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Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations by African American Women.

Michael Bennett and Vanessa Dickerson, ed. Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations by African American Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2000. 331 pp. $52.00 cloth/$22.00 paper.

Dynamic in scope and complexity, Recovering the Black Female Body, edited by Michael Bennett and Vanessa Dickerson, should not be missed. This is a major critical text focusing on Black women's subjectivity, forms of individual and group agency, and recovery. Contributors reconstruct the body of black womanhood without becoming absorbed in discussions of the "oppressive gaze" imposed by others. In this way the collection successfully highlights counter-hegemonic processes of taking back the self, and stands as a marker for twentieth-first-century Black feminist thought.

Part One, "Covering and Uncovering," presents four discussions which explore how black women in the past dealt with dominant constructions of female behavior and acculturation. The section offers an impressive array of topics and approaches for the reader's consideration, including Michael Bennett's fascinating excursion into the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins. Bennett compares her work and nineteenth-century popularity to what he calls the "bodily democracy" and minute popularity of her contemporary, Walt Whitman. The essay culminates in a discussion of how these poets' approaches to the "body electric" contribute to challenges and differences facing black feminist and queer theorists today.

Equally impressive are the essays in Part Two of this collection, "Discovering." The section takes an impressive look at how black women theorists and creative writers of the past few decades, undaunted by discourses of propriety and perversion, explore the socio-cultural and subjective boundaries of black women's bodies. Through discussions of myth, language, form, and love, contributors reexamine what the body means for black women as they struggle to find subjectivity, re-member and restore themselves, and understand their politicized bodies. Of particular interest is an essay which begins "Quiet as its kept, the black female body is a hot thing." The essay, Vanessa D. Dickerson's "Summoning SomeBody: The Flesh Made Word in the Fiction of Toni Morrison," describes this body, this "hot thing" as the "cultural linchpin" of dominate (including black male) identity politics, empowerment, love, hate, and being. Using Morrison's fiction as foundation, Dickerson deftly draws a picture of the detested but necessar y black female body as it shifts into ambiguity (to borrow from the introduction) and claims its other within a space of spiritual and mental liminality.

"Recovering," the third section of the collection, presents an eclectic array of essays that take on contemporary body politics from a materialist feminist perspective. Contributors offer personal reflections on body shape and self-esteem as well as discussions of hair (within/outside law and as an element of identity politics), documentary films, and other modes and conflicts framing issues of individual power and public identity. The "Afterword," by Deborah E. McDowell, sums up this section and the preceding two beautifully, threading the entire project together with words incomparable and precise. "Not measured in proportions of breast to waist to hips, [the ideal body constructed in this collection] emerges here, stacked for 'resistance,' 'revision,' 'subversion,' and 'control.'" Even if the representational control this volume celebrates is not always possible, I applaud Bennett, Dickerson, and their contributors for initiating recovery of the Black female body through a great deal of determinism and a " little bit" of refocusing.
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Author:King, Debra Walker
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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