Conversation on the Black Female Body

HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. In “Homage to My Hips,” Lucille Clifton writes of her hips: “they don’t fit into little/petty places. these hips/are free hips.” Tara Betts, in “Switch,” describes a girl’s “pelvic metronome” and being “pinned into rivets of denim/pressed into thighs rockin.” Mecca, when HER KIND first contacted you, you brought to light just how vital it is to understand the complexity of the black female body in both Western and World literature and culture. What issues in particular influence each of your work and that of women writers you’re reading? More importantly, what conversations are you having now?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Thank you for this question. I love how you’ve framed it, placing black women’s written bodies in a linage that joins a canonical figure like Lucille Clifton to a newer writer like Tara Betts. This is so appropriate, for me, because it really gets at what it means for a black female body to “fit,” both in the most literal, corporeal sense and in terms of larger (or more abstract) discussions of culture and social reality. Both Tara and Ms. Lucille urge us to think about the impossibility of black female bodies—the ways in which they must “fit” and the ways in which they cannot fit, by definition.

What do you do when your body is made to both define womanhood and to exempt you from that same standard? I always think about Toni Morrison’s idea of the “Africanist presence” here—the ways in which the black body is used in American culture to define and privilege whiteness through negation. Black female bodies are literally saddled with an impossible confluence of attributes—hypersexuality and brutishness and sexual pliancy and an innate talent for emasculation—in order to construct femininity as the opposite of all that—carefully controlled sexual availability, commodifiable beauty, and so on. Of course this conversation includes figures from Saartjie Baartman to Hattie McDaniel to Beyoncé to Michelle Obama to Venus and Serena Williams. Black feminist critics and scholars have had a lot to say about this state of what Evelynn Hammonds calls the “black (w)holes” of black female sexuality—this sense simultaneous of invisibility and hypervisibility that surrounds black women’s bodies.

But I’m very much interested in how this plays out in black women’s writing. How we can—and often must—re-make the page as a place where our bodies can fit. Or re-fit the page to our bodies. This happens in the works of so many phenomenal black women poets, playwrights and fiction writers, as well as those that defy genre altogether. I think about Audre Lorde’s “Biomythography,” Zami, where she constructs a genre that includes autobiography, fiction, memoir, myth, poetry and much more to make a space where her identity as a black Caribbean lesbian feminist poet can fit. And even Lorde doesn’t depart from the body as a major axis there—she talks about what it is to be “fat, black, nearly blind, and ambidextrous… in a West Indian household,” and creates the genre of the Biomythography as an alternative home for her body and all that it represents. It’s something I definitely find myself doing in my own fiction—molding voice to make spaces for my black women characters—for their hips and their stomachs and their sexualities and their desires—all the things they are not supposed to have.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths: Wow! Where should I begin? Thank you both for inviting me to be a part of this conversation. So, Mecca asked an important question to how our discussion opens: What do you do when your body is made to both define womanhood and to exempt you from the same standard? This question you posed reflects an interstitial conflict. It is interesting to think about how we, as black women writers, are often placed inside of questions and spaces by others and sometimes by each other that is polarized, reactive, and too narrow to fit the diaspora of our flesh or any Other. Anger and animalism is often expected and assumed of us, both in language and image. As I began to read your words, I could not help but think of all the longstanding and recent conversations of body politics that have angered, saddened, and sometimes, simply bewildered me. Those lessons began when I was young, whether I wanted them or not. I mean, you mentioned Michelle Obama. That recent cover of Michelle Obama as a half-dressed slave, published in Spain, got me. I took out some paper but the pencil wouldn’t move. I was so shocked I couldn’t even write about it. Then I tried to dismiss my intuition. Intellectually, I could dismantle what I was looking at but that did nothing for my heart. How does such an image answer language? Answer the past, the now, and the future? Why does the world still need us to be this exposed, colonized, pleasure-less nipple? Again – the extreme climate where survival and language is a matter of freedom or slavery. What do you when your language is made to both free you and to render your experience as illiterate?

And I think, for those of us who write and are trying to write into and against the pages that have written us out of history and other narratives of power and visibility as well as open those very pages to the anatomies of our own imaginations, this is a task that is often segregated from many conversations, even amongst women. And if you begin to talk too much about it, you will be exiled from the cipher (that seemed uncomfortable whenever you spoke or asked “difficult” questions in the first place).

I just finished reading Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women and in each story there is a sense of struggle between the interior and exterior language and geography that presses against each woman in a way to define, dissolve, and/or destroy her. These women’s bodies become distinct spaces for warfare and psychological internalization where the impenetrable forces of sex, class, violence, exile, and culture collide in each woman’s story.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a question I am often asked wherever I go: What are you? The curiosity, however well intentioned or pointedly racist, reluctantly grants me the option of humanity or simply removes it. In this question, my interiority is only relative in regards to who, which races and to what degree, have forged my blood. When I’m writing and I ask myself this question, seeing it behind the page as the ink opens me: What are you? It’s not the same question anymore. I can name and answer myself however I please.

Then I think of Sojourner Truth, Lucille Clifton, Marie Cardinal, Buchi Emecheta, Hélène Cixous, Nikky Finney, Susan Sontag, Natasha Trethewey, Adrienne Rich, Toi Derricotte, and so many, many more. I also suddenly think of Ai’s work and her direct gaze at the brutal ways in which women and their relationships to their identities, their work, or to men are hurled into a void. In this void and when I specifically think of (in)visibility and violence, I hear a question, the last two lines of Michael S. Harper’s stunning poem, “American History” – “Can’t find what you can’t see/can you?”

When I think of my own writing, I hear sister poet Audre Lorde’s wisdom: “For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.”

There is always pressure as you begin to write. At least on the page you have choices. Or do you? You are, perhaps, empowered. You perhaps reveal, question, share, or withhold your fear and your courage. If you are writing you are risking losing fear. That’s important. Or you do something else that may or may not have anything to do with truth, love, power, or intimacy. Your “other” is not a matter of distance or alienation because it’s a dream, a form unto itself, which you made in your own body. But even that. Is it all politics?

MJS: You know, I felt similarly when I saw that image of Michelle on the cover of the Spanish magazine, Fuera de Serie. I felt anger to the point of speechlessness, not because I had no words, but because there were too many words to be said. I think of the title of Jessica Care Moore’s poetry collection, The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth. That sense of being so overwhelmed by the urgency of language that the result is either total silence or unstoppable speech. And, there, again, is this idea of words as metaphors for bodies, as corporeal things that cannot fit into physical spaces, or that do the work of fitting where bodies can’t.

That feeling of speechlessness always frustrates me, because there are so many of these kinds of images, so many stories of women’s bodies being willfully and violently misread on the public stage, that the words literally can’t fit. There’s not enough ink, paper, time, battery power, digital memory in the world to write all the stories I want to write about the misreading of disenfranchised bodies. So we have to live with this unspeakability, which for me, is a really byproduct of the ridiculous distillation of black womanhood into consumable archetypes, bytes of identity. Some of us get written out. The ones with pink hair. The ones without rhythm. The ones with advanced degrees and maybe even some degree of social/political power, or who choose to be sexually unavailable to the general public. None of these bodies are supposed to exist.

But I think the Audre Lorde quote you mentioned is on point here. It’s a problem of language, of our lexicon of identity. There’s such a limited view of what black women and women of color can be, what we can say and what our bodies can mean. And that’s no coincidence; it serves to keep certain power dynamics in play. We know that, and I think, for some of us, that’s why we write. Because you know that even though you and I have stopped short (so far) of writing the story or the poem or the play that gets at that image of Michelle on the magazine cover, somebody somewhere is writing the hell out of that piece. She’s pulling her pen around the lonesome curve of that breast and fluffing the yellow of the background into a string of flaming adjectives and she’s telling that story. And she may have to make her own language in which to do it, like Audre and Ama Ata Aidoo and Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison in Love—all these brilliant works where language and genre change shape to fit black female bodies and selves.

I think about this idea all of the time, and for me, yes, at the end of the day it’s always political—I think that’s what the Spanish magazine cover is reminding folks right now. Political history makes an imprint on the cultural imaginary that doesn’t just go away; it looks and sounds and surfaces differently in different contexts, but it’s always there. But what I think is often missing from the conversation, and what almost all of the writers we’re mentioning urge folks to see, is that our joy and our confusion and our love and intimacy and our aesthetics are political as well. Our right to be apolitical is political. Our art for art’s sake. Our style, both on the body and on the page.

It’s interesting how you and I experience this so differently, yet so similarly, in public spaces. I’ve never had the experience of being asked what I am, but I’m told what I am all the time. I’m the big girl with the pretty face. I’m the exceptional one, in the most literal sense. The one whose body lunges out beyond standards and confuses people, sometimes happily, sometimes not. But the assumptions are always racist, sexist, fat-phobic, sometimes homophobic, and many other things. And for me, the political act of naming those things frees me to the realm of beauty and fullness you mention. The idea is that there is a set mold of what a black woman’s body is supposed to be, to do, and to mean. And we are not that.

And for me, that’s beauty. What a great provocation to be fully oneself, to invent oneself on one’s own terms, in one’s own language.

That feeling is everywhere in everything I write. It’s why I write—I am baffled by how insistently people misunderstand each other when they brush against each other in the physical world. And I always want to brush back.

REG: Mecca, I’m going to shift gears a bit because you’ve brought some things up that I’ve been also thinking of. Speaking of beauty and the physical world and what you powerfully wrote, “What a great provocation to be fully oneself, to invent oneself on one’s own terms, in one’s own language”. I’ve been circling the visual and cultural politics of characters in recent films – Hushpuppy (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Alike (Pariah), Aibileen (The Help), Precious (Precious), Sparkle, Sister, Dolores (Sparkle), and trying to figure out what the center is and how the black body holds center or does not and who is holding the third eye of this hurricane. It holds center in a way that is often filled from everywhere but within. I’ve also been thinking about three other films that have yet to be released but which have already stirred some bonfires, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (starring Anika Noni Rose and Thandie Newton), the film that focuses upon a relationship in Nina Simone’s life (um, Zoe Saldana as, Nina), and Winnie (Jennifer Hudson), a film about the story of Winnie Mandela. There’s also a remake of Steel Magnolias forthcoming on the Lifetime channel that features an all black women’s cast. I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Kerry Washington in Scandal because I don’t have cable. I’m sure I’m likely forgetting some other recent key works so please feel free to add.

You mentioned beauty, well we both have been speaking of it, and I guess, of course, the noir-body itself. And cinematic representations of black women’s bodies have been mostly schizophrenic, in my opinion, and narrow when you compare, if you can compare, their breadth and depth to other women characters or the stereotypes that exist for other women characters, involving bodies, race, and sexuality. I’ll try to keep it focused in the literary realm by sharing an excerpt from an interview that I recently and gratefully came across on the Indiana Review’s blog. The interview takes place between Rachel Lyon and poet Vievee Francis, as she discussed her newest collection, Horse in the Dark. I felt that many of the things she shared resonate with our conversation here at Vida and with our individual focus as poet/writers.

Vievee says [about some of the questions she asks in her new collection], “I’m thinking in personal terms about the black female body politic: How we’re viewed, how we’re seen. I think we’re still often seen as superwomen, überwomen, strong and constantly there – which is a kind of servitude, I find, a kind of oppression, to be looked at as the one in the room who can handle it all. And I don’t think we can handle it all. I think a lot is put upon us. And I think that might result in some of the illnesses that so many of us have, of body and spirit. It’s almost a kind of bestial servitude. And I still think that black women are very much burdened by that kind of view of us.”

I don’t even know how to transition here except to say that it often appears that black women are the only race of women to whom an idea of “naturalness” and its opposite, “unnaturalness” has been applied, forcing and pushing beyond hair and body to include character, imagination, and morality. It’s been strategic how we now use this language to form a floating ideology, which encourages us to judge, neglect, segregate, and classify each other often without context based upon our “natural” properties. There are also economic factors which benefit from this global imagination. Why does it appear to be easier to focus on the body than to consider our interior and individual lives? Maybe this is a rhetorical sigh on my part. But it remains unanswered as such vocabularies and visual tomes help to mass-reproduce and sell the images, which are grossly unbalanced and exaggerated, as a wrongful notion of a monolith continues to be perpetrated. I don’t know, I just finished reading Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California today and it seemed to be synchronicity – an arresting voice in her character Avery, that is complex and expansive to our conversation. I felt like Johnson’s character, Avery, was speaking to Denise (a sort of predecessor character), from A.J. Verdelle’s unforgettable The Good Negress. And I’d place the fiercely powerful work of poet Khadijah Queen, from her collection, Black Peculiar, into this conversation too for its truth, its risk, and its bodies.

And then, my mind moves to it – because it’s indivisible from the “beauty” – and that is the violence. I mean the woman who died after being beaten by the police and having a female officer kick her in the genitals. I mean the little girl, there is one or more every day, who is shot and killed while playing in front of her own home. The mother who thinks nothing of tying her daughter to a chair or placing her son in a cage. The schoolgirl who hangs herself or cuts because she is seen as fat, gay, ugly, or undesirable. I mean the abductions and the industry of sex trafficking and sex slaves. I mean the girl who is impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend or the same girl who is being held captive in a closet or basement and forced to drink her own piss. The adored black singer who is found dead. The woman who throws her baby in a dumpster or her children off a pier. The “reality” celebrity who refers to her cast members as “old ass Harriet Tubman bitches”. The superstar who urges both independence, bondage, and submission and then presents a disfigured face to us. Forgive this, forget this, we are urged by both parties. For public consumption and public affirmation? Is it the face that lives at the bottom of the Atlantic between the continents? Is it the vestige of a new Pecola Breedlove? Is it simply nobody’s damn business? Or is it exactly that – a business?

I’ll risk coming off as an extremist here for a moment but the thing is that this is the daily news. And I’m trying to figure out how it connects to my mention of the films I listed earlier. The news is visual and it is made up of words. We’re paying for all of it, whether we’re at the theater or not. Last year, Roxane Gay (who is simply amazing!) and I spoke of this in a conversation over The Rumpus when she asked me about the binary/bi-lateral ideologies regarding black womanhood and was it possible to break them, and more importantly, offer solutions for changing or opening those binaries, which is what we’re after when we have these conversations, when we write narratives, even if they’re not our own. It seems as though we are expected to be fluent, to be polyglottal when it comes to memory, narrative, erasure.

What do you make of any of this?

MJS: Yes… that’s an interesting question: how beauty and violence merge on black women’s bodies in all these forums–film, “reality” television, and of course the lives of black women, including how they’re reported on the news. I think the common thread among some of the films you began with and the news stories you ended with is that the films do some kind of violence to black women’s bodies and voices, or are actively engaged in un-doing those same kinds of violence (in the case of Pariah, for example). And I think the former often happens through some misconstrual of “beauty”: it’s either the choice to privilege ridiculous western standards of physical beauty over substance and story in casting (yes– Zoe Saldana as Nina. Wow.) or it’s a writerly move in the name of a social, utopian “beauty” where black women’s bodies, as such, don’t matter, because there’s a larger, more important story of Americanness or humanness to be told (as in The Help, and perhaps in Beasts of the Southern Wild too, though I’m still thinking about that one). We could also say a lot about adaptation here. What does it mean that so many of these films either began as novels or plays, or are revivals of earlier films in which the dynamics of race, color, power are markedly different?

Ultimately, I do think it’s business. And I think characters like Morrison’s Sula, Nella Larsen’s Helga Crane, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Sissie, Hurston’s Janie, Bessie Head’s Life, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy and so many others make the body their business. They re-write the narratives we’re talking about so that they can come to own their own bodies. Sometimes the characters escape those commodifying regimes of violence and whatever kind of “beauty,” and sometimes they don’t. But I think that’s what they set out to do. I mean, I love your phrase: “is it nobody’s damn business or just that- a business?” I think when body is made to be business—as it so often is for women— it either becomes everybody’s business or nobody’s body. And I think that’s what we’re often writing through, against, away.

REG: While it can be more evident in realms like athletics where the body is central and immediate for both physique, skill, and often, entertainment, I’m curious as to how the body is visible in a space of literature where the body of literature is mostly language itself? With visual art, the body usually seems more fastened to aesthetics regarding space & perspective & intimacy? What do you think/feel about Serena Williams’ colleagues imitations of her as “ritual” and “sport”? How does this occur in other more nuanced or cerebral, if there are any, spaces? Does it say anything different about body politics as we’ve been discussing?

MJS: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the most fascinating things about the discussion around Caroline Wozniacki’s performance of Williams’s body was the way silence functioned in the conversation. The overwhelming majority of the headlines seemed to swirl not around a statement, but around an unanswered question: is this racist? Is this a caricature of a specifically raced and gendered body? Is it hurtful? And, of course, for some, the clear answer was yes. But Williams’s own silence about how her body was being represented created an absence of language that made the question linger. A generous read is that her silence forced the public to think, for a moment, and to grapple with the question for themselves: What is being said about this woman’s body? Even when Williams does eventually enter the dialog, she chooses language that leaves the question hanging. She says, at once, “I don’t think she [meant] anything racist by it…” and also “she should take reason and do something different next time.” So much can be said about what “reason” means here, as well. But ultimately, I think these silences and elisions force people to think the things that popular logic gladly deems unthinkable: What does it mean for one body to perform another in ‘jest’? What is the privilege spoken in that laugh?

In many ways, I think the writers we’ve been talking about work to create and excavate those silences, and ask their readers to do the same. I’m thinking about the absence of response from Nettie for so much of The Color Purple, and how that leaves the reader to struggle with Celie’s questions about her life and her body. Or the space between lines and poems and images in a text like Zanele Muholi’s collaborative piece with Pam Dlungwana and Olivia Coetzee, “What Do You See When You Look at Us?” Or so many of Ntozake Shange’s works, where whitespace is sculpted and stuffed with typography to make its own bodies that highlight some silences and fill others.

I also appreciate how you highlight the possibility of “ritual” here. Certainly performances like Wozniacki’s have ritual functions that extend centuries back in history, and I think we can situate Williams’s semi-silent disavowal of any harm done as part of a ritual as well. I’m thinking now about how this ritual of naming and un-naming of racism and sexism, for example, gets mapped back onto literature. Do you think we can find some of this sense of ritual repetition—either of silence or of language, maybe—in literary dealings with the body?

REG: I like what you said about things that “force people to think the things that popular logic gladly deems unthinkable”…you know, it is in this gray place that literature and the arts thrive and surge. I think of how the unthinkable can get subverted, how popular logic can be twisted by its beholders in ways that have privileged narratives of history, gender, race, beauty, language, and also particular mediums/institutions of art, not to mention the entire ways ideologies finance and preserve infrastructures of power and their imaginations of supremacy.

But all of those syllables to say, I am intrigued in that space where “force” and “logic” collide because I am always interested in how writers and artists speak to “logic”, which often seems, in the worlds they sculpt, intimate and individual. When I mentioned ritual before, I was thinking of a recent show I’ve visited a number of times, Mickalene Thomas’ stunning, Origin of the Universe, and how she has subverted tradition and rituals in such a way that black women’s bodies, her own, as well as her mother’s, are the center. Unapologetically strong, vulnerable. Celestial and glittering. She’s got tropes & tricksters everywhere, it’s sharp. And you can see a bloodline, I could make an entire naming tree but I’ll just briefly mention in regards to visual art: Mickalene Thomas, Nina Chanel Abney, Simone Leigh, Krista Franklin, Carrie Mae Weems, Deborah Willis, and Lorna Simpson where there is a powerful, fluid movement of speaking, questioning, and yes, silence, on the part of the body and of history and of privilege, nature, and beauty, and the culmination of imagination when race is fully accessed or revised (and rejected too).

The speaking of such voices thrills me to no end. I’m all over the place with this but I think there’s a vibrant underwire of bridges, covered and uncovered, going on between the visual and the textual, because textual is also visual. I finished Ayana Mathis’ novel a few weeks ago and I kept thinking of tableaus and family portraits. One of the larger threads cast over the geography of the book is migration and I think what’s been pleasing me lately (though it has been happening for decades now) is that we, some of us, are migrating into entirely new countries that are complex, fully dimensional with agency, interiority, and that we find ourselves able to articulate and to interrogate these things in new ways, much in part, because of the work that was done by others before us. In her acknowledgments, Mathis writes of her gratitude to Toni Morrison. And again, I think of all these women shifting, so to speak. The journey is partly inward but it is also a movement giving off great shining sparks and they’re catching, staying, being sown. Things don’t feel so linear, I guess, for me.

In her interview with Lisa Melandri, Mickalene Thomas says of painting, “I don’t want to give the viewer everything on one canvas in one swoop. I want them to work for it and connect the dots. I want the viewer to start considering my work beyond the surface elements and to draw connections between the ideas that I’m presenting.” I think that is something we’re getting at here too in a way and while she is speaking pointedly about her body of work, we could perhaps discuss for a moment as to how it translates to reading and writing and particularly, to notions of perception? Because doesn’t it seem that perception, from within and without, is critical to the way that power, oppression, and freedom all work?

MJS: Right. I’m really interested in this idea of migrations you bring up—the idea that black women’s literary worlds are migrating into new areas of thought, being, experience. I’m enjoying Ayana Mathis’s novel and all of the discussions about it, partly because, as you say, many of these conversations are about human characters and their movements inward, and outward, rather than what they represent about static notions of black family life. I think these conversations have the potential to push past the imaginative and social mind-clamps of respectability politics and racial representation—those standards that tell artists they cannot explore what could be in deference to an ideal of what should be.

But I would also say that, for me, what’s most remarkable and most important about this shifting, as you put it, is that it’s not really a migration of black women artists’ subject matter, but a migration of popular literacy. Because, of course, black women have been writing and painting and sculpting and singing and baking and quilting our full lives since forever. I think the shift, if we can find it, is that the voices we’ve been talking about are perhaps being met with a few more-willing ears.

And I think this gets to the question of how the visual and the textual meet on and in black women’s bodies in art. I love that quote from Mickalene Thomas. It reminds me of Toni Morrison’s response, when Diane McKenney Whetstone asks her to respond to those that find her work “complicated or challenging.” Morrison says: “I find that a good thing. We’re a very complicated people. I take my cue from music. Nothing is more complicated than jazz, or even the blues… We are accustomed to very complicated art forms… It’s only in literature we think we’re supposed to skim.” Of course, Mickalene is expanding this, suggesting that there’s an impulse and a will to skim black women’s bodies on the visual plane too. I think about this often—how there is something so special and so important about letting art make demands of those who approach it, allowing them to discover the transformative work of reading–whether it’s the image or the sound or the word or the flavor or whatever—and to see that the work of reading as valuable in itself. That’s a particularly bold demand when made by black women artists–a declaration that, first: my life, my body, and my humanity require a literacy you may not yet have, and, second: I expect you to learn to read me, and find yourself smarter and better for it.

NOTE: This Conversation is an expanded version of one that appeared in HER KIND between Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Rachel Eliza Griffiths