Close Kin and Distant Relatives

Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women's Literature

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Close Kin and Distant Relatives
    Book Description:

    The "black family" in the United States and the Caribbean often holds contradictory and competing meanings in public discourse: on the one hand, it is a site of love, strength, and support; on the other hand, it is a site of pathology, brokenness, and dysfunction that has frequently called forth an emphasis on conventional respectability if stability and social approval are to be achieved. Looking at the ways in which contemporary African American and black Caribbean women writers conceptualize the black family, Susana Morris finds a discernible tradition that challenges the politics of respectability by arguing that it obfuscates the problematic nature of conventional understandings of family and has damaging effects as a survival strategy for blacks.

    The author draws on African American studies, black feminist theory, cultural studies, and women's studies to examine the work of Paule Marshall, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, and Sapphire, showing how their novels engage the connection between respectability and ambivalence. These writers advocate instead for a transgressive understanding of affinity and propose an ethic of community support and accountability that calls for mutual affection, affirmation, loyalty, and respect. At the core of these transgressive family systems, Morris reveals, is a connection to African diasporic cultural rites such as dance, storytelling, and music that help the fictional characters to establish familial connections.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3551-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Family Matters
    (pp. 1-16)

    Tensions around marriage and family provide perhaps some of the most compelling examples of the ambivalence around respectability politics for many Blacks in the United States and the Caribbean. Take, for instance, the issue of marriage. In a recent article entitled “When Having Babies Beats Marriage,”Harvard Magazinewriter Kevin Harnett provides persuasive evidence that “the decoupling of marriage from childbearing among lower-income Americans is arguably the most profound social trend in American life today and has sparked intense political debate” (11–12). While “When Having Babies Beats Marriage” is focused generally on low-income families of all stripes, it is...

  5. 1 A Wide Confraternity: Diaspora and Family in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow
    (pp. 17-44)

    On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to designate the third Monday of every January a federal holiday honoring the birth of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The next day, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had worked with King in the 1960s, declared his intent to run for president of the United States, becoming the second African American, after Shirley Chisholm, to launch a national campaign for the presidency. For some, these two events marked the culmination of decades of political activism and agitation and denoted a significant shift in the public perception of...

  6. 2 Sins of the Mother? Ambivalence, Agency, and the Family Romance in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John
    (pp. 45-73)

    When asked why she crafts iconoclastic characters that often exhibit a sort of “negative freedom,” Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid explains, “Perversely, I will not give the happy ending. I think life is difficult and that’s that. I am not at all—absolutely not at all—interested in the pursuit of happiness. I am not interested in the pursuit of positivity. I am interested in pursuing a truth, and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite” (“Jamaica Kincaid” [Snell]). Kincaid’s insistence on being “perverse” to readers and reviewers in search of trite happy endings reflects her ongoing...

  7. 3 Daughters of This Land: Genealogies of Resistance in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory
    (pp. 74-102)

    Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat published her debut novel,Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994, a pivotal moment in Haitian history. That same year the nation’s first democratically elected president in decades, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned to office with great fanfare after having been ousted in 1991 by a military coup. For some, Aristide, a former Catholic priest whose political philosophy invoked liberation theology, seemed to offer a radical shift in Haitian politics.¹ After years of dictatorships and weak interim governments, Haiti seemed poised to reject its previous authoritarian political history for a new, more egalitarian government with Aristide at the helm....

  8. 4 The Language of Family: Talking Back to Narratives of Black Pathology in Sapphire’s Push
    (pp. 103-134)

    On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as welfare reform. The Clinton administration described the legislation as a “comprehensive bipartisan welfare reform plan that will dramatically change the nation’s welfare system into one that requires work in exchange for time-limited assistance. The law contains strong work requirements, a performance bonus to reward states for moving welfare recipients into jobs, state maintenance of effort requirements, comprehensive child support enforcement, and supports for families moving from welfare to work—including increased funding for child care and guaranteed medical...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 135-140)

    There are signs everywhere reminding us of the importance of thinking energetically about Black families in the Caribbean and the United States. Take, for example, a recent experience I had. I spent a good part of the first week of July 2012 looking for the August edition ofEssence magazine. My contact atEssencehad informed me that the piece I was featured in because of my work with the scholar-activist group the Crunk Feminist Collective would be in the issue with actress Nia Long on the cover. I eventually got my hands on a copy (or two) and, after...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 141-160)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 161-172)
  12. Index
    (pp. 173-178)