by Lena Ampadu, Towson/English
When most people recall the Underground Railroad, the woman who usually comes to mind is Harriet Tubman. They often overlook Baltimore-born Frances E.W. Harper, a prolific nineteenth-century poet and orator, thought to have been the most reprinted novelist before Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston (Foster xv). Like Tubman, Harper was a fearless fighter who assisted enslaved black people in their quest for freedom. Harper fought inequality with her pen and voice, whereas Tubman toted a gun during the many trips she made from Maryland’s Eastern Shore escorting enslaved people to freedom. Tubman, often thought of as an historical figure to be honored mostly during Black History Month, should receive more acknowledgement in the annals of black literary tradition, for she has helped to inspire and create this tradition forged by Harper and other black women writers, whose voices, like Harper’s, are often muffled in traditional American literature courses.
In my course on black women writers at Towson University last semester, we explored these writers to recover their lost voices in a space of their own, one not dominated by black men, white men or white women writers. The course introduced students to twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers, and it informed students of new conversations across and within generations. When a young Mississippi author Jesmyn Ward, a National Book Award winner, penned her memoir Men We Reaped, she borrowed her title from Harriet Tubman’s observation about a unit of Black men who died fighting in the Civil War (Garner). When Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Adichie delivered a 2013 TED Talk, she incorporated Beyonce’s feminist commentary from the song “Flawless” into her address. This form of women’s talk is one attribute of black feminist or womanist literature, a literature in which women of African descent promote a sense of community among themselves by talking to each other. Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is therefore convinced that she and African American women writers are part of the same community because they speak to similar forms of racial and gender oppression (Veit-Wild 30).
In Octavia Butler’s science fantasy Kindred, sometimes classified as science fiction, we discussed black women’s oppression under slavery. A revision of the traditionally male slave narrative and science fiction genres, Kindred has many parallels to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Kindred’s emphasis on twentieth-century interracial marriage and love between protagonists, Dana and Kevin Franklin, represents a bold reversal of these expressions of love forbidden by law during the antebellum period and beyond.
Of course, no black women writers’ syllabus would be complete without Paule Marshall’s, woman-centered bildungsroman, Brown Girl, Brownstones, underscoring the Barbadian experience in Brooklyn, New York. Originally published in 1959, Marshall’s book, when republished in 1981, became one of Feminist Press’s best-selling texts. In 1986, literary historian and UMCP Professor, Mary Helen Washington, penned the foreword for Brown Girl, but the book’s 2006 edition, has a revised foreword by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat. Marshall’s work emphasizes the centrality of love by peering into a complicated mother-daughter relationship between the protagonist Selina Boyce and her mother Silla, and illustrating supportive relationships among Barbadian women.
Another significant member of the community of black women writers is Alice Walker, who has been profoundly influenced by the music of blues legends like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Walker’s short story, “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down,” pays homage to this tradition. We studied Walker’s volume of thirteen stories, In Love and Trouble, centering on young black women who are faced with situations of romantic love, familial love, unrequited love, and struggles in life and love. Walker’s womanist theory, perhaps her greatest contribution to the literary tradition, provided a crucial framework for analyzing literature in light of its celebration of the asexual, or sexual love, that black women express for each other (xi-xii) . Not to be overlooked is the importance of Walker’s restoring Zora Neale Hurston to her rightful place as a literary foremother.
Black women, whether from Africa or America, share more than similar themes and concerns about race and oppression. The course examined the experimental verse and form of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, alongside Changes: A Love Story, the fiction of Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo, which fuses poetry and oral forms. Both lyrical works examine women’s constraints in patriarchal societies and their responses to these strictures; however, Aidoo’s work has political ramifications for a changing post-colonial Ghana and women’s place within it. Aidoo, like Dangarembga, sees herself as part of a larger community of black women writing; thus, she often credits inspiration from other black women authors, such as Maya Angelou and Bessie Head (4-9).
The course appropriately concluded with Toni Morrison’s Love. Inspired in part by the Biblical scripture on love from First Corinthians, Love complicates and interrogates African American history and culture. With many of her novels filled with love metaphors, Morrison asserts the importance of love to the survival and well-being of the African American community.
Studying the literature that black women, like Morrison and others, have created has helped my students to understand the ways that black women writing and those writing about them have moved across time, geographical regions, and generations to create a powerful, enduring literary tradition within spaces they carved out for themselves.
Adichie, Chimamanda. “We Should All Be Feminists.” TED. April 2013. Lecture.
Aidoo, Ama Ata. “Interview by Adeola James” In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers
Talk . Ed. Adeola James. London, Heinemann, 1983. 4-9.
Foster, Frances Smith, ed. Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Garner, Dwight. “Through Five Men’s Lives A Memoirist Illuminates Her Own ” Review of
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. New York: Bloomsbury USA. 2013.
New York Times Book Review. September 2013.
Veit-Wild, Flora, “ ‘Women Write about the Things That Move Them’: A Conversation with
Tsitsi Dangarembga,” Moving Beyond Boundaries: Black Women’s Diasporas, Vol. 2.
Ed. Carol Boyce Davies. New York: NYU Press, 1995. 30-31.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1983. xi-xii