Examples of Black American women values are evident in the literature works of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose, bell hook’s Ain’t I a Woman? and Talking Back, and many others. Although there are differences in styles and narratives, they all share the Black American woman’s determination and agency to resist the perceptions, labels, and roles given to her by others. She does this in a myriad of ways but it always involves pain (either shouldering her own or others) and love (self, family, and community). Since I come from a long history of resistance and agency, I bring these traditions and customs of my Black American heritage to my character, community, and profession. This also explains my conflict with the negative perceptions of African American women in literature or the media. I know that I’m a highly intelligent, educated, and talented person. Often, my experiences as a Black woman are both an omen and a curse. Therefore, I realize that race is both a protective and risk factor.
One of my favorite scenes in Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose is near the end when Nathan, Cullen, Dessa, Harker, Ruth and the others travel in the disguise of a minstrel show/slavery auction to gain funds and freedom. After gaining their freedom by escape, the plan was for Ruth to sell some of the men back into slavery. Later in the night (and with the help of the others) the men would escape back to the minstrel show. Then the group would travel to the next city to get further North. Dessa states,
“I thought ‘the deal’ was a joke when Nathan and Harker first started talking about selling theyself
back into slavery so as to get a stake big enough to where we could all leave from round there. This was a story they was telling to help while away the hours Ada made me stay in bed. Harker had the idea of someone posing as the master and of the people’s running away after they’d been sold and the ‘master’ selling them again in another town.”
It is only when the group can work together that everyone can acknowledge their own feelings, needs, and wishes in order to be a better community and negotiate their freedom together. The group has to work together in order for any of the individual members to succeed. This is a lesson that the U.S. Government could learn from!!
In parallel to Williams’ Dessa Rose, hooks’ book, Salvation, explains that the Civil Rights Movement’s message of love is the type of force that the Black community must utilize in order to enact change in America. In order to move beyond the shame of the past, to value ourselves rightly, and to take ourselves seriously, Black Americans have to learn to love in a way that transcends the horrible experiences and hate that is encountered in America. hooks comments, “It has taken years of progressive anti-racist struggle to create enough cultural momentum so that a holistic picture of our history in this nation, a true, complete vision of our past, one that is not tainted by racist biases, can emerge” (2001). Ultimately, she challenges not only the Black community, but the entire society to love in order to transform the world.
I would define love ethic as the process of learning to forgive in order to heal and to respect one another in order to understand one’s community. Love is ultimately the power to transcend the prejudice, the racism, the stereotypes, the discrimination, and the boundaries that society places on the Black American community. Love is also the power to overcome inner weaknesses and inner conflicts that are unique to the Black American community. Unfortunately, the unique characteristics of the African American community are often the ramifications of slavery. Therefore, as Williams and other writers have done, African Americans must revisit our history to expose the truth about Black communities, to address complex issues, to heal, and to learn how to love. Love was always present in the African American community as we can see in Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglas’, and many other slave narratives but it has taken centuries to give a literary voice to the loving Black community.
In her prologue, Williams (1983) states that, “What is here is as true as if I myself had lived it.” It is my belief that her depiction of Dessa’s life is as close to her truth as she could want it. In other words, Williams’ portrayal of Black female and male relationships in Dessa Rose may possibly be a metaphor but it is her own story. The book was written in her own language and through her own perspective, which is absent in most history books and novels. Although it is written in her own words, her portrayal is grounded in true facts of slavery such as the increased value of women to the masters because of their reproduction value, the status of slaves as owned property, and the denial of human rights. Williams not only used her literary talents to recreate the role of Black women in history but also recreated Black female and male relationships to go beyond the stereotypes, by incorporating the need of a love ethic among Dessa’s community. The characters needed to understand that they needed each other and the only way to uplift each other was through love. Love is not easy, but its power is revolutionary enough to free an enslaved population and change the world.
To use our imagination and go beyond the bounds of our society’s norms allows the reader as a consumer of biased media to use cultural criticism in order to reveal the whole truth in this historical fiction and in other forms of media. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison is genius in analyzing, critiquing, and challenging the concept of whiteness in literature as opposed to just analyzing Black American literature and its efforts to integrate literary tradition. There is Black agency; yet, Black Americans and other minorities have been denied and/or robbed of the unalienable rights of expression in literature and history. Therefore, our knowledge of American literature must be contested so that we have a diverse framework to understand our world and create innovative solutions. For whiteness to play in the dark and other cultural clashes are what is truly needed to effectively educate across differences!
PlainSpeak (PS): We need to explore race and our differences through mediums like literature and history but the lesson is the golden rule: to love your neighbor as yourself!
hooks, bell (2001). Salvation: Black People and Love. New York, NY:
Mitchell, Angelyn (2002). The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and
Gender in Contemporary Black Women’s Fiction. Brunswick NJ: Rutgers UP.
Morrison, Toni (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary
Imagination. New York: Vintage Books.
Williams, Sherley Anne (1983). Dessa Rose. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.