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.