The dead are more insolent than
It used to be easy:
we gave them a starched collar a
we placed their names on an honor
the length and breadth of our land
the illustrious shades of yesteryear
the monstrous shadow.
The cadaver signed on memory’s
joined the rank and file once more
and marched to the beat of our worn
But what are you gonna do
just ain’t what they used to
These days they get ironic
Seems to me they’re starting
to figure out
that they are the majority.
- Roque Dalton, “The
Warrior’s Rest” (El Salvador)
Talking among themselves, there are
Americans openly denouncing the usefulness of the personal narrative
as a genre. Nothing can be more unfortunate for the progression of
women in the US than the rise of the MeToo Movement? Beware of the
backlash! It’s here!
I have to be skeptical. I have to
ask questions, even when I already know based on my experiences as
being a Black woman in this country. There’s an element of
professionalism, so I make myself step back and ask: Who is speaking?
Why? Who is the intended audience of the message in these
articles, essays, lectures, books? This
is a country entangled in white supremacy so much so that each
American is trapped in its net. What’s unfortunate is that too
many are too innocence to know it.
have to ask—who is
doing the denouncing and declaring and why is
this individual announcing an end to something? And an end to what?
using the word backlash, to boot? I’m of the generation of
Blacks who remember the backlash. There’s
no end to that backlash.
Americans are uncomfortable. In
particular, we’re told, men are uncomfortable. Fathers, uncles,
husbands, sons, on the edge, are wondering, Who’s
at the controls?
the author of these articles and lectures then ask, When is this
calling out of men going to stop, already? When will America get back
to being America again? America is becoming weary of women’s
grumblings. And it’s really not just women
as in women’s studies, usual means the study of white
women, plus or minus a book or two by Toni Morrison, or bell hooks,
or Louise Erdrich. Really adventurous programs may include a few
Westernized Muslim women writers, particularly those writers who
write of the brutality of Muslim
men. (Let’s hush up #MeToo since so many of the revelations of
sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse of power shine the spotlight
on white men. Pillars of civil society).
centralizing of white women while othering the
world’s majority, women of color, is not so distant from the
President of the United States calling Haiti and countries in Africa,
those “shithole” places. Why does the US, for that
matter, the West, have to negotiate or even consider people from
these shithole lands?
the #MeToo Movement started years ago with Black women, and many
women of color find the personal narrative useful in expressing what
it means to be a woman of color in America. And that expression of
the personal for women of color has always pointed to the public, the
institutionalization of violence in this country.
A small shed had been added to my
grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the
joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very
small garret, never occupied by any thing but rats and mice…
The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part
was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board
floor. There was no admission for either light or air...To this hole
I was conveyed as soon as I entered, the house. The air was stifling;
the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could
sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden
that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof…I
heard the voices of the children…
time, she bumps her head against what she discovers is a gimlet!
Waiting until evening, she begins boring three holes for air and one
hole, an inch long, allows her to see her children. Harriet Jacobs,
an enslaved woman, lives this way for seven years so her master won’t
harm her or her children. And that shithole existence, forced to
begin in the bowels of slave ships, became the foundation of the
American plantation system.
know this story because, using the pseudonym, Linda Brent, Jacobs
writes a personal narrative, Incident in the Life of A
ask any of these “educated” in America’s version of
women’s studies if they have ever read the slave narratives,
other than Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. The classical
novels by Bessie Head or Tsitsi Dangarembga, Flora Nwapa, Buchi
Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, or Marima Bâ—are
these texts featured in these women studies programs? Ask these
women if they have read or rather, more significantly, studied
more than one work by a Caribbean novelist or thinker? Have they read
the less popular work of Native American Leslie Marmon Silko or
studied critical theory of Paula Gunn Allen? What about the personal
essays of Gloria Anzaldua on transcending borders and boundaries?
point is—there is a tradition of surviving the shithole of
deliberate and debilitating ignorance.
than Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, however, are these women
encouraged by the gatekeepers, male and female liberals, to studied
to understand Assata Shakur’s autobiography, a personal
narrative on the experience of being a radical thinker and activist
in this country?
in my doctorate program in Modern American Literature, I meet with a
white feminist, tenured faculty, to show her a list of works I wanted
to study. Standard procedure in any MA or PhD program. Maybe I’ll
study with her. Maybe not. But we’ll meet. My list consists of
texts I have read and studied at the college and MA level. I had
already taught many of these texts over the previous years.
Hill is testifying, and she’s is being demonized.
professor, a year or two younger, just gave birth for the first time.
But I was not the new kid on the block. So woman to woman, educator
to educator, I say to her, what do you think about this list?
glanced at it and then at me, “You’re just trying to show
see! Who is always being “educated” about the ways white
supremacy operates, if not women of color?
the meantime, for her, it’s all about exerting a certain level
of power. A push back—that doesn’t leave any physical
markings of abuse on my body.
of a discussion that was never allowed to materialize in first place.
And so business can continue as usual.
woman went on to head the women’s studies program. Of course!
2017, Soraya Roberts wrote a response to Jia Tolentino, The
New Yorker, who declared the
“death” of the personal essay. I don’t have time to
read yet another installment about male-female relationships that
sound like episodes of Friends. I’m
just too old and there are just too many issues of consequence that
need addressing, particularly if you have a platform in which to
address to expose inequalities and injustices facing a majority of
the world’s population.
writes Roberts in, “The Personal Essay Isn’t Dead. It’s
Just No Longer White,” accuses the “genre of trafficking
in empty, sensational confession” that lacks self-awareness or
calls attention to an essay in the Boston Review, in
which an assistant professor at McGill University, Merve Emre, refers
to Tolentino while “eviscerating Indian-Canadian writer Durga
Chew-Bose’s lyrical essay collection, Too Much and
Not the Mood.” Chew-Bose’s
work engaged in “peacocking,” but said nothing!
Emre heaps all praise “for the cool precision of Mary Gaitskill
and Deborah Nelson.” White authors.
I think of the term historian Timothy Snyder uses, “managed
“the dismissal of Chew-Bose as a personal essayist, simply for
her style and associating her instead with confession, negates the
diversity of the genre’s voices, implying that women of color
are one entity that can only do one thing and not particularly well,
authors define what’s traditional, what’s standard, and,
Roberts writes, if women of color refuse to abide by what’s
established then it “speaks to their inferiority as artists
rather than their innovation.”
essayist, James Baldwin, encouraged writers to write out of their
experience, particularly if that experience is the result of living
with the legacy and consequences of being a “colored”
victim of colonialism, enslavement, social and economic
disenfranchisement, and cultural misrepresentation.
rooms, in high places, women are talking. What’s not voiced is
the concern on their minds in the form of a question: What’s at
stake for those of us who survived the gauntlet, relatively in
tack—allowing for understanding that—that’s they
way it is? What’s next for our girl children?
men become even more angered by women sharing knowledge about how
“normal” operates in America—how will these men
will men respond to #MeToo and Time’s Up Movements, the whole
personal narrative boom by women of color? With anger, of course.
then, like Harriet Jacobs, and so many women of color, we’ve
survived it by living to write on!