restricted access 2. Black Feminism and the Struggle for Literary Respectability
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  Black Feminism and the Struggle for Literary Respectability What I want to advocate is that black feminist criticism be regarded critically as a problem, not a solution, as a sign that should be interrogated, a locus of contradictions. —Hazel V. Carby It is the idea that speculative fiction is somehow an indulgence or that it is trivial that seems the most probable reason for its dismissal by literary critics as well as its lack of appeal to most Black readers or authors. —Jewelle Gomez To whom are we accountable? And what social relations are in/scribing us? —Barbara Christian The search for Sycorax does not develop from a vacuum of black feminism,nor can its subversive nature only be ascribed as a healing salve for the racially gendered wounds inflicted by horror studies. In the previous chapter, I discussed how horror criticism has failed in articulating a complex space for black women as well as the problematic nature of condemning black women’s characterizations to manifestations of monstrosity. In this chapter, I turn my critique to how black feminist literary theory lacks a space for  Searching for Sycorax horror and how it proves detrimental in the recognition of the complexities of black women creators.1 In truth, the investigation of black women and horror is not a new concept in literature— critics such as Sandra Jackson, Susana Morris, and Gina Wisker have conducted strong black feminist readings of various horror writers and films.2 Robin Means Coleman’s Horror Noire: Black in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011) devotes a significant portion of its critique to the study of black women character constructions in film through a black feminist lens. Yet in this chapter, I choose to focus my investigation on examining the whys of horror criticism’s failure to establish a significant and sustained space within black feminist literary frameworks. I interrogate black feminist literary theory and its previous inability to create and support a sustained place for critical horror inquiry. I contend that the critical study of black women and horror has been routinely hindered by the politics of literary respectability that defined black feminist literary theory in the final thirty years of the twentieth century as it struggled to be accepted into the academy. This chapter has three interconnected sections that build upon the central task of establishing a historical context and argument for the study of black women writing horror. I begin by quickly defining black feminist literary theory by demonstrating its nascence as an epistemological framework that informs critical readings of texts and establishes a black women’s literary tradition. Next, I argue that black feminist literary theory—often assumed to be revolutionary in its purposes—has proven surprisingly conservative as its creators engaged in a fight for literary respectability in academia. I end this chapter by reiterating horror criticism not only as a valid critical framework but also as an episteme that illuminates new and fertile paths for reading black women’s texts. Black Feminist Theory Black feminist theory began in the nineteenth century, developing as a part of the abolitionist and suffragette movements and Black Feminism and the Struggle for Literary Respectability  flourishing during Reconstruction. Activists such as Frances E.W. Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Jackson Coppin chiseled a space for black women and demanded recognition , inclusion, and authority in the aforementioned sociopolitical movements of American history. The women continuously found themselves facing a wall of indifference. It was difficult to convince others that the liberation of black womanhood would lead to the liberation of all women. Hazel V. Carby notes that “the struggle of black women to achieve adequate representation within the women’s suffrage and temperance movements had been continually undermined by a pernicious and persistent racism.”3 A consistent lack of “fit” with the white suffrage movement, as well as a similar circumstance in the ongoing male-centered battle for the improvement of the Negro race revealed to black women the need to self-articulate a space that addressed the peculiar needs of black women. For over a century, these women hewed spaces in which they flourished—through tenacious acts of working within the Fig. 6. Clockwise from top left: Fanny Jackson Coppin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida Bell Wells, Anna J. Cooper, and Octavia Butler.  Searching for Sycorax interstices of cultural production—in which black women’s lived realities were theoretically interpreted by those who actually lived them.4 The rich...