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  • Recent Developments in Black Feminist Literary Scholarship:A Selective Annotated Bibliography

Sixteen years after Barbara Smith's groundbreaking essay "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" (1977),1 black feminism now appears in the plural ("black feminisms"), perhaps indicative of scholars' continual reflection on this term.2 Indeed the work of black feminist criticism is highly interdisciplinary and has been taken up by black women (B. Smith, McDowell, Spillers, V. Smith), black men (Awkward, Baker, Butler-Evans, and Gates) and by white women (Willis, Kubitschek, Wilentz). This bibliography seeks to present the important and very recent developments in black women's literary studies from roughly 1989 to 1994 and attempts, among other things, to provide a supplement to Craig Werner's extensive 1989 bibliographical study, Black American Women Novelists: An Annotated Bibliography.

Several recent chapters, essays, articles, and papers are central to detailing the recent developments in black feminist thought: Hazel Carby's first chapter from Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987); Valerie Smith's "Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the Other'" (1989); Clenora Hudson-Weems's "Cultural and Agenda Conflicts in Academia: Critical Issues for Africana Women's Studies" (1989); and [End Page 819] Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's paper "What It Means to Teach When the Other Is the Self" (1994).

Carby's first chapter from Reconstructing Womanhood, titled "'Woman's Era': Rethinking Black Feminist Theory," helped move discourse on black feminist theory beyond the definitional stage into one that is more fluid, exhibiting less closure. By rightly arguing that "black feminism is a sign to be interrogated . . . a locus of contradictions," Carby challenged black feminists to interrogate the sign "black feminism" and subsequently motivated later scholars to contest previous essentialist assumptions about black women's literary criticism. Deborah McDowell, for one, who had once argued for the authority of black women's experience, would later come to agree with Carby's interrogation of the term black feminist criticism. In an 1989 interview with Susan Fraiman, McDowell states that she now

would question . . . the implied authority of experience, and particularly black women's experience; I would try to find a vocabulary in which to problematize the assumption that it is sufficient to be a black woman to do black feminist criticism. . . . I would question the very term, "black feminist criticism." I would insist on its stated foundational principles—that the politics of sex and race and class are interlocking in crucial ways. (19)

Another scholar to interrogate the sign black feminism is Valerie Smith, whose 1989 essay, "Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the 'Other,'" strongly evidences the sophistication of black feminist literary inquiry, as well as its resistance to prescriptive definitions. In contrast to narrow characterizations of black feminist theory, Smith offers an expansive description: "I understand the phrase black feminist theory to refer not only to theory written (or practiced) by black feminists, but also to a way of reading inscriptions of race (particularly but not exclusively blackness), gender (particularly but not exclusively womanhood), and class in modes of cultural expression" (39). Smith goes on to demonstrate that even ostensibly well-intentioned Anglo-American feminist and male African American criticism tends to conceive of black women in oppositional terms (the opposite of white women, black men) to underpin their own counterhegemonic arguments, but in recent black feminist criticism she sees a more promising strategy emerging. Black feminist inquiry has reconceived the relation of race, gender, and class, Smith argues, "destabilizing the centrality of any one" (47) and thus creates flexible, shifting scenes of otherness and privilege. Smith's questioning of static definitions of otherness is extended in Mae G. Henderson's recent paper "What It Means to Teach When the Other [End Page 820] Is the Self." Henderson undercuts a rigid self/other dichotomy for black feminists by arguing provocatively that the black woman professor/seminar director is herself a kind of text to be read in conjunction with literary texts written by black women writers.

In contrast to the preceding scholars, Hudson-Weems would not describe her work as that of black feminist inquiry because she feels strongly that, while feminism provides an appropriate space for...

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