My diploma thesis discusses the notion of self-esteem as a crucial concept in African-American and African-Caribbean women’s literature. In my view, self-esteem represents one of the major themes touched upon in the works of many women writers, and especially those of minority origin. Stemming from the specific historical evidence of oppression and inequality, women of minority groups face problems of racism, sexism, and unequal standing in the surrounding society. They are confronted with the majority’s ideals and worldviews regarding the three main constituent parts of black women’s self-esteem that I recognize as skin color and racial identity, the role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem. These three topics play a central role in constructing black women’s identity and self-image, and become the most decisive components shaping a minority woman’s attitudes to herself and the world. Black women have to reconcile with the majority standard being imposed on them, and endeavor to find the true black womanhood in the past and the present. Throughout the history, the formation of African-American and African-Caribbean women’s self-esteem has been marked by considerable discrimination based on their racial as well as gender distinctiveness. The experiences African-American and African-Caribbean women have faced historically have influenced every aspect of their lives and have become reflected in their writings that often describe how unattainable it is to be a confident, coequal member of a society in which white man’s power and white women’s flawless morality and beauty are taken for granted as standards. The reason why African-American and African-Caribbean women’s reality differs significantly from the rest of the society may be incorporated in the ways in which the prevalent white standards impact and reduce black women’s self-esteem. It seems crucial to me to acknowledge that both racism and sexism have diminished African-American and African-Caribbean women’s role in the society and have influenced their self-understanding. When struggling against these, African-American and African-Caribbean women writers consider it imperative to change the implications of negative images attributed to black women during the times of slavery and beyond. These represent an obstacle in their way towards equality and many African-American and African-Caribbean women have considered the creation of more adequate images of black womanhood crucial. The way to start the fight is to pay attention to the issues that make African-American and African-Caribbean women’s life experience different from the rest of the society. Authors have contributed to notion of self-esteem by looking for their character’s identity and by elevating the blackness and femaleness as the very basis of their existence, and most importantly by loving and respecting themselves.
To feel comfortable being oneself forms the basis of self-esteem in a person. In Maxine S. Keith’s and Verna M. Thompson’s words “self-esteem consists of feeling good, liking yourself, and being liked and treated well. Self-esteem is influenced both by the social comparisons we make of ourselves with others and by the reactions that other people have toward us” (341). To explain why the notion of self-esteem has been so important to the women of color, it is important to consider that while the African-American and African-Caribbean women writers’ voices remained mostly unheard until the second half of the twentieth century, after the possibilities for writing and expressing their concerns freely expanded, they saw the necessity to articulate the things that preoccupied black women as a group the most: themselves and their collective situation. The following quote from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye illustrates in my view the black women’s commitment to self-understanding and affirmation of their identity: “Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves” (150). Numerous black feminists realized and stressed that it requires a black woman writer and activist to emphasize the needs of the African-American and African-Caribbean women’s community and represent concerns that really matter to African-American and African-Caribbean women.
It is significant to consider the African-American and African-Caribbean women’s lack of agency in creating their own public image, and the imposition of a completely different beau-ideal based on stereotypical assumptions and prejudice. Self-definition and the agency in terms of self-naming becomes crucial for the writing by African-American and African-Caribbean women providing the “means by which people of African descent can assert their own vision of their reality in the opposition to that of the dominant culture” (Alexander-Floyd). When reading their literature, we find how the black women’s perceiving of themselves is influenced by the residuals of racist as well as sexist attitudes toward black women. These attitudes represent the origin of this kind of oppression that encourage African-American and African-Caribbean women’s representation in the public, socio-cultural and economic field, created upon simplistic oppositions attributed to blackness and whiteness. The inability of women of color to fit in these concepts creates a feeling of inferiority that can lead to serious consequences such as attempts to resemble or completely adapt the predominant attitudes at the expense of denial of self. This becomes one of the themes that can be observed in the African-American and African-Caribbean women’s writing. The objective of my thesis is to analyze the racist, sexist and class mechanisms of oppression that arise from the contact of the black culture with the white hegemony, and the contrast between these two cultures’ perceptions of self in terms of skin color and racial identity, the role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem.
Before proceeding to the analysis of works by African-American and African-Caribbean women authors, it is fundamental to explain and introduce the authors as well as the themes that will be divide the analysis into three major chapters, and to provide a historical, social and literary context of the realities and writings of African-American and African-Caribbean women. The analysis of works by Harriet Ann Jacobs, Mary Prince, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, and Olive Senior, will be aimed at discussing how the concepts of skin color and racial identity, role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty and self-evaluation are interwoven to create a sense of identity and self-esteem of African-American and African-Caribbean women. Through examples from black female literature, I will also observe the history of women of African origin in the United States of America and the Anglophone Caribbean, their life situation as it evolved from the times of slavery until today, and their perpetual struggle against oppression.
In my thesis, three African-American – Harriet Ann Jacobs, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker – and three African-Caribbean – Mary Prince, Jamaica Kincaid and Olive Senior – will be analyzed with respect to the three main themes mentioned above. Because the aim of the thesis it to compare how these themes unfold throughout the time in the context of African-American and African-Caribbean women literature, I distinguish a hierarchical sequence in which these writers will be organized according to the period in which the selected examples of their work are set. While the authors could be also distinguished by genres, these literary categories are not relevant in any way to the analysis and only serve as a basis for pairing between African-American and African-Caribbean writers. There are three pairs of authors as divided by genres: slave narrative, novel and short story, each represented by one African-American and one African-Caribbean writer.
Among the first texts by American and Caribbean women of African descent, the slave narratives in the two regions are represented by Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself and Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself that both establish the tradition of African-American and African-Caribbean women literature in their respective regions of United States and the Anglophone Caribbean. Contemporary African-American and African-Caribbean women writing unite two authors from each region: Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, probably the most famous African-American female contemporary writers, and Jamaica Kincaid and Olive Senior, also known world-wide, who originally come from the British Caribbean. There are two novels, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, and two short stories from each writer: Alice Walker’s two short stories “Everyday Use” and “Coming Apart,” and Olive Senior’s “The Bright Thursdays” and “Two Grandmothers.”
I chose to observe and compare slave narratives together with contemporary fiction in order to be able to track the development in black women’s writing and the relevant themes that the authors touch upon. While the slave narrative representatives set forth the black women’s concerns with liberty and identity, as influenced by the pertinence to a subjugated racial group, contemporary writers advocate the equality in all spheres of life and struggle against racist and sexist prejudices that remain effective in the world. Black feminist approaches that see the advancement in overcoming the “specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people” (hooks, Black Looks 2) will support my thesis in examining how important themes the notions of skin color and racial identity, the role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem become in the respective reactions of the selected authors. My objective is to trace the differences and similarities in their approach to the determined themes as they interfere with the understanding of black women’s self-esteem.
Before proceeding to the introduction of authors and themes, I would like to mention that in writing my thesis I was inspired by bell hook’s Black Looks: Race and Representation, whose approach to blackness and its representation I particularly respect for her ability to skillfully combine historical evidences with present-day topics. hooks exceeds in rethinking the already established themes of blackness in the world and advocates its proper grasp by the black community. Her idea of “loving blackness as political resistance” (20) becomes the mission for all people of African origin. The topic of my thesis being ‘Black is Beautiful,’ I recognize hooks’s approach as leading the literary creation by African-American and African-Caribbean women. In order to be able to assert oneself as a minority author and to write for the advancement of the group’s situation, African-American and African-Caribbean woman writer needs to estimate herself, to love her blackness.
Introducing the Authors
Even though the authors analyzed in this thesis come from two diverse regions as well as unlike settings and even different centuries, there are specific characteristics that make it possible to bring them together under one common theme. The authors’ African heritage and their commitment to black women’s situation is the major similarity, but it will also be possible to trace parallels in their approach to the delimited themes of skin color and racial identity, the role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem. African-American authors can be compared to African-Caribbean authors as in the case of slave narratives where Mary Prince occupies the position of a counterpart to Harriet Jacobs, though much shorter in extent than Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Prince’s narrative is comparable to Jacobs’s in being one of the first known African-Caribbean women to refer to their situation during slavery. The remaining four authors – Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, and Olive Senior – all represent twentieth century writers of high acclaim, whose works have come to constitute the contemporary black women’s literature canon.
1.1.1. Harriet A. Jacobs: Dawning of the African American Women’s Literature
The reason why I chose Harriet Ann Jacobs is two-fold: firstly, I am convinced that because her narrative is deemed the progenitress of writing by African-American women, it establishes themes and concerns unique to black women’s lives as depicted in their writing, many of which will recur in contemporary African-American women’s literature. To borrow Angelyn Mitchell’s words, Jacobs “sets forth the terms of discussion for so many narratives that follow in the literary tradition of Black women” (22). Secondly, Jacob’s autobiographical book provides us with the historical evidence of the oppression and exploitation of African-American women in the slavery era, which serves as the basis for emancipation movements and the advancement of African-American women’s life situation.
According to all evidence available until this day, Harriet Ann Jacobs is considered the first African-American woman to author a slave narrative in the United States. Her book became the precursor of other female slave narratives and contemporary literature, a kind of “Ur-text that establishes the constructed discourse of the Black woman’s narrative” (Mitchell 23). In her book, she gives an account of her life in slavery and her struggle for freedom for herself and her children. The text becomes a crucial source of information about the black women’s inner life and living conditions under slavery and Jacobs speaks openly about the burden slave women were to carry. Her assertion that “slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” proves true when taking into account that “superadded to the burden common to all, [black women] have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (Jacobs 77). Jacobs’s objective in her narrative is a black woman’s struggle against the oppression in slavery originating from her position as a sexual object and a “breeder.” A black woman’s feelings and preoccupations arising from this position include the fear of sexual exploitation from her white master, the burden of bringing her child to life under the conditions of bondage, and the consequent preoccupations about the destinies of her children. Jacob’s narrator, Linda Brent, also intends to maintain her self-esteem by asserting herself as an autonomous human being capable of controlling her life against the stereotypical presupposition of the slave as incapable of rational thinking and complex feelings. Linda Brent represents a black woman who lives according to her own terms, in spite of her circumstances and self-consciously governs her life.
By writing her narrative, Jacobs fights the injustice and immorality of slavery in her own way, acknowledging its worst consequences for the whole society and especially for black women. This could identify Jacobs as one of the first black feminists. She rejects slavery from her own experience as a woman and the experience of black people in general, but she also points out that “slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs and abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation” (52). Her strong anti-slavery rhetoric served the abolition purposes and Jacob’s primary motive is to address white women in the north in a desperate call for tolerance and solidarity on the basis of womanhood:
I have placed myself before you to be judged as a woman whether I deserve your pity or contempt I have another object in view it is to come to you just as I am a poor Slave Mother not to tell you what I have heard but what I have seen and what I have suffered and if there is any sympathy to give let it be given to the thousands of Slave Mothers that are still in bondage. (xiii)
With these words the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself addressed her friend Amy Post when describing the manuscript Harriet was completing. There is an example of direct appeal to white women’s compassion in the Preface of her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, when the author says: “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women in the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse” (1). Appealing to white women’s oppression in terms of gender, Jacobs underlines the triple oppression of sex, race and condition as being the basis of black women’s lives, becoming one of the first women writers to address such situation in the United States.
1.1.2. Mary Prince: Daybreak in African-Caribbean Women’s Literature
Mary Prince, the daughter of slaves who was born at Brackish Pond, Bermuda, writes a testimonial account of her life as an urgent call by which she hopes to contribute to the fight against oppression and to the termination of slavery. In the Preface the objective of the narrative is explained so that “good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered” (Prince v). She explains the circumstances of an enslaved woman’s existence in the colonial Caribbean and describes the sufferings and motives of her fight against the institution of slavery. Her account is very emotional and alludes to the feelings of responsibility and moral justice of its readers:
Oh, the horrors of slavery! How the thought of it pains my heart but the truth ought to be told of it and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break out chains, and set us free. (Prince 11)
The way Mary Prince sees slavery in connection to white people is reflected in her assumption that “They were not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks” (4). Racism and subjugation of people of African origin in the Caribbean, as well as the U.S., of the seventeenth and eighteenth century becomes visible through slavery. The degradation of slaves to the level of chattel is observed when she is being sold. Prince recalls the mortifying feeling of being handled “in the same manner that a butcher would [handle] a calf or a lamb” (4).
Prince’s narrative ends with yet another appeal upon the conscience of the public reading her story. She rejects the negative stereotypes that white people hold about slaves in order to support the slave’s condition: “How can slaves be happy when they have the halter around their neck and the whip upon their back? and are disgraced and thought no more if than beasts? and are separated from their mothers, and husbands, and children, and sisters, just as cattle sold and separated?” (Prince 22-23). Prince was able to assert her free will after the situation turned favorable for her escape. This happened when her master and his wife took her as their servant to London. Even though her health deteriorated and made it more difficult for her to do her work, soon after arriving to England she could not endure her situation and she ran away. She was offered help by the Moravian Mission House and was able to find work at Thomas Pringle’s house, who was a member of the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1831 Pringle arranged for her to publish her book, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, becoming “probably the first published slave narrative by a woman in English” (Ferguson 247).
1.1.3. Toni Morrison: Writing What I Want to Read
Written in 1970, The Bluest Eye is the first novel by Toni Morrison, an African-American writer who has become one of the top black female writers in the United States. Following the publication of The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford, established herself as an author of high repute and acclaim who became the first African American woman to receive a Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. The Bluest Eye can be characterized as addressing the timeless problem of white racial dominance in the U.S.A. and pointing to the impact it has on the life of a black girl growing up in the 1930s.
The biggest contribution to the African-American literature rests in that the novel speaks openly about the racist nature of white mass culture and explores the ways in which class division based on skin color affects black girls’ growing-up and their personality-forming. Alice Walker in one of her essays acknowledges that when Morrison was asked about “why she writes the books she writes [...] she replied: Because they are the kind of books I want to read” (“Saving the Life” 157). Morrison understands the lack of African-American women’s literature antecedents and identifies her writing with the necessity of becoming “her own model as well as the artist” she is (Walker, “Saving the Life” 158), a belief in which Morrison could be compared to Walker.
Critics recognize the relevance of Toni Morrison’s writing for the African-American community and its women. As Darlene Clark Hine suggests in Black Women in America encyclopedia, “In her works, [Toni Morrison] strips away the idols of whiteness and of Blackness that have prevented Blacks in the United States from knowing themselves and gives them their own true, mythical, remembered words to live by” (819). In an essay on The Bluest Eye Jane Kuenz claims that it is a book about “the encroachment and colonization of African-American experiences, particularly those of its women, by a seemingly hegemonic white culture.” White standards have become internalized in the black community and indicate the key factor contributing to the destruction of black women’s self-esteem. The main character’s identity and self-understanding is disrupted by the predominant white parameters of what is considered beautiful and right, which are diametrically different from what role a black woman is allowed to represent in the larger society. When she narrates the story of an excluded female black child, “Toni Morrison enables the reader to witness the complexity of black female subjectivity” (Kuenz). This triple handicap – being a woman, African American, and a child – devalues Pecola in the American society of the 1930s and explains the lack of consideration over the pitiful destiny of a poor black girl in the predominantly racist environment. The book thus questions the conscience of the whole nation across racial and class boundaries.
1.1.4. Jamaica Kincaid: Writer at a Crossroads
Under the pseudonym of Jamaica Kincaid readers are introduced to the Antiguan-born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson. Considered one of the most prolific Caribbean women writers of today, Jamaica Kincaid’s residency in the United States marks a dissent in her writing career. As Paravisini-Gebert emphasizes, Kincaid accepted the pseudonym when her writing career advanced as a freelance magazine writer; she suddenly realized that her name was not sufficiently evocative of her West Indian origin (11). In her Critical Companion to Jamaica Kincaid and her writing Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert claims that while Kincaid identifies herself as an American, despite her Antiguan heritage, her works implicate the rewriting of Caribbean history from a West Indian perspective and with other themes and topics that identify her clearly as a Caribbean author. Kincaid’s success as a journalist in the 1970s, especially her affiliation with the New Yorker, triggered her writing career and enabled her to start publishing her own fiction. When her first short story “Girl” was published in 1978, followed shortly by “Antigua Crossing” in the same year, Kincaid’s reputation as a Caribbean writer of high renown was established and her short stories, collected in At the Bottom of the River, and novels evoking various aspects of life in the West Indies become known world-wide. Kincaid’s fiction and non-fiction has been “increasingly concerned with the question of how to write about the Caribbean’s history of slavery and colonialism” (3) and her writing reflects on the summarizing dichotomy of the powerful and the powerless that also involves the differences between men and women. Major themes in her writing are the recurring search for African-Caribbean women’s identity and the reconstruction of African-Caribbean cultural experience. Kincaid’s characters struggle against the racism fostered by the British colonial presence, as experienced during her earlier life in Antigua, and the institutionalized racism that an immigrant encounters in the United States of America (Paravisini-Gebert).
Jamaica Kincaid is a peculiar case of a black woman writer who refuses to be ranked according to the two characteristics of gender and race as they describe her identity because she perceives them to be too narrow. Kincaid’s understanding of a black woman’s self is more individualistic, being in conflict with the “society’s belief that African-American [and African-Caribbean] women are less individulistic” (Yarbrough and Bennett). Until her arrival to the United States, Kincaid did not understand race as a marker of supposed inferiority. Growing up in Antigua, where the majority of the population was black, and judging from her American experience, when she needed to assert herself personally and professionally, Kincaid sees an individual’s most important quality in something other than race. In an interview broadcasted on KPCC Pasadena on February 17, 1996, Kincaid revealed that a person needs to be able “to forget one’s outward appearance and concentrate on what one looks like inside” She also articulated the belief that a self “cannot be reduced to racial categories that are ultimately only expressions of relations of power.” When she immigrated to the United States, Kincaid personally tried to find what she is like “in the privacy of her own self” (qtd. in Paravisini-Gebert 15-16). Removed from her native environment, she could acknowledge what she was capable of and be herself.
This leads us to notice yet another important theme in Kincaid’s work to be the personal autonomy and the struggle for achieving it in spite of the world’s opposing forces. Given the author’s problematic relationship to her mother, who intended to raise “a well-behaved, soft-spoken, proper Afro-Saxon girl out of her” (Paravisini-Gerbert 6), Jamaica Kincaid developed a rebellious nonconformist character that accounts for her life-long effort to assert herself and her independence, which could also be read as one of the motivations for rejecting to be categorized in a specific group of authors. The search for freedom becomes one of the reasons of her immigration to the United States at the age of seventeen (Paravisini-Gebert 9). Kincaid’s own experience with exile to the United States is comparable to that of the West Indian girl character of Kincaid’s novel Lucy who comes to New York City to work as an au-pair. In the novel, we can observe the determination with which Lucy asserts her autonomy, reminding us of Kincaid’s own struggle. Despite of Kincaid’s uniqueness, it is this notion of assertion of a person’s self that affiliates her to the group of women writers of African origin.