Women and Literature:
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.
When the “lady in brown” in Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976) makes an appeal for “somebody, anybody” to “sing a black girl’s song,” it is a clarion call that Mary Helen Washington’s Black-Eyed Susans (1975) anticipates and Barbara Christian’s Black Women Novelists (1980) answers. These groundbreaking literary scholars had begun the arduous task of recuperating numerous works of literature by black women who wrote despite tremendous odds. As a result of Washington’s, Christian’s, and others’ pioneering efforts-not only uncovering the writers but also fostering serious consideration of their work-the silence was broken, and black women’s writings could be mapped along a continuum that pointed to a long-standing tradition across wide-ranging genres
In this article from Black Women in America, Second Edition, Jacquelyn Y. McLendon profiles the new generation of fiction writers:
Tina McElroy Ansa (1949- ) takes magic realism to the heart of Georgia to illuminate the lives in a small black community. She was born and grew up in Macon, Georgia, the daughter of Walter J. McElroy, a businessman, and Nellie McElroy, a teacher’s assistant. She attended school in Macon and married Jonee Ansa there before discovering the Sea Islands of the Georgia coast. Six years after visiting the islands on her honeymoon, she moved there, and her first book was a nonfiction work about them. In 1989, she wrote her first novel, Baby of the Family. It was a coming-of-age novel with a difference: her heroine, Lena McPherson, had mystical gifts and ghostly conversations. The book was highly praised for its evocation of place and period. Ugly Ways (1993) was set in the same small town. In it three adult sisters try to come to terms with the influence in their lives of the harsh mother they have just buried. The Hand I Fan With (1998) returns to the life of Lena McPherson, bringing her a charmingly erotic lover from the distant past.
Octavia E. Butler (1947- ) is one of the most thoughtful and imaginative authors of our time. The first black woman to make a name for herself in science fiction and one of the few black writers in that field, she takes full advantage of the speculative freedom that the genre allows writers to explore her interest in sociology, biology, race relations, American history, and the future of humanity. She has been a pioneer in bringing black people into the imagined future that is the most common focus of science fiction, and in telling the story of that future in the voices of black women.
Bebe Moore Campbell (1950- ) has a penchant for difficult subjects and controversial issues in both her fiction and nonfiction work. She was born and grew up in Philadelphia, although she spent summers in North Carolina with her father, who was divorced from her mother when Campbell was quite young. She began her writing career selling fiction to Essence and essays and articles to such periodicals as the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post. Her first book was the nonfiction Successful Women, Angry Men (1987), followed by the autobiographical Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad (1989). In that book Campbell wrote about her childhood and the importance of growing up surrounded by loving, approving male figures. Her first novel was Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (1992), which won her an NAACP Image Award for Literature. Her controversial second novel, Brothers and Sisters (1994), dealt with interracial friendships and intraracial loyalties. It was the first of a string of Campbell novels that would hit the best-seller list, including Singing in the Comeback Choir (1998) and What You Owe Me (2001).
Lorene Cary (1956- ) has chosen as her theme the black woman’s search for and claiming of her own identity. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to two teachers, Cary readily accepted the opportunity to help integrate a formerly all-male and all-white prep school, St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire. She then went on to the University of Pennsylvania and Sussex University in England. Her first book, Black Ice, told the story of her experience at St. Paul’s. Her second book was a novel, The Price of a Child (1995). Set in the 1850s, it tells the story of Ginnie, who escapes from slavery and then has to reconcile herself to the memory of a child she left behind. Cary’s third novel, Pride (1998), explores the relationships among four black woman friends.
J. California Cooper (19??- ) is first and foremost a storyteller. Born in Berkeley, California, to Joseph C. and Maxine Rosemary Cooper, she has chosen to reveal little about her early life, including her birth date. She began her career as a playwright but was noticed by novelist Alice Walker who suggested that she rewrite some of her plays as short stories. Walker published the result, Cooper’s first volume of stories, A Piece of Mine (1984), herself. Cooper’s second short-story collection, Homemade Love (1986), has been described as a collection of modern folktales, complete with moral lessons. A third collection, Some Soul to Keep (1987), remained in that tradition. Cooper’s first novel, Family (1991), took on a different form but maintained her themes of moral affirmation and of hope that transcends the desolation of the enslaved family the book chronicles. Another short-story collection, The Matter Is Life (1991), is another model of vigorous storytelling with a deep moral center. In Search of Satisfaction (1994) explores two wealthy white families and their links with a poor black family. Cooper has written two more short-story collections, The Future Has a Past: Stories (2001) and Some Love, Some Pain, Some Time: Stories (1996), and a third novel, Wake of the Wind (1998), which provides a compelling story, historical detail, and the strong moral tone that Cooper’s readers have come to expect.
Marita Golden (1950- ) writes with honesty, insight, and grace about a variety of life experiences. Born in Washington, DC, she is the daughter of Francis Sherman, a taxi driver, and Beatrice Reid Golden, a landlady. She received her bachelor’s degree from American University in 1971 and her master’s from Columbia University in 1973, then went to work as a teacher and journalist. In 1983, at the age of twenty-nine, she published an autobiography examining what it meant to be a modern black woman. Her second book, the novel A Woman’s Place (1988), explores the lives of three black women and was highly praised for its language and its honest approach to complex issues. Golden’s second novel, Long Distance Life (1989), follows a young woman in the 1920s who grows up on a farm in the South, moves North, retells the story of four generations of her family through the civil rights movement, and deals with her child’s deadly struggle with drugs. And Do Remember Me (1994) depicts a young woman who gathers the courage to run away from an abusive father to join the civil rights movement. Golden has also published a great deal of nonfiction.
Jewelle Gomez (1948- ) was recognized primarily as a poet and activist until her acclaimed novel The Gilda Stories (1991). Born in Boston, she grew up in Washington, DC, with her paternal grandparents until she was eight and then returned to Boston to live with her maternal great-grandmother until she was twenty-two. She attended Northeastern University, where she became deeply involved in radical protest, then went on to the Columbia University School of Journalism, where she received her master’s degree in 1973. She published two volumes of poetry, The Lipstick Papers (1980) and Flamingoes and Bears (1986), and began publishing insightful reviews and commentaries before writing The Gilda Stories, which track a black lesbian over two centuries of American history, facilitated by a sympathetic family of vampires.
Jamaica Kincaid (1949- ) was first introduced to the reading public of the New Yorker in the early 1970s through a series of short stories. This pattern of first publishing each of her novels as magazine short stories is characteristic of her fictional works, as is her preoccupation with the themes of loss, dislocation, and imbalance of power.
Terry McMillan (1951- ) is a novelist whose success has changed life dramatically for other black women novelists. As Waiting to Exhale climbed the best-seller lists in 1992, publishers began signing contracts for more novels that reflected the lives of black women. A couple of years later, the books started hitting the stands. The results were dramatic. African Americans showed conclusively that they would buy books if they were offered what they wanted.
Dori Sanders (c. 1935- ) has turned a lifetime of working on a peach farm in the summer and doing odd jobs in the winter into memorable fiction. Born near Filbert, South Carolina, she was the eighth of ten children. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was both a farmer and an elementary school principal. After all the other children had left, Sanders and her brother Orestus stayed and worked the farm where they grew up, selling their produce at Sanders’s Peach Shed. Sanders joined other black farm women in a nearby munitions plant during World War II and would later use her experiences there in her second novel. Her first published novel was Clover (1990), which sold exceptionally well, won the Lillian Smith Award, and was made into a Hallmark movie. After this success, Sanders began to spend her winters writing and produced Her Own Place (1993), drawing on her factory experiences.
April Sinclair (1953- ) has written with honesty and humor about the experiences of young black women concerning race, family pressures, and sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual. She was born in Chicago at the beginning of the civil rights movement and grew up there during the subsequent decades of growing black pride. In the early part of the twenty-first century, she lived in Oakland, California, and worked for years as a community organizer and teacher. Her first book, Coffee Will Make You Black (1994), reflected the life of young Jean “Stevie” Stevenson and her struggles to deal with the prejudices of both blacks and whites. The book was a best-seller, and her second novel was a sequel, Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice (1995). Her third novel, I Left My Back Door Open (1999) explored different characters but many of the same themes.
Sapphire (Ramona Lofton) (1950- ) discusses the realities of poor black life with a raw power. She was born in Fort Orr, California, on one of the many military bases her family moved to during her early life. Her parents were both in the army. She attended and dropped out of San Francisco City College in the 1970s, then moved to New York, where she supported herself with odd jobs, started reading her poetry in the Village during the 1980s, and went back to school. After graduating with honors, she enrolled in graduate school at Brooklyn College and began teaching reading. Her first book, American Dreams, was a combination of poetry and prose that received excellent reviews for its brutal insights. An excerpt from one of the poems in the book, “Wild Thing,” was quoted out of context and caused considerable controversy. Nonetheless, she won the MacArthur Scholarship in Poetry. Push (1996), her first novel, tells the story of Precious Jones, a sixteen-year-old victim of sexual abuse by both her parents. For this work, Sapphire won both the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s First Novelist Award and the Book of the Month Club Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. Her next book was a volume of poetry, Black Wings Blind Angels (1999).