Monday, July 10, 2006

Searching for Our Mother's Spike Heels: Inheritance, Subjectivity and the Peril of Walking

Searching for Our Mother's Gardens, Alice Walker, 1982
The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha, 1994
On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe, 2001

To keep it real, I read Alice Walker's text because I felt like it and Bhabha and Mbembe because someone recalled those books to the library and I have to return them today. To keep it really real though
1. Mbembe and Bhabha teach me how to spell each other's names. Three letters, and then repeat.
2. Keeping it real is a lost cause.

Alice Walker is crazy. And thank god(dess?). How else could I justify myself? When I introduced Alice Walker to what looked like a crowed of a zillion screaming literates, I feel back on the rhythm of black matrilineal coherence. Verbatim:
"Okay. When Professor Miller offered me the opportunity to introduce Alice Walker, I screamed. (audience laughter) And then I said, 'Wait...until I tell my mother." (audience applause) When I told my mother she screamed. And then she said "Wait (long meaningful pause here) until we tell your grandmother." (the crowd is screaming and losing it in the ecstatic farce of recognition). I think this anecdote is appropriate because...."
But why did I find that anecdote so appropriate? Why did I (instinctually) know that that would be the best thing to say. (And I did know immediately that I would tell that story.) Not only because it is true, I can claim a matrilineal heritage of screaming (though maybe not of waiting...). And not only for the reason that I claimed...that Alice Walker in her work and in her determination to reclaim lost black women writers "makes me and other young black women who write believe we are possible". This is all true...but is this process of creating a legacy necessarily an act of birthing? Could she be the midwife, could we birth ourselves? Does writing, believing you can write really have anything to do with birth. At the time (and to this day in fact) I identified myself as a woman to the extent that I identified myself as a creator of possibility, of worlds, and yes...of words. But that is a personal gender identification and I would be fooling myself if I didn't acknowledge that the crowd there was invested in something far deeper than me and my personal gendered reverse engendering possibility drunk self. The always exceeds its exemplarity.
The crowd loved the story because they want to believe that black women writing is natural, despite the fact that we risk insanity even as we attempt it. The crowd loved the story because they have been taught to believe that inheritance is the way that one gets a property (confused with a possibility) like the ability to write, the privilege of introducing a famous person, the propensity to scream and to wait. And even if we didn't all want to believe it (and we do) Alice Walker certainly believes that the ability to make art depends on a genealogical process crucially related to land.
Why else would one search for our mother's gardens (collective because we are interchangeable or because we need each other so much despite the fact that we have never owned our mothers...or our mother's land or our motherlands...)? In this text the mother's garden is in Africa (where Phillis Wheatley's mother had a garden an not a pen), is in the South (where MLK countered hundreds of years of black southern dispossession and made "home" possible---made inheritance-of struggle? of consciousness? possible...somehow) , is in a quilt in the Smithsonian by an "anonymous women", is in the appropriated text of Virginia Woolf's a room one's own, is in Cuba, is in Conditions Five (which inspires Walker to proclaim "We are all lesbians"--see the Ferguson essay for more buy-in to lesbian as a radical positionality as the seventies turned eighty), is Sarah Lawrence College, is June Jordan's giggle, is definitely Zora's Eatonville, is everywhere that Walker claims by writing an essay and republishing it here under this title. Maybe this isn't inheritance. Maybe this is sharing. Our mother's are ours (are our mothers all African?) Our legacy is something that grows, that has died, that we never owned, that we have to lie and risk snakebites (and worse) to mark with a tombstone. Our children are a menace to artistic productivity, a poor substitute for character development...though maybe they can coexist...if we don't kill them.
(Rough transition I know) Bhabha uses Toni Morisson's Beloved to theorize something that haunts and doubles and splits modernity while refusing to reproduce it: the repressed time-lag of enlightenment domination through colonization and enslavement. Whereas I have been thinking about diasporic subjectivity as the experience of being haunted (even hunted...see Rita Dove) by a traumatic past (of slavery and colonialism and gendered economic violence more generally) that keeps on coming, Bhabha emphasizes the way that this diasporic subjectivity haunts a western enlightenment idea of nation that keeps trying (and failing it seems) to repress it (us). He emphasizes this haunting as a "finding the join...i want to join" (in the words of the character beloved--but also through Handsworth Songs, Sonia Sanchez etc.) as an impetus for solidarity or a new way of thinking the international through the minoritarian haunting within the socalled nation in the postcolonial moment.
Is there a new way of thinking the region in this postcolonial moment. I missed it if Mbembe offered such a possibility in his articulation of the Afro-Continental temporal category "the post-colony". I think Mbembe succeeds in writing a social theory of contemporary Africa for contemporary Africa (if this means insisting on Africa as it's own complicated context and not as the empty imaginary required by the west...though I don't know who he really wants to buy and read and respect this book), to the extent that Africa holds as a category inherently. I am interested in the way that male domination, vulgarity, virility, emasculation and attention to orifice come up in this text...because it seems incomplete. What are the actual gender dynamics in an"emasculated" postcolonial economy run by indirect private control? What is the relationship between rape of Africa and rape in Africa? I won't do this, but it would have been interesting to write about this text next to Wynter's because it makes me want to know more about the relationship between Africa and the "new world" in the development of a violent western imaginary in her framework. I am so thoroughly impressed and convinced by this text as a useful explication of the economics of colonialism and the present that I almost forget to ask why it is that it is violence and vulgarity that make this text's eloquence. Why is Africa complicated and compelling because of terror and death and nothingness and martyrdom? Professor Spivak would ask Mbembe what his privilege and or position is. What does he get from this presentation..who does he become? What does he enable or foreclose? What does he inherit or pass on?
What (in)deed.


mamas hieroglyphics said...

link a sista!!!


call me aja said...

well said, alexis. this line especially jumped out at me:

Our children are a menace to artistic productivity, a poor substitute for character development...though maybe they can coexist...if we don't kill them.

reminded me of when audre lorde wrote that the difference between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children

let's link ;-)