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)
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?”