Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s memorable poem, “If We Must Die,” be-speaks the valor of men who, “hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” and “pressed to the wall, dying” must join their kinsmen, “meet the common foe” and fight back.
On the page facing that poem is a similarly memorable poem that works the metaphors of fire and heat to impressive ends. That poem, “Baptism,” states that despite entering the “weird depths of the hottest zone,” the protagonist, transformed “into a shape of flame,” must come out, back to a “world of tears,” emerging “a stronger soul within a finer frame.”
It is to the latter poem, so starkly contrasted to the profoundly male images of the former, that one must turn in order to capsulize the significance of Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s “Words of Fire.” It is that legacy of fire, transformation, and emergent victory that most describes its thesis and intent.
Who are these women, these bold yet often closeted “Black feminists”? As Guy-Sheftall notes, “They are academics, activists, artists, community organizers, mothers. They are race women, socialists, communists, Christians, atheists, lesbian and straight, traditional and radical. They share a collective history of oppression and a commitment to improving the lives of Black women, especially, and the world in which we live.” They are women who must alternately mask and assert “multiple identities, several voices, and different battles.” They are women addressing the converging issues, the “double jeopardy,” the “triple consciousness” of racism, sexism and classism that impact upon Black women’s lives at every turn.
Passing the Torch
“Words of Fire” boldly joins the words “Black women” and “feminism” — at times adversarially and other times in alliance — to illustrate the power and conviction of a body of literature and school of thought that, though challenged from both without and within, cannot be denied and must, inevitably, be acknowledged. it receives and carries the torch from some notable predecessors who have sought to critique
Black women’s feminism and to chronicle Black women’s participation in the feminist or womanist movements. These works, to whom homage is paid in Guy-Sheftall’s engaging introductory remarks, include such seminal anthologies of Black women’s, and particularly Black feminists’, writings as Barbara Smith’s “Homegirls” (1983) and Margaret Busby’s comprehensive international anthology, “Daughters of Africa” (1992).
Her remarks also call to mind works a decade apart focusing on the converging oppressions and opportunities Black women face — books like Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis’ “Common Differences: Conflicts in Black & White Feminist Perspectives” (1981), Paula Giddings’ “When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America” (1984) and Barbara Omolade’s “The Rising Song of African American Women” (1995).
The several highlights of this anthology are worth mentioning. They are: the inclusion of play-wright Lorraine Hansberry’s never-before-published, unfinished essay on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”; Angela Davis’ “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” written while she was imprisoned in 1971; Evelynn Hammonds’ “Missing Persons: African American Women, AIDS and the History of the Disease,” Paula Giddings’ “The Last Taboo,” on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy; and Pearl Cleage’s short take on the “O.J.” case and spousal abuse, “What Can I Say?”
Excerpts are thoughtfully arranged to chronicle Black women’s involvement and ideas from the earliest (indeed, perhaps the earliest of all) feminist stirrings in 1803, to the present. The sectional foci likewise address a broad range of topics from “Defining Black Womanhood” and “Claiming Feminism,” to “Addressing the Body Politic” (which focuses on sexuality, violence and reproduction), “Reading the Academy,” “Interrogating Black Nationalist Ideologies” and “Discourses of Resistance.”
The contributors include both familiar figures like Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Michelle Wallace and Alice Walker, along with not-so-familiar ones like Julia Foote, Amy Jacques Garvey and Pauline Terrelonge.
The works within “Words of Fire” address, with exceptional clarity, issues of broad and vital concern to discussions of race, gender and class. In the earliest writings, Frances Beale insists that racism is the afterbirth of capitalism, and the Black woman is the “slave of a slave.” Claudia Jones’ lengthy socialist treatise on Black women’s history, written during the Truman era, literally turns the paradigms and assumptions of the women’s movement on its head as she rails against chauvinism, racism and bourgeois ideologies.
Then, in a contemporary excerpt, Paula Giddings notes that, to protect themselves, Black women created what Darlene Clark Hine (another contributor) calls “a culture of dissemblance,” whereby the behavior and attitudes of Black women “created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.” She concludes that this is the reason “why Black women have not forced such sex/gender discourses, seen primarily as disclosures, in our community.”
It is also why “feminist issues, though not women’s rights issues, are more problematic” for Black women. “Not only is feminism specifically associated with our historic binary opposites — middle-class white women,” Giddings concludes, “it demands an analysis of sexual issues.” Breaking through “the silence and traditional sense of racial solidarity” thus becomes “a controversial act.”
Progenitors, Participants and Propellants Guy-Sheftall’s thoughtful prefacing notes between sections reveal the broad extent of the editor’s knowledge of her field (she is the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Spelman College, founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and one of the founding coeditors of the now-defunct “Sage: A Scholarly journal on Black Women”).
She also demonstrates an admirable ability, especially for an anthology editor, to maintain a specific focus while presenting a wide range of ideas. Of almost as much value in the introductions prefacing each section is not Guy-Sheftall’s commanding discussions of the works and issues presented in her anthology, but rather her astute references to what is not included, to the works that round out the canon of Black women’s studies that simply would not fit into this already huge book. Likewise cogent and informative are Spelman president Johnetta Cole’s comments in the “Epilogue.”
One notices obvious inconsistencies, like the failure to consistently note the dates of birth of many contributors, particularly those who are still living (but that would require revealing one’s age, wouldn’t it?).
And one wonders why the works of Black feminists of the early age (i.e., Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells) get such short shrift. Their writings are far too truncated, and thus do not reveal the full extent of their contributions to this struggle nor the fire latent in their ideas. Yet, as Guy-Sheftall notes, many of these women’s ideologies have been presented in separate anthologies and criticisms.
Still, one can instantly see the importance of this work for college-level Black women’s, women’s and African-American studies curricula. For its sheer density of text and intensity of content, this book offers a valuable and thorough compendium of Black women’s voices in their definition and defense over time. It can also be read, end to end, despite its lengthy volume and incredible mass, for enlightenment and pleasure.
Fire can be used to burn down, burn away or burn through. Metaphorically, “Words of Fire” does all three. The works it includes are conventional and controversial, reaffirming and disarming. Their overall effect is overwhelming. With uncommon command and unparalleled thoroughness, the image of African-American women as progenitors, participants and propellants in the feminist movement emerges from “Words of Fire” — “a stronger soul within a finer frame.”
This book is ultimately a baptism of fire for many of the words and authors it presents, an introduction to the canon of challenging and penetrating voices long omitted, lost or ignored.
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