Sunday, February 03, 2008

Reconstructing Womanhood

Like Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class, Reconstructing Womanhood was originally part of an assigment in a college class. In the beginning, Hazel Carby discusses white feminist critics' ignoral of texts by black women. She also argues that in many cases half the discussion is always missing when analyzing black women characters or authors because the feminist critics make everything about gender, while the African-American Studies scholars focused on race rather than discussing how the two interact and how both of those aspects affect the work, and the characters within the work (the book was originally published in 1987, so since Carby wrote this, some of the novels she uses have gained more attention, and people have spent more time on the interaction of race and gender rather than just one or the other).

Carby discusses a series of black women novelist beginning from the pre-Civil War era through to the Harlem Renassaince. One of the reasons she chose this topic is because many important activists felt that the novel and fiction were the best ways to reach and influence people (Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins being two of these). Carby has a few chapters that focus more specifically on the authors and their narratives, but she also intersperses chapters that explain the more general historical and political influences. She also includes a bibliography of works by African American women writers, and between her discussion/allusion to some works and this bibliography, I added a few more books to my wishlist.

I enjoyed re-reading the chapters on Pauline Hopkins (I didn't remember much of the chapters from before, but I still remembered the major plot points of the three novels I had read). I also really liked the discussion of Nella Larsen's Quicksand. I've read Passing but unfortunately, my college bookstore hadn't had the edition with both novellas in it, so I never read the other one. I think that might change now. As Carby describes it, the protagonist feels conflicted almost the whole time due to her race, her gender and her class. Quicksand's main character was critical of the black middle class, and felt that while critical of whites, they were also copying them. This critique of the Harlem Renasaince has been made elsewhere as well. Carby felt that "contemporary feminist historiography" needed to take a more critical look at "the different ways in which racist ideologies have been constructed and made operative under different historical conditions" (18). She succeeds in doing this herself in her book by looking at a variety of texts, some of which were more overlooked, and analyzing the different ways in which African American women confronted the dominant ideology of true womanhood and race.

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