Thursday, February 12, 2009

Class and Black Women’s Literature

Performing Class: U.S. Africans Strutting Their Stuff

I think that it is apropo that I am sharing the panel with scholars whose papers examine the links amongst race, class and gender, and film and representation. For while my primary interests are in literary studies, my examination of how class is manifested in narratives by twentieth-century Black women writers inevitably leads me to turn my eye both to the text and to the extra-textual world that highly informs the printed text. Of course, in the extra-textual world, a text in and of itself, is performance. And the links between performance on the world stage and how that performance gets replicated (no matter how imaginatively) in printed texts by U.S. Black women writers concern me. I view creative writers as artists whose works often give voice to changing trends, social ills, and human desire before the masses, and even sometimes before the scholars, find the language to articulate eruptions in the culture. For, after all, creative writers only have the tool of language to convey their narratives. And is it not language that ultimately constructs our personhood, with or without agency? In my examination of twentieth- century fiction by U.S. Black women writers, I am struck by the preoccupation, if you will, of the complex negotiations that their black heroines undergo in attaining, maintaining, and oftentimes, negating class status. My work is concerned mostly with Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Andrea Lee, and Toni Morrison. In each of these twentieth century Black women's fiction, the heroines struggle to come to terms with dual allegiances to race and class. Their concerns with gender are critical to their allegiances with race and class. However, it is the race/class dance, the performance anxieties of both, that take prominence in these heroines' lives. Hopkins, Hurston, Shange, Lee and Morrison create these tensions to interrogate how one performs blackness and femaleness, blackness and class, and blackness and upward mobility.

Although these fiction writers have invested their novels with tensions around the anxieties of class and race, the same degree of attention by scholars of literary studies has been lacking. It seems that scholars of literary studies have left the interrogation of class and race to the sociologists. However, while scholars of literary studies have aptly examined the way that identities are constructed, particularly in regards to race, gender, and sexuality, less attention has been given to the way that Africans in the diaspora construct class. My project is two fold: one, I examine the history of differentiated class status amongst Africans of the disapora in the United States, and two, I am especially interested in the ways that twentieth-century U.S. Black women writers construct, portray, and give voice to black class status in their heroines in fiction. I believe that like other components of people's identities—for example race, gender, and sexuality—people learn to perform class. Often such performances are tangentially related to economics, yet they are not wholly determined by economics either. Class is a performative act that embodies complicated intersections of race, gender and identity, and is equally determined by historicity. Class for the African of the disapora in the U.S. must be interrogated not only in consideration of the history of slavery but also with an acknowledgement of the insidious and perpetual dis-integration of these Africans due to racism. Both the history of slavery and the culturally embedded practice of U.S. racism so over-determine the economic and social statuses of Africans of the disapora in the U.S. that these elements cohere to create at times an impermeable caste system wherein the fiction of race often eclipses other signifiers, and operates as the primary signifier in which both the dominant culture and other Africans read the place of Africans of the disapora in the United States.

Yet my attempts at examining, interrogating, and drawing conclusions about black class as performance are grounded in the history of black racial slavery in the colonies of the New World, and what later became the United States, in particular. Despite this history of black racial slavery that subsumed black lives within a pervasive caste system, those persons of African ancestry who managed to break free of the constraints imposed by slavery, nonetheless found themselves still hemmed in by the restrictions that caste imposed on them. Yet this engendered its own sort of duplicity, for it stratified persons of African ancestry into an intraracial hierarchical society that included bondsperson and free person, non-propertied and propertied, unlettered and lettered, and immobile and mobile—thus intraracial difference evolved among the population of persons of African ancestry in the New World colonies of North America, and I believe therein lies the birth of the performance of class.

Untying the creation and history of a black caste system is as complicated as black racial slavery itself, since both are predicated on visually identifying a population of people whose skin color, hair texture, and physiognomy differed from the dominant population. Historian David Brion Davis argues in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006):

In the Chesapeake (a region that includes Maryland and Virginia), all people of African ancestry were increasingly seen and defined as 'Negro.' This arbitrary racial classification gradually became the norm for most of the United States. And this basic dualism or division between whites and Negroes, between the free and the slave, leads to the argument of the historian Edmund S. Morgan that Virginia's slavery and racism became, paradoxically, the social and ideological basis for America's dedication to freedom and equality" (135).

So while some persons of African ancestry were able to attain social and economic statuses that elevated them above the lowest rung of the black caste system, their African ancestry—which later became a racial identity perpetuated by colonial legislatures to ensure white domination and control— made it impossible for them to escape the black caste system regardless, of class status. But as Morgan points out, the very nature of slavery and racism becomes not only the basis for the freedom and equality sought by non-propertied white males, but most importantly for those persons of African ancestry denied access into and a voice within the body politic.

The body politic—which denied, subjugated, and ignored the teeming population of persons of African ancestry—formed its identity vís a vìs this encroaching African presence while it simultaneously pretended that the presence of the African was inconsequential to the ideological foundation of a new nation. The manner in which the African's presence was trapped within the interstices of the fabric of the new nation and likewise ripped from its moorings perhaps unveils how it was possible for communities of Africans to live both within the caste of blackness and outside of it as well. For I am not denying the reality of the black caste system and slavery, however, what I am suggesting is as Africans sold into the Atlantic slave trade learned to "perform" slavery, they likewise learned how to "perform" both caste and class. Gates, Foucault, Althusser, Tate, Foster, and a host of other scholars' work in challenging the idea of master narratives, particularly for subalterns, reminds us that for every African who yielded to slavery, there was (an)other who did not bear her back to the whip. For every African who felt subsumed and broken by black caste, there was (an)other who, despite caste, struggled to obtain land, maintain freedom, and retain some modicum of dignity. For every African who deemed herself outside of the dominant society, there was (an)other who regarded herself as integral to building of the nation. And feeling that one was integral to the building of a nation was as much about performance, even if the performance meant mocking, aping, or emulating the mores of the dominant culture. But may I also suggest that black class performance is not wholly determined by the dominant culture, that in fact, alienated from the dominant culture, standing "outside" of culture, and living in the margins allowed for a performative space that redefined black class. These performative spaces for Black women, in particular, and as manifested in Black women's fiction are domestic spaces, as Claudia Tate so aptly reminds us. Tate argues: "Black women's post-Reconstruction domestic novels used bourgeois gender conventions as an emancipatory text. The novels mediated the changing constructions of femininity at the turn of the century to define woman as exemplary citizen" (97). And these novels almost always used the domestic space as the primary locale for acting out bourgeois desire, exemplary citizenship, and redefining black women's femininity. The impact of the heroines in nineteenth century Black women's fiction as well as nineteenth century Black women themselves who pushed back against racialized and sexualized discourses that sought to subjugate them is attested to in the past and present not only by their accomplishments but also by the number of successful Black men who pay tribute to their mothers who were instrumental in their success.

But I have gone off on a tangent, and let me try to get back to historicizing this issue of performing class. Just when democracy in the U.S. was purported to level the playing field for white males in particular and gave way to the promise that with hard work, regardless of previous class status, any white male could rise to the level of prosperity, both Black men and Black women capitalized on opportunities that were not constructed for them to take advantage of, despite the divisions of the color line. They crossed the color line, picketed at the color line, and erased the color line. They sought inclusion based on meritocracy and hard work, which lay at the very ideological foundation of the nation. Striving for upward mobility is as much a part of the Africans' presence in the United States as is slavery. Yet, Euroamericans worked overtime to erect and maintain barriers to separate whites from blacks. W. E. B. Du Bois points out in his essay "The Evolution of the Race Problem" (1909) that while European nations were eliminating barriers that maintained rigid class status, the U.S., in fact was engaging in the precarious erecting of racial barriers that would ultimately make permanent a racialized caste system. Du Bois writes:

We are in fact to-day repeating in our intercourse between races all the former evils of class injustice, unequal taxation and rigid caste. Individual nations outgrew these fatal things by breaking down the horizontal barriers between classes. We are bringing them back by seeking to erect vertical barriers between races. Men were told that abolition of compulsory class distinction meant leveling down, degradation, disappearance of culture and genius, and the triumph of the mob. As a matter of fact, it has been the salvation of European civilization. Some deterioration and leveling there was, but it was more balanced by the discovery of new reservoirs of ability and strength. (qtd. in Brotz 546-47)

While Du Bois is referring to the "discovery of new reservoirs of ability and strength" in European civilization, the very erection of racialized barriers in the U.S. also gave way to new reservoirs of ability and strength within communities of Africans in the U.S. This ability and strength manifested itself in performance. This performance was, and continues to be about redefining the terrain, rewriting the script, and accomplishing the impossible.

As you can gather, my project is not about re-inscribing the history of the African in the U.S. as a history wrought with condemnation, unrealized struggles, and losses. These elements are part and parcel of any group's history, particularly groups that have been subjugated by a dominant group. Rather my project is aimed at unveiling, revealing and giving voice to the way that the African of the Diaspora in the U.S., despite its history, performed class as a means of survival. Whether that class performance was one of the bondsman, the black caste man or woman, the eighteenth century free black man who owned black slaves, or the twentieth century hip hop artist from a middle-class family who is pretending to be down with the folk and then realizes that she really is down with the folks, class performance, I argue, is imperative to survival. In the five texts that I look at in my forthcoming book, Narratives of Black Bourgeois Desire: Examining the Class Line in Twentieth Century U.S. Black Women's Fiction, I am concerned with what Foucault refers to as "subjugated knowledges." Foucault writes, "Subjugated knowledges are . . . blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systematic ensembles, but which were masked, and the critique was able to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship" (7). When you read nonfiction and fiction by Black writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their literature not only examines Black slavery, but the texts also give voice to the desire for change: the physical, economic, and social emancipation that remain the primary impetus for the creation of these works. These precursor texts provide the foundation for the twentieth century texts that turn an open eye to the overt performances of freedom, and inextricably linked to these performances of freedom are also the performances of class. How to negotiate the complex American terrain that attempts to control the steps, attempts to rewrite the script, and attempts to direct the performance? These women's novels provide insight into how their heroines overcome insurmountable odds to give stellar performances. Whether it is in fiction or reality, life is about performance, race is about performance, gender is about performance, and class is equally about performance. All these elements cohere to create identity, which is, after all, about performance.

Works Cited

Brotz, Howard, ed. African-American Social and Political Thought 1850-1920. 1966. Intro. Howard Brotz and Foreword B. William Austin. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Du Bois, W. E. B. "The Evolution of the Race Problem." Ed. Brotz 539-49.

Foucault, Michel. "Society Must Be Defended," Lectures at the Collège De France 1975-1976. 1997. Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.


M. L. Kiner said...

"The Hong Kong Connection" is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It's a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.

E. said...

This sounds fascinating and I can't wait to check out the book.

Its got me thinking of Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces and Dunbar's Sport of the Gods which haunted me for a while.