Waiting to Exhale
Fannie Lou Hamer once said that she didn’t want to be liberated from men. Her husband was, after all, six foot-two. There was a time, only two decades ago, when many black women looked at the women’s movement as a middle-class white concern, a passing political fashion, or argued that black women and white women wanted very different things. No one, they pointed out, expected white women to express solidarity with white men. For black women as black people the real struggle was elsewhere, and it might prove endless. Though Toni Cade Bambara’s anthology, The Black Woman (1970), discussed the “double jeopardy” of being both black and female, the historical moment belonged more to the mood of Elaine Brown’s album for the Panthers, which included a song with the refrain, “We’ll just have to get guns and be men.” The year of Sisterhood is Powerful, 1971, was also the year George Jackson was assassinated in Soledad Prison.
But in the post-Watergate haze, some black women began to reason that everyone had had a movement except black women: white guys smoked dope and ran the antiwar movement; black dudes had dark glasses and Black Power; white women burned bras and had feminism. A new feature entered the landscape of consciousness-raising groups, theater collectives, and women’s journals: politics and literature for black women. From the campus dorm room, this writing had the appearance of an avant-garde, and things avant-garde tended to come to students in the form of anthologies. On the shelf, next to Donald Allen’s New York Poets and Clarence Major’s The New Black Poetry, someone in 1975 might have found room for Black-Eyed Susans, edited by Mary Helen Washington, a slim paper-back containing only ten stories by contemporary black women writers.
The spectacular successes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and now Terry McMillan give the impression that their triumphs were immediate. Surveys of contemporary fiction by black women remind us that before Song of Solomon, the previous books of this year’s Nobel laureate, The Bluest Eye (1971) and Sula (1975), got very mixed receptions.1 Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Copeland Grange, appeared over twenty years ago. Her articles in Ms, in which she took on the obtuseness of white feminist studies that didn’t include the black woman’s condition, and the corrective essays Angela Davis wrote on black women and slavery for The Black Scholar had, back then in the late 1970s, a feeling of being out there all on their own.2 This period also saw renewed interest in the New Negro Movement of the 1920s, with the rediscovery of black women writers such as Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and, most importantly, Zora Neale Hurston who was swiftly elevated to the rank of “foremother.”
There used to be a saying down South that the most free people in the United States were the white man and the black woman. Perhaps the saying referred to unholy alliances; but most likely it meant that the black woman could move about unchallenged in a way the black man could not. A story such as Richard Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star” gives a sense of her galling mobility: it doesn’t occur to anyone in the lynch mob that the grieving mother who has come among them is hiding a gun under her clothes: she can’t be a threat. We now know so much about black women in US history that it is almost impossible to retrieve the reality that folk saying could have been describing. If anything, the absence of consideration for the black woman’s point of view in this specimen of folk wisdom would support what all the tone-setting essays by black feminists were criticizing when they talked about the black woman’s “invisibility.” Not surprisingly, during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, we were dealing with a privileged consciousness, one that resorted to strategies of exclusion, much like the argument black writers, including militant black women writers, used to make against white critics: How can you know what it feels like, how can you dare to judge this? A similar force field of intimidation surrounded writing by African-American women: you hegemonic male so and so.3
To a large extent the “seized word”—taking control of the interpretation and the expression of your own experience—that black feminist criticism called for was the newest link in the chain of “positive images” that cultural nationalism had been advocating since Marcus Garvey. Furthermore, as Gayl Jones has recently suggested in her study of the oral tradition, Liberating Voices, making the black woman heard in literature looks, in retrospect, very much like the resolve of the separatist Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s to free itself from Western cultural domination. The same tendency, Jones points out, is found in many other subordinate cultures: Estonian, Chicano. Even realism in the US since Dreiser can be viewed as a history of “decolonized sensibilities.” What these tendencies have in common is their belief in a transformed society.
Some of the many black feminist studies since the 1970s seem less “alternative” histories than positions criticizing an already existing history. Sweeping claims for a distinct black woman’s voice and for “female values” impose recent critical ideas on a past that would not have recognized them. Some of the rhetoric amounts to little more than epistemological fantasy or assumes that black men were more unaware of or indifferent to this history that they in fact were. Nevertheless that the “historical face” of the Black is no longer only male marks, at least in print, a generational change as profound as the experience that separates those who knew Jim Crow from those who didn’t.
Imaginative writing by African American women is controversial largely as a result of what it has to say about relations between black women and black men. This is too bad. Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975) and Eva’s Man (1976) were criticized by both black men and black women for portraying unmitigated domestic violence, even though what was truly extraordinary about these fictions as departures was Jones’s ear for the vernacular and the spare structure that nevertheless managed to evoke a complicated social setting. In fact, Jones had left out all scenery and social detail. There wasn’t even a white side of town.
When Ntozake Shange’s “choreo-poem” For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf hit Broadway in 1976 relations between black men and black women moved as a ruthless topic into main-stream US culture. Someone once described the message of the piece as, “If you think you’ve had it bad with black men listen to this.” That sensation was followed by Michele Wallace’s polemic, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979). Wallace let both the machismo of Black Power and the blame-the-female-headed-house-hold of the Moynihan Report have it. Then came The Color Purple. By the time its very vocal critics, such as Ishmael Reed, Stanley Crouch, and Trey Ellis, argued that Alice Walker was making black men the villains and letting white society sit back to enjoy the show, black men writers were dismissed as having a bad case of Issue Envy.
The image of the oversexed black woman was a part of the racism that justified rape. This image kept the light-skinned, refined heroine of uplift at the center of many of the novels by black women well into the twentieth century. But now the argument against particularly, that the female body should be taken away from men as an object of use, and returned to women to dispose of as they choose, has brought about, in fiction, the comeback of the uninhibited conjure woman on her own terms. It is okay for her to have her nights out, like any man. The defeated or redefined images of loose women and big strong mamas—these brambles have been cleared, the dirt turned over, and Terry McMillan stands on very cultivated ground. Not a weed in sight.
Popular novels ask complicity from the reader in the name of genre: we all know reality isn’t like this. But Waiting to Exhale never winks at the reader. It comes at you with a completely straight face, with such intensity about its own convictions that the sincerity is irresistible. If the women characters are sentimental about love, then they are fierce about being sentimental; if they are conventional in their expectations, then they are defiantly prepared to be identified as such. The novel is at the same time hilarious, to the verge of camp, but the thoughts and feelings it captures are too much like life for it not to make a striking impression. There’s nothing self-aggrandizing or moralizing about it.
It’s a book that knows to whom it is addressed. For sheer topicality, McMillan doesn’t miss a base on the wide playing field of issues, and her characters touch them in the most selfaware manner. Caring for one’s elderly parents, condoms for teen-agers, day care, feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving, diet, high blood pressure, nail care, AIDS, anti-drugs, including Xanax dependence—anything that could be on the professional black women’s list of concerns is there, woven into the conversations of supermoms, much like the false braids in the hairstyles McMillan’s women disdain at the beauty salon that functions as their club away from the networking parties haunted by black men.
Very with-it and dialogue-driven, Waiting to Exhale is the story of four friends in their mid-thirties, each at a critical point in her life. Savannah and Robin are unmarried, childless, and speak in the first person. The two who do have children, Gloria, a single parent, and Bernadine, on the eve of a nasty divorce, are written about in a very internal third person. Though each chapter is from the viewpoint of one of them, laying out her case history, taking up threads of developing situations, the women share a common voice and are moving toward the same pole-position in the self-realization sweepstakes: dreaming of opening a catering service, doing something creative in production work at that cable channel, becoming a mother, or busting the estranged husband who is trying to hide his considerable financial assets. They recognize that black men have treated them the way they have because they, black women, have let them get away with it all these years. The love of a black woman isn’t a black man’s right, one character tells herself, it’s a privilege. In her overdue anger, another character “bams” the phone down a lot.
McMillan’s black women read Essence. They know that glossies targeted for their white middle-class sisters are just as full of hints, tips, and desperately cheerful features about sex and finding Mr. Right. They know it’s a cynical, self-perpetuating market that goes after those gullible, hopeful bucks, which perhaps makes it all right that they continue to flip through it to check out the latest fashions. They may be fools for love, and fools for “bad” dresses they can wear the hell out of, but they are not victims. They make choices. In fact, out there in Phoenix, Arizona, these women act out, act up, and talk about big dick in a way that makes their white female thirtysomething (by now) counterparts in recent fiction of downtown scenes seem tame by comparison.
See Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976 (Greenwood Press, 1980); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford University Press, 1987); Michael Awkward, Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels (Columbia University Press, 1991).↩
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker (Harcourt Brace, 1983); Women, Race and Class, by Angela Davis (Random House, 1981).↩
See Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, editors, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (Black Women's Studies, The Feminist Press, 1982). See also Gerda Lerner, editor, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (Random House, 1972); Barbara Smith, editor, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table/ Women of Color Press, 1983); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 1991); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editor, Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology Penguin, 1990).↩
See Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976 (Greenwood Press, 1980); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford University Press, 1987); Michael Awkward, Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels (Columbia University Press, 1991).↩
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker (Harcourt Brace, 1983); Women, Race and Class, by Angela Davis (Random House, 1981).↩
See Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, editors, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (Black Women’s Studies, The Feminist Press, 1982). See also Gerda Lerner, editor, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (Random House, 1972); Barbara Smith, editor, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table/ Women of Color Press, 1983); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 1991); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editor, Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology Penguin, 1990).↩