In my dissertation study I am looking at black female authors. A look at Poet Phillis Wheatley opens the study, then it's on to Marita Bonner, a lesser-studied Harlem Renaissance author and playwright whose writings challenge issues still pertinent in contemporary society. I will likely close with Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and "God Bless the Child." A framework of the study is "black spectatorship" a concept taken from Stuart Hall and expanded upon by bell hooks. hooks views this 'black spectatorship' as the starting point for what she terms as the 'oppositional gaze,' a way of 'seeing' that exemplifies in black women's challenge to the dominating societal images of themselves hooks argues that this way of "looking" is a point of "resistance" for these women, and notes that the "extent to which black women feel devalued, objectified, dehumanized in this society determines the scope of their looking relations. Those black women whose identities were constructed in resistance, by practices that oppose the dominant order were most inclined to develop an oppositional gaze" (127). And, this is a way of 'looking' that I believe characterizes the view of the writers I am studying.
In the past intra-raical conversations resulting from black spectatorship took place in barber-shops and beauty salons, after church, during family dinners and at other events and gatherings. But blacks' use of social media as a sort of cyber-meeting place has flung back the curtains on these conversations allowing anyone interested to witness black thought and to note that blackness is not a monolithic experience since there can be great diversity in the opinions and views of black people. What blacks as a group most often come together around is the trauma of racism seen too often contemporarily in cases of police brutality and abuse of blacks.
But the outing by her parents of Rachel Dolezal who is the head of the Spokane NAACP as a white woman who wore weave, lacefronts, perms and a tan to carry out a masquerade as a black woman has provoked opinion and dialogue from people of all races. "Why can't she be black if she wants?" is the pervading question of those who sympathize with her situation. Mostly non-blacks have attempted to diagnose Dolezal as "trans-racial" likening her situation to those who struggle with gender dysphoria. Intra-racially plenty men express sympathy for the attractive Dolezal along with women, some of whom either have a family member, or their own experience at the color line.
Not surprisingly, these skin color divisions have an historical context. In an interview with Genii Guanier, author Dorothy West tells of her accusation to her mother, "You wouldn't give me your beauty and you wouldn't give me my father's blue eyes" ("Dorothy West's Paradise" 51). While West's charge seems cruel and thoughtless, her bitterness derived from the unfairness of a life experience that was far-reaching. West was the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance, and like other women writers never experienced the success she had hoped for as an author. Before her death Oprah Winfrey's interest in "The Wedding" helped propel greater sales, but much of West's life was spent as editor and reminiscing about her time spent living with her family at the fringe of the Black Brahmins, a Boston upper society group that prized skin color as much as it did class standing. And, even though her mother was viewed by most others as marginally attractive and not all that light in complexion, to the brown-skinned Dorothy her mother's tan skin was light enough to make her a beauty ideal, her skin color representing a boundary that Dorothy could not cross.
The boundary that West perceived as limiting was no fantasy either. In Portraits of the New Negro Woman, University of Wisconsin scholar and Professor, Dr. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson traces the rise of the mulatta (and here I use the phrasing of the period) as "an iconic figure" to have gained momentum during the "cusp of the Harlem Renaissance" (7). It was no accident that the mulatta grew in affection since she was strategically offered as a way to engage the empathy of whites who would more likely identify with one who shared some of their own characteristics. The result was a proliferation of images offering the mulatta as the representative of the New Negro woman. These images included the "tempestuous Jezebel," or "transgressor of the color line" which served to balance those that exemplified her "ladyhood and respectability" ("Portraits of" 11). However, the restrictions of having a deeper-hued skin color and lacking European features were far reaching as Sherrard-Johnson explains:
Ultimately, the idealization of black women as mulattas, madonnas, teachers, or socialites in Harlem Renaissance literature, visual art, periodicals and aesthetic discourse established parameters that restricted artistic expression and agency for black women. Furthermore it implied that a woman could not engage in antiracist work unless she fit the the prevailing class and color standards of respectability--standards that would have eliminated the majority of black women ("Portraits of" 11).Now, fast-forward to Rachel Dolezel's foray into black womanhood and work as a black advocate and it's not difficult to see why her actions are viewed so differently. Those whose lives situate along the color line, may see themselves or those who are important to them in Dolezel, while those whose more deeply-hued skin and/or lack of European features allows them no passage across the color line and are influenced by that experience. That the reactions are different too also has an historical context. The tragedy of the mulatta is one that has reverberated in media offerings since the Emancipation. Light-skinned Sarah Jane hides her brown-skinned mother and dares to date a well-to-do white man in Imitation of Life, an act that costs her mother's life and ends in tragedy when he rejects her after finding out she is really black. These passing narratives are also part of most American/African-American Literature courses, as are more contemporary offerings that feature the mixed-race woman as protagonists. And, while these women struggle, European features places them within the boundaries of societal aesthetic, rendering them into tragic figures who derive sympathy. So, it's no surprise some see Dolezal to represent the tragic mulatto and that some men feel compelled to save her.
On the other hand, the brown- or deeply-hued black woman is a less frequent character in American Literature canon offerings. The limited representations that do exist are often stereotypes or figures who serve to complicate, enhance or move forward the story of white (or passing) protagonists. And, although Toni Morrison's offerings such as The Bluest Eye and Beloved offer important texts that examine and comment on skin color, it's problematic that there are few other images to balance these stories of women who to a large degree possess little agency in their lives. For these women the color line is not porous, a fact that results in the sorts of inequities experienced by writers like Dorothy West which justifiably has lent to responses of "wait? what? not having it!" and "FOUL!" For me this is where authors like Marita Bonner have relevance, since in her writings Bonner often pushes back against the inter- and intra-racial stereotypes and boundaries. It was a white scholar who introduced me to Bonner's essay, "On Being Young -- A Woman and Colored." It is notable to this discussion prompted by Dolezal's actions, that this professor also teaches other black courses as a white woman. It is also notable that two of the scholars giving me wonderful guidance and feedback in my dissertation work are white (one male and one Jewish) and one is black again evidencing that "the work" can be done in the skin you're in.
My interest in skin color is not so much prompted by negative personal experience but my life has certainly been shaped by racism. One result of the system of enslavement is the fracturing of families, which for me means I have no information about family on my father's side. On my Mom's side I do know that my grandfather (who I never met) was biracial which means like many other blacks, I have European in my family line and I have a feature or two that might indicate to some that's the case. However, I am a brown girl with full lips and a prominent nose. Aside from some springy curls at the nape of my neck, I have tightly coiled 4A and 4B hair (think Esperanza Spalding) that shows off some major shrinkage on a humid day. Still, I don't know that my skin color has severely complicated my life, but let's be clear, I cannot pass either. Race is no performance for me. I get up black, and I go to bed black, and it will be like that until I leave here. Additionally, the economic and emotional effect of having almost no extended family is difficult since it allows me few opportunities for error because if I fall there will be no one to pick me up.
But, perhaps most influential to my interest is that in my work with young people and as a parent of a deeply-hued child, I cannot forget the insults and intra-racial colorism that I witnessed. Study of colorism and noting these intra-racial differences is important too, since ignoring how skin color can result in different life experiences can have severe effects. For example, it is the lack of attention to these divergent experiences that Kimberly Springer identifies to have derailed the burgeoning Black Feminist Movement. Springer notes in her study Living for the Revolution that feminists learned an "unexpected lesson" during the lives of these organizations, discovering the "Diversity [that] exists among black women in their physical appearance," is influential in how they construct "their own personal identities" (18). And, contemporary sociologists wonder why colorism is not given more attention since studies prove the negative experiences of deeper-hued women to effect their self-esteem and even narrow career opportunities in studies revealing that "Light skin can also work as social capital for women of color; more specifically, lighter skinned African American women are more privileged in the areas of education, income, and spousal status than their darker skinned counterparts" (Wilder and Cain 581).
So, although I believe the passing narrative/biracial experience deserves study, it's not my area of interest. And, while I can understand that some black men feel the need to swoop to Dolezel's rescue while others strongly empathize to the "tragedy" of Dolezel's experience because of their own, I'll leave that discussion for those with interest in that area. For me Dolezal's untruths cannot be overlooked, and to put on blackness as though it is a performance seems insulting to those who do not have that ability. As an instructor preparing to teach African-American literature texts, I am compelled toward serving those who don't live with one foot on the color line and who too often don't see images that affirm, recognize or voice their input or struggle. For me inclusion of writers into the canon like Marita Bonner helps promote the study of characters who occupy, and stories that address the often-ignored middle layers of black culture is one step in that direction. Bonner is not an easy addition, because unlike West she is not constrained by the respectability politics and clearly identifies racism as the societal construct narrowing the opportunities and lives of blacks. She is no less scathing of intra-racial internalized oppression and addresses intra-racial colorism, classicism and exceptional-ism that characterized the Boston's Black Brahmins. Bonner is also a realist writer, and while there is some nuance that can be found, the primary story is clearly one of resistance. I believe that inclusion of these stories can help engage young black female students who too often lack passion for the study. The exclusion of these texts also limits the exposure of white students to the breadth of the black experience because so many may have little other reference than the media and these classroom texts.
So, over the past several days engaging in this conversation has proved interesting for me and blogging today has been a good chance to work through my thoughts on it all. I'm excited to talk with my Prof on Thursday about how this issue has unveiled and revealed some of the intricacies and intra-racial dynamics of blackness.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1992. 221-35. Print.
Hooks, Bell. "Chapter 7. The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators." Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. 165-72. Print.
Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012. Print.
Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007. Print.
Springer, Kimberly. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 2005. Print.
Wilder, JeffriAnne, and Colleen Cain. "Teaching and Learning Color Consciousness in Black Families: Exploring Family Processes and Women’s Experiences With Colorism." Journal of Family Issues (2010): 577-600. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 June 2015.