community finally "closing ranks" in order to combat the systemic and individualized racism that seeks to destroy whatever community it cannot control. Set on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1930, Wright's novel implicitly draws a parallel between the nationalist, back-to-Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and the Black Power movement gaining strength in the late 1960s. Wright's novel is informed by the dual influences of Black Power and women's rights, asserting as it does black women's self-respect as a necessary, foundation for "the coming black nations of the world" (Wright, This Child 179). A forerunner of texts such as Alice Walker's Meridian (1976), Wright's novel is a powerful rejoinder to male-gender-specific notions of race reform.

When Stokely Carmichael assumed the leadership of SNCC in 1966, "the civil rights phase of the black liberation struggle was drawing to a stalemated conclusion.... the traditional southern-based nonviolent civil rights movement had largely ground to a halt and was in its death throes" (Allen 27). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed into law through direct nonviolent actions led by Martin Luther King, Jr., but the effectiveness of these laws for poor and working-class black Americans was undermined by the inconsistency with which they were enforced. In his critique of these laws, historian Robert L. Allen writes:

Perhaps the most significant indication of the middle-class nature of the

civil rights movement was the fact that it did absolutely nothing to

alleviate the grim plight of the poorest segments of the black population.

As late as 1968, a group of six doctors found evidence of widespread and

long-standing malnutrition and starvation in the rural south. (27)

For Stokely Carmichael, Charles V. Hamilton, and other leaders of Black Power, the solution to the problems wrought by systemic, institutionalized racism was economic and cultural expressions of group solidarity that would strengthen the standing of black communities politically, economically, and psychologically.

Sarah Wright's This Child's Gonna Live interrogates the male-oriented perspective articulated by Black Power spokesmen.(1) Like her contemporary Ralph Ellison, Wright wrote only one novel. But unlike Invisible Man, now regarded as among the most important African-American novels, Wright's This Child's Gonna Live, named "the most important book of 1969 by the New York Times (29 June 1970), is mentioned only sporadically in bibliographies of African-American literature, even those whose exclusive focus is African-American women writers.(2) I hope this essay will serve both as an introduction to Sarah E. Wright's work for readers not yet familiar with her and as a spark to rekindle the interest of those who are. Her novel is not an easy one to read, but for anyone interested in African-American literature, in the modernist novel, in American history, or in the relationships between men and women, Wright's novel can be richly rewarding.

This Child's Gonna Live needs to be restored to its place in the tradition of African-American women's writing because it bridges the movements for Black Power and for women's rights. While careful in her own creative work to create positive portrayals of African-American men, Wright nonetheless criticizes all American men, including African-American men, for "begging for a popular recognition of what is fictitiously called `manhood,' a begging which takes the form of attacks on women launched from many different directions" ("Negro" 8). …

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