African-American Women’s Literature
Unlike any other marker of civilization literature demonstrates a vision of the social and psychological world in which we live. During the post civil rights era there have been a number of seminal authors who give meaning and message to their times and the times, which came before them. Literature during this period is a marker of change and also an exploration of modern concepts of the past. Through the works of African-American women writers can be seen a message of change that has overcome our society. We have reached a point at which it is now considered acceptable to explore the changes to our society that have come from the civil rights movement and discuss issues that before now were seen as dark periods in our history and therefore not acceptable to explore. Despite facing much adversity, African-American women have greatly attributed to society through great works of literature. Of the three authors in focus, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker it can be said that their great literary successes have been gained not despite adversity but because of adversity. The three can draw deep meaning from the mundane and build the case for the strength of Black women through this depth.
The three aforementioned literary figures have been at the forefront of change and have explored their own as well as their ancestor’s angst and hope. Toni Morrison. Maya Angelou and Alice Walker are and will continue to be seen as three of the greatest writers of our time and through their works concepts of adversity and hope are explored unflinchingly. Morrison, Angelou and walker discuss, with clarity and even rawness the reality of developing as a whole person through the adversity of being black women, both in the past and in the present. They both discuss and dissect the lives of the women who have come before them and their own lives literally and figuratively. Challenges are apparent, and resolution is certain, in a life where resolution must be introspective, as it is rarely publicly avowed.
Toni Morrison’s work Beloved (1987) shows a progression of the African-American spirit through the challenges of life and death, pulling the reader into a web of adversity and then hope through the eternal. Maya Angelou, markedly one of the most influential writers of our time, despite her subjugation as an African-American and a women in a man’s world, shows an incredible sense of the real and the valuable in her autobiographical works, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986). Lastly but certainly not inferior, Alice Walker in her short story collection (1973) in these three works are a literal and a fictional progression of lives and spirits.
Within the Morrison’s Beloved, the quest for the spiritual is clearly the message, a spiritual growth and development if you will. Angelou’s, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes a literal autobiographical work commenting on Angelou’s life through tragedy and triumph and within Walker’s in Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women is a kaleidoscope of black women’s lives in America through the ages. Three different works, comprising three powerful genres, the fictional novel, the autobiography and the short story combined send a message of the creative spirit borne of trauma and pain.
Among the collected works of all three of these writers there are so many messages that transcend the mundane, yet are expressed entirely within the mundane. Taking this theme to bear on the works chosen for this analysis the reader has not far to look. The environment of each work demonstrates the history and reality of each woman’s collective idea of the past, present and future. Morrison writes of the scenery present in the world of her ancestor’s the poor but clean homes and clothing of the characters is a clear reminder of the reformation, a time when struggle was the only choice for nearly all people in the United States, but mostly for blacks, attempting to etch out a new existence within a changed world.
She still can’t say exactly what made these stories snap together in her imagination, but she does know that in both instances she was seeing remarkable examples of how much a woman could love in a sacrificial way, of how a woman could place the value of her life in something other than herself. 3 Whatever else these stories might have said, to Morrison they ultimately provided “noble” ideas around which to build Beloved and Jazz, the first two novels of her projected trilogy meant to cover the whole story of African-Americans.
Beloved is the beginning of a story, a story of transcendence when African-American’s and women in general are given the opportunity to climb out of old bondage and the ways in which they must make reparations for their deeds, while the chattel of another. One remarkable expert on Morrison’s work likens the three works in her trilogy with the levels of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Morrison trilogy responding to the three works of Dante the Divine Comedy: Inferno Purgatorio, and Paradisio.Beloved depicts the hell of slavery and its immediate aftermath. Beloved, the first in the trilogy, takes place in the 1880s, with references to earlier events…in Beloved, crucial earlier events are related indirectly to the reader, by way of the narrator or the characters’ memories.
Through the mundane interactions of the characters, going through the motions of life, making dinner, expressing passion and communicating in the ways of a family, the spiritual, is discussed and dissected. Beloved, the character is the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby, drowned by her to save it from a life of slavery. Beloved simply appears one day with stolen cloths and begins to live with the family,
What was you looking for when you came here?” he asked her. “This place. I was looking fro this place I could be in.” “Somebody tell you about this house?” “She told me. When I was at the bridge, she told me.” “Must be somebody from the old days, ” Sethe said. The days when 124 was a way station where messages came and then their senders. Where bits of news soaked like dried beans in spring water-until they were soft enough to digest.” “How’d you come? Who brought you?”…” I walked here, ” she said. “A long, long, long, long way. Nobody bring me. Nobody help me.” “If you walked so long why don’t your shoes show it?”…”I take the shoes! I take the dress! The shoe strings don’t fix!” she shouted and gave him a look so malevolent Denver touched her arm. “I’ll teach you, ” said Denver, “how to tie your shoes,” and got a smile from Beloved as a reward.
Her interactions are seductive and spiritual and it is not until she disappears again that the resolution of Sethe’s life and the clarity of the family’s future begins to be seen. ‘Sethe, ” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
Susan Corey’s “Toward the Limits of Mystery: The Grotesque in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” argues that Morrison develops two versions of the grotesque, the positive (emphasizing play, humor, and renewal) and the negative (emphasizing alienation, estrangement, and terror) in order “[to use] the grotesque to its fullest capacity” (33)….this particular aesthetic has permitted Morrison to treat “political and moral issues without sacrificing artistic quality” because the grotesque’s “visual qualities” coupled with its ability to “surprise, shock, and disrupt” require that readers confront “moral questions” (47).
Within the work the mundane, or as some would call it the grotesque, is woven into the spiritual, everything has a meaning that builds to resolution. Each image is a tangible representation of something we all know, have touched but do not see until it is described by Morrison through her characters. Constantly referred to in the final passages of the work is a quilt, a patchwork soothing Sethe’s grief from Beloved’s desertion. While the characters minds wonder if their bodies and minds will stay together, like the quilt and how they compliment one another. Sethe is afraid of Paul’s touch, “…if he bathes her in sections, will the parts hold?” While Paul is similarly thinking of the way that Sethe holds him together, “The pieces I am, she gather them and give then back to me in all the right order.” Like the quilt these shattered souls are pieced together to finding comfort in the mundane and grotesque and with a greater understanding of the spiritual. A message that clearly demonstrates this is the stated goal of the author, Morrison’ dedication of the book speaks volumes of the message she wishes to impart to the reader.
The book is dedicated to “sixty million and more.” This figure refers to the estimated number of Africans rounded up for the slave trade who either died while awaiting transportation or who died during the passage on the slave ships. Although this figure is not the only estimate available, it represents the most reliable educated guess that Morrison could find. The fact that this figure remains a guess says something important about what Morrison was up against in trying to find out the full story of the slave trade. Much of that story has been ignored, left behind, or simply lost.
Through her works she attempted to retell the stories of grief associated with slavery and terror, her characters living their lives with greater understanding of its value than almost any other set of characters in fiction today.
Within the genre of the autobiography there is a different tenor of thought the words and deeds are that of the author and the message is clearly self, devolvement. Angelou in the Heart of a Woman demonstrates the ideals of her time, as a civil rights organizer and protestor. She clearly spells out the strife that exists between whites, and blacks and the dangerous dance they are doing during what most would call the most heated years of the civil rights movement (1957-1962). It is for this reason ands well as her unflagging representation of the depth of her character and experience that makes this work about much more than just the surface of her story.
As a serial autobiographer she must continuously look backward unveiling the various layers hidden in earlier volumes, remembering what she has already written without being repetitious. Autobiographer Lillian Hellman named this process “pentimento,” a term used in painting to indicate the reappearance of a design that has been covered over by layers of paint.
The narrative technique lends not only depth to the character and the work but also makes clear that the work is complete and that the learning is collective. Unlike the turbulent world in which she lives Angelou demonstrates very few contradictions, yet within one passage, she voices violence that is not normally within her character but is reactive of her whole.
Of the many instances in which Angelou uses this layered point-of-view in the Heart of a Woman, perhaps the most effective is the incident in which she confronts Jerry, the leader of the Savages, a Brooklyn street gang that has threatened Guy [Bailey] because he reportedly hit Jerry’s girlfriend. Enraged, a borrowed pistol in her purse, Angelou tells Jerry that if anything happens to Guy she will shoot him and his family, kill the grandmother, kill the baby, kill anything that “moves, including the rats and cockroaches” (84). Read from a multileveled point-of-view, Maya’s violent reaction in this episode goes back to Caged Bird, back to her rape, and back to the vengeful actions that Grandmother Baxter and her family took against Mr. Freeman. Her violent behavior in handling Jerry may involve an unconscious effort to rewrite her own history.
Angelou, may see such actions and threats differently as she describes her own words as “bluffing” her words are out of character and show depth and show a bold example of the kinds of sacrifices made by mothers, when their children are in danger, a constant theme in African-American Women’s literature. Through Angelou’s messages of many layers one can see the meaning behind the mundane. Her personal and spiritual growth, and humility is expressed through her constant interjections of wisdom she has gained in her travels all over the world. One of the more colorful example of this technique is found at the height of one of Angelou’s near misses as an activist.
Vus once told me, “If you’re in trouble, don’t under any circumstances ask black middle-class people for help. They always think they have a stake in the system. Look for a tsotsi, that’s Xhosa for street hoodlum. A roughneck. A convict. He’ll already be angry and he will know that he has nothing to lose.”
Angelou goes on in the scene to do just this, she finds a black roughneck and has him escort her into a building to try to save a friend from possible brutality at the hands of the police. The interchange is comical and heated as they fear for their own safety and at th end of the interaction the stranger disappears, without thanks. Angelou’s mention of him and their experience in her work expresses the legacy of his help in her life and the usefulness of her ability to listen and remember that the world is not always as it seems.
Within the Alice Walker work, in Love and Trouble there are thirteen stories of the seriousness of the lives of the black women. Walker is telling the story of the black women, sometimes within a time frame other times just within a context. One of the best loved and most talked about stories, Everyday Use demonstrates the ideals of two generations meeting. The work pokes fun at the movement of some young civil rights activists misunderstanding their own history and embracing its guises for all the wrong reasons. The conflict as is often the case is between a mother and daughter, with intrinsic messages about value the words of Walker still ring true, and ask the reader to ask him or herself to question the value they place on objects and why. Yet, another story in the work is as if not more compelling, and not as often sighted. Strong Horse Tea is the story of a poor black women, living in a black area of town, at the end of a dirt road, where no doctors will go without large incentives, unobtainable to most of the inhabitants.
The woman’s young son Snooks is dying “from double pneumonia and whooping cough.”
She has no alternatives, though both these diseases can be easily treated with relatively inexpensive means, even at this time, yet she is left with options only associated with what she calls “witch’s remedies.”
The mother (Rannie) sent for the doctor through the white mailman, “We going to git some fo them shots that makes peoples well, cures ’em of all they ails, cleans ’em out and makes them strong all at the same time.” She is left with no choice but to follow the advice of the “witch” when no one came to her aide. She is told that the only thing that can help her son is “good strong horse tea” (urine).
As her son lay dying, Rannie was separated from him, out in the muddy pasture trying to catch some horse tea from the mare. The image of the woman knee deep in fear, grief and mud is one of the most foundational images of the black woman’s experience, fiction or not. There were and are some places in the world where the lack of any basic medical care reduces mothers the view of the helpless watcher as their children perish from easily treatable diseases. This is especially true of the Black woman’s experience. This could have happened as far back the end of the American Civil War or it could have been a mere 50 years ago, Walker does not say.
What Walker does say is that women are capable of making some of the most extreme sacrifices for the sake of their children, a theme that has been built and repeated throughout the examples of all of the works here mentioned.
The strength of the mother is imminent and the image of the strong woman wrestling with the gigantic horse in the rain and mud to try to catch some “witch’s” medicine in her shoe is a demonstration of how far a mother can get from her principles if she thinks it will make a difference in the life of a child. The mundane is spiritual in that the story revolves around the real and the imagined, the last hope riding on something that will probably do nothing to help the situation, but constitutes a proactive quest rather than a helpless frozen grief, an unlikely position for a strong black woman. “On her face centuries were folded into circles around one eye, while around the other, etched and mapped as if for print, ages more threatened again to live.”
One additional story demonstrates the message of the mundane with greater meaning, the strife is demonstrative of strength not weakness. In “Really Doesn’t Crime Pay?” A young wife has to hide her writing from her husband, she has words spilling out of her but cannot complete a story, fill it in with details. She calls her story outlines, “embryos” and feels sad as she goes about the suggested tasks of her husband, yet she continues to write, and when a friend shows interest she obliges
After that Mordecai’ praised me for my intelligence, my sensitivity, the depth of the work he had seen — “and naturally I showed him everything I had: old journals from high school, notebooks I kept hidden under tarpaulin in the barn, stories written on paper bags, on table napkins, even on shelf paper from over the sink
Betrayed by this man, who takes her work and represents it as his own, she slowly goes crazy in her loveless marriage. Yet, she is not helpless,
Last night while Ruel snored on his side of the bed. I washed the prints of his hands off my body. Then I plugged in one of his chainsaws and tried to slice off his head. This failed because of the noise. Ruel woke up right in the nick of time. When he is quite, quite tired of me I will tell him how long I have relied on the security of the Pill. When I am quite, quite tired of the sweet, sweet smell of my body and the softness of these Helena Rubenstein hands I will leave him in this house. Leave them forever without once looking back.
The strength and meaning of the depth of these words are clear. This character, like most women cannot long live subverted. Her voice must be heard, and her strength and meaning must be know. Through Alice Walker this nameless, (anon) has received her voice, the voice of all those strong black women who have waited patiently for the opportunity to speak and express their wisdom of the world bearing their adversity as if to save it for a time when it will mean more to someone else.
Unlike messages of change, in the masculine though still meaningful, Morrison, Angelou and Walker demonstrate the view of individuals whose voices have been more or less subverted throughout the last thousand or more years, rarely silenced but almost always a whispered message. Women, the majority minority, offer views into life and death like no other part of the population of earth, man or animal. Women build depths of grief and sorrow that speak volumes of the reality of womanhood and humanity. African-American women additionally, are members of a larger historically subverted voice in the western tradition. With these two major obstacles, and many personal ones these three women, and a few others like them have demonstrated a message of human triumph and tragedy that should be commended by all, regardless of their interest in literature, present or past.
Karen Carmean, Toni Morrison’s World of Fiction (Troy, NY: Whitston, 1993) 82.
Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Toni Morrison a Critical Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998) 139.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York, Alfred a. Knopf, 1987), 65.
Genevieve West, “Conner, Marc C., Ed. The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable,” Studies in the Novel 35.2 (2003), Questia, 26 Oct. 2004 http://www.questia.com/.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York, Alfred a. Knopf, 1987), 273.
Karen Carmean, Toni Morrison’s World of Fiction (Troy, NY: Whitston, 1993) 82.
Mary Jane Lupton, Maya Angelou a Critical Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998) 116.
Maya Angelou, the Heart of a Woman, (New York, Bantam Books, 1981) 97.
Maya Angelou, the Heart of a Woman, (New York, Bantam Books, 1981) 191.
Alice Walker in love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women (New York Harcourt Press, 1973) 47-59.
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