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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.