Dear Young Brother,
In “Women and Literature: the dual tradition of African American fiction,” scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote about an elaborate system of Western and Black ideals in relation to the uniqueness of the Black art form. The duality of how Black women in fiction have discussed as romanticized and talked through the lens of archetypes, joys and sorrow have led readers to see the internal struggles of what has plagued the Black woman from attaining self-fulfillment. Gates stated, “Anyone who analyzes black literature must do so as a comparativist…because our canonical texts have complex double formal antecedents, the Western and the black.”
Gates discussed a double consciousness that W.E.B Dubois talked about in his acclaimed work, “The Souls of Black Folks.” The idea of Black people having a double conscious, feeling as though an identity is divided into several parts, making it impossible to achieve one whole identity is even more complicated for Black women. For Black women, a triple consciousness exists. Black women have to come to grasp of who they are racially in the world but more importantly their womanhood as it pertains to family, religion, sexuality, etc. These aspects are clearly seen spanning decades in highly praised and criticized novel work from African American women. From the 1920’s to the present, the unique characteristic of the liberated woman’s journey to self-fulfillment seems to be prevalent and a common motif.
What I would say to a cluster of African American Women novel protagonists if they were living. What would I tell them about the world in which they lived versus today? How would I address moments of self-doubt, and a longing for freedom outside these character’s circumstances in their journey’s to self -understanding? What would I tell these protagonist about what they have given to future scholars as the cultural aesthetic of Black literature and Black Women’s Studies?
The roaring 1920’s or as most know it as “The Harlem Renaissance” was a pivotal time and movement in the development of arts and literature in African American culture. Deemed as a “cultural awakening,” artists and social groups worked to create a picture of African American life outside the preconceived notions of dominant white America. “The Harlem Renaissance” sought to break free of misconceived moral values that previously defined African American’s relationships to their heritage and each other.
The novel Passing by Nella Larsen, focuses on the relationship between lifelong friends Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry living in a society filled with racism and oppression. Irene is married, has upper-middle class lifestyle, and desires for security and stability. On the opposite end, Clare spends most of her life trying to procure the lavish luxuries she feels Irene and other wealthier people have. Irene is characterized by thoughts and Clare by appearance and actions. Clare’s freedom and life is a stand-in or substitute for the life Irene never lives. The one commonality they share is that they both live during a time when Blackness is seen as inferior. They both struggle to live in a culture that is biased toward the other. These two letters address both Irene and Clare in their perspectives on the notion of “passing.”
Irene, your crucial goal is to live a safe life, and avoid conflict at all cost, so you view Clare’s lifestyle as dangerous which scares, but also entices you. You even say to yourself that you “wished to find out more about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.” The notion that you can “pass” if you choose is an attractive choice. The concept of “passing” as conformity is what prevents you from asking Clare about it, because the danger of “passing” is too high should you be caught or found out. Your view of “passing” is more deliberate and conniving so; you view Clare’s lifestyle as a polar opposite of your own.
It is scary to think that you live in a time where “passing” for white can ostracize or put you in danger. It is understandable that you feel “passing” is conforming to one identity. Irene, you must also recognize that you to “pass” without noticing. Here you are meeting Clare at an all-white establishment, and no one has batted an eye. Perhaps that is your hope for the future. That no one bats an eye because one day it will no longer be important. There will be no reason to want to “pass.” You have grown up in a world and society where pledging an allegiance to one race over the other is expected and in result oppresses you. You may wonder what leaving a Black identity will do to you? What will you lose? Family? Community? Self? It may very well create a sense of loss. Perhaps that is what your friend Clare has felt. To successfully “pass” means giving up a part of yourself and what makes you who you are. At the same time, wanting a life that is not restricted to race is also an appealing one. To walk and sit in non-segregated establishments, without fear. Not having to hide or speak in code around other people.
If it’s any comfort, over the last century there has been tremendous progress regarding ethnicity and race. Those of mixed heritage are not bound by society to have allegiance to one race or the other. Racism is not over and still exists, but the freedom to choose is more prevalent. In fact, those of mixed heritage look for the best-integrated identity they can. This may sound shocking, but in the year 2008, the United States elected its first African-American President who just happens to be of both Black and White descent. While there has been a mass criticism of his heritage and the age-old question of “What are you?” what he leaves behind is a legacy that transcends racial boundaries. Irene, that is what you should know. The practice of “passing” is part of a segmented racial past. People live in a more diverse America, and through multicultural movements over the decades, many recognize people’s rights to acknowledge and claim all ethnicity’s and heritages should they choose to.
Irene, your thoughts have shaped a way of life for many. People do still align and support their own race, backgrounds, etc. It is what scholars engage with to this day, the aspect of cultural studies. In talking about race, you will ask yourself “Why can’t you get free from it?” Many will ask that same question, and the answer is, there is no escaping it. Two halves of an identity are an un-winnable battle. Added, for a woman such as yourself, the pressure of social acceptance. Your thoughts and relationship with Clare allow others to see what oppression looked like for biracial women and what facets of that still exist and do not exist in the future. You have taught that it’s okay to want a life of security and safety behind your own race, but it is okay break free of those conventions to find an identity that is all one’s own.
From a Future Young Brother.
You tell Irene, that “you’ve often wondered why more coloured girls, girls like her and Margaret Hammer and Esther Dawson and—oh, lots of others—never ^passed' over. It's such a fright- fully easy thing to do. If one's the type, all that's needed is a little nerve.” Clare, you believe “passing” is an easy act, therefore solely identify as a white woman. And that identification is what separates you from Irene.
Clare, with the freedom you have, you long for aspects of Irene’s life among African American’s. You even say in a letter to Irene, “in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of.” Your friend Irene wonders what it is like to “pass,” but Clare I think you wonder what it would be like if you didn’t have to “pass.” What would it feel like to not wear a disguise in public? What would it feel like to give yourself one face instead of two? People do not fully understand what it is like to identify with a particular ethnicity versus claiming it. Knowing and claiming an identity are two completely separate ideals that are not easy to decipher. Clare, perhaps you should ask, how much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice for parts of your life that you think are pixel perfect? Clare, “passing,” is like a performance. It’s putting on a show. Do you want to continue that for the rest of your life?
Clare, I hope this letter brings a little comfort in knowing that in years, perhaps decades to come, people will no longer be forced to identify with one race instead of the other. Nor will people be compelled to deny their racial ancestry to succeed. The brutality of “passing” will be a subject of the past. However, the inner struggle of “passing” will still weigh on many. Clare, you will enlighten generations of scholars about the turmoil and freedom you feel with “passing.” Because of you, many will understand the circumstances and fears of mixed heritage and the desire to live on the edge of what could be a fall from social grace. You will help others understand the marginalization of what it means to be a biracial woman. How others can identify with the fears you have and rise above them. You will give others hope for a better and brighter future where there is no color line.
From a Future Young Brother.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is another novel set in the early 1900’s. Though slavery is abolished African American’s are still viewed as second class citizens. Strong prejudices primarily exist in the south, so many African Americans live in poor conditions, have a lack of formal education, and do not have sufficient job opportunities. In result, many Blacks who live in the south are forced into manual labor. While Black people are considered second class citizens, Black women have even lesser rights as evidenced in the novel. At the beginning of the novel Hurston sets up a conflict of ideals between the main protagonist Janie and her grandmother, Nanny. Nanny wants Janie to have a life of security and safety in the sanity of marriage with Logan Killicks, a man Janie does not want to be with. She longs for her grandmother to understand her desire for love and intimacy she doesn’t believe Logan can give her. The following letter addresses Janie just after Nanny tries to reassure her that marrying Logan will bring her happiness.
I know Nanny’s story about living through slavery and having a baby by her slave master must have been frightening for you to listen to. Right now you see Nanny’s vision for your life as an opposing force to a life you want. Janie, I hope you come to see that Nanny’s persistence about wanting you to marry is out of fear. Even after the despicable act of her Master, Nanny was the person shamed. Here she was, an unmarried woman and pregnant due to the peculiar institution of slavery. Nobody saw her as a surviving victim of an insidious and coerced relationship. Also, to learn she drowned her pain in alcohol is horrific to hear. That horror is what Nanny fears. She fears a pattern of abuse continuing that she wants you to break away from and the only way she sees that is for you to marry a man like Logan. She’s scared for what you may endure in life, even after slavery. All any elder wants for their young is to live a better life than they did.
Janie, your need to have your desires fulfilled that you know won’t come from Logan are understandable. You, as well as many others, even today want “to stretch on their backs beneath a pear tree and soak in the alto chant of visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of a breeze. To see a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to the tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.” That is intimacy. Nanny knows this, but her fear won’t let go. For Nanny, her view is for you to have a life of safety and financial security. That is her definition of freedom. It’s one she couldn’t obtain, so she imposes it on you. Janie, I hope you come to understand that all Nanny has ever wanted for you is to live the happiest and most fulfilling life you can. A fulfilled life is something she and your mother were denied.
Janie, you’re living in the early 1900’s, a time where a woman’s only sense of security can only come from a man. A time where men and women have specific gender roles. As a woman, you are not only seen as the weaker of the sexes but defined by your relationship to a man. Do you think that’s the reason why Nanny wants you to marry? So that you can gain power, but only through a man. Men silence your voices by insulting your appearance to control your womanhood. Authority, ambition, intelligence are masculine qualities not fit for women. And if you possess these qualities you are considered unattractive. Well, I hope this brings you solace. In decades to come there will be many triumphs for women in this country. From “Women’s Suffrage,” to The “Black Art’s and Black Liberation Movement,” these organizations will redefine racial, political, and gender roles in society. These movements will in no way be the solution to all of Black women’s issues, but there will be significant strides to fight against structural and institutional racism of women.
Janie, know that your story will show others, especially young women what a visible search for identity entails. Your search will in no way be easy. It will come with its joys and hardships, but you will learn valuable lessons along the way about the independent identity you want for yourself. Your freedom is going to cost you, but like a marriage, you must take it for better and for worse. Behind your beauty is where your true characteristics rest: headstrong and determined. Many seek your courage to find true love, and you will teach yourself as well as others that there’s life before and after a pear tree and love is the one aspect of life that never dies.
From a Future Young Brother
Alice Walker also explores the trials and tribulations of African Americans in the early 1900’s. Historical context is part of the structure and form of her novel The Color Purple. Aspects of religion, feminism and racism transfer from pages of history to the epistolary form of this novel. There is a discriminative social barrier that exists between African American women and men. Black men are degraded on their jobs while doing manual labor and can not speak out of turn or retaliate for fear of being lynched. Their anger needs an outlet, and unfortunately, the target is the Black woman, mostly their wives. Just as a triple consciousness exists with Black women, so does double oppression. One from the white America and two from their own husbands and men in their lives. In The Color Purple, Celie and her sister Nettie struggle to escape repeated acts of verbal and physical abuse from the men in their lives. The following letter addresses Celie in the moment she embraces her power as a woman and leaves her husband, Mr._ after she finds out he has been keeping Nettie’s letters from her.
You should be proud of taking a stand against Mister. Hiding Nettie’s letter is unspeakably cruel. Can you imagine what you have done for your sister? You have given her back her voice that had been suppressed, buried in Mr._’s trunk. It has also given you a voice. By piecing together Nettie’s letters, you are starting to understand yourself. You also come to the realization that as much as you love Shug’s, you love your sister even more. The moment that you found Nettie’s letter you gained self-reliance, not through Mr._, not through Shug’s, but you. You stood your ground and refused to fear him no more. Even more, be proud that you did not rely on Shug’s for inner strength. Shug’s was there for support, but you made the decision to stand up to Mr._
Celie, also realize is that not only is Nettie alive and well, but you can now understand her in a much broader context. While you are enclosed in rural Georgia, you get to experience another continent, Africa, through Nettie’s letters. You saw stamps with pictures of the royal Queen of England and realize oppression exists beyond the confounds of which you reside. There is a whole world out there in places like Africa that are beautiful but dominated and exploited just like Georgia.
Celie you now have a view of a prosperous existence for Black people as well. When Nettie tells about her interactions and relationships with Blacks in Harlem, New York, it opens yours and Nettie’s eyes to greater opportunities that are there, unlike the dull, subservient life you both were accustomed too. Nettie’s descriptions of Harlem empower you to see that there can be a fruitful life of economic independence, especially away from Mr._
Celie, now is the time to take action and start the life you’ve envisioned for yourself. Have you ever wondered why you don’t sign the letters you write to God? Maybe it’s because you feel your self-worth is minuscule or even nonexistent. Standing up to Mr._’s cruelty means that you are reclaiming your value in saying you do have a voice. Reclaiming your life is going to come in spurts. Perhaps you will even be reunited with your children again. Celie, your strength, and determination for a better future are what many people want and wish to have. Your story which is now just beginning lets others know that it’s not easy to gain independence, but by continuing to fight and standing up for yourself, there can and will be great rewards. Your endless love for God and your sister will let others know that surviving physical, verbal, and spiritual abuse can make someone a much stronger and fulfilled person.
From a Future Young Brother.
Ann Petry’s, The Street published in 1946 reflects the poor circumstances that most African Americans live in during the time of segregation and radical racist policies. In the context of this novel, the Federal Housing Administration, circa 1934 intensifies discrimination in regards to housing. Many Black people are denied mortgage loans, forcing them into segregated communities. During this time a practice called “redlining” is enforced. Properties lose value if they are in close quarters of minority groups which give relators the ammunition to enforce housing segregation. In result, African Americans have little to no choice but to live in cramped and crowded tenements in the inner city, so they are not able to save money for better housing because of excessively high rent and undercut wages. Urban decay becomes a prominent aspect of living as housing is in poor and sorrowful conditions. It is also the moment where Petry introduces us to the novel’s protagonist Lutie Johnson. She is unsatisfied with the living environment at her father’s home and is looking to procure an apartment for her and her son Bub. Immediately, readers are immersed with an assault on the senses that restrict Lutie. She is beaten by the wind and a struggle against her environment alludes to other dangers she faces throughout novel. The following letter addresses Lutie just before she sees the apartment she and Bub will reside in for the time being.
The wind has just lifted your “hair away from your neck and you feel naked and bald.” And this is only a prelude to the circumstances you’ll face. Lutie, what you have just experienced with the wind is a foreshadow of something that is much deeper. The wind is not only a violent force against you but a sexualized one as well. It attacks others on the street as well, but you have the unique quality of being an African American woman and mother. In your attempt to find a safe, private space to live your life and raise your son, nature wants to have its way with you. In time to come, every time you take one step, your mobility will be compromised.
Lutie, you need to be aware of the warning signs nature is telling you. The life you’re trying to give you and your son will be met with boundaries both visible and invisible. The wind on this street acts as a monitor. It monitors your money, your safety, and most of all the hopes of your “American Dream.” As you attempt to navigate a public and private life the restrictions from both environment and people will be tricky and difficult to bare. You will become emotionally and physically drained. Cramped spaces and a never ending whirlwind cycle would make anyone depressed.
Lutie, do all that you can to protect the personal space you are fighting for you and Bub. There will be people who attempt to invade your personal space in more than one way. Pay close attention to where the wind blows for it holds greater secrets than you can imagine. Like love, it’s robust and powerful. Lutie, don’t underestimate it because though you are resilient, there’s nothing you can do that beats nature. Don’t surrender to it, but be vigilant. Keep faith in your heart. Your willingness to endure is what your story will entail and represent for many others in times to come. Your remarkable ability to withstand pain and keep fighting for the life you want is commendable and will inspire others to to do the same.
From a Future Young Brother.
Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye demonstrates a significant and internal struggle Black women face regarding growing up with a white standard of beauty. Morrison details in her “Forward” of the novel that this story stemmed from a conversation she had with a little Black girl at an elementary school who desired for blue eyes. After, Morrison continues to harp on that desire. In the 1960’s the issue of Black beauty is moving forward with the “Black is Beautiful Movement.” This movement aims to combat media and society’s negative views and perceptions of the African American body. The movement is centered on fighting for equality on body and image issues that remain consistent in America. Morrison, during this time attempts to reclaim African-American beauty with this novel.
Pecola Breedlove is the embodiment of how cultural biases of beauty can leave internal scars to young women who do not fit in America’s idea of what beauty is. Due to constant hardship, especially being raped by her father, Pecola has lost touch with reality by the end of the novel. She creates an imaginary friend as a way to deal with her experience as she is now the talk of the town. Her imaginary friend possibly serves as the only person who loves her. The following letter addressees Pecola, as if I am that imaginary friend?
Let me tell you a story. In just a year or two to come there will be a husband and wife, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who are Black doctors that study behavior and the mind. They want to see reactions from kids like you having seen things like Shirley Temples eyes. Except they want to know what kind of dolls you all like. There are four of them, all the same, except color. It’s no surprise that the kids pick the white doll because she’s pretty. Just like you think Shirley Temple’s pretty. The kids won’t think the lighter toned dolls are pretty. Would you?
Pecola, society is dominated by men. Women and girls like yourself are judged based on beauty, body, and supporting men. You’ve been made to say “sorry” for the space you take up, for the words you say, and the situations you can’t control. Judging girls solely on their beauty is wrong, but for little girls like yourself, it constantly needs to be said.
Pecola, in the future, society will tell little girls that beauty is more than skin-deep. What’s on the inside is more important. That is unless they are talking about Black girls. Pecola, try not to compare your beauty to others. Beauty is like picking a crayon out of a box. Each shade holds magnificent wonders, and when put on a page, it creates something new. That’s the journey of growing up, creating something new. Little Black girls are taught that your skin in its shades of blacks, browns, and tans are not beautiful. That’s why you want blue eyes like Shirley Temple, so you can see yourself as beautiful. But if you take a close look at the eyes you’ve been given and look at other little black girl’s eyes and skin, you can see other colors do come alive. They sparkle, glimmer, shine just like the color blue does. Pecola, there are more colors in the crayon box other than white that have their own stories of beauty. Think of them as magic for Black and Brown girls. In years there will be Black girls who grace the cover of magazines, newspapers, and appear in color on the television. Maybe then you’ll see that your Black is beautiful. It is beautiful despite what you wanted blue eyes for. Pecola, don’t blame yourself for your parents fighting. You, thinking they would stop fighting if you were prettier. Their problems were their own, through no fault of yours. And pay no attention the townspeople's gossip. If you do, you’ll teach others in the coming years that despite hardships and agony, people’s attitude and meanness towards others makes them the ugly ones.
From a Future Young Brother.
Though author Toni Morrison focuses the novel of Sula on the female friendship between Nel and Sula, it is also a story about the African American experience in the first half of the twentieth century. Shortly after the Civil War, constitutional liberation did not help against other facets of social oppression and economic servitude. Though this novel ends in 1965 and there are more thriving Black businesses and families, Black people are still discriminated against and have to continue to fight for civil rights. While communities are fighting an outer system of ideals, far more internal battles are being fought within communities. Morrison touches on this motion of how internal struggle results in external isolation with the character of Sula. Every aspect about the tradition women uphold such as domesticity, compliance, lack of identity, etc. Sula is the foil to that. As Morrison notes, “Sula's "new world black" is more than moxy and melanin: it is jazz-inspired, something individual, fundamental, and internal, manifesting itself in a resistance to existing social mores and a cultivation of the untried and the unknown.” Sula comes from a lineage of broken women, and her actions and outlook on life are not far-fetched. The following letter addresses Sula after she overhears her mother, Hannah, tell her friend’s she loves Sula but doesn’t like her.
It is unimaginable for a parent to say that they may love, but do not like their child. There is no justification for what your mother said, however, reminding you of some details of her life may shed some light on perhaps why she feels the way she does. Sula, think about her upbringing. After she had returned to “The Bottom,” when you were three, your mother asked your grandmother, Eva, if she ever loved her or your aunts and uncles. Your grandmother evaded the question and told her that she fed them, clothed them, and made sure they didn’t get sick. But your mother asked about quality time, and loving affection. Your grandmother’s nonresponse was all your mother needed to hear. Though she seemed fine with it, deep in her heart it must have scared her. Just as you feel she doesn’t like you, she feels her mother didn’t like her. Being a parent was about being a provider, nothing more. And then you may wonder, “Well what about grandmother?”
Sula, your grandmother, was abandoned by her husband, Boy Boy when your mother, aunt Pearl, and Uncle Plum were young. She also took in the Dewey’s and Tar Baby and sacrificed and struggled to feed the family. When she couldn’t do that, she left you all with a kind neighbor and returned a year later with a missing leg. Many people in the community thought she lost her leg on purpose to collect insurance money. Even though it’s not the best circumstance for people to gossip about you, she will do anything to survive and that had made her hard on the inside. She didn’t know anything else but survival after Boy Boy left, which made her become a strong woman, unfortunately, with a heart of stone.
Sula, the definition of “pattern” for people is “a composite of traits or features characteristic of an individual or a group.” Your mother and grandmother’s lack of affection and need for male attention is a pattern. The definition of “Pathology” is “the nature of the disease and its causes, processes, development, and consequences; a departure or deviation from a normal condition.” Your mother and grandmother both have pathologies of abandonment by men that have stifled their ability to give and show healthy affection. Patterns and pathology are not what is passed genetically, but energetically. It is what behaviors are displayed and interpreted that can have positive and negative ramifications. Sula, do not think you are alone. Sadly, this cycle has not disappeared over the decades. From the young to the older generations, we just now recognize that every family possesses patterns and pathologies of beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors that are passed on from one generation to the next. The negative or unproductive qualities that family lineage passes can destroy our lives. And particularly, for women of color like yourself, you hold patterns in your consciousness that demean your power and womanhood, even if aspects of your life look fulfilled on the outside. Sula, you have patterns that are encoded in your veins because they are a means of survival, love, health, strength, and success.
Sula, you may feel broken in this moment, but remember brokenness is just a state of feeling. Your emotional and psychological response to that brokenness is what is going to set the course for the remainder of your life. How your mind has been patterned is going to play in the decisions you make that will alter the course of your relationships. And that is what you will inevitably teach others. The choices that people make set the course for who they become. Sula, your story will give others the opportunity to see a woman conceived outside of the “norm” felt by most women in your community of “The Bottom.” You may be considered a “dangerous female” to most because you go against the grain of society’s rules and expectations. The rejection you experience will significantly cause a host of tension in “The Bottom,” and far beyond that. Sula, whatever decisions you make, make them on your own merit. Don’t continue the cycle that came before you. Do not let brokenness breed more brokenness.
From a Future Young Brother
Dear Young Brother,
After writing to a select group of African American women novel protagonists, I have come to a new understanding that there is something miraculous about reading Black characters in fiction who are a mirror of triumph and struggle. These women and the writers of their stories talk about the wholeness of what it feels and means to be a Black woman and seek to recover history and tell how it has changed and affected their current existence on and off the page. What makes these novel protagonists compelling is that their stories become a way to reject pre- existing white ideals and convey the actual story of the fight for freedom and equality of their womanhood’s. These women are crafted to correct false historical records and show the truth behind the many colors of racism that did and still continue to exist in society.
Earlier, I asked what was it I wanted these Black women to know? I didn’t realize the answer was in the question. The ability to know and to understand. That is what I want Black women to know. They should know the power they hold, the blood that courses in their veins, and the footsteps they walk in. History has shown them the trauma, the depression, the pain and the beauty. That is what makes Black women unique. The ability to be the most beautifully flawed creature to exist and continuously studied and talked about makes them extraordinary. Collectively, the Black woman’s story is about what the great writer Maya Angelou said, “Still I Rise,” And that they do.
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