Presidential Lecture Series
Hazel Carby
Stanford Humanities Center



Reconstructing Womanhood

From: Reconstructing Womanhood

Since emancipation black women had been active within the black community in the formation of mutual-aid societies, benevolent associations, local literary societies, and the many organizations of the various black churches, but they had also looked toward the nationally organized suffrage and temperance movements, dominated by white women, to provide an avenue for the expression of their particular concerns as women and as feminists. The struggle of black women to achieve adequate representation within the women's suffrage and temperance movements had been continually undermined by a pernicious and persistent racism, and the World's Congress was no exception. (p.4)

[I]n order to gain a public voice as orators or published writers, black women had to confront the dominant domestic ideologies and literary conventions of womanhood which excluded them from the definition "woman." This book traces these ideologies of womanhood as they were adopted, adapted, and transformed to effectively represent the material conditions of black women, and it explores how black women intellectuals reconstructed the sexual ideologies of the nineteenth century to produce an alternative discourse of black womanhood. (p.6)

Reconstructing Womanhood embodies a feminist critical practice that pays particular attention to the articulation of gender, race, and class. Social, political, and economic analyses that use class as a fundamental category often assert the necessity for white and black to sink their differences and unite in a common and general class struggle. The call for class solidarity is paralleled within contemporary feminist practice by the concept of sisterhood. This appeal to sisterhood has two political consequences that should be questioned. First, in order to establish the common grounds for a unified women's movement, material differences in the lives of working-class and middle-class women or white and black women have been dismissed. The search to establish that these bonds of sisterhood have always existed has led to a feminist historiography and criticism which denies the hierarchical structuring of the relations between black and white women and often takes the concerns of middle-class, articulate white women as a norm. (p.17)

Angela Davis, considering slavery as a source of stereotypes of black women, has pointed to the links between the image of the matriarch and accusations of complicity between black women and white men in the subordination of the black man. Sexual relations between black women and white men are often used as evidence of the existence of such complicity during the existence of the slave system. Thus, the institutionalized rape of black women has never been as powerful a symbol of black oppression as the spectacle of lynching. Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting a sexual attack. The links between black women and illicit sexuality consolidated during the antebellum years had powerful ideological consequences for the next hundred and fifty years. (p.39)

The consequences of being a slave woman did not end with the abolition of slavery as an institution but haunted the texts of black women throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The transition from slave to free woman did not liberate the black heroine or the black woman from the political and ideological limits imposed on her sexuality. In the shift from slave narrative to fiction, I will concentrate on the ways in which the novel was seen by black women authors as a form of cultural and political intervention in the struggle for black liberation from oppression. (p.61)

Indeed, the Harlem renaissance is frequently conceived as a unique, intellectually cohesive and homogeneous historical moment, a mythology which has disguised the contradictory impulses of the Harlem intellectuals. I do not intend to argue the case that the Harlem renaissance is purely an invention of the literary and cultural historian, although to a large extent this is the case; rather, I want to indicate the shift in concerns of the intellectuals of the twenties as opposed to the previous two decades by stressing the discontinuities and contradictions surrounding issues of representation. I use the word representation in two distinct but related ways: as it is formally understood in relation to art and creative practices, and as it applies to intellectuals who understand themselves to be responsible for the representation of "the race," defining and constructing in their art its representative members and situating themselves as representative members of an oppressed social group. The relation of the black intellectual elite to the majority of black people changed drastically as a result of the migration north of Southern blacks. Before World War I, the overwhelming majority of blacks were in the South, at a vast physical and metaphorical distance from those intellectuals who represented the interests of the race. After the war, black intellectuals had to confront the black masses on the streets of their cities and responded in a variety of ways. (p.163-164)

From: Race Men

Race Men


In these days of what is referred to as "global culture," the Nike corporation produces racialized images for the world by elevating the bodies of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to the status of international icons. Hollywood too now takes for granted that black bodies can be used to promote both products and style worldwide, and an increasing number of their "black" films are being produced and directed by black men. But despite the multimillion-dollar international trade in black male bodies, and encouragement to "just do it," there is no equivalent in international outrage, no marches or large-scale public protest, at the hundreds of thousands of black male bodies languishing out of sight of the media in the North American penal system. (p. 1)

In the late l990s the work of black women intellectuals is still considered peripheral by the black male establishment. It is true that, superficially, the situation appears to have improved. The words "women and gender" are frequently added after the word "race" and the appropriate commas, and increasingly the word "sexuality" completes the litany. On occasion a particular black woman's name will be mentioned, like that of Toni Morrison. But the intellectual work of black women and gay men is not thought to be of enough significance to be engaged with, argued with, agreed or disagreed with. Thus terms like women, gender and sexuality have a decorative function only. They color the background of the canvas to create the appropriate illusion of inclusion and diversity, but they do not affect the shape or texture of the subject. (p. 5)

[on W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk]:

This gendered framework negates in fact the opportunity offered in words for black women to make "their lives similar"; the project suffers from Du Bois's complete failure to imagine black women as intellectuals and race leaders. The failure to incorporate black women into the sphere of intellectual equality, I will demonstrate, is not merely the result of the sexism of Du Bois's historical moment, as evident in the language of his chapter titles in The Souls of Black Folk, such as "Of the Training of Black Men," and "The Sons of Master and Man." It is a conceptual and political failure of imagination that remains a characteristic of the work of contemporary African American male intellectuals. Du Bois described and challenged the hegemony of the national and racial formations in the United States at the dawn of a new century, but he did so in ways that both assumed and privileged a discourse of black masculinity. Cornel West describes and challenges the hegemony of the national and racial formations at the end of the same century, but many of these discourses are still in place. (p. 10)

In the l930s a number of male intellectuals, both black and white, created historical discourses of black manhood in the service of a revolutionary politics which argued for the violent overthrow of all racialized social formations. The figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture emerged in this period as a popular model for creating contemporary images of a revolutionary black male consciousness. The revolution in Haiti, frequently linked to rebellions by those enslaved in North America, was used as the historical landscape in which the possibilities for black male autonomy, self-government, and patriarchal black nationhood could be enacted. The work of C. L. R. James is particularly important in this context. This chapter will trace the varied and discrete stages through which James developed representations of autonomous, self-determining, revolutionary black manhood, and analyze the gendered aesthetics of body lines which are inherent in its imagining. (p. 113)

[T]he works of Samuel Delany and Miles Davis can be regarded as detailed explorations of the nature of that freedom which revolutionary activity uses as its rallying cry. Though neither autobiography directly addresses the political actions of the Civil Rights Movement of the time, each narrative, like the written and musical texts Delany and Davis, respectively, produce, interrogates the limits and possibilities of freedom in urban America. Neither writer takes the sense of "freedom" for granted; on the contrary, each searches for its meaning, moving beyond the problem of freedom from and exploring the nature of freedom itself. However, I will argue that while Delany's vision of freedom extends outward to include women and all working people, Davis's concept of freedom remains limited to the misogynistic world of jazz, and it manifests itself principally in the musical relations among the male instrumentalists with whom he worked. While concentrating on Miles Davis, I will be in constant dialogue with the memoirs, fiction, and essays of Samuel Delany, using the latter as, at times, a harmonic and at other times a dissonant, counterpoint to and extended riff upon the concepts of masculinity in Davis's work. (p. 136)

What Grand Canyon, the Lethal Weapon series, and a number of other contemporary Hollywood films have in common is their unspoken attempt to resolve and overcome a national, racialized crisis through an intimate interracial male partnership. What Danny Glover's cinematic career illustrates is a sequence of performances of black manhood which embodies all the ethical codes of white middle-class America. What Kasdan incorporates into Grand Canyon and Donner utilizes in the Lethal Weapon series is the national embodiment of the perfect black male: a sensitive black father and relentless seeker of justice. The Danny Glover persona has become the lethal weapon that is wielded by Hollywood directors to fight representations of black men that they define and create as dangerous. The cultural construction of the bad guy is a direct political response to the national bourgeois dilemma: how to distinguish the good from the bad black men. (p. 188)

Cultures in Babylon

From: Cultures in Babylon


The essays collected in Cultures in Babylon span the eighteen years of my transatlantic journeying from the United Kingdom to the United States. I arrived in America as a black Briton of Welsh and Jamaican parentage searching for an audience for The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain, written while I was a member of the Race and Politics group at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. The response was not gratifying. The irrational rationale of publishing companies was patiently explained to this obviously ignorant European: the majority of Americans were totally unaware of the existence of black communities in the UK; those few who might be interested in such a phenomenon would be African American; but African Americans did not constitute a sufficient reading public to warrant the publication of Empire in the USA.

When I ventured outside of the libraries and left the early drafts of what was to become Reconstructing Womanhood on my desk, many black American intellectuals, both men and women, were very suspicious of black "outsiders" writing and speaking about what they perceived as a very particular and peculiar African American experience. I found that whereas I took for granted the importance of the concept of the black diaspora, many fledgling African American Studies programs, in the face of limited funding and resources, focused almost entirely on the history of black peoples in the continental United States. However, it was clear that there were virtually no opportunities to teach Black Studies in Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Having taught courses on the literature of black women and on Caribbean fiction as a lecturer in Yale's African American Studies Program, I joined the very progressive English Department at Wesleyan University in 1982. (p.1-2)

["The Sexual Politics of Women's Blues"]

This essay considers the sexual politics of women's blues and focuses on black women as cultural producers and performers in the 1920s. Their story is part of a larger history of the production of African American culture within the North American culture industry. My research so far has concentrated almost exclusively on black women intellectuals who were part of developing an African American literate culture, and thus it reflects the privileged place we accord to writers in African American Studies. Feminist theory has analyzed the cultural production of black women writers in isolation from other forms of women's culture and cultural presence and has neglected to relate particular texts and issues to a larger discourse of culture and cultural politics. I want to show how the representation of black female sexuality in black women's fiction and in women's blues is clearly different. I will argue that different cultural forms negotiate and resolve very different sets of social contradictions. However, before considering the particularities of black women's sexual representation, we should consider its marginality within a white-dominated feminist discourse. (p. 7)

It has been a mistake of much black feminist theory to concentrate almost exclusively on the visions of black women as represented by black women writers without indicating the limitations of their middle-class response to black women's sexuality. These writers faced a very real contradiction for they felt that they would publicly compromise themselves if they acknowledged theft sexuality and sensuality within a racist sexual discourse, thus providing evidence that indeed they were primitive and exotic creatures. But because black feminist theory has concentrated upon the literate forms of black women's intellectual activity, the dilemma of the place of sexuality within a literary discourse has appeared as if it were the dilemma of most black women. On the other hand, what a consideration of women's blues allows us to see is an alternative form of representation, an oral and musical women's culture that explicitly addresses the contradictions of feminism, sexuality and power. (p. 10)

["White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood"]

The black women's critique of history has not only involved us in coming to terms with "absences"; we have also been outraged by the ways in which it has made us visible, when it has chosen to see us. History has constructed our sexuality and our femininity as deviating from those qualities with which white women, as the prize objects of the Western world, have been endowed. We have also been defined in less than human terms. Our continuing struggle with history began with its "discovery" of us. However, this chapter will be concerned with herstory rather than history. We wish to address questions to the feminist theories which have been developed during the last decade; a decade in which black women have been fighting, in the streets, in the schools, through the courts, inside and outside the wage relation. The significance of these struggles ought to inform the writing of the herstory of women in Britain. It is fundamental to the development of a feminist theory and practice that is meaningful for black women. We cannot hope to reconstitute ourselves in all our absences, or to rectify the ill-concealed presences that invade herstory from history, but we do wish to bear witness to our own herstories. The connection between these and the herstories of white women will be made and remade in struggle. Black women have come from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean and we cannot do justice to all their herstories in a single chapter. Neither can we represent the voices of all black women in Britain; our herstories are too numerous and too varied. What we will do is to offer ways in which the "triple" oppression of gender, race and class can be understood, in its specificity, and also as it determines the lives of black women. (p. 67-68)

["Race and the Academy: Feminism and the Politics of Difference"]

On the other hand, if we try to recognize that we live in a social formation which is structured in dominance by race, then, theoretically, we can argue that everyone has been constructed as a racialized subject. In this sense it is important to recognize the historical invention of the category of whiteness in the United States as well as the category of blackness and, consequently, to make visible what is usually rendered invisible because it is viewed as being the normative state of existence. The political practice that should come from this theoretical position would situate everyone as being a racialized subject and would argue that processes of racialization should be a central conceptual category in all our work. But, because the politics of difference work with concepts of diversity rather than structures of dominance, race is a marginalized concept that is wheeled on only when the subjects are black. However, I want to distinguish my argument for the importance and centrality of the concept of race from positions from within a framework of the politics of difference which argue that everyone has an ethnicity. I am not arguing for pluralism, the result of much work on ethnicity in North America, but for revealing the structures of power relations that are at work in the racialization of a social order. (p. 97)

["The Politics of Fiction: Anthropology and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston"]

We need to return to the question why, at this particular moment in our society, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become such a privileged text. Why is there a shared assumption that we should read the novel as a positive, holistic, celebration of black life? Why is it considered necessary that the novel produce cultural meanings of authenticity, and how does cultural authenticity come to be situated so exclusively in the rural folk?
I would like to suggest that, as cultural critics, we could begin to acknowledge the complexity of our own discursive displacement of contemporary conflict and cultural transformation in the search for black cultural authenticity. The privileging of Hurston at a moment of intense urban crisis and conflict is, perhaps, a sign of that displacement: large parts of black urban America under siege; the number of black males in jail in the 1980s doubled; the news media have recently confirmed what has been obvious to many of us for some time - that one in four young black males are in prison, on probation, on parole or awaiting trial; and young black children face the prospect of little, inadequate or no health care. Has Their Eyes Were Watching God become the most frequently taught black novel because it acts as a mode of assurance that, really, the black folk are happy and healthy? (p.182)

["The Canon: Civil War and Reconstruction"]

Contrary to what the debate appears to be about, talking about the canon means that we avoid the deeper problem. Focusing on books and authors means that we are not directly addressing the ways in which our society is structured in dominance. We live in a racialized hierarchy which is also organized through class and gender divisions. Reducing these complex modes of inequality to questions of representation on a syllabus is a far too simple method of appearing to resolve these social contradictions, and yet this is how the battle has been waged at Columbia and Stanford, to take two examples of campuses engaged in debating the importance of canonical works of Western culture. What is absurd about these hotly contested and highly emotive battles is that proponents for radical change in canonical syllabi are forced to act as if inclusion of the texts they favor would somehow make accessible the experience of women or minorities as generic types. The same people who would argue in very sophisticated critical terms that literary texts do not directly reflect or represent reality but reconstruct and re-present particular historical realities find themselves demanding that the identity of a social group be represented by a single novel. Acting as if an excluded or marginalized or dominant group is represented in a particular text, in my view, is a mistake. (p.238)


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