Academic journal article ARIEL

For the "Dark Star": Reading Womanism and Black Womanhood in the Novels of Caryl Phillips

Academic journal article ARIEL

For the "Dark Star": Reading Womanism and Black Womanhood in the Novels of Caryl Phillips

Article excerpt

Abstract: Representations of black women in literature by black men received much critical attention in the latter part of the twentieth century. Frances Smith Foster argues that "black men shared the nineteenth century predilection for defining women ... and for limiting the female protagonist." Trudier Harris' book Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin examined the literature of the twentieth century's most impactful African American male writer and his persistent portrayal of black women as morally constrained. More recently, Curdella Forbes' From Nation to Diaspora: Sam Selvon, George Lamming and the Cultural Performance of Gender explored several depictions of women in Afro-Caribbean literature. Yet this area of study has not been exhausted, and it seems necessary to pursue it with regard to Caryl Phillips, one of the most prolific writers in the African diaspora today. Phillips' work has already garnered attention for its ability to authentically represent women's voices. His novels Cambridge and The Nature of Blood in particular have been highly praised for their female narrators, and Phillips has discussed the ease with which he engages women's voices. This essay aims to advance the study of Phillips' unique and varied portrayal of women by analyzing his depiction of black women in Dancing in the Dark, The Nature of Blood, and The Final Passage. The article explores how women in the world of Phillips' texts navigate the physical and emotional spaces of intimacy in which their voices and experiences initially seem to be occluded by men's stories. I argue that Phillips offers nuanced depictions of black women which bend, break, and at times reify so as to critique well-established and often controversial literary archetypes of blackness, revealing that his fiction works in what Gary L. Lemons describes as a pro-woman(ist) mode.

Keywords: Caryl Phillips, black womanhood, womanism, pro-woman(ist), black intimacy

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   When he come home, I don't need him to say he love me
   I don't need him to bring me gifts, I just wants him
   to hold me close, make like he glad to see me
   bend down t'my ear an whisper my name.

   Frank X Walker, "Say My Name"

In a moment in Caryl Phillips' novel Dancing in the Dark (2005), the narrator pushes us awkwardly from George Walker's frenzied coitus with his white lover Eva to a brief, cold moment in bed with his wife, Ada. The contrast arrests the reader, but even more striking than the juxtaposition of George's uncontrolled desire and utter repulsion is the simultaneous disdain and admiration he has for his wife. The short paragraph acknowledges her hurt alongside his betrayal and presents her repeatedly within the realm of her theatrical work as the talented "Dark star" (117). Yet the brief passage is overrun with George's regrets. The narrator tells us that "lying next to her he is filled with remorse" and "his stiff body stiffens further at her accidental touch" (117). Other black women in Phillips' work experience similar moments of intimacy, where they are rejected emotionally and/or physically. Like Ada, both Lottie in Dancing in the Dark and Leila in The Final Passage (1985) find themselves married and untouchable. Even Malka in The Nature of Blood (1997) has a similar encounter, albeit not with a husband.

The corpus of Phillips' fiction offers varied representations of black women, but these women's intimate connections are governed by a tenuousness wrought primarily by their men. Phillips' work has already garnered much attention for its ability to authentically represent women's voices. His novels Cambridge (1991) and The Nature of Blood in particular have been highly praised for their credible female narrators, (1) and Phillips has discussed the ease with which he writes female characters. (2) As such, the dearth of scholarship on Phillips' black women is particularly striking considering that figures such as Leila in The Final Passage and Patsy in A State of Independence command critical attention in how they take up space and mark the formal structure of the novels. …

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