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New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000

New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000

Barbara Christian
Gloria Bowles
M. Giulia Fabi
Arlene R. Keizer
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000
    Book Description:

    For me, doing black feminist criticism involved a literary activism that went beyond the halls of academe, not because I had so legislated but because in practice that is what it often, happily, had to be.--Barbara Christian, from "But What Do We Think We're Doing Anyway?"_x000B__x000B_New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000 collects a selection of essays and reviews from Barbara Christian, one of the founding voices in black feminist literary criticism. Touching on her roles as a scholar, teacher, feminist, intellectual, and university activist, this extensive collection of Christian's work demonstrates the wide-ranging scholarship of a passionate and celebrated pioneer. These memorable pieces, which were published between the release of her second landmark book, Black Feminist Criticism, and her death, include evaluations of black feminist criticism as a discipline; reflections on black feminism in the academy; eloquent reviews; and essays on Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, and others. _x000B__x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09082-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    Among the founding mothers of contemporary African American and black feminist criticism, Barbara Christian holds a central place. From the publication of her groundbreakingBlack Women Novelistsin 1980, to her untimely death in 2000 at the age of 56, Christian was a preeminent critic, whose writing, teaching, activism, and public lecturing around the world influenced generations of students and scholars and helped to inspire and shape the unprecedented interest in African American literature and culture that characterized the last decades of the twentieth century and is continuing in the twenty-first.

    Her essays and reviews included in this posthumous collection,...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 1-4)

      The essays in this section highlight the metacritical dimension of Barbara Christian’s analytical writing. In spite of the range and abundance of Christian’s writing on African American literature and culture, she has become known as the author of “The Race for Theory,” an essay that sparked a polarizing controversy among African Americanist literary critics in the late 1980s and reverberated into the next decade.¹ In their haste to attack the essentialist aspects of “The Race for Theory,” critics disregarded two crucial components of that essay: its argument for an expanded definition of theory and its articulation of Christian’s own critical...

    • 1 But What Do We Think Weʹre Doing Anyway: The State of Black Feminist Criticism(s) or My Version of a Little Bit of History (1989)
      (pp. 5-19)

      In August 1974, a rather unique event occurred.Black World, probably the most widely read publication of Afro-American literature, culture, and political thought at that time, used on its cover a picture of the then practically unknown writer Zora Neale Hurston.¹ Under Zora’s then unfamiliar photograph was a caption in bold letters, “Black Women Image Makers,” which was the title of the essay by Mary Helen Washington featured in the issue. Alongside the Washington essay were three other pieces: an essay now considered a classic, June Jordan’s “On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes Towards a Balancing of Love...

    • 2 What Celie Knows That You Should Know (1990)
      (pp. 20-30)

      I begin my discussion about ways in which the study of Afro-American women’s literature might enrich and extend knowledge with that excerpt fromThe Color Purplebecause it so succinctly articulates two worldviews. Mister’s assessment of Celie’s worth emphasizes her nothingness because she exists in realms of powerlessness and therefore of nonexistence in the world as he sees it. Because Celie is nothing, how can she know anything? Celie’s affirmation of her own existence does not deny his categories of powerlessness; rather she insists that nonetheless she exists, that she knows something as a result of being at that intersection...

    • 3 Fixing Methodologies: Beloved (1993)
      (pp. 31-39)

      Toni Morrison’sBelovedhas, since its publication in 1987, received much acclaim from academic critics as well as more commercially included commentators. Reviewers almost unanimously proclaimed it a masterpiece. In just six years the number of critical essays published on this novel rivals those written on only a few other contemporary African American novels: Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Man(1952), a favorite of American English departments, and Alice Walker’sThe Color Purple(1982), a favorite of women’s studies departments. Like these two novels,Belovedhas passed into the mainstream curriculum of our universities, at least for the time being. That passing...

    • 4 The Race for Theory (1987)
      (pp. 40-50)

      I have seized this occasion to break the silence among those of us, critics, as we are now called, who have been intimidated, devalued by what I call the race for theory. I have become convinced that there has been a takeover in the literary world by Western philosophers from the old literary élite, the neutral humanists. Philosophers have been able to effect such a takeover because so much of the literature of the West has become pallid, laden with despair, self-indulgent, and disconnected. The New Philosophers, eager to understand a world that is today fast escaping their political control,...

    • 5 Does Theory Play Well in the Classroom? (1996)
      (pp. 51-68)

      The title of my presentation that I gave to the organizers of this conference is “Does Theory Play Well in the Classroom?” I’m going to deconstruct that title for a minute so that I can go on and talk about what I really want to talk about. And actually, it does move me into that because, as I looked at the title later on, I realized that by theory, we now mean a particular theory; of course, there have always been theories; we just didn’t call them theories before. That is, we are always theorizing, and the reason why we...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 69-78)

      It is quite difficult for many of us today to remember or even really imagine a time when African American women’s novels were largely out of print and hard to find, when they were simply and systematically unavailable. The national and international success of some African American women writers during the past four decades, the rediscovery and republication of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century black literary works, and the critical interest that has been both a cause and an effect of these publishing practices tend to mitigate the memory or weaken the awareness of the two centuries of editorial and critical...

    • 6 Introduction to The Hazeley Family by Mrs. A. E. Johnson (1988)
      (pp. 79-85)

      Mrs. A. E. Johnson’sThe Hazeley Family(1894) is somewhat typical of the “angel of the home” romances published by American women during the latter half of the nineteenth century—except that the author is a black woman, and her portrayal of the Hazeley family is racially indeterminate, which in this country is generally translated as white. Her portrayal of the benevolent effects of Flora Hazeley’s domestic and moral attributes on the well-being of her family reveals no overt signs that the novel’s author is black. At first glance, it might seem that Mrs. Johnson has neutralized her tale so...

    • 7 ʺSomebody Forgot to Tell Somebody Somethingʺ: African-American Womenʹs Historical Novels (1990)
      (pp. 86-98)

      The title of my essay is taken from a radio interview Ntozake Shange did with Toni Morrison in 1978, just after she had publishedSong of Solomon.¹ Morrison’s comment referred to a generation of Afro-Americans of the post–World War II era who had seen the new possibilities that period seemed to promise for their children and who thought that knowledge of their history—one of enslavement, disenfranchisement, and racism—might deter the younger generations’ hopes for the future. As Morrison put it, the older generation of that era sometimes X’d out the Southern grandfather who had been a sharecropper...

    • 8 Gloria Naylorʹs Geography: Community, Class, and Patriarchy in The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills (1990)
      (pp. 99-119)

      Like Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor is intrigued by the effect of place on character. Perhaps Afro-American writers have been particularly interested in setting, because displacement, first from Africa and then through migrations from South to North, has been so much a part of our history. Because of the consistency of forced displacement in our collective experience, we know how critical where we are is to the character of our social creations, of how place helps to tell us a great deal about who we are and who we can become. Perhaps place is even more critical to Afro-American women writers....

    • 9 Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Womenʹs Novels (1993)
      (pp. 120-126)

      If memory serves me right, the first novel by an African-American woman I’d even held in my hand came from a second-hand bookstore in Harlem. It was 1967. I was a graduate student at Columbia, and an English instructor in the SEEK program at CCNY, a program designed to uplift apparently uneducable black and Puerto Rican youth by giving them the skills to enter city colleges. In ways I’d not consciously calculated, I was pursuing two different tracks of training. At Columbia, I was working on a paper on Wallace Stevens, a concession to me from my professors who, mostly,...

    • 10 Layered Rhythms: Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison (1994)
      (pp. 127-141)

      I see your face, Toni Morrison, possibly the best novelist in America today, when people ask, “What does it mean that you wrote your M.A. thesis in the early fifties, onsuicidein the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf?”² Do such people want to inflict the “anxiety of influence” on you? Or perhaps, is it that they want to be sure that your writing will be seen as a part of the Great Western tradition? What is the purpose of securing a link between you and William Faulkner, as Harold Bloom did in his introduction to his edition...

    • 11 There It Is: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez (1986)
      (pp. 142-146)

      Last spring, when students at the University of California, Berkeley, asked me to speak at a rally opposing the University’s investments in South Africa, I chose, without hesitation, to read Jayne Cortez’s “For the Brave Young Students in Soweto.” The poem became a mainstay in that movement’s activities. When Oakland High School students asked me to comment on contemporary world politics, I read to them Cortez’s “There It Is,” a succinct, powerful analysis of our situation. When a rather hostile group of “hip” black men asked me to speak about “black feminism,” I responded with Cortez’s haunting “If the Drum...

    • 12 Conversations with the Universe (1989)
      (pp. 147-151)

      By now,Living by the Wordhas been reviewed in many mainstream journals and newspapers. But many readers may have been misled, as I was, by most reviewers’ characterizations of this book. Almost invariably they have read it as a collection of traditional essays and compared it, usually unfavorably, to Walker’s 1983 collection of nonfiction,In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose; but in fact, I think that Walker’s careful selection of the writing forLiving by the Wordis a clear signal that she is experimenting with a form she has not used before.

      Experimentation is not new...

    • 13 Epic Achievement (1991)
      (pp. 152-156)

      I am dazzled, literally, by the intense light of Carolivia Herron’sThereafter Johnnie, a lyric poem in its orchestration of image and song, as well as a novel about the decline of a contemporary middle-class African American family. It is an epic in its contrapuntal use of ancient cultural myths (which are, whether we know it or not, the bases of our deepest-held assumptions), even as its story is grounded in contemporary Washington, D.C. I am dazzled, yes, yet profoundly disturbed, as I am sure its author intended, by this work’s prefiguring of the future.

      This is Carolivia Herron’s first...

    • 14 A Checkered Career (1992)
      (pp. 157-163)

      Last February Houghton Mifflin reissued Ann Petry’s first novel,The Street, which it was fortunate enough to publish to much acclaim in 1946. This work was the first novel by an African American woman to focus on the struggles of a working-class black mother in an urban ghetto, and a reissue in a quality edition is long overdue.

      In the 1920s and 30s, African Americans published novels centered on urban women. But these—Jessie Fauset’sPlum Bun(1929), for example, or Nella Larsen’sQuicksand(1928)—portrayed middle-class female protagonists, usually childless, whose lives, despite their class status, are gravely constrained...

    • 15 Remembering Audre Lorde (1993)
      (pp. 164-168)

      The phone rings. It is Lisa, one of the graduate students with whom I work: “Barbara, I have bad news.” Silence. “Audre Lorde just died in St. Croix.” I am stunned, unprepared, though I should not be. Audre has had breast cancer for many years. I know she now lives in St. Croix, my ancestral home, where the sun and the sea are invigorating her. The islands, her mother’s islands, would save her body, I had hoped. Lisa repeats: “Audre died in St. Croix.” Silence. Then I say, “I will never see her again.”

      I will always hear her, though....


    • Introduction
      (pp. 169-172)

      Barbara Christian wrote these essays a quarter century after her initial years as a teacher and graduate student in New York City. During her distinguished career, she would play a major role in the founding and development of Afro-American studies, ethnic studies, and women’s studies. The essays in this section trace the final period of her career, thus long past the revolutionary peak of the civil rights and women’s movements and the ethnic and women’s studies programs inspired by them. Today these movements and the long struggle to challenge the absences in university research and curriculum are a distant memory...

    • 16 Being ʺThe Subjected Subject of Discourseʺ (1990)
      (pp. 173-181)

      Questions 1, 2, and 5:¹ To cast the history of a feminist presence in the academy as a generational one immediately reminds me of my marginal position as a feminist academic of color born outside of the U.S. For much of my academic life, from 1967 to the present, I was not certain of my status as “sister” either in the feminist or African American academic family. Often I felt myself to be more of a step-sister to my white sisters and black brothers, who were respectively themselves step-daughters and sons in the academy. I wondered then, not about the...

    • 17 Whose Canon Is It Anyway? (1994)
      (pp. 182-186)

      In the last five years, issues of canonicity, political correctness, and multiculturalism have been hotly debated in the American popular media as well as in intellectual and academic journals. The debate is often presented as two-sided, with the “pure intellectuals” defending standards on one side and the “politicos” insisting on social justice on the other side.¹

      The intellectuals claim that the politicos are not concerned with intellectual excellence and are bending to political pressure. The politicos insist that there is no such thing as a universal or objective standard and the pure intellectuals are primarily concerned with maintaining their cultural...

    • 18 A Rough Terrain: The Case of Shaping an Anthology of Caribbean Women Writers (1995)
      (pp. 187-203)

      At present I am engaged along with one of my sisters, Opal Palmer Adisa, in constructing an anthology of English-speaking Caribbean women’s creative and critical writings especially for use in college classrooms. Opal and I have for many years bemoaned the fact that such a text does not exist, particularly since Caribbean women’s writing in the Islands as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada is flourishing. If “merit” were the measure, if the appearance of new forms and concerns and different approaches to language were criteria, these writers would, we thought, be at the top...

    • 19 Diminishing Returns: Can Black Feminism(s) Survive the Academy? (1994)
      (pp. 204-215)

      When I was asked to speak at this conference on “Feminisms in the Twenty-First Century,” at first I chose a topic that asked the question whether feminism in America is still largely conceived of as a white movement by most American institutions. Despite the impact the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings had on feminism in this country, I was amazed that when the media focused its attention on the women’s movement as it did in 1992, it still featured primarily white women as its major spokespersons. For example,Time Magazinein 1992 featured on its oh-too-predictable March cover Gloria Steinem and...

    • 20 Camouflaging Race and Gender (1996)
      (pp. 216-224)

      For as long as I can remember, my daughter has been interested in the law, possibly because my father, uncle, brother, and cousin are impressive lawyers with an intense appreciation for the law. In high school she took courses in law in which she earned As, and in her junior year she auditioned for and got on the mock trial team. She did really well on the team; partly because of her efforts, her team made it to the finals in the state’s competition. It was for her the most educational and social event of her high school experience.


    • Afterword
      (pp. 225-226)

      After my mother, Barbara Christian, died in 2000, I began thinking about how to keep her work, as well as her memory, alive. I wanted the important work she did to remain available to others, and not be forgotten. I agreed to donate her papers to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and wondered what else to do. After thinking it over and discussing it with many people, it became clear that an updated book of her essays would accomplish these desires. I was pleased to learn that one of my mother’s literary colleagues, Gloria Bowles, and...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 227-240)
  9. Selected Bibliography of Works by Barbara Christian
    (pp. 241-244)
  10. Index
    (pp. 245-250)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-252)