Wednesday, October 31, 2007

To Be Re(a)d

Today, Wednesday October 31st 2007, women of color and allies around the country are wearing red as part of a collective healing and revealing process in response to sexual violence against women of color. This collective red is meant to be antidote to shame, a warning sign to those would continue to blame women of color for the outrageous abuses that our society condones against us. This collective red is meant to fill in the missing frame of the black and white of Jena. This red is an invocation of gendered wounds and demands that we remember what Ida B. Wells told us, which is that the lynching of black men and women and the rape of black women and men are twin tools of the same repression. And blood is red.

In 1973, when Toni Morrison published her second novel Sula, she changed black feminist literary criticism forever. In fact, I like to day that black feminists created black feminist literary criticism to deal with Sula, the character and the text. In partnership with her first novel The Bluest Eye, Morrison's Sula does more than insert black female characters into a literary scene that had ignored and caricaturized them. With these two novels Morrison insists that the very form of the novel must bend and bow and breathe and move to witness the experiences of black women and girls. The Bluest Eye could have been the first contemporary black female bildungsroman (coming of age story), except that Pecola, the main character (but not necessarily the protagonist) never grows up. Incestuous rape and violent racism shatter anything that would dare look like growth in that novel. Even the flowers. One could argue that in The Bluest Eye white supremacy (in the voice of the falling apart Dick and Jane reading primers) is the protagonist, and Pecola herself is the antagonist, criminalized for a small attempt at existence and vanguished by the pervasive triumph of racism, as patriarchalism, as capitalism and the death of a soul, the splitting of a mind. The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first major study of what it means to be re(a)d. What happens when we are excluded from the very language we learn to read in? What are the dreadful consequences of an agreed upon social reading of black girls that spells us "worthless"?

Sula could have been the first contemporary black female bildungsroman, except that whereas The Bluest Eye leaves the main character with a split mind, witnessed by the black girls who survive, Sula is an intersubjective novel with two protagonists that cannot exist without each other, Sula and Nel grow apart, but the love between girls is the miracle, hope and home of this novel (a theme Morrison will return to in her most recent novel Love).

Sula arrived well placed in time to become the catalyst that it was and is for black feminist literary criticism. The book was published right when the first black women's lit courses were being taught in newly formed Black Studies and Women's Studies programs in colleges in the NorthEast. The two foundational texts of black feminist literary studies, Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics and the Black Women Writer's Literary Tradition" and Barbara Smiths "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism" both read Sula as their primary text and as an instance through which to imagine what black feminist literary criticism could be. Even though Morrison wouldn't achieve national recognition until she "manned" up...or won the National Book of the Month Club selection for Song of Solomon (a radical and beautiful and rich book in it's own rite), Sula was the book black feminists clung to. Audre Lorde mentions in an interview that she doesn't care that it was Song of Solomon that Morrison won the award is Sula that "lit me up like a Christmas tree".

And indeed one of the topics we can discuss is why Morrison gained national recognition once she wrote a novel that centered around a black man. It might be helpful to realize that when Morrison won the National Book of the Month Club selection she became the first African-American writer since Richard Wright to do so.

The passages that cause black feminists to canonize Sula are the passages about mutual self invention that occur between Sula and Nel. The most cited passage is the one where the narrator explains the destined friendship of the two girls noting that "having long ago realized they were neither white nor male...they went about creating something else to be." This is a proposition as far reaching as to appear in Afro-Scottish Maud Sulter's description of a art exhibit she curated in England and as long lasting as to reappear as the "different sort of subject" that Hortense Spillers asks for in her 1987 essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe". The two other moments of the text that black feminists theorists drew in the sky are Sula's insistence when her grandmother suggests she should settle down and have some babies that "I don't want to make someone else. I want to make myself." This challenge to motherhood completes the critique of heteropatriarchy that allows Barbara Smith to claim Sula as a "lesbian" text alongside the books final revelation that the loss of a husband is nothing compared with the loss of a girl friend. And the book ends with the word that has framed all of my days. Girl, girl, girl, girl, girl.

Spiraling out into this moment, the desperation in that one word, girl speaks the prayer to the only thing that I believe can save us, and that is the love between women and girls of color that fills us with the bravery to make a new world language. When the Irish boys in the novel attempt to attack Nel and Sula, with designs on sexual abuse, Sula cuts of the tip of her finger...shifting the boys' reading of her from prey to predator. Re(a)d is the color of threat. Is the color of blood, of nothing to lose, of everything born to be remade.

So today as I dress myself in re(a)d on behalf of my sisters and my own survival take me as a sign.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Proto-Bloggers: Discursive Precedents and Alternative Democracies

(Generations of Chain by Dries Buytaert)

Poor Black Women, Patricia Robinson and “the Sisters”, 1968
“On the Issue of Roles”, Toni Cade Bambara, 1970
“Letters After the First Conference of the National Alliance of Black Feminists”, Beverly Morrow, (Ms. Magazine), 1974
“Small Change for Black Women”, Aileen Hernandez (Ms. Magazine), 1974
“Voices from the Third World: Review of Fragment from a Lost Diary”, Toni Cade Bambara (Ms. Magazine), 1974
“A Church Without Walls”, June Jordan, (Ms. Magazine) 1974
Jemima: From the Heart, 1977
“Voices of Black Feminism”, Brenda Eichelberger (Quest), 1977
“Mom de Plume”, Diane S. Bogus, (Lesbian Tide 7.3), 1977
“Scratching the Surface: Some Notes On Barriers to Women and Loving”, Audre Lorde (The Black Scholar), 1978
“Black Writers Illuminate Hidden Lives”, Barbara Smith (Sojourner 3.12), 1978
“The Varied Voices of Black Women”, Barbara and Beverly Smith, (Sojourner 4.2), 1978
“The Reality of the Black Lesbian”, Diane S. Bogus (Gay People’s Union News), 1978
“Racism (A Letter)” Barbara Smith, (Gay Community News 6.26), 1979
“Review of The Black Unicorn”, Lorraine Bethel, (Gay Community News (6.28), 1979
“An American Fantasy: Interview with Beverly Smith About Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman”, Jill Clark, (Gay Community News 6.44), 1979
“Anonymity and the Denial of Self’, Michelle Cliff (Sinister Wisdom 9), 1979
Top Ranking: A Collection of Articles on Racism and Classism in the Lesbian Community, compiled by Joan Gibbs and Sara Bennett, 1980
“Prodding the Wheels of Revolution”, Rosemary (Changes), 1980
“Frankie”, Joan Gibbs (Sinister Wisdom 14) 1980
“First Black Lesbian Conference”, Gabrielle Daniels (Off Our Backs 10), 1980
“Black Lesbians Gather in First Eastern Conference” Jill Clark (Gay Community News), 1981
“Notes for a Magazine” Michelle Cliff and Adrienne Rich, (Sinister Wisdom 17), 1981
All the Women Are White All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Balck Women’s Studies, Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith
“I Love My Mother”, Faith Ringold and Michelle Wallace (Heresies), 1982
“Object into Subject: Some Thoughts on the Work of Black Women Artists”, Michelle Cliff (Heresies 15), 1982
“The Convert”, Barbara Smith, (Sinister Wisdom 19)1982
“Making Soul, Creating Alchemy: Review of This Bridge Called My Back”, Michelle Cliff, (Sinister Wisdom 19)1982
“The Intimate Face of Universal Struggle” (review of June Jordan’s Civil Wars), Linda C. Powell (Sinister Wisdom 20), 1982
“Black Brave and Woman Too”: Review of Some of Us Are Brave, Cheryl Clarke, (Sinister Wisdom 20), 1982
“Response (on lesbian seperatism and race)” , Barbara Smith (Sinister Wisdom 20), 1982
African Women Rising Vol. 1 No. 2, International Council of African Women 1984
Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters, eds. Patricia Bell-Scott, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Janet Sims-Wood, Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Lucie Fultz, 1990
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts, 1997
“Passion(ate) Plays “Wherever We Found Space”: Lorde and Gomez Queer(y)ing Boundaries and Acting In”, Lynda Hall, (Callaloo 23.1) 2000
“The “Power” and “Squelelae” of Audre Lorde’s Syntactical Strategies”, Lexi Rudintsky (Callaloo 26.2), 2003
The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens, Seyla Benhabib, 2004
“All Aunt Hagar’s Children”, Edward P. Jones, 2007

At lunch sometime last week a fellow member of a women of color bloggers network and I joked about the efficacy of "blogger" as a "primary identity". "I come from a long line of bloggers," I said "seven generations to be exact." And we laughed, but then...while I was rereading All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies and carefully writing down the first "black women's studies" syllabuses I realized that one of the syllabi was refusing to keep it's place on paper and in history and was nudging into my life. In Fall 1976, Professor Margaret Wade taught a class at SUNY New Paltz called "The Black Woman" (and of the textbooks was Toni Cade Bambara's ground breaking anthology of the same name). My mother was a junior at SUNY New Paltz that Fall and a quick phone call confirmed that yes, my mother had indeed worked with Professor Wade.
So maybe I should be a little bit less flippant when I describe my "generations". Indeed last week I travelled to the middle of no where Florida (specifically Lakeland, FL home of a lake, some orange trees, high teen boredom rates and equally high teen pregnancy) to visit my maternal grandmother aka "Nana" for her birthday. There are a lot of things that Nana doesn't know about her "history". Her mother died before Nana ever knew her and her father was married to someone else all along. Nana has never seen her birth certificate and will probably never know whether she was born on Sept 21st (the day I arrived in Lakeland) or Sept 23rd (the day I left). Futhermore we don't know exactly how many years she has been around. But, as a long Friday night/Saturday morning conversation taught me, Nana knows more than enough to make up for these originary details. She knows love in the arms of her great grandmother who died when she was 7, she knows ferocity in the mouth of her grandma Rebecca who cursed people out inside, outside and near every public institution (especially church...and my Nana has carried on with this tradition of "cursing out" church folks), she knew herself in the face of my mother who until 5 days after her birth she thought was someone else's "chinese" baby, and she fulfilled a promise by witnessing my birth as her first grandchild her daughter's daughter and by far the craziest child she knew until my cousin Sean came along...who recently claimed quite nonchalantly to have seen Christ in a toothpick speared pig in a blanket at an all you can eat China Buffett.
But the point here is not to prove that my family is the inspiration for the complicated lineages of people in novels by Zadie Smith, Paul Beatty or Danielle Evans. The point is that I want to articulate a different relationship to the active verb "generate" in these generations that I'm claiming, holding, avoiding and always coming back to (remember how I always pretend that my dissertation is not the autobiography of my mother...well change my name to Jamaica Kincaid because the syllabus says otherwise). What if I take seriously that the story of how I came to have, fear, love, admire, cherish and misunderstand my own possession of a black mother is the only story that I can tell. No matter what else I try to write about...(i.e. read my review of Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother in the upcoming issue of Obsidian).
Audre Lorde says this mysterious thing, and I am coming back to it again because it captures and pushes my questions about what production and reproduction might mean: "We can learn to mother ourselves." Learn. Mother. Ourselves. If I had three wishes, three lusts for three words to know, to open, to understand these would be the three. Is this practice of "mothering ourselves" the meaning of black feminist publishing in what I described to the shock of a middle aged man as "my period" out of context yesterday (he said "You were around in 1974? Got-damn, I want to take whatever you're taking!") Since even in 2007 I look like I'm about 16 years old. Anyway is this practice of black feminist publishing an example (an opportunity for me to dwell in) what it means to "generate"? Think about the dilegent public letter writing that Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde and June Jordan engaged in and the brave badass blogging women of color are doing right now in response to the attack on Megan name one example. Maybe instead of "co-production" the word that I want to use to reveal the dialogics in "production" and to challenge the inevitability of "reproduction" is actually the word "generate".
Thanks mom.