FEATURED WORK “Be Nobody’s Darlin’ : Womanism as an Early Response to Racism within Feminism,and Sexism within the Civil Rights Movement
By Freesia McKee – Warren Wilson College 2009
Author’s Statement: I got my start in activism back in my hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counter-balance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?” Ans.: “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
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3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
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4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. —In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker, 1983
So begins Alice Walker’s seminal work in the canon of womanist literature, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. It was an early address on the intersections of race and gender within an individual’s identity. The term “womanism” has become less popular since it was first coined more than 30 years ago, but the creation of a word to describe a generations-old identity remains significant. That is, the layered oppressions black American women experience has not allowed them to express their unique social location in many capacities, especially in arts and writing.
In an article entitled “The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers” (the title based upon from Langston Hughes’ 1920 The Nation article, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”), Calvin Hernton (1984) declared, “the complexity and vitality of black female experience have been fundamentally ignored” by the larger society (p. 139). Building on W.E.B Du Bois’s idea of the “double consciousness” one experiences as both an American and a black person, Hernton (1984) wrote that black women are “bearers of a triple consciousness”—that of an American, a black person, and a woman. He continues, “to take but one of many examples, the perspective in the works of Alice Walker . . . is consistently informed with this consciousness” (p. 143). Although current works address “triple consciousness” as, instead, the similar idea of “social location,” Hernton, Walker, and others represent an important moment in the feminist and anti-racist discourse when the intersections had just begun to be addressed.
Barbara Smith called the phenomenon “geometric oppression” (p. 143). She stated that African-American females deal with oppression “daily in a society full of institutionalized and violent hatred for both their Black skins and their female bodies” (Bethel, p. 178). In particular, Black women writers have experienced “’intellectual lynching’ at the hands of white and Black men and white women” (Bethel, p. 177). At the time of these new names for old ways, discrimination was pervasive against even the African American female literary voices that did exist. Black literature “largely ignore[d] the implications of sexual politics” (Smith, p. 159), deeming African American female writers invisible. This is especially apparent in anthologies and critical comparisons of literature. To take but one of many examples, Edward Margolies 1968 book, Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authorfeatures sixteen “sons” and no women. The work’s very title implies that any significant “Negro” American authors could not also be American daughters.
A parallel problem was brought to light in the 1970s and 1980s within the feminist literary community. White feminist writers focused on their marginalization within literature, seemingly for white women exclusively. Lindsey Tucker (1988) writes, “For the black woman writer, the search for voice—the rescue of her subjectivity from the sometimes subtle, yet always pervasive, dictates of the dominant white male culture is even more problematic” (p. 81) than it is for white women. While white female writers heightened their focus on what they saw as their own oppression, few became aware and wrote about a ladder of oppression on which many of them were towards the middle or even the top.
Barbara Smith quoted white feminist writer Sara Blackburn in a particularly racist passage published in The New York Times Book Review in the early 1980s with, “…Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life…she might easily transcend that early and unintentionally limiting classification ‘black woman writer’ and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working” (Smith, p. 160-161). This is precisely why Alice Walker was compelled to coin a more inclusive term for the struggle for gender equality under patriarchy and the cultural recognition of the continuation of women’s historical suffering. Although women of color wanted equality just as much as white women, they were and are less visible within the feminist movement due to white racism. Alice Walker’s aim was to create a means through which all women could work for equality without being discriminated against due to other aspects of the social status set. Layli Phillips (2006) wrote that “womanist scholarship positions African American women at the center of their own experiences and, in doing do, connects the everyday lives of African American Women with the intellectual positions held by African American academicians and others in the academy” (p. 214).
A gender equality movement may have proved most useful to women of color, because as Bethel wrote, “Black women embody by their sheer physical presence two of the most hated identities in this racist/sexist country. Whiteness and maleness in this culture have not only been seen as physical identities, but codified into states of being and world views” (p. 178). Physical and sexual violence have cemented with spiritual, psychological, emotional, and intellectual violence to form a heavy blanket of discrimination from which our society has just recently started to emerge. Overwhelmed by the continuous presence of this invisible blanket, Barbara Smith’s essay “Toward a Black Feminist [Literary] Criticism,” stated in the language of “triple consciousness” that “this invisibility [of African American women], which goes beyond anything that either Black men or white women experience and tell about in their writing, is one reason it is so difficult for me to know where to start” (p. 157-158) in analyzing womanism in literature.
Despite the multigenerational oppression of African American women writers, writers in the 1970s and 1980s sought opportunities to forge a new sort of literature. Walker and others acknowledged the lost generations of talent that had preceded them. In 1974 Walker wrote of “our mothers and grandmothers…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.’ They dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion—and saw visions no one could understand” (p. 232). Walker was hyperaware as herself as the exception to an oppressive and longstanding rule. A large part of her work has been to pay homage to the “trapped” women. Historically, few had both the interest and the opportunity to write about “Black woman-identified bonding and folk culture,” explaining Walker’s intense interest into folk historian Zora Neale Hurston, a woman of significant diverse talent and expertise. Hurston was buried in her hometown in an unmarked grave. Walker wrote that she traveled, “in 1973, to an overgrown Fort Pierce, Florida graveyard in an attempt to locate and mark Zora’s grave. Although by that time I considered her a native American genius…it was…a duty I accepted as naturally mine—as a black person, a woman, and a writer—because Zora was dead and I, for the time being, was alive” (p. 87). Walker is often viewed as the archetypal womanist writer in paying this sort of respect. According to Tucker, such a writer “must create out of what was not taken from her [through racism, sexism, and other systems of oppressions], about which there has been nothing written, and fashion, from these sources, an authentic discourse—her own experience in her own language“ (1988, p. 82). With the exception of Hurston and a few others, black women’s folk history was many times “unrecorded except through our individual lives and memories” (Bethel, p. 179).
Through the last forty years, many realized that content affects form, and form takes importance when recording marginalized history. Hernton writes, “the literature of contemporary black women writers is a dialectical composite of the unknown coming out of the known. It is an upheaval in form, style, and landscape. It is the negation of the negative. And it proffers a vision of unfettered human possibility” (p. 145).
This “human possibility” indicates the hope for a more egalitarian future. “Any discussion of Afro-American writers can rightfully begin with the fact that for most of the time we have been in this country we have been categorically denied not only literacy, but the most minimal possibility of a decent human life” (Smith, p. 158). Her use of the geometric oppression model added that some writers have been denied access doubly or triply.
Lesbian African American writers added a third side to this model. On coming out as a lesbian in print, Smith wrote, “Heterosexual privilege is usually the only privilege that Black women have…I am convinced that it is our lack of privilege and power in every other sphere that allows so few Black women to make the leap [to outing themselves on paper] that many white women, particularly writers, have been able to make in this decade, not merely because they are white or have economic leverage, but because they have had the strength and support of a movement behind them” (p. 171). African American woman writers who were disabled or are part of another oppressed group claimed additional levels to attach to the “triple consciousness.” This model has come under scrutiny more recently. Although Layli Phillips’ 2006 book is called the The Womanist Reader, the author notes in the introduction that she prefers to use the term “Black womanhood” rather than verbiage from the 1970s or 1980s. Phillips wrote, “As I am using it here, the term “Black womanhood” references and encompasses a social location that is triply at the bottom of three intersecting social hierarchies…By definition, Black woman and all women of color (who are not white) occupy the interior/subordinated pole of the race/gender intersection” (p. xlix). Wording aside, C. Lynn Munro (1984) wrote that Alice “Walker insists on the right of each individual to express his or her particular point of view. Only in this way, [Walker] argues, can the historic reality in all of its diversity be appreciated…Silencing discordant voices is not only counterproductive but also destructive” (p. 161).
Alice Walker has seen this in her own life. Born as the youngest of eight in a family of sharecroppers in Etonton, Georgia in 1944, Walker has devoted her life to recording stories not yet told. In the early 1960s, she attended Spelman College, a historically black all-women’s institution, but left due to what she called a “puritanical” atmosphere. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Walker moved to Mississippi to register black voters. Walker has said that her first works “were partly written as a duty to my ancestors, to my grandparents and my parents and the ones before that.” Of Meridan, a novelistic account of a young black woman working in the civil rights movement published early in Walker’s career, Walker said, “I wanted to write a novel that looked not just at the politics, but at the heart of the people. And I wanted to see what the relationships were like between men and women as they came up against the fascism, and racism, and Nazism of white supremacy” (Porter, 2003).
One of Walker’s early demonstrations of the power of African American women telling their own stories was through both the act of writing, herself, a womanist and allowing her characters to express themselves as womanists. Walker has “demonstrated through the work what the nature of black women’s discourse might be” (Tucker, 1988, p. 82). In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, the author enforces the notion that womanist writers must act as both visionaries and demonstrators.
Although black women have traditionally not been allowed the space or education to write down their experiences, they have manipulated their skills to express their experience in other ways. The fiber arts, especially quilting, are one important venue through which women have been allowed to preserve stories. In Walker’s essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” in the anthology of the same name, Walker writes about generations of black American women “feeding the creative spirit” through quilting by citing “a quilt unlike any other in the world” hanging in the Smithsonian Institution. Depicting the Crucifixion,
“it is considered rare, beyond price. Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling. Below this quilt I saw a note that says it was made by ‘an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago.’ If we could locate this ‘anonymous’ black woman from Alabama, she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers—an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use” (p. 239)
Walker’s 1973 short story “Everyday Use” expounds upon the importance of quilts as cultural preservatives. The story tells of a family of black women struggling over what to do with their heirloom quilts (one daughter wants to display them as an artifact of her heritage; one daughter wants to put them to “everyday use” and utilize them on the bed) notes the double nature of women’s fiber arts. The quilts are both utilitarian and artistic.
In this story, Walker opens discourse about quilts and the commentary regarding black women’s work and the empowerment found therein not only through her characters’ words, but also through the very act of writing. In reference to “Everyday Use,” Tucker (1988) declares that Walker “has pieced together from the only materials available—materials of poverty, ignorance, brutalization—a work that, like the product of the quiltmaker, may seem artless, but is instead a carefully and brilliantly patterned piece of work” (p. 93).
What is perhaps Walker’s best-known work, the 1982 epistolary novel The Color Purple, also works to value womanism in content, creation, and form. The text is composed mostly of the novel’s main character’s, Celie’s, letters to her sister. Tucker (1988) notes, “Perhaps Celie is saved from that ‘numb and bleeding madness’ [of the oppression she experiences from her abusive husband and the racist white people she interacts with] because she is able to write” (p. 83). Walker’s own act of writing this novel can also be seen as one of salvation. The novel and the Pulitzer Prize it garnered brought Walker to the forefront of the literary world, giving her name household recognition. The novel also won a National Book Award and was made into both a film and a musical. Due to her success, Walker now has the cultural clout to bring a significant amount of attention to any issue about which she chooses to write (significantly, female genital mutilation discussed in Walker’s 1996 non-fiction work Warrior Marks). Some take her celebrity a step farther to peg Walker as a spokeswoman for all African American women. Even with the publication of The Color Purple, Harris wrote that, “Walker is put in the peculiar position of crying out against her own popularity or watching the onslaught of distortion continue. That is also in part the paradox—the curse and the blessing—of being chosen” as the in vogue spokeswoman (p. 159). Historically, some black female writers chose to group themselves “thematically, stylistically, aesthetically, and conceptually.” Smith wrote, “Black women writers manifest common approaches to the act of creating literature as a direct result of the specific political, social, and economic experience they have been obliged to share” (p. 164). One central theme throughout many womanist works is the African American women herself, as well as her relationships to other women and those in her community. This is significant because it is from an “insider’s point of view. That these writers have firsthand knowledge of their subjects ought to be enough to command attention and respect” (Bethel, p. 176).
Because of the “specific political, social, and economic experience they have been obliged to share” (Smith, p. 164), Bethel continued that “there is a separable and identifiable tradition of Black women writers, simultaneously existing within and independent of the American Afro-American, and American female literary traditions” (p. 178). A few common themes often arise when discussing African American women’s writing as a whole. Fatima Shaik (1989) quoted Mary Helen Washington’s Invented Lives with the idea, “black women writers as diverse as Dorothy West, Alice Walker and Paule Marshall, have found in their mothers’ legacies the key to the release of their creative powers. I think that either as a conscious myth or literal reality the relation between mother and daughter and the daughter’s decision to be a writer are, for many black women, essentially connected” (p. 529). Shaik states of herself, “When I was a baby, after I fell asleep in my mother’s arms, she went to the bedroom alone to write. I know it because I have seen her work as I got older, but I know it even deeper inside my self because it is the same path I take” (1989, p. 527). It has gotten somewhat easier for black women, especially mothers, to write, but challenges remain nevertheless. Writing is a lucrative profession for only the select few. African American women, as a whole, earn less than their white female and male counterparts, and many women experience the “double shift” as they work a full time job outside of the house to come home to work many more hours tending to their children and homes.
Overall, however, African-American women’s literature was marginalized even more in the past than it is now. Despite the odds, the first published black poet in the United States was a woman, Phyllis Wheatley. “Though she did not write much out of a black consciousness of slavery, Wheatley’s works are imbued with a sensitivity that is specifically female” (Hernton, 1984, p. 143). Indeed, Wheatley has long been criticized for her lack of expression regarding her status as a woman or person who survived the Middle Passage and continued to confront racism in the United States. Most of her poetry centers on Christian themes. Wheatley was kidnapped from Africa as a child and later formally educated by her slave masters in Boston in the late 1700s.
Hernton (1984) writes, “Except for Gwendolyn Brooks, and perhaps Margaret Walker, the name of not one black woman writer and not one female protagonist was accorded a worthy status in the black literary world prior to the 1970s” (p. 139). It really was not until the 1970s that the literary world at large finally took notice of the contributions of black women writers. Hernton cites three works as those that “broke the billy goat’s back.” These include Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman anthology (1970), for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1978), a play by Ntozake Shange, and Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979) by Michele Wallace (1984, p. 140). One of the elements these three works have in common is the black woman herself as both content and author.
Hernton (1984) lists four innovations made by black female writers in the 1960s and 1970s:
“(1) Black women writers are declaring their independence like never before; (2) black women writers are gaining autonomous influence over other black women; (3) black women writers are causing their existence to be seen and felt in areas of American society and culture which have heretofore been barred to them; and (4) black women writers are at last wresting recognition from the white literary powers that be” (p. 141). She goes on to say, “there are both traditional and pioneer women writers, professed feminists [and womanists], and non-feminists and those who refuse to accept any label at all. Collectively, it is the mass presence of literature written by black women that is unprecedented” (p. 142).
Thus, womanism, as a concept, came at an appropriate time. Many women found it to be the appropriate label that described their particular social location. Nigerian writer Flora Nwapa “preferred to identify with Alice Walker’s term ‘womanist,’ which reflected the African reality of effacement based on racial difference” (Umeh, 1995, p. 22). Walker herself would have perhaps positively interpreted the interview. Nwapa said, “I accept that I’m an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows…I attempt to correct our menfolks when they started writing, when they wrote little or less about women, where their female characters are prostitutes and ne’er-do-wells. I started writing to tell them that this is not so” (p. 22). Womanism gave a name to both black women’s oppression and the struggle to outrun it. Hernton wrote, “An integral part of what black women are doing consists of bringing to the forefront that which has been extant all along: that there are [sic] a humanity of black women and a world in their writings that has been historically, systematically overshadowed by the sexual mountain” of gender oppression (1984, p. 144).
Because of womanism, “the buried treasures…are being unearthed” (Hernton, 1984, p. 143). In addition to women of the past finally coming to appreciation by society at large, many African American women encountered empowerment to write their own experience. The scope of literary black women’s experiences have broadened significantly since Alice Walker’s early writing days since the publication of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Tucker (1988) writes, “his story (history) has been deconstructed, has become herstory, a story of female love, female work, female song, and, most importantly, female bonding, which does not, finally, exclude the males at all, but accommodates, redeems, even celebrates them” (p. 93). One of the goals of womanism was to reach a place in which a broad range of experiences could be appreciated. The thought was that through womanist writing, each person may be “made aware of both the need for change and his or her responsibility to contribute to a saner future” (Munro, 1984, p. 161). Indeed, it is towards that “saner future” that African American women writers and others have imagined for quite some time.
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