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Claiming the Heritage: African-American Women Novelists and History.

Claiming the Heritage: African-American Women Novelists and History, by Missy Dehn Kubitscheck. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991, xxiii, 203 pp. $30.00 cloth, $14.95 paper;

Contemporary African-American women writers have often complained, justifiably, that they grew up feeling cheated out of a part of their heritage by virtue of the fact that their formal education excluded, largely or completely, literature by black Americans. Discovery of their literary forebears was generally an informal and often a lonely enterprise. Tracing the motherlines in particular became for some a labor of love and a source of psychic healing. All three of these books in one sense or another trace the literary motherlines of African-American literature.

The brief foreword to Sandi Russell's Render Men My Song is her story of how she received her own informal education in the history of black women writers after she, like hundreds of other black children growing up in Harlem in the 1950s, was "cheated" out of an education in the "prodigious gifts" of her people (p. vii). Having reached her teens with only the smattering of knowledge that came with her school's annual Negro History Week, she found her world suddenly broadened when during her senior year she took an evening job at the Schomburg Library. There, in the world's largest repository of African-American literature, she first became aware of how truly prodigious were her people's literary gifts -- and how anomalous was Gwendolyn Brooks amid the masses of works by black men. That Gwendolyn Brooks, as a woman, was represented in the Schomburg at all awakened Russell to the realization that black women could indeed be writers.

Russell's literature classes at a large "integrated" university in the 1960s covered no African-American writers at all, male or female, but the owner of the Liberation Bookstore that opened in Harlem after the riots of the late 1960s guided Russell's reading about her people's past. Russell read Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, yet felt that behind their volatility, part of the story was still missing. Later came Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker to tell the "untold stories" of black women, and Russell realized, "There was a history, a line of African-American women who, for over two centuries, had been creating themselves in writing" (p. viii).

Thus Russell uses her own personal history to explain her interest in making available to a broader reading public the history of writing by African-American women. Russell's purpose in Render Me My Song is not to advance a thesis, although individual chapters do so., but to provide an introduction to the lives and work of black women writers. Taken as a whole, the volume provides a historical overview of literature by black women from slavery to the present. The organization of the text also makes it a useful reference for a quick overview of a single author or a group of related authors. Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Morrison merit an entire chapter apiece, while the other seven chapters follow a workable organization based on a combination of chronology and theme. Ann Petry, Louise Meriwether, Dorothy West, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Margaret Walker, for example, are grouped together in a chapter on "Urban Realities (1930s-60s)," while four poets of the 1960s and 1970s -- Carolyn Rodgers, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez -- are linked in a later chapter. A quick glance at the table of contents enables a reader to locate easily an author or a historical period.

Not surprisingly, the chapters that deal with only one or two writers give the fullest treatment to their subjects, but even the sections within more densely packed chapters are useful as a refresher on the lives and works of the selected authors. Russell discusses thirty-nine writers; for each, she offers a blend of biography and criticism and, in each chapter, provides relevant historical context. At the end of the volume she lists over one hundred other writers whom she did not have room to discuss.

Russell has a knack for focusing on the key points that need to be made about each author in the relatively few pages of text that she has to work with. In the six pages devoted to Phillis Wheatley, for instance, she not only summarizes the remarkable but tragic life of the young slave-turned-poetess but also gets at the heart of the controversy engendered by the two seemingly conflicting views of slavery presented in Wheatley's poems "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth." In "A Jump at de Sun" Russell reveals something of the enigma that was Zora Neale Hurston while also evaluating each of Hurston's major works. In the chapter on Gwendolyn Brooks, "Birth in a Narrow Room," she traces the evolution of Brooks's poetry over a forty-year period.

In grouping writers as she does in most chapters, Russell risks oversimplification, yet her categories are flexible enough to allow for diversity. In Chapter 2, "Words to a White World," for example, she discusses Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Grimke, Anne Spencer, and Georgia Douglas Johnson as comprising the "genteel school" of writing of the early twentieth century, yet goes on to point out that Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen struggled against the limitations of the genteel tradition. In Chapter 10, "for colored girls ...," she makes use of the blues tradition as a means of linking a number of contemporary writers, including Lucille Clifton, Sherley Anne Williams, Alexis De Veaux, and J.J. Phillips, yet makes the more general point in this last chapter of the volume that the range of new voices of black women now being heard in America is one reason that America should listen.

Occasionally Russell slips into a statement that is at least questionable. She claims in Chapter One, "Out of Slavery," for example, that slaves were kept illiterate so that they could not tell of their lives in bondage. A more plausible explanation is offered in Abraham Chapman's Steal Away, which Russell draws from in the same paragraph: Learning to read and write tended to promote dissatisfaction and thus produce insurrection. In interpreting Morrison's Beloved, Russell erroneously claims that Sethe arrives at Baby Suggs's home pregnant; in actuality, Sethe has her last child, with the aid of a young white woman, en route to Baby Suggs's. Russell also assumes that Sethe says raped by schoolteacher's nephews, although what Sethe says repeatedly they did was to "steal her milk" -- a crime more heinous than rape, given her concern for her children's welfare.

Such misstatements are jarring to those familiar with the works and with black history, but they are exceptions in a volume that is otherwise soundly researched and factually accurate. Russell breaks no new ground, but she makes accessible a wealth of information about black women writers and their works. In its format, the volume is reminiscent of Roger Whitlow's Black American Literature: A Critical History and Arthur P. Davis's From the Dark Tower, but Russell's entries on individual authors are generally shorter than Davis's, and both Whitlow and Davis deal with black writers of both genders, whereas Russell focuses on black women. With its 1990 copyright, Render Me My Song brings the history of black women writers up to date.

The only truly annoying feature of Render Me My Song is its documentation style. Russell tends to use "floating" quotations with no identification of the source, forcing the reader over and over to the endnotes for a clue as to whom she is quoting. At some points she opens a section with a quotation from the writer to be discussed, but she keeps her readers guessing by forcing them to the back of the book to find out. Parenthetical documentation would at least have eliminated the need for long strings of archaic ibid's when she quotes from the novels; at best the author's name worked into the text or added at the end of each quotation would have saved Russell's readers a great deal of shuffling back and forth to the endnotes. The unidentified quotations combined with Russell's rather erratic use of commas may begin to grate rather quickly on the nerves of those who spend a great deal of time teaching such matters to their undergraduates.

Russell's book is most directly linked thematically to those by Missy Dehn Kubitschek and Karla F. C. Holloway in the chapter on Toni Morrison and the one on Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Russell says of Morrison, "Her work stems from the deep realization that she must explore the past and re-address it, in order for African-Americans to understand themselves and the world they live in today" (p. 93). She opens the chapter on Walker and Angelou with the claim that these two writers "had begun the task of reclamation: the renaming and reclaiming of black women's history and selfhood ... by reassessing the lives of black women in the South" (p. 116).

Russell's genre becomes Kubitschek's subject. Whereas Russell's work is a history of black women writers, Kubitschek's Claiming the Heritage is an astute and readable analysis of the role that history plays in the works of selected black women writers, as is clear in her subtitle: African-American Women Novelists and History.

First, however, Kubitschek has to deal with that in her own personal history which drew her, as a white woman, to African-American literature. She does so in an impressive "Personal Preface" in the tradition of Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens." Kubitschek writes, "Any participant in the revitalizing critique of the literary canon has a personal story of coming to her or his individual awareness; students in my black studies and women's studies classes demand to hear that story" (p. x).

A part of Kubitschek's story, unlike Walker's, was the total absence of stories passed down by her grandparents. Descended on one side from "English Jews who in the face of American anti-Semitism had dropped their Jewish identities with their bags on arrival in Chicago during their teens" and on the other from Germans for whom "the humiliation of not knowing English in first grade was succeeded by the humiliation of knowing German during World War I" she was encouraged by their silence simply to assume that she was part of the white power structure (pp. xiii-xiv).

Kubitschek traces the development of her racial and gendered self from her youth in small-town central Illinois, where there were few blacks, to Carleton College, from which she graduated having read only one book by a black author, to graduate school at the University of Illinois, where her casual reading increasingly focused on black literature. She found in novels by African-Americans "the respect for emotion and individuality that the academic context lacked" (p. xxi). Further, the attraction came in part, she explains, because African-American literature spoke to her and for her of silenced experience: "From African-American literature I learned that versions of a silenced heritage can be, must be, reconstructed" (p. xxii). Reclaiming the Heritage is her attempt -- a glowingly successful one -- to illustrate how black women novelists and their characters have reconstructed a silenced heritage.

Kubitschek's thesis is succinctly stated. She argues that one source of continuity in the works of African-American women fiction writers is the link between history and female identity: "The tradition of the African-American woman's novel consistently asserts the necessity of recognizing -- knowing both intellectually and emotionally -- the history of blacks in order to become and remain a fully functional African-American woman" (p. 5). This is true not only on a literal level in that the works themselves assert a need for understanding tribal historical experience, but also on a meta-level in that these works reach publication only as a result of what Kubitschek refers to as "linked strategies of persistence" (p. 8).

The tradition, from Kubitschek's perspective, is a self-conscious one but one which current critical paradigms are inadequate to explicate. Her first chapter, "My Mother Talking," demonstrates the inadequacy of three such paradigms: Joseph Campbell's universalist approach to the quest, Robert B. Stepto's racial one, and Carol Christ's gender-based one. Kubitschek illustrates the limitations of each of the three by examining Paule Marshall's first three novels. She concludes this introductory chapter by presenting her version of the three essentials of women's quests for identity in novels by twentieth-century black women writers: the decision to explore history, the absorption of heritage, and interpretation of the uses of the past in the present. As a general rule, Kubitschek argues, novels from early in the twentieth century stress the decision, later ones stress the absorption, and contemporary ones stress the interpretation. Storytelling is the primary means of discovering the past.

Kubitschek chose to deal in general with major works by authors who have produced more than one novel, but also to include some lesser-known works in lieu of better-known ones about which critics have already extensively commented on the individual's role in the community. In her second chapter, "What Would a Writer Be Doing Working Out of a Slave Market?," she uses one such lesser-known work, Octavia Butler's science-fiction work Kindred, to set out and illustrate her paradigm. Butler's novel serves that purpose well in that the main character, Dana, time-travels actually to relive parts of her family's history in slavery. The past becomes real literally for Dana, a powerful way for Kubitschek to lay a foundation for her discussion in later chapters of characters who must confront history metaphorically.

In her four remaining chapters, Kubitschek applies her paradigm. In her third chapter she presents Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as, in part, an example of a woman's successful quest. The protagonist, Janie Crawford, eventually achieves a satisfying selfhood by becoming part of a cohesive community in the Everglades. Having been denied participation in Eatonville's storytelling sessions by her second husband, Jody, Janie comes into her own when she becomes one of the storytellers who congregate around the door of the cabin in the Glades that she shares with her third husband, Tea Cake.

Kubitschek's emphasis on storytelling as essential to individual growth within a community modifies the traditional quest motif and provides new and valuable insights into the novel. It also broadens her definition of history to include far more than the past of either the individual or the tribe. The exchange of stories, which Kubitschek perceives as essential to Janie's spiritual growth, also includes everything from courting rituals to tall tales -- the stuff of which Hurston's career as an anthropologist was made. Community traditions do indeed shape Janie by defining available roles. Whether community traditions are the same as history is perhaps a moot point, since the chapter is really more about the relationship between communal and individual definition than about the recovery of history. It ranges rather far from the paradigm based on exploration, absorption, and interpretation of history that Kubitschek's earlier chapters prepare her readers for. The fact that she is straining a bit to make the chapter fit into the thesis of the work as a whole may be due in part to the fact that it first appeared 1983. However, once a reader is willing to expand what Kubitschek earlier calls the exploration of history to include not only the exchange of individual and tribal histories but also the construction and preservation of such histories, the chapter fits more clearly into her overall plan. A major part of Hurston's value for succeeding writers, according to Kubitschek, was that she explored the effects of nonprint narratives on female identity and thus established oral narratives as crucial to black women's quests.

Reclaiming the Heritage is so well written and well organized that Kubitschek's readers never have to look far for a concise statement of the thesis that she is advancing in a chapter. In her chapter on Paule Marshall, it is this one: "Paule Marshall's three novels -- Brown Girl, Brownstones; The Chosen Place, the Timeless People; and Praisesong for the Widow -- successively illustrate stages of the historically grounded female quest that Kindred portrays: the decision to investigate the historical past, difficulties in assimilating it, and a purposeful incorporation of historical past into the present self" (p. 69). The case is well made. (It is interesting to consider how Marshall's most recent novel, Daughters, fits into Kubitschek's scheme.) Layered on top of this theme is Kubitschek's contention that Marshall is among those who learned from Hurston to make storytelling central: "Listening to stories motivates some questers; telling stories helps to heal others; above all, the sense of community involved in the participatory interchange of teller and audience strengthens the questers' identities" (p. 70).

Conversely, a quester's identity is threatened when she tries to deny her heritage. This is the case that Kubitschek builds in "Birthrights: Passing, History, and Ancient Properties." Before Hurston in the twentieth century, "the theme of attempted disengagement from history" -- passing -- was prominent (p. 90). For a character (for a person) to pass for white necessitated denying a part of her heritage. Kubitschek writes, "The trope of passing depicts more than a privileged individual's purely personal decisions; it investigates an individual's relationships with history" (p. 92). Kubitschek analyzes Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun as examples of the early twentieth-century treatment of passing. Denial of heritage leads to tragedy for Helga Crane in Quicksand and to such dissatisfaction for Angela Murray in Plum Bun that she chooses reimmersion.

What is most original in Kubitschek's chapter on passing, however, is the link she forges between early and late twentieth-century novelists. She writes, "Constructing |passing' as a set of attitudes toward the middle class and concomitantly toward the past reveals a continuity between the woman-authored novels of the Harlem Renaissance and a number of major works by women fictionists of the 1980s" (p. 92). The chapter concludes with excellent analyses of Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills and Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, focusing on the price black women in these contemporary novels pay to rise in social class.

What is left for Kubitschek to consider, then, is the female character who becomes mired in the past: "That is, the pain of acknowledging the historical past and its influences on the present may immobilize a heroine rather than energizing her. In order not to be overwhelmed and determined by an oppressive past, individual women must be able to live in the present and conceive of a future" (p. 144). This theme Kubitschek traces in Marshall's The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Gayl Jones's Corregidora, Alice Walker's Meridian, and Toni Morrison's Beloved. All of the characters in these novels, who experience a variety of forms of paralysis, eventually move on. Essential to their recovery is the relationship to family, immediate and ancestral. Thus this rich chapter of Reclaiming the Heritage looks as well at some of the costs and rewards of motherhood as presented in these contemporary novels.

The link between literary characters and their ancestors is also crucial to the theory that Karla F. C. Holloway advances in Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature. In her introduction, Holloway explains a second figurative title for her book layered within the literal one: (Cultural) Moorings and (Spiritual) Metaphors. Holloway's explanation of the first of her two key terms, cultural moorings, is one of the most straightforward statements that she makes in her text: "My primary argument is that black women's literature reflects its community -- the cultural ways of knowing as well as ways of framing that knowledge in language. In this study, I trace figures of language that testify to that cultural mooring place" (p. 1).

Would that Holloway's ideas were elsewhere so clearly expressed. By the time she introduces her second key term, her own language begins to obscure some excellent ideas, for example, the idea behind Holloway's term "(spiritual) metaphors": There is a dimension of spirituality that is crucial to the characterization of women in novels by black women. Holloway would agree with Kubitschek that contemporary African-American women writers often draw on the ancestral figure as an enabling metaphor. What Holloway adds -- and the idea is a significant one -- is that twentieth-century West African women writers draw upon the goddess figure for the same reason. Thus the use of the ancestor in works by African-American women "reconstructs an imaginative, cultural (re)membrance of a dimension of West African spirituality" (p. 2). The cultural and spiritual mythologies underlying texts are a part of literary tradition. Examining the language of those texts, Holloway argues, is a means of examining the literary tradition that links writing by black women "across the boundaries of cultures and countries" (p. 2).

Whereas Kubitschek explores continuities between and among African-American women writers based on their use of History, Holloway goes further to trace their cultural history to its West African sources. She writes, "It is this perspective that allows for an exploration of the intertextual, shared images and patterns among writers with a common cultural history to emerge in the midst of the acknowledged differences between them" (pp. 20-21). While trying, on one level, to link black women writers across cultures and continents, on another level, Holloway is attempting to link theories of literature and language. Linguists have explored patterns in organization and systems of meaning in dialects of the diaspora; Holloway would explore literary language in terms of patterns in imaginative figures.

Like Kubitschek, Holloway feels that current critical paradigms, with their grounding in Western and male traditions, are inadequate for assessing literature by black women. In Moorings and Metaphors, she attempts to advance a critical theory that does justice to the cultural complexity and gender specificity of texts by African and African-American women. The critical accomplishment of contemporary literature by black women in Africa and America, she contends, is the reclamation of women's voice: "Their return to the word as a generative source -- a source of textual power that both structures story and absorbs its cultural legacy -- is a return to the power of the word itself It is a recovery of text through the literary and linguistic activity of recursion -- a refocusing of meaning back to the semantic and syntactic structures that have assured the unity between meaning and source" (p. 20).

Recursion is one of three frames -- revision and (re)membrance are the other two -- that organize the relationship among meaning, voice, and community and that organize Holloway's text. In her first chapter, she introduces all three perspectives. She presents a rather specialized definition of revision: "a gathering of the ways a culture organizes language, the privilege given to particular speakers, and the association between language, voice, and the physical presence of the speaker" (p. 24). Holloway explains that some words are so loaded with sociocultural history that that history would repress any creative use of them. For example, words associated with pregnancy, birth, and lactation have, for black women, an association with peril. For a black woman to use such words imaginatively requires the process of revision.

Holloway explains (re)membrance most clearly when she points out that it "focuses on the ways that memory is culturally inscribed" (p. 25), generally in the form of myth. Myth combines with memory to provide some of the complexity of black women's texts. There are subtle echoes of Kubitschek once again as Holloway writes of myth, "It is a dynamic entity that (re)members community, connects it to the voices from which it has been severed, and forces it out of the silence prescribed by a scriptocentric historicism" (p. 25).

Moorings and Metaphors has two major divisions. In Part One, Holloway presents her theory; in Part Two, she applies it. After the introductory first chapter of Part One, she devotes an entire chapter to the politics of literary interpretation, a chapter apiece to recursion in literature and recursion in language, and the final chapter of Part One to myth.

Holloway's writing lacks the clarity and accessibility of Kubitschek's and, for that matter, Russell's, although Russell's intent was, admittedly, not to advance a critical theory. In Part One, Holloway writes most clearly when she pauses to draw illustrations from the novels about which she is theorizing. In the midst of her second chapter, "Novel Politics of Literary Interpretation," come refreshing and detailed glimpses into Tina Ansa's Baby of the Family and Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar. With the discussion of Miss Lissie as the goddess/ancestor character of Walker's novel and with the vivid image of the young Lena being pulled into a photograph of her dead aunt as an infant in Ansa's, Holloway's generalizations about these authors' use of the past suddenly become particularized. In her fifth chapter, "Mythologies," her references to Aku-nna in Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price and to Sapphira Wade in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day clarify the concept of the "absent presence" in a way no amount of theorizing can.

Such flashes of specific insight into the novels are rare in Part One but extremely helpful when they do appear. Holloway's plan, of course, was to present her theory in the first half of the book and then to turn to the novels. That plan assumes that readers will stay with her through her lengthy presentation of theory. Their success in doing so depends on how hard they are willing to work to overcome the obstacles Holloway's writing style presents.

Holloway's use of jargon unfortunately obscures more often than it illuminates. Not only are her ideas more accessible when she is discussing a particular novel than when she is theorizing about black women's writing in general, but her style is also. A reader is left wondering if it is really necessary to employ such terms as the "plurisignance of liminality" or to "relexify." Sentences such as this one are typical: "When the interpretive spaces of the Afrocentric text are culturally specified, and when theory attends to the dimensions of gender that are discrete in the figurations of texts by black women writers, the tangential accomplishment of such specification and articulation is a presentation of the plurisignant text as the ideal center of the critical discourse between the cultural etymologies of words within the critical and textual traditions" (p. 62). Not that Holloway's statement, once deciphered, is not true, but, in a text about women's use of language, such writing does raise questions about what communities of readers Holloway has chosen to exclude.

Three chapters comprise Part Two of Moorings and Metaphors. The first examines the use of the ancestral figure in five novels by African-American women: Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, Gayl Jones's Corregidora, and Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters. (Like Kubitschek, Holloway makes use of Butler's Kindred to launch her discussion of links between past and present, although more briefly.) Here Holloway's keen interpretive abilities come to the fore. The skill with which she illustrates these authors' use of the ancestor makes this chapter, like the other two chapters in Part Two, both more accessible and more useful than those in Part One. Holloway's overuse of jargon, although not as overpowering as in Part One, is still an unwelcome intrusion. Fortunately, it is not necessary to distinguish between and among Holloway's key terms -- revision, recursion, and (re)membrance -- in order to appreciate her analysis of Avey Johnson's discovery of her clan's spiritual past in Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow or of the ancestral voices at work in Naylor's Mama Day, to cite two examples.

In her penultimate chapter Holloway examines visions of the goddess in novels by West Africa's Efua Sutherland, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Flora Nwapa. Although these novels are generally less well known to American readers, Holloway's detailed analysis of key characters and scenes effectively illustrates their authors' use of the goddess figure. Holloway writes, "Instead of looking to this goddess for indications about the communities of women whose lives she symbolically extends, the aesthetic interpretation other image is achieved through her being in the culture, the myths, the religions and the art. Her literary being is neither decorative nor passive. Moreover, the patterns of her literary presence reveal attention to the same kind of feature that the ancestors underscore in African-American women writers' texts" (p. 155).

It is appropriate that in her concluding chapter Holloway places side by side a novel by an African-American and one by a West African. She wisely chose Toni Morrison's Beloved and Flora Nwapa's Efuru. In this the most successful chapter of the volume, theory and application come together as Holloway highlights the features that link these two representative novels across boundaries of cultures and countries. In Beloved the title character mediates the contemporary, the historical, and the spiritual; in Efuru, the relationship between Efuru and the goddess merges the sensual and the spiritual. In each case, notions of motherhood must be revised. In each, there is not a single voice, but the complexity that comes with a community of tellers. Much of what Holloway has treated in the abstract takes on form and substance in this final chapter.

Tracing the motherlines with Holloway is often a difficult and circuitous journey. Kubitschek makes the travel easy. Russell provides a convenient reference book to carry along. Each author contributes in her own way to the growing body of literature about the black woman as writer.
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Author:Winchell, Donna Haisty
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:4894
Previous Article:Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present.
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