The Identity of the Black Woman Centered Around Trauma

Black women and their identities being centered around trauma is something I’ve been interested in from the beginning of this thesis process. Although psychoanalysis is a field I want present, the ideas of Black trauma, and how women navigate their identities within that frame are what draw me to the novels I am considering for my thesis. I’m still not sure about what specific questions to ask apart from what the significance of being seen as an outcast has on the identity of a black woman, and what that healing looks like. Also, I’m wondering if there is a correlation between her trauma and location; that is to say, is the black woman’s intersecting identity the main force behind her being an outcast from her community, or is it the circumstances she finds herself in. I’m hoping these novels complicate the idea of black women and their identities being revolved around their trauma or physical circumstance. For the texts that I’ve chosen, they both have similar issues within them that relate to Black women suffering trauma at a younger age, and how their life has panned out later on because of it. In looking at this, I want to see if her identity as described in the novel can still be attributed to her overall blackness, or if her location plays a role in that as well.

The first of the two texts that I am considering for this thesis process is Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, which was published in 1982 and occurs during the post-civil rights era in the form of seven different stories. Within the first six stories is the narrative of different women that live in the house, all who are deemed corrupt in some way. The first narrative is that of Mattie Michael, who is seen as the more motherly figure on the block, and ended up on Brewster Place after constant betrayal by different men in her life. Although Brewster Place is run-down and despised, it accepts new people all the time who seek refuge, and once its last inhabitants—the group of Black women that move in post-civil war, both the community and the place itself begin to change. I’m interested in this text not only because it contains different narratives of women living at Brewster Place, but it also brings into question the significance of place. Each woman in the novel has a background story that speaks to their reasoning of being there—all having some traumatic element to it. Mattie, for example, is trying to escape the abuse of her father after getting pregnant by a man who does not care about her. Although her story centers around the fact that she is an abused single mother, her identity is not only linked to that abuse/circumstance. In fact, her section of the novel would suggest that Brewster Place is where she begins to develop her sense of self. What I want to find out is if that place is an extension of more trauma, or more healing.

The other text that I plan to explore is Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry. This novel was published in 1929 and is divided into five sections. It tells the story of protagonist Emma Lou Morgan, and explores issues of colorism and racial discrimination within the black community. Emma Lou is a young dark-skinned black woman born to a light-skinned family. From an early age she is treated like an outsider, and her mother Jane Lightfoot Morgan constantly reminds her that she is a disgrace to the family because of her physical features. Her uncle assures her that college life will be much different where she won’t have to deal with such prejudice and she will be accepted, but it is the exact opposite that happens. She is outcasted by the Black sorority on campus and excluded from most social events and groups. I’m interested in looking into this narrative because it fits in with the themes I want to explore for my thesis. Emma goes through trauma for most of her childhood, and it seems her identity is centered around that until her uncle suggests she change location. However, instead of her new community contributing to her healing process, it seems to be adding to the trauma she already experienced at her old one. With this text, I again want to see if her identity is partially dependent on location.

In thinking about both of these texts, I want to hone in on specific scenes or narratives that can further my ideas for my thesis. Because my questions are not that specific yet, I am hoping that looking between these two novels would not only help me develop more direct questions, but also gauge what kind of narrative I want to explore in more depth. From the start of the thesis process, I knew I wanted to include a narrative that is non-western yet still includes the traumatic experience of a Black woman. Although both texts are by American authors, they still vary in the traumatic events that the Black woman character goes through. From this point, I’m concerned that once I choose a text that not only introduces the themes I am interested in, but also delves into other connecting factors that I can look into, I might get side tracked. For example, The Blacker the Berry shows the experience of a Black woman going through traumatic experiences, as well as a change in location. However, something that sticks out in this text is the time setting of the story, which can also affect the level of trauma the character goes through. Would time and location have to be constant variables throughout each novel that I look at? Or could they be interchangeable? This then goes into my overall challenge that I’m having with this process which is just being unsure about the direction my thesis is headed in general.

 

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Naylor, Gloria. The Women of Brewster Place. Viking Press, 1982.

Thurman, Wallace. The Blacker the Berry. The Modern Library, 1929.

End or Beginning

In some cultures, death is not the end. Throughout the beginning of the Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, there is a lot of reference to death and different people passing on. I believe the author uses diction within the novel in order to get the audience to view death as not necessarily being the ‘end’ for someone right away. With diction, Selasi’s chose of words or phrases to describe events happening in the story can have various connotative meanings. In this instance, although death is associated with negative things, like sickness and it being the end of your life, Selasi uses this literary device to push the audience to look beyond those common associations.

The novel begins by stating, “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise…he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden…” (3). Within this first section, the audience is immediately introduced to a character that is already dead. However, right after the first sentence of Kweku dying, the next one immediately jumps to him performing something only a living person would do, such as standing on a threshold. Not only does this suggest that Kweku is still alive from one angle of perspective, but it also hints at Kweku being able to do something like that in his death. Therefore, in choosing to place Kweku “on” the threshold “considering” whether or not to go back, Selasi has also challenged the audience to question whether Kweku is really dead, or if this is him beyond death. It is similar to how Kweku is set up for death a little later in the beginning section of the novel. “For he knows in a strange way, as the spiral comes to rest at wen everything dies, that he’s about to. He knows that he’s dying…but doesn’t notice” (21). In this instance, we see that Kweku is aware of his oncoming death, but does not notice it at the same time. The audience is able to relate to Kweku being that  it is not entirely clear whether his death in the very beginning of the novel is noticeable or not, being that he is still described as living right after.

Another example would be when he was a child he tells his sister that she is not going to die from what he now realized was treatable TB. Even though there is a lot of blood coming from her mouth, and her body is very weak, she still responds with a wide smile, and says that she will. “And had, with a smile on her hollowed-out face, with her hand in her brother’s his hand on her neck, wide eyes laughing, growing wide and colder as he’d stared at them,” (26). To describe her eyes and smile to be “growing” as though she were still alive makes it seem as though death did not stop her from continuing to communicate with her brother. Again, we see Selasi placing an action for the character to do right after the indication of their death. In doing so, she is playing with the idea of something beyond death that makes it possible to still seem alive.

 

 

 

Selasie, Taiye. Ghana Must Go, New York: Penguin, 2014, 1-160.

 

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Reading List: Calayah

Key Words: postcolonial literature, narratives, black psychoanalysis

Secondary Sources:

COULIBALY, BOJANA, and Michael J. C. Echeruo. “(Re)Defining the Self through Trauma in West African Postcolonial Short Fiction.” The Critical Imagination in African Literature: Essays in Honor of Michael J. C. Echeruo, edited by Maik Nwosu and Obiwu, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 2015, pp. 94–109. JSTOR.

Counihan, Clare. “Reading the Figure of Woman in African Literature: Psychoanalysis, Difference, and Desire.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 38 no. 2, 2007, pp. 161-180. Project MUSE.

Henton, Jennifer E. “‘Sula’’s Joke on Psychoanalysis.” African American Review, vol. 45, no. 1/2, 2012, pp. 99–113. JSTOR.

Journal: Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)

Reflection:

Since I was mostly interested narratives that have to do with the African diaspora, I wanted to incorporate reading materials that reflected that. Initially, I knew that I wanted my thesis to contain varying accounts from different backgrounds, but had key similarities and faults within their characters.  In terms of a few authors that I’m interested in Toni Morrison, Chika Unigwe, and Stacyann Chin. They’ve written works like Jazz, Night Dancer, and The Other Side of Paradise respectively. Each of these works have something to do with what I believe to be the core of what I want my thesis to be focused on. They all contain characters and social settings that depict the kind of narrative I want to focus on. That is to say, they each take place in an urban-type setting and contain female characters that undergo some sort of tribulation. I thought these works would be interesting to look into, mostly because I want my thesis to focus on exploring the different black narratives within memoir or fiction, and seeing how their complex identities can be examined through psychoanalytic theory. The texts listed above could help me do just that once I use the arguments presented in them to help further my own conclusions about the characters within the works I’m interested in. I want to look at how the characters are being defined within these works, either through their society or self-assertion. In doing so, and in using some of the articles mentioned earlier, I want to then analyze these characters through psychoanalytical theory by posing questions that would delve deeper into their presented qualities. For example, “Does their setting/social influence contribute to what seems to be signs of mental health issues?” “What kind of one-dimensional label is set upon the character by others that might try to encompass something much more complex?”. With these kinds of questions as a starting point, I want to try and delve deeper into the narratives of black authors and see how there can be more to the characters they depict than what is initially presented.

 

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God is a Woman

There is nothing more unappreciated than a Black woman. For Okonkwo, he does not see past anything that is not manly, therefore does not believe in the feminine aspect of how things should be done. This idea is highlighted by Iyasere when he mentions that “qualities of love and compassion…which to Okonkwo were marks of femininity and weakness are the same qualitites which were respected by the society [he] wished to champion”, (Iyasere 377). However, it is in fact femininity that saves him, and ultimately “saves” his son as well. This refusal to acknowledge the godliness that is associated with woman is what results in his “defeat” later on in the section.

In the beginning of chapter 14, we see that Okonkwo was not completing his tasks with the same vigor that he used to. This shows that his exile has taken a bigger toll on him than he initially let on, and that he consciously thinks his situation is one of the worsts. However, because he can not see the “feminine” side of things, it is clear that he cannot see how his exile is actually something good that has happened to him. It was a “feminine” crime that allowed him to live in exile, as opposed to something much worse like death in the Evil Forrest, and had his crime been considered “masculine” he would have suffered much worse.  His uncle Uchendu explains this to him when everyone has gotten settled after the ceremony. At first, he asks him why he thinks the most popular name among their children is “Mother is Supreme” despite their culture being very patriarchal. No one knows the answer, and so Uchendu goes on to say that he is a child that doesn’t understand and explains that although a child belongs to his father, it is with his mother that he finds comfort, and “when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland”, (Achebe 78). This shows that Okonkwo’s “mother’s land” is what saves him, and it is his mother’s tribe that welcomes him wholeheartedly, even helping him get back on his feet. During his time of sorrow and abandonment, it is his mother that he ultimately went to in seeking comfort, just as Uchnedu had explained. He also warns that the more Okonkwo rejects this comfort, the more disrespect he is throwing in the face of his mother and the dead. This speaks to the godliness that has to do with woman. If one were to reject God, he will spend eternity in damnation. However, all who accept God as the one and only will live in everlasting comfort with [Her] in heaven.

This is hinted upon again in chapter 17. We find out that Nwoye has become very interested in the new religion from the very first time he has heard of it. However, because of his overwhelming fear of his father, he does not go beyond watching them closely. To Okonkwo, Christianity is very feminine, and once he found out that Nwoye has been near the Christians, he confronts him and beats him because of it. He laments to himself about it later, saying “to abandon the god’s of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hems was the very depth of abomination…How could he have a begotten woman for a son?”, (Achebe 88-89). This again shows Okonkwo rejecting the femininity that is associated with the religion, not understanding that it is something that brings his own son comfort. Nwoye uses this opportunity to finally leave his father and vows to never return except to convert his mother and siblings. The fact that he Nwoye easily accepted the idea of leaving his father for the “comfort of his ‘mother’ [God], shows that Nwoye has indeed been saved in a sense, and gets to live. For Okonkwo, however, his rejection has cost him his life.

 

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Achebe,Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. pg 3-117.

Iyasere, Soloman O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009. 370-385.

Using Irrational Fear for “Rational” Decisions

Fear can make people do a lot of things. When faced with danger, or something we think might be threatening, fear allows us to protect ourselves with caution, and act accordingly. Unfortunately, it can also make us act irrationally, and therefore not make the best decisions in the face of a threat. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, he uses the element of fear in order to showcase how certain actions taken in the novel might not be as rational at first glance as one might believe them to be—with Okonkwo being the prime example—and how this lack of awareness could lead to even more dangerous situations.

When we begin to delve into the earlier chapters, we get a glimpse of Okonkwe’s initial fears— mostly having to do with his father and not wanting to end up like him. Although he does not consider himself a bad man like he was, “his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness…it was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father,” (10). This form of dread then translates to how he carries himself, and the actions he takes in order to become the exact opposite of his father. To him, that would be the greatest insult to his person, and although he has a right to feel the way he did about the man, his anxiety has taken a more irrational turn when it comes to how he acts because of it. “When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs…he had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father,” (4). Because his father was known as a weak, lazy man with so much debt and no ambition, Okonkwo made every effort to be the exact opposite—a big man that is constantly ready to pounce and always keeping himself busy. This shows how much his irrational fear influences his life, and how he thinks its very rational to never relax or be gentle because it “might” make him look like his father. This then leads to him going to any lengths to not look weak, and also spills into how he treats his family. When it comes to his wife and children, Okonkwo is very strict, and does not appreciate laziness from anyone. With his eldest son Nwoye for example, he is not able to behave like a child normally would and was making Okonkwo nervous with is “incipient laziness”. This causes him to constantly nag and beat him, turning Nwoye into a “sad-faced youth,” (10). Again, simply because it “looks” like his son might become lazy, Okonkwo thinks it is rational to discipline his son ruthlessly.

Another fear is presented later on when the village hears the message of the crier. Again, there is a sense of dread among them because of the tone the crier has, with Okonkwo describing it as “a clear overtone of tragedy”. After the crier relayed his message and left, “darkness held a vague terror for [the village] people, even the bravest among them,” (7). Once they found out the cause of the message, which was asking for everyone to meet in the market-place because someone killed a daughter of the village, Okonkwo was tasked with bringing home the young boy and virgin girl as a result. This action, although seemingly rational to Okonkwo and most of the villagers, may not seem that way to others like the young boy. He recalls being scared the whole time since he had no idea that his father played a role in the crime, and that he would have to be the one to suffer because of it. The way in which fear plays out in these chapters signifies that it very much drives most of the actions taken, and not much thought is given to them beyond that initial fear. This then leads to the tragedy the boy faces later on in the novel, and signifies how certain actions made out of fear may very well produce something more fearful of out of a situation.

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Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-74.