Table of Contents
2. Body Politics in Philosophy, Feminism and Literature – A Theoretical Framework
2.1 Michel Foucault’s ‘body politic’ and its pertinence to literary analysis
2.2 A Feminist Approach to the “body politic”
2.3 The Black Aesthetic Discourse
2.4 The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness in Afro-American Literature
3. “Pygmalion in Reverse” – The Reconstruction of Female Characters
3.1 Resisting to Write, Writing to Resist – The Lives of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker
3.2 The Reconstruction of Black Female Characters in Their Eyes and The Color Purple
4. “Writing in white ink” – womanist motifs as textual strategies of resistance in Their Eyes and The Color Purple
4.1 “Lately I feel like me and God make love just fine anyhow” – Female Spirituality as a Technique of Resistance
4.2 “mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’” – Female Creativity as a Technique of Resistance
6. WORKS CITED
The first book ever published by an Afro-American, was written by a woman. Since the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, however, the literary discourse in African American literature has been dominated by male writers. Similar to white literature, Afro-American women had only a marginal position in the creation of their writing. At the beginning of the last century, Virginia Woolf wrote about the relationship between woman and fiction in A Room Of One's Own: “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history “(66). This practical exclusion from the literary process, or as Abbandonato puts it, “female silencing” (1107), has provoked the emergence of an Afro-American feminist literature. In the last century, writers such as Nella Larsen, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, just to name a few, started to write against the grain of dominant racial and gender discourses. In this paper, the breaking down of this gender bias through techniques of resistance will be explored in two novels by their fellow writers, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Color Purple by Alice Walker bear astonishing similarities. Both narratives depict the coming of age of a black woman in a hostile and suppressive environment and use the communication between two women as a framework. Hurston’s heroine Janie returns home after a long absence and tells her best friend Phoeby the story of her life:
“Phoeby, we been kissin’-friends for twenty years, so Ah depend on you for a good thought. And Ah’m talking to you from dat standpoint.” Time makes everything old, so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked. (19)
In an oral style, the protagonist’s struggle to find her voice in Their Eyes is told in retrospect. The metaphor of “time” that “makes everything old” implies that Janie herself has become more mature since the beginning of her story. The Color Purple is narrated through the letters that Walker’s heroine Celie writes to, and receives from, her sister Nettie. The novel begins with a threat that is directed at 14-year- old Celie: “You better not never tell nobody bud God. I’d kill your mammy“(1). Since Celie is forbidden to speak to “nobody bud God,” her letters are addressed to God as her only confidant. Celie and Janie are therefore caught in a system of patriarchal control that makes resistance difficult. Héléne Cixous offers a back door to this situation; in her legendary “The Laugh of the Medusa,” she states that writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures” (879) that finds its roots in the maternal desire for a return to the mother’s breast — ‘white ink’. Using their writing and their language as a springboard, Hurston, Walker and their female protagonists develop individual techniques of resistance towards the power that gets inflicted upon them. These techniques of resistance offer the starting point for the investigation in this paper. How do Hurston and Walker succeed in producing a discourse that resists both gender and racial stereotypes, and how is a female writer of African American origin to address and rewrite a body politic that has been part of a male-dominated and Eurocentric literary discourse for centuries? Or in Irigaray's words: “What if these commodities refused to go to market” (196)?
This paper argues that Hurston and Walker resist dominant literary discourse by deconstructing its stereotypical black female bodies and, therefore, free them of their normalising functions. It further shows that the novels succeed in providing a powerful alternative discourse because they use motifs of female Afro-American culture as techniques of resistance.
The analytical framework of this paper adapts Hélène Cixous’s notion of “writing in white ink,” which is intimately connected to the female body and, thus, serves as an analytical tool of this paper. Cixous’ metaphor of “white ink”, writing in breast milk, symbolises the reunion with the maternal body. In her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous claims that there has been little or no feminine writing (311). She then confines herself to mentioning poets and writers that are almost exclusively male and French. It is the aim of this paper to demonstrate that Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple can be read as African American versions of écriture feminine, since their dominant motifs bisexuality, rape, motherhood and spirituality anticipate some of the same concerns as Cixous’. Additionally, Foucault’s notion of the “body politic” proves indispensable in order to highlight the function of the female body in 20th century literature and identify the power that is inflicted on it. Therefore, the question to ask is what techniques are used by Hurston and Walker to resist this power. Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple seem especially apt material for this analysis, as they not only offer an insight into the psyche and everyday life of Afro American women, but also provide the reader with a social kaleidoscope of 20th century Black America.
2. Body Politics in Philosophy, Feminism and Literature – A Theoretical Framework
What do Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker resist in their works and how can their resistance be explained in terms of textual strategies and concepts? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to provide an analytical tool that not only takes into account the complex power relationships in literary and gender discourses but also proves instructive in terms of those historical events which shaped the cultural and political situation of black women especially.
The following treatise seeks to make allowance for an interdisciplinary approach which will apply Foucault’s notion of the “body politic” to American literature by male writers in order to establish the dominant literary discourse that Afro-American women writers tried to challenge. Foucault’s later writings, however, elaborated on practices by which the power on bodies he referred to in his earlier Discipline and Punish could be resisted. These practices which, as Foucault himself pointed out could be used to “to play around, taking turns if one wished” (Sawicki 295), will be the starting point of my theoretical framework. Furthermore, an account of the feminist view on resistance strategies will show how Foucault’s notion of the aesthetic practices of the self can be adjusted for the analysis of a female literary discourse.
Finally, an examination of textual strategies of resistance in literary works which constituted the Black Aesthetic Discourse of the 1960s and the Black Feminist Consciousness of the 1970s will support my theoretical approach.
2.1 Michel Foucault’s ‘body politic’ and its pertinence to literary analysis
The work of historian and philosopher Michel Foucault has proved immensely influential in literary and philosophical fields. His notion of the “body politic” has been especially rewarding for feminist discourse. In a work from his middle years, Discipline and Punish, Foucault outlines the different strategies by which, throughout history, power was imposed on the human body. He describes them “as a set of material elements [...] that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge” (28). Such strategies include the disciplining of the body by confining, controlling and normalising it.
What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act on the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. (…) Thus, discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, “docile bodies”. (Foucault, Discipline 138-9)
His claim that power was especially imposed on the docile bodies of children and old people made it extremely pertinent to feminist literary analysis. Many feminist critics argue that there exists a set of techniques that are exclusively imposed on the female body due to its biological and social otherness. Although Foucault provided a useful analytical tool to investigate the technique of power imposed on bodies, he failed to address the female body as a site where techniques of control and subjection were prone to be exerted on. In her essay “The Disciplining of the Female Body,” Angela King addresses this lacuna by stating:
He doesn’t seem concerned to explore how or why power operates to invest, train and produce bodies that are gendered and he also appears to be blind to the extent that gender determines the techniques and degrees of discipline exerted on the body. (30)
Foucault’s blindness to those techniques that are exclusively imposed on the gendered body made him a ready target for many feminists who declared his androcentric approach inapplicable to feminist discourse. Nevertheless, Foucault’s body politic provides a suitable analytical tool to investigate how female bodies are instrumentalised by literary practices. In my Seminar paper “The Woman who will never walk again - The female body and body politics in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and André Brink’s Rights of Desire,” I tried to show that Foucault’s notion of how power is invested on human bodies is quite similar to “the tendency in male South African Literature to use the female body as a site on which political struggle and violence can be represented” (Ruf, 8). This paper argues that the use of the female body in South African Literature “can be interpreted as carriers of social development” (Ruf, 24). South African writer J.M. Coetzee admits that:
in South Africa it is not possible to deny the authority of suffering and therefore of the body…And let me again be unambiguous: it is not that one grants the authority of the suffering body: the suffering body takes this authority: that is its power. To use other words, its power is undeniable. (Atwell 248)
What Coetzee implies here is that the practise of using the body, and specifically the female body, is a result of “the authority of suffering,” which is in turn a by-product of fragmented South African society. Along with Nkosi, Brink, Fugard and other male South African writers, Coetzee uses the female body as a vehicle for socio-political issues. Although South Africa differs tremendously from the United States in terms of colonial history and racial policy, both countries’ social hierarchies bear astonishing similarities. In his review on “White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History,” Franklin cites Frederickson who stresses the social parallels between the two countries, observing that there are “broad similarities in the kinds of white attitudes, ideologies and policies that have emerged” (Franklin 160). Although the United States differs considerably from South Africa in “black-white ratios, geography, economic development and many other areas” (Franklin 160), both countries adapted a similar system of social hierarchy:
The poor whites generally go along these ideas and practices [white national ideology and exploitation] mainly because they tend to bolster their self-esteem (the rule-of-thumb became: “let the lowest white man count more than the highest negro”) and to assuage their “status anxieties” in these highly competitive and materialistic environments. (Franklin, 160)
Both societies placed the coloured man below the white man; women, be they white or coloured, are not mentioned in Franklin’s rule-of-thumb and were automatically placed under the man’s rule. It can therefore be said that in South Africa and in the United States the black woman found herself at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It can consequently be argued that Foucault’s notion of power, which can be adapted to South African literature by stating that its dominant discourse uses female bodies as social gauges, is similarly applicable to American literature. American fiction by male authors of the last century gives proof of the instrumentation of the female body and the black female body in particular. In Absalom!Absalom !, Faulkner's depiction of female characters is the andocentric view of a white Southerner. In the Faulkner Encyclopedia Caroline Carvel gives the following account on the Old South:
The Old South was built on a social and economic system that could survive only by maintaining stringently prescribed roles in every segment of society. The security of the whole depended on the separation, and yet adherence, of each of its parts: Carefully guarded divisions between classes, genders, and races kept the structure intact. (75)
Faulkner therefore has a limited range of female roles he portrays in Absalom, Absalom!. The idea of the white woman as virgin, a wife or a mother is predominant; whereas the black woman is almost completely plodded out or is confined to such descriptions as “resembling something in a zoo” (Gates, Norton 209), or is depicted in a harmless, kind and childlike manner, like the nanny Dilsey in The Sound and The Fury. Faulkner’s representation of female bodies confirms the social system of the Southern States that, even though slavery was officially abolished, is still structured in the old power discourse of race, gender and class. Similarly, the instrumentation of female bodies also takes place in African American literature. In Native Son, Bigger Thomas' anger leads to the murder of a white girl whose body he dismembers and burns. Upon being confronted by his girlfriend, he equates the way he is treated by whites with rape:
Had he raped her? Yes, he had raped her. [...] He committed rape everytime he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. (258)
Bigger Thomas is metaphorically raped by white society and therefore physically rapes and kills his black girlfriend Beth. Furthermore, the rape theme is taken up sarcastically by Ralph Ellison in his novel Invisible Man where one of the black female characters pleads with the hero in vain to rape her: “Come on, beat me, daddy – you – you big black bruiser” (420). The stereotyping of women and the transformation of their bodies into sites where violence and abuse can be expressed has been strongly criticised by female literary critics and black woman writers alike. However, although Foucault himself fell short of treating the female body as an especially vulnerable site that institutional power could be inflicted on, his notion of the body politic helped to identify those patriarchal strategies in literary discourse, of which he was often reproached for.
A further criticism often voiced by feminists was that Foucault’s notion of the body politic failed to present any adequate strategies of how his set of techniques imposed on the human body could be resisted. However, Hartmann points out that “the rich notion of resistance in Foucault’s work […] is often overlooked or entirely missed by his interlocutors” (3). Already in his early works, Foucault was engaged in resistance, which he then termed “contestation” and “transgression” (Pickett 450) but it was
not until the late 1970s that he became concerned with the notion of “resistance” and maintained that “there are no relations of power without resistances; the latter are all the more real and effective because they are formed right at the point where relations of power are exercised” (Power 142). A practice to resist that Foucault developed in later writings deals with so-called critical aesthetic strategies that enable disadvantaged bodies to resist; they stand in clear opposition to his earlier work where he denies the subject any authority over his or her own body. Adapting Enlightenment’s motto “sapere aude!” (Kant 7) as a key principle of his notion of the aesthetics of the self, Foucault now emphasises in “The ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom” the individual’s capacity to develop her own thinking and critically challenge any kind of dominant discourse; Foucault calls the strategies that make such a resistance possible the aesthetic practices of the self. With regard to the analysis of this paper, the following points of Foucault’s aesthetic practices of the self seem particularly promising:
Through the practice of self creation—the process of consciously turning oneself into a piece of art in terms of looks, attitudes and lifestyle—the individual resists dominant and normalised discourses (Bordo 233).
Alternative practices of the self, hence practices which counteract any normative styles of living and loving (i.e. homosexuality, polygamy, queer practices), represent a very efficient form of resistance.
There is no such thing as a single subject of sexuality. By using a plurality of sexual practices, individuals cannot be perceived and normalised as one sexual body. Sawicki precisely observes that “[d]ifference can be a resource insofar as it enables us to multiply the sources of resistance to the many relations of domination that circulate through the social field” (Disciplining 45).
Power only functions due to the fact that it is hidden. As soon as its mechanisms are made visible it becomes a target for resistance. This strategic knowledge of a power results in what Foucault defines as “historical knowledge of struggles” (1980:83).
Many feminists perceived Foucault’s ‘body politic’ as a useful analytical tool to display female suppression but did not find his aesthetic practices congruent enough to show how female suppression could be resisted. In regard to my investigation, points i. and iv. will be of particular interest. Hartsock addressed this somewhat unsatisfying situation by asking: “Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic” (164)? The following chapter will give an overview of how feminist critics sought to address the problematic issue of the subjecthood more accurately.
2.2 A Feminist Approach to the “body politic”
It has been the task of several feminist political and social theorists to not only challenge Foucault’s neglect of the gender biased body politic but also rewrite the male-dominated image of the female body. As mentioned above, the two main issues of Foucault’s theory that have produced a heated debate concern his neglect to neither acknowledge the importance of the female body nor to provide any coherent approach to how power towards the female body could be resisted. The writings of Hélène Cixous have had a particular impact in this respect. In her influential essay “The laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous, who is part of the French post-structuralist movement, argues that the literary history has always been dominated by male discourses, depriving women and their bodies of creativity and therefore power. In opposition to Foucault’s notion of power, which plots out the female body completely, Cixous looks at the female body as “a weapon, as a medium of discourse” (876). She then argues that by “writing in white ink” women could construct a language of their own, the écriture feminine or feminine writing. She calls the act of resisting an androcentric discourse difference, meaning that “woman writes woman,” which can be understood on two levels: On a literary level that women write about women and their biological bodies and on a metaphorical level that women become a signifier instead of a signified. “Writing in white ink,” therefore,
means resisting the stable language of novels she calls “allies of representationalism” (879) and creating a feminine writing on a literary as well as on a metaphorical level. On one level, every individual woman must develop her own writing that mirrors her experience with her body and her sexuality. By experiencing their own writing, women will, on a second level, create a writing that is not simply a mere reproduction of the male discourse but instead produces a new signifying system that includes women as active creators instead of passive bodies. The feminine writing that is characterised by this new signifying system will not “make sense” or be objective since it will erase the divisions between speech and text, between order and chaos, between sense and nonsense. Such a deconstruction of the patriarchal system of language will bring women back to their roots, or in Cixous’s words, back to the mother’s body and the breast. This maternal desire is the source of Cixous’ metaphor of “white ink” (881) — writing in breast milk, which symbolises the reunion with the maternal body.
Another writer, philosopher and linguist that had an enormous impact on the discourse of ‘writing the female body’ is Luce Irigaray. In her controversial work This Sex Which Is Not One, she formulates the thesis that “there might be the possibility of a different, non-masculine discourse“(Whitford 4). Irigaray goes on to investigate female pleasure by trying to find out where it sits. She thereby challenges Freud’s conviction of the penis as the only true sex organ, as stated in the Sexuality and Psychology of Love:
They (girls) notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of large proportions, at once recognize it as the superior counterpart of their own small and inconspicuous organ, and from that time forward fall a victim to envy for the penis. (177)
By portraying the penis as something girls feel envy about early in life, he implies that the female sexual organ either doesn’t exist or is not as important as the male sexual organ. Sexuality is therefore controlled by men whereas women are passive and take pleasure in the male orgasm. Irigaray sees Freud’s notion of sexuality as a construction of the binary opposition of:
"virile" clitoral activity/"feminine" vaginal passivity which Freud and many others claims are alternative behaviors or steps in the process of becoming a sexually normal woman, seems prescribed more by the practice of masculine sexuality than by anything else. (99)
In opposition to Freud’s account of passive female sexuality, Irigaray develops the notion of the female pleasure as auto-erotic since “[a] women ‘touches herself’ constantly without anyone being able to forbid her do so” (100). Irigaray goes on to say that female language has developed out of the auto-erotic female sexuality; female language is therefore as various and unsteady as female sexuality whereas male sexuality is more linear and phallogocentric. Consequently, the sexuality of a woman is mirrored in her language. In Irigaray’s words:
one must listen to her differently in order to hear an "other meaning" which is constantly in the process of weaving itself, at the same time ceaselessly embracing words and yet casting them off to avoid becoming fixed, immobilized. (103)
Like Cixous, Irigaray suggests an alternative way of feminine writing that is based on female sexuality. Irigaray even goes as far as to claim that female sexuality is homo-erotic and therefore independent from male sexuality.
The concepts of the female body designed by French poststructuralists such as Cixous and Irigaray stand in clear contrast to the more pragmatic approach of Anglo-American feminist critics such as Butler, Haraway, Gilbert and Gubar.
Post-structuralist critic Judith Butler emphasises the importance of “reading beyond Foucault” (Sawicki 295) and gives an account of how the female body can be freed of its passivity and exposure to power. Arguing that the dichtonomy object/subject “is itself an [sic] historically contingent logic embedded within a discursive tradition that conceals its productive function by reifying and naturalizing its effects” (Sawicki 299). According to Butler, the agency of the female body is made possible by a strategy of resistance she calls “repetive signifying”:
In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; "agency," then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition. If the rules governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility, i.e., new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms, then it is only within the practices of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible. The injunction to be a given gender produces necessary failures, a variety of incoherent configurations that in their multiplicity exceed and defy the injunction by which they are generated. (145)
By repetitive signification of dominant gender discourses, the individual uses the power which is imposed on her and transforms it. Thereby, new identities emerge that are not normalised and are therefore not under the control of the dominating institution. Examples of repetitive signifying practices include “liminal types as the ‘assertive female’, the ‘effeminate man, the ‘lipstick lesbian’ and the ‘macho gay’” (Sawicki 301). What is particularly illuminating with Butler’s approach is that it takes up Foucault’s alternative practices of the self and makes it especially suitable for the female body.
Unlike Butler, Gilbert tends to analyse the ‘body politic’ in a diachronic way; she hence investigates the development of how the female body has been used as a means of representation throughout history and seeks to find solutions to resist this suppressive social system. Klages argues that
this kind of theorizing-for-application has its roots in a number of political movements and theories, including Marxism and socialism, civil rights, and, of course, the “women’s liberation” movement.
Gilbert’s pragmatism corresponds well with the investigation of this paper, which seeks to investigate the feminine textual strategies of two novels that broach the issues of racism, domestic violence and gendered power relationships, which began to be severely criticised during the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement at the end of the 1960s. Gilbert’s article “Literary Paternity” makes the point that, throughout literary history, the act of creativity has been occupied by the male pen, the metaphoric penis. “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?” (489), Gilbert asks in her article and, therefore, poses a question to which Cixous and Irigaray found the somewhat evasive answer that feminine writing had to be rooted in female sexuality and written in “white ink”, meaning that it had to use structures and symbols that are alien to male literature. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar state more precisely how a writer creates a feminine discourse:
In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization. Her revisionary struggle, therefore, often becomes a struggle for what Adrienne Rich has called “Revision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction… an act of survival. (49)
Gilbert’s and Gubar’s concept of restructuring narrative practices offers a guideline to how textual strategies could be applied to feminist Afro-American writing; namely, by rewriting and revising the images of female bodies that were created by a patriarchal literary discourse. Although Gilbert’s and Gubar’s approach towards a revisionist reading of male literary discourse proves constructive, it does not address the racial dimension of Afro-American women’s fiction, which is driven by ideological positions that are at times contradictory.
This lacuna is filled by Donna Haraway who has introduced the notion of “political kinship”. Haraway’s approach proves very viable for the investigation of this paper, since it focuses on the writings by women of colour. Through the metaphor of the cyborg, a hybrid that is neither human nor machine, Haraway sees story-telling as the main medium for liberatory politics.
From the perspective of cyborgs, freed of the need to ground politics in 'our' privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other dominations, the innocence of the merely violated, the ground of those closer to nature, we can see powerful possibilities. Feminisms and Marxisms have run aground on Western epistemological imperatives to construct a revolutionary subject from the perspective of a hierarchy of oppressions and/or a latent position of moral superiority, innocence, and greater closeness to nature. With no available original dream of a common language or original symbiosis promising protection from hostile 'masculine' separation, but written into the play of a text that has no finally privileged reading or salvation history, to recognize 'oneself' as fully implicated in the world, frees us of the need to root politics in identification, vanguard parties, purity, and mothering (Haraway, 176).
Haraway holds that women of colour can be seen as typical cyborg identities for whom writing has always been an essential medium, fighting suppression and prejudice. “The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling original stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture” (Haraway, 175). Cyborg identities are a product of a modern, colonised world and the language they use in their writings symbolises their fractured and multi-cultural origin and differs considerably from dominant discourse. “But it is this chimeric monster, without claim to an original language before violation, that crafts the erode, competent, potent identities of women of colour” (Haraway, 175-76). For Haraway, “political kinship” is a network of cyborg communities that have in common the same interests and affinities. Haraway argues against identity and essentialism and for networks of affinities. She therefore provides space for non-dominant or non-white feminist discourse, which many feminist theorists ignored.
Correspondingly, Toril Moi writes in her textbook on French and Anglo-American feminism: “[s]o far, lesbian and/or black feminist criticism have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism” (85). Whereas white feminist critics seem to be unable to acknowledge the fragmented identities of a black feminine discourse, Afro-American writers see considerable differences between the narratives of white and black women. Accordingly, Toni Morrison analyses their narrative elements:
Aggression is not new to Black women as it is to white women. Black women seem able to combine the nest ad the adventure. They don’t see conflicts in certain areas as do white women. They are both safe harbour and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both. We don’t find these places, these roles, mutually exclusive….
There’s a male/female thing that’s also different in the works of black and white women writers, and this is good. There’s a special kind of domestic perception that has its own violence in the writings by black women-not bloody violence, but violence nonetheless (Butler-Evans, 122-23).
Morrison is highlighting an important element in the problematic issue of the Afro-American woman writer: Their narratives cannot be dealt with adequately without taking into account the complex power politics being inflicted on the black female body, “which is antiracist, unlike those of white women, and antisexist, unlike those of black and white men” (Combahee River Collective 211).
Consequently, the black female body is not only suppressed by whites but also by black males who use the black female body as a tool to restore their own power. An efficient analysing tool to investigate two novels by Afro-American feminist writers, therefore, has to take into account this problematic issue. Furthermore, unlike the white woman, the black woman is not fully distancing herself from the male discourse of the black man as this would hinder the common case of the struggle for racial equality. Some members of the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group from Boston, write in their statement:
Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. (213)
In order to decipher a discourse which seeks not only to react on sexual oppression but also lays bare racial power relations, a theoretical framework has to address the discourse that became vital for black writing in the beginning of the 1960s.
2.3 The Black Aesthetic Discourse
Opposing dominant American literature, the Black Aesthetic Discourse emerged as “a set of prescriptive formulas for artistic creation” (Gates, Norton 1799) created by the Black Arts Movement in the mid 1960s, which was linked to Black Power as a result of black Artists’ struggles to define their culture, language and, above all, their inferior status in American society. Dismissing the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement sanctioned violence and emphasised two Americas, a black one and a white one. The Black Power Movement was seen as the ideological sister of the Black Arts movement. Already in 1903, W.E.B du Bois famously remarked in The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of The Color Purple-line” (613), emphasising the importance of appreciating Afro-American Culture. In his essay “The Damnation of Women,” du Bois pays tribute to the women of his race:
As I look about me today in this veiled world of mine, despite the noisier and more spectacular advance of my brothers, I instinctively feel and know that it is the five million women of my race who really count. (Gates, Norton 748)
Although du Bois’ defence for the equality of black women reads at times as romanticised and patronizing, it displays nevertheless a strong commitment to the feminist cause. What is more, du Bois’ notion of a veiled America, an America where people of African origin were not allowed to take part in the accomplishments and comforts of white culture, where they were ignored and had to live their lives “behind a veil,” became hugely influential in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. However, the new black intelligentsia did not only advocate the value of Afro-American culture but hailed a black nation which revived and celebrated their African roots and distanced itself completely from white American culture; thus, the most important aim of the Black Arts movement was the creation of a new black nation where violence came to be seen as necessary. Amiri Baraka’s statement, in one of his early works, is evidence of this development:
We have awaited the coming of a natural
Phenomenon. Mystics and romantics,
Of the land.
But non has come.
But none has come.
Will the machinegunners please step forward? (1799)
Baraka, born as LeRoi Jones, became one of the most influential architects of the Black Aesthetics Discourse, which uses Baraka’s drama Dutchman as a model for the creation of deconstructive and revisionary textual strategies (Gates:1997, 1799). These strategies were vehemently defended by the critic and essayist Addison Gayle Jr. who fought for black people’s control over their own texts. In The Black Aesthetics Gayle writes:
The Black Aesthetics, then, as conceived by this writer, is a corrective – a means of helping black people out of the polluted mainstream of Americanism, and offering logical, reasoned arguments as to why he should not desire to join the ranks of a Norman Mailer or a William Styron. To be an American writer is to be an American, and, for black people, there should no longer be honor attached to either position. (Gates:1997, 1876)
The Aesthetic Discourse can therefore be divided into four objects:
The adoption of social values and iconography which has roots in African culture and therefore links Afro-American people with their roots.
The production of a counter-discourse to the dominant Western discourse, which became known as Black consciousness and encouraged the production of literary forms such as poetry and one-act plays, which were easier to perform orally.
The construction of a mythical black nation that emphasises the representation of ordinary black life and excludes the dominant white culture.
The revocation of the politics-culture opposition and therefore the transformation of literature into an instrument of political struggle.
Texts by Malcolm X, Richard Wright and Hoyt Fuller incorporate these objectives and develop them further. Characteristic for writers of Black Aesthetics became the rewriting of western ideology, such as Christian liturgy, or the refusal to use Standard English, since it represented dominant white discourse. A sharp-witted example of how Christian liturgy was questioned by Malcolm X, who converted to Islam while in prison, can be found in his autobiography. Challenging the attitudes of his teacher and other inmates, he asked a “tall, blond, blue-eyed (a perfect “devil”) Harvard Seminary student”:
 The terms “white,” “black” and “coloured” are used here with an awareness of the political and social implications they carried throughout American history.
- Quote paper
- Bojana Ruf (Author), 2007, "Writing in White Ink" - Textual strategies of resistance in Zora Neale Hurston´s "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and Alice Walker´s "The Color Purple", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/80593