On September 6, 2018, at Emory University, the American Academy hosted a Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture on “The Study of African American Women’s Writing: Pasts & Futures.” The program, which included a welcome from Dwight A. McBride (Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University), served as the 2069th Stated Meeting of the American Academy. Michelle M. Wright (Augustus Baldwin Longstreet Professor of English at Emory University) introduced the evening’s speakers – Frances Smith Foster (Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies, Emerita, at Emory University), Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College), and Pellom McDaniels III (Curator of African American Collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University) – and moderated the discussion. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
I am truly delighted to welcome all of you this evening to this program, which is co-sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Emory University. Before turning the evening over to the distinguished panel, I would like to pause briefly over what I might politely call the current perils to humanistic vision and inquiry. With fewer and fewer champions for the critical role played by the humanities in our democracy, and especially by our fiction writers, it is more important than ever that we as academic communities remember the meaning of our contributions to the nation, its cultures, and our collective understanding. Indeed, the humanities provide the basis for the very conduct of civil and critical discourse that is so central to the functioning of a mature democracy. We must not doubt the importance of the work that we do as humanists and the paths that we chart. Often when we are called upon as writers to explain how our work propels society forward, ready-made answers for the sound bite are difficult to marshal. When reduced to the equations of private enterprise and profiteering, considerations such as solace, inspiration, and truth-telling seem to many like extravagances we can do without. The contributions of writers can seem uncertain when measured against other (seemingly) more pragmatic professions and businesses.
I am not going to bother you with over-long explanations or justifications for the humanities, and we certainly do not have the time to refute the rank folly of post-truth arguments or “alternative facts.” But I will submit to you that the very existence of these now commonplace phrases, designed to circumvent critical and civil discourse, are the reasons that we need to cling now more than ever to the humanities and to the lessons they have to teach us.
I would like to close by reflecting briefly on Emory’s campus symbols. Our crest contains a torch and a trumpet, invoking the light of truth and the call to spread the truth. Indeed, this invocation to seek and spread truth embodies our university’s motto: the wise heart seeks knowledge. This motto is meant to remind us of the need for sustained inquiry and for the dogged pursuit of knowledge. Albert Einstein once warned that those who set themselves up as judge in the fields of truth and knowledge shall be shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. Personally, I am not afraid of being laughed at, especially for standing up for the truth. I have been laughed at for far less. What’s more, I would hazard that what we need right now, frankly, is more broken boats, for surely it is a risky time and our political waters are more than a bit choppy. And while a boat may be truly safest in a harbor, that is not what boats were made for.
In his 2015 book Honoring Maya Angelou, Tavis Smiley recalls Angelou’s reminder that the surest road ahead is the one that you create. As she put it, “Baby, we find our path by walking it.” Charting new paths and telling our courageous and sometimes inconvenient truths along those roads has long been the hallmark of African American women’s fiction. I am reminded of the words of Audre Lorde, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
I like that the title of our program, The Study of African American Women’s Writing: Pasts & Futures, is plural: “pasts and futures”; but there are some unsavory aspects of it too. I keep thinking about Sweet Honey in the Rock singing: “Cain’t no one know at sunrise how this day is gonna end.” If no one can tell what is going to happen that day, how in the world do you expect us to talk about the futures? But I’m thinking also about Nina Simone’s introduction to “Mississippi Goddam” that says, “This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” So, I have a problem with talking about the futures even though we understand that there are multiple futures. But I have an even worse time talking about the past. Even though the organizers of this panel tried to make it easy – “just talk about yourself, how you did it” – it is still a problem. This is in part because of what I have learned at Emory. As Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke helped me understand, and as neuroscientists and political scientists alike will confirm, memory is a social construct. Every time we remember, we are making it up. Or, if we look into black women’s writings, Toni Morrison teaches us about rememory, which, if you think about for long enough, is enough to get you all confused. Lucille Clifton, Sherley Anne Williams, Claudia Rankine, and Natasha Trethewey all give us examples of what can be done poetically with investigations of history – a history that people like Nell Irvin Painter and Leslie Harris spend so much time complicating and interrogating. So to talk about the past for me is as nerve-wracking as to talk about the future, even when it is my past and my future because, quiet as it is kept, I can tell you fifty different narratives of how I came to be standing here and every one of them would have some truth in it.
In her collaborative memoir with her husband, With Ossie and Ruby, Ruby Dee wrote, “Looking back is tricky business. It is seeing through time, people, events; it’s remembering subtleties and attitudes. It’s getting the facts straight, even though the facts may have little to do with ‘telling the truth.’” And so when I think about how I could talk with you about the history and the status of African American women’s writings as a discipline or a point of interest, or even about my own place in it, my experiences as I pursue the elusive goal of understanding and knowing, I don’t hesitate to talk about me as a person. When I started out back in the day, we believed the personal was political. I still believe that, but I also believe what Barbara Christian wrote: “I can only speak for myself, but what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life.”
When I began teaching and researching in the 1970s, I was eager – overeager – and idealistic. I was a graduate student and a freeway flyer, which is what we called adjuncts. I taught a course here, taught a course there, ran up and down the freeway trying to make a living. For a wonderful while, one of my jobs was at UCSD’s Third College, a legacy of Angela Davis and others. At first I tried to do it their way. As a graduate student at the University of Southern California, I took independent studies courses from the only African American professor, Lloyd Brown, a Jamaican whose definition of African American was, fortunate for me, international and, unfortunately for me, patriarchal to the extreme. However, the closest my comprehensive exam came to anything like my own focus was a question on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Two years and two children later, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Diego, and that was a little bit better. UCSD’s was a wonderful program that required three comparative foci, and so I did Milton, the novels of the Mexican Revolution, and the Harlem Renaissance. I persuaded Roy Harvey Pearce to chair a dissertation on autobiographical writings of enslaved African Americans, but all in all my graduate work was supervised and enabled by men who paid scant attention to women’s writings.
My first book, Witnessing Slavery, came from my dissertation and focused primarily on men, in part because I had defined the topic as first-person, independently published narratives of flight and escape, with narrators living happily ever after. And that was not the way women’s writings went. In the antebellum period, very few women published anything on their own, and very few women wrote memoirs. I inadvertently excluded most women. But I knew they were missing. I had grown up knowing African American women published books – even in the antebellum period. I remembered the teachers at my all-black schools who taught us more than was in the curriculum handed down to us in those old tattered textbooks. I knew about Phillis Wheatley and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and I knew there had to have been others. They were out there, and so I began to pursue where.
So that’s how I began my career in early African American women’s writings. I was discomfited by my work on the formerly enslaved and I kept reading. And what’s really interesting is that all along the way, my research was grounded not in what I learned in the academy but in what I learned from the teachers and librarians in my segregated school, from the people in my church and the leaders of my youth organizations, and from the books my mother gave me when I was a child. Years later, Dr. Me began deliberately to look for, work through, and try to write something about the history of early African American women. I eventually learned enough to teach an African American women writers’ class, whose syllabus was published in But Some of Us Are Brave.
I stopped being a freeway flyer and landed a tenure track position, I was so grateful to be teaching a four/four load and to this day I think the unsung heroes are those who teach more. If you’ve got something to say, then the more people that hear you, the better the world is. But I was also grateful that tenure track came with $250 a year for professional growth. And so I could attend the Modern Language Association Annual Meeting. At the MLA, I met Lenore Hoffman, Deborah Rosenfelt, and Paul Lauter. When Deborah and Lenore got a grant to teach women’s literature from a regional perspective, combining research and teaching experimental courses, helping our students learn to uncover, investigate, analyze, and collate narratives by African American and other women, they included me.
At the same time, at Benedict College, Marianne W. Davis included me in a grant to explore the contributions of black women to America. I worked very hard to uncover the materials that would define the contributions in California, Hawaii, and Alaska, but the libraries were barren. Again I turned to my community and the women’s clubs that privately published biographies and saved minutes of meetings, celebratory booklets, and other data; they had the material I needed to begin to understand what women’s writing was about. And that marked me.
Attending conferences, hanging out with women’s studies folk, starting black faculty groups, and leading black literature sessions at existing conferences led to collaborations, co-operations, and lifelong friendships with others who were similarly struggling in their roles. Often we were the only ones in our department, in our college, in our university, in our city, maybe, who had a serious interest in the literature of African American women. For context, this group included Nellie McKay, Barbara Christian, Claudia Tate, Mary Helen Washington, Debbie McDowell, Sue Houchins, Helen Houston, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Kenny J. Williams, among many others. And we always defined the literature not just as published materials, but as writings. And the rest was history.
What I hope you see in this is two patterns. First, I came to research because it helped me be a better teacher. Teaching was and always has been my first love because I really believe that education is power – and miseducation leads to misery – so you have to educate – inclusively and accurately – the whole person. The second is that I became a better researcher because my work was nurtured in collaboration, in community, and in commitment. Which is not the same as mentoring and networking, don’t get me started on that. Looking back is tricky business. Anticipating the future is foolish. I never thought I would become a college professor or that I would go from Milton and the Mexican Revolution to Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Keckly, and Sonia Sanchez.
I am a convert to the concept of Sankofa. Sankofa – from the Twi language of Ghana – is represented by a bird whose feet and body are facing forward, but whose head is turned over its back, holding an egg in its mouth. I have a little statue in my office. The idea is that in order to go forward, you must go back to the past and find out and carry back what is most important. That is the little egg. So if I want to talk about the future, I have to talk about the past. And I believe history, besides being a made-up thing that suits the purposes of those who make it up, is a wheel that moves in many directions. With my current work, I’m returning to where I started. I am thinking again about the literary implications of the kitchen table press and beauty shop talk and church chatter.
When we talk about the future, though, I prefer to talk about my former students, who have done fascinating work and of whom I’m so proud. They are doing public scholarship, working in Afrofuturism and in other genres like mysteries and romances and so-called children’s literature that have been neglected or disparaged but form the bedrock of our ideas and ideals. There’s nothing mundane at all about the domestic, about religion, about love and marriage, about family. As the future opens, these genres will get the credit they deserve. My students are part of a generation that thinks about how literature and health are connected, about the whole practice of medical narratives and narratives as therapy. They explore the diversity of African Americans’ experiences, especially the diasporic nature of African American women. From New Haven, Connecticut, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Birmingham, Alabama, Davis, California, Phoenix, Arizona, across this nation and in others, they are working on little-explored aspects of women’s writings; if you really want to know about the futures, then you probably should just stop, look, and listen to them.
Let me begin with two really personal statements, and not just because I am here at Emory: Not very many graduate students of color can say this, but some of my best days were in the doctoral program in American studies at Emory University. When people talk about how horrendous their graduate school was, I just have to say that was not my experience. And the other thing that I want to say is that I taught for about a decade here in the women’s studies Ph.D. program, and I had some of the most incredible graduate students that anybody could have anywhere. I see some in the audience, but I won’t try to call names.
Now, my past: After two years at Alabama State University, I began what we could call my more permanent teaching career in the Department of English at Spelman College in 1971. I taught five courses each semester, and I did not have a Ph.D. I had a master’s degree. I was not only untenured, but not even near the track! Eight years later, as an untenured professor who knew nothing at all about the publishing world, I worked with the late Roseann P. Bell and Bettye J. Parker to publish Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, the first anthology of its kind. In addition to the writing, it featured amazing photographs as well as original art by Rick Powell, who was an undergraduate student at Morehouse College and who has gone on to become the premier critic of African American art and a distinguished professor at Duke University. Roseann and I, then both in the English department, were motivated by what might seem unusual to most of you gathered in this room. It is perhaps easy to take for granted our students’ – like students everywhere at the time – unfamiliarity with black women’s rich literary tradition, given the prominence today of such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, who was actually a sophomore at Spelman when I was a first-year student. In preparing for this evening, I reread our editors’ note for the collection. I’m sure the people in the room who have written books, like me, don’t remember what you said or how you said it; you just hope that it’s not embarrassing. Well, we were really bold. Though we didn’t have the language then, we were writing against a masculinist literary canon. Listen to us:
When we consider that it took Ralph Ellison a score of years to write Invisible Man, and Alex Haley twelve to write Roots, the four years of labor poured into Sturdy Black Bridges seem almost insignificant. However, Sturdy Black Bridges is a different kind of experience from that of Roots or Invisible Man, not in quality or even concept, but in its eclectical commitment. That eclecticism, represented in works as diverse as Margaret Walker’s classic poem “Lineage” and Mae Jackson’s “Cleaning Out the Closet,” has been at times frustrating; more often it has led to valuable exposures – encounters with people, places, and ideologies which have enhanced our own and others’ lives.
The volume marked my first encounter with Toni Cade Bambara. I took myself over to her apartment on Simpson Road with a tape recorder that I did not even know how to operate, and I interviewed her with her daughter, Karma, running around. The interview that appeared in Sturdy Black Bridges, “Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks,” is among the first, if not the first, published interview with Toni, whose pioneering text The Black Woman (1970), which had appeared three years earlier, is now iconic in black feminist studies.
As we wrote in Bridges:
The shape of this anthology is incomplete and fluid – all collections are which purport to be fundamental. But the work is generically incomplete, for such are the lives of people, and Black women, among others in the First World, are people, creating and destroying with regular frequency ideas and even dogmas. Hence, the unfinished song of Sturdy Black Bridges.
Now almost forty years later, it is impossible for us to have imagined what Sturdy Black Bridges might have set in motion in terms of scholarly output establishing the richness of our black women’s literary tradition that began in the United States in the nineteenth century. In my first published essay in Sturdy Black Bridges, “The Women of Brownsville,” which I have no memory of writing, I analyzed Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry – I do remember her poetry – and deployed, without perhaps realizing it, a black feminist lens that is now pervasive and the results of which are now dazzling in their brilliance. This is what I wrote:
An obvious difference between Gwendolyn Brooks and male writers such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison who have used the urban environment as a setting for their works is the greater amount of attention she devotes to the experiences of females. While women are not absent from Wright’s or Ellison’s ghetto worlds, they remain background figures who are of secondary importance, at best, to the central actions of their novels. Like Ann Petry, Brooks focuses on the impact of the urban experience on females as well as males. Her sexual identity as well as her racial identity have molded her vision of the city.
I want to end with another writer and literary critic, Professor Gloria Wade Gayles, who also teaches at Spelman in the English department and I think understood even better than we did what we were trying to do in Sturdy Black Bridges. I want to read from her preface to the anthology:
I rejoice. I celebrate. I dance with my soul. There is reason to celebrate the publication of this work, for our lives have been touched in various ways by black women who are real-life models for images in literature. As mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, lovers, wives, children. As people who were and are major architects of the black experience. It is a special book, because it refuses to pay homage to the “system’s” distortions of black women and to our refusal too long to correct those distortions. It is a bridge we have needed to cross over on into a deeper understanding of and more sensitive appreciation for our women as positive forces in our experience.
I have moved a long way from Sturdy Black Bridges in my more recent work. I have moved way away from literary studies and have spent most of my last twenty years, I would say, as an archeologist, trying to uncover and make the case that we also have a very rich black feminist intellectual and theoretical tradition. And I’m working on one of my favorite projects right now, which may never get published: a long essay about the radical feminist politics of Coretta Scott King. It will reposition her and take her out of the narrow roles of “mother of the civil rights movement” and widow. It will place her where she belongs as one of the most radical figures in the civil rights movement, particularly around LGBTQ issues, which many people don’t know. I’m also working on a memoir. And third, I am working on a rewriting of the history of so-called second wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement, putting African American women at the center of that history.
As a curator of African American collections, it is both a wonderful opportunity and incredibly daunting to take on the enormity of African American history, diasporic history. How do we capture the essence of lives in the past? How do we anticipate what is coming on the horizon? What is inspiring is that it is ongoing. Each and every day is an opportunity to learn.
One of the aspects of my dissertation that I found important, that my mentor Rudolph Byrd and I really worked out – influenced by his and Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s book Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality – was the silences. The silences of the mothers of the men I studied: the baseball player Jackie Robinson, the boxer Joe Louis, the Olympian Jesse Owens, and the jockey Isaac Murphy. We know about the success of these men as athletes, but how many of you know about their mothers? No one ever discusses Mallie Robinson, who taught Jackie Robinson how to integrate society though her example of integrating the Pasadena neighborhood where she raised her children. No one knows about Isaac Murphy’s mother, America Murphy, who actually apprenticed him off to become a jockey when she discovered she was sick with tuberculosis. Or Jesse Owens’ mother, Mary Emma, who saved her son’s life when he was about five years old by using a kitchen knife to cut out a large tumor growing on the child’s chest, because the family could not afford a doctor. All these stories are important and necessary for us to recover. (One of the beautiful opportunities we have in the archives is to bring these women into the light, however it requires researchers to actually come use the archives.) What follows is my way to account for the women that have been silenced. The working title of presentation is “The Inheritance.”
Like many of you, I was first introduced to black women’s storytelling through the oral tradition. My great-grandmother, Rosa Marie Clay, was the first to convey the power of words to shape one’s understanding of the world and one’s purpose in it. She and her husband, my great-grandfather Monroe Earl Clay, left Texas in search of work and a life beyond the cotton fields and the racism embedded in the same land worked by their forebears. In fact, McClendon County, Texas, where Rosa’s grandparents had been enslaved, was also the location where her father Junius McClendon was born in 1865. Eventually, Junius would marry and raise his family on the same land, on sharecropper’s wages, which most of you know was “just below nothing.”
Rosa and Monroe sought to create a life beyond the culture of abuse that forced African Americans to negotiate their existence on a daily basis. Leaving four of their five children in the care of relatives, they ventured into unknown territory, riding the wave of westward migration in search of opportunity. In Richmond, California, both found work in the Kaiser shipyards, before my great-grandfather was drafted into the Navy and shipped off to the Pacific theater.
In California, Rosa became one of 600,000 African American women who joined the wartime labor force. She was, in fact, a riveter: Rosa the riveter. There can be no doubt that she, like Camille Billops’ mother, Alma Dotson, worked alongside other African American, white, and Mexican women, many of whom shared similar backgrounds, fears, and dreams for the future. Being gainfully employed was an essential part of their plans for success and empowerment as women, and their desire for independence. After the war, Rosa and Monroe returned to Texas. Shortly thereafter, she decided she wanted more out of her life. She refused to allow herself or her children to be subjected to the ongoing abuses heaped on African Americans seeking to better themselves, their families, and communities. Instead, she chose to return to California, where her children could gain access to a quality education, and live in more favorable social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances, which meant sacrificing her family ties to Texas. But Rosa was determined. She found work as a domestic in the homes of white people, many of whom employed her up until the time of her death in 1982.
Unfortunately, her experiences moving to California, working in the defense industry during the war, and as domestic labor are essentially unknown to a majority of my extended family members. And with the passing of four of her five children – my grandmother died this past January – most are in jeopardy of losing their inheritance. Now, what exactly is this inheritance that I speak of? I’ll come back to that.
As the matriarch, Rosa was the head of the family. With the absence of my great-grandfather, who visited occasionally, everyone came to her for advice and guidance. As an aside, I recall those occasional visits by Monroe, which were sometime in the 1970s. I remember he was always reserved in his emotions and would often spend time alone with his thoughts. He said very little. He was the epitome of stoicism. Only recently was I made aware of some of his experiences in the military that haunted him, and other traumas that he endured and relived each and every day. Taking the pain, which eventually broke him.
Opposite of this tremendously stoic figure was Rosa, who would often tell stories about her experiences working for whites in Santa Clara, Campbell, and San Jose. For the most part, they were pleasant experiences. At least the ones she shared. I remember her constantly telling one of my uncles that Mr. and Mrs. “so and so” were good white people. She told him that “they were fair” and always gave her things to take home. When she needed something, they went out of their way to help her. But my uncle wasn’t buying it.
Reflecting on it now, his response reminds me of a passage from the introduction of Farrah Jasmine Griffin’s Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends, where she writes:
Given the historical and political contexts in which African American women have lived, and given their own desire to shape and influence these contexts for the benefit of all Americans, it is understandable that they often felt it is necessary to present highly censored “positive” images to an often hostile public. Thus many have kept the most personal aspects of their lives as well as the full range of their thoughts secret.
While Rosa remained for most part optimistic about her dealings with her employers, I also recall her saying that she couldn’t bring herself to trust them. Them, being white people. No matter how nice they were; no matter how much they tried to extend themselves for her benefit. She too was mindful of the past, which for her was always present. Her personal and communal traumas would not allow her to give herself fully to people outside of her family, her community, or the Pentecostal Church. She was cautious of making herself vulnerable to the ways of white folks.
She understood how power worked: she had to. So she worked, and she worked hard to create a buffer to protect herself and her children from danger the best way she could. But she also embraced the present and the future simultaneously by teaching her grandchildren and great-grandchildren how to take care of themselves: how to be independent, just, aspirational, and above all, resilient. These are the lessons that have shaped generations of African American children. This is the inheritance I believe is present in black women’s writing and storytelling.
In the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library we have dozens of collections that account for the tremendous breadth and depth of black women’s experiences as writers, activists, artists, and administrators. Through their own distinctive writing and the intersections found throughout the materials within the Rose Library collections, to quote from Dr. Sheftall’s Words of Fire, “these women share a collective history of oppression and a commitment to improving the lives of black women, especially, and the world in which we live.”
Indeed, beyond the scope of what most would expect the Stuart Rose Library to have in terms of the literary output of black women writers like Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, and Natasha Trethewey; we have the personal and professional papers for numerous black women artists, educators, writers, and entrepreneurs, whose individual and collective lives reveal the nuances and challenges of living in, and negotiating space within a world resisting the assertion of black womanhood. A number of the collections are in need of exploration and elevation. Included among these are the Rev. Dr. Ella Mitchell; artist and art historian Dr. Samella Lewis; poet, playwright, and teacher May Miller; composer, musician, and teacher Geneva Southall; activist and writer Louise Meriwether; journalist and novelist Almena Lomax; model and entrepreneur Ophelia Devore-Mitchell; and journalist and writer Viola Andrews, to name but a few.
By example, Viola Andrews, who many of you know as a writer and columnist here in Atlanta, was also the mother of visual artist and activist Benny Andrews, and the novelist Raymond Andrews. And she had a tremendous influence on their lives as artists and people. In 1930, Viola married George Andrews, who was a sharecropper in Madison County, Georgia. Between 1932 and 1953, the couple had nine children. After the birth of their last child, Gregory, Viola decided to move to Atlanta with her children to raise them in an environment where they would have a chance at life.
When she moved to Atlanta, she attended Beaumont’s School of Vocational Nursing, and later worked as a nurse at McClendon Hospital. In 1971, she enrolled at the Atlanta School of Biblical Studies, and in 1972, she integrated the white Lakewood Presbyterian Church when she began to teach evening Sunday school.
She was a writer of short stories and a newspaper column. Her short story “Go Down Moses” appeared in the literary magazine Time Capsule in January 1971. She served as Religious Editor at the Metro Atlanta Community Bulletin and wrote a weekly column on religion. In the collection we have copies of these materials and more, including her autobiography, several other short stories, and a book of poems entitled Body, Spirit, and Soul.
The collection consists of papers of the Andrews family, including writings, correspondence, photographs, religious material, scrapbooks, and other miscellaneous papers.
All of her children maintained a relationship with her, writing her frequently and sharing stories about their lives, and how they benefitted from her nurturing. In a two page letter dated January 24, 1989, the youngest, Gregory Andrews, writes:
How’s my sweet brown cupcake? Wonderful I hope. I received your inspiring letter. It was a joy to hear from you. I think about you everyday. I wish I could have sent you more money.
When I be working on my job, a lot of you is still in me. You always told me to work hard and do the best job possible. Don’t worry about the best guy. I be thinking about all of the values you instilled in me. I’m proud of you Mama. I love you very much. I work like everyday is my last day. Tomorrow is not promised. Some people complemented me on this. I was blessed to have a mother like you.
Clearly, this mother and son relationship demonstrates the kind of influence she had on her son’s development as an adult, and as a man. It also demonstrates a child’s claiming his inheritance from his mother, who successfully guided her sons through adolescence into manhood. His voice of appreciation is not unique, but it is important to acknowledge in the scope of the role of black women raising children to become responsible and respectful adults. Like my memories of the resilience of my great-grandmother Rosa, the archives of black women writers are important to our understanding of where we come from, but most importantly who we come from. The collections of stories of resilience, perseverance, and success represent our collective inheritance that we should not ignore, nor abuse for personal gain. We have an obligation to share these stories and learn from them.
The first question I would like to ask the group is if a student came to you in an absolute panic, your favorite student, and he, she, or they needed help putting together a one-day seminar with the title “African American Women’s Writing: Pasts & Futures,” what sort of writers might you choose to recommend to that student?
Frances Smith Foster
I would say Pauline Hopkins, Lucille Clifton, and Sherley Anne Williams. That’s the short answer.
Pauline Hopkins would be the turn of the century pick. She was a publisher of a newspaper, she was a journalist, she wrote novels, she investigated the questions of race, mixed race, mystery, miscegenation. All of the themes that are, I think, important today, Pauline Hopkins anticipated. She also wrote a number of biographies for newspapers. Lois Brown has written an incredible biography of her. Lucille Clifton because she made her mark in two different ways, both of which were influential to me. She wrote so-called children’s literature, and one series centered on a boy named Everett Anderson. Her Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, in which Everett loses his father, was the only book I could find that helped children understand death. It actually followed Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, but it’s incredible. Really all of her books, including her memoirs and her poetry, are for grownup women. And Sherley Anne Williams because, again, she was a multigenre writer using history. If Dessa Rose hadn’t come out the same time as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, she would have been over-the-top big. As it is, the thirtieth anniversary edition of Dessa Rose was published this year and Callaloo is preparing a special edition on her work. Sexuality, history, slavery: Sherley said that when she was young, she wanted to be a historian; that is, until some smart young Negro told her there was no place she could go in the United States and not be a slave. But she realized that slavery not only was horrible, but provided opportunities for love and heroism, and that’s some of what her book is about.
I’m going to show my biases. I would want them to read some of the most radical black women, mostly feminists, who have lived. I would have them read Claudia Jones. I want them to know that we’ve had black communist women who worked in a factory. I would want them to read June Jordan, especially her essays about being bisexual. We would now say queer. I would have them read Audre Lorde because she is not in the literary canon in many Afro-American literature classes. And I would have them read – my favorite right this minute – Lorraine Hansberry. I would have them watch the film A Raisin in the Sun and I would have them read the anonymous letters that she wrote to The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine. She wrote some of the most important black queer writing that we have not read. So I would sprinkle some radical, communist, queer writings in there to stir it up.
Pellom McDaniels III
I would also say Lorraine Hansberry and Raisin, to have them think about blockbusting and this idea of space, about the intergenerational conversations they were having in the tenement as well as this idea of aspirations, the dream deferred. I think a lot of young people could actually understand that. They could see that reality now. I would pick Gwendolyn Brooks’s anthology The Blacks because it is a way to understand her writing and, as with the “Kitchenette” vignettes in Maud Martha, to focus on urban domesticity. I’m leaning urban because these are the realities today of the majority of the populations I work with, at the Rose Library or in their communities. And third would be Nella Larsen’s Passing or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, thinking about the politics and power dynamics of gender and sexuality.
Michelle M. Wright
The next question is about literary genres. I was trained in the novel, where many African American women at different stages in history have really found their voice. I’m also very aware of the rise of playwriting over the past couple decades, as well as how poetry is coming to the fore once again. But I want to ask you how you tend to think about different literary genres and the way genres have shaped and been shaped by African American women writers.
Frances Smith Foster
I have an essay being published next year called “Can a Cup Be a Book?” I am most interested now in popular literature, as in the literature that was not written to be published and sold commercially, like scrapbooks. I’m really interested in the ways in which women used their art and their voices to leave records of themselves. So for me genre has to expand to include these forms; I don’t want to define genre in a way that excludes such women, as I did when researching slave narratives.
I would just say quickly that right now I’m obsessed with memoirs and journals and letters. A few years ago – Frances, you may remember this – we were told by some grownup black women that black women shouldn’t write about their personal lives, because who cares? Seriously. And so I want to affirm the need for black women to write more revelatory, in-your-face memoirs so that we can know more about their intimate personal lives even, and particularly, as you said, stuff that was not intended to be published. I’m not interested in being a voyeur, but I think that we know very little about the intimate interior lives of African American women.
Pellom McDaniels III
I would agree, especially thinking about the archives. Consider someone like Mari Evans’s papers: they are deep and wide, her career spanning poetry, drama, nonfiction, children’s books, her connections with artists like Langston Hughes and Nina Simone. The collections are tremendous, much of it never published. There are journals, there are notebooks; you will find unpublished novels or essays that have been in these boxes for fifty years, waiting for researchers, for people who are curious to come and mind the collections. And so what I try to do is find the right people and say, “Hey, you’re interested in this subject, you should come look at this collection.” And I invite all of you to come up and browse. And you can do that also using the finding aid. So the archives, in terms of genre, can create new spaces to have conversations that are cross-pollinating: mixing ideas about the novel, about the memoir, about biography, but also in terms of space, through public scholarship. How do we talk about the materials in an open space?
© 2019 by Dwight A. McBride, Frances Smith Foster, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Pellom McDaniels III, and Michelle M. Wright, respectively