Alice Walker: Writing What I Should Have Been Able to Read

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1.1.5. Alice Walker: Writing What I Should Have Been Able to Read

One of the most respected and prolific contemporary black female writers and activists, Alice Walker, has become world-known for her novels, poems, essays and numerous short stories. According to Walker’s Biography written by Chris Danielle, she was the first African-American novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1983 for her third novel, The Color Purple. This novel has become a best-seller and has even been made into a movie produced by Steven Spielberg in 1985 Walker’s writing in general is radical and focused on depicting the lives of African-American women in different life situations and phases of their reconciliation with themselves and the world (Danielle).. Profiting by her own experience as a woman of African origins growing up in the second half of the twentieth century, when equal position for black women was still not granted, Alice Walker’s short stories often bear autobiographic features from the life and environment of the author. Alice Walker’s life and literary creation focuses on how the American society determines the experiences of black women, their struggles, hopes, and images. There is a strong sense of black women’s community and heritage in Walker’s writing, as Black Women in America encyclopedia acknowledges: “Her message is that Black women’s personal salvation hinges upon recognizing their connectedness to women who historically have build bridges for them with their indomitable and independent spirit” (Hine, Black Women In America 1206), a concept that completely distinguishes her from Jamaica Kincaid.

In her Preface to The Complete Stories, a book that unites two of her collections of stories, In Love and Trouble and You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, the author claims to explore “the lives of women who barely realize they have a place in the world” and those “who are finding or have found where they belong, [and] who have in any event freed their imaginations and their tongues” respectively (ix). The second collection of short stories proves that there is a shift in themes as these relate to the position of the African-American women’s literature. Walker stresses the necessity to speak openly about the issues associated to black women and she does not hold back from controversial themes such as rape, abortion, and porn. She thus contributes to the struggle of black female writers for freedom of expression. Walker believes that “by writing stories in which [things are] confronted openly and explicitly writers can make a contribution, [...], to a necessary fight” (“Coming Apart” 169). Walker’s endeavor to find the African-American women’ canon could be one of things to fight for, the same being true for Morrison.
1.1.6. Olive Senior: Offering the Mirror to Jamaican Women

Among the most highly regarded Caribbean women writers, Olive Senior occupies the position of an accomplished poet and short fiction writer, as well as being an outstanding journalist, editor, and publisher. Born in the Jamaican mountains to a family of peasant farmers, she grew up in multiple homes spending part of her childhood, also with her affluent relatives in the city (Horan and Simonovich). This dichotomy, experienced by the author herself in her youth, represents an important theme in many of her stories: “Many of Senior’s works focus on the turmoil that occurs when one is young and feels that she is never truly understood, and the experience one amasses by residing in both the country and the city and by coming in contact with both poverty and wealth” (Horan and Simonovich). It may be the ability to fully understand and compare these two Jamaican worlds that has enabled Senior to reflect on topics such as prejudice, materialism, loss of tradition, and the questions of color and social standing. In the majority of her work, Senior explores the changing roles of women in contemporary Jamaican society and she further contributes to their advancement by giving voice to women in her writing. These women are often “caught between present-day colonial values and their repressed African heritage” (Horan and Simonovich) and they are faced with the need to define themselves in terms of racial identity. In addition to these, gender-specific issues are taken into account in Senior’s work.

The work of Olive Senior consists of three collections of poetry -- Talking of Trees, Gardening in the Tropics, and Over the Roofs of the World – and three collections of short stories: Summer Lightning, Arrival of the Snake Woman, and Discerns of Hearts (Horan and Simonovich). Senior is also the author of various non-fiction books that observe and contribute to the question of Jamaican heritage in terms of ethnicity and gender (Allen-Agostini 19).

The short story “Bright Thursdays” is one of the ten short stories included in Senior’s first collection, Summer Lightning. This collection was published in 1985, and it was for this book that Senior was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize two years later. “Bright Thursdays” bears some autobiographic features when the main character’s story reminds us of Senior’s own childhood. In this respect Senior could be compared to Kincaid because both authors use autobiographic procedures. After being sent to live with more affluent relatives, the main character, Laura, attempts to find herself and her place in between two different Jamaicas, alienated from both of them. Another short story by Senior I plan on examining, “The Two Grandmothers,” comes from the second collection of short stories, called Arrival of the Snake Woman (1989). The main character of this story is again a girl growing up and choosing between two opposing worlds, however, in “The Two Grandmothers,” she is a member of the middle-class, while Laura comes from an urban lower-class setting. There are themes common to both short stories, given the similarity of characters and the proximity of their age. The two main characters have to deal with typical questions tied to their coming of age, such as the issues of color, beauty, life values, and quest for one’s identity, all of these contributing to the characters’ growing sense of self-esteem. While Laura in “Bright Thursdays” lives a life of solitude and alienation, the main character in “Two Grandmothers” has to find out which one of her heritages she will identify with.

1.2. Introducting the Themes

The concepts of skin color and racial identity, the role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem represent, in my view, the principal themes and subjects in the writings by black women. In my thesis, I want to analyze how these themes are related to black women’s lives and literature, how they motivate their struggles for an emancipated self, and observe how the path towards the emancipation and equality reflects itself in the literature by African-American and African-Caribbean women’s literature.

1.2.1. Skin Color and Racial Identity

For the subject of my thesis, there is a common ground to depart from and that is race. As the title of the thesis itself suggests, this work is particularly concerned with how the belonging to a particular racial type influences the fate of women of African-American and African-Caribbean women and their position in the world. Being the most evident determinant of race and the fundamental of phenotypic features, skin color is described as shaping all spheres of a black woman’s life, including the following two spheres of sexuality and motherhood and the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem. The idea of self-esteem is subjected to the interplay of these with skin color and racial identity, the most important element in the lives of African-American and African-Caribbean women.

The concept of race, I believe, is an artificial category created by the Caucasian society in order to maintain the position of supreme power and to facilitate conquest. In the Prologue to his book about slavery Many Thousands Gone, Berlin Ira identifies race as not only being a social construction but rather a particular kind of it: a historical construction. Berlin also claims that race “is the product of a history and it only exists on the contested social terrain in which men and women struggle to control their destinies” (1). This kind of construction, in Ron Eyerman’s words, provided white people with a “means for justifying the new subordination of blacks, as a segregated group, but also for asserting their own right to dominate” (36). Thus, the institution of slavery in the Americas originates in conceptions about the intellectual as well as moral inferiority of the black people. Many stereotypes about black people were created and maintained as “justifications for [their] subjugation” (Eyerman 36). In researching the mechanisms of oppression and white domination, it is essential to consider the history of American and Caribbean people of African origin and their struggles for independence and equal standing in the society. This is especially true when speaking about women of color who are accentuated in my thesis.

The burdensome position of women of African-American and African-Caribbean cultures in the present and the past, stemming from their subjugated relation to the dominant white race and society, explains their wish to break with these discriminative consensuses, to claim control over their lives and representations, and to possess the right to speak for themselves. No matter how long and difficult has the way towards emancipation been for Americans and Caribbeans of African origins due to the prevailing racism and colonialism, the path has been twice as hard for women within these cultures because of the additional sexism. Women of many cultures were, and currently still are, struggling for equality based on race and gender and the black women’s situations has been marked by all these discriminating mechanisms. To obtain a more accurate picture of women of African origin today in terms of race, it is necessary to provide an overview of their historical experience in the Americas, starting with their life situation in the times of slavery, going through the obstacles that stood in their way towards increasing emancipation, up to the present day struggles. On their path towards equality, black women encountered many hindrances, the biggest of them remaining deeply rooted in the minds of the people in the form of prejudice.

Concurrently with the first encounter of black and white cultures, people of the African origin were examined and interpreted as belonging to a “nonhuman category [...] as somewhere between man and higher animals” (Stetson 73). Many erroneous theories and questionable researches appeared in support of this presupposition in order to explain the subjugation and colonization of the black people. In the same way, since the times of slavery, black women have been attributed several pejorative stereotypical characteristics, employed in order to make racism and sexism appear natural. Black women were referred to as “female animals” (Stetson 73), described in terms of their supposedly frivolous sexuality and savage manners. In her essay dedicated to the stereotypes that black women have to cope up with, Darlene Clark Hine suggests: “Stereotypes, negative images, and debilitating assumptions filled the space left empty due to inadequate and erroneous information about the true contributions, capabilities, and identities of Black women” (344). Hine also claims that most of these ideas were connected to “negative social and sexual images of their womanhood” (344). Until the advancement of anti-racist and anti-sexist movements in the mid-twentieth century, it was impossible for African-American and African-Caribbean women to eradicate these suppositions and speak for themselves in order to change their own representative image.

While it could be claimed that the main stereotypes regarding black women “have their root in negative anti-woman mythology” in general, Marilyn Yarbrough and Crystal Bennett insist that African-American women were “forced to combat the dual stereotypes of race and gender” and that these functioned as “a tool of controlling African American women” by limiting them to determinate roles they were allowed to play in the society. Contrasted with white women, who came to be defined as virtuous, pure and innocent during the Victorian times, African American women were characterized as “ignorant, crafty, treacherous, thievish, and mistrustful” (Yarbrough and Bennett). These and other stereotypes and hypotheses made about black inferiority and white cultural and intellectual supremacy gave birth to racism, a phenomenon or belief that influenced the whole society’s approach to people with their complexion and physical characteristics different from what is considered the ideal. Theories on racism are plentiful and the term can be described in many different ways, however the effects of racism remain imprinted upon the psyche of the black people in Americas. In her essay “If You Are Light You’re Alright,” Margaret L. Hunter defines racism in the American society as “the system of prejudice, discrimination, and institutional power that privileges whites and oppresses various people of color” (175). Created by those with political and economic power in their “racial ethnocentrism of the 17th century” (Pilgrim), white people justified the enslaving of blacks “by arguing that Blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and animal-like sexually” (Pilgrim). The assumptions about black women’s supposedly vulgar sexuality provided a pretext for their sexual exploitation and subjugation in many other spheres of their life that determine self-esteem. When the problems of racism and sexism, all of which black women have to deal with, “combine with colorism, a triple thread lowers self-esteem and feelings of competence among dark Black women” (Thompson and Keith 340). Color and phenotypic features form the basis of race, while belonging to a race becomes a decisive factor in the construction of self.

The concept of color represents a significant part in the self-evaluation of black women. Skin color determines a black woman’s identity and attitudes about the self, and historically speaking, it was upon this concept that the institution of slavery was mainly founded in the North American and Caribbean region. One’s skin color and phenotypic features became significant for a person’s social status according to the prevailing principles of racism and colorism. Colorism, as defined by Thompson and Keith, “embodies preference and desire for both light skin as well as other attendant features. Hair, eye color, and facial features function along with color in complex ways to shape opportunities, norms regarding attractiveness, self-concept, and overall body image” (338). The principle guiding social stratification and ranking among people of color has been a straightforward one: the lighter, the higher on the social scale. According to Thompson and Keith, research has proved that people of mixed race, mulattoes, believed they “led a more privileged existence when compared with their Black counterparts” (Thompson and Keith 337). Since the times of slavery, light-skinned blacks and people of mixed race were given preferential treatment by the white society in power because they were deemed to better fit the white ideals. However, different authors treat this assertion differently and slave narrative representatives of each region, Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince, both deny it. Surrounded by the white hegemony and the beliefs about white supremacy, dark-skinned men and women were lead to believe that light skin color was desirable and preferred because it was attributed to socioeconomic prominence, higher culture and beauty. In spite of the 1960s’ promotion of Black awareness that brought a lot of discussion to the topic of interracial discrimination, skin color differences continued to “divide and shape life experiences within the African American community” (Thompson and Keith 337). Certain improvement in the situation happened in the second half of the twentieth century when skin color served a basis for emancipation and self-help movements during the Harlem Renaissance and further. However, these are contradicted by the advantages afforded to people possessing light complexion in the majority society (Thompson and Keith 337). With the growing impact of the political preference of darker skin by Black awareness movement of the 1960s, civil rights and equality policies have been accepted and gradually begun to permeate all spheres of human coexistence.
1.2.2. The Role of Sexuality and Motherhood

Sexuality clearly represents one of the most intimate parts of the self of every human being. Psychological, cultural, social, political and spiritual aspects contribute to the forming of a person’s sexual identity and develop over the course of time and history. We are reminded by Mitchell that “one’s sexuality is culturally constructed” (23). In the context of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ position of women in the society, it can be concluded that “the White patriarchy constructed gender specifically in ways that served to control female sexuality and to ensure the interests of White male supremacy, [and thus] the exploitation and misappropriation of the Black women’s sexuality are not surprising” (Mitchell 23).

Historically speaking, in the colonial societies with slavery, women of African origin had to face the complicated role of “sexual slaves” or mistresses of white masters, for which they were stereotypically considered of loose manners. Black women’s sexual vulnerability and powerlessness as victims of rape could be explained by means of racism and the patriarchal attitudes to women in general that formed the prevailing worldviews in the times of slavery. Based upon the concept of sexuality, black women were “seen in dualistic opposition to their upper-class, pure, and passionless white sisters” (Giddings 564). Their sexual vulnerability together with the lack of “control over ownership of their own sexual beings and the children they bore” (Hine 343) put the black women in a difficult life situation which stigmatized their view of their self. It is commonly believed that the “sexual politics under patriarchy [were] as pervasive in Black women’s lives as [were] the politics of class and race” and that “the history of rape of Black women by white men [was] a weapon of political repression” (The Combahee River Collective 16). The belief that black women are sexually promiscuous served the purpose of justification for their abuse. Given that people of the black race were considered property, rather than human beings, the idea of rape was connected to the fact that the “institution of slavery depended on Black women to supply future slaves” (Pilgrim). According to John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, the rape of enslaved women was “probably the most common form of interracial sex” of the period (qtd. in Pilgrim). When slavery was abolished, the period that followed did not bring much melioration of black women’s social situation. On the contrary, uneducated and unemployed, black women’s possibilities of achieving economic and individual autonomy were very limited. The fact that many black women recoursed to “extracting value from the only thing the society now allowed them to sell” (Hine 346) – their body – only further contributed to the existence of negative assumptions about their sexual behavior.

There are three main stereotypes ascribed to African American women and somehow connected to their sexual position in the society – Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel (Yarbrough and Bennett, Pilgrim). The first, Mammy, represents the type of physically asexual, submissive slave or servant, who is sympathetic and submissive to her white employer. The second kind – Sapphire -- is portrayed as “an evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful” woman who can not be trusted, “in other words, [...] everything the Mammy is not” (Yarbrough and Bennett). The last stereotypical image of black women that has to do with the Biblical figure of sexually corrupted and lustful woman depicts Jezebel as being “promiscuous female with insatiable sexual appetite” (Yarbrough and Bennett). She plays on the “white notion of hypersexuality of the black female” and “conforms to American, not African, standards of beauty,” wrote The Birmingham-Pittsburgh Traveler newspaper. In order to combat these stereotypical characterizations of black women as asexual Mammies, antagonistic Sapphires, and promiscuous Jezebels that “reaffirm society’s belief that African American women during slavery are less individualistic than white women” (Yarbrough and Bennett), black women created what scholars call a culture of dissemblance (Hine 345). Keeping the inner aspects of their lives in secret and working for the community’s progress enabled black women to gain financial and psychological independence and made it possible for them to reclaim “control over their own sexuality and reproductive capacities” (Hine 346). It took several centuries before this sexual victimization could come to an end and black women could claim sexual freedom and the control over the representations of their sexuality and over their lives. Many black women writers and feminists hold that these derogatory images of sexuality still need to be completely eradicated by creating alternative representations of black women that would deny those stereotypical identities that still prevail and substitute them with different and more accurate images.

The topic of sexuality is closely related to human reproduction and mothering. The concept of abuse connects the notions of motherhood and sexuality when speaking about black women. As Angelyn Mitchell puts it: “White enslavers commodified and exploited the Black women’s reproductive abilities. Thus, a discussion of the enslaved Black woman’s sexuality is incomplete without a discussion of her disjunctive experience of motherhood” (25). That is why the two concepts are treated in unison in my thesis. Some African-American and African-Caribbean women writers embrace sexuality and motherhood together – Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince -- while others do not equate the concept of sexuality with mothering – such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Jamaica Kincaid.

Motherhood forms an important part of a woman’s life and through her attitude towards it a woman’s identity and worldview is demonstrated. In the case of African-American and African-Caribbean cultures, their women’s motherhood has been burdened by the implications that slavery placed on them. Coming from the stereotypical assumption about their animal-like nature, slave women were considered “breeders” (Stetson 75). Being a carrier of the future lineage of the black race in America and the Caribbean, the female slave in the past had to cope with the difficult position of bringing up children under the condition of slavery. This was an especially cruel situation considering that the child inherited its mother’s “chattel” status and literally increased the slave master’s property (Hull and Smith xviii). Enslaved women were deprived of their right to decide for their personal matters such as child-bearing and up-bringing, and it was not an exception for a child to be separated from its mother when it was still small (Jacobs, Prince).

For those authors that consider sexuality and motherhood inseparable, motherhood is what distinguishes women from the rest of the society, and the fact that black women could not control their mothering and the destinies of their children forms the basis of an important clash in the relationship between the masters and the slaves. Slavery also “drastically altered but did not completely annihilate the traditional role of African women in the family or the community” (Lawrence 1) in the sense that it left her basically unprotected while still forming the nucleus of the community. In her essay about “Sex Roles and Status in the Antebellum Plantation South,” Debora Gray White claims that having a child was one of the most important events in the slave community, “the most important turning point in a black girl’s life,” and that “the mother-child relationship emerges as the most important familial relationship in the slave family” (27). Their experience of not being able to control what in Africa was the most important part of a woman’s live, the black women’s struggle for freedom became closely related to the fact that “[the] fundamental tension between Black women and the rest of society involved a multifaceted struggle to determine who could control their productive and reproductive capacities and their sexuality” (Hine 344). The Black feminist movement became concerned early on with the themes of black female sexuality, motherhood and self-esteem that are linked.

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