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Women's Work

Women's Work: Nationalism and Contemporary African American Women's Novels

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Women's Work
    Book Description:

    InWomen's Work,Courtney Thorsson reconsiders the gender, genre, and geography of African American nationalism as she explores the aesthetic history of African American writing by women. Building on and departing from the Black Arts Movement, the literary fiction of such writers as Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison employs a cultural nationalism-practiced by their characters as "women's work"-that defines a distinct contemporary literary movement, demanding attention to the continued relevance of nation in post-Black Arts writing. Identifying five forms of women's work as organizing, dancing, mapping, cooking, and inscribing, Thorsson shows how these writers reclaimed and revised cultural nationalism to hail African America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3449-5
    Subjects: 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-X)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-32)

    In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, and Ntozake Shange wrote novels that reclaim and revise African American cultural nationalism. Building on and departing from the black arts movement (BAM) of the 1960s and 1970s, their literary fiction defines cultural nationalism as women’s work, simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, in diverse geographical spaces. In decades when literary scholars look increasingly away from the construct of nation, these writers adopt the termcultural nationalistto describe themselves andnationto hail African America. They employ a practiced cultural nationalism that defines a distinct...

  5. 1 Organizing Her Nation: Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters
    (pp. 33-64)

    Toni Cade Bambara’s fiction continues the efforts ofThe Black Womanto envision a sovereign cultural nation constantly built by women’s work. Her 1980 novelThe Salt Eatersorganizes a collective that is distinctly African American and grounded in the United States. Bambara, a prolific organizer of protests, community centers, anthologies, and artists’ groups, uses formal experimentation to write a cultural nation of voices in chorus in the pages ofThe Salt Eaters. This novel claims the recovery of an ailing civil rights activist, Velma Henry, as a necessary starting point for suturing together a community. Organization, formally on the...

  6. 2 Cooking Up a Nation: Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass Cypress & Indigo
    (pp. 65-85)

    Ntozake Shange’sSassafrass, Cypress & Indigo(1982) overflows with the creative output of Hilda Effania and her three daughters. The novel uses recipes to define cooking as a practice of an African American cultural nation. For several female characters in late twentieth-century novels by African American women, recipes are one fruitful space of self-expression. They are a form of what Alice Walker calls “our mothers’ gardens”; recipes can document a woman’s life and artistry. InSassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, printed recipes, the Sea Islands setting, and the character Indigo each serves as cultural archives necessary for the preservation and practice of an...

  7. 3 Dancing Up a Nation: Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow
    (pp. 86-111)

    Bambara’s Velma Henry journeys through time from the very local space of a “backless stool” in an Infirmary to organize herself and her community toward wellness. Shange’s women traverse kitchens and the moon as they cook up a nation. Paule Marshall’s Avey Johnson gets a book-length praisesong because she travels, both literally and figuratively, toward African American cultural nationalism. In Marshall’s novelPraisesong for the Widow(1983), Avey sifts through her individual and collective past, achieves diasporic consciousness, and, ultimately, dances as a practice of nation. Her journey, like Velma’s, is women’s work to “be well.”¹ Avey’s migrations bring her...

  8. 4 Mapping and Moving Nation: Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day
    (pp. 112-139)

    For Gloria Naylor, cultural nationalism is not Avey Johnson’s diasporic travel inPraisesong for the Widow, nor is it a political movement among black male poets and playwrights in the urban North of the 1960s and 1970s or the Afrocentrism of the 1980s. Naylor’s nationalism is, rather, an ongoing effort to build a distinct African American community in disparate geographical spaces. Defining cultural nationalism as daily practice, she says, “I have often said that I am a cultural nationalist. That means that I am very militant about who and what I am as an African American. I believe that you...

  9. 5 Inscribing Community: Toni Morrison’s Paradise
    (pp. 140-172)

    A letter composed in smeared lipstick, cuts on a woman’s skin, a name scratched into the dirt, a lengthy genealogy burned rather than published, paintings of women’s bodies on a basement floor—women in Toni Morrison’s 1997 novelParadiseinscribe texts and images that struggle to become public or even legible. Created but rarely read, inscriptions in the world of the novel do not depend on an audience to create multiple meanings. In order to account for the obscured, hidden, and erased female writings inParadise, I read inscription, as opposed to interpretation, as a key form of women’s work...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 173-182)

    In the last two decades of the twentieth century, a group of African American women’s novels reclaimed and revised cultural nationalism. Women’s work—organizing, cooking, dancing, mapping, inscribing, archiving, mothering, and writing—constantly produces a cultural nation. When Minnie Ransom heals Velma Henry inThe Salt Eaters; when Shange’s Indigo creates dolls made of foodstuffs from across the African diaspora; when Avey Johnson performs the Big Drum Dance inPraisesong for the Widow; when Cocoa celebrates Candle Walk inMama Day; and when the Convent women paint themselves on a cellar floor inParadise, these are rituals for fashioning self...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 183-204)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-218)
  13. Index
    (pp. 219-227)