1 MAMAS GUN: TRANSGRESSIVE NARRATIVES OF RACE, GENDER AND NATION IN POST CIVIL RIGHTS BLACK LITERATURE AND CULTURE By MARLO D. DAVID A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2009
2 2009 Marlo D. David
3 To my sons, Akintunde and Ade
4 A CKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank my direct or, Debra Walker King for her mentorship and support. I would also like to thank my readers L. H. Stallings, Tace Hedrick, Kevin Everod Quashie, and Stephanie Y. Evans for their intellectual encouragement I would also like to express my gratitude to my close friends and graduate school coll eagues who offered immeasurable assistance Finally I wish to express my love to my family, because without them I would have never completed this daunting project.
5 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .................................................................................................................... 4 ABSTRACT .......................................................................................................................................... 7 CHAPTER 1 MAMAS GUN: DEFIANCE THAT HEALS ......................................................................... 9 Methods and Terminology .......................................................................................................... 16 Angles of Seeing: Perspectives on Motherhood .................................................................... 30 Mamas Gun: A Trope ................................................................................................................ 3 9 Chapter Summaries ..................................................................................................................... 43 Notes ............................................................................................................................................ 46 2 'I GOT SELF, PENCIL, AND NOTEBOOK:' LITER ACY AND MOTHERHOOD IN ALICE WALKERS THE COLOR PURPLE AND SAPPHIRES PUSH ............................. 49 'Alienated and Fragmented Maternities': Black Womens Contemporary Reproductive Politics ...................................................................................................................................... 55 'Heroic Maternal Self Transformation' in Alice Walker's The Color Purple .......................... 60 Celie Emerges as a Writer ................................................................................................... 64 Writing Her Babys Name ............................................................................................... 67 Push, Preshecita Push: Mapping Motherhood as Transgressive Subjectivity in Sapphires Post -Civil Rights Dystopia ................................................................................... 70 Quest for Literacy ................................................................................................................ 74 Writing Herself into the World ........................................................................................... 76 Conclusion ................................................................................................................................... 79 Notes ............................................................................................................................................ 79 3 MAMAS GOT THE BLUES, OR SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A CHILDLESS MOTHER: THE BLUES AS MATERNAL COUNTER NARRATIVE IN GAYL JONES CORREGIDORA .......................................................................................................... 81 A Woman Who Knows Her Way Around: Black Feminist Readings of the Blues Women ..................................................................................................................................... 88 The Classic Blues Era .......................................................................................................... 90 Validating Gender Play ....................................................................................................... 93 The Blues Mama as the Childless Mother: Rejection Disruption and Displacement of Nationalist Conceptions of Family ......................................................................................... 95 Motherhood as Umbilicus between Language and Creation ............................................... 101 Conclusion ................................................................................................................................. 104 Notes .......................................................................................................................................... 105
6 4 COLONIZED WOMBS, CYBORG IDENTITIES AND REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY: MATERNAL DIALECTICS OF LILITH IN OCTAVIA BUTLERS DAWN ........................................................................................................................................ 107 The Promise and Illusion of Reproductive Equality ............................................................... 114 Enslavement as Alien Abduction Narrative ..................................................................... 122 Reproduction wi thin the Neo -slave Narrative Tradition ................................................. 126 New Gender Paradigm ...................................................................................................... 130 Cyborg Possibility ..................................................................................................................... 132 Conclusion ................................................................................................................................. 134 Notes .......................................................................................................................................... 134 5 BIG MAMA, MADEA, AND SUPERMODEL: QUEER PERFORMANCE OF THE BLACK MATERNAL FI GURE IN THE WORK OF TYLER PERRY AND RUPAUL .. 137 Transgressive Possibility in Queer Performances of the Black Mother ................................ 140 Magnific ently Physical: Big Mama, Performance, and the Reproduction of Black Mother .................................................................................................................................... 144 Agency is Such a Drag for Those in Power! If You Dont Believe Me, Ask Your Mama! .................................................................................................................................. 152 Conclusion ................................................................................................................................. 159 Notes .......................................................................................................................................... 160 6 I KNOW YOU NOT TALKIN BOUT MY MAMA: FINAL THOUGHTS ON MAMA S GUN AND THE POSSIBILITY OF TRANSGRESSION .................................. 162 LIST OF REFERENCES ................................................................................................................. 172 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........................................................................................................... 180
7 Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy MAMAS GUN: TRANSGRESSIVE NARRATIVES OF RACE, GENDER AND NATION IN P O ST CIVIL RIGHTS BLACK LITERATURE AND CULTURE By Marlo D. David M ay 2009 Chair: Debra Walker King Major: English The figure of mother is a powerful and recurrent symbol in African-American literature and culture, particularly as a signifier of origins tradition, family cohesion, strength and survival. Within the broader context of contemporary trans racial political and social relations in the United States, however, the figurative black mother often signifies excess, pathology, victimization and mo nstrosity within hegemonic discourses of the family and the nation. While dominant groups have manipulated the latter symbolic economy as an ideological tool to enforce regressive and exclusionary practices along the lines of race, gender, class, and sexua lity, African -American writers and artists continue to centralize black mothers and their critical concerns with issues of citizenship, decolonization, human and civil rights, social justice, and various nationalisms. With this framework in mind, my disser tation describe s a transgressive maternal poli tics appearing in contemporary literature and culture that prioritizes black women as agents of transformative critiques of racial and gender hierarchies. Specifically, I argue that as the promise of legislativ e and social reforms made during the Civil Rights era shifted in the late 20th century, many narratives of mother in post Civil Rights African -American literature and culture shifted toward mother figures who act as subjects through their disruption of g ender categories and major claims to the American Dream. Through
8 themes of sexuality, desire, fertility and militanc y, these mother figures offer alternative lenses through which to consider contemporary depictions of racialized mothers. Recent representat ions of these black mother figures respond to hegemonic ideologies regarding race, class, gender and sexuality that have historically relied upon images of the good mother Of course, these representations are not without problems; they may be seen as re inforcing negative stereotypes about black women. Yet, I argue that the politics of respectability and cult of femininity that haunt black women silence the subjective viability of marginalized mothers. A radical maternal politics that rejects wholly ideal ized or pathologized mother figures as well as normative gender performance can be seen as one of many critical perspectives available to all women to negotiate ideologies of national belonging, citizenship, freedom, and social justice.
9 CHAPTER 1 MAMAS GUN: DEFIANCE THAT HEALS Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of talking back, that is not mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject the liberated voice. -bell hooks This dissertation is about black m aternal figures and their multiple and often conflicting symbolic functions in late 20th and early 21st century U.S. culture. Mama, Mami, Mummy, Ma, Big Mama, MDear, Sweet Mama, Baby Mama, Hootchie Mama and Mama -nem. These names some terms of endearment, others terms of derision conjure spectacular signs of blackness; mothers whose difference stands in stark relief from the imagined, idealized childbearers of the nation white, married, heterosexual, and feminine. These names also invoke the figurative alterity of black womanhood what cultural critic An n DuCille calls the quintessential site of difference the ultimate sign of what it means to be symbolically, ideologically and materially left outside of the American enterprise. Yet, it is from the outside, from the margins and borders, that black wom en have developed multiple critical perspectives to evaluate, interrogate and radically shape each location of their intersectional identities, influencing what it means to be to be black, to be women, to be American. Therefore, this dissertation also is a bout marginalized voices, about black women intellectuals, writers and artists who have through their various expressive modes, shaped the contours of contemporary U.S. culture and critical theory. Narratives of race, gender and nation have long formed th e foundation for notions of political and economic citizenship, civil and human rights, and social belonging. How black women intellectuals, writers and artists navigate and manipulate these dominant narratives will be explored in a number of literary and cultural sites throughout this project. Ultimately, I identify
10 recurring literary features that talk back to these dominant narratives through a trope I call mamas gun, a term that draws upon black vernacular epistemologies and highlights the generati ve possibilities of various subversive incarnations of the black mother figure in contemporary culture. To be sure, late 20th-century and millennial American culture embraces non traditional images of motherhood more than ever. The increasing visibility of single mothers, for example, demonstrates a new acceptance of women who raise children without husbands. In her study Single Mother: The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual Jane Juffer traces how single mothers have gone from the embodiment of the fai lure of the American family to exemplars of self -sufficiency and, in a remarkable political turn, even the symbolic standard bearers for neoliberal notions of personal responsibility. Certainly the growing social support for and acceptance of women who r aise children outside of marriage is comforting, but this tolerance is not universal or equally distributed. Single mothers may be considered the norm at the turn of the 21st century, but they are still more likely than other women to face intense poverty, job discrimination and domestic violence. Furthermore, non -white single mothers in the United States still bear a racialized and sexualized stigma that marks them as intruders upon the imagined community of the American republic.1 Within the broader con text of trans -racial political and social relations in the United States the figurative black mother has come to signify excess, pathology, victimization and monstrosity within hegemonic discourses of the family and the nation. The racialized, sexualize d and class -based entrenchment around black motherhood is exemplified by remarks made about First Lady Michelle Obama during the historic 2008 presidential campaign of her husband, President Barack Obama. During that campaign, news producers for FOX networ k repeatedly used a stigmatizing caption that read
11 Obamas Baby Mama to refer to Michelle Obama, the Ivy -league educated attorney married to Barack Obama and mother of their two daughters, Malia and Sasha. The term baby mama emerges from hip -hop music and African -American cultu re to define a woman who is not married nor attached to the father or fathers of her children. She is also thought of as a woman who uses sex to maintain financial or emotional control over the father or fathers. It is a racially and sexually loaded slang term that has slipped into mainstream American popular culture largely through daytime talk shows, such as Jerry Springer and Maury Povich Often on those television programs, black men publically lambaste the mothers of their ch ildren for infractions such as dating someone new or requiring child support payments as if these actions should be unheard of for a mother Under these circumstances, the women, almost always young, black or Latina, and from working -class or poor backgrounds, seem emotionally uncontrollable, promiscuous, irresponsible and nagging. Through these televised exchanges, audiences are instructed to objectify the baby mama as a specific kind of single mother racially, sexually and economically marginalized and generally unfit for her maternal duties.2 The baby mama is not seen as the domestic intellectual that Juffer describes. Instead, she is part of an intricate network of controlling images, to borrow the lexicon of black feminist sociologist Patric ia Hill Collins, which define and reproduce regressive attitudes about black womanhood.3 More than simply stereotypes, controlling images are an exercise of power used by dominant groups to manipulate attitudes about those who are not thought to be suitabl e for inclusion into mainstream structures of power and privilege. Controlling images are designed to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts o f everyday life (Collins 69). Cont rolling images act as a regulatory ideal, in the Foucaultian sense, in that they have the power to produce or enact what
12 it seems only to name. This productive power functions through a number of cultural institutions such as the church, the university, the media, and the family. The labeling of Michelle Obama as a baby mama is an example of the linguistic power of controlling images. Despite the fact that she does not fit the description of the baby mama nor is she a participant in the hip hop culture fr om which the term emerges, FOX News producers chose to characterize her in that way. The notoriously conservative and bigoted network had for months sought to undermine Barack Obamas candidacy, and using the phrase presented an opportunity to take aim at his wifes image.4 The racial slur was widely denounced and FOX News producers quickly apologized, but the effect and intent was clear: to render the wife of the first African -American man to receive a major party nomination for the seat of president as u nfit for the position of First Lady. Despite Michelle Obamas professional accomplishments, her long and loving marriage and her well mannered children, her status as a black woman, a black mother, was enough to make her the target for the denigrating term The term baby mama operated in that situation as a politically expedient technique to undercut her worthiness to represent the nation as the preeminent ex ample of respectable womanhood. Yet, weeks later the nation was informed that the unmarried, teenage daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was six -months pregnant. Though Bristol Palin had unprotected sex and conceived a child out of wedlock with her teenage boyfriend, she was never called a baby mama on FOX News because she is w hite. Regardless of the circumstances of her maternity, Bristol Palins legitimacy as a young woman poised to represent one of the nations most esteemed families was sheltered from attack because of her race and class status. The inconsistency between th e terminologies used for Obama and Palin stages a long -standing tension regarding racialized mother figures in the United States because
13 in the race -bounded economy the mother is a maker and marker of boundaries, a generator of liminality, both verticall y and horizontally. She is forced across a border, or she is prohibited from crossing a border; in either case her function is to reproduce, through offspring, the life of that border (Doyle 2 7) In this case, the boundary between inclusion and exclusion into the highest echelons of power in the United States is marked by incongruous racialized maternal imagery. Since the dawns early light broke the horizon line of Americas pluralist promise, black women have used their voices to illuminate the contradic tions in the ideology and practice of freedom and justice for all, and, against tremendous obstacles, they have staked their claims to th e privileges of the American Dream Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, African -American texts that depict prominent maternal figures, particularly those written by black women, often demonstrate this critical concern with inclusion and recognition through an attention to issues of citizenship, decolonization, human and civil rights, social justice, and reproductive fr eedom In many cases, their literary efforts have necessarily involved participation in the rhetoric of respectable womanhood, setting forth the behaviors, actions and roles that women m ust execute, particularly the role of the good mother. In order to a dvance their aims for equality and social inclusion, black women writers have at times, capitulated to these patriarchal domestic ideologies of good motherhood in public discourse. Domestic novels by black women during the post Reconstruction period and t urn of the 20th century exemplify what Claudia Tate calls domestic allegories of political desire. Novels such as Iola Leroy by Frances Watkins Harper (1892) and Contending Forces by Pauline E. Hopkins (1900) centralized the heroines quest for marriage, motherhood and bourgeois family formation in order to illustrate that black Americans were indeed ready for membership in the American enterprise. In some ways, my description of the Michelle Obama FOX News incident participates in this history; I defend ed Obamas womanhood by offering a checklist of her respectable qualities.
14 My argument shared by others who critiqued FOX News, relies on the fact that Michelle Obama is not single, young, and poor or an unwed mother, therefore she does not have the quali ties of a baby mama. But what about the women who do ? What kinds of claims to social and economic citizenship and political recognition are available for black mother s who are far from respectable? Are black mothers who subvert the normative expectations o f the good mother worthy of voice in the public sphere or the privilege of representational coherence? Through an examination of the work of a number of writers, performers, and literary and cultural critics, this project considers the critical possibili ties and limitations of non -normative maternal figures in African -American literature and culture, which I identify as transgressive maternal figures .5 African -American literary and cultural history is replete with recurring mother figures that would be co nsidered transgressive for a number of reasons Some critics might even argue that the black female subject is always already symbolically outside normative models of womanhood and motherhood, no matter how mainstream or respe ctable her representation se ems, and therefore, is always transgressive. I do not disagree, yet I assert that a shift has occurred in how the recurring outside of black mother figures creates meaning within the specific political, economic, and social realities of late capitalist A merica. Black maternal figures operate as narrative focal points in the latter half of the 20th century by moving from what I call a politics of inclusion to a politics of transgression In the latter mode, maternal figures transgress dominant, e xclusive i deologies of race, gender and bourgeois motherhood through depictions of outlaw family structures, queer sexualities and desire, deviant and violent pregnancies which offers a lternative lenses through which to examine the symbolic economy of mother acr oss a number of intersecting identity locations. The literary and cultural productions I explore in this project are as follows: Corregidora by Gayl Jones (1975), The Color Purple by Alice Walker
15 (1982), Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987), PUSH by Sapphire (1996), and the recent performances and writings of actors Tyler Perry and RuPaul. In Mamas Gun I posit inclusion and transgression as two critical perspectives through which African -American literary traditions have negotiated ideologies of national belongi ng, citizenship, freedom, and soc ial justice through black maternal figures. By choosing the maternal figures that are featured prominently in this project I resist the impulse to discount them as simply negative reflections of black life. To be sure, they are not characters that are traditionally studied from a maternal standpoint, and the things that they do or are done to them narratively are not particularly positive. Yet, I think it is important to investigate these kinds of maternal figures precisely because the y are outsiders in motherhood studies I think it is meaningful to explore how these narratives function against the social and political backdrop in which they were written. What might the outsider have to say about the inside? How might she t alk back? However, I am also not willing to suggest that these depictions are without their representational problems or that they form comprehensive studies of black womens agency, empowerment or rebellion in literature They do not. The maternal figure s I study are transgressive and compelling for their particular negotiation of boundary -crossing identity, which I see as a n intervention into and possible mediation between dominant and marginalized discourses that centralize black womens multiple concep tions of gender and sexuality. I think of mamas gun as a term for these transgressive possibilities. Furthermore, I conclude that as a literary trope, mamas gun can also be used to identify contributions of black women intellectuals, artists, and writers to contemporary feminist cr itiques of gender White feminist scholar Judith Butler, for example, suggests that contemporary feminist theory must undo gender by accepting it as a historical category, contingent on
16 historical and cultural framing of sexua l difference. To do so will necessarily shift the aims of mainstream feminist activism toward revising restrictively normative conceptions of gendered life which she identifies as a radical site of contemporary feminist work aimed toward social justice (1). I argue that black feminist and womanist scholars already implement some of these radical approaches in their work on the historical dynamic of womanhood, motherhood and power, and reproductive politics. G ender analysis is an active and vibrant hallma rk of black feminist and womanist intellectual work. In this introductory chapter, I will describe my methodology for approaching the major texts in my study, including detail on the terms I am using throughout the project as well as an explanation of the origins of the mamas gun trope and the possibilities and limits of its use. I will also provide a review of the major black feminist, womanist and feminist texts in the area of motherhood studies that also serve as a foundation for my analysis. Finally, I will offer a brief outline of the four chapters of this project. Methods and Terminology My approach to this project employs contemporary African -American literary theory, as well as black feminist, womanist and feminist interpretative frameworks. In addi tion to these major methodological foundations, I draw upon theories of performativity and queer theory to delineate my claims. I will describe influential aspects of each theoretical location before explaining my development and use of the term mamas gu n. By mapping these critical gestures, I hope to make transparent the route taken toward particular conc lusions drawn in this project. At the heart of my analysis is the assertion that there is a discursive relationship between historical, material realities and the production of cultural texts. I argue that black writers and performers, regardless of their gender, create texts that feature mother figures that either
17 explicitly or implicitly converse with a matrix of collective historical realities affecti ng black women.6 Particularly salient to my approach is critic Houston A. Baker Jr. s assertion that black texts are rooted in communal African -American historical experience, beginning with enslavem ent but also extending to post -e mancipation social inequa lities, Jim Crow economic and political disenfranchisement, as well as the ascendency of the black middle class in the last 30 years. Baker uses these historical frameworks to describe how various realities have been generative of particular critical persp ectives regarding African -American literature, and how those perspectives have changed episodically as social conditions shift. In Blues, Ideology, and Afro -American Literature: A Vernacular Theory Baker draws on Thomas Kuhns notion of the paradigm to ma rk the major changes in the study of African-American letters, which he calls generational shifts (179). Baker begins by describing what he calls integrationist poetics of the 1950s, which are marked by optimism toward the promise of equality; an optim ism that would then translate into the literary domain (180). Literary critics of the time asserted that as the nation worked toward integration, the black writer would be relieved of t he burden of writing about his difference, and instead be regarded as a product of a homogenous American identity. However, as aspiring African Americans faced the reality of violent, white supremacist opposition to their strivings for equality, integrationist poetics were soon replaced by the Black (Power) Aesthetic of th e 1960s. Baker identifies this period as an inversion of the critical stance o f the preceding generation. R ather than issuing a hopeful call for the dissolution of racial particularity in literature, critics of this period sought to foster the uniqueness and authenticity of black expression (183). Baker attributes this inversion to the dashing of the integrationist promise of the 1950s. Finally, Baker identifies a third generational shift, which he identifies as the reconstructionist or professionalist critical stance of the 1970s and 1980s. Critics of this
18 generation sought to distinguish themselves through a mode of analysis that radically disassociated literature and culture. In this mode, meaning was said to emerge from a nonsocial, non -instituti onal medium, and critics of black literature sought to evaluate texts through the use of theoretical interpretive frameworks outside of black culture. Baker attributes this particular generational shift to the rise of a new black middle class that adop ted postures, standards and vocabularies of their white counterparts (196). In other words, Baker asserts that reconstructionists engaged in a kind of intellectual mimicry that paralleled the rising class aspirations of black academic critics, and their s tance may in fact be part of a backlash against the ideology of the Black (Power) aesthetes who centralized the concerns of poor and working class blacks (206) Baker convincingly problematizes the reconstructionist theoretical stance by arguing that the i r attention to language as outside of the realm of the social ultimately denies that language is itself a social institution. As a result, Baker claims that language cannot be evaluated or analyzed as independent from the social worlds it creates, organi zes, and disciplines. As an alternative, Baker advocates an investigative approach that acknowledges the serious literarytheoretical endeavors of the reconstructionists, but, more important, must holistically contextualize literature through an interdis ciplinary framework. He writes that The contextualization of a work of literary or verbal art, from the perspective of the anthropology of art is an interdisciplinary enterprise in the most contemporary sense of that word. Rather than ignoring (or denigrating) the research and insights of scholars in the nature, social, and behavioral sciences, the anthropology of art views such efforts as positive, rational attempts to comprehend the full dimensions of human behavior. And such efforts serve the literary theoretical investigator as guides and contributions to an understanding of the symbolic dimensions of human behavior that comprise AfroAmerican literature and verbal art. (213) Therefore, critical to my methodology is an attention to the intersection of socio -political context and the development of literary meaning supported by Bakers call. My methodology differs,
19 however, in two significant ways. First, the socio-historical narrative that I use is marked differently than Bakers; I describe only one m ajor shift in the 20th-century, rather than the three generational approaches that he highlights. Secondly, I insist on centralizing the specificities of black womens collective, gendered experiences within African-American history rather than the male -ce ntered narratives of black history that predominate Bakers approach. Taken together, my departures focus on a major shift occurring between the Civil Rights and the post Civil Rights periods and necessarily account for the particularities of black womens histories during that shift specifically regarding their reproductive lives and politics This framework shape s the meanings of the maternal figures I later explore in the cultural realm. I use the Civil Rights era, marked from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, as an analytical landmark because of its significance as a moment in which African Americans made major socio -political gains toward their inclusion in the nation.7 The struggle toward the milestones of legal desegregation of schools, pu blic accommodations and the military as well as statutory protection of the franchise for black citizens formed the foundation for the belief in black inclusion in the promises of liberal democracy. Its the idea behind Martin Luther King, Jr.s evocation of a beloved community in his 1957 speech Birth of a New Nation. Drawing on the power of the recent independence of Ghana as a symbolic force for African Americans engaged in similar struggle, King predicts hopefully an old order passing away and a ne w order coming into being. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. And a new order of justice and freedom and goodwill is being born. (35) Kings vision demonstrates that despite the physical and psychic violenc e delivered upon activists during the Civil Rights movement, the politics of inclusion, the belief in the possibility of justice and freedom and goodwill for black citizens, significantly marks this period.8
20 The literary output during this historic momen t, particularly major works published by black women, engage in the politics of inclusion by locating the locus of subject formation and social belonging in the depiction of black mothers unflinching pursuit of the American Dream through their desire for house and home. Ann Petrys The Street (1946), Gwendolyn Brooks Maud Martha (1953), Lorraine Hansberrys A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Paule Marshalls Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) and Margaret Walkers Jubilee (1966) are examples. I contend that th ese works, despite their narrative and formal differences, share an inclusive politics in their depiction of the black mother figures negotiation of American identity, which generally involves dreams of purchasing or building a home for her family. House and home in these texts function as an intersectional site of resistance against white supremacist ideologies that imagined working -class black women solely as caretakers in the homes of white families. The economic ascendency of the United States as a world power depended on the labor of enslaved women and free black women who worked as domestics women like my great grandmothers and this role became naturalized through the reiterated image of the Mammy. Therefore, for the central women characters in these texts, freedom was imagined through the heroines quest to own a home. Home exists in these narratives not only as the symbolic private sphere, where women produce a safe haven of affirmation, nurturance and healing for themselves and their chil dren, but also in the public realm, as a literal house, a piece of privately owned property that signifies participation in the American enterprise and affords women a valuable material location from which assimilation and resistance commingle. In Brown Gi rl, Brownstones for example, the efforts of the mother, Silla Boyce, to buy house, are part of her resistance to her invisibility, her marginalization as a black, immigrant woman in the United States. To buy house is to
21 create a location for the nurtu ring of her family as well as a place to become a more visible part of her community. It is a double resistance. Sillas quest to buy house also problematizes readings of home solely as site of cloistered domesticity for women. In contrast to the ways house and home have operated in some white womens texts, black womens desire to buy house can also exist as a site of economic and political independence. In ways that are often associated with masculinity a mans home is his castle black women hav e also constructed identity around property ownership, and not just keeping house. Within the ideology of the American Dream, to own a home is equated with citizenship and recognition in the social and economic life of the nation. In fact, the notion of social and political visibility in discourses of Western modernity relies upon John Lockes central notion of life, liberty and property. For Silla, Maud, Vyvry, and Mama Lena, the mothers quest centers on a humanist vision of inclusion through property ownership that parallels the rising rhetoric of Civil Rights movement. Black women writers situated these black mother figures as subjects by insisting upon their inclusion as propertied members of the polis, rather than accepting their relegation as mul es of the world. In the post Civil Rights period, however, the luster of inclusion dimmed. Integrationist gains made during the Civil Rights movement were met by a number of structural responses aimed at maintaining a discriminatory and exploitative racia l and class order. By the late 1960s, young black activists had begun to criticize the vision of inclusion advanced by King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and the Urban League, the mainstream civil rights organizatio ns of the period. The youth response was Black Power, described by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton as a rejection of the assumption that the basic institutions of this society must be preserved. The goal of black people must not be to assimil ate into middle -class America, for that class as a
22 whole is without a viable conscience as regards humanity. The values of the middle class permit the perpetuation of the ravages of the black community. (40) Hopes for Kings beloved community faltered under the burden of violent attacks on civil rights activists, and by 1967 Carmichael and Hamilton articulated in their book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America the shifting political aspirations of millions of black people. Meanwhile, hope s of inclusion were also undermined by changes in the nations cities After the assassination of King, riots tore several major American cities apart and soon after white flight set in, leaving African Americans behind in blighted communities with little hope for jobs, decent housing, or education. The 1970s through the 1990s marked a period when black communities became increasingly fractured, particularly around beliefs about black cultural difference and potential for achievement. Rather than attribut ing the deterioration of urban America to unjust distribution of resources based on white supremacy, an old ideolog ical debate intensified that centralized the difference of the black family from the white nuclear ideal as the cause for disparity As th e black middle -class gained ground through strategic negations of racial or ethnic difference, many working -class and poor African Americans were left to bear the w eight of these ideologies alone; their status as the national other marked them as unfit f or true American identity. Central to these developing tensio ns were old debates about welfare. Significantly, the 1965 Moynihan Report tied suggestions for federal welfare policy to social science on the black family. Moynihans project joined the work of black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier whose The Negro Family in America study also foregrounded the pathology of black women within black family structures. Political retrenchment against social welfare programs that would offer assistance to million s of women and children and a host of other regressive economic policies of the 1970s and 1980s relied upon the construction of black families as culturally outside the
23 norms of middle -class white standards, which is what Hortense Spillers alludes to memor ably in the opening to her essay Mamas Baby, Papa s Maybe: An American Grammar. Spillers writes that My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented (257). Her essay importantly describ es how controlling images of black women have been iterated in a number of historical moments, and how these images have been necessary for the implementation of neoliberal social policy.9 Historian Robin D.G. Kelley describes the contemporary fallout of this political history in his book Yo Mam as DisFUNKtional! Fighting the Culture Wars in America. Kelly points to a number of critics and analysts, such as Charles Murray, Dinesh DSouza and William Julius Wilson, as beneficiaries of earlier theories that tie ethnicity to pathology and promote th e idea that black life is wholly unfit to function within the standards of American propriety. Kelley argues that these analysts snap on using a black vernacular idiom to mean degrade black culture, which they cite as the basis for irresponsible and culturally deficient black people. The cultural and ideological warfare that continues to rage over black people and the inner city as social problems claims that blacks are hyper -criminal, hyper -sexual and hyper reproductive (4). Importantly, Kelley i dentifies the black mother as a highly charged site for these arguments. To be sure, the ideology of black cultural inferiority has a longer history than the late 20th century and the defeminization of black women has played a significant role in the fra ming of racist representations of all black people, but Kelleys apprehension of the particular inflections of these arguments in the late 20th century, post Civil Rights climate is significant to my project. Interestingly he writes that I wrote this book quite literally in defense of my own mother and my two sisters (4). I dont imagine Kelley meant this statement in the paternalistic way that it could be read as if his mother and sisters needed or required his chivalric male voice to speak
24 for them. I take this position because he goes on to say that he wrote the book as a defense of black peoples humanity, and I am intrigued by his centralization of the merciless attack on black mothers in the culture wars. By situating the representational force of black mothers in the post Civil Rights era political economy, he correctly calls attention to problematic narratives that affect entire communities of black women, men and children. Within the realms of blac k cultural production, the post Civil Rights era seems marked by a stronger sense of ambivalence toward the politics of inclusion. In some cases, there has been a celebration of the upward mobility demonstrated by members of the black middle class, particularly in popular culture. The cultural phenom enon of The Cosby Show for example, signaled to some that it was indeed possible for black folks a nuclear family headed by not one, but two working professionals to live just like idealized middle -class white people. Yet, for those locked out of the possibilities for upward mobility, a different representational norm emerged, one that did not proffer an image of multiracial harmony and respectable blackness. In these situations, a politics of transgression undergirded the art. Whether it was the risin g signs and aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement or the growth of hiphop as a music form and culture, black cultural production from the late 1960s onward is marked by a number of disruptive gestures a strident assertion of black identity that did not on its face appeal to the notion of acceptance within the national corpus. Likewise, as the promise of inclusion of the Civil Rights era gave way to new practices of social exclusion that relied upon black mothers as symbols of pathology, excess, and victi mization, narratives of the black mother shifted toward figures who act as subjects through their disruption of the major claims to the American Dream. Neoliberal policies such as Reaganomics, family values rhetoric, and welfare and social underclass dis courses put black mothers at odds with the American nationalist ideal, and as a result, black
25 mother figures appearing in major works of literature of the post Civil Rights era do not necessarily take up the mothers quest for house and home as earlier tex ts did. The texts I explore in this project share their concern with the subjectivities of black mother figures who in some way contest the inclusionist ideal through scenes of abjection, s ubversion and transgression. Furthermore, I contend that the disrup tive gestures in these texts were also aimed toward the imagined community articulated within Black Arts and black cultural nationalist traditions. Though Black Power politics, Black Arts aesthetics, and other expressions of black cultural nationalism re jected assimilation into the white majority through the reification of the cultural specificity of African Americans, this work often relied upon the conscription of black women, particularly black mothers, as problematic signifiers. The black mother figur e as are all m other figures in all nationalist expression is the vehicle through which cultural specificity is transmitted. Her reproductive life, sexuality, domestic roles, femininity, and child rearing are scrutinized and disciplined by a chauvinist order. Just as the Montgomery NAACP found teen mother Claudette Colvin unfit for role of Mother of the Civil Rights movement, black nationalist leaders regulated black womens roles in the struggle and in the family. Toni Cade Bambaras 1970 anthology T he Black Woman offers the collective response s of dozens of black women to the simultaneous idealization and vilification of black womanhood by black men in revolutionary movements. In her essay On the Issue of Roles, Bambara argues that freedom struggle should be toward the full and equal development of all members of the community and that the opinions of outside experts who love to explain ourselves to ourselves, [tell] the Black man that the matriarch is his enemy, [tell] black women through the mus hrooming of b.c. clinics that too many children is the Black familys enemy. So he indulges in lost balls fantasies and attempts to exact recompense by jumping feet foremost into her chest, and she starts conjuring up abandonment stories and ADC nightmares and leaps at his
26 throat. Now what is that but acting like we were just symbolic persona in some historical melodrama. Keep the big guns on the real enemy. Here Bambara points to the ways specific discourses around reproduction, family life and motherhood trouble the revolutionary work necessary in black communities. In this passage, she subtly critiques matriarch studies a la Moynihan, the politics of birth control (b.c.) that specifically target black women, and issues in the dissemination of child support and welfare (ADC). These narratives, which come from outside black communities from experts, seep into the way of thinking within heterosexual male dominated black nationalist political and artistic organizations doing violence to the goals of liber ation for all. Revolutionary action, therefore, requires a resistance to the negative gender paradigms emerging from white society and reified in black communities. Her essay calls for a kind of radical gender transformation that pre dates the theoretical work of contemporary feminist thinkers such as Judith Butler, and, importantly, inflects her critique with the specificities of racialized maternal symbolism. Therefore, I argue that the politics of transgression that I am identifying with the post Civil Rights era occurs on at least two registers disruption of both American nationalist and black nationalist ideologies of motherhood. The texts that I study are in conversation with those two politics. Methodologically, my second significant detour from Ba kers anthropology of art approach is my centralization of interdisciplinary socio -historical narratives that figure womens histories as primary vantage points for cultural expression. Bakers work relies on a genealogical approach to black history read as a primarily male focused enterprise, and my project adds to this work the historical narratives of black womens reproductive lives. Specifically, I draw upon the racialized histories of breeding, sterilization, birth control and reproductive technologies to inform my analysis. Particularities of these histories will be discussed and contextualized in each
27 chapter and related to other relevant social and political events. Black feminist literary criticism and womanist critical approaches are integral to this methodology. In many ways, I take up the mission expresse d by Joanne Braxton in her introduction to Wild Women in the Whirlwind when she writes that her project is an exploration of the ways in which Black women writers interpret their experience as they read the metaphors and symbols of the dominant and oftentimes oppressive culture that they rise within and against; it is also an analysis of codes and symbols which may be understood only within the Veil of Blackness and femaleness. (xxiv) Braxtons use of the DuBoisian metaphor of the Veil here invokes the idea of double consciousness, but the two-ness in this case is blackness and femaleness. By deploying this powerful and influential metaphor, Braxton reframes the critical conversation toward the racialized and gendered analysis performed by black women writers who use experience individual and collective to create meaning in their art. Braxtons statement privileges black womens voices in their response to DuBoiss rhetorical question: How does it feel to be a problem? (DuBois 2 3) The b lack feminist literary critic focuses on, in part, the way black women have answered this question, highlighting in their analysis not only the two -ness of race and gender, but also the intersections of sexuality, class and ethnicity. The work of Hortense Spillers, Mae Gwendolyn Henderson and Karla F.C. Holloway, in particular, have been essential to my project for their critical attention to the voices of insurgent maternal figures within the African American literary tradition.10 I have learned from these critics approaches to reading African -American literature and cultural products that depict unmotherly mothers, those socially marginalized, wild women characters who act as subjects through the various modes of disruption I have described above. Importantly, I privilege the voices of the mother figures themselves, rather than the voices of the daughters, taking up an analytical project brought up by Marianne Hirsch in her study of
28 maternal narratives. I apply black feminist literary theories to look closely at what happens when the mothers speak, at how the mothers stories informthe text that is structured around them (Hirsch 417 418). By privileging these voices, and the kinds of absent or silent mother figures that they may represent, I hope to illuminate ways of understanding their functions in post Civil Rights literature. For the most part, the black mother figures I study claim the monstrosity of their disruptive presence a female with th e potential to name and offer a response to the American grammar of the racialized mother without capitulating to the polarity of wholly idealized or pathologized characters. Spillers argues in her essay Mamas Baby, Papas Maybe: An American Grammar that black women, already symbolically rendered outside the privileged space of white femininity, can use this marginality as a space of insurgency for the female social subject ( 229). Recognizing the sites of female insurgency informs Spillers other work, particularly her essays Hateful Passion, A Lost Love: Three Womens Fiction and Interstices: A Small Drama of Words. In each essay, Spillers takes account of some aspect of black women s navigation of gender that does not privilege what she calls the ranks of gendered femaleness, but rather allows for an assertion of subjectivity through a complicated negotiation of race, gender, sexuality and power (Mamas 278). Her project is compelling in that there is a commitment to describing elements of black womens historical transformative gender discourse without essentializing what she calls the blackwoman myth, those controlling images that have become necessary for certain techniques of domination and power relations to operate in the American l andscape through chimera of black woma n hood. Spillers work compliments Hendersons articulations of the other in her essay Speaking in Tongues. Henderson interprets black womens texts as a kind of polyvocal
29 assertion of otherness, which is seen as a r hetorical advantage rather than a shortcoming. By privileging, rather than repressing, the non -normative, the marginal, the other in ourselves, Henderson comes to the conclusion that the initial expression of a marginal presence takes the form of disruptionThis rupture is followed by a rewriting or rereading of the dominant story resulting in a deligitimation of the prior story or a displacement which shifts attention to the other side of the story (Henderson 362). In other words, the status of other can be a strategic location of empowerment and resistance for black women, a place where the black female subject can debunk hegemonic ideologies regarding her race, class, gender and sexuality. Black women emerge from this site of rupture in order to refocus hegemonic dialogue toward their often discredited concerns. I wish to complicate these observations further by suggesting that the marginalized social roles of black mothers in the postmodern world forms a discursive loop that always already in cludes their strategic mobilization of difference, thereby situating the black (m)other as the consummate figure of transgression in African American culture. From Holloways book Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Womens Lite rature, I borrow her deep engag ement with the notion of voice. Holloway writes that voice is important because black women s literature is generated from a special relationship to its words, the concerns of orature and the emergence of textual language that acknowledges its oral generation must affect the critical work that considers this tradition (69). She describes that concern through the concept of plurisignance, literary voice that is polyphonic, complex, multiplied and layered in ways that refl ect similar qualities of African American culture (55). Furthermore, Holloway contends that motherhood has special significance in black womens fiction, acting as an umbilicus betwe en language and creation. (29 ). Therefore, rather than acting as a symbo lic obstruction to the heroines development
30 motherhood in black womens texts often acts as a catalyst for the subjective imperative known as coming to voice.11 My project, however, extends Holloways meditation on voice. Rather than privileging the oral/aural over the scriptocentric, the written word, I agree with Madhu Dubey, who points out that African -American literary tradition has always been critically concerned with the power of literacy, though it is sometimes considered skeptically. To conceiv e of the tradition, particularly the work of black women, as not invested in writing is to maintain the racialized logic of uneven development, a kind of primitivist perspective of black difference (9). With these tensions in mind, my discussion of voic e as constituting subjectivity will include both oral and literate forms of voice in order to avoid over reliance on one form or another as demonstrative of African American culture generally.12 By insisting on a historically and culturally specific view o f the mother figure, black feminist critics also offer departures from the early second -wave repudiation of motherhood by writers such as Kate Millet, Simone de Beauvoir, and Betty Friedan and extensions of the recuperative efforts of Sara Ruddick, Adrienn e Rich, and Nancy Chodorow, for example.13 Holloway, for example, offers a critique of French feminist articulations of writing and the body, arguing that black womens literature emerges from a specific cultural/spiritual community and must be taken into account in any interpretative work. These intervention s have been particularly important within contemporary feminist theory because it offers an extension of theories of motherhood .14 In the next section, I will give an overview of these critiques of femi nist perspectives on motherhood and discuss how black feminist and womanist writers have shifted the angle of seeing in regards to black maternal theory. Angles of Seeing: Perspectives on Motherhood When white feminist author Adrienne Rich wrote in the foreword of her influential 1976 text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution that for what we know as the
31 mainstream of recorded history, motherhood as institution has ghettoized and degraded female potentialities, she encapsulated a general feminist perspective on motherhood of that moment (13). For white feminists, like Rich, who often hailed from middle or upper -class backgrounds, the primary concern when interrogating womanas -mother revolved around an exclusive critique of patria rchy using the tools of mainstream history. She and her sist ers convey a story of motherhood as a social role that necessarily confines and oppresses all women. From this vantage point, feminists collapsed all female experience into one, white -dominated framework, ignoring how race, class, sexuality and cultural difference also influence the mothering experience and the symbolism of motherhood for large number of women. In 1977, how ever, Barbara Smith offers a black feminist critique of the shortcomings of (white) feminism in general and voices an alternative approach that embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women15 (134). In other words, the l ived experiences of black women defy the kind of one -size -fits all feminism that many white women espoused, and this, of course, applied to the universal experience of motherhood. Interestingly, Rich ultimately revised her positivist stance on motherhood in a 1986 edition of her book, taking time to acknowledge how race, class, and sexuality influence motherhood as an institution, but her awareness came as a direct result of the influence of women of color, most especially black women.16 Though Smiths ess ay Toward a Black Feminist Criticism did not address motherhood directly, her influential work expressed the collective frustra tions of a number of black women who identified as feminist and gave validation to the kind of literary as well as political, social and cultural critiques that shaped the burgeoning era of black feminism and womanism throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Working within that spirit, a number of black women
32 began to write about black womens reproductive lives from those standpo int s For instance, Angela Davis offers a political history of birth control rights in the United States in Women, Race and Class (1981) She explains why large numbers of black women as well as Latina and Native American women refused to align themsel ves with white women in struggles for reproductive rights. Though she does not address motherhood per se Davis explains how a legacy of rape during slavery and sterilization abuse has generated a different and historically contingent kind of fight for rep roductive freedom for black women one that revolves around the right to become a mother if one chooses or a right to have as many children as one chooses. These historical legacies, therefore, reframe the concept of choice a nd womens reproductive agen cy. Feminist critic bell hooks contends that this social and political hist ory affects the meaning of motherhood for black women. She argues that black women resist racial domination through motherhood in her text Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (19 84). In Feminist Theory hooks summarizes what has now become an influential perspective on black motherhood: Historically, black women have identified work in the context of family as humanizing labor, work that affirms their identity as women, as human beings showing love and care, the very gestures of humanity white supremacist ideology claimed black people were incapable of expressing. (133) Here again black motherhood is inscribed with different, affirmative meaning based on the historically specific context of racism and colonialism. Rather than reading it as a categorically oppressive status, motherhood becomes for black women a contingent space of positive longing and desire, because motherhood has been either controlled by or denied by a white supr emacist patriarchy. While these are not necessarily literary criti ques, hooks and Davis socio-political analyses provide the background necessary to explain how and why black women experience
33 and value motherhood differently than other women and how that difference may inflect various texts. Black feminist discussions of motherhood do not begin and end with an exclusively patriarchal analysis, as it has for many white women, but assumes that motherhood can be conceived of, at least partially, as a positiv e and affirming resis tance to racial subjugation. This observation is not to suggest that black women have not critiqued patriarchy. In fact, it was their vociferousness that offered the most resistance to the myth of the black matriarch as posited by Fraz ier and Moynihan who attribut ed the problems of the black community on the unnaturally prominent figure of the black mother within families (Scott 86). These strong black women who headed households without adult male partners were seen as threatening to both white and black men. Not only were Black feminists adamant about critiquing the dominant social forces that created these single-parent households, many of them shifted the conversation from matriarchy to matrifocality. Drawing on sociological and anthropological evidence that shows many pre colonial African societies were matrifocal in nature with a high value of esteem for the role of mother within social relations some black women have traded the matriarchy myth for a concept of matrifocalit y. By asserting that U.S. black culture retains a tie to its African past, black women have availed themselves of another evaluative model for their mothering work, matrifocality. It is not until almost a decade after these interventions that Patricia Hill Collins begins to take up the issue of motherhood in her texts Black Feminist Thought (1990) and the article Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood (1994). In these texts, Collins offers a concise and exemplary repres entation of black feminist concerns with motherhood, though she is by no means the first or only to take up this issue. Collins advances the work done by Smith, hooks, and Davis by developing a descriptive historical analysis of
34 controlling images of black mothers and by articulating a theory of black mother hood. She explains that feminist theory fails to take up the issues of black women in these critical ways: feminist theory seeks to describe a symbolic universal mother figure and mothering experience; i t elevates the issue of male -domination over other oppressions, including those in which white women themselves participate; it uncritically divides work/family and public/private realms of experience; and it focuses on the primacy of the autonomous, indiv idual (fe male) subject (Shifting 46). In sum, these areas of emphasis work to decontextualize motherhood, unmooring it from historically and culturally specific experience. Feminist maternal theories assume, for example, that black womens everyday lives operate in discrete realms of work and family, public and private or that black womens most pressing liberatory concerns are for their own, individual freedom, rather than that of their collective racial and/or ethnic groups. Collins demonstrates that fo r black women, the historic legacy of slavery as well as African cultural retentions have necessarily created a different view of motherhood, one that revolves around community, group survival, identity f ormation, and empowerment (48). Empowerment, Collins argues, becomes the central theme within black womens articulations of motherhood. Based on black womens experiences of racist and sexist exploitation, there are three ways in which Collins argues that motherhood is conceived of as a locus of power for black women (Shifting 53). First, motherhood represents an alternative version of mainstream notions of reproductive freedom. Taking into account the historic legacy of slave breeding, in which black women were systematically raped by white men in orde r to reproduce workers in the plantation economy, and the forced sterilization of black women in later decades, the right to procreate by choice becomes a critical sign of black female empowerment. Secondly, the ability to keep and raise children becomes a nother site of power for
35 black women. Again, the legacy of antebellum family displacement, Jim Crow era lynching, and other physical threats to black people have created a social climate in which raising a black child to adulthood becomes a luxury and triu mph for many black women. Finally, black women derive power from motherhood via their exercise of cultural transmission. As primary caregivers of black children, black women become largely responsible for the passing down of language and culture. To raise black children to any degree of psychic wholeness directly resists a system of racial inequality and white supremacy that perpetuates itself through the propagation of ideas of black inferiority. Of course, these narratives of empowerment are tempered by t he material effects of racism, sexism, poverty, etc., and give way to what Collins calls a dialectic of power and powerlessness that shapes black womens views on the institution of motherhood (49). Nevertheless, the language of empowerment rather than v ictimization has become an influential one regarding black mothers. This kind of intervention has had profound effect on the analysis of black womens textual articulations about motherhood. Black feminist theories of maternal empowerment provide the found ation for literary and cultural critics to interpret black womens cultural production. The ability to read turn-of -the (twentieth) century domestic fictions, for example, hinges on the reading of an empowered motherhood for black women. Hazel Carbys Reco nstructing Womanhood (1987) positions black motherhood as a distinct source of power for black women. In her reading of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Carby notes that Linda Brents resistance against slavery and male domination is expressed throug h maternal language: Her [Brents] strength and resourcefulness to resist were not adopted from a reservoir of masculine attributes but were shown to have their source in her womans pride, and a mothers love for [her] children (56). Furthermore, Carby details how Linda Brent situates her
36 grandmothers womanhood as emanating from her ability to mother; that is, the ability to care for material and spiritual needs of her children, grandchildren, and community. Also looking at black womens slave narrativ es and novels of the post Reconstruction era, Claudia Tate proposes in Domestic Allegories of Political Desire (1992) that the domestic novels of writers such as Pauline Hopkins and Frances E.W. Harper relied on a tradition of politicized motherhood that views mothers and the cultural rhetoric of maternity as instruments of social reform. (14) Social reform in the name of black families becomes the expression of power, status and control for blac k mother characters White women writing about motherhood t oo are beginning to decentralize mainstream feminist analyses of motherhood in favor of black feminist critique. For example, Andrea OReilly, a white feminist who writes about mothering, employs an ostensibly black feminist lens through which to understan d maternal figures in the novels of Toni Morrison. Employing Collins theories of maternal empowerment, OReilly traces in Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart (2004) how Morrison suggests that black mothers engage in maternal practice th at has as its explicit goal the empowerment of children and that through this practice black women develop a distinct female identity that is independent of dominant culture (1). Not to put too fine a point on it, I am trying to demonstrate that much of t he social and literary analysis about black mothers has taken up the black womens maternal empowerment thesis. What is interesting to note, however, is that in almost all cases the maternal empowerment privileges child -centered language; mothering work em powers when it is on the behalf of black children. Black mothers mother the race, the community, the collective black nation. Through this critical lens, reading acts of mothering that do not have this focus presents a more challenging task.
37 While maternal empowerment theory has clearly been influential and necessary, it oversimplifies the situation and ignores black womens nuanced responses to motherhood through literature and culture. The literature suggests that although black women do position motherhood and mothering differently and more positively than white feminists or other groups of mainstream women, this position is not without complications. Barbara Christian offers another angle of seeing black mothers that at once treads familiar ground and provides an alternative view. In her essay An Angle of Seeing, Christian looks at Buchi Emechetas Joys of Motherhood and Alice Walkers Meridian Both texts, she argues, present women -centered visions of motherhood that resist the prevailing empowerment theory. While she does acknowledge that freedom for black women has been keeping their own children, Christian explains that the essence of this freedom emerges from the sacrifice of their own lives, literally and figuratively (109). This sacrificial function of the mother, while highly theorized by white feminists, goes undertheorized in black feminism, Christian adds. The plight of Nnu Egos life in Joys of Motherhood, for example, illustrates the kind of unjust sacrifice that black women are subject ed to in the name of an affirmative and empowered motherhood. Christian writes that Emechetas stark vision of motherhood marked by intense suffering on the part of the mother comments on a lack of consciousness and silence in her society, where the personal lives of women and wider social change have yet to be related (114). The way that Christian approaches Emechetas harsh critique of African ideologies of motherhood provides a new angle of seeing maternal empowerm ent theories. Alice Walkers Meridian provides a similar critique, but Christian seems to argue, Walker takes it a step farther to assert that in the hands of some women motherhood becomes a path toward self awareness. In the novel, the character Meridian grapples with pregnancy and
38 motherhood; one child she bears and gives away, another she aborts. Because Meridian perceives herself as having sinned against her maternal tradition by not being empowered through child rearing, she engages in a harrowing personal journey in which she loses he r hair, has headaches, looses her sight and then becomes paralyzed (Christian 112). However, Meridians connection to the social a nd political world of the Civil R ights movement, Christian argues, allows Meridian the creative agency with which to mediate t he meaning of motherhood for herself: she becomes strong enough to return to the world, not strong in the sense of her mothers sacrifices, but in the sense of her understanding of t he preciousness of life (114). Barbara Christian emphasizes a different kind of strong black mother, one who is able to exert strength not through self -sacrifice but through a kind of self -centeredness. Meridians decision not to mother her biological children represents a selfishness that seems the antithesis of maternal ca re, but I think Christian argue s that it is only through her struggles with motherhood that Meridian is able to emerge eventually as a more fully self actualized woman. I am intrigued by the kind of revision that Christian suggests in this essay because it provides a theoretical blueprint for reading complicated texts like Meridian It is this kind of intervention that speaks to the possibility of envisioning motherhood, or rather a maternal subjectivity, as a transgressive, self -ce ntered practice. By traci ng feminist and black feminist perspectives on motherhood, I ground my work in theory that acknowledges the fluctuating, indeterminate and contingent nature of black mother figures as a symbolic category. With that interpretive framework in mind, I will ne xt describe the origin and function of the trope mamas gun I draw on the symbolic opposition of mama female and nurturing and gun male and destructive to identify and describe transgressive maternal narratives in African A merican literature and culture. Mamas gun is a term that draws
39 upon black vernacular epistemologies and highlights the ways in which reading the se lf -centered practice of black maternal figures subverts normative conceptions of gender and disrupt or talk back to hegemoni c discourses that centralize black maternal difference as reason for co ntinued exclusion of black people from the American Dream. Mamas Gun: A Trope I will begin my explanation of mamas gun with a scene from Paule Marshalls brilliant coming-of age story Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). In the novel, a group of women from Barbados who have immigrated to Brooklyn, New York spend time together talking about their lives while they cook and care for their children. Florrie, along with Iris and other Bajan immi grant women, come and talk with their neighbor Silla while she cooks. Silla, the prototypical strong black mother, is frustrated by a comment made by Iris that praises their colonial oppressors in England. Silla snaps back asking What John Bull ever do fo r you that youse so grateful? (69). From there the sharptongued and politically astute Silla deconstructs how colonial powers have relegated black women to lives of poverty and subservience. She goes on to define how many of the Bajan immigrant women ha ve changed their situations by moving away and working toward homeownership in direct opposition to racist ideologies espoused by the British and sexist notions held by their husbands. Florrie and Iris sit in the kitchen and listen to Silla rapt, respec tful and solemnly (70). That is when Florrie encourages Silla to talk yuh talk. Be jees. In this white -man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun (70). While I am familiar with the U.S. black vernacular phrase of talk that talk as a way for a listener to affirm the words of a speaker, I am fascinated by Florries more uncommon expression of you got to take your mouth and make a gun. Moreover, and in direct connection to this project, is the fact that Silla is a mother and her daughters sit in the kitchen with her while she talks that talk. The protagonist, the daughter Selina, is entranced by her mothers power
40 with words. Mamas gun references black mother figures power with words, words directed toward the act of self -creation, self -c enteredness, and resistance. The idea for mamas gun also emerges from contemporary popular culture through the work of neo -soul singer Erykah Badu. In 2000, Badu released her third CD entitled Mamas Gun. The cryptic meaning in the title baffled many l isteners, until Badu revealed in an interview her own concept of mamas gun. She explains to an interviewer that Most of the time, you don't even know your mama have a gun. And when she pulls it out and shows it to you, it's something serious. Extending her observation into metaphor, Badu adds that mamas gun does not have to refer to an actual firearm, although in some cases it does, but that it can refer to the kind of explosive power available to black women when their creativity is unfettered. So when Badu adds that they [audiences] can put my album in they holster, she proposes a way of viewing her music, her singing, and her performance style as a kind of creative weapon, what cultural critic Carolyn Cooper calls a l yrical gun. In the case of Bad u, mamas gun refers to her lyrical prowess and dexterity, skills that she calls upon throughout her music to take out demons in [her] range (Times A Wastin). Those demons can be thought of as any of the numerous social, political, ideological and ma terial assaults that black women face in their everyday lives. The attacks experienced by black mothers through social welfare policies, inequality in reproductive choice health care and education systems could all be envisioned as demons. Badu uses her lyrical gun through the use of her songwriting, her singing, and her style. Furthermore, mamas gun can be thought of as her tongue, the organ most associated with speech. Mamas gun can serve both militant and violent purposes, but also can thought o f as persuasive, supporting, or even comforting. Badus lyrical gun is her weapon of choice, which she uses on her listeners in order to tell her life story, appeal
41 to lovers, express vulnerability, assert strength, bond with other women, and navigate the world. Mamas gun can be fired with destructive intent, brandished with threatening intensity, revealed menacingly, or simply concealed; but it is there to provide protection when necessary. I think it serves as a useful trope in that it captures the polyv alent nature of black womens expressive speech culture generally, as well as the simultaneous creative and destructive potential of the specific experience of black mothering women. Finally, mamas gun comes from my own familial experience. My great gran dmother, Louria Elbert, who died when I was 16 years old, was a woman known to regularly have a pistol and a rifle in her home in the woods of North Florida. While I was a young girl, I did not know anything about this part of my great grandmother s life story. She was simply a frail old woman who lived in the country, who made breakfast for us every Sunday while my sister and I swept her yard. She was a very motherly woman to me. It wasnt until after her death that I came to learn of her exploits as a young mama. I found out that she armed herself for a number of reasons; importantly as defense against the Klan, which regularly marched through her coastal Florida town. But she also kept guns to defend her body and property from insincere and irresponsibl e lovers. It is said that she once shot at a beau after she discovered he had been stealing the blackberry wine she made for her own profits in order to raise money to give to another sweetheart. Upon hearing stories like this, I became fascinated with thi s other side of my sweet, dear old great grandmother who we affectionately called Yoya. Interestingly, my grandmother, Annie Louise Ford, still has her mothers rifle, which I a sked to see once. My grandma le d me to a closet in the back of her house whe re she kept the rifle, tucked away and wrapped up inside one of my great -grandmothers quilts. Besides being an expert bootlegger, Yoya, and all of her sisters, sewed the most beautiful quilts from scraps from
42 their dresses, their husbands and brothers m ilitary uniforms and work -shirts, and the muslin sacks that carried flour and rice to their homes. The quilt, especially, has long served as a revered symbol of black womens creative agency. It is a symbol saturated with meaning attached to femininity, motherhood and commun ity. So to see Yoyas brutal weapon and a box of shells wrapped inside of these quilts made me think about the relationship between the two, and the way in which both items have symbolic relevance in the portrayal of black womens lived experiences, yet the rifle or gun is not typically associated with their expressive heritage. The contrast of the shotgun and the quilts inform my development of mamas gun.17 I want to use these metaphors of contrast and contradiction of making mouth into gun or of a gun wrapped in soft quilts as an entry point in describing the trope of mamas gun. Through this trope of mamas gun, the confines of normative gender designations that demarcate a strict boundary between masculine and feminine might have the opportunity to be read as more fluid. Traditional masculine and feminine qualities might exist in an individual maternal figure. In the texts I use for this project, women characters speak, sing, write and generally come to voice through experiences that are connected to non traditional, non normative versions of motherhood. Mamas gun recurs in a number of texts in which black mother figures respond to controlling images through creative self -fashioning, self -definition, and reclaimed subjectivity. H owever, what they say, sing and write may not generally be understood as expressions of maternal subjectivity or any engagement with motherhood at all because they do not demonstrate recognizably feminine qualities associated with motherhood. In fact, in s ome cases they may reject motherhood altogether. Still, I argue that rejected or accepted, voluntary or forced that black mother figures interact significantly with a number of maternal ideologies that work on a
43 number of registers. Mamas gun serves as a theoretical framework for understanding these multivalent gestures. Chapter Summaries This project includes a significant exploration of feminist, black feminist and womanist discussions of racialized motherhood from the late 19th century through the 20th century. In general, I think the existing method of critical analysis of motherhood still tends largely toward a child -centered critique; it focuses on the daughters relationship to the mother figure and how much the mother figure nurtures them. I want t o shift perspective and answer the following questions: How do black women conceive of motherhood as a self -centered practice? How do black women express this self -centeredness? How do their articulations contradict prevailing ideologies of black motherhood both inside and outside of black culture? It is my contention that the cultural artistry of black women works to navigate these often precarious boundaries between self and other in ways that are socially and politically transgressive. Their creative ges tures, however, often may not neatly fit into the theoretical models offered from the past, making their transgressive gestures illegible Instead of discarding this rich critical history, however, I wish to provide a bridge from the past to the future, a place where contemporary cultural production can be situated and understood properly within a framework of recent social and political changes. In Chapter Two, I Got Self, Pencil, and Notebook: Literacy and Transgressive Motherhood in Alice Walkers Th e Color Purple and Sapphires PUSH I bring the trope of mamas gun and the conception of white ink into conversation with each other in order to trace how black women have conceived their maternal selves and literate selves in tandem. Specifically, I re ad two contemporary novels, The Color Purple (1982) and PUSH (1996), as extensions of a tradition in African-American literature that uses maternal disc ourse as social protest. I develop my argument by first tracing the sources of the notion of the hyper -
44 reproductive black woman, which has become a recognizable part of American political and popular culture. I will then discuss how this imagery has shaped power relations within the recent U.S. political landscape, continuing the legacies of alienated and f ragmented maternity begun during slavery. In Chapter Three Mamas Got the Blues, Or Sometimes I Feel Like a Childless Mother: The Blues as Maternal Counter -narrative in Gayl Jones Corregidora, I connect metaphorical motherhood with womens artistic cr eativity. I will lay the groundwork for my close reading of Corregidora by first detailing the feminist and womanist recuperation of blues women as feminist icons within the work of Angela Davis, Hazel Carby and Daphne Duval Harrison, who situate blues wom en within a framework of black feminist thought. I will extend their arguments by exploring the transgressive narrative possibilities of the figure of the childless mother as offered by Elaine Hansen Tuttle, E. Patrick Johnson, L.H. Stallings and others. Their insights contextualize my formulation of the blues mama as an instance of a childless mother, which will provide the theoretical vantage point from which to understand my reading of Ursas mothering of the blues. I am interested in exploring the m ultiple effects of the figure of the childless mother that link Ursa to a number of conversations within contemporary literary criticism and feminist thought that attempts to problematize concepts about gender. In Chapter Four Colonized Wombs, Cyborg Bod ies and Reproductive Technology: Maternal Dialectics of Lilith in Octavia Butlers Xenogenesis Trilogy I complicate these observations further by suggesting that the marginalized social roles of black mothers in the postmodern world forms a discursive loop that always already includes their strategic mobilization of difference, thereby situating (m)other as the consummate figure of resistance and transgression in many black womens texts. Octavia Butlers Lilith displays many characteristics
45 similar to al l of the outrageous, non-maternal aspects of the Hebrew Lilith myth precisely because Butlers text claims the monstrosity of transgressive black womanhood. Dawn the novel in the trilogy that focuses most on Liliths story, invokes the histories of repr oductive experimentation and exploitation that have contributed to the recent development of reproductive technology (RT). The novel stages an enactment of tension between black womens experiences with procreative invasion and the future of RT, and invoke s a dialectic that confronts two modes of thinking about RT the emancipatory and the oppressive. In Chapter Five Big Mama, Madea, and SuperModel: (Queer) Performance of the Black Mother in the work of Tyler Perry and RuPaul, I explore the work of Perr y and drag performer RuPaul, who have developed in their work a creative alter -ego that manifests aspects of mamas gun. They each call their personas by different names Madea and Supermodel which I will describe in detail later in this chapter. Ulti mately, I contend that these figures share similar symbolic resources for their work, and I classify these figures as (queer) performances of the black mother. In order to outline the contours of my argument, I will first establish why I read these perform ances as queer, particularly Perrys work, when he seems to resist this label the most. I will then map out the performative elements of black mother figures by tracing the historical referents of The Mammy and The Matriarch, whose synthesis forms the foundation for the contemporary image of the Big Mama.18 Finally, in the last section, I explore how Tyler Perry and RuPaul incorporate and resist the performative nature of this figure, leading to an uneven use of mamas gun. Finally, in Chapter Six, I conclud e the project through an exploration of future directions for the study of mamas gun. I look at black women comics who use humor as their mamas gun.
46 Notes 1 Benedict Anderson uses the phrase imagined community in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism to describe how modern national identities form out of a sense of collective or community kinship. The American Dream is but one example of an imagined unity that reflects national identity. However, I agree with Felipe Smiths assertion that Anderson dodges the critical issue of subjectivity the fact that those legally entitled to call themselves members of the nation, the dreamers, determine the image of the community dreamed. (4) That is, simply dreaming these identities is not enough, one has to have access to power to be dreamers, because national identities are disciplined and legitimated through relations of power and dominance. 2 Actor and comedic writer Tina Fey makes ironic use of the phrase baby mama in her movie of the same name, re leased in 2008. Fey portrays an upper middle class, unmarried, professional white woman who decides to use a gestational surrogate so that she can have a baby. The surrogate, played by actor Amy Poehler, is a working class white woman whose coarse behavior is supposed mark her as the stereotypical baby mama. I read the white trashiness of Poehlers character as a sly wink to the audience regarding this stereotype, as if to say look even white women can be baby mamas. The joke is on us, however, bec ause the movie is unable to pull this subversion off for at least two reasons. First, the major black male character in the movie is an expert on baby mamas thereby upholding the racial coding of the term. Second, there are no black women with speaking roles in the movie. Comedic subversion of racial stereotypes has to go farther than simple inversion, which is Feys approach, it must also include the representation of subjectivities of those who have been silenced by the stereotype. 3 For more on contr olling images, see Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment ( New York: Routledge, 2000), which identifies and describes the four major historical images: Mammy, Matriarch, Jezebel and Sapphire. Newer versio ns of these controlling images have emerged in the late 20th century, including Baby Mama, Gold Digger, Freak, and Earth Mother. For more on contemporary controlling images see Stephens and Few, Effects of Images of African American Women in Hip Hop on Ea rly Adolescents Attitudes Toward Physical Attractiveness and Interpersonal Relationships in Sex Roles 2007, 56:251 264. 4 Baby mama joined a number of racist portrayals of Michelle Obama during the campaign, implying at times that she was akin to a militant a terrorist or a horse. 5 I borrow the term transgression from the work of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, who extend the concept of symbolic inversion in the work of anthropologists Victor Turner, Barbara Babcock and Mary Douglas from Mikhail Ba hktins notion of the carnivalesque. They use Babcocks phrasing to describe transgression as expressive behavior which inverts, contradicts, abrogates, or in some fashion presents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values and norms be they l inguistic, literary or artistic, religious, social and political. Their notion of transgression departs from Bahktins utopic vision of symbolic inversion as wholly counter hegemonic in that they emphasize transgression as a relational and dialectic inter action between high and low, inside and outside, margin and center. They write that there is no a priori revolutionary vector to carnival and transgression. In other words, there is no pure resistance against structural oppressions. Rather, there is a st rategic use of the polarities of official and illicit that has as its goal the discovery of an intermediate link between the members of a binary opposition: a process known as mediation. See Stallybrass and White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression ( Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), 1520. 6 I intentionally use the term mother figure rather than mother throughout this project in order to differentiate between a number of figurative possibilities of mother and those characters w ho are mothers in a literal sense, a biological female parent For a discussion of maternal semiotics see Van Buren, The Modernist Madonna: Semiotics of the Maternal Metaphor (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1989). 7 Keeping in mind the pitfalls of periodization, I depart slightly from the dates most associated with the modern U.S. civil rights movement. Many histories situate the start of the movement much later than I do, pointing to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which abolished the nations separate but equal educational
47 policies, the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till, or the 1955 start of the Montgomery bus boycott. Instead, I discuss the beginning of the Civil Rights era in the years immediately follow ing the end of World War II. S ocial agitation for civil rights increased as black troops returned as heroes from the war front to Jim Crow policies all over the country. The post war period marks the burgeoning of these resistant voices that drove the judicial and legislative changes t hat have come to be associated with the Civil Rights Movement. As for the end of the era, I am using 1968 the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of one of the Civil Rights Acts as the end point for this periodization, and the beginning of the post Civil Rights era. 8 Inclusive politics of the Civil Rights movement relied on the representational power of black women in the movement. The selection of Rosa Parks as the mother of the Civil Rights movement was made after a 15 year old woman, Claudette Colvin, first challenged the segregated seating laws on the buses of Montgomery. Colvin, unmarried and pregnant, was deemed by the NAACP organizational leadership as an unfit symbol of the struggle for equality. Her deviant motherhood negated her symbolic value, and Rosa Parks, the married seamstress, was asked to stage the public protest. For more, see Steffen, Rita Doves On the Bus with Rosa Parks in The Civil Rights Moment Revisited: Critical Perspectives on the Strugg le for Racial Equality in the United States (Piscataway, NJ : Transaction Publishers, 2001), 127140. 9 Essentially, Spillers words identify an instance of Foucaults concept of biopower, which he identifies in The History of Sexuality as the deployment of sexuality in the power over life (139). Foucault describes hi s project as such: Deployments of power are directly connected to the bodywhat is needed is to make it [deployments of power] visible through an analysis in which the biological and the historical are not consecutive to one anotherbut are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the development of the modern technologies of power that take life as their objective. (1 51152) Here, Foucault consi der s the ways in which discourses of sexuality have worked to materialize sex. In much the same way that Judith Butler consider s how gender materializes sex, Foucault argues that sex is not an exterior domain, it is a result and an instrument of powers designs (152). By historicizing and contextualizing the role of black womens reproductive labor within the political and social economy of the United States as Spillers has, we can further demonstrate what Foucault has described as a discursive shift from the power ov er death to the power over life. Applying Foucaults notion of biopower to the circumstances of late 20thcentury African Am erican life has led me toward my concern with post Civil Rights political economies. 10 Post colonial, Marxist critic Gayatr i Spivak also privileges the subjectivity and voice of the insurgent figure particularly so called Third World women in her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? She writes that In the semioses of the social text, elaborations of insurgency stand in place of the utterance. The sender the peasant is marked only as a pointer to an irretrievable consciousness.The subject implied by the texts of insurgency can only serve as a counterpossibility for the narrative sanctions granted to the colonial subj ect in the dominant groups. In other words, there is a danger of epistemic violence against the subaltern woman when her insurgent voice is only pointed to rather than considered as true consciousness. I am keeping Spivaks warning in mind throughout this project. 11 Carole BoyceDavies shares Holloways concept of motherhood as a generative identity within black womens texts. See Davies, Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject (New York : Routledge, 2003). 12 For a discussion of l iteracy in contemporary African American literature, see Dubey, Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003). 13 See de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (translated by H. M. Parshley, New York: Knopf, 1953), Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963), and Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970). Also Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976, 1995), and Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).
48 14 I use the term feminist here and throughout this project to denote white, middle to upper class, mainstream, U.S. articulations of womens liberation. Though I am persuaded by bell hooks arguments in Ain't I a Woman and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center that it is essential for non white women to embrace and use the t erm feminist, I will revert to the more popular distinction between (white) feminism and black feminism, or even womanism. Despite hooks intervention, it is still common practice to mark these feminism(s) this way, and I still believe it is politically useful to do so. 15 There are other articulations by black women that take up similar themes that pr edate Barbara Smith. Nineteenth century figures, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs, highlighted these kinds of interlocking factors. I use Barbara Smiths essay, because she explicitly uses the term black feminist. This consciousness toward the label of black feminist and its direct critique of white, mainstream feminism makes this text stand out. 16 I will concentrate on black womens critiques fo r the remainder of this discussion, although a number of other feminists of color have critiqued white, U.S. based, mainstream feminism. 17 Mamas gun reflects the literary legacy articulated in Alice Walkers poem within the essay In Search of Our Mother s Gardens: They were women then/ my mothers generation/ husky of voice stout of/ step/With fists as well as/ Hands. The dialectic of mamas gun reflects the way fist and hand operate in this verse 18 For more on the connections and disjunctions bet ween performance and performativity and their implications within critiques of race, gender, and sexuality, see Jacque s Derrida Limited, Inc. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1977), Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of S ex (Routlege, 1993), and E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
49 CHAPTER 2 'I GOT SELF, PENCIL, AND NOTEBOOK:' LITERACY AND MOTHERHOOD IN ALICE WALKERS THE COLOR PURPLE AND SAPPHIRES PUSH He took my other little baby, a boy this time I got breasts full of milk running down myself. -Celie, The Color Purple I like baby I born. It gets to suckes from my bress Hes a good baby. But hes not mine. I mean, he is mi ne. I push him out my pussy. -Precious, PUSH Nobody had her milk but me. -Sethe, Beloved Rich with nutrition and meaning, mothers milk supplies a plenitude of symbolic wealth to many of the works by contemporary black women writers. In a number of tex ts, black female subjectivity the me in Sethes declaration or the my in Preciouss reflections gains expression via the vital metaphor of milk. To possess and control the milk created by ones own body and to choose freely with whom to share it de monstrates a supreme act of personal autonomy for black women. The collective reproductive history of black women shows how fraught this kind of bodily autonomy can be; one has only to recall what Angela Y. Davis calls the alienated and fragmented materni ties of black women the histories of breeding, wet nursing and sterilization, the racialized vilification of their reproductive choices or the flat -out abduction of their children by fathers or by the state (213). Mapping Davis historic al materialist a ssessment onto b lack feminist and French feminist literary theories about milk provides a way of reading black womens sense of autonomy, and, by extension, their relationships with their communities and the nation through images of breasts and breast -feed ing. This chapter will demonstrate that the recurring symbolic matrix of milk appears in black women's texts as a way
50 to imagine the autonomous black female self through the mothering body and, importantly, links this autonomy to the domain of self -express ion and voice, specifically the act of writing. In The Color Purple the image of Celies breasts full of milk running down centralizes mothers milk as a site of her physical trauma, exemplifying her loss of bodily control (4). Celie writes to God about her engorged breasts that involuntarily overflow with the milk that would have fed her newly born son, who had been taken at birth by the man she believes to be her own father and has sired another child with her a daughte r. The biological imperative of Celies lactating body continues even when her baby is no longer present, a descriptive moment that represents the futility of motherhood some black women have faced when their babies have been taken. Similarly, Precious, the heroine of Sapphires novel PU SH invokes her breast -feeding as well, but as a way to celebrate her determination to keep and raise her son Abdul, who suckes at my bress (68). With her first child already taken from her and institutionalized, Precious resolves to raise her son, who l ike Celies children, is fathered by a dominant paternal figure a father or step -father. For Precious to fulfill the bodily cycle of birth (I push him out my pussy) and nourishment (He suckes at my bress) demonstrates a kind of agency, a claiming of self that centers around her desire to mother. The centrality of mothers milk in contemporary black womens fiction emerges, too, in one of Sethes moving re -memory scenes in Beloved During this exchange, Sethe describes to Paul D how desperately she nee ded to be reunited with her baby girl who she had sent ahead toward freedom before escaping the Sweet Home plantation herself: anybody could smell me long before he saw me. And when he saw me hed see the drops of it [breast milk] on the front of my dress (16). Yet, worse than milk shed into muslin, worse than a chokecherry tree planted by rawhide across brown skin was the violation she experienced at the hands of Schoolteachers
51 nephews, who took the milk meant to feed her baby. Sethes words haunt the n arrative as she tells the story to Paul D, suggesting that the men had stolen from her not just nourishment for her child, but also her concept of self. Mothering, milk, and subjectivity are conflated when Sethe boasts to Paul D that Nobody was going to nurse her like me (16, emphasis added). The phrase like me acts to distinguish Sethes ability to nurse her daughter over any other woman, and it is here she makes a critical claim to womanhood. Her multiple physical and psychic violations on the Sweet H ome plantation denied her access to the ideologies of white womanhood, an identity through which she might have accessed a limited power to protect herself or to be protected.1 Instead, motherhood provides an important link to her notions of womanhood, suc h that Sethes potential for autonomy and agency in the novel hinges upon her recognition as a mother. So if mothers milk is the metaphorical white ink through which women come to language and launch their force, as Helene Cixous writes in The Laugh of the Medusa then what happens when a womans production of milk is blocked or thwarted, or the milk is wasted or stolen? 2 How can a woman who, like Celie, Precious, or Sethe, is estranged from her white ink still come to voice? The answer, in part, involves attuning our critical lens toward those mother figures who are most marginalized from normative, hegemonic conceptions of motherhood and womanhood. When the lives and experiences of these black mother figures are taken into consideration, mothers milk as metaphor for womens creative self -expression changes its theoretical possibility. I look toward the links made by Afro Trinidadian poet Marlene Norbese -Phillips who asks in her brilliant poem Discourse on the Logic of Language: What is my moth er tongue? My mammy tongue, my mummy tongue, my momsy tongue, my modder tongue, my ma tongue? Norbese -Phillips describes in this multitextual poem the disruption of language, and therefor e identity and agency and voice that has occurred in the
52 African ex perience of captivity, colonization, enslavement and apa rtheid all over the world. S he draws connections between the symboli c affect of mothering and language ; the mother tongue a source of voice, without which she is tongue dumb. Yet, by marking a funda mental disruption without a mother to tongue/a tongue to mother Norbese -Phillips creates an opportunity for recovery of voice through the acknowledgement of maternal loss. The limitations of the white ink metaphor lie in this difference B y assuming all women as women have equal access to maternal creative force the metaphor breaks down because it fails to address the significance of maternal loss loss of language, loss of milk that many women face. In this chapter, I bring the trope of ma mas gu n and the conception of white ink into conversation with each other by t racing the development of two contemporary black mother figures whose white ink has bee n stolen or threatened. Celie and Precious, considered outside of the norm s of respectable mother hood because they are black, young, unwed, and victims of sexual abuse resist their marginalization through their quest to keep their children, to use their milk, the written word, their mamas gun. I read both characters as extensions of a tradition in African -American literat ure that uses maternal figures for social critique In this case, I think Celie and Precious, because of their appearance in texts published during the 1 980s and 90s, were imagined as responses to the racially charged notion of the hyper -reproductive black woman popular in that era Alice Walker, who published The Color Purple in 1982, and Sapphire, who published PUSH in 1996, assert the socio-political subjectivity of black mother figures whose relationship with the nation has been one of abjection, ridicule and suspicion, without capitulating to constraints of respectable femininity or compulsory heterosexuality. In other words, when Sapphire imagines Precious, the overweight, poor, HIV -positive, black teen mother protagonist of PU SH writing I got self, pencil, and notebook, she allows Precious to
53 transgress the expectations that would keep a mother like her outside of the bounds of speaking and writing subject (36) Staking a claim to her self as well as her tool s for writing m akes the case that Precious, and Celie to a different degree, use their pens their white ink as weapons to resist ideologies that use and abuse their bodies, experiences, and images In these two examples, mamas gun works as a trope for print literacy and writing, the pen operating as a weapo n of subversion and resistance in the hands of two black mother figures Despite the primacy and privilege given to the function of orality in African -American texts, especially black women's literature, I ultimate ly agree with Madhu Dubey, who cites a number of African-American novels including PUSH that continue to be profoundly invested in the modern idea of print literacy as a vehicle for social critique and advancement (56).3 The litera ture that I examine pri vilege s print within the African -American literary tradition steadily marked by a tenuous relationship with writing. Mastery of writing in colonial languages can either enter texts as representative of black participation in the social and political life o f the nation or as scenes of alienation from the black community, which is sometimes imagined as pre literate and oral utopias. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the introduction to The Signifying Monkey writes that the black vernacular has assumed the singular role as the black person's ultimate sign of difference, a blackness of the tongue (339). Therefore, in many cases, the flavor of black vernacular speech and other non -literate cultural expres sion such as dance and music becomes valorized in speakerl y texts to the point that African -American culture is difficult to imagine outside of this framework (Dubey 40). However, with Dubey's meditations on print literacy in postmodern black texts in mind, I see both The Color Purple and PUSH as part of a move to critically re appropriate the print legacy in an effort to extend the social and political provenance of their representational medium (50). It is from this vantage point that I assert that
54 the symbolic function of writing, coextensive to the act of m othering, in The Color Purple and PUSH provide a lens through which to investigate how black mother figures function within the social and political hierarchies of the post -Civil Rights moment. To be sure, both works operate in speakerly ways, yet both novels compel readers to consider orality as part of the developing print literacy of their characters, a process that I argue relies heav ily upon maternal experience a s metaphor. Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy describe in their edited collection, Narr ating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities the importance of analyzing motherhood as a dialectic of lived experience and metaphor. In their view, women either turn to childbirth as metaphor, not as narrated experience: the clich of the creative p rocess is one in which the (usually male) artis t gives birth to a work of art or that women writers tend to privilege the literal, a strategy that often leaves them with no figurative ground on which to stand (4 5) My project attempts to achieve a dial ectic conversation between these two impulses. Beloved figures in this study insofar as it elevates, like PUSH and The Color Purple maternal desire as its dominant narrative focus and equates, not without some ambivalence, black motherhood with freedom. S ethes experiences in that novel, however, centralize stories told out loud or remembered in dreams and flashbacks. Sethe never writes her own story down, and, in fact she is haunted by a newspaper article that describes her act of infanticide. Sethes re lationship to print is sobered against [her] awareness that language itself has been deployed against black selfhood, that language itself is a colonization (Quashie 130). Narratively and formally, however, The Color Purple and PUSH propose print literac y writing and learning to write as a viable means to challenge and critique hegemonic ideas about black motherhood as well as black womens capacity for social and political citizenship.
55 PUSH eventually works as a palimpsest of The Color Purple rewri ting and revising the story of Celie via the character of Precious Jones, within the urban dystopia of 1980s America. Unwed, functionally illiterate, and victims of incest and rape, Celie and Precious narratively embody the worst ideological stereotypes about black mothers. They are unwed at the time of their pregnancies; they are pubescent, and impregnated by men who are either biologically or socially considered their fathers. Yet, these two women write in resistance to the ideologies that have sought to define them. I read the resistance in these two texts as an allegorical resistance to the ways in which black mothers haunt the U.S. national imagination as social and economic vampires and as immoral, careless breeders. The net historic result of these in fluential representations has rendered the notion of reproductive freedom a highly contested terrain for black women, so much so that the ability for black women to bear and raise their own children has been and remains a critical aspect of their reproduct ive politics, particularly for those who are poor and working -class. Sterilization by force or without consent, coerced or mandatory birth control use, lack of adequate prenatal care, and the abduction of babies and children are all part of the historic pr actices that have haunted black motherhood. The following section seeks to detail the development of black women's reproductive politics in the post Civil Rights moment, which ultimately forms the backdrop for the texts I will consider later in the chapter 'Alienated and Fragmented Maternities': Black Womens Contemporary Reproductive Politics I rely on Angela Davis' conception of alienated and fragmented maternities as an organizing tool for charting the historical complexities of black women's reproduc tive politics. In her essay, Surrogates and Outcast Mothers, Davis connects black women's reproductive experiences to the legacies of racism in the United S tates. These experiences form a central aspect of black women's reproductive politics, and is echoed in legal scholar Dorothy Roberts'
56 statement that reproductive politics in America inevitably involves racial politics (9). Unlike other feminist theories on motherhood, black feminist/womanist approaches require issues of gender to be considered along with race and class as interlocking factors that affect how black women construct the subjective space of motherhood. It also requires a diligent attention toward how history has affected social relations and cu ltural production (Carby 252). From this vantage point, I want to look at how motherhood and race remain conjoined within a complex matrix of citations and referents that require one another as co originating and co-dependent forms of oppression rather than merely parallel, compounded, or intersect ing forms; and that these codependent structures of race and sex converge especially on the mother who reproduces racial boundaries in her function as subservient procreator (Doyl e 21 ). Slavery marks a significant milestone in the development of this his torical trajectory. Black fertility and reproduction was a significant conundrum for the nation during the development of post -bellum America. Not only were black people no longer legally available as slave labor (though black labor was still largely explo ited through peony and sharecropping for decades after emancipation), but also and more significantly, those same black people also now possessed constitutional rights as citizens through the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.4 Black America ns, who in the years right after the Civil War outnumbered whites in the South could now vote, hold property, serve on juries, etc. As a result, a number of political and legal techniques to curb black citizenship emerged not to mention the outright terr orist tactics of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan in order to maintain a privileged white male domination of the nation. Jim Crow, the massive disenfranchisement of black voters, and the legal doctrine of separate but equal all rear their heads during thi s period. In almost every domain, black people became a liability to the power struc ture, and the target of this particular
57 problem congealed around the familiar physical grammar of the reproductive bodies of black wome n established during slavery.5 Thi s physical grammar gains reinforcement as genetics, technologies of birth control, and the science of eugen ics converge at the turn of 20th century America. Importantly, eugenic researchers began to study vigorously the differential birth rate, the dif ference between reproduction rates among the fit and the unfit. Sterilization laws soon followed, and between 1907 and 1931, sterilization was used by the state as a countermeasure to eugenically minded fears of degenerate reproduction contaminating the nation.6 These laws targeted the so -called unfit, feebleminded, and insane, but in actual practice disproportionately targeted immigrant, black and Native American women. Furthermore, the criteria for designations such as feeblemindedness were linked t o female sexual activity, particularly promiscuity among women and out of -wedlock pregnancies. Laura Doyle writes about the rise of eugenics during this period and the two-fold deployment of eugenic arguments to shore up power for the racial patriarchy. She cites, of course, the negative eugenics of forced sterilization. She also describes the parallel narrative of positive eugenics, in which white racialized motherhood is celebrated and encouraged. It is within this discursive space of positive eugenics that the exaltation of motherhood and mothers becomes necessary to the propagation of the white race and America as a nation. Motherhood is promoted as the representational space of public dignity and value that used to be reserved as a utopian promise fo r women (Berlant 147). National identity becomes inextricably linked to the corporeal ity of the (white) female form, Berlant continues, its fat, its femaleness, its fetus explicate[s] its status as a national stereotype and as a vehicle of production o f national culture (148).
58 African Americans were not inured to the cultural rhetoric swirling aro und the idealized racial mother and her opposite, whose body was thought to hold the threat of cultural contamination and degeneration. As a resistance to th e myriad political and economic oppressions that sought to destroy black life, black women in the 1930s and 1940s began to participate willingly in the construct of the the black lady, the middle class, professional black woman who representsthe politi cs of respectability (Collins 80). In the first half of the 20th century, these black women embrace d motherhood as a resistance to Jim Cro w, eugenics, racial science, and the symbolic status of their bodies and their children as threats or sites of harm i nflicted against the sociocultural norm They become determined through the use of the cultural institutions of the church-house and school -house to raise families of productive black citizens against all odds. Black women participate d in the cult of raci alized motherhood to produce black children this time, for black people, a black nation.7 While this certainly speaks to a reproductive and maternal agency reclaimed by black women resistant to white racial domination, the black lady remains largely defi ned by, created, and made legible in the social realm through her reproductive labor and her vociferous claims to respectable femininity, in this case in service to the construction of a black nation. Historically there has been a concerted effort on the p art of the white racial patriarchy to exploit the reproductive labor of black women, so much so that their bodies were made to function as reproductive machines for a slave economy. When those women were no longer useful to that end post emancipation t heir fertility was controlled, curbed and systematically annihilated through the rise of eugenic arguments that hinged on the image of the hyper reproductive black womans body as its referent. As a final component of the eugenic movement, researchers soug ht to tie metaphysical superiority or degeneracy to scientifically racial
59 categories, with black women still representing the threatening problem of rampant fertility. To put it another way, the development of the representations of the breeding black woman, the sterilized black woman, and the black lady all require the referent of the hyper reproductive, ever -fertile soil of the black womans body. The political, social, and economic aims of each image are different, contingent upon the needs of their particular political moment, but each similarly evokes a legibility of black maternity that has persisted sinc e slavery. B y the dawn of the post Civil Rights era, the hyper -reproductive black mother had been secured as fact of black womanhood. One has to look no further for proof than the suggestion made by former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett in 2005 that: [Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.8 Riding the pathological ethos created by the words a nd images surrounding the Hurricane Katrina disaster that year, Bennett suggested the abortion of black babies as a solution to the problems of crime. Bennetts comment renders actual black women invisible; he never names or blames black mothers directly. Yet, of course, black mothers remain overwhelmingly present, embedded within the crevices of his statement as simply women available fo r compulsory abortions or women responsible for giving birth to and raising criminal children. Black entertainer Bill C osby perpetuated a similar logic in 2004 when he publicly targeted black women as responsible for the lack of economic and political gains in black communities since the Civil Rights era. In the name of black uplift and decency, Cosby engaged images of you ng black women as hyper -sexual and hyper reproductive: Five or six different children, same woman, eight, ten different husbands or whateverIm telling you, theyre young enough. Hey, you have a baby when youre twelve. Your baby turns thirteen and has a baby, how old are you? Huh? Grandmother. By the time youre twelve, you could have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. Im just predicting.9
60 Cosby's prediction and Bill Bennett's recommendation join a litany of contemporary referenc es to the hyper reproductive black mother in the post Civil Rights Era. Important to my work are the characteristics assigned to those mothers: promiscuity, immorality, criminality, unmarried, unmarriageable, ignorance, and youth. These kinds of attacks ar e unique in our current political mome nt in the way that they work to obscure structural racism as a social ill, and instead concentrate attention on issues of personal responsibility and sexual propriety, a clear example of what Collins calls the new racism. T he social/political analyses here create the background n ecessary to explain why black women may experience and value motherhood in ways that do not repudiate it. These observations of the alienated and fragmented nature of black motherhood fo rm the foundation through which I will read The Color Purple and PUSH Understanding how these novels function requires an understanding of the images and ideologies to which black women are responding. In the following sections I will consider how these t wo novels use the dialectic of maternal experience and metaphor as a means of writing the lives of marginalized black maternal figures into post Civil Righ ts politics, and how these figures wield mama's gun toward the evolution of their transgressive mater nal identity. 'Heroic Maternal Self -Transformation' in Alice Walker's The Color Purple In this sec tion, I will use Claudia Tate's description of heroic maternal self transformation to analyze The Color Purple a text that is either celebrated or denigra ted for its concern with the private, domestic, affective world of a subjugated black woman. Though much work has been done to show how Celie grows in the novel, Tate's formulation provides the critical lens though which to link Celies transformation to m otherhood. Celie's na rrative within this multi -voiced text has been criticized for a lack of attention to the methods of socio-political protest that have become recognizable in the African -American literary tradition.10 Walkers
61 protest, if you will, seems focused on Celies personal transformation as expressed through motifs of confession. Celies localized, private journey from the fracture of sexual and emotional abuse to that of personal autonomy and sexual liberation is one of the novels strengths. Yet as Lauren Berlant writes, Celie must gain agency within her immediate, subjective environment before she can come to terms with her impersonal or institutional relations (837). Berlant locates the novels engagement with institutional relations, particularly the project of national identity formation, in Netties letters to Celie, which detail the complexities of race, class, and gender in the wider world. Berlant reads the racial and gendered social context for the novel as deflected from Celie s tale onto events in the economic and cultural marketplace (843). On the other hand, Linda Selzer takes issue with responses to The Color Purple like the Berlant essay, that see Celies private explorations as preemptive of public, institutional, stru ctural investigations into her abjection (67 68). Selzer embarks on a project to situate the critiques of race and class as coextensive with Celies domestic reflections (68). Yet even in this expression of sympathy for the text and other women's te xts that are often critically dismissed for their sentimentality and happy endings Selzer still relegates the novel to a kind of positively imagined marginality. (pg. 79, footnote 1). Furthermore, Selzer's reading relies heavily on the narrative moments that revolve around Netties travels in the colonial world, Sophias incarceration and forced labor in the Mayors home, and Squeaks rape as arbiters of the novels public, political consciousness, rather than any of Celie's experiences. Celie's abjection in the bulk of the novel obscures the kind of reading that I think is possible. I want to embark on a project that situates Celies story within both a framework of the domestic/personal and the public/political. I am asking: How can The Color Purple be r ead as an expression of political, historical consciousness; an expression of public and private desire, even if it is a desire
62 unfulfilled? How can Celie's writing be seen as a comment upon and even conversation with the public sphere? And, finally, how does Celies engagement with her troubled motherhood inform her ability to respond to these concerns? I think Claudia Tate's insights into the implications of maternal discourse in black women's texts can provide a glimpse of new possibilities for reading T he Color Purple and later, in this chapter, Sapphires novel PUSH which I argue extends Walkers work in The Color Purple to situate motherhood as a heroic and transgre ssive identity for black women. Tate's important work Domestic Allegories of Political Desire establishes how maternal discourse was manipulated toward a politics of freedom and autonomy early within black women's literary tradition. Tate examines two of the earliest publications by U.S. b lack women, Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859). In Domestic Allegories Tate asserts that Jacobs and Wilson utilize maternal discourses of desire as a particularly black and female politicization of domestic ideology (26). Against the historica l backdrop of 19th-century alienated and fragmented maternities of black women, Jacobs and Wilson write themselves into the social and political discourses of abolition and liberation by participating in the 19th-century cult of true womanhood, which inc ludes a maternal ideology that emphasizes women's natural roles as child -bearers and nurturers. Within this framework, womanhood, true womanhood, cannot be achi eved outside of motherhood. Tate explains that the expression of maternal feelings of protecti on, nurturance and love for children, allows Jacobs and Wilson a kind of fictive participation in these institutions (womanhood, motherhood and family) [that] constitutes a political discourse of desire (Tate 25). Whats more, Jacobs and Wilson act as tr ansgressive mothers themselves, mothering the texts that they write and inverting the traditional beliefs about black womens capacities for authorship. Both texts of
63 their texts and motivations as writers have been misunderstood and misread as facile co pies of the sentimental fiction of their eras, and have suffered relative literary obscurity until recent years when a number of scholars have revisited their work.11 Tate intervenes in this marginalization in order to shed light on the texts sophisticated commentaries on the commingled ideologies of race, family, domesticity and citizenship. Similarly, The Color Purple has been misread and misunderstood because of its insulated narrative world of a coming -of age black woman, and the depiction of the intima te violence that marks this process for Celie. Although Alice Walker's novel became a literary sensation in 1982, winning both an American Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize the following year and spending several weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it faced a scrutiny similar to that of Jacob's text, which was published more than 120 years earlier. 12 Part of the issue was that The Color Purple like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl brea ches social and literary convention ... to make the sexual oppression of an adolescent black female a symmetrical paradigm to that of the brutally whipped bondman for the institutions depravity (Tate 26). This breach offers a radical revision in terms of how nove ls of domesticity are read; Tate concludes that Ja cobs domestic mode for asserting her freedom marginalized Incidents within the genre of slave narrative as exemplified by the best -selling narrative of Frederick Douglass published in 1845.13 Harriet Jacobs detailed her experiences as the object of sexual violence as an enslaved woman in the home of Dr. Flint. After many years of trying to secure freedom from the harassment she endured from Dr. Flint, Jacobs initiates a kind of sexual liberation for herself through the selection of another white planter, Mr Sands, as a sexual partner. This relationship was certainly affected by the unequal social status of the planter and Jacobs. Yet, Jacobs' insistence on resisting Dr. Flint and choosing who would father her children remains one of the remarkable
64 aspects o f this text. Here, freedom takes shape in the form of a domestic desire for the nurturance of free black children and a pronounced desire to write, which Tate describes as heroic maternal self transformation (38). The powerlessness and abjection of the enslaved black woman gets reconfigured in both Jacobs and Wilsons texts via the black woman's successful fulfillment of motherhood and her accomplishment a s a writer. Parallel to the triumphant assertion of manhood that is exemplified in Douglass' text in his physical challenge of the overseer Covey, the emergence of black womanhood is aligned with maternal agency in Jacobs and Wilson's texts. The Color Purple is an extension of this tradition, with a slightly different focus Celies developing maternal agency talks back to the post Civil Rights era specter of the hyper reproductive black woman. Celie, as a maternal figure, exemplifies many of the characteristics of this particular controlling image, yet Walker develops her as a character who defies the expectations of her place in the world in order to transform it herself. Celie Emerges as a W riter In The Color Purple Celie begins to write against all odds, and it is her confusion about her sexual victimization and pregnancy that compels her to take u p the pen. The first entry in her collection of letters recounts the horrors of her fourteenth year, beginning last spring, when Celie's ailing mother starts refusing sex with Pa.14 Pa turns his sexual interests toward Celie, rapes and impregnates her. After writing about these events, Celie ends her first letter by writing: And now I feels sick every time I be the one to cook (2). Shifting from the past to the present, Celie describes the morning sickness that is often an early sign of pregnancy. I fi nd it significant that she begins writing at this point in her life; not when Mama dies or she leaves the house to marry Mr., but as she discovers that she is pregnant. Alienated from her body, she asks God in the first letter to give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me (1). She then spends the next several letters detailing and commenting on the reproductive lives of the black women
65 in her community. The narrative begins to establish that what is happening to her is an initiation into a t roublesome cohort of black mothers that includes her mama, Pa's second wife, and Mr.'s first wife. Celie's short early letters put her story into a context of these women's lives that include successive, forced pregnancies, oppressive child rearing duties, physical exhaustion, reproductive illness, lack of sexual control, and punishment for sexual agency. Limited though they are in terms of structural, institutional critique, Celie's early letters, like her early literacy show a rudimentary engagement with powers that control her life and, importantly, they show a desire for autonomy that parallels he r desire for her stolen babies. Though the scope of Celie's earliest letters seem almost claustrophobic in their concentration within her domestic, private worl d and that of her relatives, even her earliest letters show a critical consciousness about gender inequality. Her observations are not racialized, nor are they concerned yet with the wider politics of the world. She does, however, gesture toward the institutions of the church, the home and the school as sites of subjection for women like herself. Gradually, the letters provide more detail that demonstrate s Celie's budding awareness about social inequalities and how they affect her and other women Celie's e ighth letter extends her emerging gender consciousness by making clever allusions to marriage as akin to colonial conquest. As she describes the events leading to her arranged marriage to Mr. Celie begins by telling how long it took for Mr. to make up hi s mind to take me (10) At this point, Celie holds no fair y tale illusions about marriage. Certainly after observing the lives of Mama, Pa's new wife and Mr.'s first wife she has a non -romantic view of marriage. Her language, though it mirrors the words of a marriage vow do you take this woman... the vocabulary also flatly s uggests a theft Women are objects to be traded, simply taken and moved into various households headed by men their fathers, husbands or brothers. As a result of this awareness Celie writes about a
66 plan for her and Nettie to run away. Celie is now quite savvy about the sexual politics of her surroundings. She understands that Nettie's physical beauty makes her sexually desirable to Mr. Where once Celie wanted to distract Mr. fr om Nettie's beauty by trying to git in his light (6) whenever he looke d at her in order to protect Nettie from the kind of violation she has experienced, Celie now wants to use Mr.'s attraction to Nettie in order to secure freedom for them both. Interest ingly, t his passage is juxtaposed to a discussion of Christopher Co lumbus, in which Celie reflects on how Nettie helped her remember who discover America : Nettie say, you think about cucumbers. That what Columbus sound like. I learned all about Columbus in the first grade, but look like he the first thing I forgot. She say Columbus come here in boats called the Neater, the Peter, and the Santomareater. Indians so nice to him he force a bunch of 'em back home with him to wait on the queen. (10) Celie's lam poon of colonial history is situated directly after her lampoon of marriage. I see parallels in these two narrative strands; Celie knows that she has been stolen, or rather taken in marriage and textually connects this experience with the theft of Indian s in the New World. The narrative juxtaposition of these two strands of thought create a kind of overlapping, yet subtle critique of the world and demonstrate how Celie begins to realize that I ain't dumb (10). The way this passage is crafted with an a brupt, hard shift in narrative, lacking transitional language creates the illusion of Celies stream of consci ousness. The passage transmits the sense that Celie is simply writing about unrelated moments, when, in fact, I argue that Walker is developing the critical consciousness of her character through a literary technique that will be seen again In the same letter, Celie offers another subtle critique, which is also marked by a juxtaposing shift in narrative. She begins to describe how Pa plans to take Celie out of school. Ne ttie protests and explains how Ms. Beasley, the schoolteacher thinks Celie smart too: Pa say, Whoever listen to anything Addie Beasley have to say. She run off at the mouth so much no man would have her. That how come she have t o teach school. He never look up
67 from cleaning his gun. Pretty soon a bunch of white mens come walking cross the yard. They have guns too. Pa git up and follow 'em. The rest of the week I vomit and dress wild game. (11) As Celie writes about the trauma of being taken out of school, she makes a connection between the power wielded by Pa and a bunch of white mens. Pa exerts his patriarchal power by destroying Celie's access to school, a place that she receives fulfillment and is acknowledged as a thinking p erson. Pa's decision is in effect an effort to silence Celie, keep her in her place, and make her marriageable. Pa's remarks about Addie Beasley reinforce his notion that an educated woman who speaks her mind is not desirable. He cleans his gun as he makes this declaration, which illustrates the kind of destructive power his decision is meant to have on Celie. Yet, Celie still manages to place her observation of Pa in a larger context. Not only do the white mens show up with their guns, but Pa git up and follow 'em (11). Pa's masculinity becomes validated through its association with white masculinity, particularly through the use of guns. Liberation for Celie, which will be observed incrementally as the novel unfolds, will come through her resistance to black male oppression, which she cites early in the text. Though she does not explicitly name it, Celie sees and writes about how black male oppression of black women is inextricably linked to and sanctioned by white male power. Though she still struggles with claiming a subjective space for herself through these early observations, Celie begins to use her epistolary literary form to draw together events that have social and political meaning when put side by side in the text. These textual moments of juxt aposition recur throughout the novel; they are Celie's form of subtle social and political critique her use of mamas gun. Writing Her Babys N ame The experience of becoming mother to Mr.'s children eventually forces Celie outside of the insulated environment of Pa's house and front porch and into the wider world of Mr.'s house and, significantly, the town. It is in the public, economic life of the town that Celie's maternal
68 desire forces her to come into contact with the institutionalized racial oppr ession that controls her life outside the home. On a chance visit to the general store, Celie sees a young girl who she believes to be her daughter, who had been taken from her by Pa right after she was born. The girl is with another adult black woman, her adoptive mother, who is described as a lady. Celie sees the pair in the store and describes a maternal desire and longing that reaches back to her memories of her daughter as an infant. Celie says she saw her baby girl and invokes a naturalized recogn ition of her I think she mine. My heart say she mine (14). Celie expresses a maternal sweetness and concern for the girl because she senses that she is her own biological child. She recalls how she embroidered the child's name on her daidies, which is another kind of writing or inscription that creates a sense of self and a sense of ownership for Celie. Interestingly, as Celie continues to describe watching her daughter and the lady in the store, she also describes the lady's exchange with the white sho p clerk. The store clerk, who has been watching Celie and the lady speak to one another, rudely interrupts them and rushes the lady's purchase, because we got other customers sides you (15). Celie continues to write: He snatch the cloth and thump down t he bolt. He don't measure. When he think he got five yard he tare it off (15). Celie is careful to detail in her letter the blatant disregard she observes in the clerk's treatment of the lady, who has done nothing but speak pleasant. The clerk's racist treatment of the black lady in the store leaves Celie diminished. She writes that after she walked out of the store: I don't have noth ing to offer and I feels poor (15). The other woman leaves the store upset as well; when she realizes that her husband, the Reverend, is not already there to pick her up, she appears as if she gon cry (15). In this exchange, both black women of differing class status have had the warmth of their meeting and conversation ruined by their encounters with racism in the store.
69 Still, even at this low point, Celie's letter shifts the narrative to recover the dignity for the two women. Outside of the store, they each wait for their husbands, and Celie asks the name of the little girl. She say, oh we calls her Pauline. My heart k nock. Then she frown. But I calls her Olivia (16). The typographical emphasis on the I comes from Celie, and it speaks to the way Celie perceives the sense of self that the black lady possesses by having the power to call her daughter what she wants. Fo r Celie this revelation is a double joy because Olivia is th e name that Celie gave her daughter before Pa took her away. Though the adoptive mother has another explanat ion of the source of the name don't she look like an Olivia to you? Celie still ex periences maternal validation in this exchange through her power to name her daughter (16). Both women seem to erase, or at least ameliorate, their sense of dismissal at the clerk's counter through their mutual power to name the child though this power is experienced separately in each womans mind In Celie's letter, the name conversation has the effect of recovery and healing for the women. This healing is demonstrated by the ease and freedom with which Celie and the lady laugh at a joke just moments aft er they discuss the name. Taken all together, the early part of the text of fers a way to see Celie transform herself from the darkness, silence, and ignorance of her victimization and pregnancy into the status of mother, a status validated in part through sentimental tropes of love, care and nurturing of babies and children. Celies experience reflects what Tate describes as heroic maternal self transformation, the ability to replace the social alienation inherent to racial oppression with symbolic mother love (38). Of course, Celies sentimental attachment to her children is tempered by her ambivalence toward her other mothering roles, specifically her work as caregiver to Mr.s children. Celie describes disliking Mr.'s children, who she cares for out of fear and obligation, rather than love. She writes that I don't feel nothing for them. Patting Harpo back like patting a dog. It more like
70 patting apiece of wood (31). At one point, Celie says that just the thought of anybody gitting pregnant make me wan t to cry (261). Even with these attitudes toward motherhood, Celie attaches strong, positive meaning to her role as mother to her own biological children. Keeping in mind t he reproductive politics I outlined in the previous section, I have tried to show h ow Celie's sense of herself as a mother as problematic thwarted, and marginaliz ed as it is in the novel contribute s to her developing sense of self and social consciousness the ability to see the world without man on her eyeball. I wanted to demonstrate how Celie's alienated and fragmented maternity narratively coincides with her coming to voice through writing, and how her growing awareness of her social world predates her encounters with Shug and her letters from Nettie. Celie writes and reflec ts throughout the novel on her arrested motherhood, but by the end of the novel, her ability to call herself a mothe r and free woman compliment one another Certainly she assumes a number of subject -forming identities shopkeeper, home owner, friend, and lover of women but her identity as a mother with the power to name and care for her children should also be included in Celies subjective accomplishments I am so happy, she writes in a letter to her sister Nettie, I got love, I got work, I got mone y, friends and time. And you alive and be home soon. With our children (222). The next section on PUSH will show how Sapphire's novel takes the impetus toward heroic maternal self -transformation in The Color Purple a step further. Push, Preshecita Push: Mapping Motherhood as Transgressive Subjectivity in Sapphires Post -Civil Rights Dystopia While the role of gender and identity politics especially the politics of b lack motherhood, finds itself subtly and deeply embedded in the narrative structure of Th e Color Purple the novel PUSH seems to wear its politics on its sleeve. Described in book reviews as sensational, polemic, ideological and manipulative, PUSH has shocked readers since its debut in 1996 for its intense
71 depiction of the repeated victimizati on of a black girl named Precious Jones.15 Set in 1980s Harlem, PUSH describes the harrowing coming-of age that Precious endures: Rape by her father, molestation by her mother, and neglect and abuse by both. Outside of the confines of her apartment, Preciou s encounters hostile education and social welfare systems that figure her as another statistic of the rising black underclass. Junkies, pimps and prostitutes scatter the streets of her Harlem world like detritus; they are discarded, wasted lives that prefi gure the only future Precious can imagine. That is until she becomes pregnant for the second time by her father and enters an adult literacy program. In the program, Precious not only learns the rudiments of literacy, but she becomes a poet and enters a lo ving community of other women who become a surrogate family to her. The emerging literacy that Sapphire traces in this novel is motivated by Precious's maternal desire; her commitment to writing tightly parallels her commitment to caring for her children. The act of childbirth the push necessary to deliver her babies becomes the novel's ce ntral metaphor for personal empowerment. Sapphire crafts this maternal metaphor of empowerment against the grimmest of circumstances, and it is in this way that textur es of Walker's novel can be seen showing through in Sapphire's narrative. The way that a teenaged Celie must deal with the confusion at the circumstances of her pregnancy, so too does Precious. Importantly however, Precious's motherhood remains negatively marked in the novel (and in the wider arena of critical reception and reader response). Precious has no redemptive moment where she realizes Pa, not Pa, as Celie does, which goes far to help the latter legitimize her experiences of maternity. Precious, w ho reads The Color Purple in her literacy class, references the importance of Celie's revelation and later asks her mother if Carl Jones really is her father. She finds out he is her biological father which abandons Precious's motherhood in the category o f incest. Precious motherhood
72 remains marginalized and stigmatized because it exists in contradistinction to the bourgeois family unit. Unlike Celie who gets to claim triumphantly at the end of her story a reunited and healed, albeit alternative, family u nit, Precious ends her story with further estrangement from her family and a diagnosis of HIV. Yet, Precious' manifests heroic maternal desire from a transgressive subjective space. In this section, I will explore how PUSH acts as a palimpsest of The Color Purple writing over and extending the imagined space for an even more radically imagined black motherhood than Alice Walker crafts in her earlier novel. Though written more than a decade apart, I argue that the texts of Walker and Sapphire respond to si milar representations of black motherhood that had begun emerging in the post Civil Rights period, which I have described and traced earlier in this chapter. I will extend from Tates notion of heroic maternal self transformation, which operates in Walker' s text, to the kind of transgressive subjectivity that I arg ue appears in Sapphire's work. Tates construction of heroic maternal self -transformation has been useful to excavate the importance of maternal desire in The Color Purple Central to Tates figur ation of maternal subjectivity is a politicization of domestic ideology and a use of the sentimental fictional form as a means to participate in and stake claims to the cult of true womanhood, which included a right to raise and nurture ones own childre n. I have tried to show how Celies writing and motherhood commingle in the expression of the kind of maternal subjectivity that Tate describes. What happens, however, when maternal subjectivity emerges from such a place of abjection and marginalization as to render it ultimately incompatible with any dominant domestic ideology? PUSH tests these boundaries by appalling readers with its grim images, which black attorney and critic Vaughn A. Carney said feeds white Amer ica's
73 morbid fascination with the most depraved, violent, misogynist, vulgar, low -life element in the African -American experience. I resent having my people defined by the lowest elements among us. To see the majority of African -Americans as shards of a degraded and dysfunctional monolith i s hugely insulting and unfair. Carneys perspective shows the difficulty of reading maternal heroism or empowerment within this text. However, I ultimately agree with bell hooks who calls for a revision in criticism of black cultural products that relies strictly on the kind of politics of representation that Carney's quote suggests. She writes that even on cultural ground, discussions of black subjectivity are often limited to the topic of representation, good and bad images, or contained by projects co ncerned with reclaiming and/or inventing traditionsInterestingly, both these endeavors are not in any essential way oppositional (Radical 19). She explains that arguments about good/bad images reinforces the binaristic thinking inherent in the Western philosophies that have propagated racism and sexism, and tradition formation/canon formation legitimizes a high/low dichotomy that is also hegemonic. In hooks formation, oppositional thinking comes from artists poised on the margins (19). She describes herself as exemplary of this border -lying identity, but I am far more interested in the marginality of a character like Precious Jones, who lies even farther on the outside of the imagined critical community black women in academe w ithin w hich h ooks s ituates herself. Yet, I appreciate hooks attention to the margins, which is where many black mothers find themselves For Sapphire to craft a novel in the mid 1990s about the invisible/hypervisible fat, loud, ignorant, black teen welfare cheat and for her to write her story as redemptive and emancipatory is exemplary of what hooks calls counter -hegemonic cultural practice (22). I read Precious Jones as exemplary of a kind of transgressive or radical black maternal subjectivity that in part includes the d isavowal of the white gaze and a privileging of self recognition and self -expression.
74 Quest for L iteracy Coming to voice, coming to self through writing is no small feat in the confines of Precious' world. Although she is old enough to be in the eleventh grade, she has been held back and languishes in the ninfe grade. She is functionally illiterate, and she finds herself inundated regularly with the tyranny of print: school files, social service files, tests, and school books. Each site of writing stands as a marker of her inadequacy and failure to learn, catch up, be normal (5). Precious describes her suspicion of tests: There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of m e an' my muver my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible (3 0). Though the structures of her world render her young, black, femaleness invisible to all except the police and social welfare agencies, Precious enters the novel with a strong voice. T his departure marks a major difference in Sapphires story and the literacy narrative of Celie in The Color Purple Unlike Celie, Precious is not silent, and she begins her story orally, trying to explain why I'm talkin' (3). She regularly talks back to teachers, classmates, and others that she encounters. She also presents a lively inner monologue that suggests her worldliness and own critical self -fashioning. In fact, the beginning of the story has a speakerly feel; Sapphire captures the cadences and rh ythms of Precious's speech on each page. The sense of Precious's functioning voice is also exemplified through her quick wit and penchant for obscene similes, such as she look at me like I say I wanna suck a dog's dick or some shit (7). Nevertheless, Pre cious expresses a desire to advance academically, and specifically to learn to read and write, which emerges in the narrative coextensive to her pregnancy. Impregnated for the second time by her father (as Celie was at the start of her story), Precious fac es expulsion from her public high school, until a school administrator suggests that she enroll in an alternative school. Precious is not sure what an alternative school is or how it can help
75 her, but she has a feeling that it will be an opportunity for her to finally get the education that she has missed. The night before she visits the alternative school she has a dream: I dream I'm in an elevator that's going up up up so far I think I'm dying. The elevator open and it's the coffee cream -colored man fro m Spanish talk land. I recognize him from when I was having my baby bleeding on the kitchen floor. He put his hand on my forehead again and whisper, Push, Precious, you gonna hafta push. (16) Within Precious's dream it is clear how she equates learning and literacy with ascendancy and upward, progressive movement. Moving forward also means coming close to dying. To attend the alternative school will allow her the opportunity to ride that elevator up up up toward education, but she is fearful of coming cl ose to death, perhaps a figurative death to the only social world that she has known. What stands out in this passage, too, is how closely Precious aligns the struggle toward education with her experience of childbirth. The Puerto Rican paramedic who helpe d deliver her first baby on her kitchen floor re appe ars in this dream. In their real encounter, he gently touches Precious on the head and belly and tells her as she has contractions: I want you to push, you hear me mami, when that shit hit you again, go with it and push, Preshec ita. Push (10). His return in the dream draws a parallel between the kind of intense transformation Precious fears as she embarks on her literacy quest and the kind of transformation she has endured during pregnancy and childbirt h. Sapphire makes an important link between print literacy and motherhood consistently throughout the novel: To push past the private shame of illiteracy into the public strength of literacy, even poetry, is a metamorphosis akin to the shift from the alie nating experience of forced pregnancy into the empowered status of motherhood. Giving birth to her first child who is born with Down Syndrome and is eventually placed in an institution provides Precious a catalyst for describing how she became invisibl e to the world. In the hospital, just after giving birth, a swirl of memories rush her mind as she cries for her ugly baby and then cries for
76 her self. She mourns for her girl -self that has been devastated by the molestation and abuse she suffers in her h ome. She realizes how that abuse cut her off from her education. Remembering the filthy touch of her father Carl when she was i n elementary school, she says: Carl is the night and I disappear in it. And the daytime don't make no sense...What difference it make whether gingerbread house on top or bottom of the page ... I disappears from the day, I just put it all down book, doll, jump rope, my head, myself. I don't think I look up again till EMS find me on floor. (18) The elements of her child identity mu st be abandoned in order to cope with the trauma of her experience, and in the process she too abandons her head and herself. Significantly, however, the catalyst for her emergence from this nightmare world is the birth of her child. Writing Herself into t he W orld In her literacy class, Precious begins to make further connections between her life as a mother and her subjectivity. Clearly she has much to learn in class in order to read, but her ability to imagine herself as a mother to her new baby coincides with her burgeoning ability to write about life. Precious begins this journey to transgressive maternal identity by revealing her second pregnancy which she had easily kept hidden. Already overweight, Precious was able to conceal her growing body. A dmini strators at her public school suspect that she was pregnant, but Precious denies it. She is ashamed. She also has not told her mother. She is afraid of being beaten. However, after attending literacy class for a month where she sits in the circle with ot her girls in similar circumstances, she don't pretend I'm not pregnant no more. I let it above my neck, in my head. Not that I didn't know it before but now it's like part of me; more than something stuck in me, growing in me, making me bigger (62). Here she is able to claim the child as part of her new, more hopeful self -concept. It is interesting how her sentence makes a double gesture toward the literal and the figurative. The child that she now accepts is growing in me and making me bigger, which makes literal reference to the biology of pregnancy.
77 However, the language here also suggests figurative forms of personal transformation, such as intellectual and social growth or a bigger sense of her self and her world. She makes this clear again via h er connection with her second baby, when she proudly proclaims I bet chu one thing, I bet chu my baby can read. Bet a mutherfucker that! Betcha he ain' gonna have no dumb muver (63). Precious holds fast to the ideal of mother and child together, growing together, getting bigger together. Her literacy is tied intimately to the baby and vice versa. She says that soon as he git born I'ma start doing the ABCs. This my baby My muver took Little Mongo but she ain't taking this one (64, emphasis added). The i mprint of Celies story is strong in this passage. Celie had to intuit her role as her mother because her children were kept away from her for so many years. The moment she encounters Olivia in the store is more of a feeling than a fact because her baby had been stolen and given to another family. Precious confidence, however, writes over Celies insecurity. So instead of Celies I think she mine. My heart say she mine (14), there is Precious with This my baby. Precious becomes more resolved to protec t her baby and raise it on her own. She also expresses the maternal desire to have control over what and how her baby will learn. Precious takes pride in the fact that her second child will have the opportunity to learn to read. Compared to the first ugly baby, the second baby, the baby who will read will be the healthy, smart, hopeful child who reflects her own improvements, which she sees as inextricably linked. Raising her child is not a burden to her educational pursuits or her self actualization, rat her it is a necessity. Precious takes ownership of this e ducation, which she wants to tailor to the specific ities of the subject space she occupies as a young black woman growing up in urban America. She describes how she wants to put pictures on the wall of her babys room, and how she plans to read to her son each night. S he even begins to teach the unborn baby the alphabet by
78 reading aloud. Rather than simply recite the ABCs, however, Precious writes in her barely literate script, her own version of a gr ade -school primer: A is fr Afrc (for Africa) B is for u bae (you baby) C is cl w bk (colored we black) (65) She does the entire alphabet, including F is Fuck, I I somb (somebody), or N nf kkk (North America America=KKK) (65 66). The parenthetical notes are provided in the novel by Ms. Rain, the teacher who has encouraged her students to write even though they have not mastered reading and spelling skills yet. Ms. Rain has provided the opportunity for her students learn by unlearni ng the rules of sch ool, what Norbese -Phillips would call the father tongue language that leads to anguish. Ms. Rains gift, so to speak, allows Precious the freedom to accept her transgressive identity and express herself freely outside of the bounds of what constitutes go od written English Precious accepts this gift, and begins to feel comf ortable because she now equates education with power and creativity rather than domination and marginalization. The dialectic between mothering as metaphor for creativity and mothering as a phenomenological experience resounds strongly in the passages above. Precious difficult labor acts as metaphor for her emerging literacy; the way she pushes against intersecting oppressions to claim her right to write acts as reflection of the proce ss of giving birth. On the level of experience, Precious struggles to learn to read and write in order to provide education for her son. Each and every day she picks up a pen to write, in part because she does not want to be a dumb muver and in part beca use she realizes that she too has something important t o say.
79 Conclusion The Color Purple and PUSH are two novels that emerge at different points in the post Civil Rights Era, and even though many intellectual and popular ideologies changed during the year s 1982 to 1996, ideas about hyper reproductive, irresponsible black mothers did not change much. During this time there were many novels that placed the maternal subjectivities of black women front and center, but these two novels stand out for the way tha t they propose print literacy writing as a viable means to challenge and critique hegemonic ideas about black motherhood as well as black womens capacity for social and political citizenship. Further, they each suggest in different registers that moth erhood, particularly the desire among some black women to raise their own children, can be a privileged site of opposition, resistance and even transgression. Notes 1 For background on the historic relationships between conceptions of black and white womanhood, see Hazel Carbys Reconstructing Woman: The Emergence of the AfroAmerican Woman Novelist (New York : Oxford University Press, 1987). 2 My question emerges from insights made by French feminist Helene Cixous, who makes important connections between writing and female embodiment, specifically as mother. My question seeks to extend her observations into a more racially inflected context. Cixouss connection between mothering, milk and subjectivity, is important, and one that is echoed in the wor ks of other Fre nch feminists For more background on French feminism, see The French Feminism Reader edited by Kelly Oliver, and The Modernist Madonna: The Semiotics of the Maternal Metaphor 125. 3 Dubey s assertion about writing is often at odds with other major per spectives. For example, Karla F.C. Holloway situates black women's literary tradition squarely in the realm of the oral: Because black women s literature is generated from a special relationship to its words, the concerns of orature and the emergence of t extual language that acknowledges its oral generation must affect the critical work that considers this tradition (69). Kevin Everod Quashie, drawing on the poetry of Norbese Phillips and Dione Brand, describes how black women writers often view colonial languages as untrustworthy, a vehicle of era sure, violence and separation (133). 4 The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship rights, such as due process an d equal protection under the law, to black people. The 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote. 5 I am using the term grammar in direct reference to the way that Hortense Spillers mobilizes this term in her 1987 essay Mama's Baby, Pap a's Ma ybe: An American Grammar.
80 6 For background on racialized sterilization abuse and responses by women of color, see Jennifer Nelson's Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2003) 7 A number of scholars have discussed the patriarchal motivations of black nationalism. While this is not the totality of the movement, much black nationalis t thought has organized itself around the fertility of black women as necessary to build a black nation. 8 Media Matters Exposes Bennett, online posting, Media Matters for America 28 Sept. 2005, 21 Nov. 2005 < http://mediamatters.org/items/200509280006> 9 Bill Cosby, Speech at 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court Decisi on, online posting, 17 Ma y 2004, 21 Nov. 2005 < http://www.eightcitiesmap.com/transcript_bc.htm>. 10 The imperative toward novels of social protest within the African American literary tradition has faced long standing contention, demonstrated in foundational essays such as Blueprint for Negro Writing by Richard Wright, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain by Langston Hughes, George Schuylers The NegroArt Hokum, James Baldwins Everybodys Protest Novel, and Zora Neale Hurstons What White Pu blishers Wont Print. In contemporary terms, the question of the distinctive place for social and political protest or even a collective sense of blackness via U.S. cultural nationalism or through diasporic consciousness within newer literary work eme rges as debates about the notion of post black. See bell hooks Postmodern Blackness, The New Cultural Politics of Difference, by Cornel West, and New Ethnicities by Stuart Hall. 11 See Henry Louis Gates, Jr.s Figur es in Black: Words, Signs, the R acial Self (New York : Oxford University Press, 1987) and Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl : New Critical E ssays edited by Rafia Zafar, Deborah Garfield. (New York : Cambridge University Press, 1996) 12 Jacqueline Bobo writes that the predominant reading, or meaning construction of The Color Purple is that the works [novel and film] negatively depict black people, especially black men (333). Bobo writes that the negative reading remains fixed in the popular imagination, despi te many interventions by readers and critics who have pursued other interpretations of the novel. 13 The sexual abuse of female slaves did appear as a concern in Douglass's narrative, but it is in Jacobs text that the issue becomes of central concern offer ing a feminized form of social protest that hinged on the individuated context of the sexually violated female slave and the morally outraged slave mother (Tate 2728). 14 Readers familiar with this novel know that Celie discovers later that Pa not Pa or rather that the man she believes to be her biological father and the father of her two children is in fact her step father. This revelation, which arrives much later in the story, becomes a narrative turning point. Lauren Berlant has read this shift as a marking Celie's entry into consciousness because it removes the negation that was imposed upon her through her subjuga tion as a victim of incest and that the new tale of paternal origins empowers Celie (840). I want to argue that the empowerment ha s its origins much earlier in the text, at the point she struggles with her identity as a mother and simultaneously begins to write. 15 The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote of PUSH in 1996: We learn that white social workers are foolish, patronizing liberals, and that men are pigs who only think about sex. Though it's easy to understand how Precious might hold all of these views, it soon becomes clear that Precious's creator, Sapphir e, is also stacking the deck.
81 CHAPTER 3 MAMAS GOT THE BLUES, OR SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A CHILDLESS MOTHER: THE BLUES AS MATERNAL COUNTER NARRATIVE IN GAYL JONES CORREGIDORA You come to hear me sing with my thighs. You come to see me open my door and sing with my thighs. -Ursa, Corregidora I talk because Im stubborn, I sing because Im free I talk because Im stubborn, I sing because Im free My daddys gone and left me, bound for Memphis, Tennessee -Gertrude Ma Rainey, Memphis Bound Blues Gertrude Pridgett gave birth to countless children; so many children that naming them all would be an u nenviable task. The da ughter who would perhaps be regarded as the closest to her mothers heart was a woman called Bessie, but there were plenty of others: classic blues women such as Alberta Hunter and Ida Cox; folk blues singer Memphis Minnie; and even contemporary blues wome n such as Koko Taylor and Bonnie Rait.1 Her children have written poems to her, plays about her, as dutiful children do, attempting to communicate with their long lost Ma across time and space.2 One of those descendants, poet Al Young writes: Im going to cry so sweet/ & so low/ & so dangerous, / Ma, / that the message is going to reach you (Young 14). Her children were not just those who idolized the woman who wore gold coins around her neck as she moaned her blues on stage, her children were her songs The woman who would come to be known as Ma Rainey created a lively body of blues recordings, ninety two in all, in a recording career that spanned just five years, from 1923 to 1928 (Lieb xii). To be sure, many of her recordings were written by a number of male composers, including her husband William Pa Rainey and Tommy Dorsey, but some of her most memorable and powerful songs, such as
82 the Prove It On Me Blues and Cell Bound Blues, are examples of her autonomous, black female voice shining through lyrically.3 Gertrude Ma Rainey has been called the Mother of the Blues because she gave birth to the style standard for the classic blues woman of the early 20th century: raw, gritty performances; an itinerant, artistic way of life; the ability to earn her own living to the point of amassing considerable wealth; and a brazen sexual politics. Within the multiple incarnations of what is called the blues, the words Mama and Ma remain terms of reverence for the kind of independent black woman embodied by Rainey, even though the blues woman is unlikely to embody the traditional characteristics of mother. She is neither a biological childbearer, nor a domestic servant charged with the qualities of nurturance, protection and purity. The biological defini tion of mother notwithstanding, the term signifies other concepts that define the function or the status of mother. Mother is a protector or nurturer of a child, and for this protection she is looked up to and holds a sanctified status in most social g roups. High esteem, however, should not be confused with real power or equity. Mother is always woman, and, as such, carries with her the patriarchal stigma of femaleness.4 So as Elaine Hansen Tuttle notes, concealed within the semantic history of the word mother is a trace of derogation, disgust, and dirtiness, which highlights the kind of contradictions inherent in the term (3). The multiple social contradictions of the term mother are intensified when one looks at its derivatives. As demonstrated through the life and times of Gertrude Ma Rainey, the ambiguities of reverence and debasement encoded in the word mother also inhere in the terms Ma and Mama, but the latter words also include a particular racialized and sexualized history of meanin g. In almost every instance, reference to the slang term Mama or Ma is particularized to black American culture and the sexual availability of a black woman. Clarence Majors
83 Dictionary of Afro -American Slang (1970) and its updated version, From Juba t o Jive (1994), are devoted to cataloging black language traditions, and both texts have entries for the word mama. The 1970 reference simply defines mama as a pretty black girl (80), while the latter reference defines it thusly: a male term for girl friend or wife; any woman, any girl and dates the usage from the 1650s to the 1990s. The word shows up in general American slang dictionaries, too, but with a distinctly racialized and sexualized cast, including a young woman, a woman (US 1917), original ly black usage; a very attractive woman cf sweet mama [originally and primarily black use]; and a sexually active or promiscuous woman cf red hot mama5 The popularity of jazz and blues recordings in the early 20th century brought what likely began as a insular black slang meaning into the mainstream American lexicon, and the use of terms like mama (or daddy) in the songs of Tin Pan Alley composers were seen as evidence of moral decline (Lindsay 371). Although linguists and other social observers of the time were loath to make direct racial associations to the growing sexualized meaning of the term, it is clear that mama was seen as a new connotation for the once highly respectable nomenclature of the family (Hart 243). Hart cites the 1917 rec ording of the song Im a Real Kind Mamma, Lookin for a Lovin Man as the advent of the sexy meaning of mama in popular culture, but he is quick to comfort his readers with a reminder that a mama or mammy need not be cullud (243). His effort t o efface the particularly African -American meaning of the term and its association with the black performers of classic blues and jazz music may have been a way to affirm the consumption of race records by white audiences, who needed to retain, on some l evel, a sense of their own respectability, at least in relation to blacks.
84 Even so, within black communities concerns around respectability have historically taken on different meanings, particularly when intra racial class politics are added to the analys is. So while the slang terms Ma and Mama are certainly not considered respectable ways of addressing a black woman in middle and upper class black society, they do act as terms of respect within working -class black communities. The way of life of Ma Rainey as perceived by people who knew her or those who listened to her music exemplifies this sense of reverence.6 Jazz musician Danny Barker describes what Raineys status as Ma meant to the musicians and audiences who enjoyed her music in the documen tary Wild Women Dont Have the Blues : Ma Rainey was Ma Rainey. When you said Ma that means mother. Ma, that means the tops. Thats the boss, the shag bully of the house. Ma Rainey. She take charge. Ma. Ma Rainey coming to town. The boss blues singer, and you respect Ma. Grandma, May Maw, Maw -Maw. Thats a mother. Someone you respect. Thats mother. Not Papa. Mam a. Barkers reflection reinforces how the term Ma is used to identify black women worthy of high esteem. Ma was a woman in control, a boss. Blue s women derived their esteem from their vocal stylings; not just their big, throaty voices, but also their way with words in comedy skits, their wicked double entendres, and p erceptive monologues on stage. Daphne Duval Harrison, who writes about Rainey and other blues women in her study Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s confirms that fluency in language is considered a powerful tool for establishing and maintaining status in the black community. Thus a man or woman who has mastered the art of signif ying, rapping, or orating can subdue any challenger without striking a blow (Harrison 65). The epigraphs for this chapter highlight the ways I think blues singing and performance overlap with sexuality and creativity, providing an alternative way of read ing the multiple significances of maternal symbolism in black culture. Keeping in mind the layered and contextual meanings of the term Ma, it is important to note the ways in which it is deployed within black cultural spaces all while maintaining an ambi guous relationship with its biological
85 and nurturing connotations. This chapter will focus on Gayl Jones novel Corregidora (19 75) and. Corregidora tells the story of Ursa, a blues singer whose maternal imperative to make generations serves to keep the m emory and history of slavery alive. Ursas maternal quest is thwarted by a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse. After being pushed down a flight of stairs by her husband, Ursa loses the baby that she was carrying and then undergoes a hysterectomy. Her barrenness becomes the central tension in the story. Yet, as Ursa copes with her inability to give birth, she also becomes a better blues singer. The blues as an art form becomes her baby in the novel, which situates her in a line of real and fictionali zed blues women who (pro)create through their musical artistry. Again, I am interested in highlighting the ways black maternal figures appear in contemporary texts in ways that transgress traditional mo des of motherhood, and how these maternal figures use mamas gun to disrupt particular socio -political discourses that centralize black motherhood. Extending f rom themes explored in Chapter 2 in which I made connections between motherhood and writing in Alice Walkers The Color Purple and Sapphires PUSH th is cha pter similarly seeks to connect figurative motherhood with womens artistic creativity. I will lay the groundwork for my close reading of Corregidora by first detailing the feminist and womanist recuperation of blues women as feminist icons within the work of Angela Davis, Hazel Carby and Daphne Duval Harrison, who situate blues women within a framework of black feminist thought. I will extend their arguments by exploring the transgressive narrative possibilities of the figure of the childless mother as offered by Elaine Hansen Tuttle, E. Patrick Johnson, L.H. Stallings and others. Their insights contextualize my formulation of the blues mama as a maternal figure, a n instance of a childless mother, which will provide the theoretical vantage point f rom which to understand my reading of Ursas mothering of the blues. I am interested in
86 exploring the multiple effects of the figure of the childless mother that link Ursa to a number of conversations within contemporary literary criticism and feminist tho ught that attempts to problematize concepts about gender. Throughout Corregidora, Ursa links her blues singing to her sexuality and to the reproductive potential of her body. For her, song is not simply a matter of voice, but rather song is akin to sexual expression. Ursa says, in the first epigraph to this chapter, that she sings with [her] thighs (67). Thighs can be read an erogenous zone as well as kind of figurative location associated with reproduction. In everyday speech, children are referred to as the fruit of the loins. Other than the vagina, the loin s, or thighs, are the only other bodily location strongly associated with childbirth. Therefore, I find it significant that Ursa s song emerge s from the thighs rather than simply her mouth I acknow ledge this wording as an overlap between sexual and creative self -expression that I see working throughout this novel. The next epigraph is a portion of the lyrics of the Memphis Bound Blues, which offers an important causal relationship between concept s of singing and freedom. The song, recorded in 1925 by Rainey, was written by Tommy Dorsey, a long-time pianist and arranger for the Rainey (Lieb x). Despite its male authorship, the song provides some insight into the way the oral expressive form of sing ing can act as a gesture of liberation for the singer. Rainey intones Dorseys lyrics, singing that she talks because shes stubborn, but she sings because she is free, which I think is an important distinction for my project. The act of s inging is equ ated with freedom. To be sure, the issue of male authorship of lyrics sung by women highlights important concerns about gender and power, yet I agree with Ma Raineys biographer, Sandra Lieb when she notes that it is more useful to assume that the female protagonist who recurs in Ma Raineys
87 songs represents black women and their general experience (Lieb 53).7 Cultural and literary critic Hortense Spillers takes this point further in her essay Interstices: A Small Drama of Words. There, Spillers address es the multiple ways agency, particularly sexual agency, is expressed in black womens creative expression: The singer is likely closer to the poetry of black female sexual experience than we might think, not so much, interestingly enough, in the words of her music, but in the sense of dramatic confrontation between ego and world that the vocalist herself embodiesShe is, in the moment of performance, the primary subject of her own invention. Her sexuality is precisely the physical expression of the highest self regard and, often, the sheer pleasure she takes in her own powers. (165 167) Therefore, it seems that women singers express their sexuality and creativity not only through the words of her music, which may have been penned by men, but also through the ir interpretation of those lyrics, their vocal performance styles These commingled elements have the power to control audience reception and perception. I am attracted to Ma Raineys Memphis Bound Blues because I think it privileges singing as a kind of liberatory vocal expression to whic h blues women in particular, have access. This privileging of song will be essential to my argument about Ursas blues singing later in this chapter. Also important to my argument are the narrative connections among sexuality, ma ternity and artistic creativity, which I identify as critiques of hegemonic discourses of family and nation particularly black nationalist formations To be sure, many black women critique motherhood on the basis of patriarchal and heteronorm ative assumptions about the naturalized purposes of womens bodies a critique they share with mainstream white feminists, however, I read Jones work as a specific refutation of black cultural nationalist ideologies that fixed black womens identities wit hin the limits of their reproductive roles in the transmittal of cultural memory By focusing on the commingling of working-class black linguistic and oral traditions and the lasting cultural significance of the figure of the blues mama I want to explore how blues women
88 demonstr ate a radical reimagining of the concept of motherhood that disrupts the link between gender and biological determinism necessary for the reproduction of nationalist ideologies Using Holloways processes of revision, remembrance an d recursion, I am arguing that the cultural production of dozens of black women blues artists have left a unique residue on the idea of mothering; to mother can be thought of as a kind of creative function that relies upon sexuality and artistic output rat her than biological childbearing. A Woman Who Knows Her Way Around: Black Feminist Readings of the Blues W omen Blues has long been an influential trope in the study of black literature and culture. In 1949, Ralph Ellison used the blues to explain the near tragic, near comic lyricism of Richard Wrights memoir Black Boy (Ellison 78). Amiri Baraka defined the blues as the expression of unapologetic black difference, the cultural refusal of assimilation in his Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963). Houston Baker created a theoretical framework for blues criticism, by identifying a vibrant network of blues inflections and vernacular themes in the African -American literary tradition, in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernac ular Theory (1984). Gayl Jones explored the use of blues motifs and rhythms in AfricanAmerican literature in her text Liberating Voices (1991). Of course, the steady attention paid by the literary world toward the blues, particularly its most popular inca rnation as the classic blues of the 1920s, has not gone without criticism.8 Blues historian Paul Oliver, for example, has troubled the legitimacy of the blues literature connection, and has expressed his skepticism about the relevance of blues in contemp orary black culture because I don't think blues has any significance for the black community as a w hole, as gospel still has (5). Yet, far from fading from importance, the classic blues, as a music and a metaphor, continues to circulate throughout Africa n -American culture, from contemporary literary scholarship to black popular culture. Examples include August Wilsons celebrated play Ma
89 Raineys Black Bottom (1982) and Suzan Lori Parks novel Getting Mothers Body (2004). Within popular culture, the bl ues have popped up in the recent staging of The Color Purple on Broadway. Even hip -hop artist Nas makes a connection between hip hop and the blues in his song Bridging the Gap (2004), which he performs with his father, jazz musician Olu Dara. In the so ng, Nas raps about the connection between his career as a hip -hop artist and earlier forms of black music, including the blues. He sings: From blues to street hop, it dont stop. The song, which samples a guitar and harmonica riff from Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf 's Mannish Boy w as also accompanied by a music video that makes clear visual links to classic blues visual style. In the world of academia, literary scholar Cheryl Wall turns to the blues, specifically the technique of worrying the line as a metaphor for the ways in whi ch black women writers imagine narratives of family and history through techniques of repetition with a difference or, rather, through repetitive and recurring vernacular expressions in her text Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (2005). Within this body of literary blues studies, a number of black feminist scholars have specifically turned to the image of the classic blues woman as a figure of female resistance and empowerment.9 Exemplified by the lives of real wom en like Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Billie Holiday, the figure of the blues woman still permeates late 20thcentury and 21st-century black writing. Detailing the feminism of blues women, however, remains a complicated project. Blues women were not feminist in the ways that we think of feminism today in its academic or even popular incarnations Yet, blues womens claims to female autonomy, particularly sexual and financial independence, gesture toward a distinctly feminist or even wom anist sensibility. In this section, I provide a simplified history of the blues in order to show how female performers rose to prominence in the 1920s, and then I will use the
90 work of Angela Y. Davis and Hazel V. Carby to summarize a number of approaches used to understand the feminist contours of blues women, in order to lay a foundation for my reading of blues women in literature later in this chapter. The Classic Blues Era Blues music is African -American music, and, despite its multiple regional and sty listic incarnations, it is a distinct art form that emerged from black life in the antebellum South. Blues scholar Paul Oliver notes this unifying quality of the blues when he writes that the blues is not a music of state and county lines or river boundar ies, but of a people (39). Most blues scholars agree with Oliver and trace the signature elements of blues music to cotton field hollers, spirituals, banjo music and other work songs that could be heard sung by men across the region in Mississippi, Alab ama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas in the late 19th century (25). The enduring image of the wandering folk bluesman, an earthy, hard-drinking man armed with nothing more than a harmonica or a guitar, comes out of this folk tradition, also known as the co untry blues. 10 In The Devils Music: The History of the Blues Giles Oakley observes that the principal theme of the country blues, and probably all blues, is the sexual relationship. Almost all other themes sooner or later r everts to the central concer n. Most frequently the core of the relationship is seen as inherently unstable, transient, but with infinite scope for pleasure and exultation in success, or pain and torment in failure. (55) The combination of blues mens frequenting of juke joints, honky tonks and barrelhouses and the sexual themes of their music went far to establish the blues as sinful in t he eyes of the church (and sometimes simultaneously forbidden and alluring to white mainstream audiences). The dawn of the 20th century marked a s hift from the provincial spread of country blues to the rapid national popularity of classic blues, a style dominated by female performers who combined folk blues songs with vaudeville performance elements humor, lavish costuming, complicated stage sets. Black women pioneered these adaptations. Taking off on the image of the
91 roaming, independent bluesman, these blues women also created images as performers that employed the bragging, signifying language of males to boast of fine physical attributes and h igh -powered sexual ability (Harrison 106). The raunchiness of this dirty blues placed its performers even farther outside of the realm of respectability than their male counterparts. Where bluesmen were expected to grapple with risqu issues in their mu sic, black women were expected to approximate images of white womanhood that would prohibit their discussion of certain topics within their performances. Yet, the themes of womens blues lyrics are generally the same as those of mens infidelity, aliena tion, lon e liness, despondency, death, poverty, injustice, love, and sex (65). Transgression of gender expectations women behaving like men or taking on so -called masculine characteristics is an important aspect of the classic blues era. In her influen tial study, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism Angela Davis writes that the recorded performances of blues women divulge unacknowledged traditions of feminist consciousness in workingclass black communities (xi). Rather than engage in a problematic femi nist recuperation of these women, Davis embarks upon a narrower project. She is looking for hints of feminist attitudes that will illuminate various forms of social consciousness in the past and present (xi). Significantly, Davis demonstrates how the blu es emerged as a popular music form that voiced the social and sexual realities of newly emancipated black people. Still faced with many of the same social, legal, and economic realities of enslavement, newly emancipated black folks expressed thei r sense of freedom in the realm of personal relationships and sexuality. In opposition to the spirituals, which promised heavenly reward for a life of piety, sacrifice and struggle, the blues grappled with the here and now, the search for relief from racism and econ omic exploitation through sex and love. Blues, therefore, became the secular art form that dominated post -slavery life as an articulation of working -class desire.
92 Women were central to the rise of the blues as popular music, and their songs focused even mo re than mens on concerns of love and sexuality (Davis 11). What is remarkable about the songs and the blues women who sang them are the ways that both critique popular, sentimental notions of love, marriage and domesticity that circulated among middle cla ss whites as well as among middle class blacks. Their songs mocked traditional ideas about marriage, and highlighted the clash that women experienced within this institution. Their performances were also highly sexualized, filled with carnal innuendo and p erformed with wanton sensuality. Taken together, the songs and performances troubled the stark boundaries of masculinity and femininity espoused in the dominant culture. Blues women pursued sex, repudiated monogamy, and mocked domesticity in ways that have been traditionally attributed to men. Davis identifies these songs and performances as the beginnings of an oppositional attitude towa rd patriarchal ideology (18). While Davis provides an important feminist archaeology of blues women and their radical p erformance of sexuality and sensuality, Hazel Carby sets out to consider the representations of black womens sexuality in other cultural contexts, in order to assert an empowered presence that does not capitulate to images of the pious, respectable, ase xual black woman (747). The sexual autonomy of blues women and their dominance of the public sphere of blues performance can be read as a kind of embodiment of masculinity. Ma Rainey famously sang about wearing clothes and talking to women just like any o ld man in her song Prove it on Me Blues. Rainey and Bessie Smith both sang about the Jail House Blues, in which the singer mourns her incarceration for a violent act against a former lover. Smith sings about her hard -drinking ways in the song Me and My Gin, in which she intones: Stay way from me cause Im in my sin/ Stay way from me cause Im in my sin/ If this place gets raided, its me
93 and my gin (qtd. in Davis 310). Blues women were considered tough, no -nonsense women. Though they sang often of depression over lost loves, many of their songs articulated a desire for independence, their propensity for violence, and drinking. Jones accounts for these perceptions of blues women in Corregidora, aligning Ursas blues woman identity with her growin g independence from not only the regime of patriarchal marriage but also from the co nfines of Christian piety. Validat ing Gender P lay Interestingly, however, Ursa is not initially a proper blues woman in the novel even though she began singing as a teen in her Kentucky hometown. Jones toggles back and forth between Ursas blues past and present in a temporally looping narrative, which gives the novel a ragged, disjointed feel. Key moments in the narrative are not plotted along smoothly; transitions from epi sode to episode are often jarring and disorienting. The content of Ursas current experiences rub up against her abrasive memories. In a flashback, Ursa recalls how she first met her husband Mutt. He would come to Happys Caf to hear her sing. After her s et one night, he approaches her and asks her what she wants to drink. She answers beer, to which he replies Nothing harder? You give the impression of liking bourbon (148). Ursa stays silent during Mutts questioning. More than once, he questions her hardness, saying You try to sing hard, but you not hard and Naw, you aint no hard woman (148). Ursa finally replies to Mutt: I know my way around, I said. I dont even know why I said it, it was just like it just came out. I wasnt even sure it was true. It was just that I was singing in a place where a woman would know her way around. (149). The repeated invocation of hardness alludes to the perceptions of masculinity that are embodied within the blues woman. Hard certainly connotes tough or rugged, but it also importantly signals toward the symbolism of male sexual arousal. Mutts observation of Ursa, her lack of hardness threatens her blues woman identity because she is not masculine enough.
94 Her initial silence in response to his taunting reflects her unease because of his teasing, particularly because he refuses to validate her hardness The conference of gender authenticity must be sanctioned by the individ ual who is supposed to be real, in this case, the real man, Mutt. T o be cal led hard by another woman means less than having that quality validated by a man. Ursa is taken aback by Mutts questions. Until this point, she imagined herself as a rebellious blues woman, having rejected her mothers Christian values in order to live the life of a singer. Ursas mother never approved of her singing the blues because it was the devils music (146). As Mutt continues to taunt her, Ursa finally retorts I know my way around, a euphemism for worldly experience. Yet, she admits that she is not really confident that she does know her way around. However, because she is a blues woman, she felt that she should in fact be more experienced. Jones seems to situate Ursas inauthentic performance of a blues woman particularly her inability to confer masculine qualities, in this passage in order to later juxtapose Ursas development into a true blues singer, a hard woman. The idea of a hard woman describes a kind of gender displacement that the figure of the blues woman signifies. Interesting ly, L.H. Stallings notes that some actual blues women, including Bessie Smith, performed in drag, in part to reduce the risk of ... being seen solely as sexual objects (130). Stallings goes on to say that this gender play creates formulations of Black f emales as radical sexual subjects who can control and manipulate their markers of agency without becoming sexual objects (130). Ursa, however, has not yet achieved this level of gender play in her narrative, nor has she been able to situate herself outsid e of the framework of sexualized object. She has not become the radical sexual subject that Stallings and Davis suggest as possible for the blues woman. Yet, as Ursa proceeds through the narrative, the radical possibilities of her
95 blues woman subjectivit y intensify. I argue that the critical linchpin to this development is Ursas loss of reproductive capacity, her inability to make generations for not only her husband, but also for her matrilineal ancestors who have shackled her to a dysfunctional expec tation of child bearing. Jones enacts Ursas loss of fertility on the first page of the novel as if to foreground and underscore its importance to the development of her character. Ursas barrenness allows her to become the aforementioned gender -transgress ing blues woman, a woman I am also c alling the blues mama. The Blues Mama as the Childless Mother: Rejection Disruption and Displacement of Nationalist Conceptions of Family In this section, I attempt to account for a variety of narratives of the chil dless mother in order to situate my observations about blues women and their childlessness within a larger framework of maternal symbolism that operates outside of the confines of hegemonic femininity and domesticity. These alternate narratives come from a number of locations black gay male communities, black female queer culture, and feminist literary criticism. Yet they each seem to be activated by an interest in problematizing normative constructions of gender and sexuality. E. Patrick Johnson, for ex ample, focuses on vernacular performances of femininity and domesticity in black and Latino gay male communities in which gay men disrupt the idealization of the nuclear family and cultural logic of sexual citizenship as lodged in normative sexuality ( 77). Johnson argues that by investing the word mother with new meaning through their queer performances black gay men enact a transgressive politics that is not about repudiating the heterosexual, but rather it is about expanding the ideologies of famil y to include those outside of the nuclear framework. Johnson uses the film Paris is Burning to illustrate the ways in which mothers, the leaders of the glamorous ball houses of gay Harlem, enact this transgression. He goes on to discuss a very specific t ype of mother that black gay male culture appropriates; it is
96 not simply the universal mother who is nurturing, kind, hard-working and dedicated. Their appropriation draws on the black church mother: prim and proper, yet also sexy and elegant, etc. (98). In this instance, the conception of the childless mother exists in tandem with the male body, destabilizing the presumption that mother is always female. I am using the oxymoron of a childless mother because it decouples the naturalized link between m other and child in the sense that it suggests that the presumed object of the mother does not have to be a biological child. Alternately, the childless mother may indeed have a biological child or children, but does not perform the expected functions of mother, such as nurturing or other daily child -care tasks. Narratives of the childless mother can disrupt what Sara Ruddick describes as the relational view of the mother in which there is no concept of mother unless there is concept of child Undermining this relational concept does not, however, lead to a seamless inversion of the mother as object paradigm to a mother as -subject. Subversion of conventional maternal identities typically generates an ambivalence rather than a sense of totalizing empowermen t. I am in no way interested in looking for or advancing so -called positive maternal representations nor am I involved in any particular recuperative project around motherhood. Instead I am interested in exploring the multiple effects of the figure of the childless mother that link her to a number of conversations within contemporary literary criticism and feminist thought that attempts to problematize our concepts about gender. Elaine Tuttle Hansen uses a psychoanalytic approach to identify what she cal ls the mother without child. The mother without child encompasses biological mothers who experience the traumatic loss of a child or children through infanticide, adoption, abandonment or state interference as well as a host of other ambiguous situat ions, including stillbirth, murder of another womans child, and a woman who discovers she has clones (16). Hansens organizing
97 trope of mother without child is an important one in that it attempts to recognize a growing body of work by women writers who have approached the meaning of mother outside of the established symbolic order. Importantly, Hansen eschews the impulse to totalize her reading of these narratives, explaining that the meaning of mother -without -child has to be constructed locally, speci fically, in particular contexts (17). Her observations also foreground the ways in which women of marginalized groups black women, Latinas, Native American women, and lesbians have historically already worked outside of Eurocentric narratives of mothe rhood, recognizing that the mother without child, or what I am calling the childless mother, has historically been the brutal norm rather than the tragic exception in the works of particular women (19). Laura Doyle also sets her sights on a number of cha racters who might be considered childless mothers in Bordering on the Body which examines several 20th century texts that present racialized mother figures whose narratives come up against late 19th and early 20th century scientific and eugenicist argumen ts. Doyle is interested in how particular experimental narratives undermine eugenicist ideologies, which hold the mother accountable for, among other things, racial purity and group identity. Looking at novels, such as Toni Morrisons Beloved Doyle argues that the nonchronological, interruptive or arabesque forms of modern experimental fiction reflect narrative efforts to disengage the mother from her function as sexual racial matrix of group identity (Doyle 4). Madhu Dubey makes a similar point in her r eading of Corregidora. She argues that Jones sets up a serious challenge to black nationalist and Black Aesthetic ideology by writing Ursa outside of the framework of biological childbearing (72). Dubey notes that Jones engages in a pointed subversion of racial patriarchy through Ursa, despite the fact that there were a few critics
98 who attempted to recover Corregidora into the codes of the Black Aesthetic in ways that were impossible for Jones next novel, Evas Man. Indeed, the narrative focus of Corregid ora a dysfunctional matriarchy established at the hand of a brutal slaveowner can fit within most general cultural nationalist readings. On one level, the novel stages an important narrative within black nationalist ideology, which correctly identifies the atrocities of enslavement and white supremacy as a persistent elements of black experience. Black women were victims of sexual violence as enslaved women and used as breeders for the slave economy. However, black nationalist ideologies sought to recup erate their reproductive exploitation through a problematic adoption of hetero-patriarchal notions of family life and idealized (African) womanhood. Importantly, Corregidora explores a black feminine identity that exceeds the nationalist definition (Dube y 13). The novel offers a space for critiquing nationalist reproductive ideologies, and via the character of Ursa, one is repeatedly presented with examples of problems with the social construction of biological motherhood. So even though much of the nove l is concerned with Ursas grief at the loss of her ability to make generations, the novel intervenes by recalling repeated moments of biological mothering that are filled with guilt, pain, loss, and rupture. There are three embedded stories that demonst rate this intervention: details about Ursas mother, Mama, the memory of Ursas best friend May Alice, who becomes pregnant as a young girl, and the story of the Melrose woman, who commits suicide after becoming pregnant. This trio of subplots collectively act to problematize biological motherhood within the narrative. Each situation ends tragically for the women who have sacrificed self and sanity at the altar of biological motherhood. Ursas recollections of these events help shift her initial grief at h er barrenness to an alternate understanding of the maternal imperative. Dubey asserts that through Ursas memories
99 of pain and confinement associated with motherhood, [she] is finally able to accept the loss of her own womb, which she now sees as a source of oppression as well as of limited power (Dubey 79). Jones catalyzes Ursas ultimate rejection of her maternal mandate through a dream sequence. Left with nothing but the nightmare stories from her Gram and Great Gram, Ursa explores her feelings about childbirth through her dreams. Jones centralizes the importance of these moments by printing the content of the dreams in italics. During Ursas recuperation from her hospital stay after her hysterectomy, she dreams about giving birth: I dreamed that my be lly was swollen and restless, and I lay without moving, gave birth without struggle, without feeling. But my eyes never turned to my feet. I never saw what squatted between my knees. But I felt the humming and beating of wings and claws in my thighs. And I felt a stiff penis inside meWho are you? Who have I born? His hair was like white wings, and we were united at birth. (77) Ursas swollen belly suggests the memory of the child that she was pregnant with at the time Mutt pushed her down the stairs, the c hild that would have allowed her to fulfill her mandate to make generations. In the dream, her hesitance at seeing the child, demonstrated by her refusal to turn her eyes to her feet, adds to the ominous feeling of her birthing moment. Ursa expects the result of her labor to be horrific. Without looking, she feels the animal like presence of her child that moved as if it had wings and claws. Suddenly, she also feels the intrusion of an erect penis, which she discovers is Corregidora, the Portuguese slav eholder who had raped both Gram and Great Gram. Ursa speaks to her child -father, Corregidora, who tells her that she is one of his women (77 emphasis added). Ursa denies Corregi doras claim, and then imagines that Great Gram joins the conversation and as ks her wheres the next generation? Ursa answers: Hush. Here, Ursa refuses her forefather and foremother, who, though they have vastly different experiences of the oppressor and the oppressed, ultimately share a similar imperative for Ursa, that she mu st remain emotionally and spiritually bound to her painful past. In the dream,
100 Corregidora and Great Gram join together to enforce the requirements of racial patriarchy, which Jones carefully shows can be delivered through both the male and female line. I think it is important to note that Ursa rejects her conscription within the confines of biological motherhood because, at first glance, one may simply dismiss her childlessness as an act not of her own will. In other words, because she was involuntarily ma de barren, her understanding of her displacement of motherhood is less authentic or not an example of an authorizing subjectivity. I argue, however, that Jones situates Ursas rejection of the childbearing imperative somewhere in between the bi ological and the psychological. Certainly, Ursas surgery came as a result of an abusive accident, but the accident and its effects have been situated within a narrative that is laden with skepticism and even contempt for the binding nature of mandated motherhood. Wha t emerges, then is a different conception of motherhood. Ursa is a childless mother, and like the blues women discussed earlier in this chapter, the childless mother sits at the precipice gender transgression. So how do I intend to link my observations a bout blues women to this idea of a blues mama, a childless mother who (pro)creates and nurtures outside of the hegemonic family structure? I will return to an observation made by Angela Davis to recall how mothering was thought among blues women. Davis poi nts out that in the heyday of classic blues performance most black heterosexual couples married or not had children. However, blues women rarely sang about mothers, fathers, and children (13). She continues: The absence of the mother figure in the b lues does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such, but rather suggests that blues women found the mainstream cult of motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives. The female figures evoked in womens blues are independent women free of the dom estic orthodoxy of the prevailing representations of womanhood through which female subjects of the era were constructed. (13) Davis observation is important, yet I would like to extend it so that it focuses not so much an absence of the mother figure, but rather on the presence of a transgressive mother figure that functions outside of traditional gender norms: the blues mama. Certainly, blues mamas to some
101 extent were independent women free of domestic orthodoxy, and in many cases they rejected, or w ere at least ambivalent about, the assigned roles and behaviors of femininity. Yet, because they possessed and even flaunted a maternal nomenclature, their lives, lyrics and performances allowed for a maternal counter -narrative to develop that situated the ir music and performance style as their children. In this final section, I will further develop my concept of the blues mama through a look at the development of voice particularly the singing voice as an integral aspect of black womens fiction that connects subjectivity, sexuality and survival. Motherhood as Umbilicus between Language and Creation Hazel Carby turns to the early 20th century to juxtapose black womens novels that linked the destiny of the black literary heroine with the collective struggle of the commun ity to the narratives of autonom y, sexuality and power of the classic blues women. Drawing on the observations of poet, novelist and essayist Sherley Ann Williams, Carby emphasizes the ways classic blues women use song to create refl ection and create an atmosphere for analysis to take place (750). The analysis that Carby writes about is the kind of evaluation of communal black experience in the Jim Crow era. In other words, blues women worked from a sense of collective blackness, bla ck experience(s) that included their changing sexual relations, in order to craft through lyrics and performance style a specific artistic product. For these reasons, Carby notes how the woman blues singer remains an important part of our 20th-century black cultural reconstruction (758). The artistry and politics of the blues women have been discussed here and by other writers at length, but here I am interested in linking Carbys observations with a metaphor Karla F.C. Holloway uses in her text Moori ngs and Metaphors in which she writes that motherhood in black womens fiction acts as an umbilicus between language and creation. I contend that Ursa involuntarily barren, but also aware of the limitations of her maternal mandate becomes a real ha rd woman, a blues mama, who demonstrates her sense of freedom
102 through her song writing and performance, and because of this she is ultimately able to reclaim her sexuality. For Ursa, singing the blues provides the fullest expression of her self. It helps her to e xplain what [she] cant explain (56) Since her childhood she had been listening to intense and explicit descriptions of the rape and sexual exploitation suffered by her Gram and Great Gram at the hands of Corregidora on a plantation in Brazil. U rsas mother, Mama, had also been raised listening to these histories, and like her mother, Ursas ability to experience sexual intimacy was thwarted by this obsessive telling and re telling. Ursa turns to song as an outlet for the trauma, coping with not only the pain of hearing the stories told but also for being mandated to tell the stories herself to protect the history from being erased as if it never happened. Singing became a means for her own attempts at reconciliation and healing. Ursa tells her mo ther, who forbade her to sing, that Yes, if you understood me, Mama, youd see I was trying to explain it, in blues, without words, the explanation somewhere behind the words (66). In a memory, Ursa recalls Mamas exhortation that songs are devilsthe voice is a devil (53). Ursa replies to her mother: But still Ill sing as you talked it, your voice humming, sing about the Portuguese who fingered your genitals. His pussy (54). Significantly, the distinction between singing and talking is highlighted i n this passage, and the distinction works in a way similar to the lyrics in Memphis Bound Blues. Rainey intones in the song: I talk because Im stubborn, I sing because Im free. Ursa finds an alternative way of dealing with her trauma than her mother, who simply talked it, presumably within the confines of Christian theology. Instead Ursa defiantly insists upon singing as her version of testifying, her way of keeping the stories alive, but crafted on her own terms. Again, I see this narrative strand as Jones repudiation of black nationalist and Black Aesthetic
103 proscription. While men within these movements very readily asserted that the histories of black people needed to be known and told in order to raise the consciousness of the black community, t hey insisted upon a right way to do it. The notion of a black aesthetic, while politically astute and important for liberation movements of the time, enacted a stranglehold on black writers and artists who dared work outside of its bounds. I see a compli cated similarity between that proscription and Mamas stifling of Ursas song. Mama seems to be telling Ursa this is not how it is supposed to be done, it is not respectable. Yet, Ursa is compelled toward song anyway, equating her blues performance with the experie nce and practice of freedom. Furthermore, Ursas need to explain her sense of entrapment or enclosure by her family history is also described in the text in the language of childbearing. She continues her memory conversation with Mama, who asks her where the words to the songs came from. Ursa answers I got them from you. Then let me give witness the only way I can. Ill make a fetus out of grounds of coffee to rub inside my eyes. When its time to give witness, Ill make a fetus out of grounds of coffee. Ill stain their hands. (54) Ursa tells her mother that her blues song is nothing more than the words and images that she had been raised on come to life. The only way she can give witness is through the act of singing, and then she also con siders making a fetus out of grounds of coffee. This coffee -ground fetus would serve to blind her, leaving her with nothing but her singing voice. It is as if she must give birth to her music, a fetus that will somehow bear witness to the pain she has be en forced to endure. This kind of childbirth, like the dream she had where she gave birth to Corregidora, do not participate in the typical symbolism of motherhood. Instead, like the narratives explored by Hansen in Mother without Child, Ursas childbirth scenarios are grim and disturbing. The traditional symbolism of motherhood would force Ursa to remain tethered to the painful memories of her familys past. I was made to touch my past at an early age. I found it on
104 my mothers tiddies. In her m ilk (77) Ugly memories contaminate even the most nurturing product of childbirth milk and this observation, returning to Helene Cixous, begs the question of what happens when womens white ink is damaged. What metaphors for womens creative articulation com e to bear under these circumstances? In this text, it is Ursas blues singing that she bears, and she offers a refusal of the past by saying Let no one pollute my music (77). Ursas declaration illustrates the complex network of association between mothe rhood and music in this novel. Ursa says that her mothers milk was contaminated with the past, but instead of worrying about the contamination of her milk, which she can no longer produce, she seeks to protect her music. Yet even this observation denies t he complexity of Jones work; music is more than a simple substitution or replacement for motherhood, which has now been rendered impossible for Ursa. Music and childbirth are synonymous, an interchangeable creative output that Ursa already had access to p rior to her barrenness. Music is an alternative to motherhood, not a substitution. This nuance is significant because I do not want to argue that Ursas blues songs simply step in when Ursas fertility is impaired, thereby leaving motherhood as the primary and preferred creative outlet for this black female character. Rather, I read Ursas blues singing as an already productive, generative component of her life prior to her fall. The fall only serves to remove the biological mandate that had obscured Ursas blues creativity from her consciousness. Without this biological imperative, imposed through the dream by both Corregidora and Great Gram, Ursas blues songs and her voice become energized and enhanced. She becomes able to use her mamas gun. Conclusion Interestingly, because of her rejection of many controlling gender norms, the blues mama has become iconic in black womens literary tradition as well as within black feminist and womanist criticism as an exemplar of a number of traditions of black female e mpowerment that
105 exist within African -American communities. The blues function as a formal leitmotif for a number of black women writers to explore a kind of mothering that does not involve a biological child, or any child or other person, for that matter. Childless mothers appear in a number of texts, including Shug Avery in Alice Walkers The Color Purple and Gayl Jones novels Corregidora and Evas Man. In this chapter I have considered the devel opment and persistence of a particular maternal figure, th e blues m ama in contemporary African -American culture, particularly her literary depiction, because I am interested in the way this recurrent figure disrupts gender categories through her multi voiced performance of masculinity and femininity her use of mamas gun all while she remains symbolically connected to the terms Mama and Ma. There may be a deeper link between blues women and the lexicon of mama that can provide a way of reading blues themes and performance in black womens novels as counter narratives to biological mothering that function as a refusal of childbearing for the (black) nation. Notes 1 It is not clear whether Gertrude Ma Rainey Pridgett personally trained Bessie Smith as many oral histories assert, but Raineys influence on Smiths style and career is undeniable. Other prominent classic blues women of the 1920s, including Alberta Hunter and Ida Cox, certainly adopted Raineys pioneering adaptation of folk blues singing and vaudeville performance to great success. Despite her roots in the male dominated folk blues tradition, Memphis Minnie also acknowledged Rainey as an influence. Minnie wrote and recorded a bl ues tribute called Ma Rainey, in 1940, a year after Raineys death, which included the lines: People it sure look lonesome since Ma Rainey been gone/ But she left little Minnie to carry the good word on. Contemporary blues women such as Bonnie Rait and Koko Taylor have been noted for their incorporation of classic blues numbers made popular by Rainey and others in their live performances. Accounting for Ma Raineys multiple influences on the development of womens blues traditions may be an endless task. For more on Raineys impact on the blues, see Sandra Liebs Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey ; Hettie Jones Big Star Fallin Mama: Five Women in Black Music and the documentary Wild Women Dont Have the Blues. 2 Outside of the blues tradition, Rainey and her impact on the blues has been cataloged in a number of literary texts. August Wilsons play Ma Raineys Black Bottom describes xxx. Novelist, poet, and scholar Sherley Anne Williams often used blues phrasing in her poetry, most prominent ly in her 1982 collection Some One Sweet Angel Chile. 3 Ma Rainey refers to her sexual relationships with women in the song Prove It On Me Blues singing: Wear my clothes just like any old fan/ Talk to the gals just like any old man/ Cause they say I do it, aint nobody caught me/ Sure got to prove it on me. In the Cell Bound Blues, she sings about a fight she has with her man in which I took my gun in my right hand,/ Hold him, folks, I dont wanta kill my man./ When I did that, he hit me cross m y head/ First shot fired, my man fell dead.
106 4 Feminist anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner joins other secondwave feminists in linking what she identifies as the universal subordination of women to their physiology. In Ortners influential essay, Is Fema le to Man as Nature is to Culture? she writes that female bodily functions associated with motherhood pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, menstruation as well as her domestic roles keep women more closely associated with nature. Within this equation, nature is to be dominated by culture, the purview of men. From this vantage point, a number of second wave feminists, such as Simone deBeauvoir, sought to repudiate motherhood as the indivisible sign of patriarchal domination. While I find Ortners eff orts to universalize cultural ideologies of womanhood problematic, her essay is useful in making the distinction between womens high status in particular cultural expressions and concepts of gender equity. 5 The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unc onventional English, Volume II, Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor New York; Routlege 2006. (1260). Slang and Euphemism Richard A. Spears New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc. 1981 (244). Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang John Ayto and John Simpson Oxford: O xford University Press 1992 (142) 6 Recently, even the word mommy has joined this semantic legacy, turning up in hiphop lyrics as a reference to a female sexual partner or an attractive woman who takes care of herself. Hip hop songwriter and performer Missy Elliott defines mommy as the boss in a 2004 song that describes a sexually aggressive and manipulative woman who is able to control men for her economic and sexual gain. See Missy Elliotts Mommy. The Cookbook Atlantic Records, 2005. 7 Blues singer KoKo Taylor talks about how her performances are not about her specific experiences. Instead, she says she tries to capture emotions in her song that may be shared by her audiences. She says in Wild Women Dont Have the Blues : Im thinking about people in general everyday livingNow that shoe might not fit my feet, you know what Im saying? Might not fit your feet, but that shoe do fit somebody feet. Its some women out there really think, really feels the way that Im singing about, what Im talki ng about in this song. These are the words she would like to say. 8 Blues scholars divide blues music into various, often contested, categories. Classic blues describes a blues style that combines both folk blues, minstrel show traditions, and popular s ong forms of the early 20th century. Classic blues also typically refers to the style that has become associated with women singers, which was also some of the first black music that was recorded and broadcast via radio. 9 Unfortunately, there do not see m to be any booklength studies devoted the feminist implications of the performances of contemporary blues women. Blues singers such as Koko Taylor and Etta James, who have performed since the 1950s and 60s, and newer artists, such as Shemekia Copeland and Zora Young, have carried on in the blues traditions within the past 20 years. These artists have carried on traditions established by the classic blues women, but their work has also been categorized differently Chicago blues, rhythm and blues or even rock and roll. The lack of attention paid to blues women of the latter half of the 20th century suggests an area worthier of further inquiry. 10 The blues as a term is used as a catch all for music forms that follow a basic 12bar form and an AAB lyric structure. However, within this basic definition there is quite a bit of variation as a result of regional tastes, differences in audience, and shifting trends in popular music. Folk or country blues, for example, are terms used to describe the sound and sty le of musicians such as Howlin Wolf and Leadbelly. Other blues styles include Texas blues, urban blues, Piedmont blues, white country blues, Chicago blues. The classic blues, or dirty blues, refers to music from the era of the first blues recordings and the heyday of women blues performers, such as Ma Rainey.
107 CHAPTER 4 COLONIZED WOMBS, CYBOR G IDENTITIES AND REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY: MATERNAL DIALECTICS OF LILITH IN OCTAVIA BUTLERS DAWN She was inte nded to live and reproduce, not to dieWas that what she was headed for? Forced artificial insemination. Surrogate motherhood? Fertility drugs and forced donation of eggs? Implantation of unrelated fertilized eggs. Removal of children from mothers at bir thHumans had done these things to captive breeders all for a higher good, of course. -Dawn Lilith her name was. Lilith. Unusual name loaded with bad connotations. She should have changed it. Almost anything would have been better. -Adulthood Rites In the beginning, there was Adam and Eve, and also perhaps Lilith. The original other woman, Lilith emerges in Jewish oral tradition and feminist interpretations of the Torah as the first true mother of humanity who is turned away from the Garden of Ede n for her fierce determination not to be ruled by Adam. Described alternately as Adams first wife or the deceptive snake in human form that tempted Eve, Liliths disobedience has compelled numerous writers to explore this mythic figure in their work.1 Mos t narratives detail Liliths unwavering claim that since she was made of the same dust as Adam that she was his equal, and therefore she will not lie below him (Ostriker 8). Her rebuff can represent an empowered figurative resistance to male supremacy, b ut also, if taken literally, is an assertion of preference for a particular sexual pr actice. Wanting to be the woman -on -top gets Lilith kicked out of Eden, and Eve is quickly sent in as a replacement.2 Outside of the garden, Lilith becomes a phantom in the imaginings of Adam and Eve, and ultimately their descendants. She is described in Jewish oral traditions as a demon that threatens women in childbirth and steals babies in the night.3 Other tales tell of Lilith giving birth to demons after cavorting promi scuously with them after her flight from the garden. She is said to be cursed to giving birth to 100 demons daily, each of which will
108 die by nightfall. Other tales describe Lilith as the source of sickness in infants (Hyman 9). In the Western literary imag ination, Lilith the demon becomes symbolic of a womanhood that would forever try to stop man from precipitating the process of personal and cosmic salvation (Aschkenasy 51). Yet her rebelliousness and independence also becomes a touchstone for feminist m ythmaking. The uppity and nononsense Lilith, who in some stories forms a bond with Eve, becomes symbolic of womens solidarity against patriarchy (Plask ow 206). Of these many literary and theological interpretations of Lilith, however, the most fascin ating and relevant to my project is Lilith imagined as a black woman. Often described in the Hebrew oral tradition as dark and brooding, Liliths blackness is accentuated in the work of Jewish theologian, Rabbi Jill Hammer who describes her as another Eve this new Eve had skin like ink. Her white hair streamed down her black skin like a hundred comet tails, squiggling curving (7 8). Poet and critic Alicia Ostriker connects the Lilith story with the lives and experiences of black women through her series, The Lilith Poems In Lilith to Eve: House, Garden, Ostriker writes in the voice of the legendary Lilith: I am the woman with hair in a rainbow Rag, body of iron I take your laundry in, suckle your young Scrub your toilets Cut your sugar cane and Plant and pick your cotton In this place you name paradise, while you Wear amulets and cast spells Against me in weakness
109 In this stanza, Lilith confronts Eve with her experience as the woman rejected, shunned, turned away by society. Here, Liliths work is the work of black women: domestic service, child care, and field work. In Ostrikers work, the marginalization of Lilith mirrors the social marginalization that black women experience in the Eden of the United States, thus unifying her version of Lilith with the lives of real black women. Interestingly, Lilith is also imagined as a black woman in Octavia Butlers Xenogenesis trilogy, a series of science fiction novels that explore the fate of humanity after an apocalyptic war. After a centuries long slumber, Lilith Iyapo awakens to find that she and other humans have been kept alive by an alien species that seeks to merge genetically with humans and repopulate the Earth. In the first novel of the trilogy, Dawn Lilith is chosen to remake an Eden like world, be coming a first mother to a new humanity.4 A f ew published studies have linked Butlers fascinating Lilith Iyapo character to the Jewish oral tradition. In her article, The Dawn of a New Lilith: Revisionary Mythmaking in Womens Science Fiction, Michele O sherow includes Butlers text in her examination of Lilith like characters in science fiction writte n by women. Osherow notes that Butlers Lilith Iyapo resembles the legendary she -devil with amazing precision. She resists tyranny, is independent, bold, a nd curious. Moreover, she has special powers, as Lilith is thought to have had Lilith Iyapos experiences mirror those of the original Lilith to a great extent (7 5) However, Osherow limits the connection between Butlers Lilith and the Judaic figure, s pecifically around the site of motherhood. The fact that Butlers Lilith must birth and mother an entirely new kind of hybrid being on a futuristic Earth is seen as a departure from the traditional symbolism of Lilith. Osherow concludes that motherhood is an unusual concentration for Lilith[she] has never been the maternal type (76). As long as maternal remains tethered solely to notions of domesticity, nurturance and purity, Osherow presents a
110 compelling argument; the Lilith of Jewish oral tradition rejects the domestic refuge of Eden, she is an openly sexual being and promiscuous, and though fertile, her powers over children are threatening because she can cause sickness and even death in children. These descriptions are far from the traditional, Weste rn conceptions of the maternal. However, if one considers alternate visions of motherhood, particularly ones theorized by and experienced by black women, then new readings of Octavia Butlers Lilith become available that link motherhood to qualities s uch as strength, power, sexuality and creativity. Working from within a black womens literary tradition that always already defines motherhood outside of Western frameworks of docility, nurturance and submission, Octavia Butler mobilizes the trope of mama s gun in her Xenogenesis trilogy, particularly the novel Dawn (1987), by re imagining the traditional Lilith story through the body of a black woman set in the future. In this chapter, I suggest a way of reading Lilith Iyapo that privileges Butlers alter nate visions of motherhood, which I have described previously as the trope of mamas gun. What I propose through this trope is an interpretive framework that describes how black maternal figures are imagined in contemporary African American l iterature an d popular culture. Mamas gun takes into account black womens polyvalent discourses surrounding motherhood and reproduction that do not privilege what Hortense Spillers calls the ranks of gendered femaleness, but rather allows for an assertion of subjec tivity through a complicated negotiation of race, gender, sexuality and power (278). In Chapter 1, I explored mamas gun as an emphasis on the transformative effect of print literacy in two novels, The Color Purple and PUSH which link motherhood and writ ing to empowerment in the context of the post Civil Rights p olitical climate that denigrated black mothers who were considered hyper -reproductive, social vampires. In Chapter 2, I explored mama s gun as blues song and performance in Corregidora, tracing
111 Ur sas use of music as an alternative site for mothering that refuses black nationalist expectations for black motherhood in the 1970s. In this chapter, I explore mamas gun as a dialectic of exploitation and empowerment facing the transgressive black matern al figure, Lilith who se narrative of reproductive manipulation is in conversation with issues of race and reproductive technologies Liliths status as the exploite d human other to the dominant, alien Oankali forms an important foundation for my reading of this novel. For one, I am interested in how Butlers protagonist exte nds the rich feminist readings of Lilith stories into territories that consider the past, present and future of black womens reproduct ive politics. I am also interested in how Butler s story has the potential to disrupt the dominant narrative of black womens reproductive agency in the technologic al age. Liliths colonized womb Black women emerge from this site of rupture in order to refocus hegemonic dialogue toward thei r experiences T he marginalized social roles of black women always already includes their strategic mobilization of difference, thereby situating (m)other as the consummate figure of resistance and transgression in many black womens texts. Octavia Butlers Lilith disp lays many characteristics similar to all of the outrageous, non-maternal aspects of the Hebrew Lilith myth precisely because Butlers text claims the monstrosity of transgressive black womanhood. Yet, I argue that these radical qualities cannot be separa ted from motherhood. So, for example, what Osherow identifies in her essay as a Western cultural anxiety about polarities such as maternal/sexual, masculine/feminine, nurturing/destructive in womens science fiction becomes legible in black womens texts t hrough an exploration of mamas gun. From this vantage point, I also contend that the twin concerns of motherhood and reproduction provide a unique site of inquiry into black womanhood that rejects the postmodern
112 impulse to disconnect subjectivity from politics. The trope of mamas gun maintains that negotiations of the self as -mother are never far removed from their historical and political contexts, and I agree with Kevin Quashies ob servation that black women are architects of a new cultural ideology t hat is aware of the irresoluteness of poststructuralism they negotiate the crisis of self by holding firm the irreconcilables and are determined to have a bottom line black[female]ness, one that is informed by but not beholden to the politics of post -identity and anti -essentialism (10) Quashie asks that we not lose sight of the fact that even within our current post identity moment within critical theory that black womens cultural production often resists a popular cynicism and skepticism around collective political identities. Rather, black women have used their works to talk back to, or counter, essentialist notions of their experience without abandoning a sense of the collective, material implications of their art. Whats at stake, bell hooks asserts in her essay Postmodern Blackness, is the future of liberation struggle. She argues that the abandonment of identity politics, particularly radical black subjectivity, may subvert any efforts to renew black liberation struggle or create new strat egies of resistance (26). Therefore, reading black womens contemporary literature requires recognizing that identi ty, no matter how fluid it is imagined, remains political. Racism and white supremacy continue to overdetermine black life, thereby necessita ting nothing less than a sense of self that is informed by but not beholden to a critical liberation ethic. Butlers compelling use of science and speculative fiction genres throughout her remarkable career speaks to her rejection of essentialist notions of what constitutes black womens literary subject matter. From within a literary enclave usually reserved for white men, Butler consistently insists upon centralizing the intersections of race and gender to our imaginative explorations of the future. Like much of her other work, Butlers Xenogenesis trilogy continues her preoccupation with reproduction.5 All three novels were published within a short span from 1987 to 1989, a
113 period marked by excitement and trepidation about the possibilities of medical technology for the revolutionizing of human reproduction. As middle and upper -class white Americans began to express increasing fears about their declining fertility, new medical techniques, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, were being developed and perfected to assist reproduction. Dawn the novel in the trilogy that focuses most on Liliths story, invokes the histories of reproductive experimentation and exploitation that have contributed to the recent development of reproductiv e technology (RT). T he novel stages an enactment of tension between black womens experiences with procreative invasion and the future of RT, and invokes a dialectic that confronts two modes of thinking about RT the emancipatory and the oppressive. For decades, feminist, medical, and legal scholars have debated about whether RT truly liberates humans, particularly women, from the condition of reduced procreative functioning, or if it is simply a series of new techniques set up to discipline and control no t only womens bodies but our collective sense of kinship that continues to privilege the bourgeois nuclear family. The trilogy captures the dual concepts through its exploration of the promise and illusion of freedom through RT. On one hand, the trilogy o ffers a hopeful vision for the potential for reproductive alterations; that it provides for the ultimate sustainability of humanity, albeit an altered humanity. On the other hand, Lilith must be held captive and made alien to her own world in order for thi s change to take place. The novel Dawn considers the effects of power on the use of RT by both critiquing the circumstances of Liliths forced motherhood capture, exploitation, and incarceration and by offering a hopeful idea of its outcome for o ther h umans and Lilith herself. Throughout the novel, Lilith Iyapo speaks and acts in ways that declare her a subject, departing from common depictions of black women in science fiction literature and film (when
114 black women appear in these texts, if at all). Hel d against her will by the alien Oankali species, Lilith chooses to live and reproduce, not to die (Dawn 58). Armed with superhuman strength, a capacity for leadership and a will to survive, Lilith creatively brokers her sense of empowerment particularly sexual empowerment, even though her reproductive functions will be colonized and exploited by the Oankali. Butler discusses part of her motivations in writing the trilogy during an interview: One of the things that I wanted to deal with in the Xenogenesis books, especially the first one, was some of the old SF myths that kind of winked out during the seventies but were really prevalent before the seventies. Myths where, for instance, people crash land on some other planet and a ll of a sudden they go back t o Me Tarzan, you Jane, and the women seem to accept this perfectly as all right, you know. We get given away like chattel and we get treated like well, you get the picture. I thought I'd do something different ( Interview 501502) Butlers quote e xemplifies her interest in considering histories of colonization and enslavement within her futuristic world. Furthermore, she consciously sets out to resist common sci -fi narratives that do not complicate womens engagement, particularly black womens ide as, with futuristic changes. Before exploring how Dawn develops the character of Lilith in opposition to these master narratives, I want to map out the historic and political implications of reproductive technologies that form the backdrop to this novel. T he following section investigates the tensions surrounding reproductive technologies (RT), particularly the question of whether the promise of reproductive equality is truly possible, which will form the backdrop for Butlers meditations on the subject tha t I consider later in the chapter. The Promise and Illusion of Reproductive Equality A number of feminist and legal scholars, including Angela Davis, Dorothy Roberts, and Patricia Williams, have written about the troubled connection between RT and the hist ory of slavery in the United States. In their critiques, they highlight how the social and ethical justification of RT relies upon an illusion of reproductive equality that has never existed.
115 Drawing upon their critiques, I suggest, through a brief look at RT in the United States, that the same American grammar that marked black women as hyper -fertile in the late 19th century continues to mark them.6 Ideas about black womens reproductive capacities continue to shape the construction of their embodied opposite: the infertile white woman. The benefactor of RT is typically imagined as a middle or upper -class white woman, and statistically, they do avail themselves of RT more than non -white women.7 Furthermore, the legal and financial contracts that accompan y particular forms of RT, particularly surrogacy arrangements, reflect a slave -era property logic that constructed black people, especially their reproductive potential, as a commodity. The increasing development of reproductive technologies, including ar tificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and cryopreservation, extend the slave -era commingling of race and reproduction in ways that affect black womens responses to these high -tech interventions. Since the 1981 birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, assisted reproductive technology has been used in the United States to help hundreds of thousands of women get pregnant. According to the C enters for D isease Control and Prevention which is also charged with monitoring the use of fertility therapies, the most common of these treatments is in vitro fertilization, the implantation of fertilized human eggs into a womans uterus. These eggs can be fertilized by the sperm of a known partner or an unknown donor, and the eggs may be implanted back into the womans womb or into the womb of another woman. While leaders within the field of reproductive endocrinology and infertility tout their hope for the eventual universality of access to fertility treatments, the fact is that RT is almost exclusively used by white people, particularly white women.8
116 As the national media decry an epidemic of infertility, conversations around who can avail themselves of these medical therapies and their motivations for pursuing those therapies reveal the interlocking c omplexities of race, gender, class and sexuality. There are at least four ways in which these complexities are demonstrated: through a racialized definition of infertility, through the privileging of white babies, through a historic partializing of black personhood, and through the unequal distribution of power in reproductive contracts. By exploring these four areas, I will show how reproductive technologies perpetuate and maintain power dynamics that have their root in slavery. Therefore, the biological promise that RT provides is discursively undercut through its tangled sociopolitical history. Black women, especially, have a particularly fraught relationship with RT, and I argue that Octavia Butler writes this history within her novel Dawn The ways i n which infertility is defined and measured is racialized. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) is a fitting example. Administered by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health, the NSFG, now in its seventh cycle of data collection since 1973, surveys a sample of the household population of the United States 1544 years of age. Among a number of benchmarks, the NSFG measures two conditions relevant to my study: impaired fecundity, defined as a physical difficulty with getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term and infertility, defined as the inability to get pregnant after one year of trying (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg.htm). What is interesting about these two conditions is that their statistical measurement produces a standard medical and demographic definition that detours from biology alone, and rather hinges on race, class, and sexuality (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3213200.html ) Although infertility is defined as the inability to get pregnant after one year of trying, the NSFG only measures infertility rates among
117 married or cohabitating women. In other words, a woman is not infertile if she is not married or cohabitati ng; her difficulty getting pregnant in that case is deemed impaired fecundity, a condition that is rarely discussed by advocates for RT. By tying infertility to marriage, this standard of measurement produces and legitimates procreation only within the c onfines of particular kinds of kinship arrangements, specifically marriage, an institution that white women enter at rates higher than non-white women and that lesbian women cannot enter into at all. Since the majority of married women in the United States are white, statistical details about infertility disproportionately privileges the reproductive lives of white women. I am interested in this definition because of the ways in which infertility is constructed as a condition and how it is privileged as a strictly medical condition requ iring technological assistance. Secondly, the concern with the reproductive capacities of white women extends to a privileging of white babies as part of the American Dream. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts traces the value of whiteness in the use of RT in her book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty Roberts observes that by trading genes on the market, these technologies lay bare the high value placed on whiteness and the worthlessness accord ed blackness. New reproductive technologies are popular in American culture not simply because of the value placed on the genetic tie, but because of the value placed on the white genetic tie. (269) As the national media highlights the infertile white woma n as the primary benefactor of RT, they also triumph the promise of RT through images of perfect white babies, whose role as a desired commodity is highlighted through their juxtaposition to dime a -dozen black and Latino children. Myths about the rampa nt fertility of non -white women and the overpopulation of the developing world have fed eugenic fears of a shortage of white babies. Certainly, not every white couple consciously pursues RT for eugenic reasons, but as Laura Doyle points out within racia l patriarchymothers reproduce bodies not in a social vacuum but for either a
118 dominant or subordinate group (4). In this framework, white womens fertility becomes an intense site of ideological warfare. White womens capacity to birth white children repr oduces the firm boundary of racialized difference that benefits a white supremacist order. White people are interpellated into this social order through an aesthetic privileging of white babies. Therefore, beginning in the 1980s, infertile white couples fl ocked to RT to fulfill their dreams of nuclear family bliss.9 Television talk -shows and magazine cover stories provided visual testimony to the promise that RT provided for these couples; images of cherubic white babies were everywhere. Furthermore, Rober ts cites a number of cases that demonstrate the desire for white children, including the case of a white woman who sued a fertility clinic after accidentally being inseminated with a black mans sperm (271). The white womans lawsuit against the fertility clinic hinged on her receiving the inferior product of a black child rather than the more valuable genetically related white baby she believed she was purchasing (271). Roberts observations collectively point to ways in which the promise of RT is select ive and eugenic, and she doubts that there would ever be a multi billion -dollar industry designed to create black children! (271). The only instance that comes to mind here is the system of slave breeding that, if evaluated in todays economic terms, wou ld likely be a multi -billion dollar industry. Therefore, my analysis of RT is never far from questions of rac e and class, power and exploitation. Thirdly, surrogacy, also known as commercialized contract motherhood (CCM) or thirdparty parenting, is a repr oductive technology rooted in unequal power and economic relations. In this arrangement, a married couple or occasionally a single woman of substantial economic independence hires a woman t o gestate a child made of genetic material from one or both parents or through donated genetic material. An embryo or embryos, fertilized in vitro is implanted in
119 the uterus of the surrogate, the woman who carries the couple's baby to term, and once delivered, the surrogate gives the baby to the parenting couple.10 Occasi onally, the surrogate is a family member, but typically she is a stranger. The surrogate woman exists as both person and property, subject and object in this entanglement. The social/legal logic that makes this simultaneity possible stems from what black f eminist legal scholar Patricia Williams calls a partializing social construction, which has its roots in slavery (10). Williams describes her idea of partializing in her essay On Being the Object of Property, in which she weaves her personal and fami lial history and legal theory regarding reproduction. Williams explores the legal history of slavery and refutes the idea that blacks were conceptually totalized as pure objects of their owners domination (8). Instead, enslaved people were seen as partial ized humans. Black people could be thought of simultaneously as chattel, unworthy of all but the most basic biological sustenance, and freely willed individuals, who could be held to moral and legal codes. Williams connects the idea of partialized social construction to surrogacy arrangements, particularly the 1986 Baby M case, in which a surrogate mother sued to keep the child she had carried. Even though the parties involved are all white, Williams argues that the judges ruling in favor of the contracti ng couple could not be justified without the same kind of partializing logic that made slave codes operational. Williams deems the judges ruling a kind of rhetorical trick, comparing it to the heavy-worded legalities by which my great great -grandmoth er was pacified and parted from her child. In both situations, the real mother had no say, no power; her powerlessness was imposed by state law My great great -grandmothers powerlessness came about as the result of a contract to which she was not a party; [the surrogate mothers] powerlessness came about as a result of a contract that she signed at a discrete point of time yet which, over time, enslaved her. The contract reality in both instances was no less than magic: it was illusion transformed into not -illusion. Furthermore, it masterfully disguised the brutality of enforced arrangements in which these women's autonomy, their flesh and their blood, were locked away in word vaults, without room to reconsider ever (14 15)
120 Important to my consideration of reproductive technologies are the ways Williams and others link the use of these technologies to the illusion of a reproductive equality that has never existed in the United States. The social construction of the surrogate and the enslaved woman as bree der commingle around this site of partialized subjectivity. Finally, Angela Davis also makes an important link between surrogacy arrangements and historical racial and class inequalities, and a market system that allows for economic exploitation of raciali zed bodies. She argues that the payment for surrogacy services, which can be as much as $20,000, ends up being less than minimum wage for the surrogate once you consider that pregnancy is a 24/7 job. This economic arrangement is exploitative, Davis argues, which always carries racial and class based undertones because domestic work has been primarily performed in the United States by women of color, native -born as well as recent immigrants (and immigrant women of European descent), elements of racism and c lass bias adhere to the concept of surrogate motherhood as potential historical features, even in the contemporary absence of large numbers of surrogate mothers of color. (215) In other words, regardless of the actual race and class of the surrogate who en ters into contractual obligation with a couple, the practice of surrogacy relies upon socially enforced inequalities of reproductive and domestic labor that emerge, at their root, from an unequal racial order. In this section, I have addressed four ways in which reproductive technologies perpetuate and maintain reproductive inequality. The way fertility is measured by federal agencies privileges heterosexual, married couples, marking them as the only individuals to suffer from infertility. As a result of th is demographic slant, the visual/popular representation of the typically infertile woman is white, while her opposite is the scary, hyper -fertile black woman, a representation originating in the system of slave breeding and perpetuated in the mythology of the welfare mother Slavery also created the legal and economic backdrop for
121 contemporary surrogacy arrangements, building upon the already unstable foundation of racial, class, and gender inequality. All of these factors have rendered the promise of RT problematic for scores of black women, who either are economically unable to avail themselves of fertility therapies, or who reject RT for ideological reasons. The net historic result of these influential representations of fertility has rendered the notion of reproductive equality a highly c ontested terrain so much so that skepticism and distrust for reproductive technologies has become a critical aspect of black womens collective reproductive politics11. In ways that are similar to my discussion in C hapter 1 of black womens desire to bear and raise their own children as a facet of their reproductive politics, I am suggesting that black womens interaction with RT similarly has socio -historical, political origins. Octavia Butlers novel Dawn intimately engages with these politics through the character Lilith, who negotiates a strategy of survival and selfhood in spite of her situation as an exploited other. The Dialectics of Lilith in Octavia Butlers Dawn In this section, I will examine how Butlers novel Dawn stages a dialectic relationship between the oppressive and emancipatory possibilities of reproductive technology. A dialectic relationship between the categories of woman and technology has been already been identified by feminist scholars as a cornerstone of feminist science fiction, which Butler further complicates through her inclusion of black women as protagonists in her novels and short stories. In the novel Dawn specifically, Butler foregrounds the exploitative histories of race and reproduction, yet offers a radically alternative vision for their future that privileges the subjectivity of the black female protagonist. Lilith is used as a biological resource for the advancement of the Oankali, who travel the universe to reproduce with other species in search of genetic perfection. Though the nomadic Oankali refer to the process as a trade, Lilith and the
122 other humans who have been saved from nuclear devastation on Earth see the arrangement as exploitative and dangerous. Yet, as the s tory advances, Lilith begins to see her situation less as enslavement and more as an opportunity for new kinds of sexual experience and kinship bonds. Significantly, she begins to understand the Oankalis three -gendered reproductive process, through which she revises her ideas about gender, sexuality, and motherhood in ways that she ultimately finds more promising and liberating than her experiences on Earth. Her choices, however, make her monstrous to her fellow humans, and she must decide how to cope with becoming like the Lilith of ancient Hebrew lore: feared, misunderstood, and outcast. How Butler develops Liliths subjectivity and her shifting perceptions of experience forms the basis for this section. Through a close reading of the text, I will identif y narrative moments that illustrate how Butler develops a dialectics of Lilith. Butler produces a dialectic effect through her intertextual use of slave narratives to describe Liliths captivity; her exploration of linguistics that highlights tensions over the meaning of mother; her description of human alien sex that redefines possibilities for desire; and her development of Liliths superhuman strength, which establishes her ability to both create and destroy. Taken together, these narrative focal poi nts provide a glimpse into Butlers incorporation of reproductive politics within her novel, and her participation in a black womens literary tradition that typically seeks to define the symbol of mother outside of dominant ideologies. Enslavement as Al ien Abduction N arrative Liliths confining and disorienting imprisonment at the beginning of Dawn parallels the African experience during the Middle Passage, which bears striking parallels to a number of other narratives within the genres of science fictio n and speculative fiction. For four centuries, millions of captured Africans were snatched from their homes and forced to travel long, disorienting distances from the interior to the coast of the continent. They were then loaded onto
123 unfamiliar vessels by which they traveled at sea for an unknowable amount of time. Upon their arrival to the alien landscape of the New World, captives were forced to undergo strange experiments that sought to illuminate their difference from their captors, and then they were put to work as subordinates. A number of early slave narratives describe an alien like encounter with white faced people (Carretta 149). For example, an enslaved African woman named Belinda petitioned the legislature of Massachusetts for her freedom, an d in the document she describes her capture as scenes which her imagination had never conceived of, a floating world, [in] the sporting monsters of the deep (Carretta 142). Though the definitions of science fiction literature are wide ranging and hotly debated, there is, within, Belindas description, the quality of the fantastic, which seems common within the sci -fi genre. Science fiction writer and lecturer Adam Roberts defines the genre as a literature of ideas predicated on some substantive diffe rence or differences between the world described and the world in which readers actually live (3, emphasis added). This sense of difference, experienced by the reader but evoked by the writer is demonstrated in numerous narratives of alien abduction, inc luding Dawn and bears significant resemblance to descriptions of African-European encounters at the dawn of Western modernity.12 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oluadah Equiano, published in 1794, gives one of the most detailed accounts of trans -Atlantic abduction, describing the horror and confusion that Equiano endures through his journey. Unfortunately, there are not many female authored slave narratives that depict womens experiences of their initial capture ; Belindas story was one of the fe w that I found. As a result, I rely on Equianos story in this comparative reading because h is story bears striking resemblance to the opening pages of Dawn and I wish to link Liliths sense of captivity and torture to recorded historic details of these k inds of encounters.13
124 In his narrative, Equiano describes the near suffocation he experienced under the deck of the ship and the animal -like conditions in the hold of the vessel, where the captured Africans were kept in chains. Equiano also writes that s eeing the ship that would transport him into the unknown filled me with astonishment, that soon converted into terror, which overcame him to the point of fainting (qtd. in Gates 57). When he recovered a little, Equiano began to gather more details abou t his European captors. In the opening pages of Dawn Lilith Iyapo awakes to the nightmare sensations of asphyxiation in a dimly lit room that is both familiar and strange to her senses (3). Disoriented and claustrophobic, she realizes that she has been repeatedly waking up in this room or a similar room for an unknown period of time. At this point, the narrative reveals little information about Liliths surroundings but it does reveal her frightened sense of captivity. Lilith knows that she is being kep t, but has no idea why. She recognizes the items she has been given a toilet, lumpy stew, a pile of clothing though she has no idea who or what has control over her basic survival needs. Her confining room seems foreign and paranormal. Stains on the walls and floor vanish as if by magic. There is no identifiable light source, no obvious ventilation: She imagined herself to be in a large b ox, like a rat in a cage (5). The similar experiences of terror (Equiano) and nightmare (Lilith) and the act of passing out from disorientation link these two narratives from the start. While held captive both remark upon their closeness to animals; Equiano mentions the way the Europeans saw Africans as brutes, while Lilith remarks upon being like a rat in a cage. Upon regaining consciousness, Equiano and Lilith attempt to investigate their surroundings and the nature of their captors, which reveal s a heightened sense of wonder. Equiano writes that he believed I had got into a world of bad spiritsTheir comp lexions too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language that they spokeunited to
125 confirm me in this belief that he was to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair (57). Lilith experiences a similar f ear when she first sees the humanoid Oankali. Above all else, she notices its difference in skin color and hair. She has brown skin (8), while the Oankali is covered in pale gray skin and darker gray hair that grows around its eyes, ears and throat (11). A s she looks closer at the being, Lilith realizes that the hair is actually a group of snake like, moving sensory organs that the Oankali uses to perceive its environment. She backed away, scrambled around the bed and to the far wall. When she could go no farther, she stood against the wall, staring at him. Medusa (12). Frightened and disbelieving, Lilith fears that the strange looking being may harm her or kill her. She backs away in disgust and fear. Finally, both narratives describe acts of resistance toward captivity. Equiano writes about groups of Africans who would jump from the deck of the ship in order to drown themselves. In some cases these jumps were successful; captives could escape their torture and confinement through death. The slavers, ho wever, did what they could to prevent this kind of resistance. When they could, Equiano writes, the slavers would go out to sea in smaller boats to bring back those who had jumped. Equiano describes the kind of brutal retri bution exacted upon survivors: T wo of the wretches were drowned; but they got the other, and afterward flogged him unmercifully, for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery (61). Similarly, Lilith mounts her own attempt at resistance prior to her first viewing of the Oankali. For an unknown amount of time, she is spoken to by her captors, though she is unable to see them. They ask her a series of questions, and she determines that they wish to gather information from her. In an effort to bargain with and resist her unseen wardens, Lil ith stops answering their questions. This tactic does not work. Her captors simply stop speaking to her, initiating a kind of mental torture that sends her into a state of emotional exhaustion: she sat on the floor rocking, thinking about
126 losing her mind (8). Liliths attempt at resistance is thwarted by the Oankali in a way that heightens her sense of isolation and psychological torture Though Liliths thwarted resistance is not the same as the beating of suicidal captives, I do see parallels in the kind of psychological t errorism both stories depict. Equianos text offers a glimpse into the real life alien encounter that millions of Africans endured as captives. His stunning narrative provides a sense of the awe and terror, fascination and wonder that a ccompanied this moment of encounter. Equianos language of unconsciousness and awakening, of animal -like confinement and fear, and thwarted resistance and psychological turmoil bears more than a passing resemblance to Liliths experience. Kept helpless, a lone and ignorant, Liliths encounter can be read as a reflection of the histories of enslaved people (3). In a way then, Dawn acts as a neo -slave narrative, joining a number of texts within the African American literary tradition that revisit the physic al and spiritual devastation of enslavement.14 Moreover, Dawn provides an imaginative opportunity to extend the slave narrative tradition by reorient ing the largely male voices of prominent enslaved writers (Equiano, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Dougl ass, for example) toward the concerns of black women, specifically their reproductive exploitation. By shifting Liliths locus of con cern from her general captivity, which parallels Equianos story, toward her selection as a breeder for a new alien -human hybrid, Butler further complicates the gendered intertextual implications of her work. Reproduction within the Neo -slave N a rrative T radition Dawn opens with a section entitled Womb, which establishes the novels related themes of reproduction and confinem ent. Lilith first gets a hint that she may have been reproductively altered after she awakens from one of her lapses of consciousness, and she discovers a scar across her abdomen. Bewildered, she thinks she did not own herself any longer. Even her flesh c ould be cut and stitched without her consent or knowledge (5) Though she
127 discovers that the Oankali had only removed a cancerous tumor from her, she continually feels a sense of foreboding about the Oankalis interest in her body. When she asks her Oanka li guide, Jdahya, what the Oankali intend to do with her and the other humans, he does not respond. Lilith feels helpless not knowing what will become of her interaction with the aliens, again equating her situation with that of an experimental animal: Th is is one more thing they had done to her body without her consent and supposedly for her own good. We used to treat animals that way, she muttered bitterly (31). Lilith grapples with being kept like a rat in a cage, used for scientific exploration an d experimentation. She eventually discovers the reason for Jdahyas silences when she asks about the purposes of the research: the Oankali intend to use human genes to renew their species. Jdahya explains: We do what you would call genetic engineering... We do it naturally. We must do it. It renews us, enables us to survive as an evolving species (39). What the Oankali call a genetic trade, Lilith calls inbreeding and crossbreeding, pointing to a conflict in language that exposes the unequal power dynamic between the Oankali and the humans (39). The word trade evokes a sense of egalitarian exchange, while inbreeding and crossbreeding are suggestive of exploitation and manipulation. Lilith eventually comes to understand her purpose as a captive of the Oankali: She was intended to live and reproduce, not to die. Experimental animal, parent to domestic animals? Ornearly extinct animal, part of a captive breeding program? Human biologists had done that before the warForced artificial insemination. Surrogate motherhood? Fertility drugs and forced donation of eggs? Implantation of unrelated fertilized eggs. Removal of children from mothers at birthHumans had done these things to captive breeders all for a higher good, of course. (58) Liliths a nalysis of her situation with the Oankali likens her situation to ones that she recalls from her life on Earth. She compares the Oankali reproductive system with the normalized breeding practices that humans used on experimental animals, domestic animals a nd other humans. Her recollection of human reproductive experiments is punctuated by ellipses and
128 pauses. These stops and starts give a sense of disorientation, as her mind races to make sense of the Oankalis plans. She realizes that the reproductive prac tices of the Oankali, which she finds repulsive, are similar to normalized medical practices that she took for granted on Earth. Despite the normalization of those practices, Liliths thoughts depict an inherent skepticism surrounding reproductive technol ogy, as it has been used on Earth. Butler uses the oxymoron of forced donation to show that Lilith already had doubts about the power dynamics involved in emerging reproductive technologies that existed while she still lived on Earth. Her thoughts sugges t that women who donate their eggs for in vitro fertilization may in fact be forced into these arrangements, perhaps through the economic coercion of a $20,000 check. Her final thought that humans had done these things to captive breeders all for a hi gher good, of course further develops a sense of skepticism. The fact that Butler uses the loaded term captive breeders to refer to the women who have undergone the aforementioned list of reproductive manipulations speaks again to the unequal power rela tions inherent in these techniques. Women who enter into surrogacy contracts, donate their eggs or undergo forms of experimentation may not be literally captive, yet Butler refuses to decouple the use and development of RT from is ideological roots in ensl avement and indentureship Keeping this in mind then Liliths final remark, for a higher good, of course, is sarcastic. After critiquing the uses of RT in late 20th century, Butler reminds us that certain bodily invasions were once touted as positive bre akthroughs in human reproduction. The phrase higher good speaks to the promise of RT that is meant to hide its problematic realities. Understandably, Lilith distrusts and fears the plans of the Oankali, and craves other human contact because only a hum an could reassure her or at least understand her fear (59). She is denied other human contact, at least initially, so she begins to bond with an Oankali child
129 named Nikanj. Nikanj is ooloi a third, neutral gender in Oankali life that is meant to create balance between male-female kinship units. The powerful ooloi are also integral to Oankali sex. At full sexual maturity, they possess an extra set of arms. At the tip of each arm, a hand -like structure emerges that forms a bridge of stimulation in Oanka li sexual encounters. Lilith is introduced to Nikanj before it reaches puberty, before its sensory arms have developed. Nikanj is entrusted to teach Lilith the Oankali language and customs. Yet unlike the other Oankali who approach Lilith in a sterile, cal culated way, Nikanj truly bonds with Lilith. They share food and living quarters. They trust each other enough to ask questions and have conversations. Lilith begins to act as a mother -guardian to Nikanj, and only Nikanj gave her any pleasure, any forgetf ulness. The ooloi child seemed to have been given to her as much as she had been given to it. It rarely left her, seemed to like her (58). Liliths connection to Nikanj deepens as it enters puberty, and it requests her comforting presence during its metam orphosis. In return, Nikanj facilitates Liliths first sense of freedom on the Oankali ship; it allows her to roam parts of the ship unsupervised. Nikanj offers to alter Liliths brain chemistry in order to allow her to learn the Oankali language more quic kly and develop the ability to open and close walls with the touch of her hand. She accepts the ooloi offer, and through her increased freedom and mobility and her maternal connection with Nikanj she begins to re -evaluate her role in the Oankali trade. At the outset, she remains skeptical about her new powers and freedom, remarking: so she could walk the corridors and walk among the trees, but she couldnt get into anything Nikanj didnt want her in (101). Again, Lilith remarks upon her conditions thro ugh a sarcastic comment that highlights how her freedom is conditional and limited by the wishes of the Oankali. Lilith uses sarcasm throughout the novel as a resistant speech act that juxtaposes her external and internal realities.
130 Given freedom, yet stil l feeling like a pet animal, Lilith struggles with her bitterness and gratitude toward her captors. Angrily, she abandons Nikanj as it begins a difficult part of its transformation, the growth of its sensory arms (100101). Lilith watches Nikanj as it tr embles on a bed in their shared quarters, and she neither knew or cared what was wrong with it (101). However, just as she walks out of the room to eat her first meal in freedom, she is compelled to return to the suffering Nikanj. She feeds it fruit and asks about how the transformation feels. She eventually lies down next to Nikanj, giving it comfort through its transition. She sighed, tried to understand her own feelings. She was still angry angry, bitter, frightened And yet she had come back. She h ad not been able to leave Nikanj trembling in its bed while she enjoyed her greater freedom. (102) At this point, Butlers narrative provides complicated insights into Liliths navigation of her multiple roles as reproductive host and mother to Nikanj. O n the one hand, she is compelled through a sense of nurturing, love and care to provide attention to Nikanj. Yet, Liliths nurturing is expressed as concomitant with the un -maternal feelings of anger, bitterness, and fear. Though these are typically seen a s negative emotions, Liliths anger, bitterness and fear fuel her resistance to the Oankali. Her greatest gains the freedom to move about the ship and the gift of writing implements were secured after she harnessed her anger, bitterness, and fear int o a more empowered position. I am not trying to suggest that anger, bitterness, and fear alone make Lilith an empowered character in this novel. But I do want to suggest that Butler evokes a dialectic framework for the understanding of Lilith that relies u pon the duality of anger/nurturing, fear/care. New Gender P aradigm Remarkably, Lilith overcomes her fear of the Oankali enough to become intimately attached to Nikanj. Her consistent resistance to Oankali domination and her acceptance of Oankali interactio n demonstrates the strength of her character, a trait that surprises the Oankali
131 who have been studying human interaction for centuries. An older ooloi named Kahguyaht expresses its surprise that Lilith would be able to lead the Oankali/human interaction. Kahguyaht did not initially believe that Lilith, or any human female for that matter, would be capable of the task of balancing the skills that would be necessary to work as a leader. Kahguyaht states: I believed that because of the way human genetics wer e expressed in culture, a human male should be chosen to parent the first group. I think now that I was wrong (110). The reference to the way human genetics were expressed in culture implicates an important aspect of how gender acts in human affairs. Ma les, because of their perceived biological difference from females, are positioned in many human societies as superior in strength and intelligence. Perhaps Kahguyaht, after observing and studying human societies, believed that males possess superior quali ties, and that leader of the Oankali/human trade should be mans work. Yet, the ooloi is surprised that the kind of strength and intelligence needed to re -create the new Earth would come from a human woman, Lilith. Further complicating Kahguyahts statemen t is Liliths reaction to its choice of the word parent. She is puzzled by the word. Parent? she asks. Kahguyaht replies: Thats the way we think of it. To teach, to give comfort to feed and clothe, to guide them through and interpret what will be, for them, a new and frightening world. To parent. (110) Lilith, still unable to reconcile the gender neutral term parent with the qualities that her captor has described, says Youre going to set me up as their mother ? (110) At this point in the narrati ve Lilith must confront her gender identifications that attach nurturing behavior to women. What Butler is able to do in this narrative is detail Liliths transformation, especially in terms of her relationship to gender roles, through her connection with the Oankali. It is in the second half of the novel, when she begi ns to accept her role as parent to the Oankali/human hybrids that she transcends the kind of rigid gender designations that are exemplified in the earlier passage.
132 Lilith, at this point, re mains unable to conceive of her work creating a new civilization as anything but mothering. But as the novel progresses, her work extends beyond clothing, guiding, nurturing and support, idealized images of mothering that have already been shown to be pr oblematic. She begins to embody the idea of mamas gun, as a transformational, transgressive identity that constitutes traditionally conceived masculine and feminine roles, desires and actions. The novel seems to offer Liliths transformed self, her use of mamas gun as resistance to the Oankali reproductive imperative. Though she is unable to free herself completely from the grasp, she manages as kind of self -preservation and an assertion of her subjectivity in the course of her participation in the awaken ing of humanity to their new existence as reproductive trade partners with the Oankali. Cyborg Possibility Patricia Melzer and Donna Haraway point to the significance of Butlers work within the body of feminist science fiction written since the 1970s for her insistence upon black women as central to her narratives. Melzer, in her book Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought identifies common features of feminist science fiction, exemplified by the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Ru ss, and James Tiptree Jr., as work that typically addresses the fraught relationships between the gendered body and technology. Working from Donna Haraways framework of cyborg feminism, Melzer also concludes that feminist science fiction provides women wr iters the opportunity to critique the power structures of patriarchal technoscience, particularly around the site of the body. Working with a variety of narrative possibilities, feminist science fiction tends to suggest a way out of the schema of domination that typically describes the encounter between woman and technology. Donna Haraway identifies this opportunity for critique as the imaginative resource of the cyborg:
133 By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, the orized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibil ity of historical transformation. (397) For Haraway, the metaphor of cyborg offers a bridge between social reality and fiction that disrupts the boundary between organism and machine. The phrase, in our time, suggests a sense of collectivity, which she identifies later in the essay as antiracist, anti -sexist, anti domination social progressives. By embracing this metaphor, she suggests a kind of duality of existence that offers a resistance to domination in the real. The imagined possibility of merging of human and machine destroys the epistemology of binary perceptions and allows one to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from t he other vantage point (401). Black women are cyborgs, an d have been since their encounter with the West. As Hortense Spillers makes note that the legal descriptions of slave almost always listed the term as equivalent to animals as well as tools, culinary items and other property (226). That imposed uniformi ty of both the live and inanimate forms the basis of a reading of black women as always already within the imaginative framework of Haraways cyborg feminism. While Butlers work certainly shares the themes and concerns of other pieces of feminist science fiction, her work provides the important missing link to other womens science fiction through her concerns with implications of race. Melzer writes that the novels in Butlers Xenogenesis trilogy are in dialogue with feminist theories about subjectiviti es of women of color that view identity as a continuous negotiation of conflicting experiences more than a final product (18). Mamas gun also can be a framework that revises cyborg feminism with further attention toward the ways in which race complicates the metaphor.
134 Conclusion The observations of Haraway and Melzer, notwithstanding, I connect Butlers dialectics, her conception of the cyborg is reflective of the writers entrenchment within a black womens literary tradition that always already concei ves of itself as transgressive and dangerous. By drawing parallels between Liliths post apocalyptic capture by the alien Oankali and the capture and enslavement of Africans during the Middle Passage, Butler fuses her futuristic narrative with the historic implications of race, reproduction, and exploitation. After drawing these significant parallels, however, Butler frees Lilith to explore the possibility of liberation a nd empowerment in the future. Notes 1 For more on Liliths depiction in the Hebrew literary tradition, see Chapter Two in Nehama Aschkenasy, Eves Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Philad elphia Press, 1986) and Avraham Balaban, Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Ozs Prose (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993). Conversations with Dr. Balaban helped steer me toward the rich literary meaning Lilith holds within the Hebrew literary tradition, which has influenced my readings of Lilith in a black womans text. 2 Exploring the variety of interpretations of the Lilith story has also uncovered fascinating alternate readings of the role and symbolism of Eve in the Genesis story. I am particularly drawn to the reading of Eve exemplified in Marge Piercys poem Applesauce for Eve, in which she writes you are indeed the mother of invention, the first scientist (10). Eves decision to eat the forbidden fruit takes on different meaning if thought of as deliberate exploration and experimentation, qualities valorized among men, rather than taken as foolishness and treachery that dooms humanity. 3 While the Torah only mentions Lilith directly once, in Isaiah 34:14, she appears through the Jewish tradition of Midrash, an oral tradition of close reading and interpretation of the holy text. Midrash is built on the assumption that everything in the Torah is a clue to deeper understanding of its meaning; it is a means of extracting meaning from the Bible, but also a way of reading meaning into the text. (Biblical Women in the Midrash xxix) The Lilith story appears in the medieval text Alphabet of Ben Sira, which also describes Lilith as Adams first wife. 4 There are other popular, futuristic images of black women as the last hope for humanity, including the characters Dr. Kaela Evers in the film Supernova (2000), Selena in the film 28 Days Later (2002), and Kee in the film Children of Men (2006). 5 In an essay on Butler Elyce Rae Helford cites Butlers recurring interest in themes of reproduction: From the Medusalike appearance of the alien Oankali in her Xenogenesis trilogy and the archetypal power of the matriarchal shape shifter Anyanwu in her 1980 novel Wild Seed to Gads female reproductive functi on for the Tlic in Bloodchild, Butler is deeply invested in scien ce fictional metaphors for the feminine which challenge traditional representations.
135 6 I am using Hortense Spillers term American grammar here to refer to the symbolic order that remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor historyshow movement (208). Spillers term explains how meaning is inscribed and ascribed to certain bodies and how these meanings persist over time. 7 Of the estimated 6.7 million women identified with current fertility problems in a 1995 survey, only 8.3 percent of black women used artificial insemination compared to the 16.5 percent of white women. The ra cial disparity is starker as treatments become more specialized; only 0.6 percent of black women used a spectrum of assisted reproductive technologies, while 6.4 percent of white women used the same therapies. According to the CDC, assisted reproductive te chnologies involve all fertility treatments in which both eggs and sperm are handled. In general, ART procedures involve surgically removing eggs from a womans ovaries, combining them with sperm in the laboratory, and returning them to the womans body o r donating them to another woman. Stephen, Elizabeth Hervey and Anjani Chandra. Use of Infertility Services in the United States: 1995 Family Planning Perspectives 32.3 ( May/June 2000) < http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3213200.html http://www.cdc.gov/art/>. 8 Dr. Wallace C. Nunley of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, touted the legacy of successes in the field of RT in a speech given to the South Atlantic Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. As he addressed the group he lamented the lack of insurance coverage for infertile couples who wish to use available therapies. He opines that In a utopian world, there would be universal coverage for those persons who are affected by infertility. But, if treatment is provided to a 35year old couple, should equal coverage be provided to a 45year old couple? His statement highlights the ways in which access and use of R T is flattened out and equalized in popular and even medical discourses, so much so that the issue of inequality of access comes down to age rather than issues of race, class, and sexuality. See The Slippery Slopes of Advanced Reproductive Technologies: P residential Address American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 191.2 (August 2004), 588592. Transactions of the Annual Meeting of the South Atlanti c Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 9 Meanwhile images of racially mixed families are typically seen as preposterous in the popular culture. The television sitcom Diffrent Strokes, which aired on NBC from 1978 to 1985, highlighted the come dic troubles of a nonnormative family that consisted of a white widower, his genetically related white daughter and two orphaned black boys who he adopts. Though the program highlighted the love and affection this nontraditional family shared, it was always demonstrated within the context of intense racial difference. The ways in which the Drummonds negotiated their differences was almost always portrayed as slapstick comedy, which contrasted other popular, sentimental images of white family bliss. Also important to this imagined mixed race family is the absence of the white mother, who typical ly symbolizes the mediator of racial purity in the domestic space. 10 There are two types of surrogacy known as gestational surrogacy and traditional surrogacy. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate is inseminated with the sperm of the father via intrauterine insemination. The resultant baby will have the genetic structure of the father and the surrogate. The second type of surrogacy is known as gestational surrog acy, which is where the surrogate carries the embryo, created in vitro and produced by the infertile couple. The infant will have the genetic makeup of the infertile couple. In gestational surgery, the mother undergoes an in vitro fertilization cycle where she receives medication to stimulate her ovaries to produce multiple eggs. If the mother does not have viable eggs, an egg donor may be used. The eggs are withdrawn through the vagina and combined with the male partner's sperm in a Petri dish. The dish is then placed in an incubator until ready for transfer, usually 35 days. The gestational surrogate receives hormones to synchronize her cycle with the mothers. The mature embryos are transferred to the surrogate mother using a small catheter. 11 For more on African Americans distrust of medical institutions see Harriet Washingtons Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Doubleday, 2006). 12 My departure from Roberts concern for the reader to an emphasis on the writer is an effort to call to mind the subject position of the writers of slave narratives and their grappling with their modernity.
136 13 I am using the Gates collection of slave narratives and will refer onl y to page numbers in subsequent references. 14 Notable works written by black women that exhibit the neoslave narrative impulse include Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and xxx. For more on neoslave nar ratives, see Witnessi ng Slavery after Freedom, (Chapter 8) Deborah McDowell, The Changing Same Black Womens Literature, Criticism and Theory (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995) ; Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Womens F iction Venetria K. Patton. (Albany: SUNY P ress, 2000) particularly Chapter Five; and The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and Gender in Contemporary Black Womens Fiction, Angelyn Mitchell (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002).
137 CHAPTER 5 BIG MAMA, MADEA, AND SUPERMODEL: QU EER P ERFORMANCE OF THE BLACK MATERNAL FIGURE IN THE WORK OF TYLER PERRY AND RUPAUL Mudear. Thats what I called my mother and thats what I want my children to call me. Its short for Mother dear. No, baby, dont say Maa -maa, say Mu dear Mu dear she would instruct each of the girls from age one on until each said it with just the same lilting inflections on the dear that the originator used. Tina McElroy Ansa, Ugly Ways I remember a guy on the corner of my neighborhood who wanted to be a Madea. He w ould come out of his house every morning with the curlers in his hair and a bandanna and just look around and see what the kids were doing. He would then run and tell their parents. But he was kind of illegitimate. Tyler Perry, Dont Make a Black Woman Tak e Off Her Earrings For the past decade, the African -American cross -dressing phenomenon that goes by the name of Madea has steadily amassed growing audiences in black communities across the United States, becoming noteworthy in mainstream media outlets not only for the numbers of black people who go to see her plays and movies, but also for the concentrated spending power that Hollywood has discovered within black communities.1 For a time, the spectacle of a 6 -foot 5 inch tall black man shabbily dressed in wig, makeup, false breasts, dress and pumps packed major urban theatre venues and, in the case of Madeas most recent film Madeas Goes To Jail (2009), charted multi -million dollar box -office revenues. The fame and financial success of Tyler Perry, the man behind Madea, has been attributed to the authenticity of his performance of the sassy, gun toting, marijuana -smoking grandmother Mabel Madea Simmons, who Perry tells interviewers is an amalgam of traits resembling his actual mother and aunt (P. Joh nson, par. 10). M ale performances that portray black mothers and grandmothers have antecedents in other post Civil Rights black cultural products Martin Lawrence has made two movies as Big Momma and Eddie Murphy has cross dressed as Sherman Klumps mot her and grandmother in The Nutty Professor films and Tyler Perrys version stands out for its appeal to audiences who,
138 for the most part, seem to disassociate Perrys performance from drag culture or queer aesthetics, even though Perry is at his most rec ognizable when cross dressed as Madea.2 Unlike actor/comedians Lawrence and Murphy, who have other staple characters that they portray in a variety of movies and who have long careers as stand up comedians and performers, Perry carved a substantial place i n black popular culture solely through the commodification of his cross -dressed body in the loose guise of a loud, but nurturing black mother. Perrys popularity as Madea reached its zenith when he authored a self -help book of advice for black women, Dont Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madeas Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life (2006). On one level, the book simply rearticulates the humorous, homespun, honey-chile aphorisms that have become a staple of the stage plays. On another level, however, the text uncannily acts as a memoir, revealing aspects of Perrys life through Madeas persona. The book has a foreword written by Perry, as himself, while the introduction and rest of the book is authored by Madea, who writes to black women a bout sex, men, weight gain, and church, but also pregnancy, childbirth, and menstruation. Perry goes to great lengths to separate the personas. He goes so far as to allow Madea to share her thoughts on Perry, who Madea says she met when he was a little bo y: I knew his mother and his auntie. They were all worried about him because he talked to himself. He walked around a lot by himself and spent a lot of time alone. We were really worried one day. We saw him with a pink dress on. He said it was because it was Mardi Gras, but I dont know. We were all very concerned. (xvi) The full intention of the passage is unclear. Whether it is true or a bit of humor is not revealed; the episode is not mentioned again in the book and I have not been able to find reference to it in any interviews of Perry. Regardless, the quote provides an interesting lens through which to view Perrys performance as Madea. What would it mean if Perry really did like to wear dresses as a child? What if wearing a dress was not just about his profession as an actor/comedian, but
139 somehow expressed other kinds of desire? Is this possibility of non-normative desire what his mothe r and auntie worried about? What has been fascinating about Perrys ascendency in black popular culture is how he man ages to deflect, for the most part, questions about his sexuality being anything other than straight and his gender identity as anything other than traditionally masculine.3 Perry seems to dodge the kind of questions not typically forestalled in the cases of other black men who publically cross -dress or perform in drag, such as Murphy, Dennis Rodman or RuPaul.4 How does Perry as -Madea resist interpellation into the margins of black masculinity, marked as illegitimate? In the epigraph, taken from Perrys b ook, Dont Make a Black Woman, he recalls a man in the community he grew up in who took on the role of a Madea. Madea also spelled Mudear, MDear and MaDear is simply an abbreviated pronunciation of Mother and Dear, but it has come to name any kin d of Big Mama in the black community. Perry explains she was the head of that village, a loving, caring woman who looked after children, but was not politically correct. She doesnt care about anything but what is honest and true. And she is always sayi ng the least expected things (x).5 Perry acknowledges that many people wanted to be Madea and that the world would be a better place if there were more real Madeas. Yet when the man from the epigraph with curlers in his hair acted as a Madea, Perry dism isses him as illegitimate, inauthentic. The neighbor remains static and voiceless in this passage, unable to articulate the source of his Madea impersonation and what it might mean to him to affect the persona of a complicated but confident black mother. In many ways, Perrys Madea demonstrates aspects of mamas gun described throughout my project. A s a post Civil Rights era black maternal figure, Madea and other Big Mamas trouble the binaries between masculine/feminine, good mothers/bad mother, respectabl e/low -
140 class. Madea has a strong voice, which she uses for self -definition and resistance. Furthermore, Madea is a sexual mother figure, who talks freely about work as a stripper, her multiple husbands and boyfriends, and other sexual conquests. These eleme nts of mamas gun exist in Madea, but does mamas gun operate here within this symbolic order in a way that supports black women as self -defining autonomous agents? Does mamas gun change when it is wielded by a man? To that end, in this chapter, I explore the work of Perry and drag performer RuPaul, who have developed in their work a creative alter -ego that manifests aspects of mamas gun. They each call their personas by different names Madea and Supermodel which I will describe in detail later in t his chapter. Ultimately, I contend that these figures share similar symbolic resources for their work, and I classify these figures as (queer) performances of the black mother. In order to outline the contours of my argument, I will first establish why I r ead these performances as queer, particularly Perrys work, when he seems to resist this label the most. I will then map out the performative elements of black mother figures by tracing the historical referents of The Mammy and The Matriarch, whose synthes is forms the foundation for the contemporary image of the Big Mama.6 Finally, in the last section, I explore how Tyler Perry and RuPaul incorporate and resist the performative nature of this figure, leading t o an uneven use of mamas gun. Transgressi ve Pos sibility in Queer Performances of the Black Mother If mamas gun is the demonstration of the transgressive potential of particular marginalized representations of black mothers in contemporary literature and popular culture, then what could be more destabi lizing than men adopting the personas of these mothers? Certainly, their performances of their female role models could be indicative of a tacit or explicit acknowledgement of the power of embracing the subjectivity of the other, a critically necessary s tep for disempowering several modes of dominance.7 Each man discussed in this chapter has acknowledged explicitly in his writings that his adoption of a female persona comes
141 from his conscious desire to perform versions of his own mother as well as other b lack mothers in their communities. From this vantage point, I have identified their work as queer in the sense that their use of drag and camp aesthetics problematizes the traditional economies of gender and, in some cases, heterosexuality. The fact that t hese performances have the opportunity to theorize difference as a progressive discursive location for cultural practice is what marks them as queer. This category does not assume any of the men here would claim queer as an identity, but my figuration envi sions queer as an adjective to describe a kind of performance, rather than nominatively. Queer cultural work may not unilaterally manifest as resistance to multiple, intersecting modes of dominance and exploitation. Queer scholars and activists of color have warned against this assumption, noting that within the corpus of queer scholarship there exists a tendency to overlook or ghettoize the significance of racial difference within progressive discussions of sexual liberty. This silencing of racial critiq ue often emanates from those who refuse to acknowledge their privileges (being white, being male, or being middle and upper -class). Without transparent, honest critiques of power, especially pockets of power possessed by the sexually marginalized, the tra nsgressive potential of queer cultural work remains unrealized. Likewise, in the case of the work under review in this chapter, I suggest that black mens performances of black maternal figures only tap into the potential for destabilization of gender norm s when the male performers acknowledge and work to destabilize their male privilege. I find Ann DuCilles discussion of power and perspective in the essay Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical I instructive in thinking t hrough the entanglements of queer transformative politics in this project. Though she is not undertaking a critique of queer cu ltural work, she does offer reflect on the effect of patriarchal perspectives on
142 black womens fiction. DuCille importantly quest ions the authority of the critical 1 to constitute the Other it beholds, even in the midst of reading the Other s celebration of its own subjectivity (445). If the male drag performer is the critical 1 and the black mother is the Other, what kind of authorial power does the male drag performer bring into his performance of the black mother? DuCille concludes that the imperative toward racial patriarchy often undergirds black mens analyses of black womens texts, leading to a misreading of their work and their representations. She later asks, rhetorically: Is it possible for the male I to read the female text it others without reinscribing hierarchies of one kind or another, without in effect deauthoring and even deracializing the female beheld? (44 5). I think the same question can be asked in the case of male drag performance of black m aternal figures. The kind of strong black mothers that black men often portray are often regarded as positive reflections on the endurance of black women against a nu mber of social pressures. However, this moment of celebration and reverence for black womens autonomy can easily slip into the service of hierarchies of gender and sexuality. These performers never have to give up their male privilege; they can use the fi gure of the black mother as a disguise for their male bodies and phallic power.8 When engaging the black mother subject, many of these actors and comedians problematically turn to a positive attraction to strength and its appeal to cultural authenticity without considering the other ways black women react to and resist domination, nor black womens complicated strategies for developing selfhood and subjectivity under these constraints. This observation is part of the larger point I wish to make here, par ticularly around issues of critical transformation, which I think gets at the heart of why this conversation is important and illuminates my interest in this subject. A number of black women critics Trudier Harris, bell hooks, Hortense Spillers, to name a few have cautioned not to be fooled by images of power
143 and strength that dominate the representation of black women because that ruse, if you will, only works to mask the ongoing oppressions that black women face on a daily basis. On the mythic strengt h of black women, bell hooks writes convincingly that most advocates and sympathizers of this position ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with trans formation (hooks 6). Likewise Harris, whose book Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature explores the problems of the strong black woman and writes that Conceptualization of black female character has fallen into th e creative trap or paradox of finding a way out of traditional stereotypes by reinvigorating an old one whose myriad shades do not ultimately overcome the basic problem of limitation. The superficial attractions of strength have dominated portraits of blac k female characters to the detriment of other possibilities and have potentially stymied future directions for the representation of black women. (10 11, emphasis added) I am intrigued by Harriss mention of other possibilities for the representation of black women. On one level, perhaps the late 20th-century emergence of a host of post Civil Rights representations of Big Mama by men could be a gesture toward what I am calling a transgressive (queer) performance. While I do not think Harris includes (quee r) representations of black women as a future direction per se, I would like to consider it as an option. (Queer) representations of black women may offer an alternative lens through which previously unheard and unrepresented identities can be considered In a lot of ways, this kind of symbolic visibility is the hopeful potential I envision through the use of mamas gun, and its destabilization of confining norms intersecting at the site of gender, sexuality and motherhood. Queer or not, though, Harris o bservation advocates for the development of a culturally relevant and recognizable way outside of traditional stereotypes of Mammy and Matriarch, but this new character still falls into the problem of limitation and continues to reify the superficial
144 attractions of strength, which seem performatively attached to the visual representation of Big Mama. I want to invoke Foucaults connection between power and the body when I make the observation that there seems to be in the case of black mothers a much more complicated connection between power and the body. Rather than a one -to one symbolic correlation that is, physical size equals social power Big Mamas large size and other physical references continue to call back to the earlier, less empowered versions of motherhood: Mammy and Matriarch. Despite Big Mamas mythically revered status within black communities, the visual markers of her type act performatively, reproducing the troublesome history and politics of race and gender that black women have been struggling against for centuries. My argument proposes that the positively reverential reading that some have placed on performance of black mothers by black men that these assumptions rely problematically on what Spillers calls the reproduction of ideology manifest through the magnificently physical image of Big Mama. She is a figure rehearsed, rehashed and suspended in time. Magnificently Physical: Big Mama, Performance, and the Reproduction of Black Mother Big Mama emerges as a powerful con temporary figure within black popular culture in response to the tenacious controlling images of black mothers that preceded her, namely The Mammy and The Matriarch. Physically speaking, the Big Mama figure possesses qualities found within both images. S he is fat, large breasted to the point of excess, and is usually dark skinned. Her natural hair is either covered by a handkerchief or by a fairly obvious looking wig. However, Big Mama is distinct in the sense that her development stems from efforts by bo th black women and men to re -read the excessive traits of Mammy (docile) and Matriarch (domineering) through a positive and empowering lens. Unlike those powerless and voiceless figures of the past, Big
145 Mama parlays her physical appearance of strength into a vocal power that allows her to speak her mind in ways that her predecessors never could. Patricia Hill Collins describes how this formulation of power and strength emerged for black women. For black women, the historic legacy of slavery as well as Afri can cultural retentions in the diaspora have necessarily created a view of motherhood that revolves around community, group survival, identity formation, and empowerment (Shifting 48). White feminist theories of motherhood assume, for example, that black womens everyday lives operate in discrete realms of work and family, public and private, or that black womens most pressing libratory concerns are for their own, individual freedoms, rather than that of their collective racial and/or ethnic groups. Howe ver, black women continue to clarify how their lives do not adhere to the models of motherhood expressed by the dominant culture. Within many black communities the status and advancement of an individual woman often has as much to do with her cultivation o f others, especially children, as it does with the development of self. Add to that the value placed on collective action and community building that came out of the civil rights and black nationalist movements and it becomes clear that mothering work a nd child rearing take on a prominent and powerful role in black culture that works on both theoretical and vernacular levels. As a result of these influences, a rhetoric of empowerment, Collins argues, becomes the central theme within black womens articul ations of motherhood, particularly in the image of the Big Mama. Madea in Tyler Perrys plays and movies exemplifies the Big Mama character. In the play I Can Do Bad All By Myself (1998), Madea answers a phone call from Aunt Myrtle, who is described as a devout, saved Christian woman. Madea, who does not attend church and is vocally critical of those who do, listens to Aunt Myrtle pray on the telephone. Clearly annoyed at
146 the prayer, Madea rolls her eyes as she listens to the woman, and eventually take s the phone from her ear and puts it down on the table. Madea ignores the woman and finally says She know she aint got no power. The humor of the lines come from Madeas complete disregard for Aunt Myrtles piety, as well as the brusque and off hand man ner in which Madea delivers the quip. More important, however, the line demonstrates how power situates itself in the body of the black mother, that is, Madea, rather than some o ther source, even faith in God. Comparatively speaking, Aunt Myrtle possesses little to no power in the context of the play as compared to a woman like Madea, who tells another character Im six feet tall, 68 years old, 352 pounds. I can say what I wanna say. Madea controls every situation that she finds herself in through her lou d voice and impressive size. When her voice and size do not work, she also uses a gun that she carries in her handbag to threaten others. She is a stern disciplinarian of all the children in her care. In another scene in the same play, Madea tells her teen aged great -granddaughter Girl, I will beat the hell out of you when the child enters the house with a bad attitude and refuses to speak respectfully to Madea. After that admonishment, the child complies immediately and treats her elder with respect. Th at she is able to command respect, reverence, and compliance at the sound of her voice (and when that is ineffective is unafraid to wield physical force) demonstrates the power of a Big Mama figure such as Madea. Her mockery of Aunt Myrtles faith in the p ower of Christian salvation gestures toward her own omnipotence and omnipresence. It would be a stretch to say that in the black community Big Mamas influence is thought to be superior to a spiritual higher being, but the performance of Madea shows how de eply black vernacular culture conceives maternal power and how much the popular imaginary invests in the performance of her by now familiar claims to strength.
147 Hortense Spillers, in her essay Mamas Baby, Papas Maybe: An American Grammar, explains how t he empowerment mythic emerges from a historically situated de-gendering of black women via the experience of captivity during the colonial quest. Black women were literally and figuratively stripped of the protection of symbolic femininity in the public sphere on the auction block, in the coffle, on the whipping post, in and out of the fields which allowed for a more thoroughgoing exploitation of their sexual, physical and reproductive labor. Black women could be used by dominant members of social bod y in any way because black women were not in possession of the recognizable gender marker of woman, a demarcation that sheltered many white women from abuse. Blac k womens one claim to womanhood was through maternity, a connection still tenuous because of the saturation in the national imagination of black womens masculine mystique. Black mothers, Spillers argues, only become powerful in contemporary terms because legal enslavement removed access to the law of the father for captive children. Slave children followed the condition of the mother, but received no benefit or social legitimacy in this arrangement. Mothers themselves held no legal claim to their descendants nor did they possess any real day to -day control over childrens lives. However, si nce the law of the father represents the prevailing social fiction in the United States, the matricentric kinship system enforced by slave codes represents a source of degradation and abjection for the black female subject (228). This derivation of the b lack Matriarch symbol explains the strength of character that could exert itself only in the home, and there only very little, but whose mythical strength made her seem like a man. However, that masculinity was also limited in scope because her kinship units did not conform to heteronormative and patriarchal ideal of family. In other words, Spillers makes the point that black womens maternal strength is in legal and economic terms a reality of limited
148 power; it is unrecognizable, unvalued and outside the symbolic economy of the dominant culture. As I have stated earlier, I consider Big Mama to be an extraction of qualities of The Mammy and The Matriarch. The fusion of the expressive and visual qualities found in these two national archetypes exemplifies a n African -American cultural adaptation in response to the legacy of these controlling images. Controlling images, Patricia Hill Collins explains, distinguish themselves from stereotypes in that their deployment works to justify the institutional oppressi on of black women (69). Mammy, by far the most powerful and enduring and complicated of all the controlling images emerged in the mid 19th century as a means for the white Southern planter class to portray race -relations positively to the mounting abolitio nist cause. Nevertheless, the benevolent nurturer transcended her original purpose and became a universally recognized portrait of black female existence in the United States. Patricia A. Turner, who cites Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin (1851) as the first literary Mammy, describes how the dark skinned, rotund, benevolent black woman became an American icon symbolizing desire and longing for plantation life, including the distorted picture of content black women who lived their li ves on behalf their white masters, mistresses and children.9 Mammy is positively maternal, but the nurturing energies that are symbolized by her exaggerated breast size were never focused toward the care and well -being of her own black children. Instead, her fat flesh and ample bosom provided the sustenance, literally and figuratively, for whites only. Her size, strength, and departure from white female beauty standards distinguished her as outside of the political and social economy of white femininity an d womanhood. Her image, therefore, was also deployed through institutions of church,
149 schools, and media to police white male sexual attraction toward black women. The physicality of Mammy, most often represented as excess heaving voluptuous bosom, wide g irth, a fat, smiling face spilling out from underneath a head rag is mitigated by her obsequious and servile nature. Her subservience keeps her physical bulk in check, so to speak, rendering her a nonviolent and non -threatening entity, which helped amel iorate white fears of the physically strong, sexually desirable and rebellious black female. The antebellum Tom Shows, modeled after characters in Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin, gave birth to a stage Mammy, who initially was performed by white men dressed in blackface and costume, a practice that continued well into the 20th-century (Turner 45). A legacy of drag performance, therefore, foregrounds the accumulation of meaning found within this particular representation of black womanhood. All of the qualities that attach themselves to Mammy arise from this initial moment of spectacle. Since the notion of performativity relies on a reiteration and citation of a set of particular norms repeated over time, it follows that one must consider the history of those art iculations in order to recognize their manifestations in current contexts. Judith Butler explains: Performativity is thus not a singular act, for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. Moreover, this act is not primarily theatrical; indeed, its apparent theatrically is produced to the extent that its historicity remains dissimulated. (12) In other words, for a particular act or performance of a particular norm to acquire the perception of it as a singular, theatrical moment, the historical referent for that act or performance must be disguised, hidden, masked, and forgotten. Drag performance o f Mammy participates in this sort of selective erasure, so that what has calcified in the national imagination is not the ways white men controlled and determined the features of the authentic black
150 Mammy through a physical occupation of the gendered and racialized black female body, but rather what is recalled is her stylized visual representation. Butler also adds that the act or performance becomes essential to the production of a subject who in turn constructs herself as the originator of her performance (13). So, not only is the historical referent of a particular performance muted within social relations and discourses of normative cultural intelligibility, but also it must remain concealed within the subjectivity through which it acts. Theref ore, when black actresses Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers portray Mammy figures in the films Gone With the Wind (1939) and Imitation of Life (1934) respectively, the white male performance of Mammy had become so recognizable and assimilated by black wo men performers that they could be Mammy successfully too.10 Moreover, black women who did not make a living as professional performers adapted this version of black motherhood into their subjectivity, a phenomenon described by E. Patrick Johnson as he resea rched the life of his grandmother.11 If Mammy was wholly white identified that is, her labor as mother was focused upon white children then her counterpart The Matriarch occupied the other end of the spectrum. The Matriarchs mothering work was fully d irected toward the raising of black children, and on occasion childish and chil d like black men (Collins 75). As controlling images, however, the functions of the two types were the same: to justify oppression and control of black women. The Matriarch st rong, aggressive, loud, asexual and domineering offered an image that justified black male social disenfranchisement as well as explained to the dominant culture the inherent dysfunction of black families. Masking the social, political and economic inequality that dictated black life, the image of the black matriarch presented for the dominant culture a reason to explain their perceptions of black inferiority. Racism was not the problem, black mothers were.
151 Within the logic of white patriarchy, the black matriarch usurped the traditional Western family structure that placed men at the head of families and instead headed these families herself, with or without male support. This matriarchy theory, advanced by both black and white men alike, concentrated its power around the reinforcement of gender hierarchies. All women were kept in check through the negative imagery of the matriarch. Since she did not conform to Western patriarchy, the Matriarch was aberrant. She was dispossessed of femininity, returning to Spillers point. The perceived failures of her family were blamed on her pathological gender identification. White women, and other non-black women, could mark their femininity against thi s black female other. Like the image of Mammy, The Matriarch esta blishes herself performatively within the subjectivities of black women. While documents such as The Moynihan Report (1965) and DuBoiss The Negro American Family (1969) sought to describe The Matriarch through the disciplinary lens of sociology, black wom en came to assimilate this version of themselves offered in social science and acted as Strong Black Women. Trudier Harris traces the appearance of these kinds of characters in her text Saints, Sinners and Saviors Even though the Matriarch type was most often portrayed by black women, she still possessed the composite physical characteristics that describe Mammy. Think of Esther Rolles performance of Mama Lena in Lorraine Hansberrys A Raisin in the Sun or her starring turn on televisions Good Times a s Florida Evans, or even actress Isabel Sanford, who starred as Louise Jefferson in the popular 1970s program, The Jeffersons On the surface, Butlers narrative of performativity and subjectivity may seem to foreclose the possibility of agency for the ind ividuals in question, in this case black mothers, but Butler and other scholars, have offered ideas about the transgressive possibilities that can be teased out of performance theory. These will be important considerations
152 for later in the chapter. However the point I have tried to advance thus far is the necessity of historicizing performative citations of strong black mothers in order to reveal the socially mediated materiality and legibility of any performative bodily utterance. It is critical to situa te how the Big Mama figure and her performative claims to the characteristics of strength and power play off of the complex fantasy of gender in the national imagination. Spillers insights into the construction of black womens racialized gender identity in the United States have led to my observations on the role of drag in the performances of Big Mamas. There is no coincidence that the most prominent popular portrayals of Big Mama come from men, because the history and legacy of her foremother, Mammy, wh o was originally portrayed by men. So unlike other drag performances of women by men, which trade on the male transgression of femininity, and also glamour and spectacle of the archetypical female form, the specific portrayal of Big Mama by black men d oes not work in quite the same way because the black mother figure is always already outside of that symbolic economy of femininity. To be sure, there are aspects of femininity, glamour, and spectacle that pervade black male drag culture in both its popula r and underground manifestations, which will be discussed in the case of RuPaul, but I am also interested in how Tyler Perrys use of drag to perform Madea navigates this difficult history and contemporary moment simultaneously. Agency is Such a Drag for Those in P ower! If You Dont Believe Me, Ask Your M ama!12 If, as E. Patrick Johnson and others suggest, drag and cross dressing has transgressive and transformative potential for destabilizing heteronormative expectations of gender and sexuality, can this also be true of black male performances of Big Mama, considering her difficult conception and delivery? How does Tyler Perrys performance of Madea both participate in and transgress the traditional stereotypes of black mothers? How does Tyler Perrys pe rformance of Madea slip in and out of drag, and what does that indicate about the
153 creation of the black mothering subject? Whether Perry (and other men posing as Big Mamas) intends to, he cannot escape the cultural economy through which he speaks and commodifies himself. Taking up a number of insights revealed by cultural critics and queer theorists alike, an argument can be made that Perrys drag is a (queer) performance, or even is an exemplary of the queerness that already pervades black culture. Queer, in this case being conceived of as any set of social and cultural expressions that challenge the norms of patriarchy and heteronormativity. Cross -dressing and drag, specifically, become potential sites for performers to work through what Judith Butler call s disavowed attachments (276). My analysis, however, proposes that the transformative potential held within the space of drag performance wanes, if not disappears, for Madea because of her claims to an authenticity that never existed. It may be instruct ive to return to the question of legitimacy posed in the epigraph to distinguish Perrys performance from the others in this chapter. The demarcation between the illegitimacy of the man with curlers in his hair (from the epigraph) and the authenticity of a real Madea lies at the complicated of the site of gender performance, performativity and sexuality: The authentic ones (my mother and aunt included)were not trying to be this Madea person. The responsibility of the neighborhood simply fell on them (P erry xii). This observation foregrounds the performative nature of gender, insofar as, women do not perform motherliness, they cannot try to be motherly. Instead their black motherhood its implications of strength and nurturance, and its corporeal atta chments to the spectacle of the female body -inheres to the subjectivities of these black women, enacting that which it names. Therefore, black women are interpellated into the gender schema and iconography of this particular mode of black motherhood, wh ich Perry naturalizes.
154 More than that Perrys observations beg the question of where he sees himself in this gendered equation. As a man, is he also illegitimate as a Madea? The lexicon of legitimation, described by Judith Butler, delineates the contour s of ones power over anothers public and recognizable sense of personhood (105). It is a power that also relies in a Foucault ian sense upon the normative values of the bourgeois family, a construct through which desire, sexuality, and sexual practice i s scrutinized, disciplined, and legitimated. Because Perrys performances as Madea are ultimately used to enforce black middle -class family values (despite its multiple references to non -traditional networks of kinship within black communities), I believe he is seen by his audiences as not only legitimate in drag, but also possessing the authority/privilege of deeming others illegible in the social world. Therefore, the man with the curlers in his hair is deemed illegitimate, because he lacks the natural capacity for maternal behavior possessed by black women and because his performance is tangential to the dominant model of the nuclear family. Perrys cultural work can sidestep marginalization within black popular culture because of his intentional exclus ion of queer possibility and reification of black patriarchy and black family values within his performances. Whereas drag performer RuPauls invocation of her Supermodel persona a decade ago works what Seth Clark Silberman calls a clever signifying on the myth of the black mother, Tyler Perrys broad comedic performance of Madea eschews much of the radical possibility available in not only the depiction of transgressive mothering outlined in previous chapters, but also the radical possibilities of d rag and the cultural practice of signifyin. Charles Nero identifies signifying as a technique essential to the inclusion of black gay male voices into the body of African-American literature, providing a revision of the Black Experience within African A merican literature, a way for black gay men to create a space fore t hemselves (401).
155 Rather than do the cultural work suggested by Nero and demonstrated by RuPaul, Madea appeals to a kind of nostalgic authenticity, which resonates strongly in the post -civil rights moment for a wide spectrum of black audiences (Silberman 86). While a number of black artists and writers struggle to break from ossified notions of blackness to create their own New Black Aesthetic(s), there remains a vigorous consumption of popular works, Madea plays and films included, that appeal to the problematic construction of an essential black experience and an authentic black (mother) subject.13 Essentializing can be deployed as a socio political strategy, as suggested by cultural cri tics ranging from Paul Gilroy to bell hooks, yet, within the context of Perrys work, I agree with E. Patrick Johnsons observation that when black Americans have employed the rhetoric of black authenticity, the outcomeexcluded more voices than it included (3). Perrys Madea character participates in this kind of exclusive work, appealing particularly to audiences who are attracted to Madea plays for their sense of authentic it y: its not only humorous, but its real (K. Johnson, par. 31). This is not t o say that Madeas character is not subversive. I would like to highlight at least two textual moments that nod toward the untapped potential in this performance: Madeas baritone voice and her diva impersonations. In the filmed versions of the plays I Ca n Do Bad All By Myself and Madeas Class Reunion, Tyler Perry, who is almost always seen in drag and in character as Madea, slips out of Madeas voice and into his own. As Madea, Perry generally affects a womans voice that is not exactly high -pitched b ut is a caricature of a womans voice. For this voice, Perry says: My aunt inspired the the voice. She overpronounces her words and puts an r on everything to make it sound proper (P. Johnson, par. 10). However, at abrupt moments in the dialogue, Perry speaks in his natural voice, a smooth baritone, that stands out against Madeas sound. For a moment, then, Perry slips out of character
156 and vocally calls attention to the construction of Madea. Her authenticity as a brash, but caring mother figure in the black community gives way to the already obvious fact that she is being played by a man. The moment elicits laughs from the audience, and works what Kate Davy calls a subversive wink, a sly but knowing acknowledgement between performer and audience that (re)assures its audiences of the ultimate harmlessness of play (qtd. in Stallings, 168). Camp also comes into play through what I will call Madeas diva impersonations. The best example of this appears in the filmed version of the play Madeas Class Reunio n. In one scene Madea sits with a woman at a hotel caf as they discuss family and relationships. To make her point Madea abruptly breaks into song and begins performing songs by Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross and Whitney Houston. Acting as Whitney Houston, Ma dea sings the song I Will Always Love You, taking care to exaggerate the performance as she sings the difficult, sustained high notes that are the signature of the song. After Madea performs the song, she refuses to be addressed as Madea and instead on ly answers to the name Whitney because she is so fully overcome with Whitney Houstons persona. This layered representation of several black women situates Tyler Perry within queer culture. The audience, so engrossed in the authentic spectacle of Madea remember Madea is still dispensing her sassy Big Mama wisdom in this particular scene is lead to find humor when Madea then becomes yet another persona. Tyler Perrys choice of Whitney Houston as the female identity to assume also harkens to the cam p aspects of drag, in which male performers take on the stage personalities of divas. Diva by definition refers to the lead female singer in an opera, but the word is also related to the term prima donna, a temperamental and conceited person, and is al so linked to its Latin root meaning goddess. In the vernacular, divas are those performers known for giving stunning, show -stopping performances, but also are notorious for
157 their difficult personalities. Impersonating divas, such as Houston, Cher, Tina T urner, and Diana Ross, is a staple of male drag performance, and drag performer RuPaul describes how successful diva performances rely on the choice of the right song and the right personality: You have to live the song, every breath, and every beat. Beyo nd that it doesnt really matter if you know the words or not...If the attitude is right, the words are the last thing you need (113). Less about content than gesture and spectacle, the diva performance is critical to drag. Seeing Tyler Perry as Madea as -Whitney Houston complicates this exchange, but nonetheless harkens to the camp aesthetics found in drag performance. Entertainer RuPaul Charles, who only goes by his first name on stage, emerged in American popular culture during the 1990s with a style of drag performance that was also accessible to the mainstream. Coming of age in the world of drag queen culture in Atlanta and New York, RuPaul distinguished himself in the mainstream through a drag persona that was every bit as fierce and glamorous as major queens at the clubs, but one that emphasized love, rather than the catty, bitchy attitude associated with glamour queens.14 He developed a persona RuPaul, Supermodel of the World who he has said is based on his mother, who was know to call herself a bold, black bitch (26). His mother was so much of an influence and inspiration that he devotes a chapter to Ernestine Charles in his 1995 autobiography, Lettin It All Hang Out: [My mother] was my ultimate inspiration because she was the first drag queen I ever saw. She had the strength of a man and the heart of a woman. She could be hard as nails, but also sweet and vulnerable all the things we love about Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Diana Ross. To this day when I pull out my sassy persona, its (sic ) Ernestine Charles that I am channeling. (32) Ernestine Charles had a strong personality that strayed from the idyllic image of mothers in the 1960s. She cursed heavily around her children and was prone to violent outbursts against romantic rivals. Divorc ed when RuPaul was in elementary school, she raised her son and two daughters on welfare alone in San Diego. Despite being a bold, black bitch that her children
158 feared, RuPaul remembers his mother lovingly; from her I learned how to stand up for myself. I learned how to break away from the pack, how to do my own thing (32). Typically, in male coming-of age narratives the qualities of independence and individualism that are the hallmark of traditional masculinity derive from the father, or at least some other male role model. Yet, in RuPauls story the combined qualities glamour and independence which operate at seemingly opposite ends of a gendered spectrum, are transmitted through the mother. RuPauls drag differs from Perrys in the sense that RuPa ul diverges from the typically frumpy, lumpy image of the black mother, be it Mammy, Matriarch or Big Mama. Like Tyler Perry, RuPaul claims that his inspiration comes from his mother, but RuPaul shows his version of mother through Supermodel, an homage t o his mother Mean Miss Charles. RuPaul writes: My mother was a fashion plateshe was the best dressed woman in the United States. Simple but elegant (23). In the black vernacular, mean possesses two connotations: one describes a person who is not nic e, the other describes a person or thing that is stylish, and well -put together, akin to the vernacular term bad. So RuPauls invocation of Mean Miss Charles works on at least two levels, describing his mothers disposition she was known to curse at his friends when they visited but also her sense of style and sense of self. Therefore, RuPauls performance of the black mother figure is adorned in tight -fitting dresses, sexy high heels, and blond wigs, which defy the normative performative image of the black mother. RuPauls sexuality also stands out in his performance. While Madea does talk about sexuality she makes a quip about how a Lenny Williams song led to one of her pregnancies this kind of expression is always mediated by her visual symbolism. Mammy and Matriarch were both conceived of as undesirable and asexual women and that symbolic history is written all over their large bodies. And though Big Mama certainly has much more freedom to talk about her
159 sexuality and desire than her predece ssors, the fact that she is still encased in the body of Mammy makes this kind of talk work for laughs rather than make a subversive statement. Conclusion I would like to suggest that New Yorker theater critic and essayist Hilton Als offers an option for f urther research because he does not literally perform his version of his mother, who he calls The Negress. Although I will not fully explore the potential in his conception of T he Negress in this chapter, I do want to suggest a further direction of study that could include a kind of literary performance of the black maternal figure Most immediately, I also think of the work of Langston Hughes, and the way in which he adopts the persona of black mothers in his poems Mother to Son and The Negro Mother. Nevertheless, the Negress is Als performance of his mother, which he explains in his collection of essays The Women. Als writes: For years before and after her death, I referred to myself as a Negress; it was what I was conditioned to be. And yet I have come no closer to defining it. In fact, I shy away from defining it, given my mothers complex reaction to Negressity for herself and me. I have expressed my Negressity by living, fully, the prescribed life of an auntie man what Barbadians call a faggo t. (9) Als makes a direct connection between his homosexuality and his Negressity. Ye t, as his memoir continues, his version of T he N egress is constructed out of a fierce opposition to the kind of mother I have heretofore described as Big Mama. Als juxtaposition of The Negress and black women writers of the 1960s and 1970s highlights a deep problem with the assertive voices that emerged from these poets and novelists. The Negress was strong, but lacked the kind of vocal power and will that is evident in oth er portrayals. Any analysis of Als work would have to take into account the particular kind of mother Als valorizes and why, and the ways she is the anti Big Mama. Whether his queer work also works effectively within the framework of mamas gun will be a topic for further consideration at a later phase in this project.
160 Overall Tyler Perrys performance eschews the kind of elements found in RuPauls drag. The subversive winks are there, but without the signifyin and without a transformation of visual image ry, Perrys performance stops short of its full transgressive potential. The popularity of Tyler Perry as Madea seems, in large part, to reflect what Hortense Spillers calls the replication of ideology that is encased via the visual representation of bla ck women, that is never simple in the case of female subject -positions, and it appears to acquire a thickened layer of motives in the case of African -American females (227). Certainly Tyler Perry has made it clear he wishes to exercise the power of yes to the female within, but does this kind of performance gain insurgent ground for a new fe male social subject as Spiller s advocates? (228) What i s at stake are not only questions of authenticity and essentialism in contemporary U.S. culture, but also the advancement of new imaginative resources for the representation of black mothers in the future. Notes 1 As a testament to the Perrys value as a cinema draw for black a udiences, the production and distribution company Lionsgate signed Perry in 2007 to a three year film deal and DVD distribution deal. http://www.upi.com/Entertainment_News/2008/07/24/Tyler_Perry_inks_new_deal_with_Lionsgate/UPI 61381216930220/ 2 Perrys early success has been linked to his appearances as Madea, but he has been making fewer appearances in the fat suit and house dress. His most recent movies Why Did I Get Married and The Family that Preys and, his 10th stage play, The Marriage Counselor, do not feature Madea at all. She makes an appearance occasionally as Madea in The House of Payne, a network sit com produced by Perry. 3 For the most part, Perrys character has been criticized by from pop culture and theater critics alike, who say his work is a form of cooning for the millennial age, portraying black women negatively. Much of the criticism reflects the comments of Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at University of Southern California, who said His films represent a rebirth of the Stepin Fetchit mentality. [they are] ''the product of an increasingly visible right wing evangelical Christian culture Tyler Perry is the blackface version of that. Ruth La Ferla, Sometimes Piety Isnt Squeaky Clean The New York Times 14 Oct. 2007, late ed.: Style 2. 4 Lindon Barrett perceptively writes about Dennis Rodmans a bility to be seen as simply as one of the boys despite his public cross dressing during his NBA career during the late 1980s and 1990s. Barrett writes that Rodman remains in the popular mind neither a drag queen nor one of the innumerable and easily ass imilated comedians or actors who make their living by drawing on long and various traditions of male drag in the West. Dennis Rodman--to employ a clich --is something else. See Black Men in the Mix: Badboys, Heroes, Sequins and Dennis Rodman in Callalo o 20.1 (1997) 106126. I argue, however, that something else is distinct from one of the boys, and that Rodmans style defied the limits of acceptable black masculinity.
161 5 Madeas appear in black womens fiction, most notably the ghost mother Mudear in Tina McElroy Ansas Baby of the Family Terry McMillan also has a short story, MaDear, which interestingly does not feature a mother figure, but rather tells the story of an aging black women. Outside of the African American tradition, there is the fig ure of Medea from the Euripedes play. In that classic Greek tragedy, Medea murders her children in a fit of jealousy after her husband falls in love with another woman. 6 For more on the connections and disjunctions between performance and performativity and their implications within critiques of race, gender, and sexuality, see Jacque Derrida Limited, Inc. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1977), Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (Routlege, 1993), and E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). 7 For discussions of the other in black feminist criticism, see Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writers Literary Tradition and Valerie Smith, Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the Other. 8 I appreciate the editorial consideration from Angelique V. Nixon, who helped me think through the idea of performance as a disguise, with all of its connotations of concealment and deception. 9 Though Stowes serialized novel was written as a expression of her abolitionist views, Uncle Toms Cabin has become associated with popularizing on a mass scale some of the most troub ling images of black slave existence. 10 McDaniel became the first black person to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of this beloved figure. 11 See Chapter 4 Nevah Had Uh Cross Word: Mammy and the Trope of Black Womanhood in Johnsons Appropr iating Blackness for more detail. 12 See Johnson, Strange Fruit: A Performance about Identity Politics. The Drama Review 47:2 (Summer 2003) 88116 13 Black comedian David Alan Grier spoofed the proliferation of black mother characters portrayed by men on his variety show Chocolate News in 2008. 14 For more on drag culture, see Esther Newtons Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1972).
162 CHAPTER 6 I KNOW YOU NOT TALKIN BOUT MY MAMA: FINAL THOUGHTS ON MAMAS GUN AND THE PO SSIBILITY OF TRANSGRESSION The inspiration for this entire pr oject emerged fro m my interest in and concern with the overwhelmingly present, but also absent figure of the black mother in contemporary U .S. culture. What I mean is this: I am struck by how black maternal figures seem so common and visible in contemporar y popular culture those Big Mamas, neo-Mammies, Baby Mamas and others that I have mentioned yet the multiple voices of the women that these figures are supposed to represent are distorted or silenced all together. As a black woman who has children, a m other, I feel somehow connected to these representation al images, their caricature stands in sharp relief to my lived reality, and yet I wonder how and when my real pre sence is interpellated into this matrix of visibility and erasure. I began this project from that vantage point, and in the months spent researching, I have sharpened my focus upon particular kinds of maternal figures ones that I have identified as transgressive, and I have explored how th ey are used by contemporary African -American intellec tuals, writers and artists. I have tried to consider how their transgressive narratives may or may not have the power to talk back to or just plain curse out those ideologies that require black mothers to be seen and not heard in the public spheres of politics, media, or academia I have tried to offer examples of transgressive maternal figures who se fictional presence asks the question s : Can you really heal through defiance? Can you really mother with a gun? I would say yes, but to see these metaphors as possible requires one to problematize traditional connections between maternal symbolism and gender. Motherhood may have to be decoupled from ideals of femininity, or even the category woman for this kind of analysis to make sense. N ot a permanent separation, but a provisional one that allow s one to read maternal
163 metaphor within some non-traditional, non -normative examples. I am really encouraged by the work on the mother wit hout child done by Elaine Tuttle Hansen because I think her work examines t hese possibilities in a wide range of contemporary womens writing. A t stake in the Afri can American literary field may be the recup eration maternal figures whose appearances in contemporary texts defy traditional readings As a way of conclusion, or, per haps as a nod to future directions for this project, I would like to c onsider one more potential example of the use of mamas gun: black women comedians. I began my interest in the work of black women comedians after re -watching a 1990s animated film calle d Bebes Kids which is a spinoff of a stand up routine performed by the late black male comic Robin Harris. In Bebes Kids viewers are introduced to a trio of mischievous, rambunctious siblings r aised by a poor, black mother. In the movie, the male character Robin dislikes the children because they misbehave and have no home training; his anger culminates in several humorous riffs against their m other, Bebe. I realized while watching the movie again recently that we do not ever h ear from Bebe. In this way, she is simultaneously present we see her image and hear jokes made about her but also absent because she never gets a chance to speak for herself It is a double move of inscription and erasure So I started to wonder: What would a woman like Beb e say in response to Robin? What kind of snaps, caps, dozens, lyin and signifyin would she do? How might she use her mamas gun? Watching this film encouraged me consider these questions by turning my ear toward cultural moments in which black women respo nd to and critique the fear s of irresponsible black mothers and the phantasm of their socially maladjusted black chil dren. I turn to the African American vernacular tradition of humor, because, as Daryl Cumber Dance notes, if there is any one thing that has brought African American women whole through the horrors of the middle
164 passage, slavery, Jim Crow, Aunt Jemima, the welfare system, integration, the OJ Simpson trial, and Newt Gingrich, it is our humor. Beyond its capabilities as an emotional outlet, humor possesses subversive dimensions. I will concentrat e on two prevailing themes black women comedians use to give voice to the ir perspectives on m otherhood, although there are others that I have been able to identify. The themes that I will discuss her e are the racialized discipline of children and the notion of the working mother. Other humorous themes not included here include riffs on black childrens names and sexuality in motherhood. These themes recur with some regularity throughout both black male and female comedic texts, and in both folk and performance contexts. However, I will argue that there is a specific politics of transgression t hat black women employ through their use of these particular types of jokes. In the mouths of black women, these humorous themes become a way to blast through controlling images through creative self -fashioning, self definition, and reclaimed subjectivity. I have explored a number of sources of black womens expressive culture, including collections of folk m ate rial and literature, particularly the important work collected by Dance. H owever, I will concentrate on contemporary black female performance; particularly the women involved in the Def Comedy Jam circuit and featured in the film the Queens of Comedy. There is, I think, significance to the kind of work done by the Queens of Comedy in regards to the fusion of a hiphop sensibility within a long -standing tradition of black funny women. As Doveanna Fulton notes it is difficult to extract the work of the se comediennes from their hip-hop contexts; their stand ups are infused with the music and fashion of hip-hop as well as the performance of the familiar trope of the fly girl. Keeping in mind that black womens humor historically has most often been shar ed among women within the private spaces of the home,
165 church, and womens clubs, it is important to note when this jesting extends beyond those spaces and into the public realm. The transition of black womens humor from behind closed doors to standing room only is important for understanding the traditions that contemporary black women use t o signify on dominant stereotypes about them The first theme major theme involved the r acialized discipline of children. Comedienne Adele Givens addresses this theme i n The Queens of Comedy concert. To set up her joke, Givens talks about a Jenny Craig commercial in which a woman (presumably white, but not described specifically) says that her daughter woke up and told her Mommy, youre fat! Givens insinuates racial di fference by mocking a proper white -sounding voice, to make it clear she is imitating a white woman. In response to the daughters rude comment, the white mother, says she picked up the phone and called Jenny Craig. Since then she has lost fifteen pounds. Givens continues: I said Yeah, thats good bitch, but you need a new attitude. Cause had that been me on the commercial it wouldve went the same way with a different attitude. On stage, Givens pretends that her daughter comes in and says Mommy, you re fat! She replies: So I picked up that phone (Pause) and I knocked that bitch down a flight of stairs. (As she says knocked she gestures with her hand as if hitting a small child in the head) I whupped her little ass that day. (Pause) Told her you the reason why mamas so fuckin fat carryin yo little bald ass around for nine months. Here, Givens sets out to make a clear distinction between black and white mothering and discipline. Reflecting an African -American worldview, Givens considers respect fo r elders of the utmost importance. Therefore, sassy talk from a child to an adult is not to be tolerated. This disciplinary technique attempts to ensure that as children age, they will heed the voices of their mothers who will continue to help guide and pr otect them into adulthood. Givens taps the full comedic potential in this passage through repetition and exaggeration. She sets up the two scenarios in the same fashion, using the same phrases. The
166 surprise and laughter come at the extreme response she gi ves to her daughter for insulting her weight. Not only does she call her daughter a bitch, she also knocks her down a flight of stairs with a phone. These actions disrupt mainstream notions of the good mother, and give legitimacy to an alternative blac k womans view. Within Givens world, it is unacceptable for a child to disrespect a mother at all, let alone about weight, a concern that has ever ything to do with childbearing. The issue of child discipline is an area in which black women signify on thei r lives as mothers. Part of the pathologizing rhetoric that surrounds black communities suggests that poor mothering is to blame for problems of crime, drug addiction, and unemployment in some black communities. The image of the dominating, castrating matr iarch of the 1950s and 1960s has given way in the post Civil Rights era to the equally negative image of the welfare mother or the baby mama. These portraits paint the picture of an ineffectual black woman with no control over her children; their problems are ultimately her failings as a caregiver and disciplinarian. To respond to these perceptions, black women employ the comedic devices of the tall tale and exaggeration. By riffing on issues of discipline, often highlighting examples of extreme discipline, black women intervene in a discourse that paints their children as wild and uncontrollable and their mothering work as incompetent. They also revise the idealized patriarchal male headed household in which father knows best. Black womens humor about ch ild discipline demonstrates that women participate in this important parental task. Black women intervene with their tall tales about beatings, whuppins, and other extreme forms of corporal punishment. These tales are not to make light of the real problem of child abuse in many families from all backgrounds. However, in their provocative exaggeration, black women set the
167 stage for valuing their work as mothers thereby destabilizing the racialized and class -based construct of the good (white) mother. Blac k women have also used humor to rewrite the reality of black womens mothering work, which is the s econd theme I will explore By mothering work, I am referring to the critical number of tasks that contribute to raising children, tasks such as food pre paration, washing clothes, teaching both academic and life skills, financial planning, emotional support, grocery shopping, discipline, managing school activities, etc. I do not want to suggest that these types of tasks are the exclusive domain of mothers; certainly, fathers do this kind of work. However, I am also aware that in most U.S. families, women remain in charge of these sorts of domestic duties, and their distinction as good mothers relies heavily on their management of these various tasks. However, recent and continuous attacks on the social service system rely on the denial of black womens mothering work. For the ideology of the welfare mother to be successful especially as it is designed to pull the safety net out from under all people i n need it must portray black mothers as lazy. The lazy black mother is the mother who stays home all day with her children and refuses to work in the paid -labor market. She is portrayed as lacking any skills, unemployable, and dependent on state aid. Eve n though she stays home with her children, the children are described as unruly and uneducable. The crass hypocrisy and racism embedded in this construction of mothering is brought into sharp relief when held up against the co-existing ideology of the whit e stay at -home mother. Just about the time that the welfare mother became etched in the national consciousness, staying at home to raise children became revitalized as a white middle -class ideal. The invention of the soccer mom allowed white womens mo thering preparing meals, running errands, keeping house, etc. to be perceived as real work. Studies
168 appeared that put dollar figures on (white) mothers work, estimating that they would deserve a six -figure salary for the types of tasks completed dai ly. Perceptions of the real work of white middle class mothers in this case relies on the uninterrogated sign of the black female body, seen as shiftless and reproductively irresponsible. Black women, however, flip the script on this idea of mothering work. In her Queens of Comedy stand up, Adele Givens sheds light on the work that black women do, specifically as mothers: I know some exhausted bitches. I know some women got two jobs, six kids, no man, the bitch got things to do. You hear me? She gotta go to PTA meetings, after school programs, football practice, riverboat casino. This bitch is exhausted. She aint goin to no hospital. She caint. Whos goin to watch them bad ass children when she gone? Givens starts her monologue by comparing average black women to white and black female celebrities who are portrayed in the media. She warns black women not to be seduced by the images of those other women or to think less of themselves because the hoes aint real. No need to idealize their experience she implies; they have nothing to do with realness or actual black female experience. Here Givens demarcates a distinction that I think is important in contemporary black cultural studies. Within black womens vernacular culture realness trumps ideali zation and fantasy. It is the prioritized expression of everyday life that does not assume pre -existing essences, but rather makes appeals to the legitimacy of experience. I do not want realness here to be conflated with the highly commodified notion of keeping it real, which has come to mean the expression of a singular authentic black ghetto experience. Keeping it real has been packaged and resold all over the world, and has come to displace actual experience with performances of commodified blac kness. Rather, realness relies on each womans testimony
169 on her own life, which can then be reflected by others. It is therefore contingent, and highly subjective, yet grounded in truth claims from ones own life. Using the prioritized lens of realnes s, Givens unleashes her humor in order to respond to the notion of the lazy black mother. Not only does she describe the work of the so-called soccer mom PTA meetings, after -school programs, and football practice she adds to the list: two jobs, six kids, no man. The construction of the hard working soccer mom describes a woman of relative economic comfort, who does not work outside of the home, has one or two children and is married. On the other hand, black mothers do all the work of a soccer mo m and then some. Real black mothers are therefore, in Givens words, exhausted bitches. I do not want to suggest that humor is or should be the primary response available to black women to revise racist and sexist constructions of their humanity. T here are black women politicians, activists, mothers, and workers who have risked their lives to stand up and directly dismantle oppressions affecting their lives. Humor has not to my knowledge put an end to discourses that attempt to erase black women discourses employed to use our bodies as a malleable sign to promote regressive public policy. However, like Hortense Spillers, I want to acknowledge the creative agency with which black women intervene into discourse. Spillers writes that: In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness. The personal pronou ns are offered in the service of a collective function. (257) In this section, as well as this entire project, I have explore d the vast collection of inventiveness that marks black womens responses to dominant discourse. These vernacular and literary r e sponses explore how contemporary black women intellectuals, writers and artists are individu ally and collectively redefine the meanings of maternal.
170 Our understanding of the maternal its symbolic functions and their effects on black womens lived exper iences presents a challenge for African -American and American literary and cultural studies at this time. On the one hand, one can see the long -standing appeal of traditional ideals and representations of mothering, which intensify as cultural capital du ring times of social change, particularly among socially marginalized groups. The post Civil Rights era marks one of these moments of change, and I have argued that in some ways traditional maternal ideologies have found a new visibility and value within a number of nationalist projects. On the other hand, within this period there are significant moments of transgression of these ideals, often emerging from black feminist and womanist theoretical positions, which I have sought to delineate throughout this p roject. These transgressive notions of motherhood do not explicitly capitulate to the project of nation building in the ways that traditional modes often do, and I have sought to identify the various locations of dissent to which these transgressive modes speak. My early observations regarding the complicated and compelling maternal image of Michelle Obama were meant to suggest some of these tensions regarding the figure of the black mother in the new millennium. Overall, however, this project has been an effort to piece together a number of disparate sites of racialized maternal symbolism by situating them in contemporary social and political contexts. I have identified the literary and cultural functions of these sites of observation through the relationa l metaphor of mamas gun. Returning to the memory of my great -grandmothers rifle wrapped in soft quilts, I want to re -emphasize what I see as the richness of this scene. It is a site/sight of contrast, contradiction, subversion, concealment, creativity, g eneration, destruction, defiance and healing, and the works that I have stitched together here exemplify these myriad possibilities. I have purposefully returned to the metaphor of the quilt to describe my work in its
171 entirety. Already a long -standing symb ol of the power of black mothers creative and collaborative work, the quilt provides a way of thinking about the disparate narratives, genres and cultural modes I have joined together here. Like patches sewn together, this project requires one to step bac k to appreciate the holistic effect that each part renders to the whole. It is my hope that mamas gun and the cultural explorations that it germinates will further contribute to our understanding of black womens creative agency in the recent past, pr esent and future.
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180 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Marlo D. David earned her doctorate in English from the University of Florida in May 2009 with a graduate certificate in Womens Studies. While attending UF, she was a McKnight Doctor al Fellow and a n active member of the Black Graduate Student Organization She completed her masters degree in Liberal Studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida where she completed her thesis on Folklore and Oral Culture in Black Women's Fiction, 19251975. She receiv ed her bachelors degree in Newspaper Journalism from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. Currently, she is an assistant professor of English and Womens Studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and does research on 20thCentury African -American literature and culture, African Diaspora Literatures, an d gender and sexuality studies.