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Close Kin and Distant Relatives

The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women's Literature

Susana M. Morris

Publication Year: 2014

The "black family" in the United States and the Caribbean often holds contradictory and competing meanings in public discourse: on the one hand, it is a site of love, strength, and support; on the other hand, it is a site of pathology, brokenness, and dysfunction that has frequently called forth an emphasis on conventional respectability if stability and social approval are to be achieved. Looking at the ways in which contemporary African American and black Caribbean women writers conceptualize the black family, Susana Morris finds a discernible tradition that challenges the politics of respectability by arguing that it obfuscates the problematic nature of conventional understandings of family and has damaging effects as a survival strategy for blacks.

The author draws on African American studies, black feminist theory, cultural studies, and women’s studies to examine the work of Paule Marshall, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, and Sapphire, showing how their novels engage the connection between respectability and ambivalence. These writers advocate instead for a transgressive understanding of affinity and propose an ethic of community support and accountability that calls for mutual affection, affirmation, loyalty, and respect. At the core of these transgressive family systems, Morris reveals, is a connection to African diasporic cultural rites such as dance, storytelling, and music that help the fictional characters to establish familial connections.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: Family Matters

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pp. 1-16

Tensions around marriage and family provide perhaps some of the most compelling examples of the ambivalence around respectability politics for many Blacks in the United States and the Caribbean. Take, for instance, the issue of marriage. In a recent article entitled “When Having...

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1: A Wide Confraternity: Diaspora and Family in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow

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pp. 17-44

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to designate the third Monday of every January a federal holiday honoring the birth of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The next day, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had worked with King in the 1960s, declared...

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2: Sins of the Mother? Ambivalence, Agency, and the Family Romance in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John

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pp. 45-73

When asked why she crafts iconoclastic characters that often exhibit a sort of “negative freedom,” Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid explains, “Perversely, I will not give the happy ending. I think life is difficult and that’s that. I am not at all—absolutely not at all—interested in the pursuit...

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3: Daughters of This Land: Genealogies of Resistance in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory

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pp. 74-102

Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat published her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994, a pivotal moment in Haitian history. That same year the nation’s first democratically elected president in decades, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned to office with great fanfare after having...

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4: The Language of Family: Talking Back to Narratives of Black Pathology in Sapphire’s Push

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pp. 103-134

On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as welfare reform. The Clinton administration described the legislation as a “comprehensive bipartisan welfare reform plan...

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pp. 135-140

There are signs everywhere reminding us of the importance of thinking energetically about Black families in the Caribbean and the United States. Take, for example, a recent experience I had. I spent a good part of the first week of July 2012 looking for the August edition of Essence...


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pp. 141-160

Works Cited

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pp. 161-172


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pp. 173-178

E-ISBN-13: 9780813935515
E-ISBN-10: 0813935512
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813935492
Print-ISBN-10: 0813935490

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 870894797
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Close Kin and Distant Relatives

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Families in literature.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • American fiction -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans in literature.
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