Black Feminist Literary Criticism

Past and Present – With an Introduction by Cheryl A. Wall

by Karla Kovalova (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 179 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • The Writer as Critic in the Emergence of Black Feminism
  • Home Girls and Sister Outsider: The Roots of Black Feminist Literary Criticism
  • New Directions and Contradictory Impulses: The Development of Black Feminist Literary Theory
  • Literary Tradition and Black Aesthetics Revisited: Black Feminist Approaches to African American Literature in the Twenty-First Century
  • From White Gaze to Black Female Resistance: Street Lit and Popular Cultural Productions in Black Feminist Theorizing
  • Blackness and Whiteness Within and Without the U.S. Context: Pushing the (National) Boundaries of Black Feminist Literary Criticism
  • Afterword
  • Note on Contributors
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index

← 10 | 11 →Preface

Karla Kovalova

In her recent poetry collection The New Black (2011), Evie Shockley crafts a poem in memory of Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Sherley Anne Williams, Barbara Christian, Claudia Tate, June Jordan, and Nellie Y. McKay to pay homage to women who, despite having lost their battle with cancer, left a tremendous legacy.1 As artists and scholars, they channeled into their work love, courage, and beauty, insisting on the transforming potential of literature. Each of these women holds a special place among the founding mothers of black feminist criticism.

This volume has grown out of respect for the scholarship of these women as well as those whose writing continues in line with their legacy. Its genesis can be loosely linked to three events. Event One: In 2006, within its section on “Theories and Methodologies,” PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America, published ten essays by prominent feminist scholars addressing the issue of the relevance of feminist criticism in the twenty-first century. Titled “Symposium: Feminist Criticism Today: In Memory of Nellie McKay,” the selection of essays paradoxically failed to include a black feminist scholar’s perspective on the issue under examination.2 Instead, it featured an interview with McKay, the late pioneering black feminist critic, recording her memories about the past life of black feminist literary criticism: the emergence of black literature in the academy, and the establishment of black women’s literature in the canon. This oversight left an unanswered question: what is a black feminist response to the issue of the relevance of feminist literary criticism in the twenty-first century?

Event Two: The following year, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society published Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay “That the Mothers May Soar and the Daughters May Know Their Names: A Retrospective of Black Feminist Literary Criticism.” In this essay, Griffin reviews the production of black feminist literary criticism, noting that by the mid-1990s it had become “one of the most intellectually exciting and fruitful developments in American literary criticism.”3 ← 11 | 12 →Although she admits that it has experienced a backlash, she argues that black feminist criticism in the twenty-first century continues to offer a useful mode of analysis and strategy of reading, and that many scholars are continuing to expand the field. Her words resonate in Event Three. In 2010, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies published Ann DuCille’s essay “The Short Happy Life of Black Feminist Theory,” which returned to the question of black feminist literary criticism in the new millennium.4 Arguing that its “short happy life” in academia may have ended in the latter part of the 1990s, the essay demonstrates that as a mode of analysis and a strategy of reading, black feminist criticism has lost none of its strength and potential, and that there are still new paths to take, new trajectories to chart.

This volume attempts to trace the trajectories in black feminist criticism that have emerged in American scholarship since the late 1990s, focusing on the field’s theoretical contributions to American and English literary production and their impact on other disciplines. Its aim is not to present an exhaustive, comprehensive list of all the trajectories in or theoretical contributions of black feminist literary criticism; clearly, this would be beyond the scope of a project such as this.5 Instead, the volume aims to provide space for exploring, in a more coherent and compact way, scholarship that deserves to be treated as a subject of inquiry in the form of a book-length publication.

Since its inception, black feminist criticism has produced a number of ­sophisticated theoretical works that have challenged traditional approaches to (black) ­literature as well as assumptions about the canon, the concept of tradition, ­narrative conventions, and more. Scholars have taken note of these works, yet their writing about black feminist literary-theoretical production has been limited to individual essays, reviews, summary chapters/entries in encyclopedic volumes of African American literature, introductory pages in collections of essays, readers and anthologies related to American literary criticism, and summary chapters/entries in volumes about black feminism, black literary theory or feminist literary theory. While this scholarship is significant and provides an excellent overview of the field’s theoretical production, it needs to be expanded. This project hopes to do just that.

← 12 | 13 →On this note, several clarifications should be made. As is evident from DuCille’s essay and the scholarship on black feminist criticism, the boundaries between black feminist criticism and theory are very porous; often the terms are used interchangeably. The contributions in this volume testify to this fact. However, they also make clear that their focus is on black feminist theorizing, i.e. on theoretical models/paradigms that can be applied to literature (and, by extension, to extra-literary genres). Also, the editor is aware that black feminist production cannot be limited to scholarship produced solely by black women. However, to make the project manageable, the present volume had to be limited to the theoretical production of U.S. black (i.e. African American) women only.

In order to understand the present, one has to know the past. The volume opens with an introduction by Cheryl A. Wall, “The Writer as Critic in the Emergence of Black Feminism,” which explains how black women writers have been fusing the role of artist and critic in their work, while raising important theoretical issues. As Wall contends, this fusion is “a defining element in the development of black feminist criticism,” a field that, from its inception, took fourth paths: 1) recuperation of lost and forgotten artists and texts, 2) textual analysis of black women’s writing, 3) cultural analysis focusing on the contexts in which art, both literary and non-literary, was produced by black women, and 4) a turn to diaspora.

Wall also highlights how the theory and praxis of black feminist criticism is premised on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class as interrelated factors in black women’s experience. This intersectionality was first theorized in the writing of Barbara Smith, a black lesbian feminist critic who, together with Audre Lorde, changed the face of black women’s literary criticism. This is the argument of Chapter I, “Home Girls and Sister Outsider: The Roots of Black Feminist Literary Criticism,” in which Nagueyalti Warren examines the roots of black feminist criticism and argues that the works of radical lesbian feminists have enabled others to confront openly and honestly the diverse experiences of black women and to critique in writing what marginalized women have said and have written. As Warren notes, black feminist literary criticism might have developed in an entirely different direction had it not been for the lesbian voices calling for an end to silence and challenging black women critics to embrace a new way of seeing/reading.

In Chapter II, “To Use or Not to Use ‘the Master’s Tools’: Black Literary Criticism as a ‘Locus of Contradictions’ Then and Now,” Karla Kovalova returns to Lorde’s proverbial statement that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” by exploring black feminists’ attempts at negotiating the political and ethical implications of the use of Western theory. Using Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory,” Joyce A. Joyce’s “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black ← 13 | 14 →American Literary Criticism,” and Hortense J. Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” as a springboard for her discussion, she exposes black feminist literary criticism as “a locus of contradictions,” a site of two seemingly opposing trajectories: one requiring the promotion of African-centered concepts and thus the utter rejection of the “master’s tools,” the other insisting that the enemy must be beaten “at his own game,” thus promoting a subversive use of Western theories. Kovalova identifies the subversive use of psychoanalysis as a particularly productive recent site of discussion about black subjectivity and racial melancholia.

Chapter III, “Black Aesthetics and Literary Tradition: Black Feminist Theorizing in the Twenty-First Century,” examines how the claim of the centrality of the vernacular tradition in black literature has shaped black feminist critics’ approaches to black literature and their theories about the African American literary tradition. Examining a number of recent theoretical productions by Cheryl Wall, Emily Lordi, Evie Shockley, Madhu Dubey and Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, Kovalova demonstrates how these scholars revise prevailing paradigms of black aesthetics and redefine the boundaries of the black literary canon. While they may have moved away from the original narrow focus on black women’s fiction to discuss black literature written by both men and women, they retain their gender focus as well as their belief that they should take their cues from writers. Attending to the diversity of their voices, they are able to theorize aspects of new black aesthetics that speak to the contemporary moment of the so-called post-racial world.

Chapter IV, “From White Gaze to Black Female Resistance: Street Lit and Popular Cultural Productions in Black Feminist Theorizing” by Heike Raphael-Hernandez, discusses black feminist critics’ theoretical responses to urban fiction or street lit, a highly controversial African American literary genre that has emerged since the 1990s. As Raphael-Hernandez notes, this genre poses a challenge for black feminist critics because, being interested in the discourse on gender identity and race, the writers seem “to allow a possible positioning into earlier, well-established Black feminist literary theories.” On the other hand, however, the positioning does not seem possible due to the specific ways in which the writers focus on class and generation. Chapter IV explores the connections between the new hip-hop generation’s black feminist theorizing and street lit produced by black women writers, and shows how the concept of the gaze can be “utilized as an affective tool and strategy for interventions in cultural and social controversies.”

Last but not least, in Chapter V, “Blackness and Whiteness Within and Without the U.S. Context: Pushing the (National) Boundaries of Black Feminist Literary Criticism,” Kovalova argues that the publication of Toni Morrison’s seminal book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination (1992) helped push black ← 14 | 15 →feminist literary criticism’s boundaries beyond the realm of black U.S. literature to encompass productive explorations of other textual territories. Discussing the scholarship of Valerie Babb, Kim F. Hall, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Ann DuCille and Karla FC Holloway, she demonstrates how these explorations contributed not only to a growing body of scholarship on the construction of whiteness in both U.S. and U.K. contexts, clarifying the historical connections between the two countries in terms of racial ideologies/formations and white hegemony, but also to new studies of blackness/race and racial subjectivity/identity in these contexts.

The volume ends with a brief Afterword which summarizes the discussion on trajectories in black feminist criticism that have emerged in American scholarship since the late 1990s, and points to further trajectories and scholarship that deserve critical examination.

Note on terminology

Unless stated otherwise, throughout this collection of essays the terms African American and black are used interchangeably. I have respected the contributors’ preferences for the spelling of the word black as either “Black” or “black.”


I am grateful to the Czech Science Foundation (GAČR) for the grant that allowed me to pursue the idea of this book and financially supported it. I am equally grateful to my Dean, Ales Zaricky, and my Chair, Andrea Holesova, who granted me a sabbatical semester despite a temporary shortage of staff in our department. It was during the six months in Spring/Summer 2015 that I did most of my research and writing. I thank all my colleagues who suffered the consequences of my absence.

I am also greatly indebted to my esteemed international colleagues Cheryl A. Wall, Nagueyalti Warren, and Heike Raphael-Hernandez, whom I have met over the years on various occasions at CAAR (Collegium for African American Research) conferences, for their willingness to contribute to the project. My special thank-you goes to Professor Cheryl A. Wall, for her invaluable advice on sources during our meeting at Rutgers; to Professor Nagueyalti Warren, for all the email exchanges and the depth she brought to our CAAR 2013 panel on Black Feminist Literary Criticism; and to Professor Heike Raphael-Hernandez for all the wonderful ideas about what the volume could be like (had it not been for the limitations imposed by the grant).

I am deeply grateful to Lisa Groger, Professor Emerita of Gerontology at Miami University, for her idea that I consider doing research at Miami University ← 15 | 16 →Library, and to Jerome Conley, Dean of Miami University Libraries, for allowing me to do that. I am equally grateful to Linda F. Marchant, former Director of the Honors Program at Miami University, who kindly provided me with office space and the most positive working environment I could think of. A big part of the environment were the wonderful members of the Honors Program team—Pam, Annie, Zeb, Dave and Elise—it is to Elise in particular that I extend my thanks. A special thank-you also goes to Tammy Kernodle, Professor of Musicology at Miami University, for all her valuable insights about the special relationship between black music and literature.

During the time that I worked on my chapters, I had the great fortune to discuss some of my ideas with many people. I thank all who listened, read drafts, and offered valuable comments. In particular, I thank Geraldine Smith-Wright, Professor Emerita of English at Drew University, for her wisdom, support and trust.

I also wish to express my deep gratitude to Ute Winkelkoetter from Peter Lang for her enthusiasm about the project and her kind co-operation and patience, making sure the project sees the light of day. I am equally grateful to all the people from my home university who helped solve administrative problems, and to my colleague, Chris Hopkinson, for his meticulous proofreading.

Finally, my biggest thanks go to my family, especially to my husband and my daughter. For everything.

1 Shockley, Evie: The New Black. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press 2011, p. 12. The title of the poem is “good night women (or, defying the carcinogenic pen).”

2 “Symposium: Feminist Criticism Today: In Memory of Nellie McKay.” PMLA 121(5) 2006, pp. 1678–1741.

3 Griffin, Farah Jasmine: “That the Mothers May Soar and the Daughters May Know Their Names: A Retrospective of Black Feminist Literary Criticism.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32(2) 2007, p. 484.

4 DuCille, Ann: “The Short Happy Life of Black Feminist Theory.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 21(1) 2010, pp. 32–47.

5 The volume is an outcome of a research grant awarded to the editor who had to comply with the rules of the grant-awarding foundation (hence the format of the volume and the greater number of essays written by the editor).

← 16 | 17 →Cheryl A. Wall

The Writer as Critic in the Emergence of Black Feminism

“What did it mean to be for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmothers’ day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.”1 Alice Walker’s classic essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” pivots on this query. Structured as a search for her artistic precursors, the essay identifies the writers Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, whose work was just being discovered in 1974, and the poet Phillis Wheatley, whose name was well-known but whose work garnered little respect. The paucity of literary artists prompts Walker to search for artists in other genres, music for example, and she pays tribute to the great blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. However, she insists that women in her grandmother’s generation whose names are not recorded had the talent and motivation to be artists as well. Reflecting on the obstacles in their path, she asks the question above. In response, she considers the “crazy saints,” the female characters Jean Toomer draws in the first section of Cane, the amalgam of poetry and prose he published in 1923. Walker describes these characters drawn against the landscape of the rural South as “exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them except as “the mule of the world.”2 When she cannot find their real-life contemporaries, she decides she needs to look closer to home.

In a gesture that now seems inevitable but was then utterly unexpected, she singles out her mother, whose love of beauty was so profound and whose gardening skills were so exacting that, Walker writes, “even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms – sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena... and on and on.”3 Walker locates poetry and prose in a genealogy of black women artists including writers and singers, quilters and gardeners, the last group exemplified by her mother Minnie Lou Walker. As her daughter describes her, Mrs. Walker in her garden is an artist “ordering the ← 17 | 18 →universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.”4 She is the writer’s artistic as well as biological precursor.

Along with essays including “Looking for Zora,” “One Child of One’s Own: A Meaningful Digression within the Work(s)” and “Saving the Life that is One’s Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” helped define black feminist criticism. These pieces charted three of the four paths black feminist critics would pursue over the next four decades: 1) recuperation of lost and forgotten artists and texts, 2) textual analysis of black women’s writing—past and present, and 3) cultural analysis focusing on the contexts in which art, both literary and non-literary, was produced by black women. The fourth path took the turn to diaspora, a crucial shift that has been ascendant in the twenty-first century.

The theory and praxis of black feminist criticism is premised on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class as factors in black women’s experience. It answers another question that was commonly posed in the 1970s: are you black first or a woman first? Most black women could not answer this question, because their racial and gendered identities were inextricably bound together. They were always both. As black people, black women were subject to the forces of racism. As women, black women were subject to the forces of sexism. More black women than not were poor, and were consequently exploited as a consequence of their class position. These oppressions did not occur sequentially; they were continuous and overlapping. Black feminist criticism analyzes the ways they intersect in black women’s lives. The legal theorist and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality in 1989, but its roots were sown in black women’s literature and criticism in the 1970s.

Alice Walker is not unique in the double role she played as both artist and critic. That fusion of roles is a defining element in the development of black feminist criticism. Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, and Ntozake Shange are poets and writers who come immediately to mind.5 Their dual roles are neither antithetical, nor self-serving. Their art and their criticism exist in reciprocal relation. At times the art is the basis of critical insights, as for example in the case of Mem, a character in Walker’s first novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland, whose commitment to beauty even in the face of poverty could make her one of the mothers whom Walker the critic is searching for. At other ← 18 | 19 →times, artists create characters and situations depicting the new world order they theorize in their critical essays. Fiction after all need not depict life as it is; it can depict life as it should be.

By choosing to focus on artist-critics, I do not intend to minimize the importance of scholars who have defined the field of black feminist criticism. I am one of them, after all, and our contributions are discussed in detail throughout this volume. Neither do I contend that black women writers are unique in shaping the critical context in which their writing would be received. To do so would ignore the roles played by Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Ralph Ellison in the critical reception of modernism, to take just one historical case. Still, the African American women who came into print during the last quarter of the twentieth century reflected on their artistic practice with unusual clarity. Their ideas on the particular position of black women in the United States strike common chords, and their nonfiction writings point to common challenges facing them as artists.

In this preface, I lay out a few of their shared critical concerns and discuss the ways those concerns are anticipated, explored, and occasionally resolved in their poems and fiction. Some of these concerns were explicitly literary: In what tradition did their writing belong? Were there models from which to draw? Were they better off without models? In what language would African American writers speak? In what language would their critics speak? Some concerns were not literary at all: rather they engaged issues that black women collectively confronted. If black women writers asked common questions, they came up with different answers, both in their criticism and in the literature they produced. Their literary voices constitute a chorus, as Toni Cade Bambara once put it, in which each writer sings her own solo. Their literary signatures are as distinctive as those of their musical peers. Just as no one who has ever listened to Nina Simone mistakes her for Aretha Franklin—even when they are singing the same song—no careful reader would mistake Toni Cade Bambara for Alice Walker, or June Jordan for Audre Lorde.

The year 1970 was pivotal. Both Toni Morrison and Alice Walker published their first novels, The Bluest Eye and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, respectively. A few months before, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s now classic autobiography, had appeared. Each of these books demonstrated how the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, and class threatened the lives of the young girls at their center. In the two novels, the characters were destroyed, but in Angelou’s autobiography, the protagonist survived and at the book’s conclusion was poised to soar. These writings looked back to a past when black women in the United States had “no say,” as the literary theorist Mae Henderson phrased it. That ← 19 | 20 →is, their words and thoughts counted for nothing on the public record; no official documentation of their words and thoughts existed. But within their homes and communities they had had plenty to say, and a new generation of literary artists sought to recall and re-imagine their words.

Grange Copeland is the title character of Walker’s first novel, which depicts three generations of a sharecropping family in rural Georgia. His son Brownfield carries on his line, but the novel’s most memorable characters are female. Grange beats his wife Margaret and humiliates her by having a public affair with a prostitute named Josie. Initially Brownfield seems determined to lead a different life by marrying Mem, a schoolteacher who strives to bring beauty inside their home and in the gardens she plants. But her efforts are thwarted when Brownfield is pulled back into the dehumanizing system of sharecropping; he takes out his subsequent rage on his wife and children. Mem resists the degradation imposed by the system and by her husband, who unable to live up to her expectations, or his own, murders her. Their youngest daughter Ruth represents the third generation, and Grange’s love for her gives him the “third life” to which the title alludes. Young and vulnerable as she is, Ruth is a truth-teller, whose courage and integrity allow her to resist Brownfield in ways that her mother could not. Still, she cannot overcome his patriarchal authority. Her grandfather Grange, finally able to confront his own wrongdoing, intervenes, and by killing his son, liberates his granddaughter.

The Third Life of Grange Copeland is difficult to read because of the seemingly unrelenting racism, poverty, and domestic abuse it depicts. But it is worth reading because of the skill with which it shows how these conditions are inextricably tied to one another. Racism, sexism, and economic exploitation feed off each other. They create a physical and psychological prison from which no escape seems possible. Yet, in the end, Walker’s vision is hopeful. Grange’s transformation is proof that even the cruelest abuser can be redeemed. Ruth’s participation in the emerging Civil Rights Movement at the end of the novel demonstrates that even the most oppressive social systems can be overturned.

Also in 1970, Toni Cade (later Toni Cade Bambara) edited The Black Woman, an anthology that brought together a chorus of voices including those of the poets and writers Nikki Giovanni, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Paule Marshall and Sherley Anne Williams, along with the political activists Frances Beale, Grace Lee Boggs, Joanne Grant and Pat Robinson, who compiled the working papers of a collective of poor black women. Bambara drew no line between art and activism, either in the anthology or in her life. Rather than as an artist, she preferred to identify herself as a cultural worker. As she wrote in the introduction, “we are involved in a struggle for liberation,” a struggle that engaged workers and artists ← 20 | 21 →alike, and that was birthed in the struggle for human rights for black Americans and for women.6

In two of her essays for the volume, “On the Issue of Roles” and “The Pill: Genocide or Revolution?,” Bambara makes it clear she has no use for “masculine” and “feminine” roles, which destroy the ability of men and women to achieve their full potential. Revolution was her goal, and achieving it required that she and her readers take up “the task of creating a new identity, a self, perhaps an androgynous self, via commitment to the struggle.” In her view, capitalism created and maintains gender roles for the system’s benefit. She concedes that she has limited knowledge of gender roles under other economic systems, then declares: “perhaps we need to face the terrifying and overwhelming possibility that there are no models, that we shall have to create them from scratch.”7 “The Pill” addresses an issue that was hotly contested in the black community during the 1960s. Male black nationalists raised the canard that birth control pills were a form of genocide. Bambara, a female black nationalist, disagreed. In a voice inflected with the rhythms of the urban black vernacular, she addressed her male counterparts: “it is revolutionary, radical, and righteous to want for your mate what you want for yourself. And we can’t be rhapsodizing about liberation, breeding warriors, revolution unless we are willing to address ourselves to the woman’s liberation.”8 Bambara’s use of this last phrase was deliberate. She invoked the women’s liberation movement but insisted that the movement among black women would unfold in a different register. It would not be a middle-class movement, and its goal would be the liberation of black women and men.

When Bambara published a collection of short stories entitled Gorilla, My Love two years later, she dramatized several of the themes in The Black Women. Among the book’s most memorable characters are young girls, who represent a new kind of female protagonist: fearless and bold, feisty and articulate.Read in tandem with her essays, it is clear that they enact the new identity, the androgynous identity, which Bambara called for. These young characters are angered by injustice of any kind, whether it is the injustice of a theater owner who fails to show the movie that he has advertised, or the societal injustice implicit in the existence of a fancy store where toys cost more than a worker’s annual wage. Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, also known as Squeaky, the heroine of “Raymond’s Run,” is a case in point. As she narrates her own story, she tells the reader right off that she is not like most ← 21 | 22 →girls: she does not do housework, she does not like to dress up, and she is an excellent athlete. Hazel is caring and responsible, so much so that her parents have entrusted her with the care of her retarded older brother. Not only is Hazel able to protect him from the taunts of neighborhood children, she decides in the end to train Raymond to run so that he can earn the dignity she has attained for herself.

Under various aliases (Scout, Peaches, and Badbird), Hazel appears in four stories, including the one that gives the volume its title. In each story, Hazel refuses to yield her sense of right and wrong even when—or especially when—her views are challenged by those in authority. Her moral vision is the source of her self-confidence. Her disgust with the adult world stems from the failure of adults to live up to the standards of honesty, integrity and self-respect that Hazel demands of herself. In the sharpness of her social critique, Hazel is sister to Claudia, the sometimes narrator of Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and to Walker’s Ruth in The Third Life of Grange Copeland.

Bambara’s use of first person narration intensifies the reader’s sense that Hazel is speaking her own mind. As striking as what Hazel says, of course, is the way she says it. Consider this passage from the title story: “And now I’m really furious cause I get so tired grownups messin over kids just cause they little and can’t take em to court. What is it, he say to me like I lost my mittens or wet on myself or am somebody’s retarded child. When in reality I am the smartest kid P.S. 186 ever had in its whole lifetime and you can ax anybody.”9 Bambara’s perfect pitch for her characters’ speech is one of her greatest gifts. She writes the idiom without the punctuation marks that called attention to the nonstandard dialect of black characters in nineteenth and early twentieth-century texts by both white and black American writers. Hazel’s speech is unmarked, unapologetic, and unforgettable.

Audre Lorde was Bambara’s contemporary: they taught together at City College in New York, and Lorde wrote a poem dedicated to Bambara’s daughter. Lorde and Bambara shared a commitment to struggle in all its complexities. Also in 1970, Lorde published a poem entitled “Who Said It Was Simple” that captured the multiple positions black women occupied. The poem’s speaker describes herself sitting at Nedick’s, a one-time chain of coffee shops in Manhattan, with a group of presumably white women preparing to attend a march. The women fail to notice how the counterman ignores a black male customer in order to serve them. The speaker is forced to reflect on her own positionality, aligned as she is with both her white female comrades and the black man who is left waiting. Oppressed by ← 22 | 23 →both race and gender, she is left consequently to wonder which of her liberations she will survive.10 The irony inheres in the heightened consciousness that the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement produce and their sometimes confusing consequences. With whom should the black woman be allied? Can she be allied with white women and/or black men who cannot see her, let alone each other?

A decade later, Lorde presented a talk entitled “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” subsequently published in her volume of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider. In this piece, she contemplated the implications of the position of the speaker of “Who Said It was Simple.” Black women’s positionality yielded specific insights into the concept of difference, because of the particulars of their circumstances. Yet, black women could be and were often impatient with each other’s differences, especially with relation to class and sexuality. Lorde, who always insisted on claiming all of who she was, called her “sisters” who rejected lesbians as disloyal and “unblack” themselves. Writing at a time when some in the black community held that homosexuality was “unblack,” Lorde deftly turned the charge back on those who ignorantly hurled it.

Lorde’s stance was bold. Her reflections on her own identity are worth quoting at length:

As a Black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many ingredients of my identity, and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all of the parts of who I am, opening, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition.11

Lorde was in the vanguard of feminists of all races who declared that the personal was political. The courage with which she drew the connection in her own life was admirable. Still, the larger, theoretical point is worth noting. Lorde insisted on claiming her multiple subjectivities. To deny any of them was to diminish who she was. The integration of all of them gave her the power to move through the world. As the larger discussion in which the passage appears makes clear, externally ← 23 | 24 →imposed definitions come from the dominant society as well as from other black people, both male and female. Lorde’s resistance is not only to the familiar racist and gendered stereotypes imposed on black women, but also to the expectations of other African Americans.

Beginning with the slave or liberation narrative, the impulse to define one’s self has been a recurring theme in African American literature. Historically, however, the impulse was mainly to define oneself in opposition to whites. Black women writers in the 1920s and beyond had depicted female characters who resisted being defined by males. At no time since then had calls for black unity been as persistent as they were in the 1960s. Lorde nevertheless resisted attempts to subordinate her individual selves to the collective. Implicit in her analysis was the belief that individuals who were able to live out their full and complex identities strengthened the collective. What was also new in Lorde’s conception was the public profession of what earlier generations had deemed private. Not surprisingly, the best-known essay in Sister Outsider is “The Uses of the Erotic,” which argued for the importance of sexuality in all its dimensions—physical, emotional, and spiritual—as a source of female power. “Age, Race, Class and Sex” should be considered a companion piece.

Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name shows how useful the idea of difference was for Lorde’s creative work. As “biomythography,” the word she coins for the book’s genre denotes, Zami is an innovative text. Rather than autobiography, the biomythography explores biography as myth, myth as biography. In an interview with the scholar Claudia Tate, Lorde describes the result as “really fiction. It has elements of biography and history [and] myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources.”12 Audre, Zami’s protagonist, is also invented, albeit confected from autobiographical elements. The journey the narrative maps culminates with Audre’s achievement of a self at peace with the multiple aspects of her gender and class as well as sexual, racial, and ethnic identity. Several of the book’s other female characters, including Audre’s mother Linda, her girlhood friend Gennie, and her white lover Eudora remain trapped in their externally imposed definitions. Just as Zami celebrates Audre’s successful quest, it measures the cost of these characters’ truncated journeys.

Her erotic relationships are the means through which Audre develops political and poetic consciousness. Ultimately, she learns to embrace the differences that have oppressed her: “It was a while before we came to realize our place was the ← 24 | 25 →very house of difference rather than the security of any one particular difference.”13 Of course, the “house of difference” was a difficult place to reside, which is perhaps one reason the narrative becomes increasingly invested in myth. The ancestral women of Carriacou and the goddesses of Dahomey lead Audre to an understanding of difference as a source of liberation instead of oppression. Rather than double or triple jeopardy, as some black feminists had termed black female identity, in Zami—as in Lorde’s volume of poems The Black Unicorn—women’s race, gender, and class (as well as sexuality, ethnicity, and age) expand consciousness and vision. Tellingly, myth and memory also become key elements in the poetry and fiction of Lorde’s contemporaries, including Lucille Clifton, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker.

Language is of course the writer’s medium. We’ve seen Bambara’s use of Black English, a subject which she, like most of her peers, analyzed insightfully. In an interview with Kalamu ya Salaam entitled “Searching for a Mother Tongue,” she announced, “I’m trying to break words open and get at the bones, deal with symbols as if they were atoms. I’m trying to find out not only how a word gains its meaning, but how a word gains its power.”14 In The Salt Eaters, her experimental, futuristic novel published in 1980, Bambara fuses the urban vernacular of Gorilla, My Love with a more spiritually-inflected language that enacts the quest she describes here. In her essays as well as her fiction, Walker often stylized a southern black vernacular language. Indeed, in The Color Purple she, like Bambara, eliminated the mediating voice usually found in vernacular fiction, such as the voice of the third-person narrator in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God that intones: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”15 By contrast, Celie, the first-person narrator of The Color Purple, speaks directly to the reader in the language of uneducated black rural southerners. In a much less well-known young adult novel, His Own Where (1967), June Jordan had written a book entirely in Black English, a language she defended and celebrated in several of her essays as well.

One of the most memorable reflections on language is Paule Marshall’s “The Poets in the Kitchen,” originally published in The New York Times on 9 January 1983, and frequently reprinted since. While drawing a literary genealogy that, like ← 25 | 26 →Alice Walker’s, includes her mother, Marshall reminds us that black vernacular English comes in different accents. The piece is set in her mother’s Brooklyn kitchen on occasions when her mother’s friends, who like her mother were Barbadian immigrants and domestic workers, gathered. They discussed everything from family to neighborhood gossip to their white employers to national events. In a world in which these women had no say, their determination to speak about everything and everyone, including Marcus Garvey and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was their way of asserting themselves. If, their talk was in part therapy, as Marshall concedes, “that freewheeling, wide-ranging, exuberant talk functioned as an outlet for the tremendous creative energy they possessed.”16 With this observation, Marshall connects their language to her literary art. She analyzes the source of their language—the standard English they were taught in school in Barbados and which they transformed “into an idiom, an instrument that more adequately described them—changing around the syntax and imposing their own rhythm and accent so that the sentences were more pleasing to their ears.” They used language to give themselves what scholars term agency, but also—and equally important to Marshall—they used language as a source of aesthetic pleasure. The phrases the essay quotes (“tumbling big” for pregnant, “thoroughfare” to describe a woman free with her sexual favors,” “beautiful—ugly” to denote something admired yet not quite desired) allow readers to partake of that pleasure as well. Moreover, the last phrase suggests how language reveals the worldview of those who use it. Marshall reads a “fundamental dualism” into the phrase, a sense that a thing contains its opposite.17 She carefully distinguishes that dualism from a Manichean view of the world. These women do not separate things of the body from things of the spirit and attribute evil to some and good to others. I think, rather, that the “beautiful-ugly” trope invests everything with the potential of both evil and good.

Like Walker and Lorde, who cites her mother as her first literary influence, Marshall expresses her artistic debt to the “poets in the kitchen,” who teach her more about the power and beauty of language than the authors whose works she soon encounters in the Brooklyn Public Library. In her 1959 novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, which anticipated the renaissance among black women writers, Marshall had invented the character of Silla Boyce, who could have been one of the women in the kitchen. But Silla is psychologically more complex than the figures in the essay. Alienated from her Caribbean home, she experiences racial prejudice ← 26 | 27 →and economic exploitation in New York City. Her determination is admirable. But she is also fiercely ambitious and willing to sacrifice her family and friends in order to achieve the goal of owning a brownstone in Brooklyn. Her daughter Selina, the novel’s protagonist, finds “other mothers” among her southern-born black neighbors, to nurture her dreams.

Literature complicates theories of intersectionality by forcing readers to come to terms with psychology as a crucial element in the formation of identity. Whether in her first novel or in Praisesong for the Widow (1983), the novel that was published contemporaneously with “The Poets in the Kitchen,” Marshall invents characters whose distinctive personalities exceed social categories. Avey is unlike her similarly middle-class friends, and therefore she is receptive to the experiences she encounters on the island of Carriacou. Ironically, Audre never visits the island that figures so prominently in her imagination; Avey, who has never heard of it, does. In fiction we see how the intersecting lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality ensnare characters differently and how their different psychologies allow them to break free or remain entrapped.

In her choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, performed in San Francisco in 1974 and on Broadway in 1976, Ntozake Shange invests characters with distinct personalities even as she identifies them by the color of their costume rather than by name. “The lady in brown,” “the lady in blue,” “the lady in red” are all African American women in their twenties, who have endured racism and sexism. Apart from the lady in brown, who describes her school girl crush on Toussaint Overture, and the lady in yellow, who narrates the harrowing description of being raped on the night of her high school prom, few share details about their backgrounds. Yet through their words and their dance, the characters vividly distinguish themselves from each other. Their stories revolve around recurrent themes of love and betrayal, yet each has its memorable details. The lady in blue moves to Latin beats, the lady in red dances her “sanctified” love, while the lady in green moves to the rhythms of New Orleans jazz.

No play before it had foregrounded black women’s lives like for colored girls did. Its frank treatment of abortion, rape, and domestic violence riveted audiences and provoked a critical firestorm, especially from some male critics who viewed it as an attack on black men. It was no such thing. As the absence of black men on stage signified, the play was not about them. The opening poem “sing a black girl’s song” defined the play’s subject and theme. The author, born Paulette Williams, had given herself a new name, Ntozake, “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange, “she who walks with lions.” She invented a theater piece in which black women with cosmopolitan tastes move boldly through the world. ← 27 | 28 →They throw off phrases in Spanish with élan, allude to recordings by the avant-garde jazz musicians Oliver Lake and Archie Shepp, and embrace the freedom to love whom they choose. To overcome the hurt that has dogged them nonetheless, they learn finally to love themselves.

In a declaration that echoed those of her sister writers, Shange asserted in the 1970s, “I owe not one more moment of thought to the status of European masters. I don’t have to worry that Ira Aldridge thinks poorly of me for not accepting a challenge/ the battle is over. I am settling my lands with my characters, my language, my sense of right & wrong, my sense of time & rhythm. The rest of my life can go along in relative aesthetic peace/ the enemy has been banished from my horizons.”18 After Alice Walker made similar statements in her essays, she went “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” and “Looking for Zora.” Toni Cade Bambara returned to the Harlem streets she had known as a child and invented characters that were perhaps idealized versions of herself. Long before the term diaspora became part of the scholarly lexicon, Audre Lorde imagined a home in Carriacou, a “magic place” in the Caribbean which she had never seen, but which she “knew well out of my mother’s mouth.”19 Paule Marshall depicted an actual journey to Carriacou, where, in the dance of the nations, her protagonist reconnected with her spirits of her African forebears. And Ntozake Shange, in for colored girls and her numerous books of poetry and prose, mapped “a daughter’s geography” settling lands throughout the Americas. As a consequence of these writers’ critical interventions, in their day the phrase “black woman artist” could mean anything they chose it to mean.

1 Walker, Alice: “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” In: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1983, p. 233.

2 Ibid., p. 232.

3 Ibid., p. 241.

4 Ibid., p. 241.

5 This list is not exhaustive. I should note two obvious omissions: Toni Morrison and Sherley Anne Williams, who do not identify as feminists, but are of course significant writer/critics. Their essays influence many explicitly feminist critics and scholars.

6 Cade, Toni: “Preface.” In: The Black Woman. New York: Signet 1970, p. 7.

7 Cade, Toni: “On the Issue of Roles.” In Cade 1970, p. 109.

8 Cade, Toni: “The Pill: Genocide or Liberation?” In Cade 1970, p. 165.

9 Bambara, Toni Cade: “Gorilla, My Love.” In: Gorilla, My Love. New York: Random House 1972, p. 17.

10 Lorde, Audre: “Who Said It Was Simple.” In: Chosen Poems – Old and New. New York: W.W. Norton 1982, pp. 49–50.

11 Lorde, Audre: “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Black Women Redefining Difference.” In: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press 1984, pp. 120–121.

12 Tate, Claudia: Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum 1983, p. 115.

13 Lorde, Audre: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press 1982, p. 226.

14 ya Salaam, Kalamu: “Searching for the Mother Tongue: An Interview with Toni Cade Bambara.” Reprinted in: Holmes, Linda J. / Wall, Cheryl A. (eds.): Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara. Philadelphia: Temple University Press 2008, pp. 58–59.

15 Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God. (1937). New York: HarperCollins 1990, p. 1.

16 Marshall, Paule: “The Poets in the Kitchen. In: Reena and Other Stories. New York: The Feminist Press 1983, p. 6.

17 Ibid., pp. 8, 9.

18 Shange, Ntozake: lost in language and sound: or how i found my way to the arts: essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press 2011, p. 43. Ira Aldridge was a nineteenth-century black American actor, who was famous for his Shakespearean roles.

19 Lorde, Zami 1982, p. 13.

← 28 | 29 →Nagueyalti Warren

Home Girls and Sister Outsider: The Roots of Black Feminist Literary Criticism

First-Wave Black Feminism

Feminism for black women in the United States most likely began during their enslavement. The feminist stance of women fugitives from slavery, including Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and of free women of color as well as the women evangelist and itinerant preachers Maria Stewart, Jerena Lee and Julia Foote, who dared to challenge the Church hierarchy, are just the well-known examples. Lee, Foote, Stewart, and Frances Gaudet left for us autobiographies that interrogate issues of race, class, and gender,1 just like the enslaved Harriet Jacobs, who documented her attempt at seizing control of her own sexuality and recorded her actions in Incidences in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). While the connection between white first-wave feminism and the second-wave feminism that came to fruition in the late 1960s and 1970s is clear, the link between first-wave black feminists and second-wave black women involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements is less clear.

During the second-wave feminist movement, many black women faced a dilemma their predecessors seem not to have confronted, that is whether to choose between a movement of white women or a black movement aimed at liberating black people. First-wave black feminists were abolitionists, suffragists, anti-lynching crusaders, temperance supporters and advocates for gender and sexual equality. They were not blind to racism in white women’s organizations, nor were they insensitive to the sexism existing in black organizations. They confronted these issues as they struggled for justice. In a speech before the Eleventh National ← 29 | 30 →Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, Frances Watkins Harper related the facts of her dispossession following her husband’s sudden death, and concluded that she would have been treated differently had she not been a woman. Moreover, she also told the white women that while they spoke of rights, she spoke of wrongs and related the injustices suffered by African Americans and the many insults suffered by women because they were black.2

One might wonder why there is not the same continuity between black feminists as there appears to be for white feminists. Why is there a need for separate nomenclature to distinguish black feminism? For example, Womanism, Alice Walker’s moniker, or Africana Womanism introduced by Clenora Hudson-Weems both make an effort to reach black women who were seemingly resistant to feminism.3 One explanation might be that research regarding the activities of early black feminists was not as available as it is today, the result of black and women’s studies programs and departments. For example, few scholars in the 1960s knew that in 1888, a black woman, E.F.J., writing in the New York Age, argued that women were more “than household machines,” or that the abolitionist, author, and feminist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, writing in the English Woman’s Review, declared “The women as a class are quite equal to the men in energy and executive ability,” pointing out that whereas men work and talk, women take care of the home and family and acquire education for themselves, “doing double duty.”4

Apparently, African American women had no problem identifying as feminist, working for women’s rights and for the freedom and justice of black people. Nor were they unaware of the racism that existed in the white feminist movement. As Fannie Jackson Coppin reminded the Congress of Representative Women, they could not “be indifferent to the history of colored women in America.”5 These early black women were feminist in the truest sense of the word. They were pro-woman. It did not mean they were anti-men. They understood what Anna Julia Cooper’s classic quotation reveals: “Only the Black Woman can say ‘when and where I enter, ← 30 | 31 →in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’”6

Although some scholars consider the Black women’s club movement of the 1890 as the beginning of black feminist organizing,7 black feminist organizing did in fact occur prior to the women’s club movement, through literary and ­mutual benefit societies. In 1818, the Colored Female Religious and Moral ­Society in Salem, Massachusetts drafted its own constitution.8 In 1830 there were eighty such societies in Philadelphia. The African Dorcas Association supported free schools and literary societies which enhanced writing skills and sharpened ­political views.9 While the history of black women’s feminism is clear, it has not been widely acknowledged or disseminated; and, in some instances, it has been deliberately obfuscated in order to promote conservative agendas.

Second-Wave Black Feminism

Black feminist criticism, closely tied to the academy, emerges within the context of second-wave feminism, which developed in the waning days of the Civil Rights Movement and within the context of the burgeoning Black Power Movement. As ← 31 | 32 →such, sexual politics plays a large role in resisting the development of the twentieth century feminist movement for black women. The Civil Rights Movement, governed by southern male clergy, was middle class in terms of its values and mores. Its political orientation was integrationist; its ideas about family, femininity, and the role of women reflect white cultural paradigms. The new and more secular Black Power Movement was not interested in assimilating white, Eurocentric ideas, but it was interested in acquiring all the benefits of patriarchy. In 1967 Ron Karenga, the father of Kwanzaa, articulated a commonly held view: “What makes a woman appealing is femininity and she can’t be feminine without being submissive. A man has to be a leader.”10 Joyce Ladner and other women in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements recall the change that took place after 1965, the result of the infamous Moynihan Report defining black family structure as pathological: “something did happen in our community after 1965, something did happen as we moved to Black Power and as we moved to black nationalism and as the Black Muslims became very prominent in terms of their attitude toward women.”11 The radical nationalist groups accepted traditional and conservative notions of manhood and womanhood, even to the point of embracing Western Christian anti-homosexual prejudices. Manning Marable summarizes the Black Power sentiment as follows: “In the Black community talking about issues of gender is seen as a kind of anti-Black discourse, that is to say outside the context of Blackness, and anti-Black because it takes the focus away from the ‘real’ issue which is race. Blackness is also defined in heterosexist ways, so that if you’re gay you clearly can’t be black.”12

The rhetoric of black cultural nationalists, together with the failure of the second-wave white feminist movement to acknowledge fully the issues of race and class, prevented many black women from embracing feminism. Yet some black women took up the challenge. In some ways, it can be said that bell hooks’ critique of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) marks the beginning of the second-wave feminist movement. Pointing out how women of color and poor white women were not included in what Friedan described, hooks noted that in the United States, feminism had never come from the grass roots, that is, from those most victimized by sexist oppression—“a silent majority.”13 Audre Lorde’s effort ← 32 | 33 →to transform silence into language and action opened dialogue among black and white feminists within the academy. Her address on the Lesbian and Literature Panel at the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1977, where she uttered her memorable statement “Your silence will not protect you,” was a call to voice for black women silenced by the accusatory and sexist critiques of black men.14 It was a call to interrogate and acknowledge the intersections of race, gender, and class as first-wave black feminists had done and black women writers were already doing.15

Black Writers Creating Feminist Works

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, both of which appeared in 1970, introduced to the second half of the twentieth century black feminist fiction. These early works, together with Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Toni Cade’s anthology The Black Woman, also published in 1970, spoke truth to power. Each work contained an unabashed look at the lives of black women and girls. The picture was not pretty.16

Morrison’s work attacked the culture and the men that focused on the superfluous aspects of women, viewing them as decorations, and the racism that glorified a white aesthetic symbolized in blue eyes. Cholly rapes and impregnates his own daughter, Pecola. Morrison thus exposed child abuse that many in the black community would deny existed. Morrison was attacked for writing an undeniable truth—although, curiously, no one thought to chastise Ralph Ellison when in his novel Invisible Man (1952) a black male character committed incest on his daughter.

← 33 | 34 →Walker’s novel presented the murder of a wife and mother by her husband and the father of her children. In her community in Eatonton, Georgia, Walker witnessed as an impressionable young girl of thirteen the actual dead body of Mrs. Walker (who, though she had the same last name, was not related to Alice Walker). The woman’s face had been shot off. In the first edition of The Third Life of Grange Copeland there is no explanation, no afterword. Walker apparently assumed that the novel could, as did those written by male authors, stand its own ground. However, the firestorm of criticism and challenges that followed the publication of her work, especially later, after the film version of The Color Purple in 1988, compelled Walker to substantiate her characterizations with evidence from her own lived experience. Mrs. Walker had been a real person, and many of the events in The Third Life were woven from the fabric of Alice Walker’s own life.

Maya Angelou’s first autobiography makes explicit the caged bird experience of Black girls and women. Speaking of her own life, she says: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”17 Still it is a necessary knowing, one that each girl must come to terms with. The radical feminist insistence on examining identity politics enables women and girls to survive the insult. Toni Cade’s anthology presented a collage of feminist poetry, short stories and essays confronting the myth of the “castrating” black woman, black power, and birth control. The collection represents the diverse views of black women.

Audre Lorde, writing in The Cancer Journals: Special Edition, says that women’s “feelings need voice in order to be recognized, respected, and of use.”18 Her words crystallize the pernicious nature of the biblical injunction of the Apostle Paul: Let your women keep silent. Silence is death. The sharing of experience is helpful and life-saving for the women who read other women writers. Of Lorde’s journals Walker writes that she has been “helped more than [she] can say; it has taken away some of [her] fear of cancer, [her] fear of incompleteness, [her] fear of difference. This book teaches [...] that with one breast or none,” she remains herself. That the sum total of her being is infinitely greater than the number of her breasts.19 Yet women’s writings continue to be dismissed by too many men, black and white.

← 34 | 35 →In “Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist,”20 Walker declares that the writer must put into words the courage and dignity of black people’s lives, the lived experiences of both women and men. The women writers of the second-wave black women’s movement have done this, and black women critics have heeded the call by providing enlightening readings, creating space for the next emboldened analysis.21

Black Feminist Literary Criticism

While Alice Walker opened the door for discussing black women’s creativity with her landmark essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” (1974), which argues for the recognition of their resilient creativity in the wake of racism, poverty, and physical and mental abuse, and in the following year Barbara Christian advanced the conversation about tradition by examining images of Black women in Afro-American literature, turning her research into Black Women Novelists, The Development of a Tradition (1980),22 it was Barbara Smith’s “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977) and Home Girls (1981) and Lorde’s essays in Sister Outsider (1984), many of them publicly delivered in 1977 and 1978, that significantly changed the face of black women’s literary criticism. Interrogating the homophobia, ageism, racism, classism, and sexism that plagued the academy and inhibited the works of black women critics, Lorde’s and Smith’s essays led to a deep critique of both black and white feminism, and pointed to the absence of a sustainable ← 35 | 36 →black feminist movement that could force the implementation of black women’s literature within the academy in the same way that the white women’s feminist movement had done for women’s studies. Their works have enabled others to confront openly and honestly the diverse experiences of black women and to critique in writing what marginalized women have said and have written.

In 1977, the same year that Audre Lorde addressed the Modern Language Association’s Lesbian and Literature Panel with “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” members of The Combahee River Collective23 formulated a public statement delineating the beginning of black feminism at the grass roots level in the black community. The statement further declared an inclusiveness of Third World women and black men in line with the universalism articulated in Alice Walker’s definition of Womanism as concern for the survival of all people, male and female. Finally, the collective statement concluded with a commitment to examine their own politics, critique themselves, and promote “a nonhierarchical distribution of power.”24 Both Smith and Lorde were among the organizers of this lesbian feminist group of artist and activists.

The women of the collective demanded the right to focus on their own oppression and they stated that the most profound and radical politics come from their own identity, naming them identity politics. Rather than accepting the rhetoric of the Black Nationalism which claimed that the priority was racism not sexism, these feminists knew that the problem was not either-or but both racism and sexism experienced simultaneously. The political issues facing black women were the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, and class. Political at its core, as Duchess Harris argues, “[T]he work of the Combahee paved the way for unequivocal and unapologetic theoretical and creative articulations of black feminism during the 1970s and into the 1980s.”25 The roots of this idea of the simultaneity of interlocking oppressions, a crucial aspect of black feminist criticism, can be traced back to the Combahee statement.

← 36 | 37 →In 1977, Barbara Smith also published her groundbreaking challenge to black women critics and academics with the essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” In the essay, Smith calls for critics to analyze black women’s texts from a feminist perspective. Frustrated by racist remarks made by white women who claimed to be feminists, Smith challenged black women academics to develop a black feminist literary theory. She reasoned that since the attacks coming from black men and the misreadings from others were failing to analyze the works of black women writers thoroughly, a feminist critique would remedy the problem. Smith’s work with the Modern Language Association (MLA) as the first woman of color on the MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession enabled her to lobby simultaneously for women’s studies and for a black feminist literary criticism.26 Referring to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Smith stated that the need for “nonhostile and perceptive analysis” had already been demonstrated by the critics who introduced the black aesthetic.27 While acknowledging feminist literary scholarship, such as Alice Walker’s course on Black Women Writers offered at Wellesley College in 1972, Mary Helen Washington’s 1974 essay on Zora Neale Hurston, and Robert Hemenway’s literary biography of Zora Neale Hurston published in 1977, Smith called for black critics to define black feminist criticism.28

Her call initially met with reluctance to define black feminist criticism. Scholars were hesitant to define black feminist criticism because definitions limit, and, as Toni Morrison pointed out, definitions often become narrow and constrict creativity. They can become dogma.29 As a participant in the Black Arts Movement, Barbara Christian knew the danger of theory. As she later recalled, “The Black Arts Movement tried to create Black Literary Theory and in doing so became prescriptive.”30 Like Morrison, Christian argues against narrow definitions as well ← 37 | 38 →as against the imposition of the European philosophical theories that were de rigeur during the last part of the twentieth century.

Barbara Smith also bemoaned the fact that there was no black feminist publication in which black feminist criticism might appear. Writing was one thing, but getting the writing published presented another barrier, and it was more difficult for lesbian feminists than for heterosexual feminists. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, established in 1980, addressed the need for an autonomous publishing outlet. Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde were co-founders, along with other feminist activists. The press published eight books and five pamphlets. Among the most impactful were This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde’s I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities (1986). These works made significant inroads in that they announced the radical positions of women of color. Furthermore, This Bridge Called my Back was a representative coalition of brown, black, Asian and Native women writers.31 The Foreword, written by Toni Cade Bambara, announced that the works were breaking the silence and reclaiming the women’s voices. The volume included such groundbreaking works as Lorde’s “Open Letter to Mary Daly” as well as her pivotal essay “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in which Lorde, speaking to a group of white academic feminists, argued that academics could not dismantle the structures of racism, sexism and homophobia using the same tools of logic that the oppressors used. However, the truth was that some were not trying to dismantle; they simply wanted to get inside. I am Your Sister was a significant call for black women to examine their heterosexist bias and homophobia.

Conditions, a feminist publication paying particular attention to lesbian work, began publishing in 1976, in Brooklyn, New York. In 1979, Conditions: Five: The Black Women’s Issue, edited by Smith and Lorraine Bethel, was published. It became the basis for Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, published in 1983 by the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. The publication gave substance to Smith’s theory. The anthology contained a mix of genres including poetry, essays and even photographs. The essays that constitute a feminist critique include Gloria Hull’s “What is it I Think She’s Doing Anyway: A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters and Ann Allen Shockley’s “The Black Lesbian in American ← 38 | 39 →Literature: An Overview.” Alice Walker’s essay “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse” and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” bring this unique anthology to a close.

Smith, Lorde and other feminists who made the bold move of establishing the press and publishing anthologies encouraged other black women to follow suit. Sturdy Black Bridges: Black Women in Literature, edited by Roseann Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, appeared in 1979, and in 1983 Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, co-founded by Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Patricia Bell-Scott and edited by Bell-Scott, began publishing scholarly articles by and about black women. While focused on themes, the first edition being Black Women’s Health, the journal also included book reviews and published issues focused on literature.

These early publishing outlets were transformative, providing space for sensitive and constructive analyses of black women’s writings. Prior to their existence, black women’s works were either ignored or misread. Mary Helen Washington’s essay “‘Taming All That Anger Down’: Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha” outlines the way in which black women’s literature was dismissed.32 Referring to the egregious misreadings of Gwendolyn Brooks’ only novel Maud Martha by white/male critics, she wrote “No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviewers enshrined.”33 Washington’s reading of Maud Martha as a feminist and Smith’s controversial reading of Sula as a lesbian in “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” offered fresh perspectives in the understanding of black women’s fiction.

Washington’s feminist reading of Maud Martha reveals the anger and discontent that would explode in the second-wave feminist movement of the late 60s and 70s. Smith’s reading of Sula offers a broader definition of lesbian, stating that the literary lesbian need not be sexually intimate in a relationship with a woman but must be at the center of the novel and the relationship with women must be pivotal. She claims “Despite the apparent heterosexuality of the female characters [...] Sula [...] works as a lesbian novel not only because of the passionate friendship between Sula and Nel but because of Morrison’s consistently critical stance toward the heterosexual institutions of male-female relationships, marriage, and the family.”34

← 39 | 40 →In spite of the resistance articulated by both black women critics and some black women writers about the dangers of black critical feminist theory, Smith’s essay does not posit a straitjacket approach to analyzing black women’s writing. Her general recommendations appear open-ended. She suggests that critics should be highly innovative, think and write out of their own identity, and refuse to graft the idea or methodology of white/male literary thought onto black women’s art. Perhaps most important is her advice to be aware of the political implications of the critics’ work and to make connections between the work and the political situation of all black women. However, this attention to the political proved to be problematic for some black women. Deborah McDowell in “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism” (1980) argued that feminist critics must guard against “the dangers of political ideology yoked with aesthetic judgment,”35 an old argument that has plagued black literature from its inception in the United States. Many have argued that the literature of an oppressed people is inherently political.

By the 1980s, black feminist literary criticism was gaining recognition. The publication of Mary Helen Washington’s Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers (1980), her earlier anthology, Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and About Black Women (1975), and her essay “Teaching Black-Eyed Susans: An Approach to the Study of Black Women Writers” that appeared in Black American Literature Forum in 1977 rank among the transformational works of black women critics.36 The 1980s also saw the publication of Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott and Barbara Smith’s All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982), which called attention to the erasure of Black women in both African American Studies and Women’s Studies departments. The move to eradicate this omission resulted in the offering of new courses focused on the writings of black women. The groundwork laid by these feminist anthologies and the black lesbian feminist publishing house, together with other writing that scrutinized women’s lives, called for scholarly analysis. Nevertheless, even in the wake of a growing body of work by black women writers and positive criticism from black women scholars, the reception of both black artists and scholars rendered them outsiders.

In Sister Outsider Lorde clarifies the failure of the white feminist movement, pointing to their inability or unwillingness to recognize the multidimensional ← 40 | 41 →oppressions of black women, a failure that rendered the black sisters outsiders. In her 1979 letter to Mary Daly, Lorde attempts to break the silence regarding the apparent invisibility of black women writers and poets, asking if Daly “ever really read the work of black women?”37 In “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” she writes that women’s “need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”38 The essay points out that black women are not responsible for educating white feminists regarding black works. Lorde would also deliver a similar message to black men. Responding to their claims of ostracism, the result of black feminist writing,39 Lorde declares: “Black men’s feelings of cancellation, their grievances, and their fear of vulnerability must be talked about, but not by Black women when it is at the expense of our own ‘curious rage.’”40 Recognizing that a tactic of the oppressor is to keep the oppressed engaged with the issues of the oppressor, she focuses her creative energy on black women and herself as subjects.

Both Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith, along with the women of the Combahee Collective, used their energy, bravery and foresight to encourage black women writers and scholars to break the silence and be courageous. These two radical lesbian feminists lit a fire that continues to burn. While one could argue the early works of Mary Helen Washington and Barbara Christian were the genesis of black feminist literary criticism, and of course their works were seminal, an analogy can be made with the Civil Rights Movement and the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Compromises were reached with King in order to avoid the more radical confrontations with Malcolm X. Smith and Lorde helped create the environment in which black women writers and black feminist critics could grow. From then on, teaching the works of Black women from a feminist perspective was unavoidable. Moreover, the work of the lesbian feminists had so radicalized black women that, as Nellie McKay announced, “Whether [she] was teaching William Faulkner or Henry James, by speaking out on [her] position as a black ← 41 | 42 →woman, the course becomes a black feminist course.”41 Professor McKay was my instructor at Simmons College, and she introduced me to black feminist thought.

By 1990, feminist readings had become standard for many critics in the academy, although lesbian readings still had not. The publication of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology (1990) brought together a diverse collection of critical essays in which curiously missing is Barbara Smith’s essay on Toni Morrison’s Sula. Marianne Hirsch’s essay “Cruel Enough to Stop the Blood” appears instead of Smith’s lesbian reading. In this essay Hirsch “illustrates the relationship between feminism and the maternal through a brief look at the tradition of contemporary black women’s writing that defines itself as a daughterly tradition in relation to a complicated maternal past.”42 While a reading from the daughterly position is important, far more revealing is the relationship between Sula and Nel. Many readers have no real understanding of Sula, but a lesbian critique brings her personality into full focus. Nonetheless, far too many heterosexual black women and men wear blinders and refuse to acknowledge multiple sexualities. Thus, even otherwise excellent readings and analyses contain certain incongruities and distortions. For example, Mary Helen Washington’s approaches for teaching Black women writers list three categories of women characters: the Suspended Woman, the Assimilated Woman and the Emergent Woman.43 It seems curious that Sula would be categorized as the Suspended Woman because she definitely is not, as Washington claims using Hurston’s words, “a mule of the world.”44 She is not subjected to nor destroyed by violence in the ways that the other characters in the section are: Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, Nannie in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Lutie in Petry’s The Street (1946), Mem in Walker’s The Third Life (1970), or Pauline in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Sula is the sole character not explained by Washington’s paradigm.

While some writers either knowingly or unknowingly shied away from presenting multiple sexual identities, others clearly embraced all of the various aspects of Black womanhood. Among the earliest within the context of the second-wave feminist movement was Ann Allen Shockley. Her lesbian fiction Loving Her (1974) garnered harsh criticism from the then masculinist Black Nationalists, but more shocking than their myopic and sexist critique was the temerity of Frank Lamont ← 42 | 43 →Philips, a student and classmate, to label Shockley’s work “bullshit” and have his review of the book published in an issue of Black World.45 Shockley was not to be silenced, however. In 1985, she published Say Jesus and Come to Me. Ten years had made something of a difference, and this time the reviews were less vicious. After all, by 1985, Gloria Naylor had published The Women of Brewster Place (1982) with its two lesbian lovers, and Alice Walker had introduced the world to the lesbian lovers Shug and Celie. Yet there were still silences among those who write about and analyze the works of Black feminist writers. In the groundbreaking anthology Reading Black, Reading Feminist, only Barbara Christian deals seriously with the lesbian characters Lorraine and Theresa in Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place.46

The one writer that forces a critical conversation about and critique of lesbian feminist characters is Alice Walker. She has risen to the challenge posed by black lesbian feminists to imagine multiple ways of being a black woman in the world. From the love scenes between Celie and Shug in The Color Purple to the torrid lovemaking of Susannah and Pauline in By the Light of My Father’s Smile, Walker has pushed back the parameters restricting black women’s lives and what black women write about. The response has not been unexpected. Richard Bernstein’s New York Times Review called By the Light of My Father’s Smile “Limp New-Age Nonsense in Mexico,” a judgment which is reminiscent of Phillip’s condemnation of Shockley’s novel as “bullshit.”47 What this type of criticism does is issue a call for more feminist critics, yet there is the silence of which Lorde warned—the tyrannies. To date no serious analysis of lesbians in Walker’s fiction has appeared beyond the massive critical response to The Color Purple.

In “Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power,”48 Audre Lorde has written movingly of the erotic as power. She distinguished between the erotic and the pornographic—← 43 | 44 →the latter being an abuse of feeling whereas the erotic accepts the wisdom of feeling.49 Furthermore, she posits that the truly erotic, deriving from the Greek word Eros, is spiritual and a source of creative energy. In this patriarchal culture, there exists a false “dichotomy between the spiritual and the political,” and women are taught to distrust the erotic.50 Lorde’s essay represents at least one way of reading Walker’s By the Light of my Father’s Smile.

Toward the end of the 1980s, several conferences convened in order to examine the efforts made in terms of black literature and literary theory, including feminist theory. Two publications appeared which contained the seminal thinking of major black feminist critics: Cheryl A. Wall’s edited volume Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women (1989) and Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s (1989), edited by Houston Baker and Patricia Redmond. The conferences and the publications clearly demonstrate the growing diversity in black feminist criticism. Given their significance, I will now turn to discuss some of their essays in greater length.

The Baker and Redmond book resulted from a three-day conference held in April 1997 “aimed at critical agenda-setting and [...] at canon making.”51 The initial essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told,” focuses on anthologies as a method of canon formation, although he fails to mention black lesbian feminist anthologies that were crucial to developing black feminist criticism. Of greatest importance is his warning for critics to avoid “the mistake of accepting the empowering language of white critical theory as ‘universal’ or as our own language, the mistake of confusing the enabling mask of theory with our own black faces.”52 Barbara Johnson responds to Gates by pointing out that critical theory, as an enabling mask set against black faces, is problematic because it creates tension between language and the body. She writes: “The mask of theory is contrasted with a black face, but then blackness itself becomes a mask and a language.”53

Also related to the issue of theory and tradition, Deborah McDowell’s essay “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin” asks “What is black feminist criticism and who does it?” McDowell eschews the commonly held belief that the black feminist critic is an African American woman who brings a feminist ← 44 | 45 →perspective to analyze the literature produced by black women writers. Citing Barbara Johnson’s essays on Hurston and on the Harlem Renaissance, Robert Hemenway’s biography of Hurston and the critical work of some black men—Gates and Michael Awkward to name just two—she warns against the assumption about the what and who of black feminist literary criticism. She also insists that the lack of a “final definition of black feminist criticism—assuming that that is a desirable goal—should cause no undue concern, for black literary feminists do not comprise a unitary essence, nor is their critical methodology already settled, defined, and conceptually unified.” McDowell concludes that black feminist criticism is in process, and that “its achievement and promise reside in the process that began with Barbara Smith’s essay ‘Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.’”54

In response to McDowell’s essay, Hortense Spillers quotes the prophetic statement of Bernice Johnson Reagon in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology: “There is not going to be space to continue as we are or as we were” in “turning the century.” Black women scholars and critics must face and engage differences. By fully confronting the “convergences of differences,” black feminist critics can move toward dissolving what Spillers calls the pernicious distinctions of academy vs. vernacular, scholar vs. the folk, and the ivory tower vs. the real world.55

Finally, in “There Is No More Beautiful Way: Theory and the Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing,” Houston A. Baker, Jr. states his definition of theory: “A theory is an explanation. Successful theories offer global description and predictive adequacy.” Accordingly, theory begins where “intuitive knowledge, common sense, or appreciation” end.56 For Baker, theory is concerned with explanation at the metalevel; he calls for theorizing imagistic fields at the metalevel in order to explain the works of black women writers. Mae G. Henderson responds to Baker, pointing out that what he proposes is a “negotiation between two traditions—the hegemonic and the nonhegemonic—that results in a change for both.” While she agrees with the syncretism Baker suggests, Henderson cautions Baker of “the danger [...] of not only essentializing but reinforcing the most conventional constructs of (black) femininity” by focusing on image and imagined space.57

In October 1987, ten African American women convened at Rutgers University for the conference Changing Our Own Words: A Symposium on Criticism, Theory, and Literature by Black Women. The conference resulted in the publication Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black ← 45 | 46 →Women, edited by Cheryl Wall, addressing the issues raised in Barbara Smith’s call ten years previously regarding black feminist literary criticism. Mae Henderson’s now classic essay, “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogism, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition,” offers a paradigm for incorporating the theory that Henry Louis Gates urges black critics to use by changing it into a black idiom. She pairs Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism with a religious practice in black sanctified churches, glossalalia. Her use of literary theory enables a brilliant reading of Sula (1973) and Dessa Rose (1986). Significantly, Henderson also incorporates the “simultaneity of black women’s discourse” that, in the words of Cheryl Wall, picks up “where Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde began.”58 In fact, she begins her essay with a quotation from Audre Lorde’s statement in Sister Outsider: “I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself.”59

Another essay included in the volume, Valerie Smith’s “Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the ‘Other,’” suggests readings that “suspend the variables of race, class, and gender in mutually interrogative relation.”60 In her analysis of Sarah Phillips (1984), Smith concludes that the “black woman novelist thematizes the relationship between those who occupy privileged discursive spaces and the ‘other.’”61 Next, Barbara Christian’s essay, “But What do we Think We’re Doing Anyway: The State of Black Feminist Criticism(s) or My Version of a Little Bit of History,” raises four pertinent questions, extending Barbara Smith’s call for a definition of black feminist criticism. Christian asks if black feminist critical orientation will still be viable at the turn of the century; to whom are black feminist critics accountable; have we learned anything from history about ideas, language and practice, will black women’s voices sound authentic to anyone by the year 2000; and what is it that we want to do and for whom do we want to do it.62

Deborah McDowell’s “Reading Family Matters” reviews the debate over the portrayal of black men in the fiction of black women writers, namely Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker. She concludes that their complaints are a smoke screen to disguise their real grasping efforts for power in the literary world and their wish to control the bodies of work by black women and reduce them to the daughterly position of transcribing the words of the father. “‘The Permanent ← 46 | 47 →Obliquity of an In(pha)llibly Straight’: In the Time of the Daughters and the Fathers,” Hortense Spillers’ essay, uses a Freudian lens and reads the father-daughter incest in Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Alice Walker’s short story “The Child who Favored Daughter”63 as a symbolic projection resulting from the African American enslavement and the rupturing of family. Gloria Hull’s “Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us,” examines Lorde’s poetry as a way of reading her life. Hull claims that the book cover for Our Dead Behind Us (1986), invokes the poet’s life as one of struggle. Hull says that Lorde’s effort is “to decode—as the lesbian/gay community does—the submerged signification of the visible signs” and to clearly speak the truth.64

The remaining essays in Wall’s collection center on the African Diaspora and African women writers and popular culture, and include “What is Your Nation?: Africa and Her Diaspora through Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow” by Abena Busia and “I Shop Therefore I Am” by Susan Willis. Busia’s essay discusses Marshall’s novel and relates the significance of history, a necessary knowing in order to recognize “cultural artifacts” as clues for reading the signs.65 For Busia, the first task of the reader/critic is to recognize the cultural signs. Busia reads the novel in conversation with The Color Purple (1982), Michelle Cliff’s Abeng (1984), Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy (1977) and Maryse Condé’s Heremakhonon (1976). In her reading of these works, there is no deconstruction of history but rather a remembering. Susan Willis, on the other hand, focuses on difference and comments on consumer society, and while she begins with Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, she mostly reads the signs in popular culture. She concludes that “mass-produced commodity” has nothing to offer African Americans.66

While the seventies and eighties had been a time of reclaiming black women’s voices and arguing over methods, the 1990s was a decade of reflection and evaluation. In “Black Feminist Thinking: The ‘Practice’ of ‘Theory’” (1995) Deborah McDowell examines critical theory as it relates to memory and memory to history. Viewing both history and memory as “contested terrain,”67 McDowell’s essay points to the ways in which black feminist thinking has been assigned the label political as opposed to theoretical. She writes: “The assignment so far of black women to the ‘serious political’ as opposed to the ‘high theoretical’ is an oversimplified ← 47 | 48 →taxonomic distinction based primarily on the convenience of the privileged few.”68 Quoting Lorde’s statement in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex”69 about cosmetic revisions that produce no significant changes, she concludes that black feminist criticism suffers from what Valerie Smith calls “split affinities”70 and is plagued by contradictions. While she admits that black feminist criticism is on “as yet unfinished trajectory, it is consigned to the status of the permanent underclass.”71 She sees black feminist criticism fixed in a history that has experienced only cosmetic changes.

At the turn of the century Barbara Smith’s collection of essays The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom (2000) was published. It begins with her now classic essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” Included in the section with her seminal essay are seven essays that move closer to a black feminist criticism. Among these are “The Souls of Black Women,” discussing Alice Walker’s short story collection In Love and Trouble, “Sexual Politics and the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston,” positing that “Only when a heightened understanding of the way in which sexual politics affects Black women’s lives emerges will the gifts of an artist like Zora Neale Hurston be fully understood and the ironies of her life fully mourned,” and “Naming the Unnameable,” an essay on the poetry of Pat Parker where Smith warns that foreign theory does nothing to enable those who struggle against oppression.

Twenty-first-century scholars have heeded the call of those who came before them. Cheryl A. Wall’s Worrying the Line (2005) is a feminist reading of black women’s literary tradition. She begins by analyzing Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and Audre Lorde’s Zami (1982). In both works lineage is a line to follow. Lucille Clifton’s Generations (1976), the focus of chapter three in the book, explores family secrets and, according to Wall, “anticipates the novels Beloved and ← 48 | 49 →Corregidora.”72 Morrison’s The Black Book (1974)73 is examined along with her novel Beloved (1987). The Color Purple, Mama Day (1988), Sula, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and Alice Walker’s essays are all categorized under tradition and kinship even though Wall admits that feminist and queer theories believe that family metaphors are heterosexist and other critics see family as part of the discourse of Black Nationalism. For her, the works included in her analysis are neither heterosexist nor Black nationalist.

Regis Mann’s essay “Theorizing ‘What Could Have Been’: Black Feminism, Historical Memory, and the Politics of Reclamation” (2011) points to the ways in which contemporary black feminists are reclaiming the past and seeding the future of black feminist criticism. The anthology Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds (2007), edited by Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, is but one example of a work including essays by contemporary feminist critics who take seriously the intellectual feminist tradition of the nineteenth century. Resurrecting black women writers from the past is part of the necessary work that feminist critics still perform, just as they continue to take a Diasporic perspective, as visible in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (2015), edited by Mia Bay, Farah Griffin, Martha Jones and Barbara Savage, and Donna Weir-Soley’s Eroticism, Spirituality and Resistance in Black Women’s Writing (2009), which makes use of feminist theory in reading women writers of the African Diaspora. Most importantly, contemporary black feminists give due respect to black lesbian literature, as evident in Matt Richardson’s The Queer Limit of Black Memory: Black Lesbian Literature and Irresolution (2013), which highlights how the vernacular embraces queer epistemologies and produces a queer reading of the novels, and Marlon Raquel Moore’s In the Life and In The Spirit: Homoerotic Spirituality in African American Literature (2014), which analyzes queer Christianity, both giving full credit to Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde as pioneers who laid the groundwork for both feminist and queer theory.74

In 2006, Ann DuCille wrote: “[B]lack feminist literary studies emerged on some level as a politics of reading without a particular politics, a discourse diverted from the essential task of defining its own interpretative strategies by the need to jockey for position within American, African American, and women’s literary ← 49 | 50 →traditions.”75 To be real, that is authentic, black feminist literary theory must be diverse, flexible, able and willing to embrace unique ways in which creative ideas emerge from the pens of black women writers. Slowly, perhaps, but definitely, the work of black feminist theory is taking place.

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← 53 | 54 →Petry, Ann: The Street. (1946). Boston: Beacon Press 1995.

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Zackodnik, Teresa (ed.): African American Feminisms 1828-1923. New York: Routledge 2007. ← 55 | 56 →

1 See Richardson, Marylin: Maria Stewart: First Black Woman Political Writer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1988; Lee, Jerena: Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jerena Lee, Self Written. (1836). Philadelphia: privately printed 1849; Foote, Julia: A Brand Plucked from the Firs: An Autobiographical Sketch. Cleveland: Lauer & Yost 1879; and Gaudet, Frances: He Leadeth Me. New Orleans: Louisiana Printing, Co. 1913. For more information about these autobiographies see Haywood, Chanta M.: Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word 1823-1913. Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2003.

2 The term African American refers specifically to black people within the United States, while the term Black is a universal term designated for all people of African descent as well as Africans on the continent of Africa.

3 Walker’s definition appears in Walker, Alice: In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company 1983, pp. xi–xii. Weems introduced her term much earlier, at conferences in the late 1980s, but in print, it appears in Weems, Clenora Hudson: Africana Womanist Literary Theory. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press 2004.

4 Zackodnik, Teresa (ed.): African American Feminisms 1828-1923. New York: Routledge 2007, pp. 315, 29, 29 respectively,

5 Ibid., p. 18.

6 Cooper, Anna Julia: A Voice from the South. Xenia, OH: Aldine Printing House 1892, p. 39, emphasis in the text. Cooper argued for the higher education of women as she had once argued when she was only nine years old for her own education and the right to take classes reserved for boys at St. Augustine Normal school in North Carolina. Just as Cooper presented her speech, pertinently titled “Womanhood: The Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race,” before a group of male clergy in 1886, so many feminist theologians operated “from a stance of ‘radical obedience,’” taking their directions and calling from a Divine Source. Using the Bible to substantiate their positions, the women claimed a public voice in response to a Divine call. As the historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham states, the very “orthodoxy of their stance compelled the men to listen.” See Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks: Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1900. Cambridge: Harvard 1993, p. 149.

7 For some, the club movement represents an example of elitism, even though its motto was “Lifting as we climb.” Many clubwomen argued about the limits of domesticity, but not as many were concerned about the plight of working-class and poor women. Mary Church Terrell was an exception. She argued for the rights of working mothers and for political equality for all. For more about Terrell and clubwomen see Zackodnik 2007.

8 See Sterling, Dorothy: We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton 1985.

9 See Zackodnik 2007, p. xliv.

10 Ron Karenga qtd. in Betsch Cole, Johnnetta / Guy-Sheftall, Beverly (eds.): Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities. New York: Ballantine 2003, p. 27.

11 Prathia Hall qtd. in Betsch Cole / Guy-Sheftall 2003, p. 93.

12 Manning Marable qtd. in Betsch Cole / Guy-Sheftall 2003, p. 31.

13 hooks, bell: Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. (1984). Cambridge: South End Press 2000, p. 1.

14 Audre Lorde quoted in Betsch Cole / Guy-Sheftall 2003, p. 41.

15 One should not forget Michelle Wallace’s critique of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement in Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman (New York: Dial 1978), which challenged sexist stereotypes, causing a vitriolic explosion of criticism from within the black activist communities, resulting in the infamous Black Sexism Debate: A Response to Angry Black Feminists,” published in the March/April 1979 issue of The Black Scholar, the first public debate on sexism in the African American communities.

16 A later text that also “spoke truth to power” was Ntozake shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (1975). The choreopoem was considered by many black male critics as a quintessential example of male-bashing by a black woman writer and came under attack in the infamous “Black Sexism Debate.”

17 Angelou, Maya: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (1970). New York: Bantam Books 1993, p. 3.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 179 pp.

Biographical notes

Karla Kovalova (Volume editor)

Karla Kovalova holds a Ph.D. in Modern History and Literature with emphases in African American and African studies and Women’s studies from Drew University (USA). She teaches at the English Department of the University of Ostrava, Ostrava (Czech Republic).


Title: Black Feminist Literary Criticism