Black Women Writers Reclaim Their Past

Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
March 1987

When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Mar­shall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — ex­cept, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunate­ly, in the years since then, books like Mar­shall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.

During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent obser­vation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writ­ers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, pro­moting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for in­stance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger point­ers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.

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Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tra­dition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current con­troversies into perspective.

Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fic­tion by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunc­tions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear pro­gression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.

Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the dad­dies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of es­says and articles, the critics debated as Elli­son battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Bald­win. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way­ — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against wom­en. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.

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Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they re­jected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predica­ment.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been in­cluded in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”

While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative ap­proach, or content.

Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.

Each generation of black women has cer­tainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condi­tion readily at hand.

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Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a signifi­cant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of wom­en. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resur­rection of their own tradition.

This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novel­ist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jor­dan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Char­lotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.

So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Mor­ton of the Harlem Renaissance.


Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Rob­ert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a flood­gate of possibilities, both for the imagina­tions of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.

Zora, as writers affectionately call her, be­came the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrong­ly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.

Zora shows up as an influence in inter­views with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The im­prints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the con­versations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.

By making her African-American story­teller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from ear­lier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by em­phasizing the effects of racism and oppres­sion. Janie strikes home with women be­cause she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluc­tantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Ja­nie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.

For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Pur­ple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color pur­ple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.


Hurston’s canonization does skew the pic­ture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folk­lorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”

Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Re­viewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging re­spect as the most able black women novel­ists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in antholo­gies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in liter­ary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Le­vering Lewis. But their work has been large­ly ignored for almost 50 years.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tenden­cy among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably rep­resented the Renaissance’s genteel intelli­gentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and col­lections they put out.

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But this probably discouraged later schol­ars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confu­sion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The China­berry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Har­lem Renaissance a front-runner of the Re­naissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)

Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipat­ing the concerns of the Depression.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey­day of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggen­heim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusa­tion and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.

Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Say­brook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet over­take her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part be­cause critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.

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Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unful­filled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradi­tion popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional fe­male socialization and emphasizes the reali­ties that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.

Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely differ­ent from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless envi­ronment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. An­gela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.

She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of inepti­tude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particular­ly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the reali­ties of sex and race.

Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her prob­lems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.

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Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a bi­racial person, she shows a deeper under­standing of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autono­my and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sas­safras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.

At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a south­ern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandina­via — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.

While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hell­ish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.

Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing no­tions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.

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McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Al­though Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is sig­nificant to the tradition.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual as­sault, and her own dreams of upward mobil­ity. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to aban­don the son she tried to keep off the streets.

The writing in The Street is grim, unre­lenting, and contrived to strip the environ­ment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s charac­ters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female commu­nity, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for in­stance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not en­snare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a gen­eration which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.

Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.

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A small group of scholars who have poli­ticked with presses and written some excel­lent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Lar­sen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fic­tion (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.

Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage in­dustry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two ma­jor collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collabora­tion with the Schomburg Center for Re­search in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.

Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Mar­tha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly re­garded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest nov­el by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprint­ing of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conver­sation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differ­ences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.

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What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary wom­en — European and American. (Schizophre­nia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.

The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic lan­guage unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, mag­ic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.

It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t mov­ing toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■

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QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers Uni­versity Press, $25; $7.95 paper.

THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.

PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.

CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana Uni­versity Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.


Madea’s Big Happy Family: Tyler Perry Gives Up On Coherency Altogether

Five months after showing how bad he could do all by himself in adapting Ntozake Shange, Tyler Perry returns to transferring his own stage work to the screen, donning once again the Lane Bryant floral prints that have made his millions. Like its predecessors, this Madea film features a saintly matriarch (Loretta Devine), a vilified bourgie princess, emasculated husbands, trifling heifers, a lengthy church scene, last-minute revelations about childhood-sexual abuse, a maternity truth-bomb, and the title character’s slaps and sass. The melodramatic messages also remain the same: Get right with the Lord; open up about those shameful family secrets so the healing can begin; and teach those kids to stop being so damn disrespectful. But the amount of clowning and nonsense in Madea’s Big Happy Family—excessive even by Perry’s standards—all but muffles the community-outreach function (which also includes a brief mention of the dangers of diabetes) his films have always served. Too lazy (and, it seems, cynical) to give his audiences any more than he thinks they want, Perry appears to have given up on making a coherent movie altogether. No thank yer.


The Rainbow Disconnection: Tyler Perry Mangles For Colored Girls

It’s a long, long way from the women’s bar outside Berkeley, California, where Ntozake Shange first presented her combustible choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, in December 1974, to Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios, where the impresario filmed much of this calamitous adaptation. Though striving for artistic legitimacy in bringing Shange’s incomparable play to the screen, Perry indulges his worst instincts for melodrama in For Colored Girls, shoehorning her text into his own tawdry narrative—a process similar to watching Madea squeeze into a size 8 dress.

Hilton Als, in his critical essay on Perry in The New Yorker, presciently sounded the alarm back in April: “[H]e will likely emphasize Shange’s sentimentality, rather than her force or her feminist radicalism.” Perry, the most financially successful black filmmaker ever, has shown interest in moving beyond shopworn suffering-and-redemption tales only twice before: in Why Did I Get Married? (2007), which succeeded as an honest attempt to examine real adult problems, and in the treatment of Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard’s interracial friendship in the otherwise awful The Family That Preys (2008). Translating Shange’s work to the screen, Perry—whose films nearly all began as plays—is tone-deaf to its passion and courage. Her play, touted at the time as “a celebration of being black and being woman,” is a collection of 20 prose-poems punctuated by dance and music and performed by a cast of seven women on a spare stage, each identified only by the color of her dress. Recounting rites of passage (losing one’s virginity), horrors (rape, domestic violence), and pleasures (intellectual and carnal), Shange’s text, whether seen live or read silently, soars with the power and precision of her language. Her women suffer and mourn, but they are never victims.

In Perry’s version, almost all of them end up in the hospital. Expanding the number of central characters to nine—whose abject storylines frequently intersect in the walk-up where Thandie Newton’s sex addict lives on the same floor as Kimberly Elise’s battered common-law wife—and writing roles for the men only referred to in Shange’s work, he re-creates the template found in many of his nine previous films: the martyred woman abused and/or deceived by her pathological mate.

For Colored Girls opens with Perry’s women, all but one of them living or working in Harlem, starting their day, each reciting in voiceover a line or two from “Dark Phrases,” the poem that begins Shange’s play (and culminates in “Let her be born/Let her be born/& handled warmly”). It’s the only instance of her words flowing naturally and organically. Using 14 of the original’s poems, he either weaves snippets of her language into his plot-propelled dialogue—so that lines from the original’s “Pyramid” are repurposed as the teary explanation Kerry Washington’s social worker gives to her husband about how she got an STD in college—or lifts entire passages outright with no transition from his own meager dialogue.

With the exception of some of Madea’s more inspired outbursts, Perry has rarely done much with language beyond rehashing the emptiest pop-psych, self-help speak. “I know I have issues with trust,” says Janet Jackson’s icy magazine editrix, Jo—a complete Perry invention and one clearly modeled on Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada—to her husband, who helpfully responds: “You don’t just have trust issues. You have issues.”

Jo’s man, in another Perry contrivance, is on the down-low; she confronts him about his extramarital activities (“I see the way you look at other men: the pool boy in the Hamptons, my driver . . .”) after she gets the results of an HIV test—her positive status ludicrously hinted at twice in the film by a Camille-like cough. Shange updated her play by including a reference to safe sex and HIV during its 20th anniversary production, but Perry is incapable of staging a contemporary subject without resorting to broad, maudlin soap opera.

The greatest frustration—not just in For Colored Girls, but in Perry’s entire oeuvre—is witnessing talented (and often criminally underemployed) actresses struggle with the material they’ve been given. Anika Noni Rose takes off when reciting Shange’s words, only to be brought down into the abyss of Perry’s melodrama after she is date-raped (a scene that further reveals the director’s wrong moves when it comes to showing versus telling). Loretta Devine, playing a nurse, makes the awkwardly introduced Shange poem “Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid Alla My Stuff” sing. Everything else is too much—or not enuf.



Stereotype acquires new meaning as ballooning ideas about violation, jocks, advertising, imagery, macho hypocrisy, and postcolonial identities are grafted onto a finesse-less cleft-screen strategy. Two DV cameras sometimes work together—cross-eyed, cockeyed—following five teens in Bolivia and the U.S. through various sexual initiations in whorehouse, virginal bedroom, locker room. Along the way, Sexual Dependency bears the scars of its seeming conception in a postcolonial studies course—all is rape and/or the product of a vicious racist male mind-set, and in case you didn’t get it, there’s a didacto-poetic frame-breaking monologue in the middle to Spell It All Out. The director is Bolivian, and his America is less despondent Nan Goldin than finely cut Herb Ritts-y frat boys pitted against PFLAG and Ntozake Shange-quoting drama kids. As theory, Sexual Dependency is no worse than a tinny artist’s statement, but as moviemaking, it’s brutally embarrassing, inexcusable.


White Freedom

So he’s back. Presumably with another multi-platinum bitch. The kracka you love to hate. Only don’t hate Eminem because he’s white. Hate him because he’s the only free man in commercial hiphop. (As Lauryn is the only woman who’s taken Ntozake Shange’s advice and found god in herself and is loving her fiercely.) Hate him because he’s the only man in hiphop not burdened with representing the ‘hood and black sex to hiphop’s prime real estate, the vanilla suburbs. Hate him because he gets paid by the industry to be whimsical and personal. Free to be Em when such whimsical and personal negro geniuses as Beans, Vast Aire, Jean Grae, and Prince Po got to mine the more-freelance-than-free hiphop underground. Of course they’re free too—free to never be seen on a Viacom-owned negro entertainment station, free to never get played on hiphop radio. But this is a price negroes must pay when their music can’t be used to score Girls Gone Wild.

Of course Mr. Em has his own crosses to bear, since he knows better than most how guilty he is of being white. So guilty that on Encore Mr. Em allots much of his time as a free man coming on humble, begging forgiveness, tripping over lines to explain himself to the negro community for getting involved in coon bidness such as 50’s beef with Ja Rule and those rediscovered ancient rhymes riddling black girls with Mick Jagger–worthy abuse. His exercise of white freedom has also gotten him banned from Viacom-owned BET, presumably on the sensitive negro community’s behalf, for his Michael Jackson–mocking video. It has also found him scribed on the covers of hiphop magazines as the greatest living rapper, which always makes me laugh and think of how predisposed white supremacy has made even colored journalists crown any white man who takes a Black art form to the bank, to mo’ money than Shine ever seen, as the greatest who ever lived. Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman, Elvis, Eric Clapton, Larry Bird, take your pick. As if any of them understood the kind of casual fatalism I overheard on 116th and Adam Clayton Powell the other day, where one brother say to another, straight-faced and not a hint of irony, “He’ll be out soon, he didn’t get much time, he only got 10 more years.” All that August Wilson sheet in other words. That real Black Angst. The kind of angst that only the burdensome, belaboring crucible of white supremacy could twist into those bizarre, contorted, and comforting expressions of Black Pleasure and Irony known as bebop and hiphop and the blues.

There’s no denying that with his broken home, Eight Mile origins, druggy mama, and babymama drama, Mr. Em does the sound of white male angst as well as Iggy Pop, Woody Allen, and Bill Clinton combined, and that given how you never see another white man within 10 feet of Mr. Em if he and D-12 can help it, you figure he feels he has adopted himself into the Black Guerrilla Family. You could also argue that anything that foments unity in struggle between the youth of America across color lines and late-stage capitalist hiphop is hardly an awful thing. Especially given that being poor and white in this country is considered such a sin against god it’ll make you vote for his only begotten Bush, there’s little reason to doubt Mr. Em when he shares his passionate love affair with hiphop or tells how during PE and X-Clan’s heyday that love drove him to wear an African medallion and Flavor Flav clock knowing brothers liked to snatch it from his neck. Such love of hiphop and to such a degree that Mr. Em feels the need to share how genuinely hurt he is that a nonentity like Benzino has made him persona non grata at The Source, a magazine he grew up on. And to such a degree that those who found Mr. Em far funnier and more irreverent when he used his ghetto pass to hang himself, call his mama a cunt, and stab his babymama problem to death may well be disappointed, all the bzangin Dre-like beats here notwithstanding, with how much quality rhymetime he gives over to apologia to the community negro, to assaulting safe and easy negro targets like MJ on “Just Lose It” and “Ass Like That,” to the 24-hour motorbootyfest known as KneeGrow Uddertainment Television. And can’t nobody be mad at him for trying to rally his flock against the President’s War on Iraq in “Mosh.”

Yet and still, the fact that Mr. Em could get that sentiment out on music television when Dead Prez, hiphop’s most been-trigger-ready presidential assassins, never-ever will is less a testament to Mr. Em’s white male freedom than it may first appear. More a testament, indeed, to the fact that the powers that be are more skeered of the Black Guerrilla Family’s militant wing speaking to family about revolution through this cable-televised hiphop medium than the angriest wigga alive. See, end of the day, Howdy Doody just don’t cut it when your tired poor sleeping masses need to hear it from Malcolm X. Or god forbid from Fitty Lloyd Banks Jay-Z Lil Jon Nelly Chingy Fabolous pass the smelling salts what kinda agitprop ra ra hiphop planet you think this is we living on?


Body and Soul

“I gotta world I’m making in my own image.” Ntozake Shange’s words, printed billboard-big on a room-divider panel just beyond this show’s first gallery, address every artist’s compelling need to claim, define, and realize a uniquely personal vision. Shange might be speaking for the 94 black photographers included in “Committed to the Image,” each of whom gotta world, and who come together not for bland consensus but for an eloquent, engaging, even argumentative conversation. Though shows organized by gender, location, or ethnicity tend to be polemical and homogenized, the emphasis here is on individuality and variety, on distinctive voices and passionate visions. The result is far from coherent but surprisingly vivid; instead of a neatly packaged digest of the black experience, the curators immerse us in a multifaceted experience of blackness—many worlds made in many images.

It couldn’t have been easy. The museum’s longtime curator of photography, Barbara Head Millstein, worked with a trio of established black photographers, Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith, and Orville Robertson, to whittle down hundreds of submissions over a period of two years. Though the final show includes some images taken as early as the 1940s, most were made in the last two decades, and all are by living American artists. As Millstein notes in the catalog’s brief preface, some artists “declined to take part in an exhibition devoted exclusively to African American photographers,” and that may explain the absence, cited in Deba Patnaik’s essay, of Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson, and Dawoud Bey. (Also missing but unremarked upon: Lyle Ashton Harris, Clarissa Sligh, Pat Ward Williams, and Chester Higgins Jr.) The submission process doesn’t exactly make up for these conspicuous absences, but it brought in a slew of photographers who are likely to be unfamiliar to even the most au courant photo maven, and gives the show the bright, anticipatory air of a new faces revue.

Like so many of her
peers, Renée Cox is
redefining the world,
and she’s never been one
to do things halfway.

Unfortunately, both old pros and fresh discoveries have been limited to two works each—more than enough for a lively, even overcrowded show, but frustratingly little if you want anything more than a cursory sense of an individual photographer’s gift. Though this is clearly intended to maximize the number of participants and keep them all on an equal footing, that strategy is undercut somewhat by the wide range of sizes and formats here. Many of the show’s photographers work in mammoth scale or with multipart images, and these wall-filling pieces tend to overwhelm both the viewer and any smaller work hanging nearby.

Plenty of the pictures in “Committed to the Image” are scaled for intimate viewing, and the best of these survive through sheer brilliance, but others are hard put to escape the powerful force fields set up by oversize photos. I frankly don’t remember anything else in the small gallery with Renée Cox’s suddenly notorious Yo Mama’s Last Supper, but that wasn’t just because the five-panel piece dominated one whole wall. Because Giuliani, at the Daily News‘ prompting, has made Cox’s picture the culture wars’ latest succès de scandale, it was the object of inordinate attention but no apparent outrage on the show’s first Sunday afternoon. Perhaps because Cox’s work is placed in the last room of an exhibition full of artists determined to stake out a place for themselves and their visions, her audacious assumption of Christ’s role at the Last Supper seems a fitting culmination of the collective will—undeniably provocative, but far more playful than shocking. Like so many of her peers, Cox is redefining the world, and she’s never been one to do things halfway. (A second Cox photo hangs just outside the crowded room; in it, the artist, dressed in red-green-and-black superhero drag, perches on the crown of the Statue of Liberty, queen of all she surveys.) In a show whose galleries are hung thematically and labeled Beauty, Country, or The Street, Cox’s piece is pointedly placed just off the room devoted to Justice and Politics, not Religion.

Not surprisingly that room holds some of the show’s most arresting photos. Among them is the other allegedly “controversial” piece, Willie Middlebrook’s large photocollage, The God Suite, Pomp No. 628, described in a Daily News caption as “topless woman on cross.” Though it’s certainly open to interpretation, there is no cross in evidence, and Middlebrook’s picture—which centers on a partly xeroxed image of a bare-breasted black woman with her arms open wide—seems more about all-sacrificing motherhood than literal crucifixion. Rather than being nailed up to die, the woman appears poised to embrace the nude infant who’s being lifted toward her from the bottom of the frame. Middlebrook brings his goddess down to earth by placing her on a torn scrap of brown paper and giving her an aura of slathered black ink, but he salutes her with a handwritten line: “She who bares [sic] fruit, love, life is Earth!”

Todd Gray’s untitled collage nearby is less subtle but even more graphically potent. Crudely juxtaposing two torn photo blowups with a series of taped X’s, Gray creates an irresistibly visceral agitprop image: A giant black boxer, gleaming with sweat, wallops a monolithic office block. A powerfully symbolic gesture writ extra large, it’s one of the show’s true knockout images. Cocurator Anthony Barboza provides two others, also in the Politics/Justice gallery, with his artfully staged pictures of figures in beds. One explodes minstrelsy stereotypes of black supermasculinity, the other deals with death at an early age. Coreen Simpson’s gleefully vulgar painted color photo of a minstrel figure with a slice of watermelon belonged here rather than in the area devoted to Fantasy.

But it’s impossible to begin ticking off all the show’s individual triumphs. Look for the work of Accra Shepp, Barron Claiborne, Don Camp, Cynthia Wiggins, Carrie Mae Weems, Omar Kharem, Gene Young, Martin Dixon, Reginald L. Jackson, Marilyn Nance, and Mfon Essien, whose nude self-portraits are genuine showstoppers. Though flawed, erratic, and far from avant-garde, “Committed to the Image” is immensely valuable. It’s not the ultimate cure for art-world myopia, but it’s an important step in the eye-opening process.