Women and Literature: The Dual Tradition of African American Fiction
Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. The September 2006 report explores the contributions of women to American literature. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic.
In this article taken from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Dr. Bernard W. Bell exames the dual tradition of African American fiction.
“Anyone who analyzes black literature,” writes literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “must do so as a comparativist … because our canonical texts have complex double formal antecedents, the Western and the black.”
This has long been the considered judgment and is now the prevailing wisdom of most African Americanists. Because of the distinctive history and acculturation of Africans in the British colonies in North America, the literary tradition of African Americans is most meaningfully assessed in the context of the tension between their attitudes toward their African and European cultural heritages and their oral and literary heritages. Every American writer of African descent works within and against the dual tradition—oral and literary, African and European, romantic and realistic, male and female—that each inherits as part of his or her North American cultural legacy. African American writers participate in the elusive quest for status, power, and identity within the context of these dual traditions. Each writer’s contribution and significance are therefore influenced by his or her relationship to past and present writers, as well as by the relationship of his or her texts to others in the tradition, both in the Eurocentric sense of literary formalism and in the broader Afrocentric cultural sense.
While a Eurocentric world-view privileges Greece, Rome, and Europe as the birthplace of civilization and the universal standard of cultural excellence, an Afrocentric world-view, as the neo-Hoodoo aesthetician and artist Ishmael Reed brilliantly illustrates in his novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), challenges our conventional wisdom and represents ancient Africa, including Egypt, as the more historically and archaeologically valid cradle of humankind and cultural diversity. Although either unknown or unacknowledged by many people, it is generally accepted by scientists that human beings evolved at least two million years ago in East Africa and southern Africa, moved into Europe and Asia much later, and finally came to the Americas over the Bering Strait from 12,000 to 30,000 years ago. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker employs magical realism in The Temple of My Familiar (1989) to reconstruct this story and to recreate the primordial sub-Saharan African mother of us all, whether we call her Lucy or Eve.
From his Eurocentric perspective T.S. Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that “the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and compose a simultaneous order.” In contrast, from a dual African and European perspective, Richard Wright states in “Blueprint for Negro Writing”:
"Eliot, Stein, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, and Anderson; Gorky, Barbusse, Nexo, and Jack London no less than the folklore of the Negro himself should form the heritage of the Negro writer. Every iota of gain in human thought and sensibility should be ready grist for his mill, no matter how far-fetched they may seem in their immediate implications."
Similarly, Gates argues that:
"Literary works configure into a tradition not because of some mystical collective unconscious determined by the biology of race or gender, but because writers read other writers and ground their representations of experience in models of language provided largely by other writers to whom they feel akin. It is through this mode of literary revision that a “tradition” emerges and defines itself."
The point here is not that black literary texts are self-reflexive, self-sufficient, closed intertextual sign systems. Nor is it that all black writers choose to invoke African muses and to deploy exclusively black sources and strategies in creating their texts. Rather, it is that black literary texts are sign systems whose referents are nonliterary as well as literary texts that illumine the meaning of the shared experiences of black Americans and the complex double consciousness that, as aesthete and social scientist W. E. B. Du Bois explains in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), is the special burden and blessing of African American identity. It is equally important to remember that, as critic Ann duCille argues, “Traditions and the Canons that confirm them are made not born, constructed not spawned.” For this reason “mythologies of race, gender, and class have a great deal to do with the invention of such traditions and … there is a great deal at stake in the creation myths of literary canons.”
Dual Tradition of the African American Short Story
A useful typology of valued writing by and about African Americans divides our literary tradition into documentary, autobiography/biography, and imaginative genres (i.e., short stories, novels, poems, and plays). The focus of this essay is the dual tradition of African American fiction: short stories and novels. What, then, are the creation myths and facts of the African American short story? The consensus of African American literary critics is that Frederick Douglass’s “The Heroic Slave,” which appeared in 1853 as a serial in his North Star and in Julia Griffith’s Autographs for Freedom, is the first lengthy short story, or novella, published by a black American. Some African Americanists, however, still claim this historical distinction for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “The Two Offers,” serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine of September and October 1859 and for William Wells Brown’s brief narrative “A True Story of Slave Life,” which was published in the Anti-Slavery Advocate in December 1852. The differences in generic definitions and chronology, as apparent in this case, often rest on questions of the length of a narrative and whether the narrative was serialized or published in hardcover. Even more problematic for many contemporary cultural and literary critics is the dual folk and literary tradition of the African American short story and novel. On the one hand, it is a fact, as critic Robert Bone states in Down Home (1975), his history of African American short fiction, that the “Afro-American short story is a child of mixed ancestry. Two cultural heritages meet and blend in its pages: the one Euro-American, literary, cosmopolitan; the other African-derived, oral in expressive model rooted in the folk community.” On the other hand, it is a myth to claim, as Bone does, that the “short fiction of Charles Waddell Chesnutt cannot be understood apart from that of Joel Chandler Harris and George Washington Cable. Similarly with Paul Laurence Dunbar and Thomas Nelson Page; Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank; Eric Derwent Walrond and Lafcadio Hearn.” Bone’s cultural and political position is that “books by white authors are a far more important influence” than black folklore as “the primary source of black fiction.”
As literary historian and critic Frances Smith Foster reminds us in her introduction to Minnie’s Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels (1994) by Frances E. W. Harper, we should not subscribe to the anachronistic, reductive, and occasionally racist position that the works of early black American writers “should be read as attempts … to imitate the literary productions of Euro-Americans.” Edgar Allan Poe established the theory and practice of the American short story, especially the traditional conventions of single effect, tone, length, and unity outlined in 1842 in “Twice Told Tales.” But African Americans, as their early short stories reveal and as V. F. Calverton noted in the introduction to his Anthology of American Negro Literature (1929), “gave whatever [cultural forms they] took [from the West] a new style and a new interpretation.”
Smith also argues that we should no longer subscribe to “the myth that the oral folk tradition—particularly as manifest in the secular arena: the work songs and the blues, the trickster tales and the barroom toasts—is the only authentically black art prior to the twentieth century.” In her opposition to the claims of some vernacular theorists, Smith neglects the fact that most antebellum blacks were illiterate slaves in the South. She still provides a valuable service, however, by stressing that readers need to know and to acknowledge that many African Americans of the past, especially free blacks in Northern cities, “were as capable of appropriating as they were of assimilating, [and] that they could not only signify in conversation but also in correspondence.” Most important, Foster reminds us that “[w]hen we seriously think about those journalists and poets, scientists and novelists, preachers, teachers, and politicians who wrote for publication and who, when the established media refused their submissions or disrespected their cultural contributions, founded their own newspapers, magazines, and publishing companies, often risking and sometimes losing both their savings and their lives, the commitment of a significant portion of African Americans to a viable written literature becomes clear.”
Although the tradition of classic modern anthologies of African American literature by African Americans themselves begins with James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and Sterling Allen Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee’s The Negro Caravan (1941). The best anthologies of stories by African Americans include Langston Hughes’s The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967), Woodie King’s Black Short Story Anthology (1971), John Henrik Clarke’s American Negro Short Stories (1966), and Clarence Major’s Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African American Short Stories (1993).
“The African-American journey to selfhood,” as Major notes in the introduction, “was always deeply ironic. Africans and people of African descent were subjected to legal and illegal slavery in the ‘land of liberty.’ And … [j]ust as irony is a key to the African-American experience, so it is an important device in African-American literature.” This is particularly true of classic stories, from Charles Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” (1899) and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Ingrate” to Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits” (1933), Ralph Ellison’s “Flying Home” (1944), Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” (1972), and James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of a Scare” (1973). Major reminds reader, however, that “if the social experiences of black Americans vary from region to region, the historical stages vary as much, and it’s important to remember the aesthetic and social philosophies, the complexity, of each period of African-American literature.”
Dual Tradition of the African American Novel
In the 1886 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, an anonymous white woman critic speculated that the “the coming American novelist” would be “a woman as well as an African.” Twenty-seven years earlier Harriet E. Adams Wilson, the first African American to publish a novel in the United States, had inscribed in the tradition of the American novel the complex fate of the black American woman novelist, as well as the complex hybrid nature and function of European American and African American novels. It is well known to many students of the novel in the United States that William Wells Brown became the father of the African American novel with the London publication of Clotel in 1853. It was a well-kept secret until the 1980s, however, that Wilson became the mother of the African American novel in 1859 with the Boston publication of Our Nig.
Rather than the “great American novel” or a best-selling romance of the “Feminine Fifties,” like Emma Southworth’s Hidden Hand (which sold more than two million copies, mainly to white women), Our Nig is an intriguing synthesis of the European American sentimental novel and the African American slave narrative. Combining fiction and fact, romance and autobiography, it is addressed primarily to a black audience. Based on the author’s life as an indentured servant in New England, it employs a parodic and polemic style derived from its ethnic double consciousness.
In September 1900 the Colored American Magazine in Boston announced the publication of Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South by one of its African American founders, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins. Although the subtitle indicates that it is a romance, in its preface Hopkins called for novels of social and psychological realism, “We must ourselves develop the men and women who will faithfully portray the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Negro with all the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history, and, as yet, unrecognized by writers of the Anglo-Saxon race.” In addition, Hopkins’s rewriting of the myth of racial purity and the realities of racial kinship illustrates how the quest of early African American novelists to define, chronicle, and celebrate the experiences of black people in the United States was influenced by the impact of abolitionism, white terrorism, lynch law, and imperialism on the development of their distinctive culture and consciousness. For Hopkins and other nineteenth century romancers and novelists, the distinction between romance and novel was far from absolute.
Like its mixed European American stepbrother, the African American novel is a hybrid form. It is not the culmination of an evolutionary process in the narrative tradition. Rather it is the product of social and cultural forces that shape the author’s attitude toward life and fuel the dialectical process between romantic and mimetic narrative impulses. In contrast to the European American novel, the African American novel has its roots in the combined oral and literary traditions of African American culture. The novel is one of the symbolic literary forms of narrative discourse that black Americans have borrowed from Western culture and adapted in the quest for status, power, and identity in a racist, white, patriarchal American social arena. The African American novel is a symbolic sociocultural act, not a solipsistic, self-referential linguistic system. “Precisely because successive Western cultures have privileged written art over oral or musical forms,” Gates reminds us in The Signifying Monkey (1988), “the writing of black people in Western languages has, at all points, remained political, implicitly or explicitly, regardless of its intent or its subject.”
In this sense, the nineteenth century romances and novels of William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, Frances E. W. Harper, Harriet Wilson, and Sutton Griggs were both private and public linguistic enactments of human relationships, reflecting both ethical and aesthetic decisions inside and outside the text. They were weapons in the struggle for freedom, literacy, and integrity. “Literacy, the very literacy of the printed book, stood as the ultimate parameter by which to measure the humanity of authors struggling to define an American self in Western letters,” Gates writes. “It was to establish a collective black voice through the sublime example of an individual text, and thereby to register a black presence in letters, that most clearly motivated black writers, from the Augustan Age to the Harlem Renaissance.”
Twentieth-century novelists such as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, John Alfred Williams, William Melvin Kelley, Ernest J. Gaines, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Leon Forrest, Charles Richard Johnson, John Edgar Wideman, and Ishmael Reed also employ the novel and romance as symbolic acts to explore the disparity between European American myths and African American reality. But they do not approach the narrative tradition from the same ideological perspective as their white contemporaries, black predecessors, or each other. Among other things, social and cultural change has encouraged the movement toward more individualism in the novelists and their aesthetics. Most modern and postmodern African American novelists nevertheless share a common tradition. As members of the largest nonwhite ethnic group in the United States, most African American novelists develop their personal and national identities within and against the distinctive pattern of values, orientations of life, and shared ancestral memories they acquired from and contribute to African American culture.
Relationship of the African American to the European American Novel
How do the dominant themes, structures, and styles in the tradition of the African American novel contrast with those of the European American novel? On one level, as Bernard Bell demonstrates in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987), early African American writers, like some of their white peers, found the freedom of the romance—its delight in rhetoric, allegorical characters, and allegiance to an idealized world—appealing. Black writers have found the novel of social realism equally compelling and appropriate, though, because of their distinctive social and cultural experiences. “I have not attempted to give the reader a mere romance,” writes J. W. Grant in the preface to Out of Darkness: Of Diabolism and Destiny (1909), “but a fiction based on historical facts, written and unwritten.”
Brown, Webb, Delany, Wilson, Dunbar, and Chesnutt generally found it unconscionable to ignore moral questions or the spectacle of people in society. In order to be published and read by their predominantly white editors and multiple audiences, they were often constrained to thunderous silences in their texts. These authors were also forced to explore through irony and parody—tropes subsumed in the black vernacular concept and the performance of signifying—the moral and political issues concerning racism, classism, and sexism of the day.
In contrast, most nineteenth century European American novels addressed an exclusively white audience. With the exception of major novels such as Melville’s Moby Dick, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, they reinforced the ideology of white supremacy, usually defining blackness as the symbol of diabolic or noble savagery. Thus, one of the major differences about perceptions of the nature of reality, between American whites and blacks, centered on the designation of evil in the world. While most blacks satirized the sins of slavery and whites, most whites sentimentalized the slavery of sin and blacks.
Nineteenth-century black novelists tapped the roots of their indigenous ethnic culture for matter and method as much as, if not more than, their white contemporaries. The world-view of the politically oppressed, however, was and is not the same as the oppressors’ world-view. Each group’s historical experience creates a different cultural or subcultural frame of reference; consequently, there will be corresponding differences in the meaning of the archetypal patterns they employ to reconstruct and make sense of their individual and collective experiences.
White and black novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, both draw on aspects of Jewish and Christian tradition—especially messianic and jeremiadic themes, symbols, and rituals—for terms to order their experiences. But since, more often than not, the white man’s heaven is the black man’s hell, black writers generally express strong ambivalence toward its values, whether by symbolic acts of silence or speech, submission or rebellion. Also, in contrast to the search for innocence and the Adamic vision that inform the European American novel, the Manichaean drama of white versus black, the apocalyptic vision of a new world order, and the quest to reconcile the double consciousness of African American identity are inscribed in the texts of nineteenth and twentieth century African American novels.
Brown, for instance, was certainly aware of his debt to the oral and written abolitionist tradition, as his allusions in the first chapter, epigraphs, and conclusion of Clotel reveal. His use of the tragic mulatto and quest-for-freedom motifs, however, differs from that of his white contemporaries. Similarly, Dunbar and Chesnutt continue some of the conventions of the local color tradition while simultaneously changing others, like the power and authority of the blues in The Sport of the Gods and conjuring in The Conjure Woman, to provide more complex, regional truths about nineteenth century black culture and character.
In the twentieth century, Hurston’s rewriting of the sentimental romance in Their Eyes Were Watching God celebrates the liberating possibilities of love, storytelling, and autonomy for black women. Wright’s rewriting of the myths of the “bad nigger” and the American dream in Native Son continues to overwhelm readers with the power of its naturalistic truth. Reed’s rediscovery and revitalization of traditional narrative forms such as the Western in Yellow Back Radio Brokedown, the detective novel in Mumbo Jumbo, and the slave narrative in Flight to Canada intrigue us by their bold experimentation with and celebration of an Afrocentric aesthetic. Alice Walker adapts the epistolary style in the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Color Purple, whose theme is a rewriting of Janie Crawford’s dreams of what a black woman ought to be in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved is a Gothic neoslave narrative and postmodern romance that speaks in many compelling voices of the historical rape of black women and of the resilient spirit of blacks to survive as a people.
Thematically and structurally, the tradition of the African American novel is dominated by the struggle for freedom from all forms of oppression and by the personal odyssey to realize the full potential of one’s complex bicultural identity as an African American. This legendary and mythic journey—deriving its sociocultural consciousness from the group experience of black Americans and its mythopoetic force from the interplay of Eurocentric and Afrocentric symbolic systems—begins in physical or psychological bondage and ends in some ambiguous form of deliverance or vision of a new world of mutual respect and justice for all peoples. In short, insofar as there is an African American canonical story, it is the quest, frequently with apocalyptic undertones, for freedom, literacy, and wholeness—personal and communal—grounded in social reality and ritualized in symbolic acts of African American speech, music, and religion.
Whether the appeal is to white conscience or to black consciousness, whether the commitment is to traditional narrative conventions and forms or to modernist and postmodernist experimentation, the value most frequently celebrated in the tradition of the African American novel is the spiritual resiliency of a people to survive. But this ideal of survival is both individual and collective, assumes a dignity for all human beings, and includes opportunity for all to realize their full human potential. The relationships between the factual and fictional worlds of the authors, especially the modernists and postmodernists, and between the authors’ and readers’ worlds, are influenced by sociocultural changes that move authors and readers away from moral and epistemological absolutes about the nature of reality, especially good and evil. This movement encourages African American novelists to rediscover the validity and reinscribe the viability of ritual, fable, parable, legend, romance, and satire in constructing their essentially Blues visions of life. These visions affirm the Constitutional principles of the United States, while exposing the racist perversion of those principles. Storytellers in the traditions of the African American novel thus challenge us to make sense of the unreconciled strivings and folk wisdom embedded in their frequently ironic, parodic, and open-ended texts.
Before the 1960s the protagonist in the African American novel was generally a male who was part rebel and part victim, striving to define himself in the whirlwind of social and cultural forces that denied or threatened to destroy his humanity. On a deeper level, his journey was a ritualistic or allegorical reenactment on a smaller scale of the larger historical experience of his people in the United States. Torn by conflicting loyalties, he ideally attained a measure of peace and fulfillment by first turning inward—drawing what strength he could from himself, his ethnic community, and his usable past—and then outward to some form of social action or vision of a new social order. Since the 1960s black protagonists such as Janie, Vyry, Miss Jane Pitman, Sula, Velma, Celie, and Sethe have been reclaimed, reimagined, and reconstructed to challenge male hegemony and to illuminate the joys and sorrows of those who are poor, black, and female. Stereotypes and archetypes, romantic and realistic characters contend with each other as the novelists seek to create fictions that explore the wide range of black American character and celebrate the self-redemptive, community-empowering values of black American life while criticizing destructive forces. The most distinctive character types include the preacher, the hustler, the matriarch, the messianic leader, the “bad nigger,” the liberated woman, and the blues-jazz figure—both male and female. The most significant sociocultural events to influence the African American novel during and since the 1960s were the Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement, and Women’s Rights Movements, which contributed to the successful reemergence of black women writers.
The concept of Black Power expresses the determination of peoples of sub-Saharan African descent to define and liberate themselves. Floyd Barbour’s Black Power Revolt and Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power remind us that the concept has a long history and wide range of meanings. This history ranges from the development of economic and political solidarity and the attainment of full equality as American citizens to the radical reform or, if necessary, revolutionary change of old political, economic, and cultural structures. In “The Black Arts Movement,” black aesthetician Larry Neal tells us that:
"Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique and iconology."
Because the concepts of black art and black power are related to the desire of African Americans for self-determination, nationhood, and solidarity with colonized people of the Third World, both are nationalistic. “One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics,” says Neal. Consequently, he contends, the most authentic writing of blacks during the 1960s was grounded in the lives of the black masses and “aimed at consolidating the African-American personality.”
But in turning its attention inward to the primacy of the black family and the problems of the black community, black power and black arts discourse subordinated the interests, needs, and desires of black women to those of black men and of those of the individual to those of the group. The black masculinist aesthetic, sanctioned by the Black Power and Black Arts movements, subordinated sexual politics to racial politics and privileged the cultural traditions of common black people. As a result, African American women writers had to reconcile their racial double consciousness with the white middle-class feminist movement.
Facile generalizations about the parallels between the struggle of blacks and women for status ignore the complexity and distinctiveness of the history of black women, from the legacy of their African past and slave experience to their experience with industrialization and modern corporate America. As Toni Cade Bambara notes in her 1970 groundbreaking anthology, The Black Woman, a major question for black women of the 1960s and 1970s was how relevant the experiences, priorities, truths, and discourses of white women are to the multiple consciousness of black women. Subject to all the restrictions against blacks as well as those against women, the black woman is for many people, as black folk wisdom and Hurston remind us, “de mule uh de world.” This means, among other things, that the reality of black womanhood is not dependent on black males first defining their manhood. Triple consciousness rather than double consciousness is frequently stressed by black feminists in their analysis of the interrelationship of race, class, and sex in the identity formations of African American women.
With the reemergence of these white and black feminist discourses and the shift in public and federal interest from the rights of blacks and others to the rights of women, editors and publishers like Random House, Ms., New American Library, and the Feminist Press became more receptive to the voices of black women writers. Fiction by Margaret Walker, Rosa Guy, Mary Vroman, Louise Meriwether, Paule Marshall, Kristin Hunter, Caroline Polite, Sarah Wright, Alice Walker, Alice Childress, Ellease Southerland, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntosake Shange, and Toni Cade Bambara, among the better known, were all published before the end of 1983.
In Black Women Writers at Work (1983), Bambara told editor Claudia Tate: “What has changed about the women’s movement is the way we perceive it, the way black women define the term, the phenomena and our participation in it … We are more inclined to trust our own traditions, whatever name we gave and now give those impulses, those groups, those agendas, and are less inclined to think we have to sound like, build like, non-colored groups that identify themselves as feminist or as women’s rights groups, or so it seems to me.” This statement not only reveals the heart of the differences that many black women have about the priorities and objectives of the white women’s rights movement, but it also explains in part why Alice Walker adapted the term womanist from black folk expression to signify a black feminist or feminist of color, a woman who, among other things, is audaciously committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. More to the point of readings of contemporary African American novels by black women, the above comments provide the necessary context for a better understanding of why black women are primarily concerned with how racism, sexism, and classism have influenced the nature and function of love, power, autonomy, creativity, manhood, and womanhood in the black family and community.
Reconstructing a Black Female Literary Tradition
In pursuing these themes, black women novelists provide a much neglected perspective and chorus of voices on the human experience. The absence, silence, or misrepresentation of black women in literary and nonliterary texts or contexts, by black men as well as white men and women, is now commonplace knowledge. “Except for Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, and perhaps Margaret Walker,” Calvin Hernton states with some exaggeration in an extremely rare, sympathetic black feminist essay by a black male in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers, “the name of not one black woman writer and not one female protagonist was accorded a worthy status in the black literary world prior to the 1970s.”
Black feminist critics, such as Mary Helen Washington in her introduction to Black Eyed Susans and Barbara Christian in Black Women Novelists, applaud the realistic images by black women writers such as Morrison, Walker, Meriwether, Marshall, and Bambara. As illustrated in their fiction, interviews in Black Women Writers at Work, and the pioneer essays on black feminist criticism by Barbara Smith and Deborah E. McDowell, many black women novelists deploy to a greater or lesser degree the following signs and structures: (1) motifs of interlocking racist, sexist, and classist oppression; (2) black female protagonists; (3) spiritual journey from victimization to the realization of personal autonomy or creativity; (4) centrality of female bonding or networking; (5) shared focus on personal relationships in the family and community; (6) deeper, more detailed exploration and validation of the epistemological power of the emotions; (7) iconography of women’s clothing; and (8) black female language. While agreeing with Smith that feminist criticism is “a valid and necessary cultural and political enterprise,” McDowell questions the imprecision of the current definition of lesbianism by black feminists, the possible reductiveness of a lesbian aesthetic, and the vagueness of Smith’s analysis in “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” McDowell advocates that black feminist critics combine a contextual approach with rigorous textual analysis, including a concern for the issue of gender-specific uses of language.
Many black women writers, however, including some feminists and women who acknowledge the influence of male as well as female literary foreparents, underscore the problems of a separate black female literary tradition. Bambara, for example, says: “Women are less likely to skirt the feeling place, to finesse with language, to camouflage emotions. But a lot of male writers knock that argument out. … One of the crucial differences that strikes me immediately among poets, dramatists, novelists, story tellers is in the handling of children. I can’t nail it down, but the attachment to children and to two-plus-two reality is simply stronger in women’s writings; but there are exceptions. And finally, there isn’t nearly as large a bulk of gynocentric writing as there is phallic-obsessive writings. I’d love to read/hear a really good discussion of just this issue by someone who’s at home with close textual reading—cups, bowls, and other motifs in women’s writings. We’ve only just begun … to fashion a woman’s vocabulary to deal with the ‘silences’ of our lives.” Washington agrees, as she argues for a black female literary tradition in her introduction to Midnight Birds and the more recent Invented Lives: “Black women are searching for a specific language, specific symbols, specific images with which to record their lives, and even though they can claim a rightful place in the Afro-American tradition and the feminist tradition of women writers, it is also clear that, for the purposes of liberation, black women writers will first insist on their own name, their own space.”
Because there are many intertextual ties between black male and female novelists, readers should examine the pattern of these intertextual relationships to determine the manner and degree of their distinctiveness, consistency, and frequency in narratives by black women, deciding for themselves whether mutually exclusive black female and male literary traditions exist.
Postmodernism and Contemporary African American Women Novelists
Since the novel is a synthetic literary form, a complex blend of the social and cultural forces that shape the novelist’s attitude toward life and language, especially his or her imaginative use of narrative conventions, it is not surprising that since the 1960s the African American novel has been characterized by continuity and change. During this contemporary period, black novelists sought signs, structures, and styles appropriate for the imaginative reconstruction of their sense of the double consciousness and unreconciled striving of black people, as refracted through their particular vision as artists.
The agonizing knowledge that blacks, who are twice as likely to die at birth, continue to live shorter, harsher lives than whites informed the consciousness of many activists in or witnesses of the radical social developments of the era. These included the Vietnam and Arab-Israeli wars; the assassination of major political leaders and civil rights workers; the profiteering of multinational corporations; the launching of the first manned flight to the moon; the emergence of the Black Power and Black Arts Movements; the exposure of the Watergate scandal; and the influence of birth control pills in radicalizing the Women’s Rights Movement. These events swept away most of the traditional grounds for faith in a stable universe, a patriarchal society, a national state, and a mimetic approach to art. Ambivalence toward authority—father, president, God—with its conflicting attitudes of acceptance and rejection of hierarchies and boundaries, deepened and spread to all aspects of life, resulting in a crisis of belief for many novelists and readers.
As contemporary African American novelists attempt to displace personal ambivalence and social absurdity with a new order of thinking, feeling, and sharing based on self-determination, community, human rights, most, such as John Oliver Killens, John A. Williams, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, Terry McMillan, and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, continue the tradition of social and critical realism. Some, like Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, explore poetic realism; and others, like Margaret Walker, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, Ronald Fair, Hal Bennett, Charles Wright, Charles Johnson, Clarence Major, John Edgar Wideman, and Ishmael Reed, experiment in diverse ways and to different degrees with new, occasionally postmodern forms of slave narrative, romance, fable, and satire. Three of the most compelling postmodern novels by black women are Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salteaters (1980), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and Alice Walker’s In the Temple of My Familiar (1989). Books by contemporary African American women were extremely popular in the 1980s, with novels by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan as well as an autobiography by Maya Angelou appearing on The New York Times bestseller list at the same time.
Black Lesbian, Gay, Science Fiction, and Detective Novels
Also in the 1980s, novels by black lesbians and gays, science fiction writers, and mystery writers expanded the boundaries of the tradition of the African American novel. Ann Shockley’s imaginative reconstruction of a transracial affair between women in Loving Her (1970) was probably the first contemporary black American lesbian novel. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), however, is the most celebrated African American novel in which a lesbian relationship is central to the development of the narrative. Walker provides a contemporary black womanist’s vision of the lives of black Southerners in her novels: The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Meridian (1976), The Color Purple (1982), and The Temple of My Familiar (1989). The best of Walker’s novels is The Color Purple. Less compelling as critical realism than as folk romance, it is more concerned with the politics of sex than the politics of class and race. Its epistolary form rewrites from a black womanist perspective the tradition of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa; or the History of a Young Lady (1747–1748) and William H. Brown’s Power of Sympathy (1789). These two titles are sentimental, sensational tales of heterosexual seduction that initiated the British and European American traditions of the novel. In addition to introducing this form into the tradition of the African American novel, Walker directs an unrelenting attack on male hegemony, especially the violent abuse of black women by black men, in her revolutionary leap forward into a new social order based on sexual egalitarianism. As in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the style of The Color Purple is grounded in black folk speech, music, and religion. Its major theme, a contemporary rewriting of Janie Crawford’s dreams of what a black woman ought to be and do, is a celebration of the independence of Southern black women and black sexual egalitarianism. Lesbianism, rather than heterosexual love, is the rite of passage to selfhood, sisterhood, and brotherhood for Celie, Walker’s protagonist.
Since the publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a subtle treatment of black homosexuality and spiritual redemption, and the sensitive, sympathetic examination of white gay relationships in Giovanni’s Room (1956), James Baldwin has been and remains the outstanding black gay novelist not only in modern and contemporary African American but also, for many readers, in Western literature. He has been the model and inspiration for the more recent achievements and popularity in the gay community of Larry Duplechan’s Eight Days a Week (1985) and Blackbird (1986), Steven Corbin’s No Easy Place to Be (1989), Melvin Dixon’s Trouble the Water (1989), Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits (1989), and the bestsellers of E. Lynn Harris: Invisible Life (1991), Just As I Am (1994), and And This Too Shall Pass (1996).
In black science fiction Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Estelle Butler are the major novelists. “Having repeatedly received both Nebula and Hugo awards (the two most coveted prizes in science fiction),” as literary critic Sandra Y. Govan notes, “Samuel ‘Chip’ Delany is one of the field’s preeminent authors. He is also a writer who, while working in a genre long dominated by whites, brings to his speculative worlds a black presence and a subtle black perspective.” Of his nearly two dozen novels, racial heritage and ethnicity are most apparent and essential to the characters and multilayered plots of Nova (1968) and Dhalgren (1975). Octavia Butler has also received the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards, as well as a MacArthur fellowship in 1995. She is the author of more than a dozen novels. “In each of the published novels,” Govan writes, “the implicit struggle for power revolves around explicit conflicts of will and the contests of survival a heroine endures.” Butler’s most outstanding transracial novels are Kindred (1979), a neoslave fantasy; the Patternist saga Patternmaster (1976); Mind of My Mind (1977); Survivor (1978); Wild Seed (1980); Clay’s Ark (1984), which traces the pattern formed by the mentally linked descendants of Doro, a 4,000-year-old Nubian; and Parable of the Sower (1995) and its sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998). Butler also wrote the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). The trilogy examines the struggles of humans with war and gene-transplanting extraterrestrials.
In the 1990s the African American detective novel experienced a resurgence of popularity and critical acclaim. Inspired by Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1937) and by Chester Himes’s examination of racial, class, and gender issues in the ten detective novels in which he created the unparalleled hardboiled detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major published, respectively, the postmodern antidetective novels Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Reflex and Bone Structure (1975). More recently, however, black detective authors, including women, and black detectives, especially women, have proliferated. Some of the most popular novels in the genre are Dolores Komo’s Clio Brown Private Investigator (1988); Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam (1992) and Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994); Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Dead Time (1992) and Slowburn (1993); Nikki Baker’s In the Game (1991), The Lavender House Murder (1992), and The Long Goodbyes (1993); and Valerie Wilson Wesley’s When Death Comes Stealing (1995). But the most popular and critically successful contemporary black American detective novelist since Chester Himes is Walter Mosley. Each of his four novels—Devil in a Blue Dress (1990); Red Death (1991); White Butterfly (1992); and Black Betty (1994), which was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award—is set primarily in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California and traces the self-development of Easy Rawlins as a compassionate yet struggling black detective from 1948 to 1961.
“American fiction,” James Tuttleton writes in “Tracking the American Novel in the Void,” “is among other things a self-conscious enterprise intent on nothing less than appropriating the liberty claimed in the great political and social declarations so as to remake afresh the fictive forms of representation.” As black American authors develop their distinctive voices within and against the larger tradition of fiction, this intent is also implicit in the double consciousness that is encoded in African American fiction. Thematically and structurally, therefore, from Brown and Wilson to Reed, Morrison, Delany, and Butler, the dual tradition of African American fiction is dominated by the dialectical tension between oral and literary traditions, by the struggle for freedom from all forms of oppression, and by the personal odyssey to realize the full potential of one’s complex biracial and bicultural identity as an African American.