The African American Women in Literature
Womensuffered very much throughout the growth of civilization. However,African American women suffered enormously because of slavery,racism, segregation, stereotypical views, and of course, genderinequality. We see each one of these points within the literaturewritten by African American women themselves those including AnneSpencer, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Zora Neal Hurston, GwendolynBennet, Helene Johnson, and Harriet Jacobs. All the literaturewritten by these women give us insight into the world of a blackwoman during the Harlem Renaissance a world where black women wereneglected, mistreated and put into a single category all because theywere of a darker shade and a different gender. Being a black womanmeans more than the general perception she is the epitome of womenin general. She, allows for us women to be human to be strong,caring, and outspoken. The black women during the Harlem Renaissanceopened the doors for all women to be themselves and fight against allthe misleading stereotypes our counterparts so ignorantly invented.
BeforeI go straight to the Harlem Renaissance period, it is essential thatwe remember the years prior to that era, because it is a major partof the struggles and stereotypes of black women even to this day.Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to write a narrative about slaveryin these United States. She was born into slavery and fought throughmany struggles to gain the freedom for herself and her two children.In her narrative, Incidentsin the life of a slave girlshe tells her life story about being born a slave, and the journey oftrying to run away from her biggest nightmares. During the years ofslavery, black women were raped by their masters and often threatenedby their mistress for having been in sexual encounters with theirhusbands. As ridiculous as it is, it was a very common practice. Asseen in Jacobs’s narrative, she was lucky enough to be born into akind and loving home where, although she was a slave, she hadn’tyet noticed what slavery was until her first mistress passed away.She was then subject to live with her new master, Dr. Flint and hiswife and that was the beginning of her life as a slave girl. She wasraped by her master and shunned by her mistress for it. Soonthereafter realized she needed to find a way out. To her advantage,she did. Harriot Jacobs’ narrative served as an eye opener as towhat many black women went through during the hard times of slavery.
TheHarlem Renaissance period was supposed a period where the blackculture was celebrated in a more open and confident way. The AfricanAmerican people took the opportunity to migrate from the Southerncities that were popularly in support of slavery and oppression onracist grounds to move to the Northern cities, which were moretolerant. Additionally, better education and social facilities werefound in the Northern cities. It was a chance for African Americansto seek better education, employment opportunities and suffrage. Thisperiod, which oscillated between 1918 and 1920, was described byAlain Leroy Locke as the New Negro Movement. This period allowed theAfrican American people were out to rediscover themselvesartistically. They were bringing themselves out as artistic,sophisticated and conscious people, as opposed to the generalperception of the white people that they were lowly and servile in aninnate way. The period was started and facilitated by literary forumsand discussion in Lower Manhattan around Greenwich Village and UpperManhattan in Harlem and New York.
Thisperiod had a military edge that gave African Americans the confidenceto celebrate and develop their intellectual ability. For many years,the intellectual ability of African Americans was put to so muchdoubt that they had little in terms of literary development. It alsomarked an era where literary movements and social revolts started anddeveloped in a bid to counter the oppressive Jim Crow Law thatpromoted racism. A number of mediums were used to recreate andrestore the dignity of the African race and introduce the BlackIdentity. This included music, entertainment, visual art andliterature. This era bore the New Negro Women movement where theintellectual achievements were starting to be appreciated. There wasa rise in the number of women authors, poets and intellectuals whowere very popular for their race-conscious work. It provided a goodway for African American women to air their views, share theirexperiences of racial, and gender profiling.
Stereotypicalviews on women have always been apparent throughout time, but becauseof the entire idea of slavery, black women alone had the mostdowngrading stereotypes. For example, the well-known image of themammy, a substantially large and strong unappealing woman who takescare of all the chores in the household. She also raises and caresfor the white children along with all the needs of her master andmistress. Another example is seen with Jezebel an image that depictsthe black woman as an overly sexual being, one that lures in whitemen to perform inappropriate acts of sex. Jezebel was a fictionalcharacter, made to justify the sexual encounters (often theseso-called sexual encounters were actually rape.) between the whiteman and their slaves. Thankfully, many brave black women used theHarlem Renaissance – the era of The New Negro – to fight againstthese degrading stereotypes. I call these women brave becausealthough slavery was abolished during the Harlem Renaissance blackwomen were still subject to much scrutiny and racism.
ZoraNeal Hurston wrote an amazing book called TheirEyes Were Watching God.Thisbook perfectly depicts the life of the average black woman during thetimes after slavery and into racism and segregation. Zora Neal’sbook is centered on a black woman, called Janie, who was urged tomarry a man who can provide financially and build her status. Aftermoving in with that man who, although provided those necessitiestreated her disrespectfully, Janie runs off with another one only torealize he was physically and emotionally abusive. He never approvedof the way she dressed, and she wasn’t allowed to speak her mind inpublic. She had no voice simplybecause she was a woman, and dealt with a lot of criticism simplybecause she was a black woman. She was viewed as a trophy rather thanas a human being. She was an object that enhanced his role as a man.Zora Neal Hurston did an amazing job explaining the struggles of theblack woman throughout the Harlem Renaissance, and this book, inparticular, took a toll on its audience. She was one of the manybrave black women who helped open the eyes of the public to the worldin which her race and gender held little to no status at all.
Anothergreat writer, and one of my favorite, Georgia Douglas Johnson, was arespected writer during the Harlem Renaissance period. She is one ofmy favorite because I have always been a feminist, and I have alwaysfelt as if I needed to be physically and emotionally strong in orderto be equal to men. But Georgia Douglas Johnson opened my eyes andshowed me that a woman is strong not only because she can fight butbecause she can love as well. Her most famous works “Theheart of a woman” and“Iwant to die while you love me” atfirst made me feel annoyed (to bluntly put it). However, afterputting more thought into it, I realized her poetry doesn’t speakof the submissiveness of women but the many talents of a woman. Theability to love and nurture is an essential part of our self-being,and she emphasizes that in order to remind black women during theirfight that it is ok to love. That loving and caring does not make youweak but instead strengthens you.
In“Theheart of a woman” Inoticed Georgia Douglas isn’t speaking about how black women needto be loved but how they feel caged. How they have so much more togive than what is allowed and even expected. The last line of thisbeautiful poem describes a black woman breaking down slowly inside acage. Her many talents aren’t being accepted or appreciated.
Douglas’sother poem “Iwant to die while you love me”isn’t about women needing to have love, but about a black womanneeding and wanting to be accepted for who she is and how she looks.The standards of beauty have never fit a black woman. Her featuresseem too big, and too intimidating rather than beautiful. But why?Why must a woman be weak? Why can’t she be strong? Does her coarsehair, full lips, upright posture, and an outspoken voice intimidatethe white man and woman? If so, that’s just a shame. GwendolynBennet’s “Toa dark girl” debunksthe whole standard of beauty ideal. Bennet’s goal with this poem isto help black women love themselves and ignore all the ridiculouscriticism they endured and still do endure. She allows them toembrace their beauty. As she most beautifully puts it “Oh, littlebrown girl, born for sorrow`s mate, keep all you have of queenliness,forgetting that you once were slave, and let your full lips laugh atfate.”
Speakingof many talents, I must also introduce Anne Spencer and her poem“wifewoman.”This poem describes the lack of love a woman has for her children.She was a happy wife until she became widowed and suddenly her lackof love for her blood became more apparent. This is a greatexplanation of how there is nothing that proves a woman geneticallyshould love their children and know how to care for them. There is noproof that women were put on earth solely to bear children and workin the household. Not all women can be mothers. Spencer’s poetrydefines the differences of each woman. In my opinion, her writingmakes women human, it makes each woman a person and every person isdifferent, not to be defined by the color of their skin or thedifference in their genital areas.
Anothernotable figure that helped to deliver the message from the blackAmerican woman was Jessie Fauset. As the editor of TheCrisis, amagazine that was started by W. E. B. Du Bois, she spoke about thesocial hardships, racial and gender issues facing African Americanwomen. Fauset was very active and instrumental active during theHarlem Renaissance. She played a huge role in awakening the artisticoutput of the African-American community. As the editor of themagazine, she used her influence to encourage other writers such asClaude McKay, Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes. She also took theopportunity to write her work for the magazine, some of which wereeditorials from her previous work she used to submit to the paperbefore being employed as the editor. Afterreading some work done by a white author that inaccurately andincorrectly portrayed African American women, Fauset got theinspiration to write her first novel. Her debut novel called There IsConfusion was completed in 1924. It featured African-Americancharacters in a middle-class setting. The fact that this was a uniqueand unusual piece of work for the period made it hard for Fauset toget a publisher. She decided to leave her employment to seek aposition in publishing that she could help other black women novelistbut was unsuccessful. She then returned to teaching, though shecompleted three novels called Plum Bun done in 1929, The ChinaberryTree done in 1931 and Comedy: American Style done in 1933.
Allthese famous and respected writers paint the picture and tell thestory of the black woman and her struggles out in the world and deepwithin her soul. During the Harlem Renaissance, these writers tookthe opportunity to speak out for all black women. However, they alsoserved as a push for women, in general, to get up and change thestereotypes so blatantly and ridiculously fitted. Throughout theirworks we see sensitivity, yet attitude we see love and strength. Thebeauty of a black woman is seen through her many talents anduniqueness in qualities. And because those talents are very muchapparent, society has always deemed them as a threat. Thereforesuppressing them and forcing them to believe in the societal role ofthe traditional woman and standards of beauty even to this day.
"15Minute History." 15Minute History.Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
"AmericanIdentities”:The New Black Women during the Harlem Renaissance.Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
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Fauset,J. R. (1990). Plum Bun. 1929. Boston: Beacon.
Hurston,Zora Neale. TheirEyes Were Watching God: A Novel.New York: Perennial Library, 1990. Print.
Jacobs,Harriet A., and Lydia Maria Child. Incidentsin the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.
Spencer,Anne. TheWife-Woman.1931. Print.
Sylvander,C. W. (1981). Jessie Redmon Fauset: Black American Writer. WhitstonPublishing Company.