African-American Women Writers, Black Nationalism, and the Matrilineal Heritage

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Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 2007
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 97)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,147 words

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[(essay date December 1994) In the following essay, Korenman assesses the representation of black nationalism as a threat to the matrilineal heritage of the African diaspora in America, examining Walker's "Everyday Use," Toni Cade Bambara's "My Man Bovanne," and Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place.]

Late in the 1960s and on into the seventies, many African-American women who had been active in the civil rights and black nationalist movements began to voice their dissatisfaction with the way women were regarded in these movements. Angela Davis recounts in her 1974 autobiography the criticism she repeatedly encountered from men in the movement for "doing 'a man's job'" rather than subordinating herself to the men.1 Similarly, long-time activist Frances Beal observes that "many black women are 'turned off' because of the blatant chauvinist attitudes exhibited by their brothers and become frustrated and disillusioned with so-called revolutionary organizations."2

The fiction written by African-American women in the seventies and early eighties also expresses strong reservations about black nationalism. Interestingly, however, the writers focus less on overt male chauvinism and instead call attention to a somewhat different though perhaps related objection, one that has received little discussion: they present black nationalism as a threat to the matrilineal heritage. The search for African roots is shown to ignore--and thus to efface--the mothers, aunts, and grandmothers whose lives constitute a vigorous African-American legacy.

This paper looks closely at three works of short fiction by African-American women writers: Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," Toni Cade Bambara's "My Man Bovanne," and the "Kiswana Browne" chapter from Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place. All three stories depict conflicts between well-educated black nationalist daughters and their "politically incorrect" mothers. Although the three writers are closer in age and background to the daughters, all three celebrate the mother and represent the daughter as self-righteous and misguided in her espousal of black nationalism. These features are very likely related; that is to say, both the writers' celebration of the mother and their reservations about black nationalism grow out of their high regard for the matrilineal heritage.

In Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," Dee returns to rural Georgia to visit her mother and younger sister, Maggie. Since her last visit home, Dee has embraced the black nationalist ethos. She wears an African dress and hairstyle, greets her family in Swahili, and informs them that she has changed her name from Dee to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. She also expresses a high regard for her rural Southern black roots, exclaiming enthusiastically over her mother's chitlins and collards, her grandmother's butter dish, the homemade benches still in use, and, above all, the quilts made from dresses her grandmother had worn.

Like Dee, Alice Walker left her uneducated rural Southern family to attend college. Active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Walker might well have voiced Dee's belief that "It's really a new day for us."3 And Dee's wish to hang and preserve her family's quilts calls to mind Walker's essay "In Search of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075846