Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers: Double-Dutched Readings.
Kimberly Blockett University of Wisconsin-Madison
Pilate, the famous literary midwife in Toni Morrison s Song of Solomon, functions as conjure woman, healer, mother, sister, necessary pariah, and caretaker of the community. She resurrects - or re-births - forgotten cultural lore when she sings "O Sugarman done fly"at the same time as a Black male jumps off of a building to his death. For Pilate, the suicide jump becomes synonymous with the folklore of captured Africans flying home after glimpsing the horrors of enslavement in the New World. Just as Pilate's singing "contextualizes his flight within a tradition," Valerie Lee's Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers: Double-Dutched Readings provides an historical context for the Black midwifery tradition of the South and its representation in contemporary Black women's fiction.
Lee examines Song of Solomon and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day to discover the ways in which these writers theorize the "politics of identity, race, and class" through midwife characters such as Pilate and Naylor's Miranda. By using the real-life stories of Black, Southern midwives (called granny midwives) to situate and complicate their literary representation, Lee performs what she terms a "double-dutch reading": an athletically and rhythmically challenging way to jump rope that involves two ropes turning in opposite directions from each other, yet remaining in sync. The jumper must listen to the rhythm of the ropes hitting the ground (and, perhaps more importantly, hear the silence of the ropes in the air - the space in between the beats) to know when to jump into the mix, and then remain jumping within the ropes for as long as possible. Citing historical and statistical documents, and African American community lore, Lee challenges critics of African American literature to negotiate movements between fictional narratives as representation of culture and historical narratives as records of culture in order to better envision them both as cultural performances.
After a general introduction explaining the ways in which society has constructed the granny midwife - both the real and the image - Chapter One carefully historicizes European and American lay midwifery and argues that the granny midwife (even more so than midwives of other ethnic backgrounds) was forced into virtual extinction as a direct result of twentieth-century changes in medicine and state regulations. Chapter Two presents a convincing argument that Black women writers have waged a counter-discourse war against hegemonic notions of health, ethnicity, and gender which forced the granny midwife out of real medicine and into figurative texts. Lee then critiques the critics and reasons that, since both the literary and literal grannies practice "Womanist theology" - the act of theorizing through a spiritually based ethic of activism and caring - critics who study the two performances should, in turn, act as Womanist scholars in their scholarly investigations. She then engages in compelling and wonderfully crafted readings of Mama Day, Song of Solomon, and historical accounts of the granny midwife.
I am not sure if my experiences with midwives may have stimulated an intensified response, but I was mesmerized by the historical narratives and intrigued by the mimetic performance of the historical accounts within Black women's fiction. However, having spent countless hours trying to perfect the art of and being intimidated by the complexities of double-dutch, I am sure that Lee performs well as a double-dutch reader and presents a useful and exciting way to gauge Black women's writing in a more interdisciplinary manner. Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers is not literary criticism that "adds history and stirs." It is, in fact, a literary and historical exploration that contributes generously to both fields.
Lee ends her text with the interesting movement of narrating her ethnographic travels through Mississippi and encourages the reader to perform a double-dutch reading of her dialogues with the grannies. Although I was charmed by the approach, I think the text would have benefitted from a more thorough blending of the grannies' stories and Lee's engaging theoretical and critical observations. I wanted to hear the rhythms of both ropes throughout the text and not to be left with the beat of only one rope at the end.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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