Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered

By Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu | Go to book overview

tube babies and in-vitro fertilization, yet it refers simply to a slave to whom "Mammy wasn't no more . . . than breast in the night" (182). Williams uses the metaphor of the bottle-womb to bridge the gap between her twentieth-century audience and her subject matter, forcefully underscoring the point that enslaved motherhood was an oxymoron and dramatizing both what black women have overcome14 and what they have become. My reading, which emphasizes reversals that empower blacks, women, and, most especially, black women, lends added significance to the title of the novel. "Dessa Rose" becomes not only the protagonist's name and her life story as she has told it, but also a simple declarative sentence testifying to her greatest achievement: Dessa rose above slavery's impediments, transforming herself into a strong, assertive individual with infinite capacity to love, to nurture, and to adapt to changing social conditions, and transforming the world into which she brings the child she and Kaine have conceived into a place where freedom is not a distant dream but an everyday reality. Dessa rose to become a woman and a mother in spite of the institution that defined her as an animal and a breeder. Because she could.


NOTES
1.
Carole Boyce Davies notes the reversal technique in Dessa Rose in her article "Mother Right/Write Revisited: Beloved and Dessa Rose and the Construction of Motherhood in Black Women's Fiction," in Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities, ed. Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy ( Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991, 44- 57), but fails to explore the implications of this structuring device.
2.
In fact, Mary Kemp Davis, in her article entitled "Everybody Knows Her Name: The Recovery of the Past in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose" ( Callaloo 12:3 [ 1989]: 544-58), argues that in exercising his power to choose, Kaine assumes a godlike stature, recognizing himself as one of "God's Chosen People" and making Dessa one of the same by "choosing" her for his mate. However, at this point in the narrative, Dessa remains named and directed by a masculine power. Kaine has determined who she is by choosing her; she merely responds. It is only after Kaine's death that Dessa begins to exercise her own power to choose, and thus truly begins the process of actual self-determination.
3.
See Deborah E. McDowell article "Negotiating Between Tenses:Witnessing Slavery after Freedom--Dessa Rose"

-52-

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