Black Space: Continuings

In the late eighties, way back when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I took a class with Barbara Christian who was the first person to provide a scholarly treatment of contemporary African American women’s literature. She was also “the first black woman to be granted tenure at Berkeley (1978) and the first in the UC system to be promoted to full professor (1986).” I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I’d heard was she was a good teacher. The packed classroom, crowded mostly with other Black students, was a testament to this (this was before foolios dismantled affirmative action). Of course the memory is hazy but some things remain clear. I remember sitting on the floor because there were no chairs available, and I remember her presence in the classroom. She spoke with the authority of someone who knew their scholarly work/the work of literature, the recovering/restoring of Black female narratives mattered. And it mattered that we were all there, together in a predominantly Black space, listening to her, a Black female professor at a prominent university. It all mattered. I sat on the floor, taking notes and didn’t stop until the class ended. But in the middle of her lecture I wanted to cry. I was angry and overwhelmed.  Why hadn’t I been taught any of this in high school? In four years not one book by an African American woman (or Chicana/Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous…). Not a one. Zero. The few books I read by Black women happened outside of school.

Much has been written about what this silence in curriculum can communicate to students who hold little power, and recently in the case of the courageous high school students in Tucson’s now dismantled Mexican American Studies program we’ve seen the power of what representation in curriculum can have on students’ sense of self and on their desire to learn. What this silence in my high school curriculum communicated to me, a Black girl who at times thought she might want to be a writer without really knowing what this meant: Good luck with that.

At the time of Barbara Christian’s class, I hadn’t yet made the commitment to the writing life. Again, I had no idea what this meant. But my exposure to Christian’s work had a profound impact on my ability to imagine a space I might inhabit, a space that others had been carving out for years. Christian’s work along with scholars/writers like her continue to inform both my creative writing/scholarship.Christian writes:

The question as to who the critic is and how that affects her/his interpretation was very much on my mind when I put together Black Feminist Criticism in 1983-1984. In thinking about my own attempts to do such criticism, I increasingly felt that critics needed to let go of their distanced and false stance of objectivity and to expose their own point of view—the tangle of background, influences, political perspectives, training, situations that helped form and inform their interpretations. Inspired by feminist discussions about objectivity and subjectivity, I constructed an introduction to my volume that, rather than the usual formal introduction found in most lit crit books, was intended to introduce me in my specific context. It was a personalized way of indicating some of my biases, not the least of which was the fact that the literature I chose to study was central to an understanding of my own life, and not only an intellectual pursuit. Such exposure would, I thought, help the reader to evaluate more effectively the choices I had made about the language I used, the specific issues I approached, the particular writers I emphasized. By then I realized I did not want to write about every contemporary Afro-American woman writer—some did not speak to me—and that the extent of my own personal involvement with the writer’s work was one aspect of my doing black feminist criticism.”

In this same essay, written in 1989, Christian asks a series of questions I still find relevant:

“Does history teach us anything about the relationship between ideas, language, and practice? By 2000 will our voices sound like women’s voices, black women’s voices to anyone?”

Since the eighties, much has changed for Black women writers, and for women writers as a whole.  And yet much remains the same. Take, for example, VIDA’s  2011 numbers illustrating the lack of women in major publications, numbers that aren’t broken down by race. Knowing these numbers would be helpful to show to people who believe all things are equal, but many of the responses to the VIDA count demonstrate even when we have numbers people will find all kinds of reasons (other than sexism or racism) as to why White women and people of color aren’t getting published or reviewed. (Recently,  Roxane Gay did the difficult work of compiling this list.)

But here are some numbers for people who like numbers. This spring (2012), I taught a course which focused on Black women’s short fiction, mostly recent collections. In the first week, I asked students to make a list of all the Black women fiction writers they had read. It was a predominantly White class of about forty students, mostly third and fourth year. There were four visible students of color–three Black, one Asian. Everyone struggled with listing Black women writers. There was nervous laughter, a few uncomfortable looks, but also a sincere desire to remember something, anything, they had read by a Black woman author. They asked if they could list poets and playwrights. List whatever names you know, I said. They were broken into ten groups of about four. The number in parenthesis is the total number of times the author’s name was listed.

Here’s their list:

Maya Angelou (7)

Alice Walker (7—listed twice in one group)

Toni Morrison (5)

Octavia Butler (5—listed twice in one group)

Zora Neale Hurston (4)

Assata Shakur (2)

Sapphire (1)

Edwidge Danticat (1)

Suzan-Lori Parks (1)

Gwendolyn Brooks (1)

Nnedi Okorafor (1)

Phyllis Wheatley (1)

Nikki Grimes (1)

Brenda Woods (1)

Lorraine Hansberry (1)

In one group, two people specified they hadn’t read any books by any Black women. The writers my class listed are so important. These writers names would have been absent from the dominant curriculum not too long ago. I remember when they were absent. My ability to do the work I do is a result of pathways these writers forged and continue to create. But there are so many more of us writing. How can we create more bridges between past, present, and future Black women writers? For those of us in positions of privilege and power in universities, or elsewhere, how can we create spaces for Black women’s writing?

So Black Space.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how little work exists on Black women’s short fiction, particularly recent collections. So far I’ve only been able to find one annotated bibliography of short fiction by Black writers (men and women), which was compiled in 1978. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to create accessible resources for writers and readers, while also trying to balance the time I need to give to my own writing. The University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gaps, a site dedicated to “women writers and artists of color” is an incredible resource and was an important starting point, but I wanted a space focused solely on Black women’s writing. In 2012, I organized a panel at AWP that focused on Black women’s contemporary short fiction: “On the Move: Contemporary African American Women’s Literary Fiction,” which was moderated by Dr. Terrion Williamson. Spring 2012, I taught a course on Black women’s short fiction. I knew I wanted this blog (or something) to be one of the results of the course. I also wanted student writing/projects to be a resource for readers, writers, and scholars. More about that here. And I wanted Black Space to be a space where both my critical and creative selves could join with other critical/creative selves. What else Black Space can be I’m still figuring out with the help of really wonderful students, other Black women writers, and patient tech folks.

Hopefully, Black Space can be a resource as well, a space where questions can be asked and answered. I’m starting the conversation from a place that recognizes Black women’s literature and Black women’s identities are not monolithic or static, but ever-shifting terrains. I’m interested in the multiplicity of ways we’re defining ourselves, what it means to us to be called Black women writers, and/or African American women writers. What does it mean to write in this post civil rights, and supposed post-race era? As a child of parents who left New Orleans during segregation and headed West, I’m  interested in the stories that come out of our various migrations, particularly for those of us who came of age during the hip hop era. What are we writing about? How does audience impact our work? How are others talking about our work? What do we think about the critical reception, or lack thereof? As students, writers, and scholars in an age of rapidly changing technology, what’s the best way to research and present our findings about Black women writers? Who’s teaching our stories? What resources can we share? What types of bridges can we create between those of us writing about our work and those of us creating the work? As Terrion asked at the close of our panel at AWP: “What are we moving from and what are we moving toward?”

Terrion’s question echoes a similar question Barbara Christian asked in 1989:

“What do we want to do anyway and for whom do we think we’re doing it?”

Rae Paris

11 comments on “Black Space: Continuings

  1. Michelle says:

    Rae, I really appreciated reading your blog. Although one of my majors in college was African and African American Studies, I am not sure I could list many more black female fiction writers than your students collectively listed. I certainly need to reacquaint myself with contemporary African American writers, in particular females. I think doing so is not only important for my sense of self, but for how I make sense of black educational experiences (past and present) in my research, teaching, mentoring, and interacting. As we all know educational experiences are not devoid from life; they are essentially a part of we come to know and believe. Your story of being in Barbara Christian’s classroom harkens to how so many of us felt in predominantly in white higher education settings.

  2. Dawn says:

    I agree that this blog is a powerful tool. I am inspired to know that you have begun this conversation, and I can’t wait to watch it grow. I can recall a similar fascination with professor Deborah McDowell at The University of Virginia during my freshman year. After taking her Harlem Renaissance seminar and class in African American Autobiography my literary landscape was revolutionized. Her facility with scholars and resources related to black consciousness let me know that I wasn’t crazy to keep on reading. I continue to celebrate this literature by teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God in our 9th grade curriculum at the predominantly white independent school where I teach. Despite the handful of parents who are suspicious of Hurston’s use of dialect for their private school dollars each year, I know that this novel has opened the minds of my students in ways that even Chopin may not. Particularly because we read “How it Feels to be a Colored Me” before the novel. Similarly, reading Ann Petry’s The Street in my HR class last year was groundbreaking. This year, I have returned to my Great Migration class and teach “Mary Elizabeth,” Bronzeville, Raisin in the Sun, and Song of Solomon among others. I am drawn to this project for my own exploration and for all the young students, usually women of color, who ask for longer reading lists after having been inspired by Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jessie Fauset. I truly look forward to expanding my repertoire towards contemporary authors and breaking away from my historical syllabi. Write on.

  3. Jeff says:

    Rae,

    This blog and your writing is a much needed contribution the thoughtful public space. I teach film, but I find myself alternating between the thrill of exposing my students to artists of color that they have never heard of and the frustration that my students have never heard of these artist of color. My greatest frustration is that educational institutions (such as the one I am a part of) seem to relegate black women writers and artists to the margins deeming such writers and artists to be “elective” rather than “core”.

    On soapbox a bit, but keep us thinking Rae. Thanks

    Also, Barbara Christian was one one of the great contributing voices to Marlon Rigg’s classic doc on black images Ethnic Notions (1986). Check it out if you have not seen it.

  4. Thanks, all. Blogging makes me nervous, which is why the post was written in April and is only being made public now. The comments are much appreciated. Dawn–love hearing what you’re doing in your class, and Michelle, I hear you about being able to list writers–I’m still learning a lot. Jeff, I don’t want to live in a world without soapboxes 🙂 Yes, I show Ethnic Notions to my lit class. If you haven’t seen the new Lupe Fiasco video *Bitch Bad* check it out: you’ll see what I mean.

  5. bbellbrown says:

    Rae: I am so honored to have you refer me to your blog. Thank you for including me around the fire. Hopefully, one day, my name will be added to your syllabus, listed by your students, mentioned as my work is read out loud/performed out loud/remembered in passing. And, you, Ms. Rae, are a teacher. B3

  6. Hi, I was referred to your blog by a FB friend. I’m glad she did. This post was very interesting to me.

    I’m a black female writer who prefers to write fiction. I haven’t been to college and feel seriously lacking in many regards because of it. The ability to address that isn’t at hand, but I’ve been learning as much as I can about writing, and practicing my own for a while now, especially after having begun my blog.

    I’ve written about a lot of my experiences, but without much emphasis on being a black woman, because when I did it made me nervous to feel misunderstood in the comments section. I feel like I may have too thin a skin to be a writer, but there’s the pull of wanting it and doing it. It’s stronger than me.

    I may be sitting out discussions here when they seem a bit over my head, but I like what I’ve read so far and will definitely be back.

    • Hey SIS, thanks so much for the comment. I hear what you’re saying about college–it has allowed me access to so much, but you should know I still have tons of moments of questioning about writing. I took my first fiction class through an extension course (which I didn’t complete) after college, and then it took another six years or so before I started writing on my own and started researching programs in writing, all of which seemed bizarre to me–programs just to study writing, really? But like you said, the pull of wanting it and doing it outweighs everything else, so comments from folks when you write about race, the possibility of being misunderstood, and anything else–all of it starts to matter a little less for me. The other option, not to write, isn’t really an option for me anymore. but blogging still makes me nervous:)

  7. Gabrielle says:

    Love to see this space here–a virtual space that will get so crowded as home/thinking space that we’ll be sitting on the floor soaking up the love and authority that emerges. It’s nice to rejoin the Barbara Christian sisterhood and to hear how we are connected in teaching genres beyond the novel, asking the important uncomfortable questions insistently and publicly that many would rather get left unsaid. We are worthy daughters and good sister-citizens when we honor that legacy. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much. Your comment made me tear up. I love your vision of a “home/thinking space,” as well the image of us all sitting together across space and time, honoring what’s come before. to be “worthy daughters and good sister-citizens”. Comments like yours make me want to work harder. thank you.

  8. Dion Scott says:

    The next submission period for the nonfiction prize for Graywolf will be in January 2016. A $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf will be awarded to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre. The prize will be awarded to a manuscript in progress. You have to submit 100 pages or 25k words, https://www.graywolfpress.org/graywolf-press-nonfiction-prize.

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