Choice in Black Women’s Literature

According to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism published in 1946, choice is the epitome of autonomy for all human-beings and the cure to the historical self-alienation of man. It is then no wonder that the prominent focus of black woman’s literature has been on the ability of women to make their own choices. As a group that is suffering from dual self-alienation due to the oppressiveness of both race and gender, choice is no longer just a metaphysical abstraction to aid man in his struggle against self-alienation; it is the greatest form of power and freedom for women in their possession and the greatest form of captivity when a woman’s right to choose is not her own.

To understand the importance of choice in June Jordan’s , A Poem About My Rights, it is important to note how Jordan establishes herself as a self-alienated being within the poem. In the poem Jordan writes, “I am the history of the terrorized incarnation of my self.” The separation of my from the self can be interpreted as a separation from her ability to make her own choices due to the constraints that her physical body(her gender and race) puts on her. The bare premise of self-alienation is that human beings are suffering from a separation from their subjective nature(ability to reason/make choices) due to the physical or worldly conditions such as class, gender or race that prevents an individual from being able to make their own choices.

It is important to note how Jordan references her inability to make her own choices about her identity in historical terms to further understand how Jordan’s race and gender are preventing her from executing her autonomy.

Jordan writes:

I am the history of rape.

I am the history of the rejection of who I am.

I am the history of battery assault and limitless armies against whatever I want to do with my mind

And my body and my soul….(Jordan 255).

By placing the restraints put on her personal identity in historical terms, Jordan further illuminates how unable she feels to be able to take control over how she is treated, how she can act and behave, or how she can look physically as a woman because the taking away of a woman’s right to choose is a historical and global experience. If the controlling by patriarchal society of women’s physical, mental and spiritual identities is a historical and global experience, women have little hope in being able to execute personal control over her identity.

The Importance of Choice in Octavia Butler’s Blood child:Choice As a Man’s Right

By attempting to switch the expectations of gender between man and woman by making Gan, a male character in the book reproduce, Butler illustrates that a woman’s right to reproduce is not her own and that only a man would be given the right to decide for himself whether or not he wanted to reproduce. When it is time for Gan to be used by T” Gatoi for reproduction, Gan threatens to shoot himself and says in question of his decision to kill himself that “at least it would be a decision that he made”(Butler 312). Gan’s statement is representative of the difficulty that women often have with being able to make their own choices due to the constraints that patriarchal society places on the personal identity of women. Butler leaves us wondering if a female would have been able to make that decision. Typically, guns are representative of male power, so the likely answer to this question is no, a woman would not have been able to make the choice that Gan was able to make.

Also, Hoa who is Gan’s sister could only be saved from being used for reproduction by her brother’s own intervention. This idea coincides with the idea that within feminist theory that a woman’s right to choose what to do with her physical body is never her own and is instead dictated by patriarchal society. It is also important to note that T’Gatoi states that Hoa will have an easy time being used by T’Gatoi for reproduction because she had always expected carry other lives in her” (Butler 313). This is Butler’s most direct reference to the control that patriarchal society has over a woman’s identity and illuminates the social construction of gender roles that mandates that women should be mothers.

The Colonized Consciousness in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth As a Barrier To Self-ownership Over Identity.

The concept of the colonized consciousness is a concept within Marxist theory that deals greatly with the commodification of identity. The commodification of human identity is especially relevant to the discussion of Black women and the power that they have over their physical bodies because of the commodification of black bodies dating back to the slave trade and the modern commodification of the female body by the beauty industry. What is most important to the application of the colonized consciousness within Marxist theory to choice within black women’s literature is that the colonized consciousness as enforced by the media, education, men and the beauty industry keep women from having self-ownership over their physical identities.

My reading of the Miseducation of Irie Jones is supported by the opening advertisement in chapter 11, the advertisement reads: Lose Weight to Earn Money and is an example of the commodification of the female body because the advertisers were seeking to put a price on the female body. However, more important than the literal commodification of the female body exhibited by the ad is how the ad is functioning as a control mechanism that is convincing women that the beauty ideal of straight hair and slender body is the superior beauty ideal. Smith writes in the chapter that Irie knew that the ad was speaking to her. How to diminish the enormity, the Jamaican posterior? (Smith 222). Early on in the chapter, Smith alludes to the idea that Millat, Irie’s male best friend plays apart in the commodification of the black female body and the selling of the European beauty ideal to Jamaican women. Smith describes Milliat’s work in the shop as, “a little Caribbean flesh for a little English Change” (Smith 222).

Education is also used as a control mechanism to colonize the consciousness of Jamaica women and rob them of their ability to have self-ownership over their identity. While talking about Shakespeare’s sonnet 127, a poem that references a woman with black coliy hair and dark skin, Irie is told that it is unlikely that the woman in the poem could have been a black woman. By dismissing the possibility that the woman in the sonnet could have been black, the teacher is using Shakespeare to colonize Irie’s consciousness to make her associate whiteness with superiority and beauty. Considering how well-known and respected that Shakespeare was as a writer, if the teacher had entertained the possibility that the woman in the poem could have been black, she would have been uplifting black women to a status equal to whites by suggesting that Shakespeare also wrote about black women in his poetry just as he had written about white women.

The European beauty standard is also used to colonize the consciousness of women in the chapter by the way of an African-American beauty magazine being present in a Jamaica beauty shop ( Smith 229). The end result of Irie’s attempt to be align with the European beauty standard of straight hair is that she loses all of her hair. I think that the literal loss of Irie’s hair is a metaphor for the loss of self-ownership over her identity that plagued Irie throughout the chapter.

Choice in Latent Rapists by Ntozake Shange

The right for women to have control over their sexual bodies and sexual identity is an issue that is in the forefront of feminist theory. Ntozake Shange brings the issue of women’s right to choose to the forefront when she writes the lines:

Lady in Blue

Bein betrayed by men who know us

Lady in purple

& expect like the stranger We always thot waz comin

Lady in blue

That we will submit

Lady in purple

We must have known

Lady in red

Women relinquish all personal rights in the presence of a man who apparently cd be considered a rapists.(Shange 316).

As represented by these lines in the poem, a woman’s right to choose who she will have sex with is controlled by patriarchal society that defines the boundaries of consent based upon what will benefit men the most. By deciding that a woman can never be raped, patriarchy robs women of their ability to have personal ownership over their physical bodies.

The Privilege of Not Knowing: Choice is never Color blind

Being able to choose to be oblivious to social surroundings is a choice that Toni Morrison illustrates in Recitatif is a choice that only whites could make. The importance of knowing one’s societal surroundings for African-Americans dates back to the Jim Crow Era when not knowing the social etiquette expected of them when interacting with whites could result and often did result in them being killed.

Twyla’s reaction of indifference to schools being integrated illustrates that she had the ability to be unconcerned about an event that was extremely dangerous for the black students who were among the first to go to integrated schools. Integration was never an issue that African-Americans during the 50’s and 60s were indifferent about because for them it meant the difference between their children being well-educated or receiving a really poor education.

Socioeconomic status as a barrier to being able to choose family dynamics.

“So much was raged against these connections”(Cliff 303).

Philosopher Adorno made the claim in his essay, “Free Time” that the concept of free time is a fallacy because what we consider to be free time is mediated by our work schedules and is therefore not free time at all.

As exhibited in Michelle Cliff’s Abeng in chapter three., incredible strain is placed  upon black families who are poor and have to make a living serving others.  As a result,  poor black families do not have the luxury of choosing how they can live and relate to each other personally because these factors are decided for them by the people with provide them with money. It is important to note that what would commonly be associated as the means to be able to determine family dynamics(economic autonomy) actually takes away that choice for poor black families who are essentially slaves to their own labor. In this way, societal constraints placed upon women and men by their duty to work by serving others mediate family dynamics in the same way that our duty to work mediates what we consider to be free-time.

In chapter 3, poor black families are broken apart due to their socioeconomic  status and the happiness of the women are set aside because taking care of the family is their priority.  Cliff writes, “the women of Tabernacle had their spaces of need but for most of them, the space had been reduced over time so that the filling of it became a matter for family.” ”To the women fell the responsibility for kin-sisters, mothers, children”(Cliff 303).

Also the socioeconomic status of poor black families also result in a division between husband and wife. In order to support the family financially, many of the men in the story left for America or England and this put a strain on the ability for the women to raise their children properly as Cliff writes that “[without their husbands], the women  supervised the rearing of their children the best they could. “ (Cliff 303)

In this chapter from Abeng, Cliff illustrates that the right to choose the dynamics of one’s own family is often not an option for poor families.

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