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Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, bills his fascinating-and maddening new book as part memoir, part psychological study, and part sociopolitical manifesto. It's surely all three, an attempt by a gay black man to view the multiple roles society gives black women through the prism of his own experience.
Als' interest in the experience of black women, perhaps the most marginalized group in society, goes beyond identification. The Women is not only a study of what he calls "the Negress" but also of women's relationships to each other-as well as the identity of the gay male. In exploration of these ideas, Als examines three significant "Negresses": his first mentor and lover, Owen Dodson; his mother; and the queen of all "fag hags," Dorothy Dean.
"Negress" is a harsh word, Als writes, and it's clear his meaning is ironic. But the usage is deliberate, underlining the stereotypes of black womanhood, including the "good neighbor" and the martyred wife/girlfriend/mother. Being a Negress also entails a particular brand of humor: "Well, at least we won't have to look at those two ugly feet anymore," Als' sister cracked, when their mother's leg was amputated. Their mother laughed.
Als uses The Negress as a springboard to explore other, more complex ideas. The fact that Als describes himself as a Negress indicates he feels a stranger affiliation with women than he does with a race. His examination of the "fag hag" as personified by Dorothy Dean-a New York writer, pundit, and all-around bad girl in the '60s and '70s-is fascinating. "The 'fag hag's' marriage to her constant gay male companion is a marriage sanctified not by physical love but by Humor and Verbal Punishment," Als writes. It is a relationship marked by anxiety: the gay man's jealousy of the woman's power to attract men, and the woman's fear that she will lose her friend to sexual desire. It's here that the book transcends the narrow focus on the Negress-that Dean was black seems almost inconsequential.
The Women is frustrating, incisive and thoroughly entertaining. You may not agree with Als' theories: his assertion that jealousy between women precludes any chance of real friendship is particularly galling. But his voice is so honest, articulate, and intelligent that it's worth putting up with a bit of presumptuousness.