A critical chorus of black voices

Black Feminist Cultural Criticism - Black Feminist Reader

June 14, 2002

The Black Feminist Reader marshals key perspectives within black feminism. Opening the collection, Barbara Christian's "The race for theory" questions the nature of literary theory and locates survival as an issue of critical practice. Toni Morrison's "The Afro-American presence in American literature", on the other hand, interrogates the US literary canon vis-a-vis a black presence and African-American literature. Morrison suggests that crucial to the academic struggle represented in this relationship is a process including "misreading", "selectivity" and "silence". Considering these, she proposes and illustrates how texts might be critically explored.

If Morrison's focus is textual, Hortense J. Spillers's "Mama's baby, papa's maybe: an American grammar book" returns to the slave woman's "captive body" and its role at the "beginning", symbolically represented by black women's words. In the US, these words cannot be assumed to refer exclusively to African-Americans, and the anthology's inclusion of Sylvia Wynter's "Beyond Miranda's meanings: un/silencing the 'demonic ground' of Caliban's 'woman'", recognises this. Wynter's essay not only extends the debate in its attention to the Caribbean but addresses the tension at the heart of black feminist debate and the pressing issue of sameness and difference.

Michael Awkward's "A black man's place in black feminist criticism" offers a male perspective, the absence of which a decade ago led to a gender polarisation. His position, certain to provoke controversy, convincingly articulates how being raised by the single mother allows identification with a black womanist-feminist viewpoint.

In the collection as a whole, the dialogue extends beyond literary to social and political theory. For example, in "Black women: shaping feminist theory", bell hooks addresses how class and racism contribute to the silencing of black women within feminism.

Jacqueline Bobo's book offers a broader cultural sweep. The book's focus shifts from literature to the moving image, art, music, the spoken word and material culture. The strength of such diversity lies in its possibility for wide-ranging application. The weaknesses appear in a number of pieces that, though informative, fall short of Bobo's theoretical promise.

"Black women and music: a historical legacy of struggle", the seminal essay by Angela Y. Davis, on the legendary Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Mother of the Blues, together with Tricia Rose's analysis of rap as a source of "some of the most important contemporary black feminist cultural criticism", highlights crucial contradictions. For example, Rose points to young black women's reluctance to "be associated with feminism", and stresses the need for the kind of strong theory/practice explication that her own work provides. Perhaps the weakest section of Bobo's collection is "Material culture", which offers a curious assortment of pieces beginning with Audre Lorde's "Use of the erotic: the erotic as power", a rare exploration, but sadly out of place.

The Black Feminist Reader and Black Feminist Cultural Criticism map a terrain that increasingly demands recognition. There are omissions - notably the womanist-feminist debate. Nonetheless, these anthologies define a critical space and signal that within contemporary feminism, black women's perspectives can no longer be ignored. They promise a stimulating challenge to current critical practice.

Joan Anim-Addo is head of the Caribbean Centre, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Black Feminist Cultural Criticism

Editor - Jacqueline Bobo
ISBN - 0 631 22239 1 and 22240 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 337

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