How Black Women Writers Got It Done
In the early 1980s, two Black women sat at a table, a tape recorder between them. One, Margaret Walker, was an elder, a trailblazing writer and educator who had endured untold obstacles since her career began in the 1940s. The other, Claudia Tate, was a young academic hard at work on her first book: a study of Black women writers who, like Walker, had found success in spite of the misogynoir of the American literary landscape. “People think that [Richard] Wright helped me and my writing,” Walker told Tate, the hurt and indignation in her voice. “But I was writing poetry as a child in New Orleans. I had published in The Crisis even before I ever met Wright…. Do you believe I was just being introduced to literature by Wright?” Though Tate had never suggested that, decades of snubs and indignities animated Walker’s defensiveness. Eventually, though, she softened. “Here’s one of Wright’s letters,” she said, and I can imagine Walker rummaging through an armoire, or a filing cabinet, to deliver these precious yellowed memories into Tate’s lap. It is a beautiful thing to picture her, after shadowboxing her invisible detractors, realizing that the young Black woman sitting in front of her can be trusted.
This is just one of the many vulnerable moments that make up Tate’s 1983 collection Black Women Writers at Work, a genre-defying compilation of interviews with some of the foremost Black women writers of the 20th century, including Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Tate’s interviews bear the indelible mark of intimacy: the rustle of papers, the chatter of public spaces, the laughter and prickliness of Black women speaking frankly. Rather than disappearing behind her questions, Tate’s presence as an interlocutor is the mark of her skill, like a watermark on every interview. Her thoughtful introduction and guiding questions frame these Black women writers within the historical shifts of postwar America, as the 1960s’ revolutionary fervor gave way to the fractured 1970s and the reactionary 1980s. Haymarket Books’ timely reissue of the collection, which has been out of print for decades, restores the immediacy to this conversation between Black women writers on the brink of canonization. Indeed, this book should serve as a primary source for those hoping to understand the sacrifices Black women writers have made to ensure that their art is always accountable to its political and social context.
By 1983, the community of Black women writers was at a crucial historical juncture, one in which their celebrated works across genres had become a national phenomenon. Toni Morrison had already published her first four novels. Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf had become the second play by a Black woman to reach Broadway. Maya Angelou had been a household name for decades. While many of these writers were already famous, they still chafed under the demands of what Black women writers had become known for in the publishing marketplace: subjective tales of victimization and resilience, centering abuse within Black families and couples. After decades of toil, rewards were finally being reaped, but at the same time these writers were constrained by their collective success. “What has success done to you?” Tate asks Shange, regarding the Broadway debut of for colored girls in 1976. Until that point, no work by a Black woman playwright had received the same level of mainstream success and fanfare since Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. However, Shange replies to Tate, “I was totally devastated. It took me five years to do anything at all.” Shange’s despair was perhaps prompted by her position between the poles of the responses to Black women’s writing: a backlash from Black men, who felt that the women were airing the community’s dirty laundry for profit and fame, and the backhanded praise of a white-dominated arts industry in the business of selling Black suffering.
For the Black woman writer seeking to write about her own experience, every text was contested ground on which she staked her right to exist. In a world where writers like Ishmael Reed could muse bitterly that he would sell more books if he were a Black lesbian poet, what was a Black lesbian poet to write about but herself? Audre Lorde poses a rebuttal to this sentiment in her poem “Blackstudies”: “For how else can the self become whole / save by making self into its own new religion?” Rather than repressing or denying the presence of homophobia, misogyny, and internalized racism within the Black community, Black women writers pressed the full weight of their experiences down on these phenomena in order to counter them.
The painful reality is that many attacks on Black women writers in the 1970s came from within the Black literary community itself, in the form of disgruntled Black men. Tate alludes, with some impatience, to these debates in her introduction, when she says that “a few people believe that they are witnessing a kind of conspiracy on the part of black women writers to overshadow black male writers.” Her project, which surveys four decades of Black women’s writing, shows that Black women writers had an intergenerational commitment to using their experiences to end systems of oppression that affected the entire community, not just Black women.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. In 1979, the journal The Black Scholar devoted a full issue to the “Black Sexism Debate,” with contributions from Black writers across genders responding to the accusations that works like Shange’s promoted divisions within the entire Black community. The poet Askia Touré compared the work of Black feminist writers to the destabilization efforts of COINTELPRO. Like the FBI program that infiltrated and destabilized Black revolutionary movements, he argued, “these writers’ works have been utilized by our oppressor as weapons against our overall liberation effort.” Meanwhile, writers like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Kalamu ya Salaam pushed back, with Salaam arguing that Black women’s exposés of Black men’s abuse were an act of self-preservation: “As Zora Neale Hurston so eloquently addressed the issue in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, it will sometimes be necessary for our women to literally, as well as ideologically, kill the men they love.”
Alice Walker, herself an oft-targeted recipient of Black literary men’s vitriol, states it more baldly in her interview with Tate: “That black male writers, no less than black men generally, think that when they don’t get something they want, it is because of black women, and not because of the capitalist system that is destroying us all, is almost too much irony to bear.” The Black sexism debate was nothing more than a symptom of the false scarcity created by the corporate publishing industry, which only published and promoted Black writers it could market in accordance with its preexisting assumptions about Black victimhood and abjection. Maya Angelou puts it this way in her interview: “A number of black men in the sixties fell for a terrible, terrible ploy. They felt that in order to be total and free and independent and powerful, they had to be like white men to their women.” The themes of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and trauma detailed in Black women’s writings were often symptomatic of this desire to emulate the unfettered power, mobility, and access to capital of white men. “Do women write differently from men?” Tate asks a few of the writers she interviewed, in order to explore the contours of this deep intra-community wound.
The novelist Gayl Jones gives an astute response: “Women writers seem to depict essential mobility, essential identity to take place within the family and community. But perhaps for male writers that ‘place’ as well as those relationships are insignificant, restrictive, circumscribed.” In this response, Jones identifies the way that the terms of the Black sexism debate were often predicated on a false binary between individual and collective, between introspection and militancy, between home and the world. When Tate tries to characterize Nikki Giovanni’s earlier work as more militant than her later work, Giovanni balks: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that question,” she says. “The assumption inherent in that question is that the self is not a part of the body politic.” For most of the Black women writers interviewed—including Giovanni, Jones, Shange, and Sonia Sanchez—there is no separation between individual and collective liberation. Shange, who often wrote love poems about poverty, racism, and imperialism, argues that love can animate political struggle: “It’s simply that when I love somebody, I want my beloved in a world where those things aren’t occurring.”
In interviews like this one, one might recognize the primary theme of Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” which argues that feeling is a form of knowledge with the potential for radical transformation. Lorde elaborates on this in her interview with Tate:
Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy.
Writing, it seems, often provokes or embodies the feeling that will lead the writer to demand more from an unjust world. In the work of Black women writers, the most intimate thoughts and feelings of Black women could be the impetus for challenging some of the most foundational systems of oppression, and their ripples could travel far beyond the inner world of one Black woman.
In a powerful rejoinder to the alleged provincialism of Black women’s writing, Tate asks some of the most politically active writers of her generation to weigh in on politics as well as literature. Writers like Giovanni, Sanchez, Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara were active participants in Black and Third World liberation movements, and they came to these interviews armed with their own sophisticated analyses of the interplay between the personal and the political. “What happened to the revolutionary fervor of the sixties?” Tate asks them, a question that clearly expresses a growing dissatisfaction with the backsliding of civil rights gains of the ’60s. Bambara, herself a seasoned organizer, pushes back against the notion that the 1970s were years of political failure or complacency. Though the achievements of the ’60s have been labeled as unprecedented, Bambara argues that “the workings of the seventies, while less visible and less audible and less easy to perceive, were no less passionate and no less significant. People attempted to transform themselves cell by cell, block by block.” The work of Black women writers in this decade is precisely this kind of scalable, intimate work—radiating outward from individuals to communities. “We’re about building a nation; the inner nation needs building, too,” Bambara says.
Many writers shed crucial light on their inner nation-building over the course of the interviews. Take, for instance, the case of Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the oldest interviewees in the collection. Brooks had been publishing poetry since the 1940s, but in 1967 she changed her writing to respond more directly to the political moment after meeting a younger generation of artists. She became an integral part of the Black Arts Movement, linking the formal innovations of African American poetry in the first half of the 20th century with the political preoccupations of the second. She does not disavow her earlier poetry (“I’m not afraid of having a few remaining subtleties,” she says, alluding to the formalism of her earlier work), but in her later poetry, working-class Black Chicagoans move from its subject to its audience: “This is what I’m fighting for now in my work, for an expression relevant to all manner of blacks, poems I could take into a tavern, into the street, into the halls of a housing project.” Brooks’s late-life pivot is a moving testament to writing as a way of being awake to the world, of being in dialogue with the changing times.
Tate’s question “Why do you write?” is a repeated refrain in these interviews, and each answer is different in its own way but rooted in the same struggle. According to Tate, each Black woman in the collection writes “because she is driven to do so, regardless of whether there is a publisher, an audience, or neither.” She also asks each writer a series of process questions that amount to “How do you write?” Maya Angelou rents a “tiny, mean” hotel room to write in; Ntozake Shange likes to write in cafés drinking a single bottle of Perrier; Gwendolyn Brooks writes on scraps of paper; Toni Morrison gets writing done by never going out or entertaining; and Sonia Sanchez writes around her children, not in spite of them. These answers paint a landscape similar to that of the Black heroine in novels by these very women, who, according to Tate, “teaches her readers a great deal about constructing a meaningful life in the midst of chaos and contingencies, armed with nothing more than her intellect and emotions.”
Most of the writers in the anthology, including Tate herself, have passed away in the years since its first publication. Because of their status as ancestors now, it would be easy to view this text as a kind of hagiography, with martyrs of the past leaving behind a record of the illustrious deeds of a bygone era. However, writers throughout the collection caution against putting people on pedestals; as Walker observes, “The revolutionary worth following is the one who is flawed.” Pedestals breed feelings of inadequacy and hesitation, when working writers need just the opposite. “People have to have permission to write, and they have to be given space to breathe and stumble,” Bambara says.
Black Women Writers at Work returns to give us permission to write, in part by reminding us that the work of Black women writers is not finished. The material conditions that Black women writers were responding to in the 20th century have changed surprisingly little: The hydra heads of oppression continue to multiply in the mass murder of Black trans women, in the restriction of abortion access for many working-class Black women, and in the banning of Black women’s writing in public schools and universities. If the earlier work of Black women writers has anything to teach us, it is that a polyvocal community of writers can (and should) rise to meet the challenges of their political moment. As Bambara says in her interview, “That we keep each other’s writing alive is the point I’m trying to make. The literature of this crucial time is a mixed chorus.” In an equally crucial time, it may be more than just our writing that we keep alive.
Marina Magloire is an assistant professor of English at Emory University. Her first book, We Pursue Our Magic: A Spiritual History of Black Feminism, is forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press.
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