- Reviewed by
Answering Hazel Carby's call in the first chapter of Reconstructing Womanhood for black feminism to be constructed as, "a sign to be interrogated, a locus of contradictions," Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women presents essays that examine dialectical relationships between issues of race, gender, and class. Cheryl A. Wall's edition of essays brings together theoretical and critical writings by some of the most reputable scholars of contemporary black women's literature, including essays by Mae Henderson, Valerie Smith, Barbara Christian, Deborah McDowell, Claudia Tate, Hortense Spillers, Gloria Hull, Susan Willis, and Abena Busia, most of whom make use of contemporary theory in their analyses of black women's writing. The collection grew out of the October, 1987, symposium, "Changing Our Own Words: A Symposium on Criticism, Theory, and Literature by Black Women," sponsored by Rutgers University and The Institute for Research on Women.
Let me begin this review by stating that all nine of the essays, (ten, including Wall's Introduction), are excellent. Building on Amy Crittenden's verbal "(ex)change" with her husband Ned ("Ah change jes ez many words ez Ah durn please!) in Zora Neale Hurston's first novel Jonah's Gourd Vine, Wall extends the vernacular use of changing words to include dialectical levels of interpretation embodied in the word (ex)change. Or as Wall puts it, "the figure 'changing words,' derived, as it is from a form of the word exchange in which the weakly stressed syllable has been dropped, retains the idea of dialogue;" "[c]hanging words means transforming words." The purpose of the 1987 symposium and the subsequent edition of essays in 1989; however, was to situate black feminist criticism, described as a critical, theoretical "response to the richness and complexity" of black women's literature. As follows, Wall, in her Introduction, "Taking Positions and Changing Words," advocates the use of critical theory in black feminist criticism. According to Wall, "perspectives informed by literary theory may help us move beyond identifying blues metaphors and celebrating blues singers as artistic models to understanding how blues aesthetics and ethics are inscribed." Here Wall invokes Teresa [End Page 494] de Lauretis' concept of a "multiple, shifting, and often self-contradictory identity" as being more palatable to black feminist criticism.
Especially interesting to black feminist critics are: Mae Henderson's "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition" and Valerie Smith's "Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the 'Other.'" Henderson's essay begins the edition, and she argues that the distinguishing feature of black women's writing is "the priviledging (rather than repressing) of 'the other in ourselves.'" In an analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Dessa Rose, and Sula, Henderson surmises that black women, literary critics as well as writers of literature, "must speak in a plurality of voices as well as in a multiplicity of discourses." Henderson opens the multiplicity of discourses to include Euro-American literary theory, especially that of Bakhtin and Gadamer, as well as black vernacular theory. Smith, on a more historical note, begins her essay with a critical and an historical overview of black feminist theory, positing a more dialectical inscription of black feminist theory: "I would characterize black feminist literary theory by arguing that it seeks to explore representations of black women's lives through techniques of analysis which suspend variables of race, class, and gender in mutually interrogative relation."
Although Changing Our Own Words offers a strong endorsement of literary theory, it does not preclude the application of historical, new critical, and other methods of literary analysis in the unravelling of meaning(s) in black women's literary productions. Alongside Braxton and McLaughlin's edition, Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance (1990), and Henry Louis Gates,' Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology (1990), Changing Our Own Words adds much to the current critical and literary interrogation of...