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Saints, Sinners, Saviors:
Strong Black Women in African American Literature
Trudier Harris. Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2001. vi + 218 pp.
Trudier Harris takes up where other analyses of black women in literature (for example, Barbara Christian's Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976) and in film (for example, Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks) have left off. While previous studies have emphasized dominant cultural representations, such as the Mammy and Jezebel/Sapphire, Harris focuses her analysis and critique on fiction and drama written by African-American writers. She argues that the stereotype of the strong black woman is not simply a creation of the dominant culture, but rather "an American collaboration on the parts of both African Americans and European Americans." While strength can be a virtue, she argues in this text that it can also be problematic, particularly for the characters who surround the strong woman character. Harris argues that within the trope, characters "adhere to the designations of saints, sinners, or saviors." She examines in detail works that [End Page 757] typify these three designations and offers some alternatives to what is a binding stereotype in American (and African-American) literature.
Harris uses the writings of both black men and women when creating her argument but never specifically references the gender differences that seem obvious within her text. Most of the works considered in her analysis are by women, but the two by men stand out, whether or not she intends for them to do so. The first is Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, and the second is Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying. It is interesting that the strong women they create are some of the most negative (Reed's Mammy Barracuda being the worst, the stereotype of the black woman who collaborates with the white slave master). Of the characters created by women, only Dorothy West's Cleo Judson is a "sinner."
Harris's analysis examines some of the most widely-read, influential texts of the mid- to late-twentieth century, including West's The Living is Easy, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West, California Cooper's Family Dying, and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. It is a brutally honest examination, and Harris seems, at times, conflicted about these strong women. In some cases, despite their strength, these characters are admirable. Bambara's Minnie Ransom, for example, "survives to assist in the creation of a new breed of survivors and saints." In other cases, it is clear that their strength is detrimental to all of those around them; West's Cleo Judson destroys the lives of all those who venture close enough to her.
The forces that created and maintained this trope were, Harris argues, subtle. Indeed, the effort to create positive black female characters in novels has been a motivating factor for many black fiction writers (particularly women) from the nineteenth century to the present. Strength was created and has been maintained both as a positive attribute for black women characters and as an argument against the complacent black woman who suffers needlessly, who is only a victim.
Tucked away in her conclusion are examples of somewhat different characterizations, ones that depart from the trope. Here, Harris argues that Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, Marita Golden's And Do Remember Me, and perhaps even Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back do offer black women characters who are not pillars on which the world rests, but more human, more [End Page 758] realistic characters. She is not optimistic, however, that the character mold will be broken any time soon. It is not out of an inability for the pattern to be changed, but rather an unwillingness to make that change on the part of contemporary fiction writers. Harris explains, "And what...