A century of narratives by black writers. Forgotten women

IN Harriet Jacobs's ``Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,'' written in 1861, a slave's desire to maintain her chastity and marry the free man she loves is thwarted by her white master's determination to bed her. She tells of years spent eluding his clutches, deciding finally that her only escape lies in bearing two children by another white man. Her decision shows the devastating effect of the owner/slave relationship on traditional morality. This eloquent slave narrative, included in Mary Helen Washington's ``Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women (1860-1960),'' is one of many writings by black women that bring these previously silent voices crackling to life.

Washington has been a driving force in resurrecting the work of black women writers. She has edited and provided incisive critical commentary for three collections of these writings, ``Black-Eyed Susans,'' ``Midnight Birds,'' and ``Invented Lives.'' The latter alone contains an astonishing scope of lives: from Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, to Nella Larsen's teacher who feels stifled by the black bourgeoisie, to Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha musing confidently that her beau will marry her even if she is plain.

Washington, born in Cleveland, trained by Jesuits at the University of Detroit, is now an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She first started researching the writings of black women when she directed the black studies program at the University of Detroit in the early 1970s.

Sitting in her Cambridge apartment filled with vividly colored Caribbean and Afro-American art, Washington says that the subjects black women were writing about were very different from those of black men.

Most black women were writing about their families and communities, rather than protesting the power structures in the white world.

``If you are writing about your family,'' she says, ``and your voice and stance [are] in your family, then it's not going to be so much the white world out there that will capture your attention and be the main subject. It's going to be the interaction of the people among themselves in that community and that family.

``So I think that eliminates the black male protest stance and the feminist stance, which often speaks from a position of rejection or isolating oneself from men. You can't do that in a community that is under siege and which needs its males and its females.''

As a result, she says, there is a lack of anger in writings by black women, an aspect of her research she found surprising.

Black women, she says, also wrote about slavery, a subject white writers only touched upon. The importance of work for the black woman was another integral theme.

``I found there was not a single book that I've picked up by a black woman about a black woman in which work does not function as the primary business of their lives,'' says Washington. Very often they wrote about how that work was denied them because of their race.

``Women who wanted to be stenographers, for example, had to take their work home if they were black because they weren't allowed to work in the public offices,'' she says.

The story ``Helga Crane,'' found in ``Invented Lives,'' is a case in point, Washington says.

``In the '20s, a woman who was trained as a schoolteacher and a librarian goes to Chicago, where ... at that point they are not hiring black women to do any of that kind of work. And she immediately goes to apply for domestic work, even though she's a professional. She finds that she can't do domestic work because she doesn't have any references.

``So if work is one of the primary ways you define yourself, think of how black women have had to try to define themselves in spite of all the discrimination facing them in the world of work.

``Yet if you read a book by a black male or a white male who writes about black women, what impression do you come away with? That somehow they were sexual objects, or marriage partners, or in some kind of way important to romance.''

Washington found that many of the writings counter the stereotype of the highly sexual, immoral black woman. ``When black women write about sexuality,'' she said, ``the word that defines their relationship to sexuality is ambivalence. Sexuality is problematic in their lives in almost every text, because it's mainly defined by men.''

Washington corrects a reporter who says that writings by black women were lost. ``Lost is a misnomer,'' she says. ``This is going to come as a surprise, but these books were in the Boston Public Library, the Cleveland Public Library. These books weren't lost.''

``I think things are intentionally made to disappear,'' she said. ``W.E.B. DuBois was writing and speaking about the same time as Anna Cooper. Now, he is, at least to most black literary critics, not lost. I think what happened is the sense of black women as important in the intellectual sphere was diminished by a patriarchal society. Anything that was about women that was of deep concern to women got `lost.'''

Part of the problem, she says, was sexism on the part of black men, who formed intellectual organizations that excluded women, whose literary criticism used different standards from those used for black men.

In ``Invented Lives'' she tells how Richard Wright wrote a scathing review of Zora Neale Hurston's ``Their Eyes Were Watching God,'' calling it a novel that carried ``no theme, no message, no thought.'' While Wright was the leading light of the black literary scene, Hurston's novel was out of print. But Washington says black men were far down in the tier of responsibility; for years white professors have excluded black women writers from American literary and intellectual history.

Black women writers today are far from lost. In fact, they're riding a wave of prosperity. Alice Walker's ``The Color Purple'' was a best-selling novel and was made into a major release film. And recently the black literary community chastised the National Book Awards prize committee for not giving Toni Morrison's ``Beloved'' the fiction prize.

Washington says some black writers are extending the tradition established by their literary forebears. ``So it seems what we're doing is piecing it together like a quilt. You know, everybody who picks up one little piece and tells us what that meant adds to that quilt, and each one of us is adding a stitch or adding a square or adding a color.

``What we're trying to do is produce out of our needs the writers and the writings that will take us to the next step. I think it's very exciting to have all these people all over the country reinterpreting a writer we haven't read in a long long time or have never read.''

Catherine Foster is on the Monitor staff.

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