TROUBLING THE WATER
Subversive Women's Voices in
Dessa Rose and Mama Day
Sherley Anne Williams and Gloria Naylor may be counted among those writers that Alice Walker labels “womanist.” By this she means that they are primarily concerned with the lives and experiences of women of color: “A black feminist or feminist of color…. A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counter-balance of laughter, and women's strength)” (ix). But Williams and Naylor are also concerned with the question of history and its relationship to both gender and race. In Dessa Rose and Mama Day, they create memory texts in which the voices of African American women are central to explanations of the past. In this conjunction of issues, they could be considered as adding to a tradition that includes Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Ernest Gaines's Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Walker's own early novels. They could also be considered, in another sense, part of a longer tradition of black women's writing that Mary Helen Washington, Barbara Christian, and others have so carefully traced.1
What is different in these two works is the extent to which tradition is problematized in the process of extending it. While each work serves at one level the ideological purpose of specifying the harm done to black women and more generally to black people and the ways they have survived their experiences, each one also suggests the price that must be paid for survival. In different ways, both must do violence to the recovery of truth and the healing that are their principal themes. Even as they appear to reveal heroic stories of suffering and endurance, they suppress part of the tale that complicates and potentially invalidates the meanings so carefully constructed. Memory thus becomes subversive of the very truth sought through it.
Dessa Rose has been read as an act of signifying on William Styron's 1967