Race and Displacement: Nation, Migration, and Identity in the Twenty-First Centuryby Maha Marouan
Race and Displacement captures a timely set of discussions about the roles of race in displacement, forced migrations, nation and nationhood, and the way continuous movements of people challenge fixed racial definitions.See more details below
Race and Displacement captures a timely set of discussions about the roles of race in displacement, forced migrations, nation and nationhood, and the way continuous movements of people challenge fixed racial definitions.
- University of Alabama Press
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- 1st Edition
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- 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
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RACE and DISPLACEMENT
Nation, Migration, and Identity in the Twenty-First Century
By MAHA MAROUAN, MERINDA SIMMONS
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Lady Eve's Garden Sings the Blues
Spirituality and Identity in Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Café
Regina N. Bradley
A prevalent theme that connects the various experiences of women in the African diaspora is the sense of displacement, a peculiarity that saturates the stories constructed about their lives. The single-dimensioned representation of being either hypersexual or asexual left little room for expressing the multidimensionality of black women. The memory and search for an identity untainted by the expectations of the Africana female body fill volumes of works by women writers of color. Women's narratives like Harriet Jacobs's and later works of fiction like Dessa Rose and Beloved offer self-constructed stories of torture and suffering from their unique viewpoint of lived experience as women slaves. What women of color are attempting to achieve is what Patricia Hill Collins refers to as the definition of self, or a space where "by being accountable to others, African American women develop more fully human, less objectified selves" (2002, 113). What Collins suggests here is that while black women are often restricted and constrained to a space of expected performance, there is a sense of empowerment when women of color are given the opportunity to establish their own networks and connections with others. This sense of independence is embedded within the notion that black women are nurturers and look out for the well-being of their loved ones. Black men, facing their own peculiar experiences with blackness, often do the opposite—they search for outlets of independence that allow room for uncensored mobility and expression. By challenging the stereotypical expectations of black manhood, men of color establish a space of visibility within American society. The desire to remove the physical body from social oppression is especially prevalent in the migratory narratives of black men written during the early twentieth century. Collins argues that while men of color focus on establishing identity based upon rebellion and opposition, black women thrive on the interconnectedness of individuals.
A large part of the foundation of the interconnection that Collins observes is embedded in a narrative of suffering—those traumatic experiences that dictate and often overpower the lives of black women. Perhaps the largest chunk of this narrative remains embedded in slavery discourse. One approach to this observation is the acknowledgment of a marginalized voice of women of color to relay their experiences from a firsthand account. As previously stated, we have Harriet Jacobs as a primary source for a look into women and slavery, but most of the written accounts are by men. Frederick Douglass, for example, speaks of the horrific treatment of an aunt because she snuck off the plantation to meet with a lover: "[N]o words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart ... the louder she screamed, the harder he whipped" (2003, 20). Douglass's aunt's desire to connect with another body on a human level beyond romantic attraction overshadowed her acknowledgment of being considered property. The horrendous whipping she received because of her attempts at human contact was the retribution of a master who feared rebellion and loss of control over her body and mind.
Gloria Naylor's literary canon bridges the suffering and trauma of slave narratives with contemporary Africana women's experiences. She investigates and acknowledges the connection between slave women and their current-day descendants. Further, Naylor not only carves out a space for teasing out the anxieties and issues facing those slave women, she also bridges the gap between generations of women who may face similar anxieties. Naylor searches for ways to reconnect women of color through a space of understanding that does not shun the painful afflictions that make the black woman her own entity. To pay attention to such afflictions and other unique experiences, Naylor creates an imaginary space in order to make the invisible black female body visible. The strongest trope that weaves through Naylor's works is the presence of a supernatural female figure. She uses this almost omniscient woman-God to blend the stories of the other women's lives that surround her; she is like the Rosetta Stone for deciphering their experiences. A reoccurring trope in the construction of the supernatural woman is her linkage to slavery. Because of the mystery, intrigue, and confusion surrounding slave discourse, Naylor crafts her superwoman character to blur the boundaries of reality and the supernatural. Sapphira Wade from Mama Day (1988) is Naylor's portrayal of the empowered black slave woman. She keeps watch over a secluded island community: "Willow Springs. Everybody knows but nobody talks about the legend of Sapphira Wade." Because her identity and African heritage remain intact, Sapphira is a threat. Sapphira "18 & 23'd" her way into legend and history and could not be oppressed or contained by her white owner Bascombe Wade. Her description as a "true conjure woman: satin black, biscuit cream, red as Georgia clay" symbolizes her embodiment of all women of color as well as the ability to change her appearance and motif according to her beholder (3). She has a self-constructed identity and maintains control over her own body, which projects power.
Naylor slightly shifts direction for the construction of Eve in Bailey's Café (1992). She gives a traditionally white patriarchal space—the Bible—an Afrocentric reading to speak specifically to the susceptibilities and peculiarities faced by women of color. A complementary approach to navigating Naylor's reinterpretation of the biblical Eve is Theresa Washington's analysis of Àjé in her study Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Àjé in Africana Literature (2005). Washington pulls from Yoruban spiritual beliefs and entities to help understand black diasporic texts. A descendant of Ésü, a trickster and creation spirit, Àjé is "the furtive force the Great Mother used to create life and ensure evolution. She shared her force with deities and select humans so that they might ensure that the world maintains its structure and balance" (4). Washington's fascinating concept of selection by a female deity to carry on the work of evolution and balance connects to the importance of African ancestry in the understanding or "knowing" of the woman of color's past. While it is unclear if Naylor purposefully pulls from Yoruban religious practice, pairing Washington's study with an Afrocentric and black feminist reading of Naylor's redressing of the Eve archetype is useful as a critical framework because of Washington's focus on the relationship between Africana women, spirituality, and independence.
Naylor's remake of commonly recognized archetypes—the Jezebel, Madonna, and Eve—demonstrates the problematic readings and applications of the Bible and suggests the peculiarities of using the Eurocentric (traditional) approach to the Bible to discuss the experiences of women of color. Trudier Harris suggests that the re-creation of black female characters by black writers responds to the degradation that slave women faced in the past. Harris notes the challenge black writers face "in representing these women who have never had the luxury of being put on a pedestal or incorporated into anyone's concept of what true womanhood meant" and in "presenting] these characters as perhaps freer to redefine themselves or to 'invent' themselves" (2001, 10). The idea of inventing an identity distinctly representative of their own experiences resounded strongly in black women's writing, including Naylor's.
Eve's character inverts and dismisses the understandings of the biblical Eve. Naylor's Eve is bold, cunning, sassy, and straightforward in her treatment of both men and women. She reaches a point of self-actualization in the city of New Orleans. And while she can be viewed as a surrogate mother to those who live in her brownstone, what is most fascinating about Eve is her omniscient understanding of the plight her tenants experience. Eve's brownstone garden is an Edenic space that dually serves as a site of rehabilitation. Each flower is grown wild and represents a tenant; she refuses to grow domesticated species. Eve's garden symbolizes the critical need for women of color to reinvent themselves by their own standards and not those of outside (white) influence. Black women need to resist accepting an inferior and subservient position within the constraints of patriarchal society. This notion is symbolized triumphantly in the center of Eve's garden by the circle of lilies that consumes a barren tree stump: "[W]here that large tree stump sits, spring, summer, or fall you're gonna find circles and circles of lilies. Day Lilies. Tiger Lilies. Madonna lilies. Canna lilies. Lilies of the Valley. They grow in low clusters and on stalks; they vine up the stump of her only tree. Brown. Striped. Lilies-of-the-Nile. Stars of Bethlehem.... And none of them have a price. But all of her other flowers are for sale" (92). It is no coincidence that Eve's flowery representation is the lily, a symbol of resurrection from the dead. The colors and references to resurrection and rehabilitation also point toward the rejuvenation of the black woman in all forms. These flowers represent Eve's journey and her ability to redeem herself and others. Naylor teases out other, more exotic (wild) forms of the flower that reflect her own characteristics. Unlike the biblical Eve, Naylor's rendition suggests Eve as uncensored and able to present herself freely and in different forms.
The focal point of the lilies is the tree stump they encompass. The stump symbolizes the aftermath of Eve's purging of the rigidity of structured religion. Eve's stump represents the powerlessness of patriarchal and Christian knowledge over her identity. It is the idea that, once removed from the traditional white Christian construct, women of color are able to proudly display their self-resurrection and independent identity. She has cut down the tree of knowledge that condemned the biblical Eve. Her pilgrimage to New Orleans as a result of exile/displacement from Godfather's Pilottown helped Eve transcend religion and its impact on secular constructs of gender representation. Her experiences are priceless lilies. These flowers represent the resurrected, the transcended, and the redeemed. Because Eve's tenants are on the journey she has already completed, other flowers—still beautiful and meticulously crafted by Eve—must suffice.
Naylor charts Eve's transition, however, through the biblical lens of the original Eve. She is forced to accept and obey the wishes and commands of a man she solely refers to as "Godfather," a stern man with a frightening and malicious laugh. In similar fashion to Naylor's interpretation of the Bible, Washington also suggests that the all-powerful God is not male, white, or patriarchal. Instead, the creation spirit is gender neutral and cares only about the balance of earthly men and women. Àjé is complex and cannot be constrained to a suggested space or position. Even more important, Àjé is a reflection of the Great Mother, who challenges the notion of an all-powerful male God. In African American women's literature, Àjé can be used to represent the connection to an ancestral past, purposely erased by slavery, and its continued relevance in establishing black female identity. Àjé threatens the static role of black femininity in patriarchal white society—it does not fit into traditional Christian beliefs and seeks out a balance between men and women of color.
Like Sapphira Wade, Eve is one of the Great Mother's chosen few who carry on the work of progression and balance. In order for her to ascend to this role, Eve must remove herself from the restraints of gender roles and the perceived performance of black women's identities. Washington argues that Àjé is "a biologically derived force that men and women can inherit.... in the grip of alien, patriarchal, imperialist indoctrination, it apparently became important to differentiate spiritually empowered females from their male counterparts" (2005, 6; emphasis added). Àjé does not fall into static representations of male or female. Disconnect between male and female Àjé, between men and women of color, resulted from the slave trade. This act removed the balance in identity and authority that was previously shared. Whites (both European and American) pressed their views and ideologies onto people of color, leaving no room for ancestral influence or independent views of themselves. In "Eve's Song," we trace Eve's journey of self-discovery through her painful purging of masculine and Christian expectation and her eventual realization of a purpose that is uniquely her own.
Eve's relationship with her guardian, "Godfather," frames the trajectory of her narrative. Her description of Godfather alludes to the creation story found in the book of Genesis: "Godfather always told me that since I never had a real mother or father and wouldn't be alive if it weren't for him, he would decide when I was born ... the very day he said he found me in a patch of ragweed, so new I was still tied to the birth sac and he had to bite off the umbilical cord with his teeth and spit it out to save me from being poisoned" (83). Godfather embodies the God of Christianity. His authority—lodged within hidden knowledge of her origins and identity—reflects Eve's total dependence on him. Eve never reveals Godfather's name, suggesting either her ignorance of his identity or Godfather's fierce protection of such a powerful secret. Godfather lacks affection, gruffly speaks to and supports Eve during her childhood and adolescent years, and is an authoritative figure in Eve's hometown of Pilottown, Louisiana: "The town had only three buildings that qualified as such: the school, the cotton exchange, and the church. He was the preacher in one, the scale foreman, and bookkeeper in another, and no one attended that drafty school past the ninth grade" (85). Godfather serves in every capacity—teacher, preacher, and provider.
Eve's burgeoning sexuality—a natural occurrence—finally challenges Godfather's hegemonic authority. Because he cannot control Eve's development into womanhood, Godfather removes her from his home: "He said I was going to leave him the same way he'd found me, naked and hungry.... He purged me with jars of warm water and Epsom salts, to remove, he said, every ounce of food his hard work had put into my stomach" (88). A direct result of Godfather's banishment is Eve's abrupt dismissal from Pilottown because people are afraid to take her in and face Godfather's wrath. There are two critical points in this scene—Eve's exile alludes to the biblical Eve's banishment from Eden and Naylor's Eve's loss of humanity because of her removal from a Christian social construct. "To be thrown out of his [Godfather's] church was to be thrown out of the world," Eve recalled (85). Eve loses the sense of identity constructed for her by Godfather. Without it, she is forced to search for self-actualization.
Excerpted from RACE and DISPLACEMENT by MAHA MAROUAN, MERINDA SIMMONS. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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