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The Best of Everything

Waiting to Exhale

by Terry McMillan
Pocket Books, 400 pp., $5.99 (paper)

Home Repairs

by Trey Ellis
Simon and Schuster, 332 pp., $21.00

1.

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.

2.

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.

It used to be said, maybe still is, that blacks talk differently among themselves from the way they do among whites, and Waiting to Exhale is an extension of that, showing how differently black women talk among themselves from the way they do in the company of black men. When they are down, they pop their hymns, Paula Abdul or Anita Baker tapes, into the car tape deck. They say “Fuck you” to one another with affection, get drunk, and tell a friend some home truths for her own good. They call each other up and give advice: that they ought to use black men the way black men have been using them. “Get some,” they say. Or “get some for me” and “get some to tide you over.” And yet for all their rueful independence, cruising, salaries, and responsibilities, the musketeer-like code of “getting some” is apt to be forgotten the morning after. The man is never a trick. He’s the one who “got some” and didn’t call back.

Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria belong to an organization called Black Women on the Move, which is as safe as NOW. McMillan’s women have the same relation to affirmative action and the “glass ceiling” as any middle-class white woman. There is nothing overtly feminist in Waiting to Exhale, but if the men can make the women doubt their own worth, the women have the last laugh. McMillan makes full, vivacious use of the tactic that makes Kate Millett’s attack on Henry Miller in Sexual Politics so devastating: ridicule of masculine fantasies of sexual prowess.

He rolled over on top of me, and since I could no longer breathe, let alone move, I couldn’t show him how to get me in the mood. He started that slurpy kissing again, and I felt something slide inside me. At first I thought it was his finger, but no…I was getting pissed off about now, but I tried to keep up with his little short movements, and just when I was getting used to his rhythm he started moving faster and faster and he squeezed me tight against his breasts and yelled, “God this is good!” and then all of his weight dropped on me. Was he for real?

Terry McMillan’s women wouldn’t date a white man, though they have nothing against black women who do. But when Bernadine’s husband leaves her for his young, blonde bookkeeper, she recovers, burns his clothes and BMW, cuts her hair, drops by the software company she sweated to help him build, and slaps the shit out of the red-faced girl. Sometimes they don’t know or don’t want to believe that the black men they go out with who are afraid of commitment are already married, but sometimes they do know.

Their lives are full of topics that are covered every week on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but these black women never have to ask themselves the very Oprah-like question of why they’re attracted in the first place to Scuzzes Who Lie, because, conveniently, for most of the novel’s four hundred pages the black men are all No Good or Losers. But they keep the faith in the one black man who won’t be like that, who is “sensitive,” not threatened, and yet has a dick hard enough to make them quit smoking—it’s either that or acupuncture—and when two Mr. Rights do come along, one is an inspired retired handyman, happy to fix everything around the house, and the other vows to use his law practice to get the state of Arizona to stop putting liquor stores in black neighborhoods.

The anxiety of these women about Mr. Right’s whereabouts is far from the sensibility of, say, Andrea Lee’s Harvard-educated heroine in Sarah Phillips (1984), whose notion of the romantic is the inappropriate, unsuitable man. Daughter of old Negro Philadelphia, she suspects that marriage to someone from a background similar to hers would be boring. The difference is one of class, of milieu: McMillan’s women work with what they can find, not with what they have been born into. Indeed, what McMillan’s women have been born into is what they have gotten away from.

Part of the appeal of McMillan’s work lies in the forceful way it reflects the history of black women as also that of a labor force. Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and now Waiting to Exhale—each successive novel takes place on a higher level of prosperity as McMillan charts the fortunes of black women rescued or created by higher education. In Ann Petry’s grim novel The Street (1946), the heroine’s job as a maid causes her to lose her marriage and home. She longs to get her son away from the bad influences of the tenement and becomes a bookkeeper. White men look upon her as a whore and she kills the black man who assaults her, an illustration, perhaps, of James Baldwin’s contention that in black fiction the place where sex ought to have been was filled by violence. The most convincing way black writers of his day could make something happen to make their point was to have a catastrophe. The times and taboos have changed for McMillan’s determined women. You can have a catastrophe and move on. Mobility is opportunity.

In Mama, the girl raped at age fourteen in a depressed Michigan town of the 1960s can throw away her hot comb and find sexual fulfillment, Malcolm X, and a community-college education in Los Angeles. She can get away from her mother’s life of welfare checks, scrubbing floors, the husband with the brown leather belt, the casual prostitution when there are no jobs or substitute husbands. Even Mama can try to get away from her platinum wig to make a life like her daughter’s.

In Disappearing Acts, Zora—her daddy liked to read—is a school teacher who wants to make a career as a singer. She gets an apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone with enough space for a practice room and, fortunately or unfortunately, the builder taking a break on the steps looks like “a black Marlboro man.” This novel is largely a dress rehearsal for Waiting to Exhale, with a similar circle of catty but supportive, slightly differentiated black women friends, except in this case the alternating voices are unequal, male and female. The edge is in the female voice and McMillan struggles to keep up the man’s side of the story, to fill out his inner life with sports, beer, bitterness, shame, horniness.

In Waitting to Exhale, the black women are professionals whose children are not likely to fall out of the middle class. They are the grandchildren of the insecure migrants that Dorothy West wrote about in The Living Is Easy (1947), a novel of black middle-class life in pre–World War I Boston. McMillan’s women repay student loans, send cash back home by Federal Express so widowed mothers can keep the gas on, and tolerate for as long as they can the strain of love for sexy but insolvent black men. They are far from the black neighborhoods of fiction that depended on messages of social consciousness. In Phoenix, they choose white suburbs and schools. The extended black family is contained in long-distance phone calls, and political consciousness consists of being annoyed that Arizona has no Martin Luther King Day.

These women have arrived, are just as Keynesian as any white in recent fiction, and tend to spend their way out of crises. They do not question material reward, because it’s all been earned. Doubts about having sold out when they get promotions belong to a pre–Anita Hill era. A condo or a Cherokee is no obstacle to having soul—unless it belongs to a black man. Bernadine despises her husband’s Porsche and investments because he’s competing with the whites he reads about in Money magazine. She never wanted a Rolex. When an absent but well-off father turns up to explain that he doesn’t want to get back together with the family because he’s gay, the wife senses immediately that something is wrong, closes her eyes, and discovers the problem: “He sounds white.”

There is a similar equating of the black man’s success with loss of his essential blackness in Gloria Naylor’s schematic novel of black middle-class life, Linden Hills (1985). A black executive who has made it to the oak panels level of General Motors is terrified that he may be falling in love with a black woman. The black colleague from whom he seeks advice is so self-controlled that no toilet paper is visible in his bathroom of French tiles, because he scarcely needs any.

There is nothing satirical about Naylor’s tone; so earnest is her fable about black people who drive Stingrays. One black man goes through with a wedding in which his lover acts as best man rather than risk exposure at his law firm or lose prestige among his neighbors. On the other hand, Naylor gives the lesbians in The Women of Brewster Place (1982) the courtesy of being ostracized as sexual outlaws, even though they function in the story as agents of gentrification.

This conceit, the hint of sterility and isolation as the price the black man pays for success, is somewhat retrograde, reminiscent of black nationalist days when Whitey, like God, was always a He, and part of attacking Whitey was to cast aspersions on his manhood. “All white men are trained to be fags,” Amiri Baraka said in Home (1960). He meant that materialism was emasculating, that being a part of the system was a form of cowardice. Baraka’s swagger was a reformulation of a persistent contradiction in black cultural life: free v. bourgeois, earthy v. assimilated, soul brother v. Uncle Tom. It clearly still has its uses as a denunciation, even though black culture is now big business. Hip and mainstream are no longer mutually exclusive, being successful no longer means compromising blackness. The new generation of “post-soul black culture,” very savvy about music, film, television, and books as industries, has dissolved the contradiction in a way that black capitalism, affirmative action, and Buy Black boycotts failed to do.4

McMillan allows her women to thrive in this slick new world, where consumption is a form of cultural politics, whereas black men in these books by black women are portrayed as allowing materialism to betray their spiritual heritage. They risk being cut off from their roots until summoned down home to the naturalness of Sweet Beulah Land, much like the tragic mulattoes who used to “pass” in earlier black literature.

Before yuppies there were other things you were supposed to be, an achiever for the race, not for yourself. This idealism is what many young black narrators have been trying to escape in recent coming of age novels. Oppression isn’t the muse anymore; “health” is, as if getting what you feel you deserve is the first step toward making a better world. The difference is generational. Paule Marshall belongs to a generation that started to write in the 1950s, when the implicit function of fiction still was to criticize. Perhaps because her career was formed in the days when it was assumed that blacks had a dissenting relationship to US society, her most recent novel, Daughters (1991), goes against the current and portrays black women on the righteous side of the work ethic.

Daughters opens with an abortion, with a decision not to have a baby by a man obsessed with sushi, exercise bicycles, and competition at work. Reagan is about to be elected. “The Second Reconstruction,” the era of federal sympathy with minority programs, is over. The heroine quits her job at a marketing firm that conducts studies for tobacco companies in order to dedicate her skills to an inner-city mayor. Her best friend has worked her way up in an insurance company to become a vice-president. She puts up with the pressure for the sake of her child, whom she had by artificial insemination after she discovered that the black man she lived with was having an affair with a white man downstairs. Her sacrifices are insulted when her son is unfairly arrested, and the white officers, as an expression of class resentment, succeed in making her feel like just another unwed black mother on ADC.

For the heroine, black men don’t hurt black women merely by cheating on them. Marshall’s conception of being let down has deeper implications. The black men betray black women in Daughters by making compromises and trying to hold on to a spurious sense of power. In so doing, they break faith with the ideals and reforming energies of their youth. Black women have waited in vain, Marshall appears to say, for black men to honor the trust that black women have historically invested in their leadership. Their daughters must not make the same mistake. “A man ain’t nothing but a man,” the grandmother in Toni Morrison’s Beloved says. “But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.”

3.

Trey Ellis’s Home Repairs is clearly intended as a rebuttal to modern black women’s charges that the black man has sold out and has also mistreated them. (Ellis’s first novel, Platitudes, included mischievous parodies of “womanist” prose.) “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be white before tonight. I fall in love almost only with black girls, but there are so few of them around where I hang out that the members are against me.” His young narrator begins a diary at Andover as a way of consoling himself and getting a handle on his problem. His problem is not having a girlfriend. Over the next nine years, 1979-1988, from ages sixteen to twenty-five, from the black colony on Martha’s Vineyard to Stanford University, Mexico, Italy, and Manhattan, he lusts, connives, worries, hopes, gets teased, laid, dumped, dumped on, run ragged, and then finds true love with the white girl who has been patiently sitting for years at the next desk in his office.

Home Repairs is not a coming of age novel, at least it doesn’t succeed as such through its primary subject, the narrator’s wishful sex life, which has something of what Colette mocked as the man’s “statistical fervor.” Anything else, family or social relationships, is extremely peripheral. “I felt awful being afraid of my own people, but I didn’t even know Manhattan had a 178th Street.” Perhaps we are meant to think of Portnoy, but Ellis’s narrator lacks the mad, exuberant nastiness. The device of his speaking through a journal imposes the strain of making the prose sound like what an intelligent, but hapless, vulnerable guy would write to himself. “Unbelievable. We danced a few fast songs together and I wasn’t too spastic.” But for all the confession and comedy, the intimacy is not convincing.

Maybe what Ellis ultimately means to illustrate is that women have more control in relationships than they let on, but when the narrator observes that just as Jane Austen said that it was as possible to fall in love with a rich man as with a poor one, so too it was possible for him to fall for a beautiful girl as much as for an ugly one, you know that Ellis has set up a straw guy to be blown away by women. “But who can win an argument with a hardon,” Portnoy said.

Perhaps such a rebuttal is impossible because of another generational difference: these recent novels by McMillan and Ellis are not about the black man or the black woman either as alienated or as secure members of a community. They are not even about love. They are concerned with “relationships”—that tired word—and what people put themselves through to find one they wouldn’t be ashamed to show off to their best friends. A partner is an acquisition, a form of self-validation. If there has to be a response from black men, then it was written long ago, in, for example, George Wylie Henderson’s novel Ollie Miss, published in 1935.

Henderson was a contemporary of Zora Neale Hurston’s and Ollie Miss bears a remarkable similarity to Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in content if not in style. Like Hurston’s novel, Ollie Miss depicts a self-contained complex rural black community. Interestingly enough, there is nothing a feminist could fault in Henderson’s heroine. Ollie Miss unnerves men because she can plow as steadily as any of them. She is a child of nature, migratory, but not wild. She is ethical, and so far above petty emotion that she is a mystery to the men on the farm where she appears one day looking for work and is resented by women whose husbands have long ago deserted them. Ollie is not monogamous, though she is in love. Her passion for the wayward man, Jule, back in another town, gives her a protective single-mindedness and a disinclination to explain herself to her new neighbors that is almost Bartleby-like. When she is severely wounded outside a revival meeting in a razor attack by one of the jealous women Jule has taken up with, Ollie, though pregnant, decides that a piece of land, having something to work for, is more important than the strong feelings she and Jule had for each other, feelings that had made neither of them happy.

Throughout the novel, the fieldworkers who fail to win her affection, the women who can’t gain her confidence, and the black proprietor of the farm where she is employed all behave toward Ollie as people whose daily lives are made up of the observance of powerful, civilizing customs. A woman who can’t leave a man who beats her is pitied as not having “the sense she ought to have been born with.” Henderson published a sequel about Ollie’s son, and then, like so many other writers who had been a part of the Harlem Renaissance, he faded away.

The Harlem Renaissance faded, and so did the declared purpose of its young writers—to celebrate the richness of black vernacular culture. The Depression wiped out the optimism of the 1920s and by the time Richard Wright was at the pinnacle of his career in the 1940s the burdens and hopelessness of life in the ghetto had become the most representative and the most riveting themes of African American literature. The city, the world made by migration, was the setting for this protest literature, and the problem of the ghetto dominated African American fiction as its most valid, meaningful subject until very recently.

The ghetto had become synonymous with black culture to such an extent that even works of sheer entertainment carried a political message merely through the scenery. Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was A Numbers Runner (1969) or Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich (1973) may be reinterpreted to extract something “womanist,” but previously these novels by women were fictions about the urban condition, along with everything else, mostly written by men. The urban story was largely the black man’s story—the bars, the wounds, the desperate improvisationsy—and perhaps the black woman’s story should be seen as part of a more general reaction against this writing that identified black culture as a problem, and the ghetto as a symbol of the pathological. Celebrating the richness of life in the black community has made a comeback, and especially, ironically, because of Roots, this revival emphasizes survival, continuity, family feeling—the woman’s story. The “folk utterance” has become female.

But just as the ghetto as the primary subject became the victim of the complacence of formula, so too “the necessary bread” of the black woman’s point of view is being made to do the job of the five loaves and two fishes. Naomi King’s O.P.P., a story of deceit among B girls, and Barbara McNeely’s Blanche on the Lam, which introduces a black maid as a detective, have nothing in common with Jamaica Kincaid’s novels of sensibility apart from the intrinsic interest of being about black women. If anything, Terry McMillan’s women flying off to conferences in Las Vegas are closer in temperament to the narcissistic young moguls jetting off to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Jay McInerney’s Brightness Falls. Only McMillan’s novel is more accomplished.

Twenty years ago, when June Jordan never failed to rock the house, these black women writers would have been poets. Twenty years ago, the white women who are a large part of the black woman’s audience were preoccupied with the bad sport in The Bell Jar and the good sport in Fear of Flying. It has been suggested that the sales figures for books by black women expose them as commodities, “the flavor of the month,” but people have a way of turning against the best seller in the way that everyone everywhere hates the nouveau riche. Yet the immense popularity of a very few black women writers obscures the fact that most novels by black women have a very short shelf life—just like most other books in the US. Then, too, black writing has been so widely accepted as serving a political or moral purpose that it is hard to see as real books that do not make an immediate display of having instrumentality.

It also says something about the cultural moment that you can quickly name over a dozen black male film directors, but have to pause to come up with four black women directors. Rap is very much the young black man’s province, and Angela Davis has noted that hip hop’s narrow interpretation of the legacy of Malcolm X once again posits black macho as the only response to white supremacy.5 Maybe there is some frustration among black male writers that they seem unable to muster an equal impact at the moment; maybe some discuss the limelight around black women writers as if it were a continuation of the alleged conspiracy between the master and his concubine, but it makes me think of what Otis Redding is supposed to have said when “Respect” became such a hit for Aretha Franklin: “That girl stole my song.” As everyone knows, it was a different song when Aretha sang it.

  1. 1

    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).

  2. 2

    In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker (Harcourt Brace, 1983); Women, Race and Class, by Angela Davis (Random House, 1981).

  3. 3

    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).

  4. 4

    See Nelson George’s recent collection of essays, Buppies, B-boys, Baps, and Bohos (HarperCollins, 1992).

  5. 5

    See “Meditations on the Legacy of Malcolm X” in Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, Joe Wood, editor (St. Martin’s Press, 1992). See also Davis’s “Black Nationalism: The Sixties and the Nineties” in Gina Dent, editor, Black Popular Culture (Bay Press, 1992).

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