Variations (for Deborah E. McDowell)

mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf
—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Black people’s songs have carried the fire and struggle of their lives since they first opened their mouths in this part of the world. They have always wanted a better day.
–Amiri Baraka, “The Changing Same”

Deborah E. McDowell’s “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism” (1980) named a problem: Black women’s writing had not received sufficient attention from white feminists and Black men scholars. About the attention such work received, she wrote, “When Black women writers are neither ignored altogether nor given honorable mention, they are critically misunderstood and summarily dismissed” (153). Even though a robust body of work now engages Black women’s texts and contexts—not enough, never enough, especially in mainstream review and critical spaces—these works are still “critically misunderstood,” “a fact,” writes McDowell, “which might be explained partially by our limited access to and control of the media.” Few academic journals and book series are run and edited by Black women, and, as far as I know, none of the “major” journals in literary and cultural studies, including in African and African Diaspora studies.

Too works are “critically misunderstood” because few of those writing about them in academically acclaimed spaces engage theoretical work by Black women scholars. Building on Barbara Smith’s foundational “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” McDowell noted the paucity of Black feminist theoretical and historical work for scholars to engage. Almost 40 years later, the situation is better—more theoretical and historical work exists. But not enough scholarship on Black women writers grounds itself in Black women’s theoretical and historical work. One is still compelled to demonstrate how Black women’s writing can respond to provocations by the theory fathers, most of whom are still white. And if, now and then, we are permitted a Fanon, a Bhabha, a Gilroy, a Moten, we are still being asked how Black women engage their brothers and uncles, and not taking Black women’s theoretical and historical work as the explanatory frame for Black women’s writing. 

While a Fanonian reading of x Black woman is available, a Barbara Smith reading or Hortense Spillers  reading or bell hooks reading or Deborah McDowell reading is still rare.

If, now, I ask that scholars of African literature and culture engage African philosophers and thinkers, it is because I follow Deborah McDowell’s example.

If, now, I attempt to ground the writers I study in their geohistories, it is because I follow Deborah McDowell’s example.

Too, I learned how to read for specificity from McDowell. Black women’s language, she writes, is not one thing. It is a language of difference.

Is there a monolithic Black female language? Do Black female high school drop outs, welfare mothers, college graduates and Ph.D.s share a language? Are there regional variations on this common language?

These questions go beyond the question of how Black women are represented in white-authored texts—a topic adored by mainstream journals—and ask how Black women engage each other across difference.

Against too-easy invocations of Black sisterhood, McDowell writes the life trajectories along which difference emerges: education, class, state violence, institutional position, geohistory. What languages emerge at the seams of difference? What languages suture this difference? What languages cannot work across difference? What new languages must be conjured—in the ritual-spiritual sense—to work across difference?

Deborah McDowell, along with Maureen Honey, Cheryl Wall, and Gloria Hull, taught me about the women of the Harlem Renaissance—women I’ve been reading and learning from since I was a sophomore.

McDowell modeled how to think with fine details. Take,  for instance, this brief, illustrative passage:

The use of “clothing as iconography” is central to writings by Black women. For example, in one of Jessie Fauset’s early short stories, “The Sleeper Wakes” (1920), Amy, the protagonist, is associated with pink clothing (suggesting innocence and immaturity) while she is blinded by fairy-tale notions of love and marriage. However, after she declares her independence from her racist and sexist husband, Amy no longer wears pink. The imagery of clothing is abundant in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Janie’s apron, her silks and satins, her head scarves, and finally her overalls all symbolize various stages of her journey from captivity to liberation. Finally, in Alice Walker’s Meridian, Meridian’s railroad cap and dungarees are emblems of her rejection of conventional images and expectations of womanhood. (157)

One of my favorite teaching moments was thinking about how Toni Morrison uses shoes in A Mercy. When they are worn, who wears them, who wants to wear them, who takes them for granted. McDowell’s work taught me to look for such details, and to give them weight.

So much training in minoritized literature and culture focuses on “big” moments: the dominant model remains Frederick Douglass fighting Covey. But focusing on these moment overlooks the more ordinary ways Black women writers map worlds, how they imagine survival and beauty and friendship and community, how these are imagined in color and sound and scent and texture, in small gestures and persistent rituals.

Every day she comes home, slips off her shoes, removes her hat, and drinks a cup of tea, milky with one teaspoon of sugar.

In “‘The Changing Same’: Generational Connections and Black Women Novelists” (1987), McDowell extended her earlier thinking about Black feminist criticism. She writes,

Imagining the black woman as a “whole” character or “self” has been a consistent preoccupation of black female novelists throughout their literary history. . . . It seems appropriate, therefore, to allow the critical concerns of black women’s novels to emerge organically from those texts, rather than to allow current critical fashion to dictate what those concerns should be. (283)

As with “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism,” McDowell directed us to embed our critical engagement with Black women’s writing in frames created and provided by Black women.

A broader genre claim is at work here: absented from the fields and disciplines dedicated to mapping self and subjectivity, including philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, and history, Black women had theorized self in creative works, forming the frames and sentences they needed. McDowell writes,

Largely because degraded images of black women have persisted throughout history, both in and out of literature, black women novelists have assumed throughout their tradition a revisionist mission aimed at substituting reality for stereotype. (284)

Yet, McDowell points out, this “reality” tended toward myth, valorizing an ideal of chaste and modest black womanhood. These black women, including Frances E.W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, and Emma Dunham Kelley, “traded myth for countermyth” (284): “Every detail of Iola’s life, down to the master personal experiences of family life, is stripped of its intimate implications and invested with social and mythical implications” (286). McDowell gestures toward the cultural bind Black women experienced.

Colonial modernity and the white supremacy that subtended it generated myths about Black women. Myths that justified enslavement and physical violence, punishing labor and sexual violence, myths that, contradictorily, criminalized Black women while denying that those women could be violated. Myths that claimed the power to provide all Black women with life histories and case files, with psychic profiles and spiritual remedies. As many Black scholars and activists discovered, myth cannot be countered by fact, especially not when myth subtends how fact is produced—this is a critique of all the disciplines that claim to study human life without engaging the white supremacist basis of colonial modernity and the knowledge regimes it institutes. Myth needs to be fought with myth. And the myths that subtend facts must be addressed for “a truer word” to emerge.

Yet, the myth produced needs to act in the world and to make the world more habitable for those the myth claims to serve. And the impossible ideal represented by Iola Leroy and similar characters made Black womanhood feel impossible. Even as, even as, even as, I have wondered what happens if we read the impossibility of Iola Leroy as a gesture by the Black woman novelist that insists, “I will not say. You have already claimed too much. You—white reader—will get the barest, because you have already claimed too much of my intimacies.” With the generosity hindsight provides—a generosity evident in McDowell’s reading practices—we acknowledge the historical circumstances under which Harper wrote, and what that writing enabled. And, of course, a more extended reading of Harper’s body of work—I’m not fancy enough to use oeuvre—demonstrates her radical politics.

I must rhapsodize about Pauline Hopkins, whose work I know better than I know Harper’s. While her first novel, Contending Forces (1900), follows the model McDowell maps, her third novel, Of One Blood (1901-1903), does not. It takes the structure of myth that subtends work by Black women in this period and, to that, adds speculation. It is, I believe, the first speculative novel by an Afro-diasporic woman. In Of One Blood, Hopkins writes against the forms and geohistories that constrain black women’s imaginations, locating black being and pleasure away from the U.S., in an ancient, mythical African kingdom.

Of One Blood asks about the worlds Black women must imagine and create to practice freedom. We could quibble about how Africa is figured in this work, but doing so misses how Afro-diaspora and Africa under colonial modernity both need strategies to imagine freedom. The mythical Africa in Of One Blood—where women practice and experience erotic and political freedom—feeds African and Afro-diasporic freedom dreams.

Given the proximity in publication dates, it’s quite likely Hopkins wrote Contending Forces (1900) and Of One Blood (1901-1903) as companion pieces, or in close proximity. Across Hopkins’s body of work, we find not sustained myth and countermyth, but a range of formal experiments in fiction, prose portraiture, history, philosophy, and science. Sitting with Hopkins’s work—I am not a Hopkins scholar, merely a fan—has taught me to consider the body of work produced by Black women across much of the nineteenth century as speculative experiments, attempts to imagine Black being and life beyond the constraints in genre and imagination of the time.

“The need to portray their people with honesty and imagination has been paramount for contemporary Black women novelists,” wrote McDowell, pivoting from the late nineteenth century to novels by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones. While the impress of colonial modernity and white supremacy means that these writers also contend with revising damaging myths about Black women, “they have liberated their own characters from the burden of being exemplary standard-bearers in an enterprise to uplift the race” (287). The result, McDowell continues, “is not only greater complexity and possibility for their heroines, but also greater complexity and possibility for themselves as writers” (287).

This greater complexity, writes McDowell, emerged from the coincidence of “black nationalism” and the “women’s movement” in the 1960s and 70s. She observes,

Like the black aestheticians, those women in the vanguard of the women’s movement second wave called for women’s release from unreal and oppressive loyalties. . . . Similar in spirit and methodology to the largely male-dominated black aesthetic movement, feminist critics likewise repudiated and subverted alien, male-created literary standards and began to describe a female aesthetic which reflected women’s unique culture.

It is necessary to note that, ironically, in their earliest formulations, the objectives and practices of both the black aesthetic and feminist criticism often came dangerously close to insisting on a different and no less rigid set of creative standards. Despite their own prescriptive leanings, however, these two modes of critical inquiry must be credited with opening up unprecedented opportunities for black and women writers. In isolating and affirming the particulars of black and female experience, they inspired and authorized writers from those cultures to sing in their different voices and to imagine an audience that could hear that song. (297)

From 2019, it seems like cultural commonsense to map how political movements reverberate with cultural production, to see how freedom-seeking imaginations are nurtured and sustained by cultural production and activated in political movements. And also to see how we the minoritized often work in the gap opened by other movements—the loopholes of retreat, as Harriet Jacobs taught us to call it. It takes a lot of work—critical, creative, institutional, administrative—to make bold and innovative critical and theoretical methods become “cultural commonsense.” And I wonder how much we miss about Black women’s cultural and theoretical labor because it is now commonsense. How might we track genealogies of critical commonsense to account for Black women’s cultural and theoretical labor?

I am enraptured by McDowell’s “to sing in their different voices and to imagine an audience that could hear that song.” McDowell’s work has followed—and models—that Black feminist trajectory of singing and imagining an audience that can hear the song.

For the past decade or so, Black studies has entered a new phase of the race for theory. The race for theory, Barbara Christian taught us, is mostly uninterested in imagining an audience that can hear the song. It revels in the coteries it gathers, and the little groups of the same people speaking to each other. I no longer have the patience to read multiple articles where the same 3-4 people write about and respond to each other. I am especially wary of this new race for theory in Black studies because it has bad consequences for Black women’s intellectual and cultural production, which is routinely dismissed as not rigorous enough, not theoretical enough, not philosophical enough, not impenetrable enough. A few activists and scholars make it through the gatekeeping, but too few.

As I was making tea for my mother this morning, I thought about Black Lives Matter, and the matter and mattering of Black life. I thought about Barbara Christian and Gloria Hull and Deborah McDowell and Cheryl Wall—I am a Harlem Renaissance scholar, though I was never allowed to be—and how they taught us to look at the small detail: the color, the fabric, the food, the scent, the smile, the frown, the dailyness of Black life and Black matter. I thought about my ongoing attachment to the quotidian, which I learned from these scholars: how to see the thing that is there, how to give it prominence, how to grasp the significance of the small detail: the sheen of hair, the glow of skin, the rustle of fabric, the aroma of food, the choice of clothing, the exchanged letter, the lingering conversations, the quick glance, the prolonged stare. This matter of the everyday. This gift of the many ways Black life matters and materializes in object and exchange, movement and stillness.

These matters and matterings are frequently occluded from the race for theory, or so abstracted that we who find ourselves in them no longer recognize what they are or how we should feel about them. Is it too much to say that I have returned to Deborah McDowell’s work to recall how I learned to think about the quotidian matter of Black women’s lives? And, following her melodies, to learn how to sing while imagining an audience who can hear the song.

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