The voices of African-American women are amongst the most powerful literary voices to emerge in the latter part of the twentieth Century. However throughout the history of the US, there has always been an interrelationship of white supremacy and that of male superiority, in regards to the literary tradition especially during the mid 1900’s. To be a black woman during this period in America was to ‘live in the double jeopardy of belonging to the inferior sex of an inferior race’ (Mbadji: 20). Not only were women racial outcasts, they were also oppressed due to their gender, and so the masculinisation of the literary field at the time meant that the male perspective, black or white, was one that seemed to speak for both genders, and yet one that couldn’t entirely manifest the female oppression in a patriarchal society. What we find is that though the issues regarding race had always been an important factor in general life, there had always been a divide, that of white people, and that of black people; yet within this last group was another smaller group comprised of the female population, who had become victims of not only racial hatred but also sexist traditions, slavery and they were made out to be inferior in every way even in their own culture.
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The female African American voice was one that had been suppressed up until the publication of works such as those by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Writers such as Ralph Ellison had already broken through barriers in looking at the black consciousness, however It was felt that though the black male voice could articulate the feeling of ‘blackness’, it couldn’t however articulate ‘femaleness’ or the experience of women with any real conviction. Through novels such as The Color Purple and Beloved, Walker and Morrison try to reconstruct the negative socialization that had once been associated with being black; by discarding and rejecting all that had fractured black identity including slavery to which both narratives comment on, weather implicitly or explicitly. These novels are both an example of the oppression and victimization of black women, however they set about reclaiming their cultural heritage, freeing themselves from the oppression of men but also in a real sense are addressed to all women, white and black, suggesting the need to bridge the communication chasms that had separated them.
‘Black women’s experiences with both racial and gender oppression, results in needs and problems distinct from white women and black men, and black women must struggle for equality both as women and as African-Americans’, (Collins: P20)
Collins in Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, identifies how the emerging female African American writers were able to take on a different focus. She speaks of how feminist theory as a whole had suppressed the ideas of black women, through the assumption that the ‘white, middle class ideas, were somehow universally applicable to women as a group’. However the emergence of female African American writers, allowed an ‘outsider-within’ stance, creating a new angle of vision on the process of suppression, a stance which aided the reclamation of history of African-American women. These powerful female voices were a means of ‘recreating and recording a facet of history’, (Johnson: P1) looking at the condition of Black women, through their own eyes, and revealing an internal struggle that had long been ignored and subjected to complete neglect through the eyes of their male counterparts, and almost overlooked by their female superiors.
The victimhood of women has been described in very different ways in Walker’s The Color Purple, to that of Morrison’s Beloved; however they both show us a deeper insight into the psychological responses of the situations in which the main protagonists are put through. In doing so, both writers highlight the advancement of African-American literature, from the days when such harrowing issues would have been completely ignored. However though it seems black people had survived the painful confrontations with racism, and had been able to write of such issues, the issues surrounding the mitigated fear of black sexism, had yet not been touched. Both Walker and Morrison question this in their novels and suggest that maybe the pattern of black servitude hadn’t entirely been broken both for African-American men and women; that women were still somewhat searching for their identities, away from slavery and violence. ‘In the Color Purple, walker envisages human progress in terms of transformation made possible by the rejection of attitudes founded upon assumed superiority, weather it be of sex, race or nationality’. (Birch: P222)
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The Color Purple, first appeared to readers in 1982, and was at once seen as a subversive and rather shocking assault on ‘masculine values’ as well as a powerful triumph over adversity by the main protagonist Celie and her sister Nettie. (Mcewan: P6) The novel chronicles the events in the life of Celie, a poor black woman, physically and sexually abused by the men in her life, only to find liberation and her own womanhood through the love of another woman, the independent Shug Avery. The novel has been heralded as a feminist classic, looking at the treatment of women in African-American societies in the early 1900’s. On the other hand Toni Morrison’s Beloved, while sharing a common literary heritage, its core content deviated substantially from that of Walker. Beloved
in the fiction’s narrative constructs, literary devices, and in the work’s cultural and critical receptions after publication. Morrison’s novel about a mother who is haunted by the ghost of the child she killed rather than allow it to return to slavery became a literary classic and received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
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